Monday 9 March 2015

Scottish Winter Adventures continued. February 20th - 27th 2015.

By Iain, in his own words.

After the fantastic day out on Tower Face of the Comb (the last Blog Report), I was invited out the next day to join the lads for another hard climb. Bearing in mind we had just had a day that for me started at 04:15 and finished at 22:30, I declined the offer to join Dave, John & John Orr at 06:00 the following day; and a wise move it was for me. I've got to accept I'm no spring chicken anymore!

Saturday dawned good and Dave, John and John went off to Route One on Carn Dearg Buttress and enjoyed another good climbing day. We met up that evening in Fort William to enjoy a good curry and discuss plans for the next few days. Sunday was looking rubbish but Monday was looking better so Minus Two Gully V'5 was suggested for then. Being a "Ben classic", I told the lads I was certainly up for this. It was agreed to take Sunday off and check the MWIS forecast for Monday making plans that evening for the morrow.

As it was, the MWIS forecast for the Western Highlands changed in the intervening 24 hours and The Ben was now due to be blasted by a southerly wind gusting up to 80mph. Topping out on the NE Buttress in that would have been serious - not to mention the consequent spindrift avalanches that would have been cascading down the route. By Sunday afternoon, that plan had been wisely cancelled - as disappointing as it was!

The decision was made to head east to The Cairngorms; and by 18:30 that evening, I was on my way - in lashing rain & sleet. As I climbed higher in the Mondeo on the A86, the wet stuff became whiter and by the time I reached Aberader I had been driving on an inch of snow for six miles on dipped headlights at 40mph. The situation was to remain thus pretty much all the way to Aviemore - but I got there!

Dave & John arrived about an hour later and we met up at The Winking Owl for a beer and a chat about the next days plans. Climbing it was to be - provided we could get into the Northern Corries. Over here, the weather was predicted to be a little better!

Photo one gives you a pretty good idea of what the weather was like the next day! This was in Aviemore - mid morning, after we had gotten up early, driven out to the snow gate which was closed and sat for an hour before being told it would remain shut all day. We hatched a plan instead to go "navving" in the afternoon as the lads map reading & navigation skills would be assessed during the guides winter induction.

Photo two sees John & Dave in the afternoon out in the wilds of Strath Nethy beyond Ryvoan Pass after we had walked in from the back of Glenmore Lodge. I spent the afternoon setting the lads the challenge of finding grid references where one knew where he had to go and the other had to follow - typical ML standard stuff then! I had been here almost exactly the same time last year with my own clients - in almost exactly the same weather!

We had a great afternoon during which it blew like mad and eventually turned into a blizzard. Whichever way we looked at it - it wasn't a day to try to battle into The Gorms to do a route. No doubt some nutters would have tried though!

Tuesday was looking a worse forecast than Monday - severe upland gales! All three of us agreed to take the day off; and for me, it was an opportunity to visit friends living locally and meet up for coffee & cake with a past client. We weren't getting a lot of climbing done!

Wednesday was a much better forecast and we left  the Cas car park early on our walk in to Coire An Lochain. Blue skies and no wind - unbelievable really!

An hour later we were making our way across the head of the corrie under No1 Buttress with the intention of heading across to No 3 (Ewen Buttress) only to find that yesterday's wind had loaded the whole slope with unstable slab. No 1 Buttress was just above and so the lads decided to have a go at a VII'8 - The Ventricle. This is graded E1 as a summer climb.

Now, I have to say right from the outset - I had considerable reservations about this - climbing V'4 on a good day! This route looked well beyond my capabilities. 15 minutes after this photo was taken, Dave was at the foot of a ramp which offered neither pick nor gear placements and he wasn't happy. Shortly afterwards, he decided to "rap" (abseil) off. Personally, I wasn't too disappointed.

We exited via the gully seen in photo three (The Vent II/III). Today it was definitely a good III not being particularly banked out and containing a couple of short, steep ice pitches.

John headed off ahead to find the abseil point from the top of Ewen Buttress in order to get down to the start of the next route the lads had in mind leaving Dave to belay me up the ice pitches in The Vent.

Photo four was taken looking down on Dave who is just above the narrow and most technical section of The Vent. Loch Morlich and Stathspey can be seen in the distance.

Five minutes later, Dave joined me at the top and we went off to find John who was preparing an abseil above an abyss dropping into Y Gully. It looked a long way down!
It is suprising how far two 60m ropes will get you on an abseil though - 60m is almost 200 feet of rope and as it was - it was more than enough to allow us all to touch down on the snow slope under the vertical west side of Ewen Buttress. The route the lads wanted to climb was just up around the corner - Overseer Direct V'6 (photo five) In this photo John is busy dealing with the crux - a steep book corner whilst Dave belays from just below.

We waited for over an hour whilst John led on up the route - thats the thing with these hard mixed climbs as I discovered this week. Lots of hanging around and a belay jacket is definitely required - and I don't own one! Fortunately for me, Dave had recently bought a new belay jacket so I was able to use his old Patagonia DAS Parka - if I decide to do more of this sort of stuff then this will be the jacket to get!

Eventually, John made it to the top of The Overseer; and Dave set off with me following a respectable distance. Once he was over the crux, I attempted to follow. Out of balance, without a high pick placement and generally wondering how the hell the lads had gotten up this steep corner, a pick suddenly ripped and I was off!

For me that was it. I'd felt truly out of my depth for most of the day so I shouted up to John to lower me down. Disappointing - yes, but at the same time, a certain sense of relief as I untied and then soloed across the deep steep snow in Y Gully Left Branch and made my way up what had looked like an easy way out of the right branch. Things always look easier from below, but as I headed up towards the cornice, the snow got steeper and crappier and it was definitely not the place to slip. Take your time! a voice in my head said; shortly afterwards, I topped out safely.

By the time I got back to the head of Ewen Buttress, the weather had changed and a gale was threatening to lift up the rucksacks was had anchored with a great stone on a col at the top of the buttress.

The lads soon joined me and we packed up and headed west past No 4 Buttress- intending to navigate around to the ridge beyond Twin Burns. It was a good chance for them to practice pacing & walking on a bearing in whiteout conditions and after an hour or so, we were walking across the foot of Coire An Lochain (photo six) noting the rising temperature. Overnight, the temperature was forecast to rise briefly from minus 5 to plus 4 degrees centigrade - bizzare or what!

Thursday found Dave & I heading in to Coire An Sneachda at the somewhat later time of 8am. This was to be that last day of climbing before Dave & John had a rest day on Friday before meeting the guides team prior to the start of their "Winter Induction" on Saturday.

John had already set off with another BMG candidate - Gareth. Dave & I walked in to find the pair already approaching The Seam IV'5 on Fiacaille Buttress which had been our intended start for the day. Not to worry - Dave was quite happy just to get mileage in and he set off up Invernookie III'4 - a fine little route at the grade. Last time I was here was in 2011 guiding up one of my own clients in preparation for my MIC Assessment. The chap being guided on that occasion went on to summit Everest the following summer!

Photo seven sees Dave above the crux on Invernookie - about to head up into the corner before exiting right across the slab into the snowed up groove which was trickier than it looked. The top of the groove is the top of the route!

About another 20 minutes later and we were both "rapping" back in with Dave's 60 metre ropes demonstrating their true worth once again. (photo eight) John & Gareth can be seen below Dave just under the crux on Invernookie - up which they had followed us after completing The Seam.

Dave's two 60m ropes were sufficient for us to reach the foot of The Seam where he rigged a bottom anchor. Once I had I joined him and clipped on with a cowstail, we set about pulling down the ropes and then tying back on and flaking out the ropes so that they would run ok.

Somehow it looked like a bit of a tangle but we were pretty sure, after some further untying/retying, that all was fine; and so it proved to be as Dave climbed steadily up the route and the rope followed without a problem.

After abour 45 minutes of so of steady climbing, Dave was up and eventually after pulling the ropes tight, shouted for me to follow.

The Seam is IV'technical 5 which makes it a sustained route for the grade but in actual fact it is a really pleasant route. One starts up easy frozen turf and rock before reaching some fixed tat at the start of the buttress proper. An icy groove is followed upwards which deepens into a chimney with an overhang above and the route exiting to the left of this up a steep narrow chimney.

There was plenty of ice in the back of the route and lots of hooks and cracks for torqueing if needed - and also lots of small horizontal ledges for standing on. There were also lots of great gear placements - really handy for a leader! It felt like fine safe climbing, with everything there that you needed - just when you needed it. I'd not climbed The Seam before but I do look forward to leading it the next time. In photo nine I am looking up to Dave from just above the crux with easier climbing ahead.

The time was around 14:30 when I topped out. John & Gareth had finished Invernookie some time earlier and had rapped back in to have a go at a route that another pair had been on earlier - Rampant IV'5.

I felt that it was getting a bit late to start another route and told Dave I happy to call it a day if he was - and he agreed. With a strong westerly wind blasting the back of the Fiacaille Ridge, we had chosen the most sheltered location that we could have to climb and had enjoyed good conditions. However, getting from the buttress along the ridge to the col leading back in to Sneachda (photo ten) meant wrapping up well and donning ski googles in order to see. Once we dropped below the col into Coire an't Sneachda, we were magically sheltered again.

The final photograph sees Dave walking out back towards the car park at Coire Cas as the sun came out. It had been a good day and I'm glad that I stuck around to spend an extra day out with these two very talented mountaineers who are about to embark on a career where they will be passing on their enthusiasm for all things mountaineering to others. Although  I only got to climb with them on three days out of seven, I climbed on harder routes than I normally would and that has certainly improved my confidence for the future. I also got to know a number of climbing areas better than previously which can only benefit my own clients in the future.

I suspect that could be the end of my winter climbing season until the next one, but I'd like to thank Dave & John for a great time and also extend this to the clients with whom I shared some great adventures in the weeks prior to this one. Becoming  a Mountaineering Instructor is one of the best things I've ever done!

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