Great week at the CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Last week, Mark S and I ran a five day long winter climbing course based out of the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis, which is Britain’s only true alpine hut  and gives unrivalled access to the some of the finest winter climbing cliffs.  The weather decided to play ball  for much of last week too, enabling Neil, Mark C, David and Jeff to climb a number of classic winter climbs.

On Monday, under blue skies and sunshine, Mark S, Neil and Mark C climbed Minus 2 Gully, which they reported to be in great condition.  Neil and Mark C had climbed on Ben Nevis many times over the years, but hadn’t climbed NE Buttress before, so the team continued to the summit via the buttress, taking in the Mantrap (the single hardest move on the mountain?!) and the Forty Foot Corner.   On the other side of NE Buttress, on the Little Brenva face, Jeff, David and myself were basking in the sunshine, whilst climbing Cresta Direct before traversing to finish up Moonwalk, therefore linking some of the steeper ice pitches in the vicinity, giving a very alpine feel to our day.

The following morning, we woke to slightly murky conditions, and so opted to stay low and made a group ascent of The Curtain, which was in reasonable nick, if a little thin on the first pitch.  David and I then made our way over to have a look at Vanishing Gully,  by which point the freezing levels had crept up causing the approach slopes to start to feel a bit spooky, and as a result, we chose not to push on up steepening slopes that lead to the foot of the route.  Mark S, Neil and Mark C climbed the first pitch of Gemini that afternoon.

Wednesday brought with it another settled day, so wanting to make the most of it, Jeff, David and I started early, in order to beat the crowds, and broke trail all the way up a very snowy Tower Ridge.  The clouds hung around during the first half, but soon cleared to give another fine day. There’s something quite magical about being the first team on Tower Ridge, and not having a track to follow.  We then descended Ledge Route, from where some of the best views of the mountain are to be found.  Mark S and his team climbed Observatory Buttress, and found the easier angled pitches above the crux to be hard work, with plenty of unconsolidated snow lying beneath a thin, icy crust.  That said, they still enjoyed themselves on one of the finest ice routes on the mountain.  A team also climbed Zero Gully that day.

Thursday promised another fine day, so Mark C, David and myself started early, and made an ascent of one of the most iconic ice climbs on Ben Nevis, Orion Face Direct, which at 420m is also one of the longest.  We enjoyed a clear run all the way, with near perfect conditions throughout.  The crux traverse was so well iced that it felt quite easy for the grade, the second pitch of the route giving the steepest and most sustained climbing of the day.  Other teams on Astral Highway, Minus 1 & 2 Gullies and Observatory Buttress.  Mark S and Neil climbed Vanishing Gully and Waterfall Gully that day.

Waking up on Friday, having been listening to the rain and wind beating down through the night, it was quite evident that there was no way that the climbing would match that of the previous few days, and so after a leisurely breakfast or two, we made our way down and made the most of Fish Friday in Whetherspoons on Fort William High Street.  So, despite not climbing on the final day, it was a nice way to end what has been a great week, with fun company, amazing conditions and a good haul of winter climbs.  I’ll be back up at the CIC Hut next Sunday for another five day course, fingers crossed for such good conditions then!

Yesterday, the company was great, but conditions less so.  I was out with Barry and Radu, and with a thaw in progress, we went to one of the most snow sure mountaineering ridges in the Highlands, the Forcan Ridge in Glenshiel.  The ridge was quite bare lower down, but improved with height with snow encountered for much of the route to the summit of The Saddle.

Other West Coast teams out over the past few days, including Tom who was out with the Branch family.  They enjoyed two mountaineering days on School House Ridge in Glencoe on Friday and the Dubh Ridge to the Climber’s Col on Aonach Mor on Saturday.  Rusty was out with Arran and Dave.  They climbed Fawlty Towers on Ben Nevis on Friday, and were on Stob Coire nan Lochan yesterday.  Finally, Scott was out with Michael and Marion yesterday, in Glencoe.

So, what about this coming week?  A high pressure system is set to dominate for much of the week, which will give clear skies and so warm days, but cool nights, which will firm up the currently rather soggy snow pack.  Heat loss through night time radiation should also help firm up the ice, although early starts may be necessary to make the most of the cooler temperatures.  Some of the thinner ice routes (Gemini, Mega Route X, Minus 1, Orion Direct etc.) will have suffered as a result of the thaw this weekend, but the major drainage lines (Hadrians, Point 5, Green Gully) should remain climbable once those cooler nights come around.

Some interesting reading regarding this current high pressure here:



Perfect conditions on Curved Ridge, Glencoe

It was almost too warm today, particularly in the sunshine, during the walk in to Buachaille Etive Mor.  For our final day, Nick, Andy, Allen and I had a slightly more leisurely start, which may have meant that we were well behind the crowds, as we had a surprisingly quiet day on the brilliant Curved Ridge.

The walk in was hot, hot, hot, and there was no need for many layers or even a hat today.  Suncream and sunglasses were much more important!  Out of the sunshine was still pleasant enough, so long as we didn’t stay still for too long.

Buachaille Etive Mor showing off its colours.

Buachaille Etive Mor showing off its colours.

Alpine conditions on Curved Ridge

Alpine conditions on Curved Ridge

The ridge itself was in fantastic nick, with good, consolidated snow where needed, a nice firm track all the way, and all the belays dug out, most of which were good spikes.  This enabled us to move efficiently up the ridge, sticking to the summer line all the way.  The crux gave a nice technical step, which they all enjoyed.

Stunning views from Curved Ridge today.

Stunning views from Curved Ridge today.



Andy, Allen and Nick on the summit.

Andy, Allen and Nick on the summit.

It felt distinctly alpine as we neared the top, and made our way round the back of Crowberry Tower and up to the summit.  The descent down Coire na Tulaich was also in great condition, if a little icy in places, but allowed a fairly swift and direct descent back to the valley.  It’s been a brilliant three days with the chaps from Leeds, who have really lucked out with the current conditions!  The weather for the next three days looks a bit more up in the air, before a return to more settled weather towards the back end of the week, this will only help the development of ice up high.  Longer term synoptic charts are hinting at the arrival of another high pressure system dominating the UK through early March… Brilliant!

Andy was also out enjoying the good weather with Steve and Steve.  They enjoyed a day on Beinn Teallach, out east, in Glen Spean.


Escape from Colditz, Blaven & catch-up

So, what’s been going on since the last post?  Quite a bit, which probably explains the lack of blogging over the past few days.

I’ve been running an Intro to Winter Mountaineering course for Moran Mountain, up in the NW Highlands.  On Sunday, we chose to stay low, to avoid the worst of the winds and made an ascent of the brilliantly named Six Track Mono Blues Gully on Meall Gorm, which must be contender for the most accessible winter climbing cliff in the UK.  Being in the lee of the mountain gave us plenty of shelter, and Sele, Gavin and Dave (who joined us for the day) enjoyed their first foray in NW Highlands.

Hannah wrapped up a Winter Skills & Summits course by making an ascent of Stob Coire Raineach in Glencoe.

Rod and his team of mountaineers were also out in Glencoe, and made an ascent of the Zig-Zags in order to stay out of the worst of the winds.

On Monday, Chris kicked off our Advanced Winter Climbing Course by climbing Scabbard Chimney on Stob Coire nan Lochan.  Chris and John then had enough time to fire up Dorsal Arete too.  Not bad going for day 1!

I headed round  with Gavin to climb the ever faithful George, which is more often in condition that not through the winter.  It’s worth noting that the tunnel through route has collapsed recently, and so the options are to climb on the right, up awkward slabs, which are better and more secure when well iced (which it wasn’t today), or a short chimney slightly further to the right. Umbrella Falls was climbed that day and reported to be in good nick.

On Tuesday, Chris and John, on the Advanced Winter Climbing Course were joined by Mike, and they climbed Morwind on the East Face of Aonach Mor, whilst I was out with my Intro Winter Climbing team sampling the delights of one of the deep, atmospheric gullies of the NW Highlands, Deep North Gully on Beinn Alligin.  We continued over the Horns to give a brilliant day out.

Today, Hannah enjoyed a day of personal climbing with Steve.  They stayed low on Ben Nevis, to avoid the suspect slopes, and climbed Gutless, an under-graded and under-rated chimney on the West Face of the Douglas Boulder.  Chris and his team climbed Castle Ridge. Several other teams also out enjoying the good weather by making ascents of The Curtain, Waterfall Gully, Tower Ridge, Vanishing Gully and possibly Stringfellow.  Still quite a bit of avalanche prone slopes though, so care and careful route choice required.

Finally, I decided to venture to Skye with my team, and climbed the short but good value Escape from Colditz III, on Blaven.  The route takes a deep leftwards trending fault on Winter Buttress, and follows a narrow, icy ramp, underneath a curtain of icicles.  We climbed the route in two pitches, offering interesting climbing all the way on dribbling ice.

Mont Blanc prep on Ledge Route, Han on Comb Gully

After three days of brilliant personal climbing, it was back to work for me today.  I was out with Conrad, who has an upcoming trip to Mont Blanc this summer, and wanted an MOT to see where he was at in terms of preparing for the highest peak in the Alps.  After a rather eventful start, with my van getting stuck on the Ben track (thanks to all those who helped!), we made our way up to Ledge Route.  For Conrad, it was his first experience of the mountaineering side of Ben Nevis, a world away from the pony track, which he had been up before in summer.

We made swift progress upwards, looking at some of the ropework he’ll need when in the Alps, and soon found ourselves on the summit plateau.  With plenty of time left in the day and to get further practise in, we descended No.4 Gully, shot over to the Douglas Boulder and made a traverse of the west and east gullies.

Hannah was out with Steven on a day of play.  They decided to climb Comb Gully, which they said was in sporting nick… great axes, not so great for ice screws.  They descended Ledge Route as neither of them had been up or down it before in winter.

Quite busy on the mountain today, with teams on Castle Ridge, Waterfall Gully (first pitch looks good), Wendigo (first pitch doesn’t look great), Central Gullies of Creag Coire na Ciste, Une Journee Ordinaire, plenty of folk around Thompson’s/No. 3 Gully Buttress, White Line & Beam Me Up Scottie, Vanishing Gully (still looked quite thin), Tower Ridge and Great Chimney.  Observatory Gully seemed very quiet.

I got back to find that my van had been winched out and left in the top car park, so huge thanks to Mike Pescod and Rob Skinner for making it happen!

A day of play on Thompson’s Route, Ben Nevis & Closer, Bidean

It would have been criminal to have wasted such a great day, so both Hannah and I hatched plans with friends to make the most of one of the finest days of the season so far.

Firstly, Hannah was out with Mark, and they decided to go for Thompson’s Route, a classic IV,4 on Ben Nevis.  An early start meant that they were in pole position when reaching Coire na Ciste, and they made a beeline for their route.  They found conditions to be quite lean on Thompson’s Route, giving a fun and reasonably well protected mixed route.  One of the beauties of this route is that it can be climbed either as a mixed route, or an ice route.  With such an early start, they topped out in good time, and so made a quick descent of No. 3 Gully, before racing up a mixed Central Gully on Creag Coire na Ciste.  They reported a surprisingly quiet day on the Ben, with teams on Good Friday Climb, Tower Ridge, Tower Face of the Comb and No. 3 Gully Buttress.

Meanwhile, I was out with Scott and Steve, and we ventured up to Diamond Buttress on Bidean nam Bian, with intentions to climb Direct Route.  I led a rather bold first pitch, and found the turf and unconsolidated snow to not be quite as frozen or useful as I  had hoped, and so after Steve tried to make progress on pitch 2, and found it to be a bit too bold and insecure, we abseiled off, and with enough time in the day to spare, made a quick ascent of Closer on the West Top of Bidean nam Bian, a two star IV,5.  The first pitch, which Steve led, was partly frozen, but the turf in places was quite dry, and not holding axe placements fantastically well all the time. Scott finally got a lead, by finishing the route up a much more solid second pitch, which gave some good climbing.  So, nice to go somewhere different, shame that we didn’t complete Direct Route, which really needs more solid ice and snow, but a great day with great friends nonetheless.  Oh, not another soul up where we were today.  Stob Coire nam Beith looks white, but most routes will be far from climbable just yet.

Forecast for the next week or so looking cold and quite calm, which will only go to further improve conditions, so after a slow start to winter, things are starting to look very good.

Long time coming! Crest Route, SCNL, Glencoe

After weeks of storms, super short lived freeze cycles, and generally a frustrating start to winter, things finally took a noticeable turn for the better this weekend.  So, with the promise of clear skies, calm winds and low temperatures, Steve and I quickly hatched plans to venture up to Stob Coire nan Lochan yesterday and have a look at Crest Route on North Buttress.  Steve had already climbed the route before, so knew that due to it’s rocky and steep nature it didn’t really rely on turf, which hadn’t quite had the chance to thoroughly freeze, and me having not climbed it before, it seemed like a wise idea, and a great one, as it’s been on my tick-list for quite a while.

The approach was quite tough going due to some deep snow drifts covering the path, but luckily for us, we weren’t the first ones of the day heading up.  We were also just as lucky that the couple of teams in front didn’t have Crest Route in their sights!  The first pitch was a fairly straight forward affair, led by Steve, before I took over, and made my way up the sustained, technical, but well protected and enjoyable second pitch, before Steve slowly and steadily made his way up the technical and awkward third pitch.  We topped out to virtually no wind and clear panoramic views in every direction.  Not a bad way to open this winter’s account!  Other teams were on Yankee Go Home, Scabbard Chimney, Dorsal Arete, Twisting Gully, Central Grooves and Intruder.

Today unfortunately didn’t turn out to be quite so productive.  Steve and I made our way up high, to the entrance to No.4 Gully on Ben Nevis, with intentions to explore and climb on the upper tier of Trident Buttress, which overlooks No. 4, but unfortunately, due to the longish approach, probably coupled with yesterday’s efforts, Steve’s back, which he has had quite a few problems with this year, was causing him a bit of discomfort.  For life as mountaineering instructors, there’s almost nothing more important than looking after your body, particularly with a busy winter looming, so for both Steve and I, there was no question that pushing on would be foolish, so we made our way back down.  It was just nice to be out on such a glorious day, to have a look at an area of Ben Nevis that I know less about and see what else people were on (quite quiet today, with teams on Tower Ridge, Cutlass, No. 3 Gully Buttress, Sioux Wall and Ledge Route).

Hannah has also had a busy weekend, working with a group from Maximum Adventure.  They enjoyed a walk into Coire na Ciste, whilst looking at a number of core winter skills, all in preparation for today’s assault on the summit of Ben Nevis, which they succeeded in achieving. They’ve certainly had a great weekend for it.

It’s cooling down – Scottish winter courses

It’s been a busy summer, both on the Isle of Skye and in the Alps and it’s been great to meet new and also catch up with familiar faces. The late Indian summer we’ve had has been very much appreciated and t-shirt climbing in October and November has been great! We are however also pleased to say it’s now cooling down, and with winter not far away, it’s a good time to start laying down plans for the upcoming winter season.

Our first Scottish winter courses this year start in mid December and we also have some running over the New Year period. This coming winter, we will be offering a greater range of courses than previously, with the inclusion of a Winter Skills & Summits course, aimed at hill walkers looking to take their first winter steps in the Scottish mountains and who wish to tackle snow covered Munros.

Should you wish to tackle something steeper, such as a snow filled gully, iced up buttress or classic icefall, then our range of Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Courses may be just what you’re after!  We’re lucky to be surrounded by some of the finest winter venues, from Ben Nevis to Aonach Mor on our doorstep, to the impressive peaks and crags of Glencoe just to the south.

We will, of course, be running our flagship CIC Hut Weeks too.  The week is spent in the UK’s only alpine hut, at the foot of the North Face of Ben Nevis, which means minimal walk-ins, maximum climbing time!

Don’t forget, we also take Private Guiding bookings too so if you can’t quite find what you’re after when it comes to climbing, winter skills, or walking make sure you get in touch whether your an individual or a group so we can talk through what you’d like to achieve and we’ll come up with a tailor made itinerary for you.

The West Coast Mountain Guides blog will also be kept up-to-date throughout the winter season and please feel free to email us with your own conditions updates and pictures that we can then include on our blog

Oh, and if you haven’t yet, don’t forget to ‘like’ us on facebook and we look forward to seeing you soon!