Today I was out with Mark, who has a forthcoming trip to Ama Dablam, and as part of his training, he was keen to climb Tower Ridge in winter. We certainly found winter on Tower Ridge today, as it was plastered from bottom to top in excellent neve and ice, enabling very swift progress with solid first time axe placements and even the opportunity to place an ice screw or two! We took in an icy groove low down, which gave a fun, steeper step of ice before continuing on the normal route.
What was just as amazing as the route, was that we were the only team on the ridge today, as it seemed that most teams had ventured into Observatory Gully to sample some of the classic ice routes, plus a few teams on various routes in Coire na Ciste (Garadh Gully, Raeburn’s Easy Route, Glover’s Chimney and Expert’s Choice). We descended a very snowed up Ledge Route, which added further interest to an already great day.
Today was Ryan’s last day with me, and he was keen to climb something tricky and icy, so tricky and icy he got, in abundance! We wandered up to Observatory Gully to see what the teams ahead were doing, and with two teams homing in on Point 5 Gully, and with one team heading up to The Sickle, I decided that an empty Hadrian’s Wall Direct should quench Ryan’s thirst. Although the crux pitch is the brilliant 60m first pitch, the remainder of the climb still provided plenty of interest, and the steeper section towards the top put the icing on the cake.
The last time I climbed Hadrian’s Wall Direct was back in 2009, with Tony Shepherd, during an intentional moonlit night time ascent, so it was great to enjoy the climb under blue skies and to be able to see everything in the light of day.
It’s been a great haul of routes for Ryan this week, building hugely on his previous experiences, and should stand as a great platform for his future winter climbing ventures! Mike was on Left Edge Route (see photo), which looked like good fun.
Plan A was to head up to SCNL to climb either Moonshadow or Twisting Grooves, but an inviting dribble of ice at the foot of Avalanche Gully on Gearr Aonach quickly changed my mind (the short walk-in helped with the decision making too!), so Ryan and I found ourselves climbing into what felt like uncharted territory, minus the footsteps in the ice, that vanished about halfway up.
The first few pitches gave pleasant grade II/III ice, and so with things looking promising, we pushed on to the second fork, and in doing so, stumbled across a dead deer, and then an old Karrimor rucksack, which was firmly frozen in place. Luckily neither of us are the superstitious types! At the second fork, the ice trending left looked far more inviting, so after a pitch, which sneaked under an enormous chockstone, I found myself at the foot of a thin ice pillar, which was more detached than first appearances suggested. After a couple of attempts and a bit of thought, I managed to bridge up, using the few small footholds on the sidewalls whilst gingerly using the ice for my tools, before gaining easier ground above. This brought us to a deep cave, above which the tiniest of holes seemed the best way out (and in-line with the whacky nature of the route), so with a bit of a wriggle, and jiggery pokery with the rucksacks, we gained the easier upper slopes above, and onto victory on the ridge of Gearr Aonach.
A quick descent down the Zig-Zags saw us finishing our daily dose of adventure. The route (with Upper Left Fork, 600m) was absolutely amazing, and mind bending too, for I had no idea what was around each corner (with ample trees either side of the gully, an abseil retreat was always an option). Sometimes, you just have to take an educated guess! Oh, learning points for Ryan, well he was able to use double ropes for the first time, and gained a good understanding for the need to be quick and efficient on longer routes, he also enjoyed the adventurous nature of a rarely travelled route!
No stars in the comprehensive SMC Ben Nevis or in the Cicerone Ben Nevis & Glencoe guides, and no mention of it in the SMC Scottish Winter Climbs guide, so why bother? Luckily, I had heard that it was well worth seeking out from a couple of folk, and disappoint it certainly did not! In fact, it was brilliant, and deserves 2, if not 3, stars!
I back out working today, and out with Ryan, who had some basic winter climbing experience, and coupled with his enthusiasm, meant it was definitely worth investigating the claims further. The route overall is in good condition, and provided a hugely atmospheric climb with some short steeper sections of ice throughout it’s many pitches. We made it to the huge ledge, overlooking No. 5 gully in 4 pitches, before tackling the Direct Finish (as per the SMC Ben Nevis Guidebook), which again gave a nice steep pitch of ice, before gaining the final ridge to the summit plateau.
I would go so far as to say it’s one of the best routes of it’s grade on the mountain, and certainly similar in quality to No.3 Gully Buttress. Go and climb it and see for yourself!
Last week, I was working for Outward Bound, running a Teams & Leaders Development week, with a group of enthusiastic boys from St. Aidan’s School in Harrogate. They seemed up for any challenge, so challenge them I did. As part of the course, we had a full day of winter skills on Aonach Mor, and then the opportunity to put their new found skills into practice by heading out on a wintery expedition, and enjoyed a spectacular campsite, nestled under a starry skies, in the shadows of Stob Ban and Sgurr an Lubhair in the Mamores. The following morning, we made a quick ascent of Sgurr an Lubhair (1001m), and were greeted with magnificent vistas of the surrounding mountains and beyond. I’m sure the boys will remember their expedition for a while, and hopefully inspire them to seek out mountain adventures of their own.
On Sunday, I met up with a very good friend of mine, Andy (we were domestics at Glenmore Lodge together, and have had a fair few adventures since, including climbing the Old Man of Hoy and Umbrella Falls on Liathach, amongst many others). Due to being at a wedding on the shores of Loch Lomond on Saturday, I suggested that we head up to have a look at the Cold Climbs route ‘Monolith Grooves’ on Beinn an Lochain, in the Arrochar Alps. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in condition, sporting little snow and concrete hard turf, so as a consolation prize, we soloed Promenade and Saxifrage Gullies.
Yesterday, we were keen to sink our teeth into something a little more demanding, so decided that Raven’s Gully on Buachaille Etive Mor, another Cold Climbs route, might be worth a shot. There’s very little ‘on-the-web’ regarding this route, but what little there was suggested that it wouldn’t be easy or straight forward. The approach via Great Gully in itself was entertaining, due to the build up of ice, giving an interesting grade III icefall, which we both soloed, before gaining the base of Raven’s Gully. Pitch 1, although overall fairly straight forward, did feature a huge chockstone to negotiate, which required a bit of grunt, but was well protected. Andy led pitch 2, a chimney, gained by sneaking up behind a small chockstone, and thin moves left, which in turn led us to ‘The Fork’. From here, the direct route continued on, and from where we stood, it looked feasible, so I then led us up a rather insecure groove, and onto what seemed like a floating ledge of snow, before easier ground brought us to more chockstones (a prominent feature of the route!). Andy made short work of the awkward and strenuous corner, above which, all that barred the way was a short but rather blank wall, leading up to a ledge system leading back out the gully, and underneath a car sized chockstone. I had a go up a thin corner, and felt it too insecure to continue, so backed off, giving Andy a go. He tried and felt the same, and with time ticking, we decided to save our ankles, and to abseil back to the fork, and continue up the normal route, which was no pushover in itself, giving three pitches of sustained and thin icey grooves and corners, before I led up particularly strenuous narrow slot to gain the top. We topped out at 7pm, and made a quick descent via Great Gully and Great Gully Buttress.
So overall, we felt it was a fantastic route, hard, sustained and it certainly didn’t let up until the very end. In fact, I’d go so far as to say one of my favourite routes I’ve climbed.
Having had a late-ish finish yesterday, we thought the that the best cure for it would be an early start, so at 6am, Andy and I were making our way to Glencarron, having caught wind that ‘The Stonker’ on Sgurr Na Feartaig was in stonking condition. It was! The first pitch was rather damp, and not great for ice screws, but the ice and dryness improved with height, with every pitch giving enjoyable and entertaining climbing. We topped out just after 2pm, and were back in Fort William by 5.30pm, so despite the lengthy drive, not an overly long day, but more to the point, a hugely worthwhile day, in an esoteric setting, and another great route crossed off my ticklist, all with a great mate! Get on it whilst it’s there!
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