Sunday, 27 February 2011

Caringorm Trailer

A good day out in the Cairngorms yesterday. Walked up Ben Macdui the second highest mountain in the UK  and added a little spice to the walk by climbing Aladdin's Mirror on the way up. On the way back some guys were skiing the goat track which is very steep; impressive, I want to be that good. To tired to write a full report now but one will follow.

 The view across to the peaks on the far side of the Larig Gru

 Aladdin's Mirror takes the diagonal snow ramp right then traverses back left

Skiing the Goat Track

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The View From the Desolation Road

Very windy today to the extent that I was actually blown off my feet. Some pictures from the day, the a beautifully bleak area of the Fannichs and Ben Dearg Hills.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Making the Most of a Bad Day - Loch Maree Trail

Morning and the predicted rain has arrived turning the sky grey, although still in the valley the wind can be heard whistling somewhere higher up the hillside. After a bit of thought I decide to head down to Loch Maree and walk the way-marked interpretative mountain trail above the loch. I’m hoping that as the weather is coming from the west that by the time it’s made it over the Torridon triptych of Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe it will have dumped most of its moisture creating a rain shadow.

Mellan Ghobhar across Loch Maree. Potential winter line no.1 (just below col)
The trail tops out at 550m but depending on conditions high up I may quickly shoot up Meall a’ Ghiubhais a Corbett which marks the north west edge of the Beinn Eighe massif. The whole area is within the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve (the first ever established in the UK) an area of outstanding mountain wildlife, geology, and scenery.

Water, water everywhere

Pulling into the car park things look promising there is only a very slight drizzle and the cloud base appears higher. The path climbs steeply through the forest of pines, colour and sent brought out by the moisture. The ground is rich with moss and heather as streams bubble and gurgle hidden in the undergrowth. The view back across the loch is fantastic even in the gloom; Slioch head almost in the clouds and Mellan Ghobhar a waterfall tumbling down it’s sheer back cliffs dominate the scene.

From here you can see Slioch is a mountain of two rocks the lower part a mass of rounded bosses and crags where the truly ancient Lewisian Gneiss (3.5 billion years old) outcrops. The upper part is a tower of Torridon Sandstone which the blurb in the little guide to the walk states was once 5km thick now eroded down to less than a fifth of that by wind water and ice; the mind boggles! Good view come to those who wait.

Slioch, showing a clear change in geology

Once above the tree line I begin to feel the wind and the higher I climb the heavier the rain becomes. The landscape is now a hillocky plateau of quartzite dotted with small lochans linked together by a network of streams. The vegetation clings to the thin soil clear evidence of the harshness of this environment almost arctic and alpine in character.

Target for today. Yes the lense go that wet in about three seconds

Meall a’ Ghiubhais rises out of the plateau For the geologists amongst you it’s distinct from the rest of the Torridon group as due to some “faulting and thrusting” (that’s as technical as I go) the older Torridon Sandstones have ended up on top of the younger Cambrian Quartz. It does not look to bad from the path so I decide to give it a go.

The route up to the summit is horribly steep, relentless, and covered in loose scree. Furthering my enjoyment is the gusting wind and the constant rain straight into my face. It’s not the fabled 360o / upwards rain Scotland can sometimes produce but it’s close. I’m not sure why but I take an almost perverse enjoyment about going out in conditions like this. The feeling of being surrounded by “proper” weather and being able to function and get stuff done; retrospective enjoyment perhaps but it also seeds confidence that you have cards in hand if caught out when better days turn bad.

Potential winter line no.2?

Having rejoined the way marked trail the rain has obviously set in for the duration as it accompanies me right back to the car. The path contours above an impressive steep sided ravine a stream cascading down a series of waterfalls in it’s depths. I was very impressed by the mountain trail even on a horrible day like today it was enjoyable (not counting my Corbett climbing masochism) and a good half day challenge. Its also very well made, way marked, and hidden with a lot of work having gone in to weaving the path unobtrusively up the hill. It’s also quite tough, very steep in places with small rocky steps, wet slabs, and some exposure to add spice. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Luck Of The Draw - Beinn Alligain Traverse

Coming from England you have to take a chance when coming to Scotland, it's only worth travelling this far north for the minimum of a long weekend probably more. Most employers tend to react badly to short notice requests for holiday on the basis that route XYZ is in condition and it is essential you go and climb it immediately. Thus the lottery of booking time off, I took a punt in December that conditions in the far north west often excellent in late February would be so again this year. Unfortunately this year it has not really paid off, I've had a good mountain day but compared with what I had hoped for It's been a little disappointing as despite yesterday’s estimate the snow is disappearing fast

The traverse of Beinn Alligain a classic ridge traverse is today’s objective. I wanted to couple it with an ascent of Deep South Gully as the way onto the ridge. I was quite psyched about this route having seen an amazing picture of it in perfect conditions. It's been the background on my computer for months even now as I write this. Although from valley level the snow cover was poor I was hoping the depth of the gully and its NE orientation would have preserved some of the snow.

 My Inspiration

The Reality 
The walk in is easy, slowly gaining height, warming the legs up on a good path. In panorama to the left today’s objective a ridge curving round from the Horne's of Alligain (a series of sandstone pinnacles) up on to Sgurr Mhor the highest peak scared by a huge cleft the result of a massive landslide the debris from which litters the floor of the Toll a'Mhadaidh, the ridge then swings south round on to the second Munro Tom na Gruagaich. Ahead the great bulk of Beinn Dearg dominates the view a seemingly impregnable redoubt of steep ramparts and brooding crags. The hill is short of Munro status by a single foot a fact that leaves it isolated and often ignored in favour of it's three famous siblings despite looking easily as challenging and spectacular.

 Beinn Dearg

Reaching the foot of the gully its obviously nowhere near in the bottom hundred meters just screen and boulders. Further up the snow is soft and balls up underfoot, a rock step at half height is uncovered and negotiating it involves some tenuous feeling moves on loose rock. More fun ensues at the upper choke stone (usually buried), the upper surface of the rock is now only covered with a thin crust of rapidly melting ice, and any attempt to climb over it looks likely to end in me removing the last of that ice and depositing it along with myself at the base of the gully. Fortunately the thaw has expose a tunnel beneath the choke stone which looks big enough for me squeeze through.

Baosbheinn from the Horn's of Alligain

Five minutes and several contortions more suited to a caving enthusiast later I’m wedged between ice and rock slowly edging my axes upwards to pull myself through, thoroughly pleasant it is too. Once on the ridge It's a bit too snowy for boots but not quite snowy enough for crampons. The Horn's Of Alligain are actually quite easy as most of the rocky steps are short and not that exposed, plastered in ice and snow it would make a hugely enjoyable winter hill day. The view out north east from the cols between the Horne's is spectacular despite the grey overcast weather; the vast Torridon wilderness a jumble of rock grass and a myriad of lochs and streams. Rising out of this the distinctive humps of Baosbheinn free of cloud and looking like a fantastic walk and further a field the sea curves round into the far horizon blue grey and wrapping itself round the ragged coast of headlands, coves, and beaches.

Both main summits are lost in the clouds and there is little point stopping for long at either. As I make my way down the final slopes; the wind makes patterns on the sea loch, patches of texture running left then right, forward then back as they chase each other across the water. Temperatures are rising and there is the feel of a front coming in, the weather is due to turn tonight bringing gales and torrential rain. Horizons are being lowered and new objectives selected in response. The Liathach traverse has gone on hold, as I really don't want to be on the pinnacles in a 75mph wind. will have to come back and do Deep South Gully when it's in condition, and play Russian Roulette with the weather again. We will see what the morning brings and try and find a good objective for the day.

Loch Torridon

Monday, 21 February 2011

Fionn Bheinn - Getting The Legs Warmed Up

Fionn Bheinn is perhaps one of the least inspiring of the Munros but it will do for today, a warm up to get the legs used to exercise and get a feel for the amount of snow cover on the hills. Having had a good weekend in Aberdeen avoiding the horrible  weather forecast on the mountains and catching up with an old friend I'm in the mood to get out on the hills. I left Aberdeen at eight this morning and by the time I arrived at Achnasheen the base for the week a quick up and down is in order.

This is not Fionn Bheinn
The route itself is a grassy slog up out of the village, cloud and haze block out most of the view as I climb higher. There is no path but it is easy just to handrail the stream that spills down the flanks of the mountain. The going looks boggy but the turf is still slightly frozen making the going a bit easier.

The snowline is at about 650 to 700m but it is soft and my feet sink in making the ascent a bit of a plod. I had thought about bringing my skis as from the map Fionn Bheinn looks a good peak for a ski decent which would certainly liven up what is quite a boring hill . I am glad I didn't though as there really is not enough cover to justify lugging the weight all the way up for a couple of hundred meters of ski run. That said if the cover was there it would make a fine run al the way to the valley.

 Bit of a grey day all round, looking towards Sgurr a Choire-rainich

Just before the summit I reach the main ridge which drops steeply down into the northern coire of the mountain. There is a bit of a cornice and the north facing slopes appear to have held on to the snow much better which is promising as most of the gully's I'm thinking of trying during the week all face north.

On a clear day I think the view from up here may be quite spectacular. I get brief hints of the main Fannichs massif to the north rising above the loch of the same name. There are routes I want to do there including a classic grade III called "The Resurrection" but that's for another trip. I turn from the rimed up trig point and make my way back down off the hill.

Tomorrow the plan is to walk round the back of Beinn Eighe, climb Morrison's Gully on to Sail Mor and traverse round onto Spidean Coire nan Clach. Lets see what the morning brings. 

The road down to Kinlochewe, fantastic drive.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Remembering Where You Started

How do you retain a strong empathy and understanding of what its like to be rock climbing and scrambling for the first time especially if you, in the role of the leader are so familiar with the activity that it barley registers above your background comfort zone? 

This weekend I met up with my old university climbing club to catch up with friends and get out and about. Myself, and another ex member Steve are in the process of gaining experience for our ML assessments, and we were both interested in taking out a group of beginners to get some hours of supervision training. After a night failing to keep up with the students either on the drinking or staying up front Steve and I found ourselves with a group that included two freshers  who wanted a days scrambling.

Looking down towards Coniston

Since starting my ML I've become much more aware of the group management aspect of leading people outside. You need to look at terrain and route selection through the eyes of your group and understand how will they react physically and mentally to the challenges of the obstacles and exposure (by this I mean steep ground and big drops). Then you must apply your judgement to the terrain and make a decision about if you have chosen the right route for the group. 

A corollary of this is that you must be completely comfortable on the terrain you are leading on; if your personal mountain skills are not second nature you will be worrying about yourself and not your group. So comfortable but empathetic; simple, yes? 

Well no, based on this performance I'm actually finding it quite hard to do. The route we had chosen was Low Water Beck a grade 3 scramble above the Coppermines Valley in the Lake District. This would feed us onto a grade 2 scramble up Brim Fell exiting onto the ridge between Coniston Old Man and Swirl Howe before traversing round onto Wetherlam and back to our base in the valley. Now technically a grade 3 scramble is above the remit of the ML syllabus but as our freshers told us they had done some scrambling before we decided to go with it. 

Steve on the upper section of Low Water Beck

None of the following is intended as criticism of the freshers but more analysis of mistakes in my role as leader. 

It soon became clear we had over egged the pudding. Neither of the freshers appeared comfortable on the initial sections of the route, their hand and foot movements betrayed a lack of being able to read the rock for holds and suggested they had little scrambling experience.  The rope came out and was weighted, they looked uncomfortable and scared, although when asked they said they were OK. 

I was desperately trying to get them to stand up as they were spread eagled on the rock using knees, bum, chest anything but their feet. On steep ground natural instinct is to crawl especially if it is exposed but in this case the slabby wet rock only exacerbated their insecurity gaining very little friction from fabric clad knees. At one point we had a slip, fortunately this was contained by the terrain and the person went about two feet before Steve spotting from below was able to block the fall. It was hard work completing the route.

On the most obvious level it was a bad choice of scramble that led to these problems but I think the failures can be broken down into the following mistakes. Firstly their boots were not suitable for the route being too soft and offering little grip and edging ability. I did not check footware before the off and should have done before we started. I have been taught to do this.

We accepted their claim to have done some scrambling at face value, I should have tested them out on some small outcrops before the main route to judge skill levels for myself. There may be no deliberate intent to mislead in most cases but two people may have very different understandings of what is meant by scrambling.

Had we done these things we would have chosen a different route, however once engaged we should have taken action once problems started occurring. The route was above their ability and we should have switched objectives; a leaders role is to make judgement's for people who don't have the experience to make them for themselves. Obviously this may disappoint people but group safety is crucial and needs to be your first thought. Ideally don't reveal your exact objective till you have assessed the group thus negating this problem. 

Overall it was a useful experience and clearly it's something I need more practice at. I was honestly surprised at how hard they found it. The confidence that comes with experience has  obviously desensitized me to what it's like to be a beginner and  this is something I need to work on.  For me the big take home message is that the whole situation could have been avoided with a little better planning and thought.

 The start of the route, a decision should have been made  prior to here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Spirit Of The New and Pushing The Envelope

It's been a good week for cutting edge alpinism with two really fine ascents in the Hymalaya; both achievements are at the cutting edge of what's possible and prove that the flame of adventure and the quest for new ground is alive and well. Firstly, a team have made the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II (8,035m) which also counts as the first winter ascent of any of the Karakorum giants. Second, British guide Andy Parkin's has established an new route on the North Face of Dingjung Ri (6,249m) climbed solo, unsupported, and like the ascent of Gasherbrum II in good alpine style.

Gasherbrum II

First a bit of background; Gasherbrum II is an eight-thousander one of the 14 mountains on Earth that rise above 8000m, in fact it's one of the easier ones, probably the easiest. That's in summer though; in winter however  the whole of the Karakorum region is very cold, stormy, and plastered in deep snow making any winter ascent a challenge, never mind one as committing, long, and high as an eight-thousander. To complete a winter ascent of any big mountain is an achievement, to do it alpine style is world class.

Alpine style is simple to explain; small teams, usually of two or three climbing the mountain in a single push over a number of days. You start at the bottom and climb to the top, you don't fix ropes, you don't leave camps, you don't use oxygen, you leave virtually no trace you were ever there. It's a massively more committing style as there is no easy line of retreat back down via well stocked camps. Your limited to what you can carry on your back; climbing kit, sleeping kit, food, fuel must all be carried and consequently slight delays have significant effects on the seriousness of your position. 

Alpine style was developed as the name suggests in the Alps but has since been pushed into the greater ranges and the biggest peaks. It's considered the purest and best way a mountain can be climbed due to the self sported ethic and minimum impact of the ascents. Andy's ascent, solo, and alpine style of a smaller but much more technical face (up to 85 degree ice) perhaps marks the cutting edge of where our elite climbers are currently operating.

These achievements have also got me thinking, I have never really been that psyched by the eight-thousanders, driven away by the circus that exists on many of them, and most especially on Everest. In spring a thousand people pitch base camp below the Western Cwm before laying siege to the mountain with fixed ropes and bottled oxygen, building a series of camps that must almost classify as villages on the way to the summit. With the help of guides and an army of Sherpas (to be fair, Sherpas today are as good as most if not any guides) any fit person stands a good chance of reaching the summit. The result is traffic jams at 8000m on the two popular routes (both first climbed over 50 years ago).

Sentinel Peaks, Ruth Gorge, Alaska. Not really relevant but I like the picture.

These few mountains act as honney pots, drawing away those seeking their commercialised adventure leaving vast parts of the Himalayas little known and hundred possibly thousands of virgin 6000m peaks waiting for those who look. There is still huge scope for exploratory mountaineering and first ascents of all difficulties out there in the Himalayas.

I find most commercial expeditions uninspiring. I suppose it's partly through envy; I feel these people who have the money to do amazing things don't, and instead choose the same obvious challenges. An Everest fee could be put to so much better use! Now I'm not saying that commercial expeditions should start off taking paying clients off on winter suffer fests or beasting them up hard new routes. Its just with so much scope out there why do people not want to do something new? To be fair a few people do try and be different, Stephen Venables one of our best exploratory mountaineers recently ran a commercial expedition to Antarctica with the specific objective of exploring unclimbed peaks.

People want Everest or one of the other seven summits (the highest mountains on each Continent) essentially as a "big look at me tick on the CV of life". Now I don't want to belittle the personal achievement of these people who have no doubt pushed their envelope considerably. It's just in my opinion with a little bit more thought something far more worthwhile could be achieved, something much more in keeping with the ethos and history of mountaineering which has essentially been about filling in blanks on maps and gaps on faces.

Within ten years I would like to put together an expedition, ideally to Antarctica but in terms of cost more probably western China. The aim would like to put up a good quality route on an unclimbed peak. The kind of target where you have a small epic trying to get to the mountain because nobody is quite sure where it is. Perhaps I should be pleased Everest draws the crowds, keeping the vast potential out there under the radar.

Trans-antarctic Mountains, pretty much unexplored. Bit costly to get to though!

I'm sure there is a bit of arrogance, and hypocrisy in these ideas; is claiming a first ascent of a mountain any different on the CV ticking front as bagging Everest? Personally I think it. I just like the idea and the adventure of doing something new, and in however a small a way adding slightly to the knowledge of mankind (you are quite welcome to think this is just massive dose of hubris if you want).  

For me this is why these ascents are so inspiring; they may be cutting edge in their levels of commitment and technicality but the principal of trying something new is universal and should inspire us all.  Envelopes can be pushed at all levels, you just have to think about it a bit. Adventure is alive and well. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Fun In The Dark