All photo's are Copyright of Scott Swalling or the tagged Photographer. (Background photo Scott Swalling Photography).

About Me:

24Hr MTBike racer and general bike rider, climber and mountaineer. Good coffee drinker and cake eater (any cake, seriously, don't leave your cake laying around). Also, I like to try new things that challenge me.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Stob coire an Lochan Epic

Friday 14th started like any other day of our week in Scotland. Up ready and waiting for Matt (aka Faffy McFaff) :-)

The plan was to be leaving the car park by 0800 Matt would ensure this to be 0830, but had built some hill fitness and we would arrive in the coire basin around 1030.

Heavy snows and mild weather would ensure the route and the fall back routes chosen would be capped by large unstable cornices and certainly not worth the danger. Wishing not to repeat Dorsal Arête and avoid SC Gully. The ridge and arête routes that were within my leading limit conditions were thin thanks to a previous day of mild weather.

A short tea break was taken whilst I decide our best plan of attack. Allowing for the conditions and the amount of day light left I chose what appeared to be a very easy ridge to the left of Boomerang Gully. This and route is shown below.

We roped up (Nik, Matt and myself) and moved as one to a small scoop in some rocks at the bottom of the easy ridge. We placed some gear for the benefit of Matt (he had only ever climbed sport before Dorsal Arête). We quickly climbed this little bit and started moving as one, with myself leading the team and every pitch that would follow.

It soon became even more apparent that Matt was struggling with the concept of taut ropes between the party members when moving as one and I would need to implement natural belays on the steeper or less stable ground. At one point the rope was extremely slack and behind Matt who was at the end of the three. Implementing the use of natural belays slowed our progress considerably.

After about 1.5 hrs we arrived at some steeper ground, we contoured to the left to a boulder with a large face behind it and steep snow slope to the left running up and out of sight. To reach the boulder, a snow and rock step had been climbed, above some much steeper ground. A quick check of the time suggested that it had taken a bit longer than the 1.5hrs I had guessed, it was 1400.

Nik and I discussed the remaining daylight (3.5hrs) and the current weather and expected weather later that evening, that appeared closer than it should have done, balanced against the speed of the group and estimated 250 meters of the route left (this was a pretty good estimation). I also considered the ability of a group member to descend safely.

I was left with the decision continue or descend, I stuck my head around the boulder to assess the route conditions and made the decision to head for the summit. I believe this to still be the best decision for the point we had reached and the factors mentioned above.

Off I plodded, promptly found some gear and continued, some more gear was found in a small chimney, then a 40mtr run out was ground to a halt on a narrow ridge above a spur of Boomerang Gully, I settled into a belay stance. Nik and then Matt followed. 3-4mtrs above me along the ridge was a nice large belay platform I was aiming for. I asked Nik followed by Matt to climb to this, it was easy but exposed ground. Nik assembled a bomber belay, tied Matt in and I took a short walk along the ridge to join them.

The next pitch would start more exposed and a little steeper, I moved to the centre right of the snow slope (it hung over the spur to the right and large cliff to its lower left. I carefully and efficiently made my way to some rocks placed a sling and a nut and moved up to a prominent spike to belay them up.

Nik arrived sometime before Matt again, and these gaps would grow on the next few pitches. Yet again Matt was shown how to clove-hitch and was made safe. (This would test my patience on the last belay stance).

Moments before I would leave this belay the sun would shine into the coire below to highlight a golden eagle swooping low through the coire and then rising gracefully on the wind above the summit heights and drift away. I pointed this out the Nik and Matt, let it soak in (this is why I do this), then noticed the cloud advancing and the wind increasing.

The next pitch was over open snow slopes broken by rocks, these provided little in the way of runners. I found two close to each other 15 meters before I would run out of rope. These snow slopes had started steep and shallowed where I would be forced to improvise a belay, it turned out to be bomber.

Once again Nik arrived promptly and Matt struggle to move at pace or would move to quickly in sections demanding the slack be taken in. I would tell him once more that “You climb at the pace of the belayer, the belayer has two ropes and climbers to contend with, not to mention the snow and rocks causing massive amounts of drag”.

He arrived and took several minutes to make himself safe, minutes we no longer had. The cloud cover had moved in and the wind had picked up. The eagle was probably somewhere snug and safe now or far above the dropping front. I barked some instructions at Matt, he was now safe. Nik and I sorted the rope.

I set off again, the ground steepened sharply and lured me left. After trying to bridge up a chimney, sense kicked in again and I found a good, but small nut placement on its right and rounded its right flank to steep but clear ground and the belay I had identified from the last stance. I covered this ground quickly placing only a sling over a spike as I passed it. “I must keep moving and fast...........but carefully” I told myself, the weather was closing, it was snowing lightly and it was getting dark.

I built another bomber belay and then it was Nik’s and Matt’s turn to join me. Nik was sorted and away in a flash. She made careful progress and was half to the belay. When I noticed Matt had not moved. I yelled at Matt to climb when ready, he took his sling out of the threaded anchor and I turned to check Nik’s progress. She was nearer and moving nicely. A couple of takes on the rope alerted me to the fact that Matt had still not moved. I yelled again, he faffed with his axes and yelled with earnest at him to “hurry the f*** up”. He finally left the belay this must have taken 5-10 minutes after he had dismantled.

Nik arrived and made herself safe and readied, to belay the final pitch. She had been a star all day and had maintained faith in me. Matt arrived, but due to his lack of pace, “Less haste more pace”, I asked him to make safe. Nik and I continued to sort the ropes, Nik was safe, but I held Matt’s end of the rope still. Once Nik and I had sorted one rope I turned my attention to sorting the other with Matt. I did not believe what I saw. Matt was stood holding the rope loop I had given him to make himself safe and looking at his HMS.

“For f*** sake!” I yelled, patience finally snapped, it was now dark. I had a rather dodgy traverse to make in the snow and dark. I tied the clove-hitch and made Matt safe, he had stood there for 5 minutes not safe, other than the fact that as I had not checked what he had done, therefore had kept him on belay, whilst the ropes were sorted.

At this point I sorted that rope and then Nik put me on belay. There was still a very annoying twist in the ropes, that made belaying near impossible. The traverse needed smooth running rope. I made myself safe again on one rope, untied from the other, sorted the twist with Nik’s help, tied back in and then set off.

We still had to get down safely in dark, windy and snowy conditions. Unfortunately Matt did not grasp the seriousness of the situation, this frustrated me no end. I moved about 3 meters away from belay, cleared my thoughts and headed off.

Up a small gully below the summit of Stob coire an Lochan, I then broke left across a large snow slope, I had found a marginal natural runner and carved deep in to the snow behind it to provide some (very little) protection. :-s

I pressed on, kick, kick, thwaq, thwaq, kick, kick, thwaq, thwaq,.......thwaq, the snow cracked above this axe placement.......I froze........watched..........nothing happened. I kissed the snow in front of me (the slope was quite steep 65-75%), it shouldn’t fall apart that’s why I chose this line. The next couple of moves I couldn’t believe my luck. The axes and crampons punched their way into polystyrene type ice...I smiled and patted the ice, like you would a dog for behaving.

My mood lifted and I calmed further, 15 more meters and a 60 meter run out was completed safely in the dark. I built the final belay, took a moment to myself and then signalled Nik and Matt to climb.

Sat on that belay in the dark I seemed to be alone forever. I thought about the sunny start to the day, the eagle, the route itself had been fun, the last pitch and the fact that Nik would look at it and think “Him and his bloody traverses”...... made me smile.

In what seemed like an age Nik arrived, to my delight, moments not minutes later Matt. We got our head torches out, then Nik and Matt ascended the ridge to just below the summit cairn. I followed with a sigh of relief and walking a bit like a cowboy, the last belay was not the most comfortable, but with that traverse I wanted bomber not chaise lounge.

We summitted. I called my friend Cat, who was expecting us for a drink to say where we were and how long I expected the descent to take. She had descended Broad Gully the day before and said it was fine and to bum slide down it. This was a great idea and BG is easy to find from the summit.

I guided Nik and Matt down from the summit to the top of BG, avoiding the easiest ground in some spots as this comes with deadly consequences in one particular spot if you carelessly trip.

At the top of BG, we removed crampons and stowed one axe ready for a glissade to the coire below. We sent Matt first and I followed Nik closely as she was a bit nervous as she could not see the coire floor below. Once the angle slackened, I took off, like a rat up a drain, but downward.

I decided it would be a great idea to try to stand up out of the glissade and run the speed off (“you idiot”) I know. The ensuing controlled roll would have been great to see, I did end up stood on my feet. Matt saw my light bouncing around and had wondered what had happened, it would have been more impressive in daylight.

At the coire floor, we regrouped, had tea, food and water and then plodded out of the coire and back to the carpark. I sent a text to update Cat we were leaving the coire and expected time of arrival.

As we descended Matt raced off, seeing this I was glad I had instructed him to leave his helmet on. Fortunately the only misfortune he would have on the descent would be his fading head torch and route finding. We had seen his torch flickering in the distance a few times as we made a comfortable and steady descent.

However, we arrived at the car to find no sign of him. Seconds later the local police arrived. They had been called by a passing motorist and alerted of our car, they said they had seen our lights a while before and were just checking we were all “ok”. We said the 3 of us were fine, they questioned the third. Nik and I laughed at the fact that we had seen Matt speedily heading for the wrong car park and he was now making his way back up after I had called in the right direction, we told them this, they found it amusing also.

The police were great and didn’t read the riot act, they actually laughed along with us as we told of our epic. We left the car park and headed back to the youth hostel having missed last orders.

We had had an epic day, they say you are not a climber until you have an epic. I never realised I had to have one in every discipline. But there are some great things that have come out of this, my ability to act calmly, efficiently and professionally under pressure in poor conditions. My winter route finding seemed to prove an ability to find stable and interesting ground without overstretching my limit. I found that I could lead a group comfortably on an unfamiliar route and off a winter ridge line in less than ordinary conditions.

Finally, on researching the route I was surprised to find that there was not one listed. Therefore I have contacted the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and Andy Nisbet has recorded the route in the 2008 journal. Now we have wait and see if it has been climbed by anyone else. This will be quite exciting if it stands as this was only my second time winter, climbing and Nik and Matts’ first.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The sun never shines in Scotland

Well I am just back from my 2008 trip to Scotland. This year saw the introduction to winter climbing for Nik and a mate Matt, while Jamie another friend and I got on the pointy end. Cat grade jumped and the sun did actually shine on a couple days unlike last year.
We (Nik, Jamie, Matt and I) headed up on the 7th March, and were to stay until the 16th March, but Jamie had already had to cut this short. The car was jammed with the gear of five people even though only 4 were actually travelling, Matt did have a lot of gear, even after we shrunk it the night(morning) before. We wedge Jamie and Matt in the back seat and set off. (The crew below).

The drive up was effortless and a pleasant one. A couple of stops and about 8hr30mins (driving onto Ranoch Mor is always a exciting moment, it signals you are there) saw us delivery Nik to the doors on a 4 star hotel for her 3 days course with Jagged Globe. Which it would turn out she loved and the has the winter climbing bug.

We dropped in ont he Glen Coe UKC meet briefly and then headed to Fort William and onto Farr Cottage. This would be our error.

A quick drink and feed and we headed for bed. Jamie and I had to be front and centre at Alan Kimbers by 8am. The Advance Climbing course would not wait.

The next morning saw Jamie and I rise early, eat and head for Alan Kimbers. This would be repeated the next morning. The course and the instructor (Pete) would prove to be excellent and would have Jamie and I lead Grade II/III on the second day. The climbing on the Saturday would prove to be in lean conditions and dry tooling was practiced for most of the route. However, South-West Ridge on the Douglas Boulder I can highly recommend, even in ther conditions we climb it.

Sunday would see us arrive on the slopes the Buachaille, Stob Dearg. A short but more technical walkin moving as one and a moment of avalanche panic (see Curved Ridge Avalanche below) would see us arrive at the foot of Curved Ridge, which would prove to be a lovely climb and a fun atmosphere as Pete, Jamie and I were joined by Alan Kimber and two other students and two other groups, that would climb the route closely to each other talking and laughing all the way to the top, with Alan providing excellent environmental, geographical and historical information along the way.

The climbing would prove to be great fun with some amazing exposure, but never too difficult. nearing the top we struck hard pack snow and then some amazing ice which sped our progress. A short walk to the summit, another Munro for Jamie, then a short descent would see me presented with the best invention in climbing ever, the glassade. Basically a bum slide done a gully. This one would prove to be about a hundred metres and was great fun, the simple things hey.

Saturday night had seen the arrival of Cat a good friend of mine and the catching up of the UKC Glen Coe meet. It was nice to see these guys and girls and to meet a few new faces and put faces to some of the screen names. Cat would also be gracious enough to take Matt out on the Buachaille for his first winter experience while Jamie and I swanned around with a tea party on Stob Dearg.

Monday would see a rest day and a move from Farr Cottage to the Glen Coe YHA as the girls attitude at Farr needed a realignment with a hammer. (Sorry Matt, and we don't blame you). Nik would also return to the crew.

Tuesday saw Jamie, Matt and I head for Dorsal Arete and meet Matt Kemp, Westy and a friend, for an ascent of Dorsal Arete. This would prove to be an interesting day, with Jamie and I seemingly the only team on the route with a plan and organisational skills. Matt D would also do a great attempt at dying on the way in, but he was recovered by Jamie and I and we topped out in fine fashion, if a little later than planned. But threes move slower and Matt is a complete beginner and does a great line in faff. (Jamie on Dorsal Arete, insert).

We topped out, congratulated each other and then got out of there as the weather was closing in.

Wednesday, would see Cat rejoin us and the entire crew head for Beinn a Chaorainn and a rigde suggested by Alan kimber. The weather was meant to be a bit rubbish, so we treated even the walkin as a day out. The walkin was lovely and gentle compared to other days, the sun shined for the start of this, but soon would be covered by cloud and drive snow, with winds increasing all day long. A lovely walk and a spot of lunch with a great view was enjoyed and another ridge route popped in the back pocket for the future.

Thursday would see me feeling rough, thanks to no sleep and Jamie off down south again. The Ballachulish Horseshoe had been suggested by Cat, I was in no state to head out ont he hill in the slightly wild conditions that would be reported by other groups returning to the YHA that night. An enforced rest day was taken and much needed sleep obtained for by myself.

Friday, would see an epic adventure fill our day with, stress, cold, a bit of pain, some swearing, benightment, more swearing and a sudden cloak of calmness when I realised I had things in hand, not to mention Nik being awesome and lovely. :-) Look for the Stob coire an Lochan Epic post.

Saturday would bring our last day in the West Highlands of Scotland, a feeling of sadness within myself and Nik, but a feeling of contentment as goals set had been achieved. We chilled most of the day, drying mountain gear, packing, buying food, not buying whisky (good boy Scott), annoying Cat (well I try), chasing and finding Niks Highland Cows with success. (See my flickr)

Saturday night Cat and I produced a feast for everyone, including Dan Gibson arriving out of the blue with his mate Brian. A few beers consumed and a cheeky tipple taken at the Clachaig with Cat and Nik. After this it was time to say goodbye to Cat once again, she had had succesful week as well and was as sad as Nik and I that the next day we see all of us depart.

There is always next year or Verbier as they say.

The drive back was even swifter with no delays and comfortable stops, however it is not so great to be back and work feels meaningless after a such a great week and realisation that of a couple of personal goals.

"Such as life" Ned Kelly, 1880