Sunday, 30 January 2011

Quick Scramble over The Saddle

Walking through the Glens from Sannox to Glen Rosa via the saddle is one of the great linear walks on the Isle of Arran, but it should not be underestimated.  Whilst the height gain is fairly minimal (less than 450m), there is a steep climb out of Glen Sannox, and a little scramble up a chimney known as the Whin Dyke to gain the saddle between the two glens.

We left the car at the bus stop opposite the Wineport on the outskirts of Brodick and hopped on a bus at about 1100 this morning.  Not long after we alighted at Sannox, and began the long walk up the glen. It was great to be traveling light for a change as the low altitude of the walk meant no need for axe, crampons, or lots of other heavy gear.

Approaching The Saddle (on the left of Cir Mhor) at the head of Glen Sannox. 

Beginning the steep climb up to the base of the chimney, which provides an exit on to the ridge. The alternative is heavily eroded hillside- unpleasant. 

The scramble up the Whin Dyke is on rocky steps on the left of the chimney, straightforward to climb when dry, a good bit more dodgy in descent, especially when wet. 

Yes that's me.

Beautiful light on the Saddle.  The peak in the middle is North Goatfell. Goatfell's main summit is on the right
partially obscured by the mist.

Descending in to Glen Rosa.  There is a burn to cross near the head of the glen which can be tricky after heavy rain. 
Looking back up Glen Rosa to Cir Mhor from the south.  It is about at this point that we were treated to views of a pair of golden eagles, flying over the hillside above. 

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Teaching Winter Skills Workshop

They say every day is a school day, but last weekend it was definitely back to school for me as I was on a Teaching Winter Skills workshop in Fort William.   The training process that mountain leaders go through is structured to ensure that skills and experience are steadily built up before a leader becomes qualified.  As a Summer Mountain Leader, I have attained a level of competence required to lead in the uk mountains in summer.  However, although I absolutely love being out in the winter hills, preparing for my winter ML assessment is not a walk in the park,  as the standard required is understandably high. The Mountain Leader Training Association offers CPD courses for aspirant Winter MLs, to help us hone and perfect these techniques, with a view to assessment, or for qualified leaders to keep their skills current. This does not replace the initial training programme that we must all undergo- as these courses are entirely optional. 

Obviously the winter environment is very different form the summer one.  For novice clients, there will be a ruck of new skills to learn, and teaching this in a fun and non-threatening way is part of the skills of a good leader. On day 1 of the course we headed up on to Aonach Mor with instructor Tim Blakemore of Northern Mountain Sport to look at ways that we can safely and effectively pass on skills of movement, step cutting and sliding.  
That evening, we had a chat in the classroom about avalanche avoidance- essential! Tim told us about how new research is showing that not only is it important to understand the causes of avalanches, but that we should also be aware of how poor decision making and heuristic traps lead novices and trained experts alike in to avalanche zones.
On the second day, we were treated to a fantastic mountain journey on Ben Nevis.  This was the first time that I have begun the normally tedious approach to the Ben from the locked forestry car park- the advantages of being with a guide! Within no time we were sat in the CIC hut having a cup of tea, before heading up in to Coire na Ciste. After a quick look at snow conditions, we climbed Number Three gully. Most of us took the easy exit left, but we took advantage of the opportunity to build snow anchors and bring up some folk via a much steeper corniced exit on the right. 

After this, a quick bit of navigation in the mist (above) brought us to the top of Number Four Gully. Here we built more anchors, and lowered/abseiled in to the top of the gully. 

The top was pretty steep, but in these good snow conditions, it was possible to walk down unroped back to Coire na Ciste where a speedy bumslide brought us back to our morning's tracks. 
Thanks Wally, for taking these brilliant photos, and big thanks to Tim and the other guys on the course for a great and informative weekend.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Cairngorms Glacier Mint

Sometimes I just end up being in the right place at the right time.  For the 5 days we were in the Cairngorms last week this was certainly the case, as a hard thaw, followed by a fierce freeze, brought near perfect snow conditions. Right up until we arrived I wasn't sure what kind of reception the mountains were going to give us. Knowing things were meant to cool off we took a punt on it being ok and set off on the sunday afternoon at the height of the thaw and some wild stormy weather.  Five days of brilliant time in the hills is a lot of blogging, so to keep it simple, here are some of the best photos in an attempt to sum up the week.

Day 1: Strong winds today, so we went straight up on to the Cairngorm Plateau to see what it was like! Apart from the wind, the plateau was frozen in to a giant lollipop of neve. 

Checking out the tops of the climbs in Coire nan Lochain. 

Day 2: We did Aladdin's Mirror, which takes a hidden snowy couloir up the right of the blackest buttress, in to the snow field above, and then trends back left. An exposed grade 1- Very icy today.

Day 3: A "day off"- exploring the Rothiemurchus Forest- a small corner of the ancient Caledonian Forest that still survives.   
Breathtaking views over the forest.  This is almost a proper woodland wilderness- even if it is a small one. 

 Heaven for a tree hugging hippy like me.
Looking up from the tree line towards the Lairig Ghru. 

Day 4: Back in the mountains! Icy approach to Spiral Gully. 

 Wally leading up to the first difficulties- a narrow groove of ice. 

 Lovely view across the face towards Aladdin's seat- you can just make out a climber approaching the "pommel" of the saddle. 

Looking up the final gully of Spiral Gully. 

Cairngorm Plateau twinkling in the sunlight

 Snow buntings amaze me- they manage to survive in the most ferocious conditions- on what? (Climbers' sarnies?)

Day 5: Forgot to get pictures on the route today (oops) but here is me trying to get over a large cornice at the top of Crotched Gully. 

Aha!  Made it.

 A picture of me thrutching up the cornice courtesy of Bill at Scotch on the Rocks Guiding, who was with a party on Spiral Gully, and was kind enough to send me copies of his photos of us topping out.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Alpine Day in the Hills

When I first moved to Arran I wondered if I would ever find life on a small island limiting.  There are only so many hills, routes and summits to climb, and after a while you keep returning to the same places. Yesterday, Wally and I spent the afternoon on Stacach Ridge- an exposed little scramble between the two summits of Goatfell, and proved that no matter how many times you climb something, there is always something different to enjoy, especially in winter.  We were treated to one of the most memorable and magnificent days out on the hill that we have ever had. If the following blog post seems a little over enthusiastic- this is because its very hard to describe just how brilliant the best days in the mountains can be. There are not enough superlatives!

We had the usual slow start, but this time intentionally. A round of the two peaks is not a long route and do-able in a short day.  We dropped the car at Cladach, picked up the bus round to Corrie, and set off up the steep ascent through High Corrie, past the waterworks, and up through woodland and open hill to Coire Lan.

Looking up in to Coire Lan.  Goatfell Summit visible on the left

The Coire was filled with snow, and we decided to strike up steep slopes to the left of North Goatfell. The conditions underfoot were a mixed bag- with firm wind scoured snow, and pockets of windslab that cracked and broke away alarmingly.  Anyone who says that avalanches don't happen on Arran is a plonker (putting it politely)- they do, I have seen the results. We picked our route carefully, and noted that in places, the snow conditions went from great to very poor quite quickly.

"Shooting Cracks" that fire out of footprints are a sure sign that the snow is not to be trusted. 

We arrived at a bealach between North Goatfell and the knobbly ridge of Stacach. Already breathless from the climb, we both gasped at the panorama visible from the ridge.  Peak after jagged peak was encased in crisp and sparkling snow. The bright sun picked out every gully, rock stack and summit in perfect shining clarity. The air was so clear that the snowy tops of the Paps of Jura, Ben More on Mull, the Arrochar Alps and even the Galloway hills seemed close enough to touch.  It was possible to make out headlands and bays along the coastline of Northern Ireland. Standing in silence, we could hear the roar of the Rosa Burn far below.

 Looking towards a snowy Achir, Beinn a Chliabhain, and beyond, Beinn Tarsuinn. 

Achir on the left, Cir Mhor is on the centre right, and just to the right of this on the far horizon, are the Paps of Jura.

Turning left at the ridge, we set out along the series of rough granite tors that make the ridge of Stacach. In summer, this is a fun but very exposed grade 1 scramble.  For the nervous, there is a path that traverses on the east flank, under the buttresses.  In winter, this narrow path is often buried under unstable snow, and safe passage cannot be found easily.  The scramble over the top can vary from lighthearted fun, to serious climbing, depending on the conditions underfoot, therefore it may be a good idea to carry a 30m rope, a couple of slings and some nuts. On this day the snow was reasonably firm, but the ledges and cracks were hidden under a blanket of white stuff that made going slow and cautious. The crux of the ridge is a vertical tor which can either be ascended by an airy series of ledges on the west (often called The Giant's Steps), with serious consequences if you slip, or a very awkward chimney on the crest.  In summer, I prefer the delicate balancing ledges, but in winter, the fight up the chimney seems safer! The descent from this tor also follows another series of blocky ledges, which in winter can be tricky.

Wally tackling the blocky chimney. 

Looking back towards the descent from the most difficult section of the ridge. 

As always, the concentrated delights of the ridge were over far too quickly.  We dawdled on the final bealach before the summit of Goatfell.  The late afternoon light was turning an astonishing technicolour in the north eastern sky. To the west, encroaching clouds warned of a storm to come.

 Looking North towards Bute, the Cumbraes and eventually up the Clyde to Glasgow. The peaks on the far horizon are the Arrochar Alps and the Trossachs.

Climbing the final slopes of Goatfell.

On the highest point, we lingered even longer.  The view from the summit of Goatfell is absolutely breathtaking and worth the climb whatever path you choose. Finally, we dragged ourselves away, and began the descent down to the waiting car in Brodick.  The path down towards Brodick Castle is relatively straightforward, although in heavy snow conditions care is required  near the top where steep accumulations of windslab can be found. In the last of the light we saw  and heard a number of red grouse, silhouetted against the snow, giving out their low chuckling call.  Brilliant!

 A frosty Goatfell Summit.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Bypass Route, Cir Mhor

Winter climbing on Arran is described in the area guidebook as being "transient in nature, yet at its best of incomparable quality".  It is for this reason that Wally and I regularly take the climbing kit for a walk, "to have a look" and return home empty handed.  We have the advantage of being local, and every once in a while, we can grab good conditions when they suddenly arrive.

A snowy Cir Mhor from Glen Sannox.  Coire na h-Uaimh is the hanging Coire to the right.  
Yesterday was such a day.  We had our usual slow start, and feeling sluggish after the excesses of the holiday season, made slow progress up Glen Sannox and in to Coire na h-Uaimh, a hanging coire to the North of Cir Mhor.  A faint path negotiates the bog, small crags and huge pitfalls, until reaching the coire floor, it gets lost in a mire of boulders.

 Cloud billowing over the Saddle on the far side of Cir Mhor from Coire na h-Uaimh
 Looking down in to Glen Sannox.  Note the snowy mainland hills in the distance!

We traversed up on to the lower slopes of Cir Mhor, marking the ice beginning to form on the lower slabs, that in cold conditions, forms an ice route called Pan's Pipe.  Even when "fat" the ice here is thin and hard to protect.

 Ice forming on Pan's Pipe. 

Beyond, lies the entrance to the Western Stoneshoot, a grade I/II that often has a nice ice pitch low down. We geared up at the entrance to the Stoneshoot, and picked the line of Bypass Route, a turfy grade II that follows a series of open grooves before emerging at a col between Pinnacle ridge and the main shoulder of the mountain.

Looking up the Western Stoneshoot. Bypass Route follows a series of grooves on the left.

Looking down the Western Stoneshoot from where we gained the grooves. 

Yesterday, Bypass Route was just about in condition.  The turf was well frozen in most places, but any ice that had formed was thin and brittle. Higher up the grooves were buried in a deep layer of powder, covered by a fragile crust that broke off in alarming shards. Even in this state, the route is worthwhile, taking the easiest line through some spectacular scenery. We emerged at sunset, tired but happy.

 Looking up the 4th pitch of Bypass Route. Pinnacle Ridge is on the left, the Col above.

Not long after this, we were treated to a magnificent light show, as a meteorite shot out of the sky above our heads.  A fiery ball of flames and sparks, it streamed over the ridge, out above Glen Sannox and finally fizzled out not far above the glen!

Looking to the North West at sunset.  Jura is visible in the distance.

The day was far from over however, as the next decision to be made was descent route selection.  Options included ascending Cir Mhor, and descending the Whinstone Dyke on the saddle in darkness, or a shorter exit, via the steep headwall of Coire na h-Uaimh.  We picked the second option, but arriving at the headwall at dusk, discovered a mean little cornice above a steep snowy drop. We scratched around for a belay in the failing light, but realised soon enough that the safe option was going to be a long walk out to the south via Glen Rosa. Darkness fell as we traversed under Cir Mhor, but we were quickly on easy ground and able to enjoy a winter wonderland by torchlight.