Monday, March 21, 2016

SCOTLAND MARCH 2016...ALPINE SPRING

Well I'm back home again after another visit to Scotland. I had the added pleasure this time of having Patrick Price, (with whom I had enjoyed a super trip to Torridon a few years ago), for company again and with a good weather forecast things were set fair.

Saturday March 12th;

I had done my usual thing of train, ferry, train...more train and I alighted in Aviemore at 16.20 where I was to meet Patrick. It was great to meet Patrick again and we immediately settled into comfortable banter and the drive across to the west flew by. We were to meet with a friend of his Lorraine McCall in Ballachulish and we would do something on Sunday. We opted to stop for a coffee en-route at an isolated little cafe/gift shop that was just about to close for the evening. An excellent cuppa and cake went down a treat but we weren't  expecting the very lengthy discourse on the woes of the pottery craft and the history of its manufacture in both the UK and China. After a while we made our excuses and continued west. We arrived at Lorraine's and a very convivial evening ensued as comfortable conversation flowed between friends (Lorraine was joined by Kaz her friend from Glasgow via London). I was pretty exhausted and I bedded down with relish when the chat ended at around 11pm.

Sunday March 13th;

We emerged to a sleepy village in and got ready for our day which was to be the spectacular Ballachulish Horseshoe. Originally we had hoped to do something like the Aonagh Eagach ridge or somesuch but the thaw had stripped the snow from the ridges had caused a change of tack. It is special to leave the house and start on a route without having to drive anywhere and we were in great spirits as we strolled up through the village. As we left the road we had a change of plan and decided to climb the pair of lower hills directly in front Sgorr a Choise 663 meters and Meall Mhor 676 meters which would make for a nice relaxed day out. We continued along the easy path that runs above the river Laroch for around three kilometers before crossing the river and setting off up the steep heathery slopes of Sgorr a Choise. Lorraine sensibly suggested that we take a diagonal line to the ridge above and follow that to the summit but Patrick had other ideas and made directly up the slope towards the top. I had a vague recollection that he was quick over the ground and that was now confirmed. I made a decent fist of keeping up and pretty soon the steep 400 meter pull was over and we reached the shoulder near the top. What a lovely spot to rest a while and soak in the glorious surroundings. There had been copious snow cover on the mountains just a few days before but the thaw had stripped most of the snow away but the landscape was still stunning. There was some cloud about but it was calm and mild and the weather forecast promised clear skies and frosty nights so we were confident that we would find good climbing on Ben Nevis which was our next port of call.
Patrick multitasking as we readied for the off

The very shapely Sgorr a Choise


Kaz, Lorraine and Patrick

Lorraine was encyclopedic in her knowledge of all the nearby hills which isn't surprising as she has completed a continuous round of all the Munros and more recently she also completed a continuous round of the Corbetts which she professes to be harder to do than the Munros. All this in the face of trials of illness but she maintains a cheery and positive outlook that is inspiring to behold. A formidable lady!. Anyway we dropped easily down to the col below Meall a Bhuige and faced into the long gradual pull to the next top Meall Mor 667 mtrs. From here we turned and dropped down and headed to Am Meall with its communication mast and followed the path all the way down to the disused quarry alongside the village. It had been a lovely relaxed day and with over 1000 meters of ascent it got the leg muscles loose after the long journey. We had a refreshing cup of tea and myself and Patrick left for the north face carpark outside Fort William where I found a decent spot for my tent and we settled in for the evening.
Sgorr a Choise with Sgorr Dearg beyond

Beautiful views into Loch Linnhe

Looking into The Pass Of Glencoe


Monday March 14th;

We rose at 05.45 to be ready for a 06.30 start. Wow, what a stunning morning it was. Clear skies and no wind promised that we would have a stellar weather day. Porridge and spicy chai and a quick gear sort out saw us off up the forest path in good time. We decided to climb the Northeast Buttress and we headed for Slingsby's Chimney as the best way to get to the first platform on the route. The north side of Ben Nevis is always an awesome sight and this morning was no different. Elsewhere the thaw has wrought havoc with winter conditions but here winter was still very much in charge. The big famous ice routes were still fat and complete and the alpine scale of the cliffs ensured one was in no doubt that this is a special place. We put on the crampons etc in good time after passing the Douglas Boulder and climbed the steep snow to the start of the route. Slingsby's is graded as Grade2 with a possible pitch of Grade3 mixed at the top if it wasn't complete with snow. We set off up the initial icy snow in the chimney without roping up and made rapid progress until the place where the chimney fans out and we found it was devoid of snow until the crest of the ridge. There was a nut in place on the right wall and we geared up here and I led off.
Always impressive as you approach the Ben
Looking up into Coire na Ciste

Lots of ice to be seen in Zero Gully, Point 5 and up to Tower Gully

Approaching the Northeast Buttress. Slingsby's starts at the apex of the snowslope below the first platform.

Not my picture and there was less snow. I fell from around the X
Initially things went well and I placed a backup sling at some in-situ tat about twenty feet higher up and then began the delicate traverse across the mainly blank rock to the exit slopes on the leftward side of the fan. In a narrow band of snow some steps led up into a very narrow vertical chute where I climbed to the start of and got a nut in a crack. I went up for a couple of moves but it looked desperately narrow and I feared getting stuck so I backed down and moved further to the left. I arrived at a corner with a pretty blank slabby step of perhaps five feet which led to slightly easier stuff above. I got another nut in (which was just as well since my previous gear had popped out as I climbed above them) and started up. Well the next thing I know is I'm falling and I briefly hope that the nut holds and mercifully Patrick was doing his bit well and I stop after maybe 20 feet. Oh boy but that got the heart pumping. I have been carrying a medial ligament tear in my right knee for nearly three months and it must have gotten a jolt as it was singing loudly to me for a short while. After a little while I righted myself and set off up (the correct line on the left) and soon found myself on the narrow crest of the ridge in the sunshine. Patrick followed up and we enjoyed a respite and I decided that I didn't really fancy continuing up the buttress (which Patrick accepted very graciously) and we descended down into Coire Leis.
Relaxing on the first platform

Looking down into the gully


In the corrie Patrick came up with a plan for the rest of the day and we climbed up the back of the corrie and reached the beginning of the CMD arret where we made our way up and around to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg and from there descended easily back to the valley. On the arret I almost walked past Gary Hodgson who I had had a day out with last year but he stopped me and it was great to see him. I knew going over that my knee was not fully healed but I was hopeful that it would hold up to the big days that are part of winter climbing hereabouts but by the time I was going back down the forest track to the carpark it was getting pretty sore. I have since checked out the exit from Slingsby's and a couple of local guiding websites rate the exit in conditions like we had as a Grade4-4 which I would agree with if you try and take a more direct line to the crest (like I did). Good food and good company meant that the rest of the evening flew by and we retired early to bed. It had been an eventful day.
Stunning vistas from the CMD




Home sweet home

Tuesday March 15th;

We emerged to another beautiful morning and set off once again towards the CIC hut. The target for today was Green Gully Grade4-3. I had done this route in 2012 with Kevin but Patrick hadn't done it and I was very happy to revisit this classic. At the hut we turned right and climbed up into Coire na Ciste. As we crested the ground by the lake we could see another pair nearing the start of the route but we weren't overly worried as they had a lot of time on us and shouldn't be in our way. We had passed an older couple back by the hut and now as we sorted out our harnesses etc we were passed by a young couple you were heading to the same place. They were also gearing up and as I passed them the guy said he was a MI and would be really quick so would I mind if they went first and I said no problem. Unfortunately as we arrived at the start of the route the first pair were still sorting themselves out so rather than falling further back in the queue I held our place and we followed them up. My confidence was low so I asked Patrick if he wouldn't mind leading today and he happily acquiesced. After a short wait he was off.
Green gully in the centre of the picture

Looking down after pitch one

Looking up pitch two

I know they say that no winter route is the same twice and today certainly proved that. Four years ago the route was substantially banked out but today it was much icier and offered more steeper sections. Indeed the last time myself and Kevin were in complete agreement that the first three pitches were very easy but today there was a steep-ish ice fall right at the start. Patrick made it look easy and before long he had a belay set up and I was off. The young couple had been with me at the start and the older couple had also entered the corrie before I set off. While we waited a glove passed us down the slope and we were amused to see it make its way all the way down to exactly where the other couple stood. The first party were slow and before I started on the second pitch we had been joined by the other couple who gave the glove to me so I could pass it to the first party when I reached them. This couple had a combined age of 136 years and inspired me the way they cruised steadily up the mountain. Pitch two was pretty straightforward but again pitch three gave a steep icy section before easing off above the narrows before reaching the crux of the route. Decent ice screw placements were to be had here and Patrick quickly (once he got going) dispatched the 20 foot vertical ice wall. I followed on and joined him once again at the next belay. Here the route differed from the last time. On the previous occasion we followed the easier slopes to the top but today a very nice ice route went up on the left side and this we followed. It was excellent and offered great sport until the final meters onto the top.
Looking down pitch four

The final excellent pitch



I think he misunderstood when I said I would shoot him.

Once on top we walked across to the plateau and basked in the sunshine and afterglow of a wonderful route. We crossed over a busy summit and descended via Coire na Ciste. By the time I was nearing the forestry track again my knee was again quite painful. I was really hoping that it would have stood up to the demands a bit better and I was beginning to doubt that I would be able to stay in Scotland for as long as I hoped. Eventually I reached the carpark and after a quick refreshing cuppa we decamped and headed for Craig Meagaidh. I found a lovely spot for the tent at the carpark and we settled down for the night.


What a day on the summit plateau

Wednesday March 16th;

During the night I became aware of occasional drops landing on my tent and I hoped that there hadn't been a change in conditions overnight. We had hoped to do a Grade 3 route today like Staghorn Gully or similar but if there hadn't been a frost and since the route would be lower then The Ben...well. I emerged to an overcast pre-dawn with a light breeze and it felt quite mild. I joined Patrick for breakfast and we assessed our options. Reluctantly we came to the conclusion that things couldn't be in condition (and since we were the only climbers, here others seemed to agree) so Patrick dropped me at the nearby Tulloch train station and we said our goodbyes. It had been such a great pleasure to have his company on the trip and he looked after me so very very well. I only hope that I can persuade him to visit my neck of the woods soon when I hope to return the compliment. I had a wait of around two hours for the train so I walked back to the road and I managed to hitch a ride into Fort William where I had time to consider what I would do for the time remaining to me. I had hoped to get the ferry from Mallaig to Inverie in Knoydart and explore that area for a few days but my knee was really quite painful today and I feared that several more days hiking on it might set my recovery back weeks so very reluctantly I discounted that option and headed south as far as Tyndrum where I booked into the excellent ByTheWay Hostel and hoped that a days rest might help my knee.

Thursday March 17th;

Having gone to bed at the ridiculously early time of 7pm the previous evening (I must be becoming a wuss), I was up and out the door of the hostel at 07.30. It was a cold and foggy morning and while I wouldn't say I was walking easily I was confident my knee would hold up to the rigours of the day. The walk in past Cononish is always a pleasure and as I went in I could see the occasional glimpse of sun so I was confident that once I started climbing I would rise above the fog. The fog had dissipated by the time I reached the end of the track and Ben Lui was revealed in its full glory before I crossed Allt an Rund and began climbing up towards the huge Coire Goathach. With its ridges rising gracefully towards the summit on either side and the impressive snowy back-wall, it all made for a very Alpine scene. As I climbed into the corrie I wasn't sure what route to take to the top. I really wanted to do Central Gully which is supposed to be a classic Grade1 route but it felt was quite warm and even though the cornices above weren't that big it was obvious even from down below the corrie that they were seriously sagging and ready to drop. Very reluctantly I decided that it wasn't worth the risk so I turned to the left once I entered the snowfield of the corrie and headed up to the rim of the Southeast Ridge and climbed that instead.
Ben Oss

Ben Lui..I went up the ridge on the left...Central Gully follows the shadow line to the summit

Looking back towards Ben Challum

I think its Ben Lomond

The ridge was dry in places and quite steep

The ridge has a few steep steps but it was generally straightforward with a mix of dry ground and soft snow. It was incredibly warm but the real highlight was the stunning view south towards the Arrochar Alps which jutted out of a blanket of cloud and it gave the day an even more Alpine feel. The ridge seemed to go on and on but suddenly I found myself at the summit where I rested for a while and simply basked in the glory of my surroundings. I couldn't help but look down Central gully and I was a bit regretful that I hadn't climbed it but I also looked at the cornices and the cracks that were to be seen back from the edge and I was kind of glad to have given it a miss as well. On the descent I continued until above Coire an Lochain where I had a nice glissade into the bowl and then traversed the icy north side of Stob Garbh and once over the shoulder I returned easily back to the track for Cononish. They had kindly allowed me leave my stuff in the hostel until I got back down and after a cup of tea and a shower I caught the train shortly after back home. I was somewhat disappointed that my knee hadn't allowed me make the most of the wonderful weather and return early but I couldn't complain too much as I had had some wonderful days in a wonderful landscape and in wonderful company. Scotland is an extraordinarily beautiful place and one I intend to return to again as soon as possible.
The Arrochar Alps

Summit with some saggy cornices


On the way back down I saw three people climbing the gully...I was jealous


Beinn Chuirn