Archive for January, 2010

Sod It!

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

A week after the thaw and all the low level ice has gone. But it's been mainly cold up high, and there have been some reports of good conditions in the usual places (Great End, Helvellyn, etc), so we thought we'd go for a look. We didn't fancy the stupidly early start that would be needed for a day trip to those crags (which we'd guessed, perhaps wrongly, would be heaving anyway), so decided to try Foule Crag on Blencathra – less than 2 hours' drive from York, and only an hour's walk in.

The knee deep powder of my previous visit last month was gone, which made for a quick walk. Unfortunately, the blue skies of the earlier trip were also missing, and when we reached the crag the whole thing was hidden. Fortunately I could remember enough to know roughly where to go, or we'd probably have failed to find anything!

Our intended route was Traverse of the Sods (II/III), because
(a) it was the longest there (180m);
(b) it follows a natural line; and
(c) a route with a name like that just has to be climbed!

As the name sort-of implies, it relies on frozen turf rather than snow or ice – just as well, as the snow we had to cross to get there was all soft and deep.

The first pitch, to reach the traverse line, was steep, rocky, vegetated, and throughly horrible. There may have been turf, but the shrubbery was so thick that the axes failed to reach it. 50m with no protection didn't do my nerves a lot of good either! If there'd been an easy walk-off from the top then we'd probably have taken it.

Luckily there wasn't, as the remaining 3 pitches were all good fun, following a narrow grassy ledge in a rising traverse up the face. Quite easy climbing (no more than II) but hardly any protection other than our single warthog, and belays were on axes with the picks buried optimistically in the frozen turf, plus a sling wrapped even more optimistically round a 2 inch thick icicle. The whole thing was nicely exposed, with continuing clag throughout adding to the atmosphere (and also occasionally to the confusion – on one pitch, a steep snow-covered overhanging corner loomed out of the mist, it was only as I got closer looking for a way round that it revealed itself to be a nice 30 degree neve slope).

A short icefall near the end took a screw, though the ice turned out to be only a couple of inches thick with air behind so no more than psychological value! But a second icefall at the final belay was several inches thick so provided the first (and last) reassuring belay of the day 🙂

We topped out at the summit of the crag. The way off was obvious, down a corniced ridge, so we didn't waste time getting the compass out. Luckily, a few minutes later we stopped to take crampons off and took the opportunity to check our bearings; a 90 degree turn to the right took us back to the right valley 😉

A good day out, and not too long (about 12.5 hours house-to-house). Not a classic route by any means, but worth doing, and certainly better than sitting at home watching TV!

More photos here.

A last taste of winter?

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

With a thaw threatened for the weekend, we had one last chance to take advantage of the superb early winter conditions, so Carmen and I took Thursday off and headed for the Lake District after work on Wednesday. The A66 was shut (and had been since Saturday) so we took the long way round to Borrowdale, over 4 hours, via A59, A65, and M6, with a short detour to Penrith chippy.

When I'd phoned earlier that day to ask if the Rosthwaite campsite was open, the owners just laughed, I can't think why. All the facilities were frozen of course, but they let us pitch the tent free of charge (good site, must go back in the summer). It snowed lightly all night, and was still snowing when we got up, so we didn't hang around too long and were soon wading knee-deep snow towards the Raven Crag – home of the summer classic Corvus, and the winter classic Raven Crag Gully, our chosen route. It's a route that comes into condition more often than you might think for a crag at such low altitude, but more often than not has little ice and is therefore correspondingly harder. This year, it's been in what must have been 'normal' condition in years gone by!

The advantage of breaking trail was that it meant we were first on the route for a change. Another pair arrived as Carmen was starting the first pitch, and as I led the second another 6 turned up, so we'd timed it well!

There was a lot more ice than I've seen in most recent photos of the route, we'd found it in excellent condition – which had the advantage of breaking the grade closer to 3 than the 5 threatened in the guidebook for lean conditions.

Pitch 1, an easy warm-up on cruddy ice and powder-covered rock, led to the first main pitch, up a steep icy ramp. The next pitch repaid all the time spent thrutching in gritstone, as a wide icy offwidth led to a splendid ice chimney. Next was the Cave Pitch, described in Cold Climbs with mitts removed to make use of the rock holds, but today covered in thick ice, making for a fine steep pitch, though rather unnerving as the ice wasn't quite thick enough to take screws until after the hard bit!

After bringing Carmen up with the sort of belay best described as 'optimistic', she led the next pitch – a walk up snow to the foot of the final icefall. She obviously felt it wasn't hard enough, so continued up steep snow to a small ice cave part way up the pitch. The icefall pitch is supposed to be the crux, and is often described as the most beautiful in the Lake District. In the conditions we found, it was actually the easiest of the harder pitches, with just a short but well-protected hard step to get over the final lip. And the icicles that presumably contribute to its fabled beauty were long gone, victim to the countless climbers passing by over the last few weeks.

As I topped out, the light snow that had been falling all day, turned briefly to rain before stopping. The icicles on the sides of the gully were dripping. The thaw had begun. A quick descent through wet snow brought us back to the valley, where most of the previous night's snow has already gone, to leave green fields. As we drove off, it started to rain.

Winter's end?

Let's hope not. There's plenty of snow left higher up, waiting for the next freeze. And in any case, we've been spoiled this year – for the past few years (including the excellent ones of 2005 and 2006) winter didn't get properly under way until the end of February!

More photos here.

Kinder Surprise

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Kinder Downfall

After umming and ahhing for many hours about whether to drive the long way round to the lakes (A66 shut), me and Rob eventually decided to take the safe option and head for Kinder Downfall on Wednesday, just before the big thaw set in. Because of road closures in the peak, we had to take the M60/M62 option which was in itself a rather long drive. After a minor detour to go and see Oldham Athletic's ground (a lifelong dream for Rob) we arrived at the Kinder Reservoir car park. The final kilometre of the drive was on packed snow but the traction was fine.

Cave under Kinder DownfallWe set off walking shortly after a group of 3 had set off and just in front of a group of about 7! We made good time as far as the woodland at the end of the reservoir, walking on packed snow as deep as the drystone walls. Many drifts were well over a metre deep and it was hard to believe we were in the peak district. Beyond this, previous tracks had been covered in and we had to make our own route. Much of this was wading through deep and loose powder which was both time consuming and tiring. As we left the shelter of the valley the wind increased along with the spindrift making for a very wintery feel overall.

Steep ice on Kinder Downfall directArriving at the downfall we found the ice in good nick but very buried with a monstrous cornice on the right. The usual easier variations were utterly buried in snow, so only the grade IV direct was climable. We geared up in the icy cave under the downfall wondering why the party of 3 in front weren't getting on the climb. It eventually transpired they were off to do something else and the party of 7 were getting arsey that no-one was climbing yet so we jumped on it. Rob made light work of the ice climbing getting some good screws and a thread on the first step. After a bit of loose snow and another good ice step however, he was stopped by the final slopes which were covered in deep, unconsolidated powder. With sprung leashes clipped to the bottom of his axes, plunging didn't really work so he ended up using whole body friction to make the final moves.

Ice bouldering on Kinder DownfallA delay then ensued as Rob was out of sight and the wind made communication impossible. With the full 50m of rope run out, all I could do was hold onto the end and wait, while the waiting climbers got even more pissed off. Finally I set of climbing, opting to wear liner gloves so I could get the screws out quickly – big mistake! By the halfway ledge my hands were frozen solid. Unable to bend my fingers I managed to pull on my warmer gloves and finish the climb. However, by the time I reached Rob, the first pangs of hot aches were coming on. After 10 minutes of lying on the floor moaning and wailing, vowing to never winter climb again, the pain passed and the relief was so good it was almost worth the suffering 🙂

Rob has a picture of me in my darkest moment which I'm sure he'll put on at some point. (and here they are…. Rob)
Will in painand some more pain

A convenient ab took us back to the cave where Rob did some ice bouldering and I took pictures. With the adrenaline now worn off, it was also becoming apparent that my sprained ankle (done by sledging in crampons – not recommended) was not happy with being made to climb ice. The walk back down was a bit of a hobble, especially the final bit along the road.

So apart from the novelty of ice climbing in the peak, is it worth it? Considering its short length, it's a reasonably good route but the walk in (especially in deep snow) is a real killer. I wouldn't rush back to climb it again, but am glad we did it and in very good nick.

Not sure what the surprise in the title refers to, I just thought it sounded good.

New Year Meet 2009

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

This year's new year trip was to the Alex Macintyre Hut, near Glencoe. A dozen of us made the journey north, and for once the snow didn't all melt the day before we arrived. Carmen and I drove up on Boxing Day, everyone else turned up a day or two later.

December 27. Sron na Lairig, grade II. Supposed to be an easy warm up day, but the deep snow put paid to that! The 4km walk in took a couple of hours, under grey skies with occasional snow flurries. The climb itself was trickier than expected, with no ice but loads of powder over rock with a little mostly frozen turf. A great mountaineering route, with some mildly terrifying pinnacles and an a cheval snow arete near the top, for which we roped up. The continuation to the summit took an age, as it was knee-deep snow all the way with little sign of any recent visitors, but also because the skies had cleared so we had to keep stopping to take photos. The summit too was deserted, nobody else had been that way all day despite its being a Munro. The descent was down the NE ridge, with its notorious bad step. Again, harder than expected – all possibilities looked too scary so in the end we abbed down the last section just as the last of the daylight disappeared. Luckily the full moon was bright enough to throw shadows as we continued along the ridge. We opted for an early descent into the valley, at a point where we could see there were no major crags to find a way round. It still took a good hour to cover the 1/2km to the bottom!

December 28. Definitely a short day this time, a walk up the twin Munros of Buachaille Etive Beag. We'd both done them before but not on as glorious day as this. Plenty of other people about (though most only did the main summit) so the paths were well trodden. Spectacular views in all directions, but especially of Bidean nam Bian and our previous day's route. Meanwhile, Alan and Nigel went for a long walk up Gulvain (near Glenfinnan), finishing long after dark.

December 29. Aonach Eagach (grade II/III). A winter traverse has been on my "to do" list for years, but every previous winter trip to Glencoe has been preceded by a massive thaw. Not so this year! Strong winds were forecast so it was without much optimism that Alan, Rich, Jenny, Carmen and I slogged up the hill. But somehow we managed to be sheltered along the whole ridge – Peter and Annie were on the other side of the valley and had trouble walking due to the wind (or was it the pies?), and Simon, Debra and Ben had a similar experience on Beinn an Dothaidh. It was worth the long wait for winter conditions, we had a magnificent day in clear cold conditions (between -6 and -8 along the ridge). Quick progress at first gradually slowed as we all started to tire, and the ropes came out to safe guard the pinnacled section. But we had passed the tricky bits before the sun set, all that remained was the ascent of the final Munro and the long descent in the dark back to the car we'd left at the Youth Hostel. 12 hours car-to-car, a great day.

December 30. Wild weather was forecast, and duly arrived. Ben and Nigel joined us for a short walk up Sgurr na' h-Eanchainne, a Corbett on the other side of the Corran Ferry. At least I thought it was a Corbett, but realised half way up it was actually a few metres short, so no ticks today, much to Nigel's disgust A nice little hill, with superb views across to the Glencoe hills and further north to Ben Nevis. Peter and Annie pushed their bikes round some snowy woods, I'm not sure about the others!

December 31. Expecting a sunny day, we plumped for the Ballachulish Horseshoe (Beinn a' Bheithir). The ascent up the NE ridge of Sgorr Bhan proved trickier than expected, and soon Carmen and I were on our own. Ben took a long detour round the awkward bit, hoping to meet us later, while Simon and Debra retreated to the nice warm hut. Sadly the forecast sun never arrived and we spent most of the day in the clag. We briefly considered heading back from the col between the Munros, but Ben had left his car at the far end so we pressed on. There was no sign of Ben, but not much sign of anything else either, so we decided not to wait. Navigation on the last section proved tricky, with undulating terrain and loads of identical small lochans, many not marked on the map. But eventually we emerged from the cloud, in roughly the right place. The final descent was a little more entertaining than hoped for, as we had to find a way in the dark round countless small outcrops and a couple of large cliffs, but we made it to the road and soon met Ben, who in best Annie style had bumped into an old friend on the hill and taken the descent from the col. I'm not sure what everyone else did – I think Annie and Peter went up Gulvain, but cheated by taking mountain bikes for the long approach.

New Years Eve. Preparation of the haggis supper was well under way, when suddenly we were plunged into darkness. The main fuse had blown! So we adjourned to a quiet and atmosphere-free Kings House for dinner before returning to the hut – where Nigel had nobly remained to organise an emergency electrician, so we had light in time for the customary new year falling asleep.

January 1. A return to the Beinn a' Bheithir for Carmen and me, this time for some ice climbing. Very slow going through deep powder with a hard crust which sometimes supported, and sometimes gave way. When we reached the north ridge of Sgorr Bhan we saw a small icefall and took the opportunity to stop for a rest and climb it. Nice easy climbing on fantastic ice, Carmen led straight up the middle for a good little 30m grade II. After this, some more crusty powder led to the main route of the day, Russian Roulette II/III. I say 'main' but it's only 50m high! Loads of ice, though more brittle than our first route, with lots of dinner-plating. Back to the sacks just as the last of the light disappeared, and the standard walk-out in the dark.

January 2. We decided on an easy day with a short walk in so went for a look at the Aonach Dubh cliffs on Bidean nam Bian. We didn't bother with a guidebook as we were just looking for some short easy angled ice to play on. Firstly we tried the Allt Coire nam Beithach but there was too much flowing water and not enough ice. Higher up though, there was loads of ice. A steep icy gully looked tempting but probably too hard, and there was a group of 3 just starting (we later found that this was Number 6 Gully, grade IV ***). So we went for an easy looking line of ice further right, which looked about grade II and one or two pitches. One minor epic and 3 pitches later, we reached the top – much steeper than it looked, the last pitch was vertical for a few metres! Harder than anything else we'd done, I reckoned about III/IV. Consulting the book later it turned out to be Squaddies Climb, grade II/III, only mildly humiliating – fun though.

A great week, in great weather – and it was just the beginning of a great winter!

Loads of photos here.
Peter's bike-pushing pictures here.
Debra's photos here.

Lakes Winter Fun…

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

P1070068Everybody's been at it and with UKC publicising all the low level ice as being 'in', Simon, Carmen and I left a reluctant Will nursing an injured ankle at home and headed for the Lakes not very early Sat morning. Roads were all open and we decided to head for Launchy Gill after rejecting (* see below for thoughts) Carrock Fell, another place that had seen many ascents. Snowy roads around the lake and S parked up leaving us a 500m stroll to warm up on (Note you can park right at the foot of the gill, by its bridge, little lay-by for 6 cars or so)

As we went up through the woods met some people on their way down (it was 10am ish) having been on it very early. They told us the initial corridor just above the footbridge was not in, so we skirted and dropped into the gill proper at the foot of a fall, and geared up. A team of 3 ahead lead off, avoiding the obvious challenge that Simon later took on. While Simon was doing battle 3 soloists joined us, 2 having got very wet legs in the corridor!

Above the first pitch it's a walk to the main pitch which is wide and featured with good belays above and we all got up without incident. Many teams now arrived and set up a belay to bring up 5 others and another team with a TR.

There are 2 finishes available from here, and we did em both. Both have short 5m or so pitches and pleasant walk offs.

simon on top of the screes
Back at the car Simon hatches his cunning plan and we drive right around the Lakes (so I'm told we could have jaunted for all I know as I was dozing, as usual!). Camping at the Bridge Inn near Nether Wasdale, in an abandoned camp site, was very pleasant. We use the Laundry to make a cup of tea, put up tents (broke a few pegs hammering them in) and headed for the pub for a meal.

Next day was early-ish and we drove and walked over to the Wasdale Screes, quite a long walk in and typically the guide book only makes sense once you have been there and got lost a few times. Our target, Great Gully III ***. So we went to the biggest gully and climbed it – oops – wrong one and rubbish (despite Carmen scaring us all on a snowy step). Topping out in spindrift we met another party who'd done the same! They told us Great Gully was over to our left (looking in) and they had left some ab tat. Well … it wasn't and we didn't. I'd carried a rope around for 2 days and it hadn't even come out – good training.

We walked down in lovely weather and back to the car before heading home with a quick detour via Wastwater which was being churned up by some freezing winds. We took a few pictures as well so you won't make the same mistake (we had done A Gully, then looked into 7 Pitch)

My Pix:
S&C Pix :

Wasdale Screes - the winter gullies

Wasdale Screes - the winter gullies

* We decided on Launchy Gill but in hindsight I think given its low level and 30 second walk in we would have been better going elsewhere then coming onto LG later in the afternoon, as another pair had done. Less crowds and more climbing.