Wednesday 17 February 2010

Winter mountaineering day, Ledge Route, Ben Nevis, Monday 15th Feb.

As well as running Kendal Mountaineering Services, Iain also gets "contracted in" as a freelance Instructor to work for other organisations and when he was asked to coach winter scrambling skills for a party wishing to attempt Ledge Route on Ben Nevis he certainly wasn't going to say no!

Having just parked at the Alt A Mhuillin top car park this picture shows Paul, Chris and Neil wth our intended destination behind in rapidly improving weather conditions.

After a 45 minute walk in, Iain took this shot of Carn Dearg Buttress looming through the mist.

Here, the lower tier has an impressive & well formed grade 4 waterfall giving Iain the impression that The Curtain
grade IV,5 was likely to "be in", sadly, it wasn't!

Anyway, our route was up the left hand side of and on to the top of the impressive buttress in the upper part of the picture. Ledge Route starts to its left in No 5 Gully which can be made out to the left of Carn Dearg Buttress. Shortly after entering the gully we move out right on to a ramp leading above The Curtain before moving up a left slanting gully to reach the top of Carn Dearg Buttress.

As all good Mountaineering Instructors should - Iain had been talking to the guys on the way up to the route to find out what past experience they had gained of winter mountaineering and it transpired there was a fair level of experience between all three. Neil has his Summer ML Award and all three of our party had attended various winter skills courses and had been guided in the area before by other mountaineering businessess as part of an annual excursion in to the area. After a discussion, it was decided that they needed some consolidation on ropework and belay techniques.

So, after some practice at short roping techniques, this shot shows the group, led by Neil ,heading into the lower part of No 5 Gully before turning right on to the ramp of Ledge Route just before the icicles in the middle distance.

Once on to the start of the ramp the feel is one of slightly more exposure and so it was felt prudent to "pitch" this part of the route. Neil led off around a slight narrowing & steepening of the ramp, built a belay and then brought Paul & Chris up to him before securing them and then setting off again.

This next ropelength brough him into the left hand slanting gully from where he set up a snow belay and then the other two followed on. Here Chris & Paul are just entering the gully from the ramp.

This shot is taken from just below the top of the Gully. Neil belays Chris & Paul in a semi-direct fashion using a buried ice axe anchor and a bucket seat as his belay.

Once the guys were up to him they "self belayed" using their own axes whilst Neil soloed up to the platform just above and then brought the guys up on an indirect or body belay. This was perfectly acceptable on this easy bit of ground.

At this point it was decided to break for a bit of lunch and discuss how we would tackle the next section. It was agreed that Paul would take over the lead for what was pretty much, the second half of the route. Also at this point, the cloud began to thin and sunshine, blue sky and views began to appear. also, by this point, the air was almost completely still.

After lunch, we headed right as per the route description, past a pinnacle block to another platform and the arete. At first this was relatively easy terrain and so Paul short roped Chris & Neil as can be seen here.

Good winter short roping technique is being demonstrated ie all three have their axes in their uphill hands ready for self belay in the event of a slip and the rope between the second & third man is downhill of them both thus preventing the second from being easily dislodged should the back man slip. Paul has chest coils locked off and a number of smaller hand coils - correctly held in his downhill hand and also locked off.

Inevitably, the ridge got steeper and narrower and so the level of exposure increased again to the point where short roping wasn't a safe option.

Paul had just "pitched" the narrow section below and then found a suitable block with which to set up a direct belay consisting of a sling and an Italian Hitch. This picture shows Paul, belay in position, bringing Chris & Neil up to him.

Chris & Neil were left attached to this belay point before Paul pitched only a matter of 10M to the end of the exposed section and then brought the guys up with an indirect belay.

From here on, the ridge got easier & broader and we rapidly gained hieght using mainly body belays and one direct belay before short roping again to the foot of the final buttress.

During our ascent of the most technical part of the ridge, it had again, clouded in and snowed heavily - obliterating the footsteps of a large party that had gone ahead of us. Then suddenly, the cloud lifted and we could see to the top of our route as well as everywhere else.

This view looks across to Tower Ridge and beyond to the North East Buttress. Many parties could be seen on Tower Ridge, Number Three Gully Buttress and Green Gully. At this time (about 3:30pm) a party could be seen heading up just above the Douglas Gap West Gully (the diagonal groove just above the foot of Tower Ridge) It was Iain's guess that they were going to have a late (and in the dark) finish!

After a couple of final easy pitches, the team reached the top and removed ropes & harnesses, then it was time for a brew and a butty.

It was surprisingly calm on the top of Carn Dearg and we could see the sun through a thin layer of cloud - good brocken Spectre weather.

As was evidenced by everything having frozen solid, it was clearly bitterly cold but as it was almost calm we didn't notice the cold. However, time had raced by as it does when you are having fun and so we needed to descend quickly.

A bearing was taken from where we were and Iain reckoned that it would be ok to descend straight towards the outflow of the Halfway Lochan - avoiding the tops of N & S Castle Gullies and it turned out to be a fine descent route.

We soon came out of the cloud into a beautiful sunset and a snowline that was over 1000 feet lower than it had been at the start of the day. Getting down took a while as it does on Britains highest mountain, but the clients were very happy with what they had achieved and were looking forward to using the skills they had learnt on other similar routes during the course of the rest of their week in the area.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Winter Mountaineering Day, Jan 30th continued

An "action shot", Craig brakes during the second progression of ice axe braking whilst Alex looks on.

Teaching Ice Axe Braking involves using the pick of the axe buried in the snow to arrest a slide. The axe shaft is held diagonally under the chest, hand over the head of the axe and the other over the spike at the bottom of the axe shaft.

Moments after this shot was taken Craig reached out to the right with the pick of his axe and stabbed it into the snow causing him to spin around into the uphill facing position which is the correct one for braking as seen in the last picture of the previous post.

Iain's coaching from the above picture was that Craig needed to be "resting more upright" on his elbows and it was noted that his left hand was not covering the spike at the base of his axe shaft - the danger with that is that once in the uphill facing position, the uncovered spike could "dig in" causing the axe to be ripped out of the person's hand - not ideal if you are trying to brake with it!

Soon it was time to pack up and head back to the car and the party headed straight down between Harrison Sticke and Pavey Ark and it was here where this last picture was taken. It had been an action packed day filled with skills and challenges and both Alex & Craig and Iain were happy with what had been delivered.

It was an unusual and demanding day with the breadth of what had been covered, but that's what the guys wanted, so Iain made sure that's what they got! This is what we at Kendal Mountaineering Services are famous for - bespoke days in the outdoors where you decide what you want and we'll make it happen!

Winter Mountaineering Day, Jan 30th.

After the "big freeze" we had a big thaw and then last week the skies brightened once again and the temperatures dropped to around freezing during the day and as low as minus five at night.

The forecast was looking good for the Saturday when Craig Porter, along with his friend - Alex, had booked Iain looking for a good quality mountain day with some elements of navigation, scrambling and winter skills all thrown in together.

This was a lot to cover in a day, but Iain was happy to deliver. This picture shows Stickle Ghyll in Langdale as Iain & the guys headed up to Stickle Tarn to carry out the day's requirements. As you can see it was freezing up nicely and, given a few more days of the low temps would have made an excellent ice climbing trip. It was not to be though, sadly, by Monday night, the next thaw had set in!

This picture shows Alex (left) and Craig (right) practicing spotting on the lower rib of Tarn Crag - a nice easy bit of grade one ground. The technique of spotting was new to Alex.

Spotting is where people help each other ascend a scramble where really, a rope isn't necessary but the use of hands to prevent a person falling backwards off a short step or to hold feet in place, will ensure sufficient safety. It also assists with efficient passage on a scramble and is an excellent icebreaker for getting people who don't really know each other to work together as part of a team.

Anyway, this provided a short alternative to the navigation skills Iain had been teaching the guys from the moment they left the National Trust car park at the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel. Shortly after this, they would encounter some hard snow and a session of "step kicking (otherwise known as using the boot as a tool) would ensue.

Eventually we reached Stickle Tarn which was frozen over with what looked to be a fairly thick layer of ice. The views all around were stunning and the cold northerly wind somewhat numbing so everyone donned Goretex which had been unnecessary up to this point.

Iain decided to break what was left of the day down into a further navigation session east of Stickle Tarn followed by a guided ascent of the classic Lake District Scramble of Jack's Rake. Following that - as we would be amongst the best of the snow above Jack's Rake, we would look at what winter skills training time would allow.

The picture above shows the guys practicing taking a bearing and the view in the background is of the Bright Beck valley with the summit of Sergeant Man beyond.
Taken in the opposite direction, this view is of the east ridge of Harrison Stickle with Stickle Tarn below and right - the south face of Pavey Ark. Jack's Rake is the diagonal groove ascending this face.

After an hour & a half of good navigation practice finding features such as spurs & re-entrants, pacing & timing, we headed over to the foot of Jack's Rake.

As can be seen from this picture, the weather and conditions were fantastic!

This picture shows Alex & Craig just above the step on the traverse where Crescent Climb comes in from below. Jack's Rake is considered to be a classic Lake District grade one scramble; and is on most hillgoers tick list at some point.

Before setting off up the route, the party donned helmets, harnesses and roped up - all wise decisions given the fact that some ice was falling on to the terrace from the cliffs above. Despite some water ice, the route was not in serious condition - more so a pleasant intro to winter scrambling. However, Iain felt roping up was necessary and some parts of the route were pitched whilst Iain short roped the guys where appropriate.

We saw many people soloing Jack's Rake and also one individual retreating - without a helmet! Possibly a wise choice given the conditions.

This picture shows Alex & Craig coming up the final groove next to the rock tower which marks the end of Jack's Rake. Despite pitching the first part of the route, we made rapid progress thereafter and completed the scramble in little over an hour and a half. During this time we enjoyed the warm sun and the shelter afforded by the south facing aspect of our route. We also watched an RAF Rescue Sea King as it carried out a rescue of an injured person next to the outlfow of Stickle Tarn.

We encountered a lot more snow on the latter half of Jack's Rake and this was fairly hard neve. However, due to the number of people having done the route in recent weeks there was a flight of footsteps all the way. Alex & Craig thoroughly enjoyed this classic ascent and at one point Iain was heard to say "I love my job".

Above Jack's Rake there was a reasonable amount of hard neve and ice, so Iain coached Alex & Craig in the techniques of step kicking and step cutting.

These techniques were new to Alex but not to Craig who had attended a Kendal Mountaineering Services Winter Skills course in February 2008 followed by a Cuillin Ridge Traverse on Skye during May of the same year.

Here, Alex & Craig practice the position for Ice axe braking before having a go at the skill. In the distance, hills of the Grasmoor range overtop the ridge between Thunacar Knott and High Raise.