Archive for December, 2012

South Buttress Gully; grade II my foot. 19th December


Mark, Nathan and I enjoyed glorious weather on Blaven yesterday. The air was crystal clear giving superb views out to the mainland as we got higher.

After the heavy thaw & rain at the end of last week we weren’t sure what we’d find but the top third of the mountain looked well covered still.

We opted for a route I first climbed in 2010 and repeated the following season. At 600 feet long and grade II South Buttress Gully should have been a great first “proper” winter route for Nathan.

Mark led the first couple of easy snow pitches and was then keen for the first icy steps on pitch 3. After excavating a couple of good runners he made short work of a thinly iced slab and the awkward step above before completing another 50m pitch.

Nathan discovered the real meaning of “trust your feet” on the improbably thin ice and even left some for me to climb behind him:)

I was presented with the leading rack for the next pitch and I had to agree that it did look steeper than I remembered! There was a bank of snow leading up to ice above the cave and I knew there was a good cam placement in under the capstone. Alarm bells rang as my feet plunged through on the first few steps up this but I managed to take weight on the rock wall behind to help me get high enough to sink my axes into the lovely solid ice above. Using both hands to place the cam I suddenly felt the snow collapse beneath me and dump me unceremoniously into the cave behind out of sight my giggles reassured the others that I was alright and I emerged for round 2 of the battle.

Above the good ice I found yet more sugary snow for my axes so resorted to pulling as high as I dared and then mantleshelving on a combination of snow and iced rock; thank goodness for wooly Dachstein mitts that stick so well to ice! A tense few minutes followed as I juggled with more sugary snow and a couple of rock holds to surmount the second steepening. I certainly had a dry mouth by the time I reached the belay above!

Discussing the grade as we sat in the sun on descent we concluded that grade II is correct but only in good conditions; if the snow had been just a wee bit more solid it would have been a walk in the park by comparison. This is probably the greatest single lesson of winter climbing- routes are graded for good conditions and they are desperate/impossible if not in condition. Easy to comprehend at higher grades when an icicle just isn’t there but equally applicable in the lower grades which rely on a certain depth and consistency of snow.



Crowded Cuillin Carparks :) 11 December


As we headed down to the Glen frosted vehicles already parked at Sligachan and the beach were an indication that the fine conditions has attracted suitors for the Traverse.

Icky & I were lucky enough to have completed a Traverse back in 2001 and, instead, fancied trying some of the ice we had spied in Coire Lagan last week. We invited Neil from Portree to join us for his first play with 2 technical ice axes.

Sadly the sun and thaw over last weekend had stripped this south-facing buttress right back to bare rock. Instead the North-west Ramp of Sgurr Sgumain looked a good option once more.

We put on the crampons from the lochan and headed up beautiful solid neve, mixing it with a few steps of ice for Neil to get used to some steeper manouvres. Normally I head out left to the foot of the ramp but today a direct approach pitch looked possible.

Heathcote’s Gully

Heathcotes Gully lies directly above Neil’s head; the normal start to NW ramp lies out left.

Heathcote’s Gully is an 80m Moderate route that acts as an outflow for all the water pouring off this side of Sgumain that gains the NW Ramp route at half height. It has always looked unattractive in the past; in 1892 Heathcote described it as “steep with scanty footholds”. Today it was largely banked out with a couple of short ice steps. I found lovely solid placements in the first step but needed some clever footwork to reach the good ice in the second. I needn’t have bothered racking all the gear because the compact waterworn walls yeilded not a sausage. The belay above was little better; a well-equalised mix of warthog, bulldog, axes & 2 very shallow blades.

Fortunately the stance was good and Neil cruised up the steep sections with Icky close behind. I’m sure this feature has been climbed in winter before, probably unnoticed under a good bank-out, but will add a grade of II with a note about no rock gear to the SMC records.

NW Ramp

Having climbed this route a few more times since the guidebook went to print I would suggest that grade I is a bit of a sandbag. The steepening was well banked out for Neil and I to move together but slabs above involve an unprotectable rising traverse, required delicacy and the position is daunting. Grade II is far more suitable.

We topped out into a blaze of sunshine and views out to the Hebrides for which I’ve run out of superlatives.

Sgurr Sgumain (947m)

We stomped easliy to the top of Sgurr Sgumain and watched a team of 4 abseil into the TD Gap nearing the end of their Traverse.

As we continued towards Alasdair the narrow crest and steep flanks ate into time and darkness wasn’t far away so we decided to make one long abseil to the safety of snow slopes below. Another first for Neil this and, as before, he coped admirably.

Traverse successes

On the long walk out of Ghrunnda we were passed by the Traverse team of Guy Steven, Donald King, Kenny Grant & Duncan still romping along despite having been on their feet since half past one in the morning!

Ideal Winter Traverse conditions this week 9th December


A Winter Traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is the Holy Grail of British mountaineering; the finest mountaineering route in the UK but requiring a unique set of circumstances to come into condition. Without going into detail too much that time has come and the crest of the Ridge should have a fairly consistently solid covering of snow from one end to the other that should allow pretty rapid progress. Equally importantly the forecast is for beautiful cold crisp clear skies over the next 3 days at least.

The route has been high on climbers tick lists ever since the first successful Traverse in 1965 by legends Tom Patey, Hamish MacInnes, Brian Robertson and Davey Crabb. I’m contracted to report weekly on conditions to UKClimbing and have been preparing folk as conditions build up with a series of increasingly positive reports. Below are a selection of the most recent posts for your amusement & information:

“Looking perfect for a Traverse now ’til Wednesday (or Thursday possibly). I’ll give up posting on UKC if I don’t hear about anyone going for it.”

Cuillin Ridge in winter; timings for different sections

“One oversight in the new guidebook is a winter grade for doing individual sections and rounds of the corries. With conditions looking good in the coming week the breakdown below may be useful. It should also be of use for those just doing individual sections.
Winter is when the Cuillin truly takes on its “Alpine” status with conditions affecting the seriousness, line & techniques differently through the day. Descents are particularly thought provoking! With this in mind I’ve opted for using an alpine grading rather than Scottish winter. Timings are for (R) rounds, (S) sections or (A) approach. Approach & descents will vary hugely but allow 3.5 hours to the first summit in all but perfect conditions. Allow a min of 2 hours to descend but the last hour will probably be on a good footpath.
Daylight is about 7-30am to 4pm just now but will vary a lot with cloud cover.

(R) Traverse Gillean up Tourist rte, Descend from Bealach A Bhasteir E-W AD 9hrs
(S) Traverse Am Basteir & Tooth AD 1.5hrs
(S) Bruach na Frithe to Bealach Harta AD 2hrs
(S) Traverse Bidean N-S (col to col on Traverse) D 1.5hrs
(S) Glaic Moire to An Dorus AD 2hrs
(S) An Dorus- Banachdaich AD 2+hrs
(R) Coire na Banachdaich PD 8hrs
(A) Dearg W Ridge PD 3hrs in ascent
(R) Coire Lagan, Pinn to Alasdair D 9hrs
(R) Dubhs from Ghrunnda AD 7hrs
(R) Sgurr nan Eag to Gars-bheinn PD 8hrs

A brief overview is also available –”

“For those after climbs as opposed to the Traverse an article I wrote printed in Climb in January 2012 gives an overview of a more modern view of climbing in the Cuillin.-
Having focussed on mixed climbing in the article, ironically, last winter saw some good ice routes form and we now have a situation where these are reforming & even the Traverse is looking likely. Overall the message is get up there & explore & you wont be disappointed.”

UKC Conditions report Skye 8 December

The excellent conditions and weather last weekend gave everybody a superb time. The winter skills day was well attended & well received by 11 of us on an ascent of Sgurr a Bhasteir.
Next day Jim Higgins & Ross made the 3rd ascent of HDQ on Am Basteir –
while Martin (HDQ 1st Ascent) & Pete (HDQ 2nd Ascent) were knocked back on their attempts to tackle a new line close by-
Sadly nobody used the conditions & full moon to try the Traverse but all may not be lost despite a real plastering through the start of this week. A convincing thaw up to 800+m today and another warm blip tomorrow could well work in everybodies favour next week with a return to very cold settled conditions.
I was out on Wednesday (gallery- ) but we just took our rack & ropes for a beautiful wander along the crest rather than swimming up any climbs. Despite drifts on the flanks there was an encouraging crust on the older snow below that made the very crest quite speedy & easy still. Worth watching the stability of the drifts higher up; we broke through an inch deep crust but this may thicken & make windslab more of an issue if it doesn’t thaw as much as I hope.
There was the beginnings of some quite sizeable ice, by Cuillin standards, in south facing corners at “mid-level” including Southern Comfort (IV)-
Big winds in with the warm blips this weekend should all help keep things whiter more than black over the coming week and hopefully any fresh powder will drift off.
I noted the request for Skye routes on another post which reminded me of an outstanding mission to put guidebook times on sections of the Ridge in winter. Nearly finished that but will post seperately and also add it to my winter Traverse advice on the website.

Deep Winter Play 5th December


Winter continues with avengence here; after working with us this summer Scott Kirkhope enthusiastically travelled up from Fort Bill for his first taste of the Cuillin in winter on Wednesday. We were joined by my long term winter partner Icky and shared the BMC hut with Annie, Tom & Gemma.

Yellow moonlight tinted the snow as we set off up Coire an Eich but the joy was rudely interupted by a fierce blizzard that lasted well over an hour.It finally passed through just as we reached the summit of Sgurr na Banachdaich.

The sun battled through the spindrift creating wonderful light effects.

I had had ambitions on a new climb in Coruisk but so much fresh snow was going to make things very hard & remove any pleasure. It was a day to enjoy the amazing light & views so we headed off southward with the sun warming us nicely.

Flanks were covered in powder snow on top of an icy crust; luckily our boots broke through this crust and kept us feeling safe without crampons or ropes.The crest was the best choice with no drifts and a good cushion filling in the gaps and we made good speed to bealach na Banachdaich. The others appeared on the West Ridge of Dearg ahead of us so it was an easy choice to head up and meet up.

Next on the wonders trip was a pair of Sea eagles playing in the thermals above us.

After taking in the views at the Pinn all 6 of us indulged in one long bum-slide right from the top and down to Coire Lagan with only short sections of easy walking.

The mornings blizzard had produced a carpet of soft snow to cushion the footpath right back to the hut in the evening light and the compulsory glorious vista out across the Minch to Rum & Canna.


Skye Winter Skills Day, December 1st


11 of us enjoyed superb conditions and wonderful weather on an ascent of Sgurr a’ Bhasteir on Saturday the 1st. Amongst the group was a mix of summer hill walkers, climbers and mountaineers from Skye. Many thanks to everyone who turned up to make it such a huge success.We all climbed the left hand (NE) ridge of the beautiful pyramidal Sgurr a’ Bhasteir on the right.

I worried that Friday’s heavy rain might not stop but the skies cleared, temperatures dropped and everyone survived the icy roads to meet at Sligachan at 8am. The peaks were plastered with snow with descriptions varying from “Himalayan” to “iced cakes”.

The footpath was treacherously coated in black ice and gave everyone a full body work out just to stay upright. It was quite a relief to finally don the crampons at the steepening by the Basteir Gorge. Those wearing them for the first time were amazed at how positive they suddenly felt.

Underfoot conditions improved hugely once we reached the snow-line. Progress was tempered by a photography-fest as glorious vistas opened up all around us and a golden eagle even gave us a fly-by. After lunch Donald and Martin opted to head down to give themselves plenty of time to negotiate the icy slabs. The eagle again soared above us as we made very good speed to reach the summit and even more spectacular scenery.

Summit of Sgurr a’ Bhasteir 898m

At Bealach na Lice crampons were removed to allow some practice at ice-axe arrest on a quick descent back into Coir’ a’ Bhasteir. We also briefly looked at how to treat delicate Cuillin ice before having to put crampons back on for the painful return over the icy slabs. We all managed this and most of the return journey before darkness finally engulfed us and the head-torches came into their own.

Everyone had a great time and one suggestion is to set-up a local facebook group for anyone keen to get out.