British Mountain Guides Winter Assessment

Over the past few days Paul and I have been assisting on the Guides winter test.

On Thursday and Friday we were in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms. The conditions were pretty good until late afternoon yesterday when the thaw hit hard. Looking up into the mountains this morning there has been noticeable snow loss. Fingers crossed for a refreeze and some cold winds soon.

Max leading Original Route Summer.

Max leading Original Route Summer.

Cairngorms

Today Craig and I have been out in the Cairngorms working for Falkirk Community Trust Outdoors. Craig was out with a team of four delivering a winter skills day and I was out with Doug and Gregor winter climbing. Given the recent thaw and then the fresh snow over the last 24 hours the climbers were going to be looking for snowed up rock and the winter skills team was going to need to head high to find some older snow for kicking and cutting steps, hence our choice of the Cairngorms.

Gregor just above the slabby crux.

Gregor just above the slabby crux.

Driving conditions meant we arrived relatively late, which worked out well for the climbers; as we walked in we met lots of teams who’d been in to climb on Mess of Pottage, Aladdin’s and Fluted Buttress areas and were walking out reporting spontaneous avalanches occurring. This meant we could change plans early and head to the Fiacaill Ridge area. The wind has been pretty much around the clock face in the last 24 hours and it had been snowing fairly continuously for long periods. As the wind had come through the North this morning it hadn’t moved as much snow off the North facing aspects as expected and these slopes were still being loaded with fresh snow.

Gregor and Doug taking a break on the way down Fiacaill Ridge.

Gregor and Doug taking a break on the way down Fiacaill Ridge.

As we could see the East facing aspect of Fiacaill Ridge was bouldery and relatively clear of snow we headed for the area below the small buttress just North of the col on Fiacaill Ridge and climbed here. There are lots of options (pretty much all of which will have been climbed before) on short ribs and grooves in this area. We climbed 4 pitches on snowed up rock and frozen turf. Three of the pitches were circa II/III and one was a short slabby pitch of tech 5 or 6. We descended Fiacaill Ridge. Not a guidebooked route, but a good safe day in the conditions. It was still snowing as we left, good route choice will be required over the next few days for safe travel.

Coire an t-Sneachda

Yesterday John and I were out with a Falkirk Community Trust Outdoors team of Andrew, Chris, Emily and Martin. It was an Introduction to Winter Climbing day. It’s been thawing for the last few days, so our options were a little limited. We headed to Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms. There were still some large and droopy cornices over the area from Jacob’s Ladder to Aladdin’s Mirror, so we opted for Central Left Hand as it wasn’t threatened by cornices. This proved a good choice as a sizable collapse did happen further left during the day.

Emily, Chris and Martin (in the distance) in the upper section of Central Left Hand.

Emily, Chris and Martin (in the distance) in the upper section of Central Left Hand.

The route was climbed on soft snow, rock, well frozen turf and even some good ice near the top. However, it was thawing fast during the day.

Coire an t-Sneachda

John and I were out in the Cairngorms today with a Falkirk Community Trust climbing team of Iona, Laura, Paul and Wilson. We headed to The Mess of Pottage in Coire an t-Sneachda to avoid the forecast rain at venues farther West and South and this worked well with only the odd drop of light rain during the day, which didn’t impact on our climbing.

Paul and Laura nearing the easier ground at the top of Crack Pot.

Paul and Laura nearing the easier ground at the top of Crack Pot.

Laura and Paul were on an Introduction to Climbing in the Scottish Mountains day and they climbed Crack Pot with me, which was their first multi-pitch rock climb. The route has some excellent climbing although care is required on easier loose sections at the top of the second pitch and the top of the final pitch. We climbed the route in four pitches with plenty of teaching along the way.

Iona and Wilson were on a Classic Climbs day and they climbed Pot of Gold with John and then John and Iona nipped up Crack Pot in two long pitches as a quick second route.

Climbing in the Gorms

Grant and I have just had two excellent days climbing in the Cairngorms. Yesterday we climbed Alladin’s Mirror Direct  and Jacobs Edge in Coire an t-Sneachda. Both routes were in good condition and many others were white. There are large cornices though to be aware of in a number of locations.

Today we visited Coire an Lochain and climbed Iron Butterfly. The route is easier with neve. Today there was just enough good snow to make it fun. Cornices collapsing and avalanches were witnessed in the Number 2 and Number 3 Buttress areas.

Alladin's Mirror Direct.

Alladin’s Mirror Direct.

Coire an t-Sneachda

I was in Coire an t-Sneachda today with a Falkirk Community Trust winter climbing team of Gregor and Neil. We climbed a fairly steep Aladdin’s Mirror Direct on thick, if slightly soggy, ice and then continued up Aladdin’s Mirror to the top.

Gregor and Neil just above the steep ice pitch of Aladdin's Mirror Direct.

Gregor and Neil just above the steep ice pitch of Aladdin’s Mirror Direct.

There’d been a few centimetres off fresh snow accumulation overnight in sheltered locations above about 850m. This fresh snow was moist at all elevations. Despite the fresh snow, buttresses were still largely bare and bigger gully features were the only real winter climbing options. Some light rain/sleet on a fresh south-westerly/westerly during the day. The older snow is well consolidated, some care required with the fresh snow. The thawing conditions have revealed plenty of loose rock away from the bigger snow accumulations, which is worth thinking about when selecting routes. I’ll add a few more photos to the ClimbNow Facebook page.

Stob Mhic Mhartuin, Mess of Pottage and SCNL

On Friday the lads from Ballachulish and I finished our winter mountaineering course by ascending Stob Mhic Mhartuin in Glencoe and then on the steep northerly aspect completed some training on abseiling in winter using bollards.

Tina, Scott, Steve, Martin and I met in the Cairngorm car park on Saturday morning with the hope of doing some winter climbing. We chose to go east rather than west to avoid the rain. We were rewarded with a dry day and two routes; Haston Line and Hidden Chimney (both are on the Mess of Pottage in Coire an t-Sneachda). Both routes were still holding good snow ice although this may be gone now.

We returned west on Saturday evening and on Sunday climbed Dorsal Arete in Stob Coire nan Lochan. The route still has lots of useable snow on it although the fin is now mostly dry.

There are lots more photos from the last week on the climbnow facebook page.

The team on SCNL.

The team on SCNL.

Sneachda and Lurchers

Yesterday I went to a very busy Coire an t-Sneachda. As we arrived late due to our drive from west the popular routes all had team(s) on them. Therefore we climbed a route in the Forty Thieves area. This gave a good sixty metre II/III ice pitch followed by pleasant mixed ground. The crags were white and everything was well frozen.

Today to avoid the crowds we visited Lurchers Crag. After descending South Gully we climbed Pinnacle Ridge in good conditions. We were the only climbers on the crag.

Climbing Pinnacle Ridge.

Climbing Pinnacle Ridge.

Cairngorms and Beinn a’Chaorainn

Yesterday John and I were out in a fairly wild Coire an t-Sneachda with a Falkirk Community Trust winter climbing team of Andy, Graham, Gregor and Pete. We opted for Goat Track Gully, which had some good ice up to the crux corner and was sheltered from the winds in parts. There was a lot of snow being moved around by strong southerly winds; it was difficult to tell how much was new snow, but it was accumulating in sheltered locations. Craig and a winter skills group shared the mini-bus and seemed to have a good day despite the strong winds and spindrift.

Pete collecting spindrift on a belay on Goat Track Gully.

Pete collecting spindrift on a belay on Goat Track Gully.

Today Andy and I chose The East Ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn as the winds were due to be strong again and either south-westerly or westerly. It rained below 500m all day and above 800m snow was accumulating fast in sheltered locations.

John bridging up an optional groove near the top of Goat Track Gully.

John bridging up an optional groove near the top of Goat Track Gully.

We climbed the ridge taking in as many of the by-passable difficult sections as possible. The turf was well frozen above 800m and loose blocks generally well frozen in, which allowed us lots of excellent little mixed pitches. We topped out into the wind at the summit cairn and descended quickly on the scoured side of the hill.

Andy on The East Ridge of Beinn a'Chaorainn.

Andy on The East Ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn.

Storm Gertrude, An Teallach, Coire an t-Sneachda, The Fannichs and Stac Pollaidh

The last four days I’ve been based near Braemore Junction with Alex and Doug. The plan was for some classic winter ridge traverses and some ice climbing. Storm Gertrude certainly lived up to the last four letters of her name and we had to duck and dive a bit.

Doug on An Teallach

Doug on An Teallach

Originally Thursday looked like the best forecast for the area, although it wasn’t great with fairly high winds and snow/rain, so we decided to have a look at the traverse of An Teallach. Strong winds and driving spindrift on Sail Liath meant we nipped around the back and traversed before climbing a good Grade II gully to regain the ridge near the end of the pinnacles. We then carried on along the ridge over Sgurr Fiona and Bidein a Ghlas Thuill before taking the path from the col with Sron a’Coire to avoid any significant river crossings as the burns were in spate.

Alex and Doug on the An Teallach Traverse

Alex and Doug on the An Teallach Traverse

The winds were forecast very high on Friday, but with a distinct lull in the afternoon and better weather further East, so we decided on a post noon start in to Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms. The forecast lull never seemed to arrive and we ended up climbing The Slant and descending in pretty wild conditions, with gusts requiring us to get an ice axe in and lie down until they passed through.

Alex and Doug looking up a gully on Stac Pollaidh

Alex and Doug looking up a gully on Stac Pollaidh

The forecast had worsened for Saturday, with winds of 40 to 50mph predicted for sea level in Ullapool and fairly constant precipitation. We decided on a rest day and spent the morning in the gear shop and cafes in Ullapool, although I did venture out in to the Fannichs to check out a low crag in the afternoon.

Alex and Doug on the true western summit of Stac Pollaidh with The Summer Isles behind.

Alex and Doug on the true western summit of Stac Pollaidh with The Summer Isles behind.

Today the winds were finally down, precipitation was showers only and the freezing level was 300 to 400m. With one eye on Alex’s flight time from Inverness we needed a short day and opted for the East to West winter traverse of Stac Pollaidh. This gave an excellent day. Information is surprisingly sparse on this route. We followed the description from the Highland Scrambles North book, which is for summer scrambling. There was soft snow from 300m, the turf was well frozen and we took in two main cruxes. The first crux was leaving the notch just after the eastern summit and the second was the Difficult vertical tower before the true western summit, which I climbed by a rising rightwards turfy traverse and Alex and Doug climbed direct with gloves on snowy rock and a rope above them. We then returned to the col, abseiling around the vertical tower on the way, and descended to the north. For what it’s worth doing the traverse this way and in those conditions felt about Grade III. We had some snow showers and cloud, but also great views to the surrounding hills, the Summer Isles and the Western Isles.

Suilven and Loch Sionascaig from Stac Pollaidh.

Suilven, Canisp and Loch Sionascaig from Stac Pollaidh.

There was fresh snow down to road level for pretty much all the drive back as far as Perth, although tomorrow’s weather will change things considerably.

I’ll add some more photos to the Climbnow Facebook page tomorrow.