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Northern Pinnacles of Liathach

Spidean a'Choire Leith

My days off this week had mixed weather and mixed success.

First was an attempt at the Cioch Nose, which didn’t get further than the car park for various reasons including sideways rain, waking up late, high winds and a film crew.

The second was a solo of the Northern Pinnacles of Liathach. Graded moderate in the Highland Scrambles North guidebook, this blurs the line between scrambling and climbing. Many people, it would appear, choose to avoid the tricky lower sections of the route opting instead to go and to the fine, airy upper section of the route. Not having done it before I was keen to find out what it’s like.

The walk in is best from the east up Coire Dubh Mor. This is steeper and longer than you’d expect but very rewarding. It has stunning views and is a well kept path, complete with stepping stones for the river crossing. Turning off this and heading into Coire na Caime by small and then larger lochans and hummocked heather gives you a feeling of leaving all traces of civilisation behind. From the loch in the coire you can spy out the line of the route. It’s faint line of weakness up the impressive flanks of Meall Dearg that looks inviting and daunting in equal measure.

The route lives up to the description of “hard at the start” before you gain the clean rock in a fine position. I certainly felt tentative over the moist turf-covered initial section. Being careful and paying heed to the seriousness of the location, I took my time over these initial passages. Once the ridge is gained the nature of the route changes, insecure heather being replaced by airy jumbles of sandstone, and before long the concern had left and the enjoyment of moving over a ridge freely with a light rucksack and only myself for company replaced it. The summit of Meall Dearg came quickly.

Northern Pinnacles of Mullach an Rathain (Liathach)
Northern Pinnacles of Mullach an Rathain (Liathach)

From the col behind, the true pinnacles were obvious as stepped terraces of sandstone. The line up these was much better defined leading me to believe that most people probably take the “easy” (as the guidebook puts it) approach. Taking care for the loose section, but enjoying the position and moves, the pinnaces soon passed as well and before I knew it I was on the summit.

A glance at the watch and a quick snack I realised I’d have time to complete and west to east traverse and do some more exploring by heading down the east ridge. I set off passing the familiar terrain of Am Fasarinen, keeping to the crest allowed me to enjoy the passage of the pinnacles. Over Spidean a’Choire Leith and Stuc a Choire Dhuibh Bhig and I was heading down the eastern ridge.

Spidean a'Choire Leith
Spidean a’Choire Leith and the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles

This has tricky route finding and an exposed position feeling like you’re dropping off the edge of the world. Most of the difficulty is, however, mercifully straightforward with care being taken not to descend too far and get caught by the “damp, dark cliffs” at the bottom. These are escaped be traversing right to scree.

All that remained was heading back for a shower with a smile on my face and another great day in the Torridon hills.

Liathach Summit Selfie
Liathach Summit Selfie
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The Pillar

The sun and heatwave have finally made it to Torridon – Jen was off today and I had a nice cooling dip in the gorge during the morning followed by a pleasant coastal walk in the afternoon after I was getting a loan from https://www.cashcrazy.co.uk/desperate-loans/ because I need the money to buy new equipment.

Having not managed to climb at Diabaig yet – I was really excited to head over after work and give the classic ‘Pillar’ (E2 5b) a go. Several people have mentioned to me this is as good as left wall and a must do for the area. I had to go take a look.

For those that don’t know Diabaig is at the end of the road through Torridon village and a beautiful spot. It has hills of Lewisian Gneiss surrounding it with many crags. The Pillar climbs the central line of the most obvious slab/wall.

The Pillar
The Pillar crag, the route is up the middle of the face – photo by Jen Roberts

All I can say is the line lives up to the reputation and while I personally would put it below Left Wall on my all time favourite climbs it’s definitely up there. Starting off with a continuously interesting well protected crack you gain a ramp to move down and left before questing up the face above. Some holds are obvious others a bit hidden but they keep arriving just where you need them to make the climbing so enthralling I almost didn’t realise I’d made it to the top. Gear is plentiful though you don’t loose that committing feel with linked sections of moves between key pieces. Does it deserve four stars – yes I think it does.

Climbing The Pillar - photo by Jen Roberts
Climbing The Pillar – photo by Jen Roberts
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Four Star Open Canoe

Tandom White Water - Photo cropped from original by Giles Trussell

Below are some thoughts on my recent four star canoe leader training at Glenmore Lodge. This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide of what to cover, or even include everything that I covered on the course, however, hopeful people wondering about the course or preparing themselves to become a four star open canoeist might find it useful.

Day One – Open Water

We started off with a few methods for lifting boats, particularly interesting was using the ropes as a slide to get the boat off the higher rungs of the trailer. It involves two people holding the ends of the ropes out perpendicular to the canoe (still attached to the central point on the trailer) a further two people slide the canoe onto the ropes. It will then roll under its own weight and turn the right way up to grab the handles off and carry to launch. I quite liked this method as it definitely saved backs and lifting especially where boats are high on a trailer. It does however, use a lot of people and is probably more time consuming than lifting boats manually. One to use with weaker groups or people not used to lifting boats where you might team up as a four to lift anyway.

Finally, before getting on the water we discussed the tactics for the prevailing conditions (strong, out of remit wind).

With the boats by the shore of the loch we discussed kitting them out. In general attaching dry bags and other items on a length of rope just long enough to reach from the middle of the boat to either end. That way maximum options are available for adjusting the trim (weight distribution for and aft) of the boat. We also learnt the highwayman’s hitch to secure items. I was carrying:

  • First Aid
  • Group Shelter or tarp with a few pegs
  • Spares and repairs – including two pulleys and three carabiners to rescue a pinned boat.
  • Throw line
  • 16ft sling
  • Tape sling
  • Knife
  • Spare warm layer, woolly hat and neoprene gloves
  • Food and drink
  • Kneeling mat
  • Bailer
  • Two paddles (a deep water wooden paddle* and a white water paddle)
  • Pole, in two sections
  • Sail

Finally, before getting on the water we discussed the tactics for the prevailing conditions (strong, out of remit wind). We hugged the shore to find any shelter we could and wait for a lull to get around into the next bay which was very sheltered. We also pre-adjusted the trim on our boat to naturally turn front to wind. With a group we’d have options of carrying, or lining the boat. It was important to brief them not to get between the boat and the shore as well. A canoe is heavy if full of water and blown at you by a gale.

Sorting kit before our open water day - Photo curtsy of Ali Rose
Sorting kit before our open water day – Photo courtesy of Ali Rose

On the water we had to do some strong paddling into wind and looked at where best to paddle. It turned out that trimming forward and paddling up wind was easier for strong wind conditions (with the boat self-correcting into wind and less pushing against it). Trim is crucial in this instance. As the wind dropped we also tried paddling on the down wind side. This also proved effective depending on how the boat was trimmed. My preference fell on the up wind side once you got the hang of the trim. This meant less battling against the wind with every stroke as you didn’t have to push the boat into it and wait for the boat to correct instead you could rely on the paddle to correct as it naturally braced against the gunwale of the canoe. This was totally counter what I had initially thought.

The wind died away a bit and we found enough shelter to give polling a go. This is the process of propelling the canoe using a 12ft long (in our case) metal pole like you were in Venice. Hand orientation took a bit of getting used to, ‘bicycle grip’ where the thumbs point towards each other for wide steering strokes, otherwise top hand with thumb up to give more natural drive. The pole should enter the water as near to the centre as possible allowing the boat to glide past it until it reaches a 45 degree angle and pressure applied to increase movement. Keeping it near the central ‘keel’ line of the boat means minimal correction needed to keep going in a straight line and requires stacking hands over the side of the canoe, a good test of flexibility and balance. There are two techniques for recovering the pole for your next stroke. The first is called ‘wind-milling’ and uses a flip at the rear hand to spin the pole in a large cartwheel with lots of momentum. This should bring it around ready to drop straight into the central line again. I found this particular method somewhat elusive to master and one I really need to practice to make sure I’m set for assessment. The second, more intuitive to me but perhaps less efficient, is where you fire the pole up through your hands to clear the water after moment is achieved. This allows you to bring it forward and reset ready to glide on again. Correction strokes for the inevitable miscalculation in direction can be done using the end of the pole and full turns by using the biggest lever you can muster i.e. placing hands at the end and using hips as a pivot with the far end entering the water to turn the boat – very effective when mastered.

Somehow we’d all escaped falling in during the polling session so we celebrated with a lunch break. We used this to talk about shelter options for groups. Tarps are great with canoes – somehow it fits nicely with the ethos and they provide great shelter from the worst of the weather as we found out with some torrential downpours while we tucked into our sandwiches. They are also versatile – making great sails. At some stage I intend to replace my group shelter with one for canoe trips.

Using a tarp to provide shelter - Photo curtsy of Ali Rose
Using a tarp to provide shelter – Photo curtsy of Ali Rose

Talking of sailing, after lunch we set about rigging up a raft and a couple of canoes with solo sails. This is fairly straight forward. The best idea though is to check the rig you’re using before being assessed. Some require the poles in particular orientations where subtly different lengths can make a big difference. This brought back memories from my childhood sailing days and made me consider the effect of lee boards on turning the boat. These can be used for “rudderless” steering and placed/angled correctly require less effort to hold. Another item on my list to practice and master before assessment. As with everything in canoes, trim makes a big difference and setting it back will allow the boat to surf downwind much better.

After dropping the sails, and in calmer waters, we spent a bit of time looking at strokes. These included linking strokes and knifing Js. We were using lots of turning strokes and did both forward and reverse figure of eights. A good session to do with groups before getting on a river as it allows you to assess their ability and enabled us to check for “three star” performance.

Rescues were next and simpler than expected; the curl and X methods being the two main types, as well as dealing with a swamped boat and an empty upright boat. We also talked about having strategies available for scenarios such as dislocated shoulders and what to do in strong winds to look after the group if a member capsizes. Depending on circumstances, should you get them to shore potentially having to paddle or line back to the group, or should the group follow the rescue leaving them exposed to the elements with the possibility of further capsizes?

Finally we paddled back. Throughout the day we discussed Communication, Line of sight, Avoidance and Positioning (CLAP principle) and its application such as where we might position ourselves in the group/why. These are key topics for the four star and leadership on water in general. They are beyond the scope of what I’m discussing here but worth having an excellent understanding of before assessment.

Back at the centre, tea and cake was followed by a homework exercise – what river would you do in your area ‘tomorrow’ with the current forecast?

Day Two – The Spey

In the morning we discussed potential river trips from our homework exercise. The area around Torridon is good for open water and there are a few short rivers that could be worth a look. In general the geography of the west is for quick run off and therefore short sharp rivers. Some to look at include the Balgy, the Ewe and the Carron.

After this discussion we drove to the Spey. While the shuttle was taking place we had a play with tracking and lining. These are methods of moving your boat up and down the river while controlling it from the bank using ropes. Saving you getting wet feet and enabling you to move kit against a wind or flow you couldn’t paddle into. There were various rope options shown. These included a single large loop, attaching extra lines to the front and back, using a bridle, or using a throw bag and extra long painter. All the options worked but my favourite was the throw bag and painter. This involved less rope being around and therefore seemed less hazardous and complicated then the other methods. In a stronger flow or more technical section a bridle seemed to give the best stability so a second section of rope or throw line could be used in this instance with the painter tucked away.

Setting off on the river it was immediately apparent we wouldn’t be doing lots of ferry gliding or eddie hopping as many were washed out and the river itself was wide and pushy. This combined with a strong wind made for some physical paddling.

I was in the boat with a kneeling thwart and found this much better for moving around than using feet tucked under a seat as I had been the previous day. This is probably due to an old ski injury but when I purchase my own boat I may make the seat a little higher then average to alleviate this ‘problem’.

We focused a lot on leadership as you’d expect from a four star river day. A clear brief was very important. Make sure the following points were covered:

  1. Swim brief – what to do? (make sure you’ve been seen, get to the side then go to help, keep the paddle if able).
  2. River signals – eddie, point where to go, one at a time, all down, stay where you are. Make sure the group repeat these or have some form of ‘I’ve understood message’ to keep things simple.
  3. Distance to follow (e.g. two boat lengths), position of members within the group.

We also discussed the option to right a capsized canoe with a quick curl so it was easier to tow, even if it remained swamped. A swimmer could do this for you and save valuable time if they felt it appropriate. Worth thinking about rather than the usual, leave your boat and get to the side, approach.

Rescuing a swimmer - Photo by Giles Trussell
Rescuing a swimmer – Photo by Giles Trussell

I went second with the leadership and used gestures well but perhaps a touch early on some occasions. I also need to get comfortable with standing in moving water so the line ahead can be seen better. This seems like a really useful ‘trick’ to master giving a much better viewpoint over features.

While heading down the river we had a lunch break and used it to look at rescuing a pinned boat. I’m familiar with 3-to-1 pulley systems from my experience as a climber but seeing the 4-to-1 pulley was good. It has the advantage of being able to reset without having to slide a prussik. Some people refer to this as a pig rig. While hard to describe it involved a carabiner on the boat, a second carabiner on the loop at the bottom of the throw bag. The rope then runs from the top of the throw bag to the boat carabiner, up to an anchor (e.g. tree with sling and a third carabiner) then back to the second carabiner on the bottom of the throw bag before coming to your hands to pull. The anchor and boat carabiners can have pulleys to lessen the friction when pulling.

Ropes all safely stashed we continued further down the river. We did some surfing before finishing with the rescues. These were more straight forward than I expected given the flow. Paddling a swamped boat is hard, as is having a person on the end of the rope. Both are however very do-able and a swift response with plenty of effort makes the rescue much simpler. We also used this time for a bit of boat handling or messing about as I like to call it, managing to get three of us into the 13ft boat provided plenty of laughs.

The homework exercise for the second day was to think about what skills I felt I was stronger or weaker. From the days so far it felt like I should work on my ‘trad’ skills, particularly polling. I also needed to work on reversing the boat as we’d done precious little of this so far.

Day Three – The Findhorn

This was an “extra” on the requirement for the course but I certainly found it very useful. It allowed us to concentrate on learning areas we felt weak on and try other conditions that weren’t available on the other two days. We had this day as a second river day, all of us feeling we could improve more by trying our skills and leadership on a different type of river. For this trip we went to the Findhorn.

Lucy in a half way eddie as she leads us down river - Photo Giles Trussell
Lucy in a half way eddie as she leads us down river – Photo Giles Trussell

While the shuttle was happening we set up and launched the boats with our challenge being to ferry glide facing downstream and set into eddies. This initially proved tricky as we experimented with paddling on the downstream or upstream side of the boat and with the trim. After a few amusing pirouettes. The key was unlocked – as always, trim – and smooth progress was made. My preference was to paddle on the upstream side of the boat and trim well forward. This allowed prying off the front of the canoe to steer and also moved this steering nearer to the end of the canoe making it more effective.

Having master ‘setting in’ we ‘set off’ down stream looking at leadership styles again.

The section we were paddling is often described as bottom end grade three or upper end grade two. This gave us an ideal opportunity to see where the remit of the award would extend to. I would definitely call it grade three in the conditions we found it.

Playing on a wave - Photo curtsy of Ali Rose
Playing on a wave – Photo curtsy of Ali Rose

We spent the initial section doing S-turns, setting and playing on a wave. This didn’t seem to have much to do with leadership but once we discussed the fact that doing this early on gave us all confidence for the rest of the river and would potentially allow us to look at the group and see how able they were for the more challenging sections to come. A useful idea and ideal for what we later came to do when looking at portages and lines to take on rapids.

A bit further down the river we came to a shallow section with a big eddy at the bottom. This was ideal for practising our polling. This time on moving water. As an aside, Harry Rock is a legend at this particular art-form and worth looking up having been several times ‘world’ champion. However, I am not Harry Rock . A bit of wobbling, some amusing moments of almost capsizing and floating off down the river followed by even more practice left me just about able to get up the edge of the main flow or hold position. Definitely a skill I’ve added to my list to spend a load of time working on.

Time was pressing on so we carried on down further and stopped to look at a couple rapids, we discussed when you might do this with a group and how to judge the grade of a rapid. The ‘is it within remit?’ question. All being keen to test ourselves we paddled some grade three and I think it would be true to say, learned a lot from it. It’s a testament to the enthusiasm and skill of the others on the course that we got to do this and I feel really lucky to have enjoyed this experience with them.

As our get out approached we got to the trickiest rapids of all and to add even more fun the first of these we paddle tandem. This was great fun though at the bottom our boat was so full of water we had to get out and empty it.

We still had more to cover and had to wait back while a couple scenarios were setup for us to deal with. Shouts suddenly came and we paddled around the corner to find a bit of wood “trapping” a victim in the boat and a second boat full of water and pinned against a rock. Quickly dividing the work we set about sorting the situation out. Prioritising the trapped paddler. It’s surprising what you find out about kit doing something like this. One of us stating ‘I had to be very careful not to cut my hand while sawing as it was wet and sliding over the handle of the saw.’ Something I hadn’t thought about until this point. I’ll definitely be looking for a grippy handle when purchasing a folding saw for canoeing.

All that remained was to paddle the alarmingly named ‘chaos corner’ and we reached our get out and the end of the course.

It had been a fun, educational and rewarding few days. Next step spend some time preparing for assessment.

Thanks for Giles for running such a good course and Ali, Lucy and Hannah for putting up with me / making it so much fun. I’ll look forward to more adventures with you guys soon.

Also thanks to Giles and Ali for the photos used in this post.

How many people can fit in a canoe
How many people can fit in a 13′ canoe? – Photo Giles Trussell
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Torridon Spring

Here are some photos taken by Jen and I from the last month and a bit in Torridon. These can’t do justice to the stunning views and the fun we’ve had so far.

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Mountain Equipment Tupilak II Jacket Review

I’ve been fortunate enough to use a lot of different manufactures clothing over the years. One of the key items that I use a lot is a waterproof jacket, sometimes referred to as a hard shell.

My current hardshell of choice is the Mountain Equipment Tupilak II Jacket. I believe this for a number of reasons.

  • Fabric choice – the Gore-Tex Pro fabric that mountain equipment have used provides second to non weather protection. I’ve tried it through a summer and winter season with forty plus quality days in the hills. This has included everything from 70mph winds with snow and hail, driving horizontal rain, steady drizzle for hours on end; even the odd bit of sunshine! Other fabrics I’ve tried such as Neoshell and Mountain Hardware’s Dry.Q do provide good waterproofing and feel more breathable but don’t provide the protection that you get from Gore-Tex.
  • Large hood – I have a love, hate relationship with the Tupilak II’s hood. it does easily swallow a helmet and works well without. When down it folds nicely and doesn’t collect rain like some do. It is also easy to adjust. Unfortunately it does need this adjustment regularly. There isn’t quite enough stretch in the fabric so putting a helmet on requires you to loosen the back and front toggles before donning the helmet then re-tightening, ensure you do the neck toggles first otherwise it will sit too far back on the head. The hood can also be rolled away to form a thick neck baffle, why you would do this though I don’t know. Good but with a minor annoyance overall.
  • Simplicity – While not a featherweight jacket the Tupilak II’s limited features provide just enough storage for map, compass, hat and gloves. This can be done with well proportioned Napoleon pockets. Other than these pockets the features are limited to one internal pocket, a hem-draw-cord (that I seldom use) and the above mentioned hood. This keeps the weight down and means there’s no faffing trying to find the correct zip or the like. Spot on for many conditions.
  • Durability – I’m generally tough on my kit. I tend to wear it a lot and drag it over rough rocks, go out in the wildest conditions, and use it for random tasks that it was never designed to do like cleaning a crag. With this jacket I’ve literally hosed it down, dunked it in the sea, chimneyed up steep rock climbs, forced my way through forests and subject it to snow, rain and hail. It’s held up to it all. To give you an idea my last waterproof lasted 6 months, this one is doing well a year on.

So what could be improved. Personally I still feel there’s room for improvement in the hood design. I spend time on the hill pulling toggles and releasing them again in order to get it to fit so the wind doesn’t blow it off my head and it doesn’t work it’s way too far back. This is particularly true when wearing a helmet. That said the hood is by no means bad and most are much much worse. I’m looking forward to the day a manufacture can make a waterproof hood that fits as well as my Arcteryx Gamma MX Softshell one. Though this is undoubtedly down to the stretch in the material.

Overall I’d give it eight out of ten and would recommend to people looking to purchase a tough do it all jacket for UK conditions and further afield.

Top of Ladhar Beinn Knoydart
Top of Ladhar Beinn Knoydart – wearing my Tupilak II jacket

 

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First Week in Torridon

Liathach

My first week in Torridon has been exciting, interesting and above all beautiful. There really is nowhere else in the UK that has the incredible wildness and variety as the North West Highlands.

We took an opportunity of clear blue skies to climb Access Gully and traverse Liathach via the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles (see photo above). In classic ‘spring’ condition we had bullet hard snow ice called neve on the gully then clear rock on the pinnacles, some of the summit ridge involved sun softened snow with big exposure; thrilling. These conditions required good decision making and quite a few stops to switch to crampons.
Starting work involved plenty of paperwork and reading through procedures. It hasn’t all been office based though. We’ve had a go at clay pigeon shooting, archery, sea kayaking, and sorted out a tree to climb.

Tree Climb
Tree Climb

The sea kayaking was a particular highlight. “super” spring tides meant a little further to carry the boats but also that there was a huge amount of wildlife exposed in rock pools among the kelp that would normally be underwater. This included urchins, crabs, unusual looking fish, shrimps, sea snails, razor clams and more. Further on we accidental interrupted a family of seals who preceded to follow us and coming within a few meters. While we were watched by the seals a white tailed eagle wheeled over head, unmistakable with its giant wing span and tail glinting in the sun.

Our days off were filled with entertainment as well – a grade two scramble up the south west ridge of Ben Dearg and a canoe across Loch Maree to the islands in tricky and cold conditions.

Since then fresh snow has been falling and it feels like winter is not giving in to spring very easily. A few glimpses of sun have poked through though enabling some after work bouldering in the Celtic Jumble of boulders just outside Torridon itself. Full of aretes, cracks and slabs, I’d recommend anyone who enjoys climbing pay it a visit. I’ve never bouldered anywhere as good except perhaps in Fontainebleau.

https://flic.kr/p/rVyZyo

 

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Glen Etive views

forest

Even on a grey, windy, wet day there’s still beauty in the Scottish Highlands.

 

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Climbing Ice on Ben Nevis

Lou first pitch of point five

The last couple of days have been spent climbing ice on Ben Nevis. The forecast for Thursday was, well, mixed to say the least. The met office said 50mph – 100mph winds. MWIS was more optermistic with only 35mph – 50mph predicted. The avalanche risk was considerable (north through east) I was again without Jen as a partner so had been looking for something to do. Luckily for me at least Lou Beetlestone was also without her partner Karl, who’d gone back to North Wales for some work.

Lou, for those that don’t know is a very capable winter climber and top quality outdoor instructor. To add to this she is also a very nice person so it was great to be going onto the Ben with such a competent person. We had decided we’d just be happy to walk in and ‘have a look’ in case it was good. We could always head back down should the weather be more on the worse end of the forecast than the better.

Unbeknown to me it had started snowing quite heavily at this point. I was totally absorbed in the climbing and between all my layers and goggles fogging up it’s surprising what you can miss.

When we reached the CIC hut at the foot of the North Face it was even better than we’d expected. The rain and high freezing level had stripped snow from the rocks but there was still ice in the gulleys and plenty of snow about. In fact you could see where the water had washed over it like tide marks on the beach. To add to this everything was getting more solid and frozen in front of us. We opted for Italian Right Hand route on the west side of Tower Ridge. It was possible to get to the bottom of this without having to expose ourselves to high avalanche risk and two pitches of steep ice would be much nicer than scratching around on dry rock.

Reaching the base of the route involved an exposed traverse and on arriving there we saw a party in front of us just finishing the second pitch (each rope length travelled is referred to as a pitch). Lou was happy to let me have the crux second pitch so she quickly donned the rack and set off. It wasn’t long before I was able to follow. The ice was still solidifying so it was a damp experience. As I arrived at the belay the party in front of us abseiled past, shouting that the route was damp but amazing. Indeed we could see a micro stream running down the first groove and water dripping off the chandelier of icicles above. Feeling a mixture of perturbed and excited I set off as soon as the party in front had gone past. A screw in just after the belay and I was feeling better. I could bridge up the groove in front, avoiding the stream of water, and though sometimes it took a couple of swings the axes were biting nicely into the ice. It wasn’t long before I made it up below a steepening section where you could head left.

Unbeknown to me it had started snowing quite heavily at this point. I was totally absorbed in the climbing and between all my layers and goggles fogging up it’s surprising what you can miss. I moved left into the next groove system that would take us past the steepening. At that point I also moved my goggles off my face as the misting up was getting so bad I found it hard to see the axe and crampon placements I needed to make. Whoosh, a bit of spindrift (collection of loose air blown snow) washes over me. Looking at my feet I avoid the worst of it. A couple more moves and the sound of more tiny particles of snow rushes past, this time it builds. I wait looking down. The pressure of the snow slowly builds up on me. Ten more seconds I think, then I should move to get some of this off me so it doesn’t pluck me from the climb. The seconds pass. I make a blind swing my axe and hear a good placement sink in. I move up and bit then realise water is running down into my arm from my axe. Drat, it must be in a stream. The spin drift passes and I can move again. Quickly I set off up to the belay that’s coming into sight. In situ and with a mallion – fantastic. Pretty soon I’ve attached myself and I try to shout to Lou but no sound utters from my lips however, as I’m having to clench my teeth against the hot-aches spreading through the fingers of my damp hand as it warms. Soon it’s all over almost as quickly as it began. I shout to Lou and before long we’re on our way back down.

Walking down and talking about plans for tomorrow we spot the impressive Hadrian’s Wall Direct looking fat and inviting higher up on the Ben. Back tomorrow for more we decided, assuming Jen was also keen.

jen looking at point five
Jen looks up nervously at Point Five

Jen obviously was obviously keen but slightly nervous about how difficult it would be. These nerves manifested themselves further when at the CIC hut the following day Lou commented “Ollie looks excited but you look terrified”. Between us we decided to head on regardless, after all we could choose another route in the valley if it seemed too difficult once we were at, or nearer, to the bottom. Approaching further I could hear Jen telling herself “it actually doesn’t look that bad” and “I can climb it.” – confidence restored. Unfortunately, as we drew nearer we could also see two teams on the climb and four more people at the bottom of it! Crowds wasn’t something we’d considered. Looking around for another equally historic and uncrowded classic we settled on Point Five.

Point Five is a climb I’d been looking to do for more than a decade. It’s a beautifully slender line of ice that runs straight from the summit of the mountain down the flanks of Observatory Ridge. First climbed over four days and with its first repeat happening during the legendary Smith and Marshall week there’s so much history that can be written about this climb. It starts with three long hard pitches of near vertical ice, then has 240m of still steep snow/ice to the summit. At its narrowest it’s about two meters wide. The climb up this works its way up entertaining grooves and chimney features, as well as the compulsory steep bulges.

Lou first pitch of point five
Lou placing screws on the first pitch of Point Five

Lou set off up the first pitch. Placing screws regularly and outflanking the main steepening on the left. She was soon set up at the belay and gave us the thumbs up. I could hardly contain my excitement. Just waiting long enough that Jen wouldn’t hit me if she fell of on rope stretch. The ice axes were swinging beautifully into the now perfect ice. None of the gushing water from yesterday and not brittle, like ice can be after a sudden freeze. This was the perfect plasticine ice you look for as a climber. A world of first time axe placements and confidence inspiring deeply buried picks.

me second pitch of point five
Setting off up the corner at the start of the second pitch of Point Five – photo Lou Beetlestone

Next it was my turn. My heart was beating deeply – this would be the hardest pure ice pitch I’d been on. It started with a corner, thin ice on the rock wall to the left certainly not deep enough for screws but the ice to the right was deep and bulging. I placed and early screw to protect the belay then committed to the corner. Finding a bridged rest I contemplated placing a screw but opted to continue further on to easier ground. This lasted for a bit, then a second steepening came, this time narrow and chimney like, another screw and I was working my way up this. Inching my feet higher and higher until my axes could reach over onto the easier ground. From there it was just a case of step up, lock my arm, and go again. Before I knew it I was at the belay and it was time to bring Jen and Lou up.

Lou pulls over the bulge on the third pitch of Point Five
Lou pulls over the bulge on the third pitch of Point Five

Lou set off for the final hard pitch with Jen plying me with food – a novel and welcome experience on a winter route belay. Lou again made easy work of the pitch. Disappearing from sight over the final bulge and the ropes becoming tight. We set off. The climbing was again absorbing with the final difficulty before the belay being as hard as anything on the previous two pitches.

From there it got less difficult, but still tiring on the calves as the hard ice was unrelenting. Gear got less reliable as well, with the ice more air-rated, but most rock still buried deeply. We ran long pitches on the 60m ropes we were carrying to get up it as fast as possible aware that it would be nice to be down as far as the bottom of the Red Burn before dark. I lucked out near the top with Lou leading the cornice pitch (luckily this wasn’t too bad as far as cornices go). Pulling over the top was a great feeling. All those years walking past and reading about the history, finally I’d climbed Point Five.

 

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Heigh-Ho Heigh-Ho…

heigh ho
Glencoe Avalanche Report 24/2/2015
Glencoe Avalanche Report 24/2/2015

Today Jen was taken for a climb by a Mountain Instructor Certificate (MIC) Assessment candidate. This left me with a dilemma of what to do. The avalanche forecast wasn’t good (see right) and a quick hunt round for a climbing partner had turned up a blank. To make matters worse a frontal system is going to turn up sometime this afternoon / evening. Tim had reassured me, “conditions don’t look amazing today, but it’ll be ‘primo’ tomorrow.”

My options seemed to be, go and solo a climb or walk up a mountain wading up to my knees in fresh snow all the way. A third option appealed a bit more; practice the rope work and digging skills I’d need for my Winter Mountain Leader award assessment in a couple weeks. A gander at the map and I settled on Buachaille Etive Beag. This is a popular mountain with instructors and provides quick access to deep snow via a short but steep(ish) walk. Importantly this walk is over up the north western slopes to a col at 750m. I was hoping there’d be a group heading up there to put a track in and that I could get relatively high up without putting myself at risk of being avalanched.

I contemplated coining a new phrase ‘tactical van faff’ for my misdemeanour in the car park.

As I pulled into the car park I could see a group getting ready (tick number one). Unfortunately pulling into the car park proved problematic. Attempting to reverse back onto the road proved equally problematic. The van was stuck in about 4 inches of snow. Digging would start early today!

Thirty minutes later I was at a lay-by slightly further up the road. The group just visible on their way up the path. I geared up steadily now I didn’t need to rush as I’d catch them up rapidly on the track they were making. ‘Tactical faff’ I believe is the term. I contemplated coining a new phrase ‘tactical van faff’ for my misdemeanour in the car park.

Just before the col I caught the group up, exchanged pleasantries and set of to a slightly out the way snow drift to begin my excavations.

I’d been taught to draw what you dig on the snow before you start. Once you have done this, start removing small amounts of snow from the bottom of the area you’re digging with your adze or shovel. Work your way upwards and put effort in. That’s all you need to know. Well almost all – practice makes perfect as they say.

First, always dig a seat for your bag. One horizontal strike with the pick, an arch drawn and some strokes with my adze and I was done. Next I set about the rather larger task of building a one person shelter, with enough space to have my lunch in. For this I switched to the light weight shovel I’d been carrying. The short video below shows the results.

After a bite to eat I started on the next set of tasks, firstly with a bucket seat and snow bollard.

To construct a bucket seat, dig in the same manner as you would for your rucksack but make it big. It will need to fit you and your rucksack in it. Anyone who says just take your rucksack off hasn’t been out in winter enough. Half the time when you’ll need to do these it’ll be a gale and you’ve gone wrong somehow, the last thing you’ll want is to loose your rucksack under drifting snow. Be careful not to disturb the snow under the seat. This is where the strength comes from. To make the bollard, measure a full arm’s length plus the length of your axe and make a small mark. Walk up to this about half a meter to either side (not disturbing the snow, as with the bucket seat). Take a big step to leave you astride the mark. Place the spike of your axe on the mark and draw a semi-circle. Dig this out to place your rope in. Follow your footsteps back to the bucket seat and you’re ready to tie in. ‘Simples’.

My structure seemed ample so I tested it with a tied off loop followed by a traditional abseil. It held firm for both tests.

I moved a few paces to the right and started my next construction; a buried axe belay. To do this you construct a bucket seat and mark as with the snow bollard. however instead of making a semi-circle make a line perpendicular to the aspect of the slope (the aspect being the angle a snowball would roll down).  dig this to about a foot deep, depending on the snow conditions. cut a second slot to the middle of this one with one end of the slot at the surface and the other level with the bottom of you’re previous slot. This should follow the aspect of the slope. Clove hitch a sling onto the middle of your axe with an extra twist so it tightens rather than loosens, place your axe in the first slot with the sling running through the second, tight up against the wall. Make your way back to your bucket seat and you’re ready to tie in.

I also tested my buried axe. This would also hold more force than I could muster – not bad for snow.

Having been successful I made my way down to the van in time for an early finish and with enough time to spare to write this.