Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Considering the frustration I faced last winter season with what felt like a continuous conveyer of warm weather systems washing over the mountains, this year seems to have been both loads colder and loads whiter, with an (almost) continuous blanket of snow enveloping the hills since mid-December! Don’t get me wrong, there have definitely been ups and downs with the odd day of warm weather here or there, but that’s just exactly what I mean, warm days with temperatures greater than 8 degrees are really few and far between, even in Stirling. The other way of looking at it is that now I’m based up here, escaping into the hills is perhaps a lot easier, even if it’s just for the day, so technically I can be picky with exactly which days I go out. Only problem with that is that since I’m out most of the time, I’m hardly just picking the only good weather days! I mean its Scottish Winter after all, good days sometimes don’t happen! Either way my run of luck with ‘acceptable’ conditions has continued into February with a few great days in Glen Coe and also over in the Cairngorms.
Climbing North Buttress (IV,4) in the shadow of the Buccal

Phil moving up towards one of North Butress's many chimneys
To be honest February didn’t exactly get off to the best of starts, with a climbing-wall-hatched-plan to go and check out the classic ice/snow route that’s Crowberry Gully on the Buccal thawted by one of these rare ‘warm spells’. Although the forecast was for cold weather and snow, it became apparent as we were driving across Rannoch Moor with rain and sleet splattering against the windscreen that a change of plan might be required. Although the path to the hut was slushy mess, by the time we we got up to the base of the Buccal’s North Buttress (IV,4), the sleet had stopped and the snow was firm. In fact by the time we got to the top of the route, the snow had turned back to powder and was drifting heavily. The wind had also picked up and it was snowing again making for an interesting final ascent up the final ridge section to the summit. North Buttress was a great and varied route, and considering its exposed imposing position seemed to comprise mostly of chimneys and grooves (the former of which I have absolutely no objection too!).

Following a week of continued snowfall and south westerly winds many of the most desirable crags in the area were strictly out of bounds on account of being buried by widespread wind slab  and giant cornices. Since the boys had come all the way up from Devon (heuristic trap I know..) I felt we had to give something a go, so after some research ended up paying a visit to a crag I’d already been to in similar conditions earlier this season. Thankfully the west facing nature of Coire an Dothaidh was about as good as it gets in the southern Highlands in such conditions and over two consecutive days we climbed Centigrade (III) as well as the mega classic that’s Fahrenheit 451 (IV,4) (the former of which was Richards first outdoor ice climb too!). Bad weather combined with a lack of any real visibility meant I took a slightly steeper line on Centigrade’s second pitch, which culminated in a short overhanging wall that definitely added to the entertainment value and probably ended up being the single hardest move we came across the next few days! Fahrenheit 451 also lived up to the hype, following a line of icy slabs and corners right up the middle of the buttress. The lower crux pitch was on super thin ice, only a cm or so in thickness and was a bit rotten to boot. Since I also missed the in-situ pegs under the sprawling icefalls it made for quite a spicy affair but was probably all the more rewarding. The upper crux through the steep ice falls is fantastic and was a super enjoyable piece of climbing. Looking forward to a relaxed evening after a few big days out, we were quite surprised when we got back to the bunk house to discover a cehlidh was happening that evening in the pub. As you can imagine, all prospects of a quiet evening then went immediately out the window!
Looking up into a very white Coire an Dothaidh

Other climbers on Centigrade (III) and Fahrenheit 451 (IV,4)

Richard and Rob at the top of Centigrade (III) in typically Scottish climbing conditions
The thinly iced lower section of Fahrenheit 451 (IV,4)
After a hasty retreat from the Glen Coe area we then headed over to an even snowier Cairngorms. As reports were stating that much of the Norries and other crags in the area were buried under powder and loaded wind slab, we opted to spend a bluebird day on the Fiacaill Ridge before walking back over Cairngorm Summit. The day was finished with grub in the Cairngorm Hotel and our second Cehlidh of the trip!
A bluebird day in the northern Coires

Atmospheric conditions moving along the Fiacaill Ridge (II)

Richard moving through the steep chimney

Moving together on the upper Fiacaill Ridge

With the big drive back south looming over Rob and Rich, we opted for an early start and shorter route for the last day of the trip. Having heard reports that apart from around the exits slopes and on NE aspects much of the snow in the Norries was consolidating well, we decided to go and check out Aladdin’s Buttress, thinking if the approach slope was okay we could do something and just abseil off. After some quite extensive digging it was apparent there was a thick layer of really hard wind slab, sat on top of some softer, older snow deeper down which after a lot of consideration we decided was okay as the temperatures weren’t forecast to change and we’d only be on an exposed section for maybe 20m or so (TBH I’m no expert and those conditions may indeed be conducive to a slide, but the only way we could get the layers to actually fail was through pulling with all of our bodyweight or jumping up and down on a fully isolated block. The tap test didn’t even make the snow crack. Even on the edges of our excavations, we couldn’t get it to fail.. What conditions may have been like at the top of the crag is a different matter entirely I’m sure but since I knew we wouldn't be topping out, what I saw was acceptable to me). The climb we opted for in the end was Aladdin’s Mirror Direct (IV,4), which was a real cracker. Super steep and super sweet. A great route to finish a great trip.    
Looking up at Aladdin's Buttress

The steep ice pitch of Aladdin's Mirror Direct (IV,4)

Rob at the top. Smiles all round! 

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