Day 2 of the MCofS Student Winter Skills dawned cold and clear with not too many hangoveres evident! The ski road was still shut so we headed back up to Ryvoan Bothy to continue looking at navigation, avalanche avoidance and ice axe arrest. The group from Strathclyde University covered a wide range of experience and it was great to be able to bounce a few ideas around interspaced with the odd snowball fight!
This weekend I'm working for Glenmore Lodge on a MCofS Winter Training course for University Mountaineering Clubs. The Lodge has only just dug itself out of the snow that fell during the end of last week but 65 students had made a big effort to attend the course. We headed up towards Ryvoan Bothy to look at a variety of winter skills including navigation by pacing and timing, emergency snow shelters, avalanche avoidance and ice axe arrest.
Room with a view!
Winding our way back to the Lodge.
The deep snowpack was very noisy as we moved around on easy angled slopes. On investigation the unstable layer of hoar frost is still very much in evidence beneath approximately 50cm of soft windslab creating a high avalanche risk (east facing slope at 350m). There was some evidence of small slides on the steeper sides of the valley along with a number of impressive sun wheels.
With the surrounding hills still in a very unstable condition we opted to stay low and look at some more advanced techniques and skills in winter mountaineering and climbing. We spent the morning dry tooling on the Ballachulish Bridge crag which provided a great challenge and some huge improvements in technique. This afternoon we drove up into Glencoe and looked in more depth at snow anchors and winter ropework. The final job for the day was to build at four person snow hole with only our axes! However the snow was in perfect condition for digging and in a very short space of time we had a very comfortable abode. Today I was working for Adventure Peaks.
The avalanche risk is as high as it's been for many years, across almost the full spectrum of slope aspects. At 300m in Glencoe the week surface hoar layer was still evident beneath approximately 60cm of soft windslab. Despite the improvement in weather over the weekend the snow pack is going to remain very unstable for some time. Approaches and exits to climbs will be particularly at risk. Some days it just pays to drink coffee and come back to fight another day.
Following significant heavy and wet snowfall on to a thick layer of surface hoar there is now a a very large risk of avalanche across much of the Scottish Hills. This is clearly demonstrated in this photo from the SAIS.
Please follow the SAIS links on the side bar to see the avalanche forecasts.
The following explanation was posted on the UKC Winter Climbing Forums by one of the SAIS forecasters during a discussion on categorizing avalanche risk and illustrates the seriousness of the current risk.
"Just for the record, a ‘Very High’ hazard of avalanche category has never been used in Scotland since the inception of the SAIS (or Scottish Avalanche Project, as it was called when it began in 1988). There were probably only a few occasions prior to its beginning when conditions may have warranted a ‘Very High’, but these are now of historical interest only (The Loss of Gaick – twice! – when a substantial building was overwhelmed and demolished by avalanches 100 years, to the day, apart).
All countries with seasonal snow cover interpret hazard categories according to local conditions. In Europe, the Swiss, in particular, require a scale with a pretty serious top end because they have densely populated villages in high Alpine locations that can be wiped out by avalanches (many villages destroyed in the 1950s). Same applies to the Austrians (most recently, Galtur), the French (eg. Montroc) and the Italians (eg. Cervinia).
In Scotland, our problem is one of recreational visitors (climbers, hill-walkers, ski-tourers) and the massive frequentation of these hill-goers during the winter months. We tend to extend the scale upwards. For instance, in Canada I was a little taken aback, when I was on training and assessment there, at how the Canadians viewed the size and frequency of their avalanches in relation to the hazard category. Avalanche frequency/size and stability that I would happily have called Considerable if I were working in Scotland were unanimously designated as Moderate.
The North Americans have more and bigger avalanches; we have fewer but way more visitors to the mountains. (Scotland had more avalanche fatalties –12 - in the winter of ’94-’95 than Canada). My guess is that we unconsciously slew the scale upwards to take account of this high level of frequentation and our terrain/topography. Most of our avalanche victims don’t get fully buried. Many suffer trauma injuries ‘in transit’ down the mountain by getting banged in to rock, boulders etc. Complete burial is more common (sometimes with trauma) in Alpine nations. Bottom line is that Scottish avalanches don’t have to be big to kill you. Get caught by a small slab, lose your footing and take a 300m tumble down a crag will have much the same ultimate outcome as a full burial under a couple of metres of avalanche debris.
Today there was some discussion as to whether or not to put out a ‘Very High’ category for tomorrow (Friday) on my patch. At least one other avalanche forecaster out the 5 SAIS areas has discussed this possibility with the SAIS Co-ordinator within the past day or so. Instability is certainly widespread at the moment (a ‘Very High’ pre-condition) and not just confined to a few aspects. The avalanches are also likely to be big ones with long run-outs (another ‘Very High’ pre-condition). My own issues are with the exposure of a low-level and popular approach path to big avalanches from above. This happened a couple of years ago when a big one passed through open and mature woodland, took out a few trees (root-ball and all) and crossed the path. It was decided today that the ‘High’ category covered this contingency but that our use of the ‘Very High’ category would be reviewed as conditions develop."
Today we stayed safe and climbed at the Ice Factor and Onich Slab. I was running a Climbing Improvers / Everest Preparation course for Adventure Peaks
The Scottish weather is up to it's old tricks. After more than a week of blue skies, freezing temperatures and light winds we woke to a gale from the east and blizzard conditions. We opted to climb Beinn Chaorainn by it's east ridge. By tackling each step directly we were able to tackle a variety of grade III ground leading directly to the summit. No views today and we kept the rope on to navigate across the plateau to the descent ridge. A very different experience to last Friday and the first day this winter I've had to wear my goggles. Today I was working for Adventure Peaks on a Climb Improvers / Everest preparation course.
With the west coast of Scotland still basking in Alpine conditions we made the long walk yp to Stob Coire Nan Lochan in Glencoe to find the crag in perfect condition. While Max headed for Twisting Gully we made our way to the foot of the classic SC Gully (III, 3). The steep entry pitch was probably the crux but gave excellent foot and axe placements after a few days of traffic. We opted for the alternative second pitch which climbs the icy ramp on the right at IV,4. The third pitch was easy snow slopes beneath some threatening cornices but the exit was easy through a good slot. We topped out in four pitches to stunning panorama with no a breath of wind. There were teams on Dorsal Arete, Twisting Gully, Twisting Gully Right Hand, The Tempest, Broad Gully, NC Gully and Raeburn's Route. Today I was working for Adventure Peaks giving Nigel some final training before his Everest expedition in April.
Looking down the steep first pitch.
Looking up at a team on the Variant second pitch at IV, 4.
Not as bad as it looks! Michael smiling despite being hit in the eye by an ice screw.
Ben Nevis & the Mamores.
Topping out into the sunshine.
The MWIS weather forecast got it right with light easterly winds throughout the day. The SAIS predicted a high avalanche risk on westerly slopes based on a strengthening wind throughout the day but this never materialised and the snow pack still consists mainly of unconsolidated snow on most aspects. The sun has stripped a lot of snow from steep south facing slopes but the surface hoar is reaching epic proportions with the continued light winds and cold temperatures.
Six days on from the last significant fall of snow and the Scottish Hills are still covered in unconsolidated powder with low temperatures and blue skies. This is the winter that keeps giving. This week I'm working for Adventure Peaks on a Climbing Improvers course. For Nigel it's his final training for his Everest expedition in April. With the forest track still unpassable without four wheel drive we enjoyed the walk up to the Ben from the North Face car park. Our route was one of the five classic ridges - Castle Ridge (III). This gave plenty of grade II ground with a couple of definite cruxes on steep mixed ground.
Early morning sunshine lighting up the Ben.
Easy ground on Castle Ridge.
The crux corner at grade III with plenty of exposure.
Enjoying the descent towards Half way Lochan.
Descending from the climb with Loch Linne in the background
An eventful day! We made an early start to beat the crowds in Beinn Udlaidh but there were still plenty of folk ahead of us. With the majority of the routes we were interested in already busy we headed up to have a look at some steep ice above Sunshine Gully. We were able to link together several steepish cascades and all was going well until just 10' below the cornice a piece of ice hit a climber below us fair and square in the face. We stayed where we were to avoid sending any more debris their way while his partner quickly lowered him to the base of the crag helped by another team who had heard his cries. There were fears for his eye sight so they quickly set off for the valley floor with his head heavily bandaged. We topped out through an awkward and insecure cornice and I made a quick descent to catch them up in the forest. They were making good time and didn't need any further help making a hasty departure to Oban A&E. Fortunately there was no permanent damage to his eye sight but he did receive 18 stitches to a deep gash below his right eye. Just on e of the risks of ice climbing especially at a busy crag but well done to everyone involved for a very efficient self rescue.
Today was also a service of celebration for the life of Ed Grindley, a Mountain Guide and a legend of the British climbing scene who passed away recently after a brief illness. The UKC forums produced a number of memories of a life lived to the full. RIP.
Today I'll just let the photos speak for the final day of our Winter Mountaineering course. We climbed the East Ridge of Beinn Chaoarainn in almost alpine conditions for a brilliant finish to the week. This week I've been working for Adventure Peaks.
With blue skies and wall to wall sunshine we headed up in to Glencoe for the first time this week. The Aonach Eagach looked pretty special from the road and we saw plenty of teams heading that way. Our choice of route was the Zig Zags on Gearr Aonach. We looked at different rope techniques for moving across a variety of ground. The route was well iced and proved a good challenge for most of the group. Lunch on the summit was a very relaxed affair with no wind and stunning views.
A band of cloud came in from the west around midday but we were still comfortable in just a thermal and a soft shell. After a brisk walk along the ridge the group made a multi pitch abseil off snow bollards down a steep gully to the lower reaches of Coire Nan Lochan. The deep powder is still very light and we found a few small patches of soft slab but trail breaking is surprisingly easy. Looking up into the coire we could see teams on SC Gully and Dorsal Arete. Today I was working for Adventure Peaks.
We woke up to 30cm of new powder snow covering the mountains despite a forecast of snow flurries! With a high avalanche risk we headed back up on to Aonach Mor to look at the basic building blocks of winter ropework - bucket seats, buried ice axe belays and snow bollards. We also built a couple of snowholes using a variety of shovel up and igloo techniques. Today I was working for Adventure Peaks.
The unforecasted snow has fallen in very light winds and on all aspects. We found up to 40cm of very light and dry powder overlying the unstable snow that had fallen yesterday which had already been identified as presenting a high risk of avalanche. There was reports of a large slide on the east face of Aonach Mor but we saw no evidence of any slides around the Nid area. Any wind will rapidly move this snow around the mountains which could significantly increase the risk on certain aspects.