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!
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.
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.
It’s a fantastic view to look back along the ridge with truely awesome mountains behind.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lochnagar is one of those mountains that is popular to all, regular hill walkers keen to bag a Munro, mountaineers keen to climb gullies in the depths of winter, and possibly the Queen given it is a stones throw from Balmoral and Queen Victoria had a cottage at loch Muick nearby.
But even on a sunny day in March Lochnagar is a challenge, looking majestic and easy from the long wide track, easily accessible from a car park (with a visitors centre open even out of season!) it can fool the uninitiated. The mountain is impressive with three peaks – the summit, Cac Carn Beag, is on the far side from the usual route up.
Once on the top of the ridge the wind was battering and walking across the top to the far side to reach the trig point required walking with a lean to prevent being blown away. In those conditions I’m grateful for walking poles to keep me upright. The wind was against me, throwing up spindrift into my face and pushing me back.
Despite the conditions I wasn’t the only one up the mountain – it was a glorious sunny spring day when I left the car park, and the snow line still being around 500m there were plenty of people out making he most of the conditions. A mix of climbers, desperate to get up a line and almost running past me on the path, mountaineers heading for the summit, and of course day walkers carefully slide their way back down without crampons and axes.
I resisted the urge to tell them off – a mountain rescue incident waiting to happen, they’ll have learnt something valuable from the experience once back down and will be better kitted out in future. She looked at me embarrassed as she slides past me on her bum as I’m donning my crampons heading up. I also meet two winter climbers at the top of a gully – they’ve had an fantastic climb and I look at them in awe as we chat.
Lochnagar summit has a fantastic view of the rest of the Cairngorms and out to the sea to the south, it’s clear why the Victorians liked to head up here. I wipe snot across my gloves as I pull my buff up round my cheeks. I can see grey wet weather heading my way and head back down, avoiding the cornices over the gullies.
A weekend in the Cairngorms, how could I resist the offer of a couple of nights at the Cairngorm Mountaineering hut at Braemar? Nestled in at the end of the Linn of Dee valley where it is impossible for the outside world to contact you, surrounded by majestic cairngorm mountains and endless miles of tracks and moors – how could I resist?
The weather wasn’t looking great for me to want to trudge for a long walk in to only find I would have to beat a hasty retreat from a summit – I’ve not walked anywhere around the Southern Cairngorms so the choices were limitless. Conversations with other mountaineers indicated that the southern slopes were favourable as the northern were coated in deep soft powder snow making walking a difficult slog.
So An Socach it was. A bit random, chosen by shutting ones eyes and pointing at the map.
The walk in from Baddoch is a nice pleasant stroll along the riverside on a wide track and at the second river the route heads upwards and is a slow plod towards a plateau, where the snow wasn’t quite consolidated neve but definitely required crampons, particularly as the climb upwards gets steep.
An Socach is a broad long ridge with the summit at the far end covered in rocks making it ankle twisting in crampons and on a windy day it is exposed and scoured of snow. Much like my face felt by the end of the day! Being away from the main summits of the Cairngorms it is also isolated and quiet, and crucially there was only us on the mountain despite it being the weekend. Perfect.
On my final day in Glencoe it was inevitable that the next route choice would be Stob Coire nan Lochan, if only because two days previous the snow quality wasn’t great when I got into the coire and frankly it rained hard all day.
This time the route up to the coire didn’t seem like the same brutal slog and the snow had consolidated thanks to the rain and then cold evenings.
The route up is relatively straight forward, heading first into the coire and then up the left onto the ridge, past where I’d seen a small Avalanche a few days earlier. This time the snow was soft but not windslab, and the ridge itself was also good going- with only one section to scramble.
From there it’s a long slog to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan, an impressive mountain even if it’s not a Munro.
There was impressive cornices as I passed the climbing crags on the route down.
So much has happened in the past eight years since I last stood on Sgorr Bahn in Glencoe. Everything it seems has changed.
I last visited here in 2008 using my parents for transport so I could get in some quality mountain days for my log book. It was raining hard, hailing, and being a lot less fit than I am now I bailed at Sgorr Bahn worried I wouldn’t make it to the Munro summit of Sgorr Dhearg on the mountain range of Beinn a Bheithir, before the weather turned truly awful. As it happened it didn’t and as I got back to Ballachulish it brightened and I was left disappointed at not being braver and bolder.
That year marked a watershed for me, as I bought my own home and eventually changed jobs to a new city. Both things ultimately changing me gradually into who I am today.
Now I am no longer bothered that my academic career didn’t lead me to a PhD as I’d wanted initially. Now I am lucky enough to have a well paid job working for an organisation that changes people’s lives (even if my own job is a mind numbing array of spreadsheets and contract negotiations). Now I’m a home owner and single.
Everything has changed.
This wednesday I set off from Ballachulish to tackle Beinn a Bheithir in winter, making the most of the fabulous weather and appropriate avalanche report to allow me to do Schoolhouse arête.
From the village this looks like a scary route and last time I was here I wasn’t convinced it was walkable at least not wise to try alone, but I wasn’t the confident person I am today.
Schoolhouse arête is actually mostly walking even in winter, but there are two sections with a few snowy rock steps which depending on the snow can make it a grade 1 or 2 scramble. The fact I managed it despite the deep powder snow suggests today it’s probably a grade 1.
As I got to the top of the ridge and onto Sgorr Dhearg the wind picked up and despite goggles and loads of layers, carrying on do both Munros didn’t seem wise – it was also getting late. In summer this would no longer bother me, my confidence is now only impeded by my speed in winter and lack of daylight. And it was a strong wind.
So for a second time I failed to summit Sgorr Dhonuill the second Munro in the range, and headed down the ridge that eight years ago I’d wanted to reach but instead retreated in the rain. But this time I’m not disappointed.
Perhaps because I’m having a truly amazing week in Scotland in winter and managing to get some epic days walking in. I feel confident about my abilities, about route choices and weather and navigation. And perhaps because I’d managed a route that I’d previously been worried about in summer and yet I’ve done it in deep fresh snow.
Over the last 12 months I’ve been edging towards doing more and more adventures and now it feels like something which shouldn’t be just a couple of big trips a year and a few weeks camping. It feels like ‘tinkadventures’ is actually who I am and not just a means of depicting myself. Social media allows people the ability to portray themselves as cool and adventurous without actually doing very much. I don’t want that.
When I passed my summer ML six years ago I flirted with the idea of jacking in my job and living the student life all over again, but forever, as an outdoor instructor. At the time life got in the way and I settled for suburbia. Whilst I’m not sure I want to commit to that lifestyle now as I want the big trips overseas that my current job affords me, I do want to push myself further. Being single I now have the freedom of time and this has allowed me to push myself further than I ever thought possible. And in doing so it has made me a more confident person and more daring. So much so I’m not sure I’ve tried anything properly outside my comfort zone this week – although its been fun.
I might not want to jack in the life I have completely but now the freedom of time allows me to flirt with the old dream again. Last year I embarked on much more outdoor freelance work. This year, stood in a crosswind with spin drift blowing in my eyes, snot trailing from my nose and yet smiling, I decided I want to have a go at working towards my winter ML. I know it’s going to take me ages, and I deep down I know I’ll probably never do the assessment – I live in the wrong part of the country to make it worth my while and I’ll probably never give up my day job that allows me to travel overseas for one that I can only afford to house share. But then I do work for a charity thats always teetering on the brink, so it’s probably wise to have a plan B to fall back on! So in that moment I decided to register for the award. And feeling so confident in my abilities now I might also have to add winter climbing to the bucket list!
Sgorr Bahn might not be a Munro but it reflects how much I’ve changed and where I want to go next. I’ve also decided I’m now saving Sgorr Dhonuill as my last munro since I feel it means something more to me than another one on the ticklist.
Last monday I woke to gorgeous sunshine and blue skies which is almost unheard of in Scotland. Having looked at the avalanche report and knowing there was still a lot of unstable windslab around on the northern slopes, I headed to the Mamores to bag a Munro.
There’s a very long walk in along the road up to the now derelict Mamores lodge before reaching the hillside track into the coire. It was certainly squelchy underfoot as I headed up the track, showing just how mild it had become, making it important to choose the right place to head to avoid avalanching the soft snowpack.
In the end it was a glorious day to head up Na Gruagaichean, the Munro on the edge of the Mamores range. One of those unpronounceable munros but it had an amazing view across all of Scotland, just about.
Ben Nevis and the CMD arête.The grey corries. Stob coire an Lochan. Even out to Schehallion.
The route was fantastic and while the windslab was soft it was stable enough to be safe. I’ve never had a day in Scotland with such good views and where I’ve only had to wear a tshirt and a small jacket too!
Unfortunately the descent back to the road was long and tortuous at the end of the day.
It was horrendous Tuesday. The weather forecast said persistent and torrential rain – one of those days you’d rather spend in the pub or enjoying the north face of Fort William high street.
Despite that I headed up into the coire below Stob Coire nan Lochan to look at the snow. As you do when it’s raining. The trudge up into the coire is brutally steep for a short walk, especially weighed down with climbing gear.
In order to practice buried axe belays I had to trudge all the way to the top of the corrie to find deep snow. The rain continued all day and even at that altitude it didn’t turn to snow, just sleet, meaning an avalanche was a big risk given I’d headed into the north side of the mountain to practice.
After much practice and getting soaked to the skin I started to head back down, but not before seeing the unstable snow pack break off and a small avalanche head down.
There’s been a serious avalanche on the north side of Ben Nevis with two missing climbers unaccounted for. The importance of checking and understanding the avalanche forecast is not something to be overlooked in a Scottish winter, as is the importance of understanding how the weather will affect the snow.
Days of dry weather with high winds had created lots of soft windslab on north facing slopes, with no thaw and referee this remained soft and unstable.
Today’s rain was not just enough to soak through my waterproofs to my underwear but it is all that is needed to turn soft unstable windslab into heavy and very unstable slush. If this is lying on top of a layer of more consolidated snow then it’s not going to take much for it to slide.
If you’re heading out this winter make sure you check (and understand) the Scottish avalanche reports.
I’ve had a couple of winters off from winter mountaineering so I chose an easy munro as my first day in Glencoe – I headed up Buachaille Etive Beag as its close to the road, has an easy to navigate path even in the snow and is jokingly referred to as ‘The People’s Munro’ as its so easy to bag. Frankly on Valentine’s Day in school half term it was bound to be crawling with either couple keen to do something adventurous, or school teachers desperate to get away from it all.
I heard someone say that school teachers constituted 90% of a mountain rescue calls this time last year. Is it because they’re so desperate to get away from a classroom of kids that the forget to pay attention, or just so many of them are flocking to the hills for that reason that the odds were never going to be in their favour?
I don’t know the answer but I met 5 teachers today, so the chances were looking good that it wasn’t going to be me sliding down the windslab.
I can joke, but I’ve made all the mistakes before and suffered the war wounds – twisted knee from not axe arresting when I slipped on concrete hard ice in the Cairngorms 5 years ago. That’s a war wound that makes an appearance every so often, usually when I’m belting it along the fell tops, or worse happily bouncing my way down the windslab in deep snow. But today it’s been fine.
Which was good, as today was a great first day back in Scottish winter.
The walk up Buachaille Etive Beag isn’t hard, just a slog. Even in the snow it’s not too challenging. Though as you reach the main summit of Stob Dubh there’s a narrow bit in the ridge where the wind whips over the top and as it dumps the snow it does so in a graceful curl, which from a distance looks beautiful. From the centre of it, it feels like I’m having my cheeks sandblasted with the blown icy snow, and my buff fills with snot and wet breath as I pull it as far up my face as I can without my glasses fogging up.
But I can’t complain, views from a Scottish hilltop in winter. I’m not sure I’ve had clear skies much even in summer.