The final week of my Scottish winter season involved lots of different groups (and weather). Starting out east I had a day winter climbing with Russ for Cairngorm Adventure Guides. Marching up into Coire an t-Sneachda out of the cloud inversion was spectacular and Aladdins gav e a great introduction to the vertical winter world. Topping out into the sunshine the obvious descent was over the top of Cairngorm to delay our inevitable descent back into the cloud for as long as possible.
Next up was a weekend of winter mountaineering with Justin. Once again thick cloud was blanketing Fort William but up on the Ben it was blue skies and zero wind. We popped into the sunlight at the CIC hut and a full days climbing up Ledge Route and around the CMD arete was just about perfect. The next day was nearly as good and we made a quick ascent of Stob Coire Nan Lochan and Bidean nan Bam descending by the Lost Valley. It had taken Justin 4 attempts to tick this Munro but it was worth the wait.
My final couple of days were out with a team of sport scientists from Leeds Beckett University. They're undertaking high altitude research on some willing volunteers from the "British Services Dhaulagiri Medical Research Expedition 2016" We looked at winter and general expedition skills while climbing both the Ben and Buachaille with a couple of hours of heavy rain bringing my season to a traditional close!
This weekend I've been working with Ryoko and Anthony, the former who has big plans involving skis on Mt Vinson and Denali. Not sure I can help her much with the skiing! so it was all about giving her the mountaineering and expedition skills to enable her to get up and down the mountains safely and look after herself in an extreme enviroment. Saturday was spent in a wet Stob Coire Nan Lochan focusing on crevasse rescue, ascending and descending fixed lines and avalanche avoidance. A better forecast for sunday tempted us up on to Ben Nevis which has had a surprising amount of new snow. Arguably the best grade II on the mountain is Ledge Route which is similar in technical difficulty to Mt Vinson although it is currently in very easy condition with all the rock steps banked out. Some good navigation practice got us off the back and down into Red Burn for a quick look at cold weather survival skills and emergency snow shelters.
Plan A for today was the Aonach Eagach Ridge but the forecast 70mph winds put paid to that. Looking for another classic in Glencoe we headed to Curved Ridge on the Buachaille which usually provides a sheltered option in strong westerlies. The thaw has taken its toll and the route is now almost in summer condition with patches on soft snow which didn't require crampons today. We were able to look at a variety of alpine techniques of moving together on different terrain and even had a sit down lunch with a view in the sunshine!
We topped out into gale force winds which at times almost had us resorting to crawling to make progress. The head of Coire na Tulaich is still threatened by some significant sagging cornices behind which some obvious cracks are opening up. Below these is a large crown wall curving around the coire, the result of a significant avalanche but actually not the earlier huge slide which exited the coire base almost a kilometer away!
Today I was out with Mick and Paul who wanted to experience the classic Tower Ridge (IV 3). After the glorious weather earlier in the week the weather forecast was looking decidedly un-promising with the freezing level well above the summits and gusts of 80mph. We persevered telling ourselves we'd just have a look and it all came good for us with a very quick ascent in relatively benign conditions.
The walk in was enlivened by trying to persuade a group that No 4 Gully wasn't a good option for the day. They'd failed to look at a mountain weather and or avalanche forecast and were completely oblivious to the danger of the huge cornices / seracs that have been causing some huge avalanches in the recent warm conditions.
Tower Ridge is still well plastered in soft wet snow with helpful chewy ice on the various tricky steps. Against a constant barrage of noise from falling ice in Observatory Gully we soon arrived at Great Tower and the infamous Eastern Traverse. This is still pretty much banked out but today gave us the added bonus of a good shower of icy water from above. I opted for the extension to the traverse which proved easier than the steep moves staright up. The narrow snow arete to Tower Gap was climbed a cheval and cruddy ice on the exit meant that today this was the crux. We topped out in 4 hours to be met by a constant stream of walkers, many in jeans and trainers, making their way to the summit seemingly oblivious to the cornices!
The forecast was for gale force winds on the tops but crucially the freezing level was coming down from above the summits. We headed up a long line of teams making the trek up into Stob Coire nan Lochan and onwards to the classic Dorsal Arete II. The coire was full of avalanche debris from the thaw the previous night but their were still some huge cornice overhanging the right hand side of the crag. However the approach slopes had refrozen and we made good time to the base of where Dorsal arete normally starts. The depth of snow meant that I struggled to recognise many of the features on this trade route and even the final rock fin was a narrow snow arete which was climbed au cheval. The cornice needed a little bit of work before we crawled on to the ridge and were immediately pinned down by the gale force winds. A quick descent of Broad Gully was the best option in these conditions before a pleasant walk out beneath blue skies.
The SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder gave us a great adventure today. We broke trail to the base of the ridge before enjoying alpine conditions with dry rock and deep snow. Word on the grapevine was a team had got their rope stuck abseiling into East Gully. We were able to retrieve this and return it to its grateful owner. Back down at the CIC Hut an unfortunate crevasse incident delayed us as we put Ben through a few rescue scenarios.
Castle Gully had released a huge avalanche a couple of hours before we walked in which crossed the CIC - Half Way Lochan path. In Coire na Ciste gullies no 2, 3, 4 and 5 had all released overnight and no 5 went again during the day probably due to a cornice collapse. 6 or 7 teams went for Tower Ridge with the resultant traffic jams meaning a late finish for some. Observatory Ridge also saw an ascent from a strong team as did Slingsby's Chimney / NE Buttress.
This week I'm working with professional adventurer Ben Thackawray who has some big plans for the future. Our aim was to develop his skills as an independent mountaineer. With a rather wet and warm forecast for the west coast of Scotland we opted to make the drive over to the Cairngorms. The Fiacaill Ribs in Coire an t-Sneachda gave us the perfect training ground to look at rope systems, building belays, stance management. and abseil descents. There was a reasonable amount of avalanche debris in the coire but still some huge cornices threatening many of the routes.