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!