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I was back out with Gareth again today, and after yesterday’s training day on fix lines in Glen Nevis, we were both eager to get back to some winter climbing. We left the van at 8am and made a beeline for Twisting Gully on Stob Coire Nan Lochan, with the aim to be down before the weather turned nasty. The day started off quite dry and the freezing level had dropped considerably overnight. As we gained the corrie floor, the winds did pick up, but nothing like the forecasts suggested, and whilst it was raining, again, it wasn’t that bad.
The slopes leading up to Twisting Gully were quite scoured, and the climb itself was in good condition, with good ice/firm snow throughout. Gareth found the crux tough, but enjoyed it along with the rest of the route, and with rather bizarrely benign conditions on topping out, we even stopped for a bite to eat. The descent down the NW ridge was pretty calm and we only had a couple of notable gusts as we regained the corrie floor. The rain did steadily increase, and picked up a couple of notches just as we got back to the van. Perfect timing and a great day of winter climbing. Only two other teams, possibly MIC Assessments in the corrie today.
Absolutely no sign of the 100mph gusts MWIS was predicting.
Smiths route was in fantastic condition with first time axe placements in chewy ice, a mixture of reasonable and many good ice screw placements and some superb views. The exposure added to the situation and topping out in the sun felt magic! We had a pitch each with Dave leading 1st, Steve dispatching the crux 2nd pitch and me bopping up the 3rd and final pitch.
Ken was climbing with Gareth who is shortly heading off to attempt Mount Everest from the Tibetan side. He also found good ice on Good Friday Climb which he finished off by climbing the final pitch of Indicator Wall.
It would have been rude not to be out today and we saw many teams taking advantage of the conditions. With plenty of ice to go at on Ben Nevis, there were teams on Indicator and it’s right twin, Psychedelic Wall, Caledonia, Tower Scoop and something hard and mixed to it’s right. Plus plenty of teams on Tower Ridge too.
Thanks for a great day folks!
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom on Ben Nevis! I was out today with James, a good friend of mine who I hadn’t climbed with for a few years. He has his MIC assessment starting tomorrow, and so we agreed to head out today and scope out conditions after yesterday’s biblical weather, and hopefully get a climb in, as to what exactly, we had no idea given how bleak the SAIS blog photos taken yesterday looked.
The freezing level had plummeted through the night, and with Ben Nevis barely visible from Corpach this morning, it was clear that things were going to be wintery up there, but the big question was how big an impact had the thaw had, there was only one way to find out…
On the approach, it was clear that many of the fine mid level ice routes had taken a big hit, with the majority of them looking beyond repair for the near future and possibly the rest of the season (never say never though!), but higher up in Coire na Ciste, things still looked very wintery. We headed into Observatory Gully, with an open mind, and found ourselves in the low cloud, at the base of a reasonable looking Tower Scoop. Our fall back plan was to climb Good Friday Climb, a very reliable grade III, as it would be beneficial for James, so we made our way up to the base of it’s main icefall, however, in order to get there, we passed under Indicator Right-Hand, a route neither of us had climbed before, which looked to be in reasonable condition. So, after a quick chat about the rest of Good Friday Climb, (icefall, good belay, two pitches to the summit etc.), we made our way back to the foot of Indicator R/H, and I started up the first pitch.
The ice was quite good, although was a bit mushy on the surface, so it took a couple of blows with the axe in order to get secure placements, but the screws were good, and the climbing excellent. We alternated leads, with James taking the middle pitch, and me climbing the top gully onto the plateau and the highest belay in the UK, the summit trig point of Ben Nevis. Slight cornice at the top, avoidable on the left.
In order to see what was going on on the rest of the mountain, we down climbed No.3 Gully, and were able to bumslide most of the way down into Coire na Ciste whilst looking around to see what was in condition. Here’s a summary:
Castle Gullies complete, Boomer’s Requiem complete but looks thin, Shroud amazingly still complete but very, very thin, Curtain, Mega Route X, Vanishing Gully, Gemini, Waterfall Gully, Harrison’s all gone, Central Gullies on Creag Coire na Ciste complete, but with large cornices above. Winter Chimney climbed today, reportedly hard for the grade, Thompson’s looks good if a little lean, also climbed today, 2 Step looks possible, hard to be sure, Green Gully looks fine, teams on Comb Gully. Glovers looks fine from a distance, as does Comb Gully Buttress. No 2 Gully fine, Cascades look ok, maybe a bit thin at top, Italian looks ok, maybe a bit soft, R/H looks complete and climbable but thin at the bottom. The Chute gone. Nothing on Douglas Boulder worth climbing. Tower Scoop good, Smith’s Route busy, Psychedelic Wall, Indicator & R/H climbed today, Good Friday fine, Observatory Buttress nowhere close, Point 5 looks like it has a big gap in the ice, two teams walked away from it. The only other route that looks worth doing is Hadrians Wall, which saw a couple of ascents. Couldn’t quite see Zero, but Orion Direct is way off & Minus Gullies all in the sea. That’s saved you a lot of wondering hasn’t it!
So everything still to play for this winter, it’s far from over yet, and the up and coming freeze/thaw cycles should help.
Today’s forecast wasn’t exactly conducive to climbing classic routes, but what it allowed Ryan and I to do was to explore a hugely important facet of winter climbing, those of heuristic traps in avalanche prone terrain, whilst making our way into and climbing the East Ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn.
In a nutshell, we, as humans are all capable of making rational and logical decisions, and in the mountains those decisions will keep us safe, however, those judgements and decisions can be impaired, sometimes hugely so, by a number of factors, which studies have shown to be:
1) Familiarity – Not entirely basing our decisions on what we see in front of us, but using past experiences to paint a picture of what to expect. Familiarity breeds contempt. I’ve climbed the East Ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn a number of times, often when the avalanche hazard has been considerable or above, and it has been safe each time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be every time, so we kept a close eye on where the snow was lying and where the avalanche prone slopes were.
2) Consistency/Commitment – It pays to be flexible with plans, and more so in winter than any other time of year, however, studies have shown that we are prone to sticking with our plan A, as it’s the easiest thing to do, regardless of whether newly presented information suggests that it may not be such a wise idea. The winds today were gusting hard on the approach, and continued whilst we were gearing up. We were both unsure as to how it would pan out, and thought that it would be good to head up the ridge a bit, and see whether the gusts were as strong, particularly as the East Ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn is known for being sheltered from strong westerly winds. If things were still wild, we were both happy to turn around, however, soon after leaving the gearing up spot, the winds eased considerably, and in fact, until we hit the plateau, it was quite pleasant. Actually, plan A had been to try Glencoe, but it looked drier over east.
3) Acceptance – This is the desire to be accepted by someone, I.e. a peer or colleague. In our case it may be trying a particular route in the hope of impressing someone. Not really relevant to us today, but a trap worth bearing in mind.
4) The Expert Halo – This trap is more common with recreational groups, rather than those professionally lead, and is where someone naturally adopts the role of team leader, and in some cases not necessarily for the right reasons. It might be that they are more persuasive, or speak louder than the others, or just that they’re older. This trap is one that Ryan and many folk that I’ve instructed or guided can find themselves in as they seek their own adventures through mountaineering clubs or with their climbing partners. A good one to be aware of.
5) Social Proof – We as humans can act a bit like sheep, following those in front, with the assumption that they may have more information than us. A particularly relevant case for us might b seeing a team ahead ploughing up a suspect slope, and making it safely. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe, they may just have been lucky. We didn’t see another soul out today, but we did see footprints, which interestingly lead to the foot of the E.Ridge and then seemingly turned around.
6) Scarcity – I find this one of the most important traps to be aware of, as it can affect so many of us for numerous reasons. Scarcity refers to any resource that is limited, so in the case of a winter mountaineer: time/time off from work, money (transport/accommodation/gear costs), rarely in condition routes, honey potting at a particular venue etc. But it’s time and money which seem to have the biggest impact on people’s decision making, and the need to ‘have a productive trip/day’ even when conditions suggest that going gear shopping or to the climbing wall is a far safer option. Studies have shown that it’s easier for me, who lives in Fort William, and will have plenty of other opportunities to climb later in the season to sack a day of personal climbing off due to poor conditions, than someone who has travelled all the way from London, taken time off work and booked accommodation. The harsh reality is that it shouldn’t matter how much time off work has been taken and how much money has been spent on the trip, the decisions on the day regarding risk and staying safe should be exactly the same as someone who lives local and has plenty of opportunities. The mountains will be there next time & the climb will more than likely be in condition again sometime…
For further info on heuristic traps, have a read of these:
Back to today, Ryan and I had a surprisingly pleasant and dry day. The snow was softening, but ok and the turf was still frozen. We did see some absolutely massive cornices on the rim of the corries, some the size of bungalows, which beared more of a resemblance to a serac than a cornice. These will be very unstable during the thaw over the next few days, and possibly longer… It might be worth waiting for them to drop off first before venturing into east facing corries in this area. Wet and wild over then next couple of days, so a perfect opportunity to spend time drinking coffee and reading up on heuristic traps!
Ryan and I enjoyed an alpine ascent of Daim Buttress on the West Face of Aonach Mor today. Alpine in many ways: we moved together, throwing in the odd pitch for the steeper sections, and enjoyed several moments of clear skies and sunshine and even resorted to wearing sunglasses for most of the day. We had the route to ourselves, and Western Rib was devoid of people too, however, Golden Oldie resembled the Cosmiques Arete today, with about 8 teams or so on it at one point, everyone seemed to be moving smoothly though.
The summit of Aonach Mor was enshrouded in cloud, but we soon dropped out of it into a busy Nevis Range. Nice to see so many people out and about enjoying the brilliant weather and conditions. Tomorrow…
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