Centrepoint & Slab Rib Variation

We are currently in the middle of quite a prolonged spell of cold weather, and certainly, for the time of year, winter climbing conditions are excellent. That’s not to say that the approaches are easy, as there is quite a bit of unconsolidated snow lying on top of scree and boulders. The good news is that the snow is beginning to firm up in places, and overall, it all feels very promising at the minute. We’re due a thaw on Friday evening and through the weekend, which should do the snow wonders and help bed things down a bit. Colder weather returning soon after.

Both Steve and I were back out again yesterday, taking advantage of these great early season conditions. Steve teamed up with Andy, Guy and Lou, and made the long approach into the remote quartzite crags of Stob Coire an Laoigh, in the heart of the Grey Corries. Steve and Andy made an ascent of Centrepoint, which takes a line up the front face of the main buttress. Steve reported good gear, amazing hooks and a peach of a 2nd pitch! Meanwhile, Guy and Lou were getting stuck into Some Like it Hot.

On the approach to Centrepoint, Stob Coire an Laoigh

Steep climbing on Centrepoint, Stob Coire an Laoigh

Slightly closer to home, I was out with good friend Harry, who was making the most of a day off from working at Needlesports in Keswick. We decided to have a look at Slab Rib Variation on Ben Nevis, which lies on the far left hand side of the Minus Face, just right of Slingsby’s Chimney. I had heard that it was a worthwhile mixed route when there was plenty of unconsolidated snow about, which it was, although don’t expect too much in the way of gear. The climb felt like a smaller version of Observatory Ridge, with similar slabby and compact rock, scope for variation and style of climbing. It’s a great route, with plenty of interesting and sustained climbing, but a bit trickier than the guidebooks suggest. We descended Slingsby’s Chimney in two abseils, but it’s worth noting that Slingsby’s Chimney is nowhere near close to being climbable at grade II at the moment! We only saw one other team, who climbed the South West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder.

With the cold weather set to resume after the weekend, and the mountains being so quiet, it’s a great time to bag your first winter routes of the season. Why not treat yourself to an early Christmas present, and book some Private Guiding to kick-start your winter climbing season?

Heading up to Slab Rub Variation on Ben Nevis
Slingsby's Chimney and Slab Rib Variation, Ben Nevis
Harry on pitch 3 of Slab Rib Variation, Ben Nevis

Winter arrives on Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor!

First things first. We’ve had a bit of a shuffle around at West Coast Mountain Guides, so I (Ken) am please to announce that I will now be joined by Steve Holmes to assist me in the running of the company. Steve has been based in Fort William for a number of years, and has a huge passion for mountaineering and climbing across most if not all of it’s disciplines. He has a number of first ascents both on rock and in winter on the nearby crags and mountains and is keen to share that enthusiasm and knowledge with everyone he’s out with.

Hannah will still be looking after the bulk of the winter skills and walking side of things, but has decided to step down from the role of director to have a bit more time to focus on other things alongside being in the mountains. Huge thanks to her for her assistance over the past couple of years.  I’ve no doubt that she will still manage to climb more personal routes than most Mountaineering Instructors will this coming season!

Finally, Bruce and Vicky, who were also directors of West Coast Mountain Guides, have decided to focus on their lives down south. They have a thriving construction company, which they are keen to grow, so I wish them all the best with the venture.

By the way, 2017-18 dates for all of our Winter Walking, Winter Mountaineering, Introductory and Advanced Winter Climbing Courses for the coming season are now on-line, as well as dates for our CIC Hut Weeks.
Private Guiding is also available throughout the winter season.

If you would like further information regarding the above courses, please get in touch.


Right, on with the show…

It’s that time of year again, where the temperatures take a dip, and the mountains up in the Highlands start to try on their winter coats. Over the past couple of nights, we’ve had a fair bit of fresh snow down to about 600m, and with today being such a clear day, the results of all of this fresh snow were quite visible.

Steve ran up to the CIC Hut to have a look at how things were forming on the North Face of Ben Nevis. It’s largely cosmetic at the moment, but a good start, and if the forecast is anything to go by, should consolidate a bit over the coming few days.

Winter Climbing Conditions Ben Nevis 008

Winter Climbing Conditions Ben Nevis 005

Winter Climbing Conditions Ben Nevis 006

Winter Climbing Conditions Ben Nevis 007

Good friends and neighbours, Phil and Lucy also went out for a wander. They headed up Aonach Mor, and found the smallest of cornices forming over Easy Gully. Thanks to them for the great shots.

Winter Climbing Conditions Aonach Mor

Winter Climbing Conditions Aonach Mor

Winter Climbing Conditions Aonach Mor

Winter Climbing Conditions Aonach Mor

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That’s a wrap! Tower Ridge

Today was my second and last day with Paul, and my last day of winter work this season.  The spell of good weather finally broke last night, with cloud cover through the night, which meant that the snow and ground didn’t lose heat through thermal radiation, which it had been doing recently. This in turn meant that the snow and ice didn’t firm up quite so well overnight, so whilst the overnight summit temperatures were much lower than of late, it wasn’t quite cold enough.

Tower Ridge Winter Climbing Course

Much more moody this morning

We decided that Tower Ridge would be the best (and possibly safest option) for today. The East Gully of the Douglas Gap was pretty much full, but thereafter, the ridge was quite rocky for a while.  There was good snow cover up to the Little Tower, and again for the section up to the Great Tower, but the Eastern Traverse was a fairly thin band of snow, and the tricky step to gain the Great Tower was bare, as was the approach and exit out of Tower Gap. Only one axe really needed throughout.

Tower Ridge Winter Climbing Course

Approaching Tower Gap


Tower Ridge Winter Climbing Course

View to the summit from Tower Gap


Still, like yesterday, the lack of winter didn’t detract from a great outing, and another classic Ben Nevis ridge in the bag for Paul.  We did see a team just above the steep first pitch of Glover’s Chimney/White Line area whilst we were crossing the gap, but with the clouds swirling around today, we couldn’t see much else.

Tower Ridge Winter Climbing Course

Looking down Glover’s Chimney


And that’s it, the end of another great winter. It’s not been without challenging conditions, but overall, there’s been enough to climb for much of the season. This winter has presented some great opportunities to think outside the box and climb lesser travelled routes, I’ve certainly enjoyed it! Thanks to all those that have worked for us and climbed and walked with us this winter.

I’ve got a day off to pack tomorrow, before heading to Nepal to lead a trip in the Himalayas on Friday. Can’t wait!

Just about hanging on: NE Buttress

It certainly feels like winter is trying to make a sneaky exit now, but it is hanging on, just. I was out with Paul today, and he was keen for an adventurous route and hadn’t climbed on Ben Nevis before, so we decided to go for NE Buttress, which had seen ascents over the weekend, and I thought would be just about holding on.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Views south

The approach slopes were still mostly on snow, but with a few gaps of rock and vegetation now showing. The first snowy left trending ramp was thinning in places, but he pitch leading up to the second platform was mostly on good snow and ice, with the odd rocky step. The second platform was still quite snowy, with some good consolidated stuff in places. From here on, the crest was in not bad shape, but the Mantrap was completely dry, and the 40ft Corner was mostly dry for the first 30ft or so, but still had some useful snow on the upper ledges.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Leading up to the second platform

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Views across the north face

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Paul enjoying the situation


North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

40 Foot Corner

Regardless of conditions, we needed axes and crampons throughout, had great fun and it gave Paul the perfect introduction to climbing on Ben Nevis. The weather, once again, was nothing short of amazing. Very quiet on the mountain today, but a pair did climb Point 5 Gully, and reported it to be ok, if a little soft for reassuring ice screws. I could see a couple of teams on Tower Ridge and a few on Ledge Route.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Climbers in Tower Gap

The Cascade and Expert’s Choice were both climbed yesterday, and looked ok today, but that might all change tomorrow afternoon as this great spell of weather is due to come to an end.

North East Buttress Winter Climbing Course

Looking up Observatory Gully

Great conditions on NE Buttress

After a couple of days off, I was back out on Ben Nevis today, with Ken & Glenn. Ken and I climbed the SW Ridge a number of years ago, and ever since then, we’ve tried to fit in a day on NE Buttress, but for one reason or another, the opportunity hasn’t materialised, until today.

It was clear when walking in this morning that today was going to be brilliant, with cold, calm conditions, rime on the upper cliffs of the mountain, numerous dribbles of ice and consolidated snow on the approach. In fact, this must be my favourite time of the year in the Highlands, when the days are longer, the mountains quieter and options to either rock or winter climb, as well as ski and bike, oh and before the midges arrive.

There was a track on the approach to NE Buttress, and although there were pillows of windslab about, much of it was avoidable. The route itself had some very useful patches of ice and plenty of consolidated snow, allowing for efficient progress, with plenty of ‘first time’ axe placements. Ken and Glen have climbed a lot over the years, and so found much of the climbing straight forward, although both paused for thought at the Mantrap (completely dry) and 40 Foot Corner (thinly iced, with some useful snow on the ledges). We descended via Coire Leis, which again, with all the snow, was very straight forward.

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

Glenn above the Second Platform

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

Ken in the 40 Foot Corner

The ice is forming higher up, but it’s still tricky to tell from a distance whether Indicator Wall and Hadrian’s Wall are climbable. Point 5 Gully was climbed, and Smith’s looked ok, if thin. Ditto for Tower Scoop. Plenty of mid-grade routes in Coire na Ciste looked fine from a distance too. The weather this weekend looks very promising, but an early start will prove worthwhile to make the most of the cooler temperatures.

NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing



NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

NE Buttress to Tower Ridge


NE Buttress Ben Nevis Guided Winter Climbing

Coire na Ciste

Surprisingly pleasant on Comb Gully

With ferocious winds forecast for first thing this morning, Matt, Dave and I had a slightly later start, and despite the odd squally wind, had a fairly reasonable walk up to Coire na Ciste this morning.  There had been some overnight snow, but only the lightest of dustings.  The slopes leading up to Comb Gully had refrozen well through the night, making travel up to the mouth of the gully quite straight forward, although there was an icy crust in places.

Comb Gully Ben Nevis Winter Climbing Course

Ben Nevis this morning

Once established in the gully, it was clear that spindift was going to be a constant feature of the day, but asides from that, the gully gave an enjoyable climb, with good axe placements where it really mattered.  There was a bit more ice (and snow) than when I climbed it the other day, but overall, it felt quite similar (bold yet fun and steady climbing).

Comb Gully Ben Nevis Winter Climbing Course

Above the first steepening

The final pitch of Comb Gully was cornice free, so again, very straight forward. A French team, staying at the hut climbed Green Gully and reported it to be fine after a thin (for 5m or so) first pitch. Other than that it was very quiet up there today.

Comb Gully Ben Nevis Winter Climbing Course

Final steepening

Another fun day on Tower Ridge

Normally, by this point in the winter, I would have worked on Tower Ridge a number of times, but for some reason, yesterday was my first time this season. Today was my second.

I was out with Matt and Dave, who both have quite a bit of rock climbing experience, but were keen to climb a classic route and learn a thing or two along the way, and in particular how to climb efficiently yet safely in winter and still be down before dark. Luckily, it’s late in the season, and doesn’t get dark until 7pm, so the odds were stacked reasonably in my favour to be down without needing to use a headtorch…

The overnight thaw was still on-going as we walked in this morning, which didn’t quite match up with what some of the forecasts were suggesting, and I was quite surprised at how much snow had been lost overnight on the approach slopes to the East Gully of the Douglas Boulder. Fortunately, thereafter, there was very little change to yesterday, and if anything there was a bit more snow on the ledges above the Little Tower.  As we approached Tower Gap, the freezing level dropped beneath us, icing up our gear and refreezing the soft snow, which was starting to form a crust.  On the summit plateau, it was almost eerily calm and almost felt like the sun could burst through the cloud.

Eastern Traverse, Tower Ridge Winter Climbing

Eastern Traverse

No other teams on Tower Ridge today, and one team made an ascent of No. 2 Gully Buttress. Comb Gully, Green Gully, No. 3 Gully Buttress and NE Buttress all reported to have been climbed yesterday.

Tower Gap Tower Ridge Winter Climbing

Tower Gap

The Indecisive Winter Continues…

It seems to me that winter has been indecisive this season, with things looking promising one minute and then a substantial thaw setting in the next, quite often during the same day.  Today was no exception to that pattern, with plenty of snow down to 500m overnight and cold conditions first thing this morning, before the freezing level once again rose, bringing with it rain to the summits. It was certainly a day of two halves.

Sw Ridge Douglas Boulder

Wintry this morning

This pattern will play havoc with cornice collapse and triggering wet sluffs, so Katie, Austin and I decided to play it safe and climbed the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder for the last day of their five day winter climbing course. We weren’t the only ones on the Douglas Boulder today, as other teams made ascents of the East Ridge and Gutless. For both Katie and Austin, it was their first proper taste of mixed climbing, and so both of them took a bit of adjusting to get into the swing of hooking and torquing their axes and trusting their crampons on small edges. This adjustment phase is no bad thing, as it will enable them to progress their winter climbing techniques for the future and to tackle a more diverse range of routes.

South West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Katie on the ridge, smiling as always!

We witnessed quite a sizeable sluff pouring down Vanishing Gully, which does have some ice on the second pitch, but not enough to climb at the moment! It’s looking quite wintry for the beginning of next week, so fingers crossed.

SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Team selfie

Comb Gully before the thaw

This week, I’m running a five day climbing course, with Katie and Austin. Conditions since the weekend haven’t exactly been what I would describe as stellar, but we’ve had a productive three days so far.

On Monday, we made an ascent of No. 3 Gully Buttress, which was as reliable as ever. The first pitch of ice is now shorter than it was a couple of weeks ago, due to recent snows, and the final pitch of the direct finish is a bit easier now too.

With a rather wild forecast yesterday, we thought we would go into Coire na Ciste to see how wild it was, and whether we could find shelter somewhere… The wind was howling, so rather than press on into the foul weather, we changed plans and after coffee and cake at the Pinemarten Cafe, we went to  Glen Nevis to look at gear placements, belays and personal abseiling.

Today was all about starting (and finishing early), as the forecast was for a marked deterioration and thaw from late morning onwards. Along with a number of others, we headed into Coire na Ciste in the hope of seeing what the previous day’s thaw had done. Unfortunately, the cloud base was about level with the base of The Comb, so we decided to wonder up and have a look in Comb Gully.  The entry pitches were quite promising, filled with firm snow, so we pushed on and found the climbing to be great fun, with enough reasonable ice and firm snow where necessary. The ice wasn’t good enough for ice screws today, but axe placements were mostly ok. With verglass on the rocks, spindrift funnelling down the route and being enclosed in one of the finest gullies on Ben Nevis, it all felt like a traditional Scottish winter day, until the freezing level shot passed us on the final pitch. Then it felt wet. This was Austin’s first taste of grade IV climbing, and there’s no better route (or mountain) to sample it on! Katie also enjoyed herself and couldn’t stop smiling throughout.

Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

First of the steeper pitches


Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

Looking up the gully


Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

Austin enjoying the steep climbing


Comb Gully Winter Climbing Course

Katie above the crux pitch

It was quite still in the corrie early on, so we could hear Mike and his team on The Cascade, and Steve with Marie on Glover’s Chimney, which he reported to have a mushy and serious first pitch. There were a couple of teams making their way up No. 3 Gully as well.

Mike Thomas was also out for us today. He was with another Mike, and they climbed No. 3 Gully Buttress, again with an early start.

Brilliant week at the CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Last week, Mark S and I ran one of our annual CIC Hut Weeks, based at the UK’s only true alpine hut, on Ben Nevis. The hut, which is well heated and makes for an extremely comfortable and convenient base, is situated at 650m above sea level, at the very foot of the north face of Ben Nevis. This means that approaches each day to many of the UK’s finest ice and mixed climbs are minimal, allowing for maximum climbing time and making the absolute most of the prevailing conditions… and making the absolute most of the prevailing conditions is exactly what Mark, Neil, Michael, Simon, Steve and myself were able to do.

Normally, the first day is a leisurely affair, with time for last minute food shopping and a stroll up to the CIC Hut in the afternoon, but with a mixed forecast for the week, we decided to head up to the hut sharpish and to climb a short route that afternoon, just in case we were faced with a hut-bound day later in the week. We made a mass ascent of the increasingly popular East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, which gave us three interesting pitches of mixed climbing. The highlight of the route is the second pitch, which tackles a two tiered corner, which whilst strenuous, is not too technical, on great hooks and with good gear.

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Second Pitch of the East Ridge

On Monday, team West Coast made another mass ascent, this time of the brilliant NE Buttress, which I still think is one of my favourite routes of its grade in the UK. The lack of consolidation made the climbing a bit trickier, but still great fun and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. The Mantrap was fairly dry and didn’t pose too much of a hurdle, however, the 40 Foot Corner above was a bit more awkward, with very little useful snow, ice or gear.

NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

On NE Buttress


NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

40 Ft Corner


NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

Steve on the 40 Ft Corner

Tuesday saw Steve, Simon and I climbing the first icy pitch of Wendigo, on Creag Coire na Ciste. There was just enough ice to make for a secure and fun pitch. We did consider traversing into Central Gully R/H, but having not climbed the inviting mixed pitches of Wendigo before, we continued up the route. None of us were disappointed by the brilliantly absorbing and exposed climbing that makes a rising traverse to the final snow bowl and summit plateau. Meanwhile, further along Creag Coire na Ciste, Mark, Neil and Michael had fun on Lost The Place.

Wendigo CIC Hut Week Ben Nevis



Wendigo CIC Hut Week


With the winds due to pick up on Wednesday afternoon, we all opted for a quick hit. Mark, Steve and Simon climbed the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, whilst Michael and I climbed Jacknife to then join the SW Ridge. I had forgotten how good the main pitch of Jacknife was, having last climbed it in 2011. Sure enough, as we were descending the East Gully of the Douglas Boulder, the winds picked up and the temperature rose.

Jacknife CIC Hut Week

Looking up Jacknife


Jacknife CIC Hut Week

Wild weather whilst on Jacknife


Jacknife, CIC Hut Week

Looking down the main pitch of Jacknife


Jacknife CIC Hut Week

SW Ridge, having climbed Jacknife


SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Abseiling off the Douglas Boulder

Thursday morning brought with it a degree of uncertainty, due to the thaw from the previous day and night, so to play it safe, we decided to all go for Tower Ridge and to let things settle down during the day. However, whilst gearing up at the foot of the East Gully of the Douglas Boulder, I did wonder whether the thaw might have caused the snow to become a bit more dense and therefore provide good footholds on the more difficult pitches of Observatory Ridge. With there only really being one way to find out, Michael and I soon found ourselves part way up the long and sustained Observatory Ridge. My theory applied to the first pitch or so of the ridge, thereafter, the thaw hadn’t really affected the snow and it was a case of clearing a lot of it from the ledges to uncover tiny ledges for crampons and to dig around for usable axe placements. Observatory Ridge is renown for being tough in these conditions, and I certainly can’t deny that it was hard work (but still enjoyable), but we both kept our foot down, and ploughed our way up. Above the difficulties, with still plenty of climbing still to go, a French couple, who were also staying at the hut, overtook us, and put in a welcome track up the final pitches of Zero Gully, which was largely full of soft-ish snow, with a couple of icy steps. Meanwhile, Steve and Simon enjoyed their day on Tower Ridge with Mark.

Observatory Ridge, Ben Nevis

Looking up at Zero Gully from the start of Observatory Ridge


Observatory Ridge, CIC Hut Week

High on Observatory Ridge


Echo Wall and Tower Ridge


Observatory Ridge, CIC Hut Week

Digging required on Observatory Ridge

Observatory Ridge, Ben Nevis

Looking across at Tower Ridge


CIC Hut Week

Teams on Tower Ridge


Observatory Ridge CIC Hut Week

Above the difficulties on Observatory Ridge


CIC Hut Week

Looking down the final pitches of Zero Gully.


Observatory Ridge CIC Hut Week

Final pitch of Zero Gully/Observatory Ridge

Steve and Simon, having had their fill of winter climbing for the week, headed down early. So, for the final day, with conditions once again due to deteriorate in the afternoon, an early start saw Mark and Neil climbing Jacknife on the Douglas Boulder, whilst Michael and I climbed the atmospheric chimney of Gutless, which is a brilliant route, with some great mixed climbing, particularly on the main second pitch (so long as you enjoy climbing chimneys).  We were all back at the hut by 10am, just as the drizzle started, and enjoying fish and chips in Whetherspoons in Fort William by 1pm, finishing off another great course at the CIC Hut.

Gutless, CIC Hut Week

Above the main pitch of Gutless