Archive for December, 2010

Ice Climbing: Coire a’ Bhasteir, 31st Dec


Today Matt went for a day out with Paul to find some ice climbing. It was warm at the Sligachan Hotel but we kept the faith and set off. On reaching the snow-line we were glad to find that some of it was firm. The most solid looking line of ice was situated in a gully directly below Pinnacle Ridge. There was a large amount of avalanche debris below the ice-fall, possibly 3/4 feet deep, that had come from 4/5 gully.

The climbing, though short, turned out to be very pleasureable with the ice  inhaling front-points and picks.

We managed another two lines of ice further round the coire but had to beat a retreat after receiving a thorough soaking from the last one. The upcoming freeze should come soon enough to provide good climbing conditions.

Coire Na Banachdich, 28th December


I went for a trot up to Banachdich Gully this morning to investigate snow and ice conditions. It was a slightly delayed start as I listened to the coverage of a certain game of cricket before leaving. (This is Matt writing, not Mike, if anyone is feeling confused by this comment)

Banachdich Gully

The Glen Brittle road is completely clear now and the snow line on the Cuillin has retreated to about 1500 feet, though there are still patches of ice clinging on in various sheltered spots right down to sea-level. The snow pack was very firm in places and in other places such as the bottom of the gully and stream beds I was almost thigh deep. It was perfect snow for glissading and reasonably solid to walk on given careful route choice.

Main ice pitch of Banachdich Gully

There was a lot of ice and snow around the Coire and all the gully lines above 1500 feet that I saw here and elsewhere along the ridge seemed complete. In addition there is still stacks of ice hanging on in all the drainage lines. The melt is in full flow right now but if the freezing level drops on Thursday and stays down then we could be in for a right treat…

Waterpipe Gully flanked by Coire a Tairneilear and Coire a Mhadaidh

Cloud over Bruach Na Frithe

Small is Beautiful, 22 December


Today Mike and myself explored Ruadh Stac, a mountain which rises a mighty 493 metres (1617 feet) above sea level. This is not the most popular mountain on Skye but it is certainly worth visiting on a clear day for its spectacular views of the main ridge, Clach Glas, Bla Bheinn and the Small Isles. However we were not visiting primarily for the views but to investigate the Allt Teanga Bratlan and the gullies on the South East face of Ruadh Stac for any climbable ice.

Looking towards the North end of the ridge

From the lay-by at the head of Loch Ainort we admired the style of Neil from Torridon as he scampered up the prominent waterfall above the road. This left us feeling suitably inspired to find some ice of our own, so stopping only to take photos and investigate cunningly disguised patches of bog we made our way to the Allt Teanga Bratlan. Dropping down to 130 metres above sea-level we were pleasantly surprised to see reasonable amounts of ice, unfortunately we were unpleasantly surprised to see a plunge pool or two barring our way. After a short debate over who weighed more we managed to overcome these obstacles. Arriving in a bay we discovered a slabby line of ice on the right and a much steeper climb on the left. We ventured onto the right hand option and enjoyed the delights of ice climbing at an amenable grade II/III in the sunshine on Skye in December!

Mike leading the second pitch

After this little adventure we headed off onto the side of Ruadh Stac to investigate the most prominent gully line on the South East face of the mountain. We found a continuous line of snow and ice from bottom to top, going at about Grade I, with a short 40 foot step that looked to be about Grade V. Given the thin state of the ice we summoned up various excuses and traversed round this part.

Underneath the Grade V section

We gained some  bonus entertainment in the rest of the gully grappling with holes in the snow, a mini bergschrund and the unexpected discovery of some small pools. Finally the climbing came to an end and we topped out on Ruadh Stac to be greeted by the most spectacular panorama of the entire ridge in winter glory.

It was a perfect end to a spectacular Skye day: exploration, adventure, ice, sunshine and some of the best views imaginable…..

Beinn Bahn 18th December


With the Cuillin being dry and low-level ice gone it was time to travel in search of some high altitude turf. Francis called Martin Moran who confirmed that we were barking up the right tree and a rendezvous of 6am in Lochcarron organised. A good dump of overnight snow put the rendezvous in doubt but, having both successfully made that I made the mistake of thinking the hard part was over.

Lochcarron at 6am Saturday.

Cutting a long story short we learnt, the hard way, about climbing in Coire nan Fhamair on the biggest baddest cliff on Beinn Bahn:

1. Leaving the car at 7am is too late; despite feeling like an easy 2hr approach it was already 10-30 when we reached the bottom of the Great Overhanging Gully.

2. “Popping up the turfy start pitch” is not a good mental approach; it only looks an easy angle because the next overhang is so ludicrous.

Out of time when only 20m off the ground is pretty hard to take after a 3am start but this cliff doesn’t do consolation. We salvaged sanity by returning over the summit plateau for great views into Coire na Poite and the back of the Cioch Nose.

Coire na Poite; Mad Hatter’s, V, is the obvious large gully, complete but thin. Ice on the face is more prominent on the Cooler VI than Silver Tear V.

Hopefully Francis has had more joy on his adventures with Martin and Murdo today.

Bread, Milk and Avalanche Warning.


Many thanks to Sandy Top Shop this morning for his warning that climbers should be particularly careful to avoid wind-slab accumulations on south and west facing slopes! The ex-rescue team guru (renowned for selling packets of cigarettes at ludicrous prices during prolonged rescues) was still wearing his gortex in the shop because the next bout of snow has arrived. The main road is passable with care and deliveries have made it up from the central belt this morning.

All start again, 16 December


With another icy fortnight forecast there is plenty to look forward to for any visitors in the festive period. Crampons are advisable for any walks above the 300m mark.

I took a trip up to the Storr on the hope of the Scamadal ice-falls having survived the thaw but every last lump has dropped off sadly.

SCAMADAL 16/12/2010

More positive was the look of Storrvegan and the gullies splitting the face that will remain fun for as long as they remain empty of deep powder. I’m trying to get a comprehensive list of these and their grades from Mark just now. Many are Mick Fowler “classics” done in all sorts of dodgy conditions and ideal for the adventure lover. At least one is grade III and, as such, will be holding more of the marvellous neve that any old snow has now become.


The 24 hour thaw yesterday has stripped the large neve patches back in the Cuillin so the Ridges will be even more bare now. The positive thing is that the fresh snow forecast is likely to stick more to the rocks than the old snow so more likely to build up than blow away.


New Route and Stunning Inversion


Firstly confirmation that the crest of the Ridge is not in ideal condition for a full winter traverse.This statement is extremely misleading however as there have rarely been such perfect snow conditions for exploring the Cuillin in winter. Neve (hard snow) is continuous from below 200m right to the crest with extensive cover on all but the narrowest sections.

An interesting analysis went on between Matt and I this evening after one of the most beautiful days that either of us had ever had in the mountains. Both climbers at heart we were initially disappointed to find our objective very dry and unwintery despite there being loads of snow and temperatures well below freezing.

Hose-pipe Ban, III,4

We had enjoyed wearing crampons from well below the 1000ft mark in Coire a’ Tairnielear. The temptation to skip the climb was definitely strong but we reasoned that exploration of the intriguing gully would be fun even if we failed. It was fun, a well protected exercise in chimneying past 2 wedged chockstones with axe use minimal but both glad of the crampons.

Above the crux

It probably warrants III,4, we’ve not named it yet and would only give it a single star at most.

From a cloudless start the mist had rolled in while we climbed and we sat eating lunch and realised the hoar crystals were growing on the rocks around us. It was tempting to bail out but we had a mission to find out what condition the crest of the Main Ridge was in so pushed on up towards Bidean Druim nan Ramh. The mist above suddenly became yellowish and we got excited at the prospect of breaking up through it. One of my favourite little short-cuts onto Bidean is climbing the gully between the south-west and central peaks. It was banked out with hard neve and led to the “Gates of Heaven”, a tunnel looking out into the yellow mist with the peaks just emerging beyond.

Matt in the Gates of Heaven and the emerging view of the Ridge below.

I lost track of time after that as every step we took seemed to lead to even more incredible vistas. Brocken spectres are circular rainbows caused by your own shadow cast on the mist below. They are pretty special but quite common in the Cuillin; today they formed just one part of the mindboggling array of effects that went on around us. I climbed a pitch above the Gates to the summit of the south-west top and the “Cottage Block”.

My spectre central in a white halo (possibly called the glory?)

Mist enveloped us as Matt arrived but then sank ever deeper revealing more by the minute. A shaft of light passing through the Gates appeared to be projecting our Brocken spectres on the mist whilst the triple peaks of Bidean cast their shadows below. The northern peaks of Bruach na Frithe, Sgurr a’ Fionn Choire, Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean were speckled black and white against the pure blue sky and a weir of mist tumbled between Gillean and Basteir.

Brocken Spectre and a shaft of light shining through the “Gates of Heaven”

The analysis we discussed as we descended down 2000 feet of hard snow was just where such a day sits in Scottish winter climbing. In conclusion, as so often with the Black Cuillin, there simply is no easy pigeon hole; the whole experience just felt very alpine but definitely unique.

Sgurr Thuilm sitting proud.

Sooooo Close 12 Dec 2010


Sadly it looks as though the thaw was slightly too fierce resulting in what I would call Alpine spring conditions rather than full winter. Any thin covering of snow has been removed but huge swathes are rapidly turning to neve. I’m only able to comment on what I have seen from the ground today but will get up for a look tomorrow. It is certainly cold enough with a heavy frost remaining in any shade even at sea-level today.


In my experience of such conditions the crest of the Ridge remains far more wintry than it appears from below. My educated guess is that crampons would be left on and scratching on rocky surfaces for less than 10% of the whole 12km length.

Neve on approaches, descents and long sections should make for very fast travel; the forecast is for high pressure to remain and I doubt anyone attempting it will be disappointed. Snow will be falling heavily by the end of Wednesday and full-on winter will be back with us from then on virtually to Xmas.


More tomorrow, Mike

Winter Traverse Watch


All eyes are now carefully studying the forecast for the next few days. Conditions are very close to being ideal for the Holy Grail of British Mountaineering- a Winter Traverse of the Cuillin Ridge.

Neil Mackay on the successful Traverse 30 November 2010.

Quoting from the SMC guidebook text I have just proof read over the past 24hrs-

In good conditions this is probably the greatest single climb to be had in Britain. Good conditions are rare with one period a season possibly above average since it was first achieved. The good news is that frequency does not seem to be decreasing and the internet now gives aspirants unprecedented access to forecast and condition reports. Anything but good quality neve on the crest makes progress incredibly slow and physical. Tom Patey suggested that a heavy dump of snow with little wind, so that the crest isn’t stripped, is the first stage. A minor thaw right to the summits followed by a sharp freeze and good weather (an easterly wind and high pressure) for the next few days is the ideal scenario. Opportunities must be grasped quickly before sun or rain strip the crest back to bare rock.

We now have the makings- a thick covering with a minor thaw that is estimated to have reached above the tops. Cold weather is forecast but there is a slight hiccup- the normally dream situation of a cloud inversion is predicted.

Summer Temperature Inversion

The more technical name for this is a temperature inversion which means the glens will be cold but the tops may be warm! How warm is the key factor; my feeling is that, above all this snow, the damage likely to be caused will be minimal and clear night skies will put a good solid crust in place within a night or two. Personally I would wait and see what Saturday looks like but be ready to go Sunday. Below a cloud inversion the weather is grey, damp  and murky so don’t get put off! For more advice study the brief download from this website-

Skye Report 9 December 2010


I’m still providing a weekly conditions report for UKC and will also post it here.

A good thaw has started today with temperatures up to about 8 degrees. All the snow recently needs this to settle it in and if the predicted freeze returns next week there could be the most incredible conditions for any number of Skye objectives. I’ll keep regular updates of temps, rain, snow levels etc through the next few days.

The Cuillin action of last week was rounded off nicely by hearing of the successful Traverse on 29 and 30th November by Neil and xxxx. This is the earliest Traverse I’ve heard of in a season, possibly the first ever before the turn of the year. All backed up with Jamie Hageman’s superb photo of the guys abseiling from the Basteir Tooth that won pic of the week on UKC-

JAMIE’S SELF-PORTRAIT (taken at the same time)

Heavy snow started falling again last Friday and has pretty much put the Cuillin out of reach since so attention switched to the Storr and the ice in Coire Scamadal. Robin Clothier & Doug Hawthorn found new objectives a bit thin but enjoyed the 3 pitches on Scamtastic V,5. This line repeatedly seems to form first.

SCAMTASTIC, pitch 2.

On Wednesday Doug was back with Ewan Todd who had bravely driven through from Aviemore. Doug pointed Ewan at the unclimbed line of ice left of Silverpine (2010) that ended half-way up the face. Ewan belayed to the steep top icicle. Ultimately they opted against attacking it (the belay!) direct and Doug took a weaving line left then right which required him to be “reasonably confident at getting runners/ belays sorted.” Ewan finished out right with a long pitch over the top.

FA (First Ascent) Greymane wall, possibly V,4. The 1st belay was on the large icicle beneath the lowest climbers feet.

An excellent selection of shots and video are on Colin’s Blog-

Ski Sunday; 5th December


Whiter than ever, I had to see if Skye had reached the point of off-piste skiing. It hadn’t but I had fun trying and avoided breaking a leg. The Druim Eadar da Choire starts from the Robber’s Fall at the head of Loch Ainort just 2 minutes drive up the road from home. An hour of walking leads to one of the most stunning viewpoints on the island at point 489 (must have a local name which I will try to find out).

Pt 489 is the  rounded top left of centre; Marsco to the right

Wet bogs were frozen over still despite the thaw and then a fresh set of prints broke trail through the crusty deep snow above. The vista back past the Red Cuillin to Raasay was superb.

I could see the dark clouds gathering and knew it was a race for the view; I lost and the blizzard enveloped me filling the tracks instantly. Once back below the tiny rocky section it was time to clip on the boards; surely the crust would hold my weight and let me side-slip gracefully home?

2 minutes later I’d made every fall in the clowns manual. It was time to grow up and go home.

Skye Roads


The minor thaw in the last 2 days saw a spate of cars spin off in old slush but basically the main roads are all fine if driven with caution. Overnight temps are supposed to drop to about zero but clear skies could make it lower. The Glen Brittle road hasn’t been ploughed/gritted since the latest precipitation started so the old snow has turned icy and some fresh has landed at the highest points; probably not advisable unless in a 4*4. With sleet still falling the Storr road north of Portree is hard to predict but will almost certainly be gritted by 8am.


Incredible History


Writing the SMC guidebook has been a fascinating process aided mainly by the text produced by the research of Stuart Pedlar. Those who think history is boring should read on…

After Wednesday’s ascent of the outside variation to Shadbolt’s Chimney I struggled to find the description of the original summer ascent. I informed Martin, Pete & Francis that it had been done in 1932 and e-mailed Stuart for clues. Meantime Martin gave me the description-

Shadbolt’s Chimney: Shoot the Bolt  VII, 7 ** A winter ascent of the outside of the chimney (avoiding the tunnelling through-route). A short awkward step led into the cavern. The 8 metre roof of the chimney gave a unique and brilliant pitch with sustained back and foot techniques leading to a heavily rimed exit squeeze.
F.Blunt, P.MacPherson, M.Moran 2nd Dec 2010

with the comments-

I’m amazed that the outside of the chimney was only VDiff – they were very brave in those days! They would have had no gear and the chimneying felt like VS, 4c to me. Maybe downgrade the winter ascent to VI, 7 and forget the name.

We had no idea about earlier ascents, so we were somewhat intimidated. Pete struggled quite a lot on the lead, and Francis looked suitably stressed seconding! Given that we cruised The Secret a week earlier I get more rather than less confused about gradings as the years go by.


To cap it all Stuart has come back with the amazing full story from his book (that will be published sometime after the SMC book is printed)-

 ’Tarbuck later explained how he and Geoffrey Collin ‘climbed the Tooth by Naismith’s route. I moved to the opposite edge and looked down the north face, and was surprised to find that the upper half was sufficiently broken up to allow some good climbing.

    There was not the slightest chance of making a complete descent, however, as the lower part of this face is composed of rotten rock which has weathered away, leaving the top overhanging the base. I climbed down as far as the overhang, where every possibility ceased. The position was thrilling, for the lower rocks cannot be seen, and nothing meets the eye till the upper scree of Coire a’ Bhasteir; even the assurance of a rope from above could not entirely alleviate the sensation.

    Descent being out of the question, I traversed away to the left, and after a difficult corner found myself looking down into the outside cleft of the North Chimney, and as overhangs have no terrors in a chimney, it occurred to me that here might be a way down. I was now too far to the left to get full protection from my rope, so I traversed back and ascended the face. We moved over to a better position directly above the chimney. The chimney is not obvious from above, and it dies out on the face just short of the top, but the position can be got by moving towards the edge from the exit-hole of Shadbolt’s climb and keeping along the strata.

CAPTAIN PLANET E4, 6a on the opposite face of the Basteir Tooth.

    I took my turn at holding the rope, whilst Collin disappeared over the edge; the rope paid out steadily for the whole 100 feet, and I knew he must have succeeded in reaching the foot. Shouting as hard as we could, we were unable to hear one another, our voices being thrown out across the corrie by the intervening rocks, so I belayed his rope and moved back to the exit-hole of Shadbolt’s climb, through which we were able to converse without raising our voices. Collin had reached the floor of the upper cave above the first difficult pitch of Shadbolt’s climb. He untied; I took in his rope, and brought it down with me via the subterranean route, and joined him in the bed of the chimney. The cave is roofed in some 40 feet up, and whereas Shadbolt’s route goes through a hole at the back of the roof into complete darkness, our route rounded the outer extremity of the roof and carried on into the daylight. Collin was optimistic about the ascent, and very kindly offered me the lead. The only trouble he thought might be the rounding of the roof where he walls were rather far apart. I backed up to the roof and then outwards horizontally under it until I could round the end. The leader here is actually well outside the second man, adding sensation to the position, without being too difficult. Just as the walls are getting unpleasantly far apart, relief as afforded by a large slab of rock which blocks the chimney and forms a crack with the left (east) wall. The climber transfers himself into the crack, which just admits the body; this move can be protected by threading the rope through a small, well-placed chockstone. Once in the crack the climbing is constrictive, and 20 feet of wriggling is required to reach the jumbled blocks that are jammed in the head of the chimney. Once out of the chimney, easy climbing leads to two huge blocks, where the second may be brought up. This finishes the climb. One hundred feet of rope is required’

Tarbuck says the grading of this route would vary with the length of the climber’s leg: ‘long legs being at a premium.’ He also doubted whether theirs was in fact the first ascent: ‘it is a wonder that Shadbolt did not take it in the first place, it is much easier to find than his amazing through route. The fact that it overhangs and shows little promise from below may account for its neglect. We, of course, spotted it from above.’ 

Ken Tarbuck, from Upton, Wirrall, Cheshire, was noted for his great number of experiments from which he had evolved a remarkable method of holding a falling leader by means of a waist belay and controlled sliding friction He also invented a friction karabiner, by which means a rope, as it tightened, could be compressed in a V groove, and so brought under perfect control.

Shadbolt first climbed the original with MacLaren five years before the pair made the best known ‘first’ in the whole range; a complete traverse of the Main Ridge (1911).

More Cuillin Action. 2 December 2010


The strong team of Pete Macpherson, Martin Moran and Francis Blunt were up on the Basteir Tooth today making an external finish to Shadbolt’s Chimney. Previously climbed by Dave Ritchie and Mark Shaw in 2002 by the through tunnel (IV,5) Pete went around the outside variation finish at grade VII,7.


Storvegan. 1 December 2010


One of the most stunning natural lines on Skye, Storvegan gains and climbs the roof of the mighty central wall (250m) of the Storr. It was finally climbed by Martins Moran and Welch in January 2010 and graded VI,8.

An alpine start was rewarded with alpine type scenery but only 40mins from the car.

Luckily only a small pepparing of snow and ice started as the sun hit the walls above the first pitch

After clearing a snow-filled chimney Francis reached the wide crack in the roof before the crux. The Camalot 5 close before the commiting moves seemed ideal. As Francis pulled on the first couple of tiny hooks I noticed it walk sideways; a brief mental juggle and I opted to tell him rather than let him carry on. Calmy reversing he buried a bomber bulldog to replace the cam, had a few words with himself, then put the crux sequence together first time.

I hung on the cam to remove the bulldog before my turn. Stretch on 40m of rope & the prospect of prussicking focused me well, making sure I got my leashed tools in the right order first time. Some good ice then well consolidated steep snow led to a belay below a long chimney.

Francis found the chimney well protected but hard before running it out to a turfy belay. Turf for the next 60m took me up to a fine arete of snow and  amazing sunset over the western seaboard.

One more tiny rock step and easy slope led to the summit cairn. A fantasy route come true for me; thanks Francis.

Post Script- In correspondence with Martin Moran about grades (see Incredible History post above) Storvegan is possibly slightly easier than he thought technically so VI,7 may be a better guide to future aspirants. 3 stars certainly.