Rock and ice on the Ben


For trip photos click on Photo album


Euan and I left Bo’ness on Thursday evening heading for Ben Nevis knowing that the barometer was set fair. It was midnight as we turned the key of the CIC hut which was our accomodation that evening right at the foot of the biggest mountain crag in the country. We got the fire on and with the only other two occupants in bed already we chatted away til quarter to three in the morning. All good except the alarm was set for half five! We soon fell asleep to the sound of the Allt a’ Mhuillin and before we knew it it was time to get the stove on, eat some Soreen dunked in coffee and get at it before our minds & bodies realised we’d had 2 hours sleep and at least as many whiskys.

I stuck my head out to draw breath at the majesty of the north face. An orange glow from the east was lighting the upper buttresses and a cold wind signalled that the freezing level was well below the summits. An hour of plodding on spring snow put us at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall Direct. We’d had this in our minds as an option and in the twilight of the walk in the night before you could clearly see the line was complete. Close inspection showed water running from under the ice. Being lower on the mountain and this late in the season I knew it was unlikely to go. We could see Smith’s Route looked a better proposition but after all the chat of collapsing ice falls and recent evidence of falling ice we started to think of other options. The skill in being a happy mountaineer is getting something done without putting your head in the lion’s mouth. Doing a rock route, scrambling on a ridge, finding a wee icefall to play on. Ideally not going back to the hut and drinking tea with the remainder of the whisky in it. The answer in this case was right above out heads. Observatory Buttress.

I’d not been on it in summer or winter and although we knew it would still be a challenge we were fairly sure that there was a cornice free exit and anything sketchy should be avoidable. Three pitches of dry rock with avoidable verglas saw us getting to think that it would be safer to climb with crampons on and gloved hands. Half way through this pitch I saw the option to literally step into winter and some surprisingly good neve and snow ice. Euan’s pitch above was steady on good snow which revealed a fat ice pitch on the pitch above and this one didn’t fail to please. Good screws for protection and first time axe placements made me think how lucky we were to be in the right place at the right time. Another pitch on reasonable neve took us to a groove with a nice bit of mixed climbing involving me doing some funky hooking just for the hell of it. I noticed a slight rime had built on the rock which made me feel like we weren’t doing anything “unethical”. A final romp on proper alpine neve in the glorious sunshine revealed no cornice and a sigh of relief. Euan popped his head over the edge and confirmed that the summit was rammed. He adjusted his aviator shades and strolled casually on to the top. Nobody batted an eyelid.

We had a chat with BMG Guides Mike and Rocio who had been with clients on Tower Ridge and Ledge Route respectively. Everyone was delighted to be out in such alpine conditions. So was our ascent winter or summer one? Difficile peut-être?

We lunched on sausage and cheese at the top of Tower Ridge and contemplated what to do with the afternoon. It had to be a rock route!

We made a descent of Number 4 gully which we both agreed in retrospect had not been super safe. The cornices are flippin huge hereabouts and had been baking in the sun. I’d convinced myself that we could nip across any sketchy bits, hide under rock buttresses and spend as little time in the firing line as possible. Once under these multi-thousand tonne monsters however we started getting real twitchy. The traps had been set though. Hadn’t it been cold last night? Aren’t those a recent set of ski tracks? There wasn’t any evidence of collapses. The lure of sun kissed rock was our weakness. Nothing bad happened and we found ourselves slightly wiser, gearing up in the blazing sunshine for our second route of the day. Strident Edge.

Euan took the first pitch and kindly let me have the second which gives this route its two stars in the guidebook. A crack in the arete makes for a wonderful line which is well protected and abounds with good holds. I was just getting into a nice wee techy bridging move when suddenly I was off. I remember screaming at Euan in fright and clutching at the wall. A good nut placement did its job and after turning myself back upright and licking my wounds I got back on and was able to enjoy the rest of the route. I used all twelve quickdraws lacing up the rest of the route. As it says in the guidebook this route can be a bit rattly and freeze-thaw in the mountains will have its way. Otherwise a great pitch at Very Severe 4c. Euan took us to the top and we abseiled off from the top block in two abseils on 60 meter ropes.

So that was our trip to climb an ice route and a rock route in the same day on the Ben. Not quite Orion Direct followed by Centurion but certainly one of the best days I’ve had in the mountains and in great company.

Enjoy the photos here


Spring Munro Bagging – Ben Chonzie

Teresa and I scratched our heads. What had we not done within an hour drive of home? Something for a quick day. I put forward the idea to walk up what has been called the dullest of all the Munros, Ben Chonzie. Rightly or wrongly it was a good leg stretch in sunshine and hail showers. Freezing levels were around the summit and a 15 mph breeze meant that we were glad of some warm layers even though we were slapping on the factor 30 in the car park. Not the most glorious of peaks but certainly not lacking for views.

Photos can be viewed by clicking below –

Ratho Quarry Sport Climbing

Ray was keen to kick off his rock climbing season so he and I nabbed a few routes in the quarry. Peashooter at F4+ gave us a warm up and a chance for Ray to lead his first ever rock route. Always a good moment! He was keen to work on some trickier stuff having been bouldering and top roping indoors through the winter. Slow Strain at F6b was ticked and this is a grand route I think. A little bit techy but all there once you figure out the right line. The Grapes of Ratho was up next at F6b and this too was a good line. Ellie was also out in the quarry on what looked like Impure Allure at F6b+. Go on youth! So a fine wee evening, shorts and T-shirts, no midges. Winner!


Catching up with The Big Man

Niall (Bomber) and I were in the North East for a long overdue catch up. What had originally been planned as a Lakes, then North West trip turned into a North East trip. We were at Moy Rock on Monday for a bit of sport climbing doing a handful of routes around the 6a-6b grade on conglomerate rock. A bivi and a beach fire at Spey Bay that evening and the following day we were off to Logie Head for a spot of trad by the seaside. We drove to Stonehaven for a night at a posh campsite for a decent shower and were off next day to the Pass of Ballater for a few classic lines including Little Cenotaph and Black Custard. Another bivi that evening on the summit of Cairn O’ Mounth included wine, whisky and song before heading down the next morning to Elephant Rock at Montrose for some very adventurous sport climbing. Thanks to Bomber for a fine early season road trip. So much more than just a climbing experience!

Moray House Winter Mountain Skills

This week I’ve been up in the Cairngorms working with students from Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education. We were not given the best weather for the 4 day Winter Mountain Skills course but with a bit of cunning and a large dollop of enthusiasm we made it happen. We covered a huge range of skills including axe, boot and crampon skills, cutting steps, self arrest, winter navigation, snow anchors and using a rope for protection, snow pack analysis, emergency shelters and generally looking after yourself and others in a truly hostile environment. The photos are from Tuesday which gave us our only good weather day. Every other day was decidedly Scottish with winds of up to 100 mph on the tops and horizontal precipitation.
Well done to all the students for stepping up to the conditions and a big thank you for making me feel so welcome.

Fahrenheit 451 Beinn an Dothaidh

David, Euan and I were winter climbing on Creag Coire an Dothaidh yesterday. We’d had Salamander Gully in mind as David had received good reports from earlier in the week. Fahrenheit 451 had been in discussion on the walk-in but dismissed as being incomplete. From closer quarters it looked like the first pitch would just be a case of romping up on snow and then a couple of good pitches. In reality the choice was not great. The 1st pitch was a bit of a horror show with me failing in an upwards direction on thinly iced rock slabs covered with loose snow. Pitch 2 looked a better proposition but the ice turned out to be a veneer on top of crud. The odd boss of good ice gave some protection. Pitch 3 however came as a welcome delight. Complete ice taking screws whenever you wanted to place one and steepness enough to entertain. So conditions were not good but were just good enough to be in our favour. This route needs a good build up of ice on every pitch! Every day is a school day in the mountains.

Beinn Udlaidh Ice Climbing

Today was a recce to see what the ice was looking like at Udlaidh and a chance for Teresa to see what ice climbing might entail! Ice is there and also a lot of snow. Speaking to a team who climbed Peter Pan Direct they reported some cruddy ice but really good in the main. Approaches are not without avalanche hazard and two hasty pits gave moderate shears. We spent an hour or so playing with technique at the crag base with Teresa swinging a pretty fine axe after a few goes. For Teresa though, quite wisely, she decided that her first winter route should be of the gentler kind and that an ice route might push her limits. This coming from someone whose second ever rock route was Spartan Slab. More good conditions to come I’m sure.