Sunday, 19 December 2010

Winter Mountain Wildlife

The cold weather has been affecting all of us and it is certainly getting to the wildlife too.  There was plenty of activity in evidence today in the hills, more than I would expect at this time of year, and I suspect that our predators in particular are finding feeding in the big freeze tricky. Fresh snow fell on Arran over night and there were hundreds of animal tracks in the snow in Glen Rosa this morning.

 Dawn lights up Glen Rosa

It was clear that deer, rabbits, small birds and voles had been criss-crossing the glen since the snow stopped falling. In the trees above us, flocks of finches and tits were feeding amongst the branches, until a bold red squirrel came bounding through the tree tops and put them all to flight. Further up the Glen, we could see the deer sheltering in the trees on the lower slopes.  As we began to climb up the Garbh Allt, a steep burn that runs in to Glen Rosa from the west, a pair of golden eagles circled overhead, and after they had gone, a kestrel appeared.

Our plan was to head up under the crags of Beinn Nuis,  and look to see if any of the easier gullies were climbable/soloable (looking for winter ML practice terrain). It was a hard slog up as always, but at least the bog was firm for a change.  Hidden ice amongst the heather made the going very treacherous and after a couple of painful comedy tumbles, the crampons were on despite the soft snow and thick heather. Occasionally underfoot we also saw evidence of the voles that the hungry kestrel had been searching for- strange little galloping tracks, tunnels in the snow and evidence of miniature digging works. It has been said that snowy winters favour field voles in the arms race between predator and prey as it is easier for them to hide from prying eyes under the snow.  Winter is tough on the kestrels and owls that rely on them for food.

Field Vole tunnel in the snow. 

Once up in to the upper coire it became clear that although there was plenty of ice forming on the bog, the chimneys and gulleys were relatively bare.  An easy angled gully that had caught our eye from below looked less inviting close up, with a huge chockstone at mid height and choked with deep layers of powder snow and graupel (pellet like snow- very unstable when fresh).

 The spectacular main face of Beinn Nuis

We traversed out right beneath the face, and gained a shoulder that rises relentlessly to the right hand edge of the crag.  From here it was possible to traverse right again at about grade I, across a fan of better snow, and to gain the main ridge between Nuis and Tarsuinn.

Climbing the shoulder.

Traversing under crags to reach the snow fan on the right.

Once on the ridge we were in the full force of a north easterly wind that bit through all our warm winter clothing. Feathery fingers of rime ice were forming on the rocks and the ground. We clambered up on to the summit of Beinn Nuis, paused for a moment to enjoy the view, and then headed back down via the easier slopes on the South Ridge. By the time we got back to the car it was snowing heavily again. 

Beautiful rime ice formations (sastrugi) on the summit rocks of Beinn Nuis. 


Looking back up Coire A Bhraidain towards Beinn Nuis and Beinn Tarsuinn. 

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Esoteric Ice: Coire nam Fuaran

I think I mentioned this before.... but Arran really hasn't had that much in the way of snow compared to the rest of the uk.  Having said that, it has been incredibly cold.  Last week Wally and I spotted what looked like a streak of ice emerging from a steep gully high above Glen Sannox, in a remote coire called Coire nam Fuaran. The location was duly noted, and filed for future reference.

On Sunday, primed with this information, friend and climbing neighbour Robin Barnden went and had a look around. He reported back with tales of a long and necky solo up a thin streak of ice in the back of a deep couloir.  The route finished east of Mullach Buidhe and was all there from start to finish. 
Monday, you may remember, it snowed.  A lot.

We ventured out on Tuesday morning to go and have a look at Robin's icefall.

It was a cold and frosty walk up Glen Sannox.  Lots of fresh snow visible on the higher slopes. 

A frigid looking Cioch na h'Oighe in the cold dawn light. 

The approach to Coire nam Fuaran involves a nightmare bash up bolder strewn heather slopes.  Even with the covering of fresh snow this was no fun.  Ice filled gullies caused large detours. The approach was extremely tedious but we did manage to find a network of deer paths leading to the coire from the valley floor... (for future reference I would consider walking up to the saddle and approaching from the first shoulder of North Goatfell).

The final approach to Coire nam Fuaran.

Icefall marking the entrance to the gully. 

Fabulous views of Cir Mhor from the route. 

From Coire nam Fuaran, the gully is less obvious than it is from Glen Sannox, as the entrance is blocked overlapping granite slabs.  A cascade of ice was clearly visible under the fresh snow.  This first pitch gave easy sport at about grade II.

Wally on the first pitch. 

The second pitch consisted mainly of easy snow slopes that delved in to the back of a deep chasm.  Harder ice on pitch 3 led up on the right from the back of the gully. 

Above this, pitch 4 had  more excellent quality ice, although the conditions meant that a fair bit of digging was required. 

Beyond pitch 4 the terrain eased in to a broad fan of snow and we picked our way between turf and snow up on to the higher slopes of the mountain.  In all there was probably about 200m+ of moving together on easy snow slopes.  Protection was hard to find and the unconsolidated and at times slabby snow conditions made this the most nerve wracking part of the day.

The route finishes about 200m west of the summit of Mullach Buidhe. When we topped out the light was failing, the moon setting, and we could simultaneously see the lights of Glasgow, Lochgilphead and Campbeltown. 
We took the easiest route down, heading over Mullach Buidhe and dropping down from the col before North Goatfell and out of Coire Lan. to the road at Corrie.  Big thanks to Jamie who picked us up at the road and took us back to the van in Sannox. Also huge respect to Robin for what was undoubtedly a bold and interesting solo. We estimate the overall length of the route to be about 450m with 200m of quality climbing at about grade II/III.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Arctic blast on Beinn Nuis and Beinn Tarsuinn

While the rest of Scotland (and even the UK) has been buried under mountains of snow, we have had just a little dusting here on Arran.  However, we have not been spared the arctic blast from the east that has brought freezing temperatures right down to sea level and got me wearing my woolly hat indoors.

Yesterday Wally, Alec, and Luing the dog took advantage of the frosty weather and parked at the top of the String Road for a quick jaunt over Beinn Nuis and Beinn Tarsuinn.  Normally this approach involves wading through deep bog and "bastard grass" (Molinia caerulea), but on this occasion the bog was frozen solid and the approach was relatively painless.  

Even with the String Road approach- its a fair slog up Beinn Nuis...

Fantastic views of the main face of Beinn Nuis

Wally checking the Nuis chimneys for signs of ice (very little forming as it has been so cold there has been no real seepage). 

Higher up, there was an arctic blast of easterly wind that made going tough (and cold). 

Up on the ridge between Nuis and Tarsuinn the wind blew spindrift in our faces and we regretted leaving the goggles behind. Doh. 

The famous Old Man of Tarsuinn with a beard of rime. 

Descending to the bealach between Tarsuinn and Beinn A Chliabhain. 

From Beinn Tarsuinn we descended rough heathery slopes in to Coire A' Bhradain, to follow an argocat trail back out over the moor to the vehicles at the top of the string.  We hadn't needed crampons all day, but if we get a wee thaw that is forecast this weekend, and some more wet snow, the conditions will settle a bit and I would expect a lot of ice to form.  Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Low Winter Sun: Cioch na h-Oighe

I think I have been up Cioch na h-Oighe more than any other ridge or peak on Arran. Close to the road, it is just a steep heather bash from Glen Sannox and a great choice for a shorter day if you want to get in to technical rocky scrambling terrain.  The rock is generally sound, the views immense, and it is one of the quietest places in the Northern Hills- I rarely meet anyone else up there.

So, this morning, a long lie and a good weather forecast lured us back up there with a promise of a fun scramble and some winter sunshine.  We were not disappointed. I think it would be hard for me to get tired of this fantastic ridge.

Walking up Glen Sannox for a short distance, before cutting up to the left and towards the Devil's Punchbowl. 

I've have described this route a few times, but in case you are new to the blog- climbing up to the Cioch involves taking a path leading up towards the Devil's Punchbowl, above Sannox, and then picking a traverse line under the nose of the Cioch, before scrambling over slabs and scree to reach the upper slopes.  The final tower forms a hooked prow, spectacular in profile.  On the left, the terrifying crags of The Bastion drop away, and to the right, steep but heathery slopes in to Glen Sannox.

Arriving on the Cioch, we were blinded by the low winter sun.  It was glorious, but a bit much so we gratefully dropped down in to the notch beyond, and followed the undualting crest over granite blocks and through narrow squeezes until the ridge broadened in to the flanks of Mullach Buidhe.

Cir Mhor from Mullach Buidhe

Beyond Mulllach Buidhe, there is a short descent before the final climb on to North Goatfell. Here the bright sun dazzled us again,  The view from the summit was incredible, and as well as the snow capped highlands to the North we could also make out Jura, and for the first time ever- clearly, the Isle of Mull to the Northwest.

On the summit of North Goatfell

Finally we began our descent down to The Saddle between North Goatfell and Cir Mhor. In places the path is heavily eroded and a fine scree of granite gravel means that care is required on descent.  From the saddle we traversed a short distance under the North East flank of Cir Mhor, before descending a well marked but scree filled Gully above the Whinstone Dyke.  From here, in descent, you have a choice of continuing to folow loose scree to the right (facing out) or descending the dyke itself, which is steep but certainly preferable in dry conditions.  There is plenty for hands, but the footholds are a bit polished by time, boots and running water. 

At last we arrived back in to Glen Sannox, and all that remained was a long stomp out of the glen as the light failed.  We passed a small herd of stags on the way, who crossed the river to avoid us, but still allowed us great views of their magnificent head gear.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Surf/Climb Holiday Part 3: Beaches

Its totally obligatory when visiting the south west of England to go to the beach.  Whats more, there is a beach to suit every mood, and most swell directions if surfing is your thing.  Surfing isn't really my thing, but I like water and wild weather and having a boogie board and a steamer wetsuit seems to be enough to entice me out in to the surf even in November.  I need fairly benign conditions however, in fact, boogie boarding lends itself to baby surf. By the end of the trip though I was starting to lust after a pair of fins and the potential to go and play in the big stuff out the back with the big boys......

Due to the wet nature of these activities, I don't have so many good photos to share with you from this aspect of the trip.  One secret site was ridden on a pre dawn raid by my proper surfing companions, and there wasn't even enough light to photograph them... However, here are a few snaps, and some pointers as to when these beaches get good:

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, is really sheltered, and therefore only really gets going when westerly swells are huge. On this day the conditions were good to big, but the beach gets really steep towards the top of the beach and therefore only the good and the brave were out, lurking near the back.

This was Gwithian on the north coast of Cornwall on the biggest scariest day imaginable. Gale force off shore winds and massive westerly swell. The guys out windsurfing are some of the best in the country and they were eaten alive (whilst having a lot of fun). 

On the opposite coast, Praa Sands, which is a huge beach.  It was ripping quite badly on this day so I didn't stay out for long.

The best surf of the trip was had at the secret(ish) location near St Ives, which only gets good when westerly swells are really big.  Ok, so its Hawks Point, and involves an amazing meandering descent down steps and paths through cliff top gardens to get to and often a swim to the shore. We also had a lovely sunset surf at Sennen, with westerly swell and offshore winds... I really started to get the hang of my boogie thing at Putsborough, in North Devon, in messy swell that made me work really hard but was a great learning experience. Fins here we come. 

Often however, the swell was just too big, too messy, too onshore..... So we had some great walks on wild rocky beaches.  Walking out to Morte point and along to Bull Point in a gale was amazing.  We could hardly stand up in the wind, and felt at any moment we might be swept away.  Rockham beach is an incredible shattered landscape of rock and sea and was no less atmospheric for the storm.  Pictures below:

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Surf/Climb Holiday Part 2: Cornish Climbing

We had about 10 days down in the South West which I fully expected to be incredibly wet and wild. We brought surf and boogie boards to give us a chance of having something to do when the inevitable foul weather came.  In the event, some of the fiercest storms of the Autumn so far lashed the western shores of the British Isles with an almost constant barage of low pressure systems, swell and dark windy days.
However, we were in luck with the rain, which generally held off until nightfall, and when the surf was just too messy and big for us northern softies, we went rock climbing.  Fancy that.

There are 2 good places I know of to climb at the southern tip of cornwall when the tides are wrong and the swell is big.  If you know of any more, let me know!
The first, Bosigran, is an old favourite of mine, and it was here that I began my long love affair with granite that was to culminate in moving to the isle of Arran.  At Bosigran, the rock is rough, solid, and generally the climbs in the lower grades are well protected,  Don't let me lull you in to a false sense of security however, the grades are very "Scottish", many of the routes are long, and the climbing athletic even at v diff.

Porthmoina Island, cut off from the rocky crags of Bosigran by tide and swell. 

Classic V Diff Commando Ridge- The starting pitch was washed by swell on this occasion so we left if for a calmer day....

Wally on the second Pitch of Ledge Climb: V Diff


Wally on the eponymous Ledge


Thrutching my way up the the final ledges on Alison Rib

The other great place to climb I know when the weather is wild is Trewavas head on the south coast, just along from the wonderful beach at Praa Sands.
Pictures below are of the tin mining ruins on the walk in, and me doing my best impression of a popsicle in the cold cold wind.  The climbing on the main cliff is generally short pitches, in an exposed position high above the sea.  It is certainly not a place to get out of the elements, but a good place to get away from the waves.


Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Surf/climb Holiday Part 1: Change of plan and Box Bay

The best laid plans.....
Our much anticipated autumn climbing and surfing trip to the Western Isles was sadly put on hold with the passing of my grandfather John Battersby.  The family gathered in Wales to celebrate and remember his extraordinary life.  There was much sadness, but a lot of happiness too as he was an amazing, funny and clever man, and remembering him brought as much laughter as sorrow.

After the funeral, we decided to stick with the climbing and surfing plan, but took advantage of our location, and began a tour of the Southwest that would take us through Wales, down to the end of Cornwall, and in to darkest Devon... I'm going to post the images in stages, as we did a fair bit, but will only bore you with the best bits!

The holiday began with a sunset climb at one of Wales' most popular surfing spots, Rest Bay.  Just east of the main beach lies a small rocky incut, known to the locals as Box Bay.  Here there are short and fun routes on sharp limestone.  Rough rock and lots of cracks make them relatively safe, and generally low in the grade (by Scottish standards), but beware many of the starts are unprotected, and the landings awkward/dangerous.

Shimmering surf in Rest Bay....

 The routes have tricky blank and barnacley starts with wet and rocky landings....

 But once established, there is plenty of gear and lots to hold on to.

It was a stunning evening, didn't really feel like October at all! Here's wally looking like he should be sipping a pina colada on the top of the crag. 

Eventually the sun set, and we had to go....

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Glen Sannox Horseshoe

A full round of the Glen Sannox Horseshoe is no mean feat especially when the days are getting shorter so Graham, Wally and I set off at sunrise yesterday morning to tackle this magnificent ridge.
As we climbed the lower slopes towards the Devil's Punchbowl, we could hear stags roaring in the glen below, and were bathed in beautiful early morning sunshine.
By the time we were on the ridge of Cioch na h-Oighe, the sun was up and a cold wind was whipping across the knife edge ridge.

The scramble up the Cioch is an entertaining ramble amongst granite slabs and blocks.  The Cioch itself forms a hook on the prow of the ridge.From here, gentle undulations broaden out on to Mullach Buidhe (below).

The northern slopes of Mullach Buidhe give way to a steep climb up on to North Goatfell. The route turns right here, and begins a long descent past granite tors in to the Saddle below Cir Mhor.

The climb back up out of the saddle is energy sapping, and once on the summit of Cir Mhor, it was sobering to think we were only half way round. The going gets easier for a while after this however, with a gentle descent form Cir Mhor (below), and a steady climb back up to the summit of the Castles (Caisteal Abhail), the highest point on the "Sleeping Warrior" ridge that bounds the northern flank of Glen Sannox.

The picture below shows the view form the summit of Caisteal Abhail, looking back towards Cir Mhor at the right of the picture.

Finally, the ridge narrows once more and there is plenty more fine scrambling to be had.

Negotiating the steep loose slopes of the Witches Step can be tricky in poor conditions.  The main difficulties of the climb out of the step are avoided by descending north in to the gully and picking up a traverse path that winds over steep rock back up to the ridge. We were fortunate that although there were squalls of snow and hail forecast, they passed us by.  Besides a bitterly cold wind, we were treated to near perfect weather.

To find out more about guided walks in Arran's Mountains, visit my main website: