Needing to head high for something suitably snowy to do with lack of the white stuff ruling out a half-planned Torridon weekend, some Friday-night consideration of a Nevis easy gully fest with further WML practice soon gave way to thoughts of a similar excursion up Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nan Lochan. So that’s what I set out for today, starting with Central Gully on Bidean by both of its variants (right-to-left at Grade I and left-to-right at Grade II), descending from the bealach before the West Top between the two. And both were good, with the Grade I line straightforward but unforgiving on iron-hard neve, but an awkwardly committing rock step (which I’m guessing might sometimes bank out) low down on the Grade II version making this briefly good value for the grade. A pity the mist didn’t clear for me to take a shot looking back down the gully to Collie’s Pinnacle (seen between the ‘Diamond’ and ‘Church Door’ buttresses in the first pic below) because that’s really quite an attractive feature of an atmospheric wee route, but the sun was breaking through brightly as I made my way over to Stob Coire nan Lochan (fourth pic).
Now it might not be far from Bidean to Stob Coire nan Lochan, but the latter is clearly getting so much more climbing traffic that the easy routes are completely stepped out where Bidean’s were pristine and I’d say both Broad (my descent at barely I) and NC Gullies (nominally I/II, but feeling like easy I) were very much easier today than either variant of Central Gully, with the II on Bidean being the only thing I got out my second (‘just in case’) axe for. And many, many routes were getting done on SCNL, with a team (Simon and Charlie?) I’d already spied on the first pitch of Crest Route tackling the second as I made my way down past them towards Aonach Dubh. So I stopped to watch, take photos and practise digging bucket seats and bollards before leaving (just after Gillian and team, who’d done a lean-looking SC) with a descent back to Achnambeithach by Dinnertime Buttress in mind. Which looked OK (as in below the snowline), but proved quite awkward in the end with some icing in the crucial chimney/crack thing down the rock band leaving limited options for feet after removing my crampons on the summit of Aonach Dubh. So don’t think I’d recommend it as a winter descent, although I was rewarded in this case by the Aonach Eagach briefly lit up to a stunning red glow as I made my way down the easier lower slopes.
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Trying just to knock up a quick (?) weekend report to accompany some photos here, so afraid what you see is what you get…
Spent yesterday on Sgor na h-Ulaidh because it’s local (but one of the very few local hills I’d only done once before) and I was struggling to get myself up to head off any further after running two hours a night from Tuesday to Friday! So settled for the short drive, took the scenic route via Aonach Dubh a’ Ghlinne and Stob an Fhuarain and thought the clouds from the temperature inversion stretching away down to Mull prettier than the ones that kept blowing in to blot out the sun. No snow low down but some good, crisp stuff on the ridge, an awkward, icy descent down steep, broken ground to finish and thoughts of returning for Red Gully (III) sometime when the lower pitches are looking a bit fatter.
Now, today’s visit to Creag Meagaidh might only have been my fourth, but they’ve all been quite productive with the first (many, many years ago) giving me my first taste of technical ice climbing, the third bringing my first Grade V (The Wand) and every Munro and Top of the massif bagged between the second and fourth. But it’s such a fabulous venue (with Coire Ardair boasting some of the mightiest cliffs in the country, an atmosphere all its own and a comparatively easy walk in) that four is still way too few and I found myself musing today that I might be falling in love with the place! So today’s trip took me to the summit by Raeburn’s Gully (chosen to get close to the harder gully lines of Smith’s and Ritchie’s as well as being a fine Grade 1 trip to the plateau in its own right), then round the south-western tops of An Cearcallach, Meall Coire Choille-rais, Puist Coire Ardair, Creag Mhor and Sron a’ Choire (requiring some proper whiteout navigation at times, on which note I’ve yet to find myself on that plateau when I could see!). And I’m guessing Raeburn’s was in as good, safe shape as it gets, having already deposited much of its former self as avalanche debris below and the remaining snow so nice (with great, kicked steps leading most of the way up) that my axe and crampons seemed largely precautionary until presented with a slightly icier top-out. Saw some activity on the way with a team clearing snow from the first pitch of Smith’s and noted that the entry pitch to Ritchie’s looks just as steep (at good value for IV?) as all the photos I’ve seen, but the most spectacular sights were probably the cracked-ice mosaic on the lochan below and the huge, impressive umbrella/canopy of thick, blue ice on the gully’s west wall above Ritchie’s. ‘Twas a proper pea-souper on top of Meagaidh, with some welcome visibility returning as I made my way back from An Cearcallach to take the sting out of traversing the Coire Choille-rais rim (massive cornices on the south-west side!) but the veil never lifting from the reigning peak (which seems to attract it like glue).
Took the GPS to record my track and double-check any really gnarly completed nav. legs to be sure I was starting the next from where I thought I’d got to, but nearly forgot to switch it on (see map, 1) and know it got confused in my rucksack pocket when it lost signal coming up Raeburn’s (map, 2).
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The first rule of river crossings (as any mountaineer should know) is don’t! Which is why, when running a wild, wet and windy Lairig Eilde from Glen Coe to Dalness and back yesterday, I took the pathless east side of the Allt Lairig Eilde on finding the lower ford (see map, 1) under deep running water and only regained the path (constantly visible across the torrent) where it crosses back (map, 2) more than a mile higher. Then took that upper crossing (acceptable at a calf-deep splash) on my way back with a view to staying west all the way down, which everyone (including my forgetful self!) who knows how difficult it is to get to the road from that side will recognise as a mistake. So there I was, standing just above the road looking at the camera-toting motorists on the bridge with my starting point just round the corner, but facing the probability of a three-mile detour to the top crossing and back to get there. At which point I resignedly set off back up the river hoping to find a viable crossing without retracing my steps the whole way and, after backing off from a tentative foray or two, managed to find a place about halfway up (map, 3) that would go. But still broke the first rule of river crossings (don’t) as well as my own second (never, never, never enter fast running water above knee-depth on your own) and one or two more, and know I was lucky not to bite off more than I could chew. Didn’t get knocked off my feet, but could have been. Didn’t get swept away, but could have been. Didn’t get pinned against or under that tempting tree (another no-no if you know the rules), but could have been.
So, just to reiterate the first rule of river crossings, don’t! It’s the only one you really need to know if you stick to it. And don’t think knowing that (or any of the other rules) gives you any real leeway for creative interpretation when nature has no respect for ‘experience’ in misjudgement. The crossing might seem more tempting than that detour, but better detouring than dead. Although I’d still recommend the Lairig Eilde to everyone when the rivers and burns aren’t raging because it’s quite possibly the finest short trail run in the area when you can stay with the path. :-)
PS Ran up to Penstock this afternoon (all I could face on another grotty day) and the track’s been literally torn apart by water on the Z-bends above the wee dam… worst damage I’ve ever seen to it, with a trough a couple of feet deep running down the upper bends and a strategically placed digger looking like it’s up there to do some work!
Sometimes when you want to go climbing and most of your traditional playgrounds are laden with unstable snow, it pays to think outside the box. Which is why (attracted by the prospect of carefree ice climbing on a sunny west face) Jamie B, Jay, Isi, Lorraine and I headed east on Friday to Lurcher’s Crag at the northern end of the Lairig Ghru. Now of course we weren’t the only ones to think of that, meaning that the starting pitches of the most obvious lines were already occupied by the time we got there. So Jamie and Jay joined the queue for ‘Central Gully’ (which I thought was North Gully), Isi, Lorraine and I backtracked to ‘North Gully’ (which I thought was an unnamed icefall), and we all went climbing. And our ‘gully’ was good, with an opening pitch at quite a meaty III followed by a pitch of I (if that) and another of II/III (avoidable at approx. I/II if you wanted) before turning into a walk to the top and quick diversion for me to bag the Munro Top of Creag an Leth-Choin. So the girls might tell you (in jest) that I was hogging the lead (what, with all that brittle, ‘dinner-plating’ ice?), but I swear I spent the whole climb trying to give it away! And we still weren’t sure what we’d climbed despite a positive ID (which should have put the issue beyond doubt) for the neighbouring line of The Shepherd until we belatedly discovered this wee paragraph hiding at the start of the route list in the guide:
Two fine icefalls of about Grade III standard have been climbed at the northern end of the cliff. These form in shallow gullies which can bank out under heavy snow. They are left of the following route [The Shepherd].
So we climbed one of the ‘fine icefalls’, Jamie and Jay did North Gully and a good time was had by all! With thanks to Isi for these photos (all slightly adjusted/cropped by me)…
And so to the Kahtoola KTS Steel crampons, which I’ve had my eye on since last year’s running crampon review, finally ordered last week, got yesterday and took out to play on a round of the Meall a’ Bhuiridh/Creise group today. Now, while I still find MICROspikes great on ground where you can place your feet relatively flat, they’re simply not so happy when pushed on steeper gradients where you can’t. Which isn’t totally surprising when things are going to move on slopes with anything that doesn’t locate positively to the sides of the shoes, although the Canadian Hillsound Trail Crampons (which I’m also keen to try when I can get hold of some) look like stretching the elastomer harness concept a little further by grouping their spikes onto two main plates rather than splitting them into five separate pairs.
So do the KTS crampons outperform the MICROspikes on true hill ground? Well, in a word (while maybe still not perfect), yes. They’re more of a true crampon (albeit a very light 10-point design), locate properly to the sides of your shoes and don’t move about on your feet. The strap system might seem fiddly for one-off adjustment to your shoes, but looks really quite quick and simple once that’s done… although you might need (as I did) to knock out any ice getting into the quick release buckles for the ankle straps before you can clip them up and it’s probably worth hot-knifing away any excessive lengths of spare strap (plenty provided for a range of footwear types and sizes) instead of fiddling with the rubber keepers once you’re sure you’ve got enough for your chunkiest shoes. They’re obviously not front-pointing crampons for front-pointing footwear, but flat-foot well even on icy gradients (NB I still cut a few steps in the steepest places) and still really let you run while feeling considerably more secure than MICROspikes on the hill. While the toe straps and front plates stayed really secure all day (counter-intuitive tip for those used to more conventional crampons = raise your toes and pull the crampons down onto them!), I managed to knock the right heel plate sideways a couple of times on my final descent and maybe still need to experiment some more with the fitting there (guessing it must be secure enough if Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa wore Kahtoola KTS for his 10:56:46 speed climb of Everest!). And that’s pretty well all I’ve got to say about them right now, although I should just add that 1. I’ve got the anti-balling plates but purposefully didn’t fit them for my first test and 2. (re. map below) I backtracked from Sron na Creise after some prospecting of scary situations suggested I wasn’t going to find a sensible route down this steep, rocky ridge (a pleasant ascent in summer but graded ground in winter) in trail shoes with 10-point crampons.
Thought the East Ridge of Beinn a’ Chaorainn (a ‘fine 300m Grade II scramble’) looked like a good choice for today with fresh snow loading things up and any gullies that might have attracted me for a solo mountaineering day likely avalanche traps, but really can’t remember when I last found so much deep snow on a ridge! So, OK, it was rarely over knee-deep except in drifts, but so consistently soft at that (the photos just don’t do it justice) that much excavation was needed on the steeper steps to work out what (if anything) I was trying to stand on. Which varied between flat rock (good), steep rock (not so good when you can’t see it properly), some harder snow (OK), turfy steps (good) and short cuts to Australia (no, just made that one up to stress the ‘lucky dip’ character of it all!), but contributed no end to a hard-working ‘short’ day at good value for a ‘scramble’. Nice little snow apexes up much of the ridge too, honed to a sharp angle but not actually corniced on either side. And a near-whiteout on top for some navigation practice to get off again. So maybe a perfect day given current needs?
Had a great day yesterday with Abacus Mountaineering shadowing Mike Pescod and Kenny Grant teaching winter skills to a Warwick University group on Cairn Gorm. Impressed by how much the guys managed to cover at a pace that stayed geared towards relaxed practice (seeing good retention here), and grateful to both instructors and students (some great smiles coming off the hill!) for letting me tag along. Still plenty to keep practising myself for February’s WML assessment, but it’s been both helpful and inspiring to see these guys at work and I’ve booked Kenny for a day to go through all my skills just before the assessment.
To the Warwick party we worked with (sending you some thoughts by telepathy?), I’d say Mike and Kenny have given you a great start there, so enjoy the rest of your week, keep practising and applying the skills, and stay safe! :-)
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Thought I was going to write an interesting post here combining a report of today’s testing run in much crisper conditions than Thursday’s soggy snow with some updates to my year-old running crampon review. But now (still sitting here after multiple false starts) I’ve decided just to settle for a brief note that I ran Binnein Mor and Na Gruagaichean, leaving the zigzag path up Sgor Eilde Beag to cut (literally!) straight up its south ridge snowfield (where I might not have been comfortable in trail shoes and MICROspikes without that nice series of slash steps) and taking a strangely snaking route along the south ridge of Binnein Mor as the cornice swapped sides from east to west and back again. And that’s basically that, with the detailed discussion of lightweight, flexible crampon design and my thoughts on the pros and cons of the potentially more capable Kahtoola and Hillsound models I’d like to test (subject to UK distribution or private import for the Hillsounds?) held over for another time.