May 20th, 2015
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Better late than never, and hopefully the blog will go some way to explain the lack of blogging as of late! A couple of days after my last (at least I thought it would be) day of winter work back in April, Hannah and I were out in Châtel, in the French Alps, and caught up with our friend Tanya whilst bagging a few days of pisted skiing and ski touring. Conditions locally were reasonable, and allowed us to get back into the swing of moving around up and downhill on our planks.
From Châtel, we then headed over to Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland to meet Chris, Lucas, Steven and Emily. The following day, we jumped on the Jungfrau Railway, which whisked us up to 3500m, and deposited us right at the foot of the Mönch (4107m) at 9am. We decided to capitalise on our expensive uplift, and so having ditched our skis at the foot of the mountain’s SE Ridge, made a steady ascent up to the brilliantly exposed upper snow ridge and onto the summit. Our first ski descent, down to the Konkordia Hut, was punctuated by the odd patch of developing crust, but nothing which could detract from having just summited one of the finest peaks in the region.
The following day, we made an ascent of the Trugberg (3933m), via the Ewigschneefeld and up the SW Flank. The final ridge, which involved a bit of boot packing, gave us great views down the continuous 1100m south face, which was our planned descent and looked perfect. And it was.
With a deterioration in the weather the next day, we chose to not venture too far, and made a partial ascent of the Kranzberg, before complete whiteout conditions at 3400m sent us back the way we had come. The final steep slopes back to the Konkordiaplatz gave some of the best (if a little short-lived) skiing of the day. Unfortunately, this deterioration in the weather stayed with us for the next few days, and only occasionally let up. The following morning was one such occasion, as we made our way up to the Grünhornlücke. Fresh snow had fallen overnight, and so things were looking promising as we reached the col, and prepared ourselves for putting in some fresh tracks. Wrong! We must have managed a full 1 minute of enjoyable descent, before skiing into thick cloud, which not only reduced visibility down to about 50m, but also acted like a giant greenhouse, trapping the warmth of the sunshine against the glacier. So what should have been a fun descent, with the option of bagging the nearby Wyssnollen, turned into an exercise in poor visibility navigation and sticking close together through unknown terrain.
We were eventually spat out of the murk at the foot of the Finsteraarhorn Hut, and chose to call it a day. That night, Lucas took a turn for the worse, and woke up to a crackling/popping sound on his lungs. Although theoretically possible, the chances of it being a case of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) seemed slim, with us only being at 3000m, and having spent a few days at that altitude, but sure enough, as the day wore on, and with the help of a group of medics who were also staying at the hut, HAPE seemed like the most likely diagnosis, and so that evening, just as a weather window presented itself, Lucas was whisked away by helicopter to a hospital in Visp, where he was diagnosed as suffering from HAPE. It proved to be a lesson for all of us, as whilst we had been to much higher altitudes before, and had read about altitude related illnesses, were caught out by how quickly symptoms developed, even at reasonably modest elevations.
The final leg of our tour took us all the way across the Grosser Aletschfirn, to the atmospheric Hollandia Hut, from where we made an ascent of the Mittaghorn (3892m) and the Äbeni Flue (3962m) on the same day, the latter of which gave a fantastic decent back to the hut, before enjoying the long and at times technical, descent down to Fafleralp, a day earlier than originally planned due to the weather closing in.
The trip was definitely tough at times, with mixed conditions, illness and feeling like we hadn’t necessarily played all of our cards at the right moments, but then again, if it was all plain sailing, where would the fun and challenge lie in that? Huge thanks to Chris for organising the trip and to the others for their company.
It seems almost ironic that despite being plunged back into mid-winter overnight, today was my last day of work this winter season. Still, all good things…
Having been out quite a bit over the past few days, and having seen things close up yesterday, I made last minute plans with Mike, who I had been out with a couple of weeks ago on Vanishing Gully. Mike was after some further mileage on steep ice, and having been into Observatory Gully yesterday and see the state of the ice first hand, I felt that we would find just what he was after, but, having caught wind that the CIC Hut was fully booked last night, I was keen to find some steep ice that was less likely to be on everyone’s radars (Smiths, Hadrian’s, Indicator, Point 5 etc.), so I scanned through a few photos of Coire na Ciste that I had taken over the past few days, and one thing stood out… The fat, blue icefall of The Gutter. Having heard that there were a number of variations available, we made our way up to it.
The initial pitch of Glovers was ok, although a bit mushy pulling onto the easier angled snow slope above the first icefall. We soon found ourselves at the foot of the brilliantly blue icefall of The Gutter, which looked to be in fantastic condition. It was. Mike felt it was more sustained than the crux icefall of Vanishing Gully, and required a bit more thought. I too, am not sure that IV,4 is the right grade, perhaps more like IV/V,5 today. Anyway regardless of the grade, it was good fun.
We then finished off on a line parallel to Tower Ridge, which took in a couple more short icy steps before gaining the plateau. Conditions throughout the day were quite wild, with plenty of spindrift pouring down, which was quite a contrast to the last few days!
So that’s it, what has been a fantastic and varied winter is now over for another year, thanks to all those that have employed us, worked for us, walked with us and shared a rope with us! We’re off to the Alps on Monday for some ski touring, can’t wait!
After climbing one of the closest routes to the car park on Ben Nevis yesterday, Paul and I thought we would go for the polar opposite today and head high into Observatory Gully and climb Good Friday Climb, one of the highest winter climbs on the mountain. With the clear skies overnight, the approach slopes were quite firm, however, as the sun caught the eastern flanks of Tower Ridge, debris was peeling off, so we stayed hard left as we made our way up to the climb.
Much of the exposed ice is now rock hard, and quite glassy and brittle in places, which meant bombproof ice screw belays, so long as the ice was well attached to the rock! We pitched up the steep snow slopes that lie beneath Indicator Wall, before gaining the steep ice pitch on Good Friday Climb, which Paul made short work of, however, he quickly appreciated that ice is often steeper than it looks! To make the most of the route we finished up the final pitch of Indicator R/H, enabling us to top out right by the summit cairn of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest belay.
It’s been a great and varied couple of days, and it was interesting to see what had survived the steady thaws of late, and to see how firm the ice is in places. Hadrian’s Wall is complete, the pitch above the main ice fall is definitely thin, but looks climbable. Tower Scoop looks brilliant, Point 5, Indicator & R/H and Smith’s Route all look fine, Shot in the Back and Shot in the Foot look complete, however, the first pitch of Zero Gully looks thin and broken.
When the weather is as good as it has been here in Lochaber over the past few days, I think that it’s one of the best places to be. The variety of activities that can be done is almost endless, mountain biking, river kayaking, sea kayaking, backcountry skiing, winter climbing, rock climbing, the list goes on…
I was back out on an alpine Ben Nevis with Paul today, who was happy to climb anything, more so as most of his trips over the past few winters have coincided with stormy conditions. Today things were very different. We walked in without a breath of wind and settled on the idea of an alpine ascent of Castle Ridge. A continuous line of snow gave us a nice easy approach to the foot of the ridge, from where we roped up. The rock was largely dry, however, there were still some sizeable, yet soft, patches of snow that were dripping onto some of the slabs higher up. That said, the route really was in summer ‘nick’ and with the snow being so soft, crampons weren’t required for the ascent. We did both use an axe though.
On topping out, we donned our crampons and made our way down the snow filled gully that runs parallel to the Red Burn and joins the mountain path slightly to the north.
Both Castle Gullies are still complete, with their respective chockstones still buried.
I was out again, introducing another climber to the wacky and rather addictive world of winter climbing, however, today, it was a 12 year old by the name of Matt. Stewy, who has bags of experience had brought Matt, his son, along to hopefully share his passions for the Scottish mountains and for winter climbing, and felt that an ascent of Ledge Route on Ben Nevis, on a beautiful day should do the trick. It did!
The approach to Ledge Route was through largely soft snow, and I was quite surprised by how much snow has since disappeared from the lower rocks of Ledge Route, but the upper ridge was still as snow covered as ever. Matt showed no signs of tiring as we made our ascent, and maintained care with his footwork throughout. I don’t think that the exposure high on the snowy ridge had any affect on him either! A budding mountaineer in the making!
With no hanging around, we made the summit plateau in no time, and to add the icing on the cake, we took in the summit of Ben Nevis, so not only was it Matt’s first winter climb, but his first Munro too. Not bad for anyone, never mind a 12 year old! Tower Ridge next? I was working for Abacus Mountain Guides.