Had great fun introducing my good mate Innes to the joys of winter climbing yesterday and the weather gods treated us to a classic. The forecast had been for heavy rain/snow for most of the day but nothing came of it at all.
Now Innes built a lot of the Black Cuillin footpaths and has explored many of the peaks and ridges in that time. Instead he fancied Glen Shiel, having driven through it so often but never left the road.
A big part of the joy of the day was listening to the commentary- Innes was being blown away by every aspect of our environment. “It’s so 3-dimensional” was a comment really early on as the clever stalkers path weaved upward eventually revealing the hidden maze of glens beyond.
We left plans open but I reasoned that, if we were going to carry the crampons, rope etc we should aim for a route where they might actually be needed so the Forcan Ridge it was. I’ve done it many times but it never disappoints with progress often complex and time-consuming.
Top pupil donned the harness although I sensed an element of doubt about any need for it as I coiled the rope in preparation. Heading to the foot of the first slab Innes was hard on my heels and the beast was momentarily unleashed only to watch me fail miserably getting up the opening groove. A rising zig-zag left us no choice but to balance across the groove 40ft above the ground and the need for rope became obvious. The lad grew very fond of that wee bit of string over the following couple of hours!
The aesthetics were great but the pics don’t show the brutal hard work. Every inch was hard fought for but, as Innes pointed out, it kept the mind off the drop.
After an hour or so in the mist, things began to get distinctly brighter until we were suddenly in bright sunlight and the mists dropped off the ridge running away in front of us towards the Saddle.
It was already close to 2pm when we reached the summit of Sgurr a’ Forcan so an easy decision to head down immediately beyond. Now the bumslide descent from the Saddle is such fun it justifies the effort almost every time in winter but I hadn’t told Innes because I hadn’t been sure about the short-cut we were about to take. A foot of powder is a great cushion though and the run-out was clear so I armed the lad with an ice -axe, gave him a brief lesson then set him free while I packed the rope.
He was off like a shot and I was greeted by a cheshire cat-like grin 400 feet lower as Innes admitted the descent had been particularly troubling him whenever he made the mistake of thinking about it! With the tension released the eulogising really began in earnest; pretty sure I’ve another good keen climbing partner well broken in.
Thanks for inspiration for a great day out Innes!
Alan called me exactly a year ago with an outrageous request to be guided up Stac Lee on St Kilda in October or November 2015 “if there’s a settled period of weather”; ha, bloody ha. But no, he was serious as it was his last remaining Marilyn; a list of 1556 peaks over 500 feet high.
The full tale is long and full of plot & intrigue but, basically, the phone rang last Wednesday and I had to drop everything for the weekend ahead including all the rugby matches which was no small sacrifice!
We sailed to Harris Friday lunchtime and camped in an idylic spot just 10 minutes from Leverburgh where we would sail from at 6-30 next morning.
Beautiful skies at
Seamus and the crew of the Enchanted Isle had us all loaded and heading off 40 miles westward before the sun rose and I was soon catching up on Z’s but was woken by a shout of land ahoy. Not far ahead stood some impressive stacks, immediately recognisable from what little I’d managed to read. Distance was deceptive however andd it took more than another hour to finally reach St Kilda. Stunning light, dolphins and even a Minke whale kept us occupied along with a palpable tension of excitement & fear rising.
Stac Lee was the aim for the day and Alan and I were given the first ride ashore. The plan was for us to head up with Bob Kerr and his guide Tim following behind and rigging a static to help the less confident leaders behind and everything went pretty much exactly to plan. Conditions were better than the previous year’s assailants had encountered with bone dry rock and, more importantly, far drier and less deep guano from the gannets.
The route was effectively 3 pitches, never harder than V Diff in the conditions we had, and then a long easy scramble zig-zagging to the summit. The rock is gabbro; another super volcano that errupted at a similar time to the Cuillin volcanoes on Skye & Rum. The result is similar to what the Skye Cuillin would look like if sea-level rose to the level of Coire lagan or higher.
We made it to the top just before half 12 where Alan had to remind me it was his final Marylin top and a good celbration was in order. Michael Earnshaw also compleated and the others were alldelighted to get the highest & hardest “out of the way” 🙂
Scorching sun & no wind added to the difficulties, not, as everyone gradually made it down for one big abseil descent and a safe return to the Enchanted Isle for tea & cake by about 4pm.
Speed was of an essence as we realised there was time to recce the next day’s objective, Stac an Armin. The swell was against us using last year’s landing so Tim & I rigged ropes on the East side. 35m of greasy slime covered rocks made us grateful for spikes & crampons but everything was set for a rapid ascent next day and return in time for the Scottish match on the ferry ride back from Tarbet……. if all went to plan. The swell nearly saw me in the drink as I abseiled onto the boat but, instead it was time to lap up the stunning light & scenery on the 20 minute ride to the old village on Hirta.
The MOD base on Hirta is horribly out of keeping with the haunting beauty of the abandoned village but this didn’t detract from this, the largest island in the world heritage site, or the bouyant atmosphere as everyone settled down with good food, drink & banter & finally relaxing on what had been a high-octane day.
That’s all for now but I’ll complete with Sunday’s pictures asap.
I first read about Monte Viso in 1999; Will McLewin’s classic book describing how every one of the Alps 4000m peaks could be seen from its summit. 3 days later and there it was, standing like an isolated church tower nearly 100km south of us. It stands 500m clear of any other mountains nearby and is one of the few “must do” peaks I’ve ever had.
A chance opportunity to climb with my old mate Icky saw us heading off over high passes on Tuesday and down into Italy. Our first close sight of it got the adrenalin rising nicely but quite a worry about how Red the dawg was going to get on!
Gulp! Monte Viso out to the right.
We got there, Red opted to stay in the Andretti bivvy hut @ 3200m (top of the heavy red line marked below) and sadly the haze limited views somewhat. The whole experience was outrageously good though with possibly the most beautiful alpine approach & descent I’ve ever done, quality climbing, a tiny handful of friendly other climbers and superb company throughout. Enjoy the pics which I’ll label in time.-
March has been a hectic period as admin for the summer starts to dominate; very hard after such a fun winter. The wild conditions have continued pretty much identically to the past 3 months with plenty of good climbing conditions formed by bonkers winds, loads of snow, the odd thaw and repeat….. There’s snow settling at sea-level tonight and that’s not an April fool. Still basking in the glory of the In Pinn spoof in 2013; had folk who believed it well over a year later-
In fact I’ve bottled out of trying to catch you out this year so relax & enjoy a few pics from the past month or so.
Storr, 1st March. Driving there was scary enough! These guys had the harshest 3 days of the winter but still got out each day.
Sheltering under the Old Man of Storr
Neist. Friday 13th, not unlucky at all. First day of hot rock with Iain and Ally
Bruton party, 14th. A great day with miles of perfect snow to practice crampon & axe work.
Bla Bheinn with Lucy, Sunday 15th. Another immaculate day
Alpine conditions on approach.
Not a cloud to ruin the view.
Can’t beat that view out to Rum
Serious graft for the Skye MRT taking the radio relay down for fixing, all 200kg of it!
Lucy on the crux of South Buttress Gully, III.
South Buttress Gully- A mix of sugary snow, plenty of spice & god it was nice!
Eilidh & Matt. A magical day with the mists burning off and rock drying front of our eyes on Sgurr an Fheadian, 21st
The Spur of Sgurr an Fheadain
Smiles of delight?
Nah, pure relief eh Eilidh!
And that’s why she’s allowed to be happy!
Orion Face Direct, Wednesday 25th. Winter looked to be washed out very soon so Icky & I made a dash for the last route of the season. Spoilt for choice we chose Orion which I’d been on but never done in it entirity. Definitely didn’t disappoint and the legs really knew about it. Luckily the descent on a cushion of powder right to the door of the hut was as good as it gets; “If Carling made descents”.
Icky heading towards the exit chimneys that gave a superb steep finish to the 8 pitch day.
31st March. Video work on Human Geography with Phillip from Canada was quite some challenge in the mega-gusts we had but the stinging showers mostly left us alone until the very end of the day. I’m not sure quite how it works but the project is based on Munro Bagging and he’s off to interview Chris Townsend next. Looking forward to seeing the results.
The Eastern Black Cuillin looking wintery. We went to the right hand of the 2 obvious cols
Clac Glas from the shelter of a welcome overhang.
Main Cuillin Ridge laid out in front of us
Clac Glas, the Matterhorn of Skye and a fiercesome barrier to reaching Bla Bheinn
There has been so much stonking ice in evidence on photos from Ben Nevis that I couldn’t resist a quick hit on Thursday. Icky, Lucy, Cat & I arrived late in the CIC and didn’t rise early but still had a clear Curtain to start with.
…..before the steep upper half-
We were heading over to Italian Climb when Mega Route X came into sight just above us. Now I watched Cubby climbing this on video over 20 years ago and even bought one of (a large collection??) the red Cassin axes that he’d used on the ascent; apparently quite a lot of people have also bought the same axes with the same background tale 🙂 I digress, I knew it had been climbed a fair bit recently and it looked like it had plenty of bobbles for footholds. The team gave me the nod of approval and so off we went.
I’ve reverted to using wrist leashes on steep ice and loved them instantly; my arms really do appreciate not having to keep hold of the shafts at all. The ice was of stunning consistency (better than the steep part of Curtain) and the bobbles for feet allowed plenty of stability while placing screws.
Icky romped up behind and, although her arms wouldn’t quite do it, Cat has the pose of the day-
Icky & Lucy joined me on the belay and we all admired the icicle fringes all around us. The top pitch started steeply but soon relented with a groove on the left and just one short cheeky section of snowy ice before the final steepening.
A 50m abseil back to the ground was followed by pizza, tea & beer in the hut before the most dangerous part of the day- the drive home. Thank you Big Bad Ben for a glorious day 🙂
Lynsey & Rabbie the Dog are raising money for Help for Heros by climbing all of the Scottish Munros. In little over the 2 year mark they now have only 8 left to complete. A phenomenal effort from both but Rabbie does have 4 legs! This was painfully obvious as we descended steeply from the 5 Sisters of Kintail; while our knees screamed pure murder Rabbie chased his stick up and down the slope repeatedly.
One final word of warning to anyone descending towardss Sheil Bridge- the old suspension bridge at the east end of Loch Shiel is very unhealthy; I had to use special spiderman powers of praying to get across safely and avoid the 3km alternative detour!
The Kings Martin & Deidrie took me off for a great road tour around the north of Scotland last week and the weather treated us handsomely. The Old Men of Hoy & Stoer were major highlights supplemented by Vlad the Impaler on Stac Pollaidh and Sword of Gideon near Applecross. Fantastic trip thanks guys; superbly climbed and great company too.
Francis inspired Lou and me to join him and explore what the guidebook calls “terrain adventure, steep & exciting” on the upper cliff at Duncraig, just across the water near Plockton. The book took a bit of deciphering but we were rewarded with 3 pitches of really good climbing. Our “combo” had Francis warm us up rapidly on Brigadier Braggart’s Little Secret, E3 5c. The obvious line above was eventually identified as Easy Rider, HVS 5a. This gave Lou a great curving crack pitch and then a very adventurous finish for me with route finding and vegetation adding extra spice to the high quality climbing.
Francis eyeing up the crux
Set above Plockton bay with the Torridonian sandstone mountains behind the crag really is in a phenomenal position. Our adventure ended with yet more exploration as we took faith in the guidebook and abseiled back over the edge from the trees. The heavy rain had arrived but we really didn’t mind one bit.
Set above Plockton bay with the Torridonian sandstone mountains behind the crag really is in a phenomenal position.
Desperate times make for desperate measures; with no serious climbing having been done since new year’s day a photo of fat ice at the Dubh Loch was enough to entice me into the huge drive to Ballater, 5am start, cycle and deep soft snow approach. It is a very beautiful part of the Highlands and the rewards soon started as the sun rose.
Sadly the lower half of the crag had lost a lot of ice in the past week but Robin came up with a plan.
A scary snowy approach over steep vegetation took us to the foot of The Last Oasis.
I took the first pitch with instructions to break right to block belays below the thinly iced rib.
Robin then took the helm, had a few words with himself on the initial thin steep slabs and finally sounded happier once the 3rd screw was placed without going down to rock. Classically I found the climbing far steeper than it had looked from below!
A drippy ice grotto after 35m gave a good screw belay but an intimidating step round the corner to reach the start of the Sword of Damocles final pitch.
The excitement continued with a cornice to finish-
and then a huge great avalanche down the face 100m to the right of where we’d been climbing; gulp. This was the final straw in deciding not to stash our kit for a return battle next day but, in a winter where any climbing has been hard to come by the day was a great result. A waist deep battle through soggy drifts confirmed we’d made the right decision & we were both completely ****ered by the time we reached the bikes.
If anyone is particularly taken by the colour and design of Robin’s climbing sack he would love to hear from you; I’ve certainly never seen such a magnificent hue of blue……. 😉
Jim, Merrissa and I ended the week on a high with an ascent of Liathach over on the mainland. On Friday night we braved wild weather just to drive the 70 miles and then a 10 minute walk to the Ling Hut in the dark and driving rain. Next morning little seemed to have changed by 8am but the forecast came right just before 9.
Archive photo of the SMC Ling hut with Liathach behind; our route gained the crest at the right edge and traversed to the obvious high point called Spidean a’ Choire Leith (1055m)
The ascent is quite possibly the fiercest anywhere in the UK, rising from 30m above sea-level to 833m in little over a kilometre.We put crampons on at about 700m and it was obvious our descent was going to be concentrated.
Along the crest the snow was immaculate with just a small amount of give in a uniform covering.
Roped together we wandered for the next hour in an almost dream-like manner with amazing light on the views all around.
From the summit the ridge still stretched away into the distance but a lack of time and light meant we reluctantly had to turn heel and begin our descent.Luckily a direct slope back into Coire Liath Mhor gave a good fast start to this stage. A lip of rock below made us do a short abseil before traversing back towards our original path.
I realised it had been over 10 years since my last pilgramage to Torridon; this left me with mixed feelings of embarressment but mainly joy at rediscovering the hills I used to know so well. Liathach is 2nd only to Ben Nevis for mainland mountains I have climbed on. It won’t be long before I’m back again.