Sunset from Beinn Udlaidh
It’s been a manic few weeks so am only finally getting round to writing about our trip to the Scottish Highlands at the beginning of March.
In the final weeks of February everything was looking good; the cold weather was continuning, the sun continued to shine and the avalanche risk relatively low. In short there was no shortage of amazing routes to go and climb.
But as our trip neared disaster struck; It snowed, and snowed and snowed. In the Western Highlands around 80 to 100cm of snow fell at altitude, further East in the Cairngorms around 150cm to 200cm of snow. Never before have I complained about snow, this was a first.
The avalanche risk had rocketed to Category 4 and with cold temperatures continung there was little liklihood of this unstable picture changing. Our choice of climbing venues was now going to be somewhat more complicated.
As we peered up towards Stob Coire Nan Lochain it was clear there had been ALOT of snow. But as I thought, the northern slopes looked a little scoured and with a bit of luck we would be able to get up to the main corrie floor. Even if that was out, I was hoping there would be some accessible icefalls free from avalanche danger.
Half an hour later we found ourselves wading through snow. We had caught up several teams who seemed to be gripped with indecision, half an hour from the car-park is no place to decide you dont have the skills to travel through avalanche prone terrain and certainly then choosing to follow someone you dont know, strikes me as even more stupid, but that seemed to be the trend that day, as passed our final team who appeared to be frantically looking around for someone else to decide whether the slope they were about to cross was safe.
Dan wading up towards Stob Coire Nan Lochain
We ploughed on, cutting high up the steep sided valley to cross the snow-filled gully lines higher up before dropping back down to cut across the scoured sections. This was going to be a long and slow day but despite this we steadily pulled away from the other parties we had passed earlier. 3 exhausting hours later we arrived at the corrie floor of Stob Coire Nan Lochain, a journey which should take no more than an hour and a half.
Rich playing around on icefalls below Stob Coire Nan Lochain
Spying the epic quantities of snow adorning the main corrie cliffs we opted to occupy some time on the small icefalls that often form at the front lip of the Corrie, they were in generally excellent condition and would occupy some time. And so a couple of lines were had to warm the arms up again.
Dan on an icefall on the East Face of Aonach Dubh – Around Grade IV,5
From there and with only a few hours to play with we decided to go and invesitage a line of ice we had seen on our approach. Cascading down a short cliff on the East face of Aonach Dubh, it looked like two reasonable pitches, both with steepish sections of ice on, both of which, whilst thin-ish in places, looked like being very climbable.
Steall Hut Falls, Glen Nevis (III)
The following day we headed around to Glen Nevis – for an easy day! Word on the street was that the Steall Hut Icefalls were in, the only downside was that there was obviously another 15 instructors standing on that street corner at the same time, for by the time we arrived, it looked like a busy day at Ceillac!
Steall Hut Icefalls – Definitely in condition
Dan on Lap Two – enjoying some of the steeper lines to be found
Taking the safer option in the afternoon warmth!
Beinn Udlaidh – Organ Pipe Wall (V,5) and Smirk (V,5)
It was distinctly cold as we sped across Rannoch Moor, the ambient temperture gauge on my car eventually settled at a chilly -13.5c. After a short diversion to pick up a map (!) we eventually arrived mid-way down the Glen and parked up by the river, only a couple of other cars were present so it looked like being a relatively quiet day.
Thankfully the weekends teams have ploughed a good furrow through the deep snow and we made steady progress up through the forest. We had already been warned about the risk of avalanches on the left-hand side of the Corrie and sure enough, it looked all very plastered, but the right hand side was scoured, with plenty of ice and looked relatively safe.
Looking down the main pitch – we started beneath the ice bulge
Feeling keen we headed straight for the classic line of Organ Pipe Wall. This Grade V icefall forms predominantly one solid and steep pitch of ice with a straightforward gully climb to reach its base. In the condition it was in this year, it looked liked we would get two steep pitches out of the main wall and so it was.
Starting lower down I climbed an initial steep section onto a ledge before hitting the main wall proper, it looked easier than it was and 2/3 of the way up I find sanctuary on a small undercut ledge from where I could belay. That left Dan with a short-ish section of steep ice before things eased off at the top.
Dan launches up the last steep section
As we descended, we were thinking of climbing one of the grade IV lines that weaved up through the mixed buttresses but we could not walk straight past Smirk without being tempted, it looked an awesome and obvious natural line and so it proved. Definitely not one for your first Grade V, the first pitch was thoroughly steep and Dan made fine work as he weaved his way upwards. Even seconding by the time I reached Dans belay I was boxed. From here there was a short steep section before we reached a large ledge and the final pitch. Still two Grade V ice routes in one day was mission accomplished.
Peering round the chandeliers – Dan heads upwards
Dan tops out from the last of the major difficulties
Enjoying the sunshine- Dan and Rich
Beinn Dothaidh – Taxus Icefall Finish (IV,4)
Another amazing if cold (-10c when we left the car) saw us walking into the North-East corrie of Beinn Dothaidh. I reckon I must have driven past this mountain about fifty times and not once bothered to consider it as a winter climbing venue, but it is and a first class one at that.
Irrespective of the route we were off to climb, the walk-in itself felt pretty taxing; its a long and steady slog and under a ever strong March sun it was warm work on the 1hr 30 or so walk-in.
It felt warm in the sunshine – despite the ambient temperature of -10c
The route itself was in fantastic nick, the vast bulk of it goes at Grade III and this year at least, pretty easy Grade III at that, you could dagger up 3/4 of the initial gully sections quite easily, with good occasional screws and a smattering of rock gear. The final alternative finish contains some steeper ice and a nice mixed pitch to exit onto the final steep snow slope.
Dan takes the first pitch
Rich romping up the gully on pitch one of Taxus
Dan dug into the slope above pitch 2
The difficulties over…on the final steep snow slope
We topped out onto another special summit day – breathtaking views in every direction, no wind and welcome sunshine. A great end to an unforgettable four days in Scotland.