The Ring of Steall

Its taken me a while to write up my Easter trip, so much so that trad climbing season is well underway. Anyway…. here you go.

There’s some routes in Scotland that are epic and have a reputation for endurance, requiring nerves of steel or providing amazing views. The Ring of Steall doesn’t disappoint on any of these.

The Ring of Steall is a classic Scottish route, covering 4 munro summits and narrow rocky aretes, made even more special in full winter conditions. The route is around 10 miles long with over 1800m of ascent, making this a tough walk in any conditions.

We tackled this route over Easter when winter was still dominating the mountain summits in Scotland, but snow and ice can lie on Scottish mountains well into the Spring so make sure you check the conditions before you set out and be suitably prepared.

Sgurr a Mhaim

Heading from Glen Nevis lower falls carpark, the walk up the first munro, Sgurr a Mhaim is a long tedious trudge of endless ascent. We didn’t reach the snow line until around 800m but once there the cloud lifted and we were treated to an amazing view of the Devils Ridge.

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I was a bit apprehensive as we crossed the Devil’s Ridge. Its incredibly narrow in places with a few spots of tricky scrambling which can test your head for heights, especially scrambling in crampons. This is grade I terrain in winter so don’t under estimate it; even in summer it would be a tricky scramble.

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Despite a few narrow places the Devil’s ridge wasn’t the intimidating crossing I had anticipated and we reached the other side in no time.

Am Bodach and Stob Coire a Chairn

From the end of the Devil’s Ridge we circled round towards Am Bodach, crossing over the summit of Sgurr am Lhubair. I knew what to expect on Am Bodach, having climbed the summit from the other side in December. However, much later in the season the deep powder snow had been through a winter of freeze and thaw cycles and the descent down to the north col was 200m of concrete-hard neve ice. For the first time on the route I was genuinely a bit scared. I’d slipped on old neve about 8 years ago, the fall resulted in twisting my knee, so I took front pointing the descent slowly and counting under my breathe to calm myself.

Thankfully once we’d descended the snow softened and we even dug out a bucket seat in the deep snow as we crossed to Stob Coire a Chairn, to have lunch in the sunshine. This munro summit is easy to cross without consideration after Am Bodach, but does provide a good view back along the route.

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From the third munro we descended more hard neve, though not terrifying, to our final munro.

An Gearanach

The scramble up on to An Gearanach summit isn’t difficult, but towards the end of the day it did require effort to pick through the snow and rocks to the top.

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Once across the summit the descent also required careful route finding to pick our way down through the rocks and crags. It took several false starts before we found a route down to the col from where we could head East to descend to the river. Don’t head West to the Steall waterfall, whilst this looks like an easier descent initially, you cannot descend directly from Steall Falls.

In winter conditions we had to front point down the steep snow banking to reach the river. From there we continued to descend the path to Glen Nevis and the boggy crossing to reach Steall hut and the steel rope bridge.

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We were lucky to be able to flag a lift back down to our car otherwise it would have been a long dull trudge along the road to finish. Here’s the route for a gpx file click the map to find it via OSMaps :

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Snowshoeing in the Cairngorms

After a day wading through deep soft powder snow in the Lairig Ghru and feeling like swimming was the only option to make any progress, I was incredibly excited to be offered a pair of snowshoes to borrow for the day.
I’d never snowshoed before, so the chance to have a go was very appealing, particularly if it meant that I could still get some winter mountain days completed without over exerting wading through snow on my own.
If you’ve never snowshoed I’d definitely recommend it.
You step into snowshoes in much the same way you do a pair of crampons, so you do need your boots to be B2 or B3 for them to have the rear gap for the clips. Beyond that they need no real experience to walk in them, just a gait like John Wayne. You do need to have a pair of walking poles to provide the momentum to move though!
Having snowshoes on as I left the car park at Glen Feshie meant that I made really quick progress up the forest track and out on the mountain. Not quite as quick as the smug cross-country skiers but much quicker than the wading i had done the day before.
I could have been in the Alps or Scandinavia the weather was fantastic, not at all like Scottish winter!
As I ascended Sron Na Gioath the benefits of the snowshoes became very clear. I was following the line of the skiers who had left the car park ahead of me, and while I was sinking slightly more into the snow that they were, I was not sinking anywhere near as much as the walkers footprints indicated the couple of walkers ahead of me were.
In fact I had a cheery smugness as I passed them near the top of the mountain, I wasn’t exactly bright and breezy but I was not as sweaty and wrecked like they were.
This also gave me a massive confidence boost. Having been up a few munros this winter with considerably fitter people than myself I had started to feel like winter mountaineering was out of my league, when actually I’ve just spent most of the winter so far wading in the snow.
From the summit ridge I headed to the munro top in the mist and continued across to follow the mountain tops back round to the woodland.

Its a bit windy today…. day 2 of the Winter ML

What’s your favourite bit of kit for winter??

Tough question I know. I’ve been known to have a half hour discussion with a friend just about different crampons, and then we moved on to axes.

I love gear. Not in a ‘all the gear and no idea’ way. I don’t buy gear to look good. I like the technicality of different gear whether that’s climbing kit or waterproofs. But that’s not to say I don’t hoard gear too.

But in winter my favourite bit of kit has to be my rose-tinted goggles which add a veneer of sunshine to the worst weather, and despite my love of gear I only own one pair. (Well except for the glacier glasses that have goggle attachments…)

Anyway, goggles are fantastic, especially for someone who wears glasses and doesn’t get on with contact lenses. My glasses fog up on the most peaceful days if I make the mistake of tucking my chin into my coat to keep warm. So goggles are brilliant for keeping me from stumbling around like I’m in a white out all the time.

Today everyone had goggles on before we’d even left the car park. The forecast was for 30 mph winds with it getting up to 50-60 mph by the end of the day. But as we got to the ski centre car park it was clear that the gusts had arrived earlier in the day.
Walking in to Coire an Schneadcha was a challenge to stay vertical.

Teaching techniques for crampons

So it was in wind strong enough to blow us off our feet that we headed up into the Coire to a spot tucked away on the east side out of the avalanche risk, to practice teaching each other techniques for walking in crampons.

Cue bunny hopping and frog hopping as useful techniques for encouraging novice winter walkers to use their crampons properly to flat foot and front point. Imagine hopping like a frog and ribbeting as you front point in gale force wind and spin drift blows up your nose…

It was useful to remember that whilst I was (happy is the wrong word) tolerating the frozen snot and stumbling in the wind, novices would be really intimidated and out of their comfort zone so a bit of ridiculous hopping around is a good way to reduce fear and give confidence.

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Navigating in the wind

Nevertheless we eventually bailed out as the wind stopped gusting and became consistently 60 mph. We still had to practice navigating out though. Despite relatively good visibility it is important to not rely on visible features but focus on contours as the only reliable means to navigate. What is the ground telling you as you cross it? Are you going up, down, is it flat? Hard to say when you can’t stay upright.

Pacing, bearings and timing as all useful to get in more or less the right spot but reading contours is the only accurate way to know where you are….

I’m pretty nerdy about maps too so you can imagine how I feel about staring at contours….

6th Feb

Live your dreams

“So what are you doing with your week off work?” my boss asked.
“I’m off to Scotland to play in the snow, I’ll try not to throw myself off a mountain this time!” I replied.

I could see he was both confused that a week mountaineering in Scotland could ever be considered a holiday, and sweating with concern as I’d reminded him of the time I returned from a trip with a twisted knee, looking like I’d been in an RTA and spend 6 weeks hopping round the office.

So I legged it out of the door before he could ask why I was off to do a winter mountain leader course for a career that has nothing to do with my day job and would I have Wifi access to deal with any issues he might have while I’m gone.

How many of us have dreams of another life?

Almost everyone I know wishes they had a different job, lived somewhere else, had different personal circumstances. Hadn’t made certain decisions, or perhaps missed opportunities.

How many of us act on those dreams to make them happen?

Probably a lot less.

I’m not perfect by any means. It took me a long time to decide to follow my dreams. I love my day job, I enjoy the work (mostly!) and I have the luxury of money and time off to do the big trips I live for.

But I crave space, air, nothingness.

I’m not good behind a desk, I quickly go mad.

So I’m heading to Scotland to do my Winter Mountain Leader training. I don’t know where it will lead me, I have no strict goals when it comes to a career. The summer course years ago was the first step on that path, and I never expected to do freelance work when I passed that so who knows ….

… but I do know that the process of completing the Winter ML will lead me places I’ve never been, to adventures I do dream of and confidence to be the winter leader I want to be. Which will definitely lead me to those big goals I now live for.

What life do you want and why aren’t you living it?

What excuses are you giving yourself for not making them happen?

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On not summiting Ancohuma, Bolivia

Mid October I’d flown to Bolivia with the intention of climbing three 6000m peaks – Ancohuma, Illimani and Sajama. The three highest peaks in Bolivia.

What happened instead proved to me that mountaineering is relentlessly punishing and that the desire to climb mountains is sometimes something that is only enjoyed in retrospect.

Ancohuma at 6430m was our first objective, and we climbed to its base camp at 5100m in 5 days. Nestled in the Cordillera Real mountain range Ancohoma is about 4 hours north of La Paz and a half hour drive from the nearest town of Sorata to the start of the trail.

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The landscape is amazing and once away from the outskirts of La Paz the country is beautifully empty. The valley around Sorata is terraced with farms providing hints of green in the otherwise brown and barren landscape.

We set off from a small farm high in the mountains above Sorata at 3200m and after a night camping we headed up to Laguna Chijillata at 4200m.

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Laguna Chijillata, whilst high at 4200m it is still grazing land for Alpaca and en route to an active mine used by local communities.

It is nevertheless still an impressive landscape.

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It was from Laguna Chijillata that we saw our first view of Ancohuma summit.

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After an acclimatisation day we headed to Laguna Glacier which is Ancohuma’s base camp, at 5100m. The route becomes more rocky close the glacier and in the glaring sunshine it was hard work ascending to that altitude.

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Unfortunately for me whilst we did have an acclimatisation day at Laguna Glacier, I spent the whole time sick, and it would have been foolish to try to summit. I hadn’t eaten a thing for two days, couldn’t keep anything in me and hadn’t slept a wink. When I found myself running out of the tent numerous times in the night, (including one time when I only just got my head through the zip in time), it was clear I was struggling with the altitude. I felt sorry for Paula who was sharing a tent with me.

When I’m staring at the roof of the tent wide awake and thinking about all the things I could be doing instead of being awake because my brain says its not getting enough oxygen, I had to consider my options.

It was a hard decision, having made it to that point, but I decided to turn around and not go for the summit. I doubted if I had the energy left in me having not eaten for days, I felt drained and weak and tired from lack of sleep. I was totally disappointed. I felt like a massive failure. I still do.

Though I didn’t know it then, the group would also fail to summit due to the weather on summit night. But that doesn’t reduce the feeling that I failed in my goal, and that I felt any longer term dreams of mountaineering I have might be over.

While I felt like a total failure as I got the bus out of the tiny town of Sorata for the 4 hour trip back to La Paz, I don’t regret my decision to bail out. I felt broken as we trekked back down the mountain, every effort to put one foot in front of the other was exhausting. I knew I wouldn’t have made the summit when the walk out was a massive effort.

Knowing when to turn around is important. I would have jeopardised my own health and the summit success of the rest of the group had I attempted to continue.

So what went wrong and what did I learn?

1. Water – the water around Ancohuma was high in minerals and having found myself struggling to digest food with such rapid ascent at altitude, even the water became a struggled to keep in me. At high altitude I needed to be drinking over 4 litres a day and I wasn’t even managing one. This reduced my ability to acclimatise.

2. Nutrition – I’ve lost my appetite at altitude before but not so low. There was still two days and over 1400m of ascent left. In retrospect I also don’t think I was eating enough calories from the start which is something I need to ensure in the future. As a vegetarian I was getting fed and then food was having meat added so the meat eaters were always getting seconds. This would have been useful at lower altitudes to build my calorie intake. I don’t like taking supplements but in future its something I’ll seriously consider to ensure I’m not depleting my reserves too early. The food wasn’t highly calorific anyway.

3. Choose trips carefully – just because I’ve climbed high before doesn’t mean I can again. Altitude sickness is known for not being consistent and just because I’ve been fine before doesn’t mean I would be again.

I chose Bolivia as it sounded impressive to bag three peaks and already start so high, but flying into 4000m and not having a week to acclimatise is a massive mistake. It wasn’t until well into my second week in La Paz that I started to feel better. I’d spent my first week being too active so when it came to the mountaineering I started to suffer with the effects of altitude much earlier than I would usually and much more severely. I’ve only had minor headaches in the past.

4. Choose trips carefully – harder isn’t always better, especially high up. I thought that as I’d almost summited Mera Peak if not for the weather, why not try something more difficult. Apart from the altitude Mera was technically easy. There’s a crucial bit in that. APART FROM. Altitude is never easy and just because something is high it doesn’t have to be hard. High IS hard!!

5. Research – October is the start of the wet season in Bolivia, something that I hadn’t considered and was ultimately the reason the rest of the group failed to summit Ancohuma.

I also didn’t research acclimatisation along the route to make my own mind up as to whether I felt it achievable. I trusted the company to be right – but their altitudes for locations along the route were wrong, leaving height gain per day to be more than I expected. This was fine for the rest of the group, but not for me.

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Would I do it again?

My inability to put my head down and bear and grin it in this instance just to bag the summit makes me feel I’m not a mountaineer. I don’t get summit fever.I didn’t struggle with the decision to leave – but then I almost had to crawl out of base camp.

I’ve also questioned climbing high mountains with huge walk-ins. Ancohuma had a 5 day walk in for one day on the glacier. Mera Peak in Nepal had a 10 day walk in for 3 days on a glacier. Where’s the fun in that? The whole point of me wanting to mountaineer is because I crave being on the snow and not because I want to do days of trekking.

I’ve realised I’d rather do lower stuff to enjoy the snow and ice – if I want to do long treks there’s plenty of long trails of interest that don’t have to ruin my body.

With a week behind me since coming home from Bolivia, would I do it again?

No, not that trip.

Life is to short to do the same thing more than once, the world is too big.

Would I attempt to go high again?…. the rational part of me says no. But then decisions to climb mountains aren’t always rational. So who knows.

Via ferratas and a difference of opinion about the grades

Since the weather had become cloudy and threatened rain we couldn’t head back up on to the snow so a few of us headed down the valley to Passy to do the Via Ferrata called Curalla.

Graded in our Cicerone guide as VF2B and on UKclimbing as VF1B I was very confident about being able to manage this. I’d done harder grades in the Dolomites last year – or so I thought. However it seems the French have a different opinion about grades.

The route starts just outside Passy village and involves a 20 minute walk through the woodland to reach the crag.

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Its a great route, but unlike in the Dolomites where the via ferratas are rock climbs which are protected by a cable and with the occasional metal step to use, this is entirely on metalwear – steps, ladders and rope bridges.

Which ultimately means you can get some great exposure and disco legs! I mean why would you choose  to have a join in the middle of a wire bridge so you have to let go to move your karabiners along?! 

Why would you put a pin in preventing you from moving without reclipping, just at the point of a traverse when you’re holding your breath hoping there’s a metal step just left that you can’t quite see, somewhere below a handhold you can’t see either. 

Exposure and the fear of falling is the one reason I don’t climb harder than I do currently, and you can imagine there was a fair bit of swearing from me all the way along. Some of the pins were in very awkward places to re-clip!

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I don’t know how I didn’t drop my camera! We were all very grateful to get to the top and head back down for ice cream and beers. A fantastic route, but I think its at least a 2B grade!

Bivvying and the art of knowing when to change plans

I’ll admit to a great deal of procrastinating about heading out for an over night expedition. I love sleeping wild and love big adventures, but I also don’t like to put myself in situations where I can’t be self reliant and get myself out of a fix.

I don’t like having to rely on others and not to be in charge of my own decisions. I’ve been in situations before with gung-ho individuals who won’t admit their lack of knowledge or skills, which is a nightmare when you are far from safety.

So the thought of being out with two eager friends (though they do know what they are doing) felt like it had all the hallmarks of me being led up a mountain and having no say in decision making, easily done when you’re all roped together – you can hardly have an argument and stomp off to do your own thing.

As it was, that proved not to be the case and whilst I might have started out feeling like a tag along, in the end I was just as involved in navigation decisions.

We took the cable car from Le Tour at the end of the Chamonix valley to head up to the Refuge Albert 1er, knowing full well that it was already booked up and we would have to bivvy out. The walk is a two hour route that winds around the hillside from the Col de Balme and then ascends steeply to the refuge. It was a very hot day and it’s been a while since I’ve carried a full pack so I was definitely pleased to arrive and be able to get a cold drink and sit in the shade.

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We originally found a great platform to camp out on just above the hut, amidst other bivvying on the rocks and snow. But after scoping out the route for the following day, we changed our bivvy spot to be closer to the glacier and past all the rocks which would be hard work in the dark.

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Below you can see the route we will take in the early morning – diagonally across the snow below the peak of Aguille de Tour.

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So after much debate we settled for sleeping on the snow. It was a fantastic spot to bivvy, with impressive views of Aguille de Tour and Chardonnet but it was impossible to sleep. First the sun blinding off the snow and then later the full moon. It was also incredibly uncomfortable as I kept sliding down to ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag.

So with my sleeping bag pulled over my eyes I got a few hours sleep – although I did stick my head out for a few photos of the setting sun on Chardonnet.
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It was 2.30am when we set off across the glacier, with the intention of ascending Aguille de Tour, heading past it to cross a col and climb from the other side. After the decisions over route choice became a discussion, I had to admit my anxiety about not being in charge of my own destiny resurfaced. Thankfully I channelled it to problem solving and navigation – things that give me inner calm.

So after ensuring we were all confident we were heading the right way and just had to keep walking, we found the right col to go over.

Unfortunately we chose a gully too far left to try to climb which turned out to be full of loose rock; it was going to be slow progress. As it was, so much rock debris came down as our rope leader was ascending that it was clearly not a safe place to cross and we had chosen the wrong line. I had a near miss with a football sized rock, and so was grateful we chose to retreat.

This is the route we should have gone up, although by the time we’d retraced our step and worked this out the crack in the ice didn’t fill me with confidence. That said I was annoyed at a lost opportunity to have a go at a proper alpine peak.

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So after a debate we decided to head to nearby Tete Blanche, nowhere near technically difficult as it was merely a snow plod up to a scree summit. But, we did make it for sunrise over Switzerland and it was an amazing view and it is still 3429m high so worth the effort.

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The route was also a valuable learning experience. I learnt a valuable lesson to always trust my own decision making and navigation.I also learnt I need to get better at alpine climbing so I can lead.

I am also even more committed to my project and despite it being summer still, I have already got myself signed up for the Winter ML. A tangent from my project perhaps, but one which will at least commit me to a winter of fun in the snow. I love snow!

The Mer de Glace and the Vallee Blanche

It’s easy to dream big when you arrive in Chamonix. Everyone wants climb Mont Blanc – and plenty do without really being alpinists.

Whilst it was in the back of some minds for the end of the week, to start with we were all happy refreshing winter skills and teaching crevasse rescue techniques as we played on the Mer de Glacé. Important lesson of the day – ice screws are sharp and go through fingers as quick as ice. Ouch!

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The following day we headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to take the cable car up to Hellbronner- it’s changed so much since I was last there 4 years ago, but then so have I.

Back then I looked in awe at the alpinists heading out across the glacier, roped up for their adventures. Now I am one of them.

Despite the warning signs to be properly equipped there was plenty of people heading out from the cable car station across the snow in no more than regular summer hiking gear. Some even in trainers. I have to question the logic of people who would do that when they see lines of climbers heading out with harnesses, helmets, crampons and axes and roped together for safety. For as beautiful the Vallee Blanche plateau is, it is still a glacier with dangerous crevasses.

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We wanted a short but reasonably challenging route to start with and so we picked Petit Flambeau, a rocky pinnacle in the middle of the plateau with a snowy arete to ascend.

The ascent was from the North east side so we had to descend the glacier to ascend the steep but not technical route onto the ridge. The view was worth it. Having committed to my project I know I love the snow and love the physical exertion it requires, and despite by recent calf troubles I was pleased to get to the top with little aching.

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It’s a fantastic view to look back along the ridge with truely awesome mountains behind.

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Ben Starav and the last adventure of the season

I’m never going to pass on an opportunity to head to the hills for an adventure so when I got the chance to gatecrash a Karabiner Mountaineering Club meet to Glen Etive I jumped on it, especially when it involved staying at the Grampian club hut and not camping.

The hut is small and hidden in the woodland by the roadside making it feel very secluded despite being right next to the forest currently being logged. And while there’s no running water, it is a still a great hut in a fabulous location, with everything you might need for a weekend (though by the weekend we were a smelly bunch!)

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On Saturday a group of us headed up to the hidden peak of Beinn nan Aighenan. Tucked away behind the Ben Starav range, its a long walk in up the stalkers path to the col to the east of Ben Starav before you can even see the munro summit.

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Having decided to slog up in winter boots and then find there was little snow on the summit of Beinn nan Aighenan I was more than grateful for there to be loads of snow still on the summit of Ben Starav and have the last outing for the crampons this winter. The scramble across the arete of Ben Starav was a relief from the endless slogging up to the summit.

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From the summit plateau the view down Loch Etive was amazing and we could also see across to the Etive slabs where the rest of the group were climbing.

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Munros of Glenshee – I need to learn to ski

Annoyingly Monday was my last day out, which was typical as the sun was shining and it was wall to wall blue sky- perfect for a long slog up to a bothy for an overnight adventure. If I had the time that is.

However time wasn’t the only problem, I’d damaged my Achilles on yesterday’s slog up Lochnagar, too much heel kicking in the snow. So I decided a shorter walk was preferable to being rescued by Braemar mountain rescue team, they’re already out searching for a man who has gone missing from a bothy in the valley. I hope they find him.

Despite wincing as I put on my boots I headed up to the Glenshee ski centre to bag three easy munros close to the road. Well I couldn’t waste the day!

I’m glad I persevered as it turned out to be a perfect day- well almost. Perfect would have been remembering to pack sun cream and sunglasses then I would have saved a sunburnt nose and squinting all day.

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Now I have to admit that I wouldn’t have been up these particular mountains had my foot not hurt so much the previous day, because lets face it, the ski centre is a bit of a blot on the landscape and the three munros of Carn Aosda, Carn a’Gheoidh and the Cairnwell, are hardly the prettiest or gnarliest in the area.

However, once past the ski area you can find this amazing landscape.

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As well as learning the importance lesson of always packing suncream (even just for Scotland) I also learnt that goretex make a fantastic way of getting down not too steep slopes when crampons are too much of a faff to put on.

I also met quite a few cross country skiers and decided, amongst all of the things I need to get good at this year, if I really intend to bag all of the Scottish munros I really need to learn to ski mountaineer to prevent the long walk ins and miles of snow becoming just a dull trudge.