Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Solo on Ben Nevis

After my final exam I chose to escape the city and run away to Ben Nevis. After booking the CIC hut for the night, something I can recommend to anyone who wishes to visit the North Face, I took the train to Fort William. From Fort William a short walk to a gap in the trees surrounding the golf course presents the old path. Over grown and rarely trod, this often muddy path through the trees offers a fantastic walk through the glen avoiding the ugly forestry commission tracks before emerging from the forest and into open moorland. I reached the CIC hut just before the fog and heavier rain closed in, with the melt water causing an exciting stream crossing for a soloist just short of the hut.

Staying in the CIC hut that night with the Inverness Backcountry Skiing club was great. A collection of mountain lovers all on the Ben to enjoy life and experience the surroundings. We had a great time, as a climber I had packed a boil in a bag and some snacks for the next day but the hospitality of the club was apparent when I was offered cheeses and wine which it would be rude to refuse. We stayed up late discussing the mountains and my plans of a trip to the alps that summer.

The next morning I woke to rain and postponed my trip as a fellow climber who was known to members of the club was apparently heading up and may be interested in climbing together. By 1000hrs the weather had cleared and with no sign of a partner I began to ascend the slopes below No. 5 Gully and the route for the day, Ledge Route.

As I ascended the slopes the stories of the night before echoed in my ears, one of the party had been involved in a rescue high on the route in a grim and serious accident with one fatality. I plodded on assessing the snow, consolidated but wet from thawing.

Climbing up No.5 gully I began to trend right towards the ledge, bare of snow. Due to the snow melt above the cliffs were separated from the bulk of the gully snow by an almost bergschrund like gap. The gap was bridged occasionally by snow and I crossed a snow bridge which felt barely adequate onto the first ledge.

The ledge sloped away to the right, gently and to the left was a slightly overhanging rock. Climbing further along the ledge I realised this was not the route of the day, the ledge itself was awash with just enough water to make your boots feel buoyant and black lichenous slime covered all the rocks. It didn't take long to make the decision to not risk a 300ft fall over the cliffs below and retreat.

I abseiled down two 30m lengths in order to get back to No.5 Gully using snow anchors and rock spikes for protection as retreating back along the snow bridge was not inviting.

Not giving up I decided to head higher up No.5 Gully to traverse into ledge route higher up. This would be more exposed but potentially could still see me reaching the summit. I was stopped roughly half way up No.5 Gully by a large glide crack. Still trying I traversed left to another snow bridge and stepped across onto some scree and climbed some choss until the base of a wall. The wall had a vertical crack which I climbed self belaying for two pitches, 40m. From here I realised I couldn't make the traverse to ledge route as the snow was crossed by more cracks.

I abbed off and began my retreat. Four abseils saw me below the glide crack and looking into the bergschrund as I bounced across. The gap between the snow and rock must have been 15m in depth. I pulled my rope through and traversed to the other side and began a slow climb down by now very slushy snow. During the descent rocks began to fall down the left hand side of the gully, I avoided this area as it was stained and pitted, a decision as I was glad of as the rocks bounced down.

Two hours of down climbing later saw me at the bottom of the gully absolutely exhausted and glad to be in one piece. I sat behind a large rock to remove my crampons and rested for an hour before picking myself up to descend to the CIC hut and pick up my kit. I'd been so involved in the day I'd not eaten or drank. Four Mars bars gave me the energy I needed to get back to Fort William.

Mer de Glace

Altitude, something that I had never encountered before I embarked on a trip to the Courvercle Hut from Montenvers. I was shocked at how debilitating a lack of oxygen in the air can be.

Looking down the Mer de Glace from Montenvers

We climbed down the ladders from Montenvers Station, our first trip to the alps, our first attempt at acclimatisation and our first time on a glacier. The descent to the Mer de Glace in itself is exciting, having no experience of Via Ferratta, it involves a series of long ladders followed by a steep moraine scree to the surface of a dry glacier.

Setting foot on glacial ice for the first time

The whole experience was incredible, we crossed a small glacial stream and were able to proceed without crampons due to the nature of the grit within the ice. The environment surrounding us utterly alien, we saw guided groups moving with less trepidation and decided we were being overly cautious, we moved quicker as the glacial environment became more familiar. Although I had years of climbing experience on Sammy we were both learning.

With no money for guides we had to learn from books and practice techniques in the UK where we could. The winter of 2014, had taught me a little about how to walk in crampons and Sammy had only ever worn them in an indoor wall. We used the opportunity to practice our skills watching what the guides taught their clients from a distance, the slopes they walked across and how they moved. This opened up new ideas of what was possible and gave us confidence. Sammy, ever the natural with footwork struggled little.

We put on the rope as we progressed practicing moving together our crevasse rescue kit jingling away. There was no objective danger to necessitate this however it helped us become more familiar with what we would need to do later.

A British guide walking the other way stopped for a chat and we confirmed that the Courvercle hut was up a set of ladders, the paint marks being yellow squares. knowing we had to cross the large glacial river which runs off centre down the left hand side of the glacier as you face up it we headed towards this. A few guided groups were crossing the raging torrent using a gentle slope of ice to a large rock and a subsequent jump to a smaller ice ledge and a steep climb out so we sat and had a quick bite to eat before attempting this.

The glacial river, fast flowing and cold.

The jump from a slopey rock in crampons was more risky for the first person across so I sent Sammy first, allowing me to secure her with a belay. I followed and we climbed the steeper ice slope out. Unlike Scottish winter snow climbing the ice was bullet hard, secure. We congratulated ourselves on how we'd handled this and proceeded aware that we were behind schedule and would possibly be walking down from Montenvers rather than getting the train.

Not a great deal further ahead we spotted an oil drum cairn on the morraine and yellow squares painted on the cliffs above and we headed across the morraine. It was about 1500hrs at this time so we stopped for another snack and something to drink before carrying on for another 15mins or so to the base of a ladder. Here Sammy realised that she had left her gloves where we had the water and wanted to go back to get them, this wasn't really an option as we had no discernable foot prints among the many that cross the morraine looking for the easiest route and the only defining feature of the place where we stopped was that it was 'behind a big boulder' in a sea or them. We opted to crack on.

At the bottom of the ladders leading to the Balcon and the Courvercle

Sammy lead the way up the ladder climbing approximately 30m of rope ahead of me, enough for 5 bolts or so. The route is well bolted and the ladders here are stable though in places overhanging. 30mins later we had climbed all the ladders necessary to a large platform, where we saw our first Ibex. Climbing on we expected the hut to be only 30mins away. Well over 1 hour later we were overtaken by a faster team who confirmed that the hut was not much further and we rang the hut to book in for the night as we were well behind time. Around this time the altitude hit me, I've since learnt that I begin to feel the effects at 2500m, Sammy however was not short of breath yet but being more powerfully built I found all the smaller laddered and scrambling sections difficult.

An Ibex and The Grande Jorasses

It turned out that we had taken the wrong set of ladders to the hut, these ladders are part of the new Balcon route and are not the Eschelets described in the Cicerone guides. The guidebook time for the circular walk back to Montenvers is given as 8 hours, most people we spoke to thought that 4 hours to the Courvercle is unrealistic and 6 hours would be good going. Unacclimitised and practicing techniques this took us almost 8.

The Grande Jorasses, from hear we heard a rock fall which lasted for 20 minutes

Lessons learnt; Don't believe the guidebook times, Don't use Cicerone guidebooks (similar experiences in the UK), Don't drink alcohol at altitude.

This is not to say that this was a bad experience, we had succeeded, we were tired but the hut had room and food. That night we dined with an artist and an older mountaineer who was guiding him to allow him to paint the landscapes. Kindly he offered to take us to the col they were visiting the next day but we declined due to limited funds barring us from another night in the hut. We had a glass of wine each and watched the sunset over the Grand Jorasses, that night I found myself needing to force myself to breathe deeply or feel too nauseous to sleep, the wine had taken effect, combined with the altitude it made for a terrible nights sleep followed until the alcohol left my system.

We descended via the old balcon route, past the Charapoua Glacier and descending the ladders opposite the Egralets to the Mer de Glace the path to the Charapoua and crossing beneath the glacier was exciting. Many pegged steps are bent or broken by rock fall from above making for some exciting steps. Crossing below the Charapoua glacier is best done with haste, the seracs and rocks above are funneled down a 300m wide polished rock slab, this is not a place to linger and a slip could see you take a slide towards the drop towards the Mer de Glace. As we were crossing Sammy sent me first to ensure that I didn't rush her too much, about 20m from the end of the traverse she slipped on some wet polished rock. Luckily this only caused my heart to stop as she cried out and she was fine and we cracked on.

Looking back from below the Charapoua Hut, at the left of the picture is the line of the Balcon route. looking South into the distance it is possible to view left to right the Grande Jorasses, Rochfort Arete and the Dent du Geant.

I have been told since that the ladders opposite Montenvers have been removed.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Learning the Ropes II

February provided me and Cammy with our first real opportunity to climb in winter. Previous to then university, inclement weather and girlfriends had stopped us making the trip North. This quick trip was to Glen Coe, famous for massacre, breathtaking scenery and The Clachaig Inn.
Cammy In The Glen Coe Car Park

After an uneventful drive we arrived just as the rain in the lower valley ceased and the mist started to clear. We put on our kit, at which point I realised my helmet was not attached to the side of my rucksack, hardly ideal as rocks in mountainous areas are rarely as stable as small single pitch crags and ice has a tendency to break. A potentially deadly combination of detritus which can be sent from above either by your own axes or your partner leading ahead. Luckily Cammy had his cycle helmet with him, this had plenty of ventilation, or small stone gaps but was better than nothing.

We raced up the mountain over taking a few parties before we even got to the snow line. The path to Stob Coire nan Lochan was well trod, which made progress faster. We continued moving fast up to the Coire itself, where we stopped well back to check routes, cornices and plan our descent while eating pork pies. Above most routes in the Coire there were large meringues of cornice, some must have been 3 to 4 metres deep. There was evidence of recent small avalanches in the gullies, so those were out of the question. Instead we headed to a famous ridge line, where no cornices were present and parties were already climbing called Dorsal Arete.

Making Good Progress Up The Valley


The weather was fantastic, warm sunshine, hardly a cloud in the sky. Cold on the north facing ridge as we climbed, but this was no bad thing. The recent snows had not frozen and had the consistency of sugar. Had they been subject to the warmth of the sun they would have been even less stable. We made quick progress behind a guided party. Climbing the steep snow up to the first belay round a block quickly, without ropes. At the block a traffic jam had formed as a member of the party was trying to pluck up the courage to summit the Dorsal Fin. While we were waiting there was a crunch, this cornice collapse sent debris down the neighboring gully.

Dorsal Fin (ridge centre of picture)

Guided Party Ahead (climber tackling the fin)

Soon we were climbing again, no substantial protection, just rope looped between spikes up to the end of the first pitch. There was terrific exposure, making a small step up, made slightly worse by the absolute demolition of the snow by the guided group failing to place their feet accurately in each others kicked steps.

View Back To The Car

The next pitch was probably the best I have ever climbed, a little climbing, followed by a walk along a narrow fin of rock. Some my call this contrived as it is easily avoided by a short traverse, but I'd say this is the most appealing line, it sums up why you would climb. Either side of the fin is a 20ft drop into gullies which stretch to the bottom of the Coire, the belay, a small spike of rock, is worryingly far and in these banked out conditions the sling round the fin is slightly dubious. Alot to absorb and savour as you walk along a small ridge as wide as your foot before escaping to the safety of the next belay and  quick pitch to the top.

Cammy On The Dorsal Fin

Cammy finished the climb, it took us a very short time, however we had no option other than to head straight back as we had spent so long waiting for the route to clear. On the way down passing satstrugi worn by the wind, we looked to Bidean nam Bian, and later to the Anoach Eagach Ridge. More challenges for another day. A quick pint and a steak in the Clachaig rounded off a fantastic day.

Cycle Helmet Top Out

Bidean nam Bian

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Cobbler

The Cobbler is the most accessible technical summit in relation to Glasgow. Yesterday a group of friends with varying experience in the mountains made the trip with me to the summit. The weather started with drizzle but quickly dried, however strong winds remained. We took a diversion from the path up a steep scree followed by an almost vertical turf section to a shoulder and the saddle between the Central and South Peak.  The central peak offers the highest point of the mountain, a pinnacle which stands about 15 ft or so above the surrounding ground.

To access the summit is a quick scramble of no real technical difficulty, a hole in the easily accessible side gives access to a ledge where a short traverse leads to a series of blocks which give steps to the top. Atop I set up a belay and Rachael came up to join me.  The wind this small distance higher than the summit was considerable, adding to the exposure. A fun summit with little technical difficulty, though best enjoyed with a little knowledge of short roping techniques to protect the pinnacle.

Windy Approach With Fantastic Views

Placing Protection On The Top

Rachael Joins Me On The Summit

Windswept Up Top

Monday, 14 April 2014

Learning The Ropes

In December Cammy and I had an abortive attempt to break into winter climbing, which ended in an epic at the Cairngorms. Unfortunately due to the abysmal conditions we were unable to climb, instead the snow and ice that had formed had melted over night and we thought it unethical to proceed with our climbing. Instead of climbing the Fiacall Ridge we detoured and had a little fun traversing a slush slope in Coire an Lochain before heading along the Cairngorm Plateau. The wind was unbelievable, gusts at the top were measured to be in excess of 114mph, enough to make every step on the remaining slush a question mark event as to whether you might be blown over.

We loved it.

The plateau was ours, not a sole in sight, a few ptarmigans nestled together at one point, until the wind blew them asunder flinging birds at us in one last desperate attempt to drive us back before we made our final push to summit of Cairngorm. On the way back down, buzzing from the adrenaline, drenched, we passed the station for the funicular railway. Inside sat warm, smiley people drinking hot chocolate wondering why on earth these sodden, bedraggled men were still ploughing on. Really having left our wallets behind we weren't able to afford the fare and had no choice. What a great day, a true expression of the moods mountainous areas can take.

You would have thought that in these situations any sensible being would have been wearing a nice gore-tex jacket, and they were, Cammy was. I was braving the day, without a choice, in the Rab Exodus Softshell Jacket.

This jacket is an unparalleled bit of kit, water-resistant it held the rain off until we left the car park in the morning. It breathed out and in from there on all the way to the top and I was drenched. This is however expected, it being a soft shell and all. Do I regret wearing it? Well no, not really, Cammy in his goretex jacket was as wet as me, the rain was blown in through every orifice of the jacket. Perspiration was also a large factor due to the effort that was needed to stay vertically orientated and make onward progress, dodging bullet-like ptarmigans. So at the end, stripping off in the car park neither of us seemed dry anywhere, true Scottish weather.

One thing the Exodus did do rather better was keep the wind out. Gusts of 114mph may have been the case on the summit, however in the saddles between summits there wind was constant, rushing from the valley floor it sounded like a jet, we crawled through these areas almost on our hands and knees. Yet through all this, I did not feel the heat and morale sapping effects of wind chill.

I feel it is a good jacket and have since used it for climbing in snow and on rock, the large chest pockets are good for carrying maps and snacks. There are no unnecessary features such as taped seams and waterproof zips as you find on some soft shells and the hood fits well over a helmet too. The only drawback is the left arm zip pocket. It moves annoyingly with the weight of a phone, so I put my compass in it, this worked well until I found my compass dangling by my wrist. This pocket tends to open with movement, especially while climbing, with or without something in it. Otherwise an awesome jacket, especially if you, like me, know that putting effort into moving fast is better for warmth than being dry with a fleece.

Traversing the slush slope practicing rope techniques

The author at the summit in the Exodus Jacket

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Do you have previous?

So what qualifies me to talk about adventure? As previously stated I am a fairly inexperienced climber, I've never been to the alps and I'm already set on making alpine ascents with a similarly poorly experienced person where there is no hope of rescue in the event of an accident. These things seem to stack the odds largely against me.

However there is a secret to making things happen. If you persevere, have determination and are willing to make sacrifices you can achieve anything. Luck may have something to do with it, certainly you are lucky if you aren't hit by rocks while climbing, but that is similar to not being hit by a car crossing the road. You are ultimately in control of your destiny.

I have been on adventures before, in my first year of university I decided that during the summer break I would travel to India and Pakistan. I moved hell and high water to make it happen, eating less to save money, seeking the cheapest flights at great length and planning the little details of the trip. When I got there all that went out of the window as no plans remain the same, but to save cash I opted for cheaper places to live, spending the night in Dhabhas.

The first night was spent in a small petrol station outside Faridabad near Dehli. I met a fellow student on the flight over whom had been gifted the business by his father to break him into the harsh realities of real work. He recommended I did not follow my plans to find a dodgy hostel that night and instead stay there. Figuring he had nothing to gain from this, or me, I guessed I'd be safe. The risk payed off, I had free food, a beer, a bed and a few new friends made. A good start.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Germ Of An Idea

The concept of this blog is to hopefully show that anyone, with a little experience, determination and ingenuity can undertake adventure and expeditions in the modern world. The great peaks may have been climbed and you may be able to pay your way to the top of Everest but there are still some untouched corners of this planet.

Small insignificant peaks which may be dwarfed by stories of greater expeditions but adventure is always personal. While it's easy to read about Scott, Shackleton, Hilary and Fiennes it is hard to imagine how their expeditions were even with personal accounts. The whole world has changed, these areas have become less remote and technology has altered our perception of risk, and once something has been achieved it seems easier. Personal accounts rarely give a true insight into the harsh conditions, as with soldiers adventurers are not inclined to share all.

The only real way to experience the environment associated with these great feats is to organise your own. Repeat ascents of Everest have led to calls for permanent paths and ladders, where there are already fixed ropes, sherpas are increasingly running themselves as a cartel and commercialisation is contributing to ever more rubbish and bodies. Going somewhere new, or at least far from the crowds, and with good ethics will lead to a rewarding if sometimes harrowing experience. Your own true adventure.

A few months ago I decided I would like to climb an unclimbed peak. To organise and experience a new adventure where the stakes are high. Modern lightweight alpinism in the Muzkol range in Tajikistan has some great opportunities, in a beautiful setting, as remote as you can get.