I did the 3 Peaks Challenge and all I got was this lousy fish…

Over the weekend I was helping out with the guiding of a Three Peaks Challenge.

Beautiful views to Fort William from the flank of Ben Nevis in between the showers and cloud

It was my first Challenge, and not all went to plan.

Sleep deprivation was a bit of an issue, having driven from Derby to Fort William to start in the early hours of the next morning, but more for the drive back South at the end. The main problem was that floods had caused a landslide, closing the A82, so a detour via Stirling meant that the start was delayed, and inevitably the rest of the Challenge. However, I was only helping with the first two legs, leaving Snowdon.

Conditions on Ben Nevis were not too bad – low cloud and light, scattered showers – but the group were not accustomed to the long haul up the Tourist Track and the arduous broken ground. Conditions on Scafell Pike were worse, with higher winds and the onset of darkness, so we reached the screes above the Woolworth Boulder before turning round, to ensure the group had a good chance to complete Snowdon the following day.

I must have been slightly delusional with the affects of sleep deprivation and the fact that the Challenge was so different to what I normally do, so the enduring memory of the day was a dead, half-eaten and mouldering fish wedged under a rock by the summit trig point!

The eponymous fish…

More Winter Skills & Mountaineering

Yet another phenomenal mountain top view - en route to Puist Coire Ardair

For an update on the last three days of winter mountaineering and skills I have been assisting with, check out the Red Rock Adventures blog.

It’s been an amazing few days with a bit of everything, and some!

Scotland Winter Mountaineering course – Day 1

Great vistas into Coire an t'Sneachda from the top of the Goat Track

I have been assisting on a mountaineering course today. See here for more details.

Putting in the Vertical Metres

Finally a break in the weather

After the group left, James and I attempted to salvage our week in Glencoe from the vagaries of the weather. This meant we had to go high, because the warm air mass from the south west had been steadily stripping everything right back.

Back in France, it has really struck me how how the cold calm conditions caused by a big concentration of high pressure over Europe has been deflecting depressions northward. Fatal for snow and ice conditions in Scotland. The contrast in air masses is striking: warm and wet versus cold and dry.

Glad to be over with the walk-in and enjoying a bit of sun

High in Glencoe meant Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nan Lochan, involving pretty much a Munro’s worth of ascent before reaching the start of anything worthwhile. I had steadily been finding my legs over the week, but six days on the trot was taking its toll.

On the first day, Diamond and Church Door buttresses were inevitably black and bare, so we climbed the Grade II variation of Central Gully. At the crux, the anticipated cold front arrived, to whoops of delight from James, but apart from some verglas, the crags did not rime up. The day did turn into a cracker, though, with sunny spells and expansive views. We continued on over to Stob Coire nan Lochan, descending Broad Gully (I) and admiring the mountain architecture.

Checking out the impressive buttresses beneath Stob Coire nan Lochan

The following day was a solo day for me, as the weather closed in again. I made a lonely walk in to Stob Coire nan Lochan with the intention of returning via the Lost Valley. The clag was in, and by the time I reached the upper ridge to the summit, my resolve was weakening. I was tired and the combination of low temperatures, rain and wind was making a yomp over the tops increasingly unappealing.

I decided to descend via a variation of the previous day’s itinerary, downclimbing the top of Central Gully and avoiding the Grade II start. Fine in theory until I discovered the lower part of the gully was incomplete. I tettered across the lip of the rock steps, trying to discern a viable descent and avoid a long reascent to the ridge. Shortly, I decided on the rockier of the options, and with a few deep breaths, committed myself on one ice axe to the downclimb.

The most civilised way to get around Glencoe

From below it was not too bad, but I was relieved to be down, especially as the axe had pinged out at one point. Fortunately, I had had a good handhold…

So, that was essentially the end of a long but worthwhile trip to Glencoe. The weather had been awful, but forced flexibility upon us and called into play several new skills. Most importantly, it meant that I was able to register for my Winter Mountain Leader training with Glenmore Lodge in February.

Making the Most of a Bad Forecast in Glencoe

The weather has been problematical of late in Scotland, particularly on the West coast – strong winds, rain and a high freezing level – making for less than ideal climbing conditions and generally challenging for mountaineering.

On the top of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh with the Aonach Eagach behind

James and I wanted to make the most of our time before the two days of group work, but James faced the problem of being without waterproof trousers (en route in the post). Thankfully the weather improved markedly during the morning, so we set off to attempt the Aonach Eagach from the Clachaig Inn. Unfortunately, we did not leave enough time, but enjoyed summiting Sgorr nam Fiannaidh (967m), and then descending via the Pap col with a quick ascent of the Pap of Glencoe (as known as Sgorr na Ciche) itself.

Slightly bedraggled on Buachaille Etive Beag

Today’s weather started off pleasant, but then deteriorated quickly. We considered taking the Glencoe ski lift to get up high, but in the end decided to recconoitre Buchaille Etive Beag for the group on Saturday, given the access from the road and safe slope aspects. It was a good day, taking in Stob Coire Raineach (925m) and Stob Dubh (958m).

We saw Rob Johnson, a popular guide, with a group finishing off their five day winter skills course. They were reviewing ice axe arrests, but it looked pretty miserable in the rain. We had a quick look at avalanche tranceivers whilst they were doing that and then headed back to the car as quickly as possible.

Glencoe is an amazing mountain area, with high, formidable faces that rise sheer from the road. After a couple of days of mountaineering, I am itching for some climbing, but this will have to wait until after the group days and when the forecast is slightly better.

High Atlas Winter Mountaineering

Hanging out at 14,671 ft. on my birthday

The High Atlas is a special place, and I knew I was in for a good week, glimpsing the mountains from the air. What a foretaste I had:

[Photos of the trip can be found here on Facebook]

As the plan flew along the coast of Morocco, the distinction between land and sea became uncertain, a winter mist clinging to the ground. At last, the flight path turned east, and the setting sun flooded through the windows, blood-red shafts of light lancing over the upper cloud layer. The mountains appeared in series, with the familiar black-white contrast of buttress and gully marking the presence of winter.

My eye was inevitably drawn to the highest peak – Toubkal, surely? However, a significant col interrupted the sequence. The plane was steadily descended into Marrakech. And then the mountains reared up again, higher and grander, with Toubkal now clear.

The ground beneath looked cold and colourless, devoid of any of the sun’s warmth, and the plane continued to drop into the enveloping winter mist. Soon Toubkal and the setting sun were no longer visible. We left the mountain kingdom of the sky, and instead entered the jostling world of Marrakech.

The village of Aremd on the walk-in to the refuge

After than entry to the gateway to the High Atlas, I was keen for my first taste of winter mountaineering in Morocco. Based out of the Mouflons hut at 3,207m, James and I got stuck into a number of objectives, which included mountain days for my IML (International Mountain Leader) logbook, an introduction to winter mixed and ice climbing and familiarisation of the area for a future group, with which I will be assisting.

It was cold.

Ice forming rapidly in a valley below the refuge

Temperatures inside the dormitory at night were a cool 3°C and on our first day, the thermometer on my watch plunged to -8°C in the upper reaches of the North Cwm of Toubkal. I longed for the sun, as my toes steadily lost feeling in the Scarpa Manta M3s. Thankfully, the weather was very settled, and in the sun the temperature would easily jump 10°C, although with such cold and calm conditions, we were routinely wading through deep powder, often with a weak crust.

Overlooking the North Cwm of Toubkal

I have commented in previous posts that the sheer scale of mountaineering in the High Atlas should encourage exploration, and mountaineers not be content to remain in the confines of Toubkal. And I know this to be true, but wanted to lay down a good basis for further expeditions in the Atlas, so with my small handful of days, I played my hand.

Approaching the top of the NE Couloir, Ras n'Ouanoukrim

We took on Ras n’ Ouanoukrim, the third highest peak in the Atlas, to gain a vantage point to the south and east of the range. Even with the benefit of the guidebook and a blue sky day, we had to rely on basic skills to stay safe and sound. Having taken a ‘short cut’ to gain the central gully, we found ourselves on some precarious steep ground, not aided by loose powder snow on slab. ML ropework was called for – a body belay and braced stance aided James with some insecure mixed climbing up a step rock.

Leading up the North West face of Tête d'Ouanoums

Surprised by the amount of ice forming at all levels in the valley, we moved up a gear and took on a multipitch mixed and ice route on the North West face of Tête d’Ouanoums, Difficile. This was an adventure into the unknown, especially for me, with only a couple of Grade Is and one Grade III under my belt. The climbing was fun in a grand setting, but the sheer length of the route, over 800m, and large amounts of powder meant we started in the dark and finished by the light of headtorch. I could barely stand by the end, exhausted by the effort expended, altitude and focussed mental effort throughout the day.

Muhammed on ice (abseiling off after his top-rope ascent!)

After a rest day, during which we had fun introducing our cook, Muhammed, to the delights of ice climbing, we finished off the week with a dawn ascent of Toubkal West via the South Cwm. Typically, we were now fully acclimatised on our last day, and made quick, steady progress up and down. The dawn was reminiscent of my arrival, beautiful shades of red light from the East, and we sat on a ledge out of the icy wind, savouring the views of the land below for a few minutes.

Enjoying being alive, up a mountain - summit of Toubkal West

Alpine-style ridges stood out, flanked by deep, snow-filled gullies, leading at length to unknown peaks, perhaps unconsciously noted when flicking through the guidebooks. The allure of future adventure and exploration was beckoning us, but also the comforts of normal life left behind and families waiting at home. As I left a day later, I looked back up to the Atlas, but thick, white cloud all but obscured them from view. Here and there peaks stood out, but the mountain kingdom was closed for the moment, its magic contained, ready for the next foray.

Walking and Scrambling in North Wales

I recently spent five days in Snowdonia, based out of the Ogwen Valley. This was mainly a bid to accumulate the last few required Quality Mountain Days for my ML logbook after being deferred last year. This process has frustratingly taken longer than I hoped, but the added experience has been invaluable.

The Martian landscape from the summit of Glyder Fawr

As part of the trip, I incorporated an outdoor bivvy on the first night, which was partly inspired by Alastair Humphreys’ 24 hour Bivvy Challenge. I wanted to complete three big, long, high-level days, so set off from Gwern Gof Uchaf campsite below Tryfan. My route was basically a high level traverse of the Glyders, saving the fun parts, such as Tryfan and Bristly Ridge, for better conditions. The weather deteriorated throughout the day, so I was keen not to hang around. Glyder Fawr (999m) was the high point and then I followed the ridge northwards to Carnedd y Filiast (821m) before descending to the Nant Ffrancon valley to bivvy out.

Threading through the pinnacles on Bristly Ridge, Glyder Fach (994m)

The bivvy was fairly uneventful apart from being uncomfortable and letting in rain through the zip opening – fairly standard for a bivvy, but I’m glad I didn’t get a full-on soaking, as you often hear of.

The next day was an early start in order to cover more ground. This would be a fairly long traverse of the Carneddau from Bethesda, via the West spur of Carnedd Uchaf to end up back where I started on the Ogwen side. The weather was consistently wet and cloudy all day, and up on the plateau bitingly cold. I was very glad to take my lunch in the emergency shelter on Foel Grach, and was not surprised to learn later that snow had fallen on the Cairngorm plateau given how cold the air stream was. I opted to navigate from obvious cairns and tops, rather than following the paths necessarily, to avoid getting disorientated in the bad weather.

Attempting to topple the Cantilever

The rest of the walk was uneventful apart from a little care needed to descend the bad step on Bwlch Eryl Farchog. This would be an obvious place for a rope if out with a nervous or inexperienced party of hillwalkers. It was then a long trudge down the ridge and back to camp to warm up and get out of the weather.

James, deep in concentration, explaining a navigation technique

Unfortunately, the bad weather continued into the week, so now joined by friends, we opted to use the shelter on the East side of Tryfan to look at navigation, ropework and scrambling. The Heather Terrace again proved to be a useful approach to the Glyders, enabling us to tackle Bristly Ridge, which I led directly over the most interesting buttresses and pinnacles. I also finally managed to summit Tryfan, which had eluded me for years. My previous attempt was on a family holiday when my parents were reduced to their knees on the scrambling sections and we almost became cragfast after attempting to descend an unknown gully on the West face as a short cut to the car. This time I jumped from Adam to Eve to signify the achievement, although difficult to get a self portrait at the same time!

A self portrait perched on Adam & Eve, Tryfan

One of the highlights of the week was an introduction to scrambling ropework from my friend who is attempting his Mountain Instructor Award assessment in September. I then had the great opportunity to led a friend up Nor’ Nor’ Groove on the East face of Tryfan, putting into practice the skills I had just learned. It was wet, slimey and muddy, but an extremely rewarding way to move up the mountain environment, balancing speed and safety. Hunting for anchors, setting up the belay system and route-planning all added to the experience, which was thoroughly absorbing.

Elidir Fawr & Marchlyn Mawr Reservoir

The weather cleared for my finale of the week, a big day out. I aimed to walk from the Ogwen Valley over to Elidir Fawr, then back over Y Garn and Glyder Fawr, with some added spice at the end, descending Y Gribin and the False Gribin. As the day progressed, so the weather improved, and I reclined in the summit shelter of Elidir Fawr (924m) to eat my lunch, and then gradually peeled away layers returning East. It was exhilarating to take the direct line down Y Gribin, the wind whipping from one side and the sobering exposure dropping away on the other.

Perched high on Y Gribin

As you may have noticed, I haven’t reported on my SPA Training, as it was cancelled, but happily has been rescheduled for the beginning of June, so more to come then.

Heroic mountaineer pose

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