Monday, 13 February 2012

Sun, Snow and Anticylclonic Gloom

A sad combination of weather and revision for exams has kept me indoors for altogether too long, but a 5 day weekend after my exams were finished offered a window of opportunity which was not to be missed.

The fun began on Wednesday afternoon, when I joined the keen youth, Mr Oswald and friends at Burbage North. It was pretty cold, so I spent most of the time standing around in my down jacket and drinking tea, but I did have a few goes at Remergence which suggested I might manage it at some point in the not too distant future. I also tried to make Cleo's Edge rather harder than it had to be, but eventually listened to Oswald's heel-hook beta and made it to the top.

The keen youth making sexy faces on Nicotine Stain

The next day, after spending the evening wisely running around a football pitch like a headless chicken, I got up early and drove up to Northumberland, where there was snow and sunshine. I spent the day stomping around The Cheviot, ticking my first new Nuttalls in aaaaages and trying not to fall through the ice into the extensive frozen peat bogs.

The summit of The Cheviot

The next day was more glorious sunshine, so I thought I'd check out the delights of Ben Chonzie, allegedly "the dullest munro in the land". As it was I met a lovely retired couple in the car park and spent the day walking with them hearing tales of their mountainous adventures (they'd completed the munros 4 times over, and the corbetts twice, and the first time the guy had climbed Ben Chonzie, some 50 years earlier, he'd been diagnosed with TB the following day) and marvelling at their obsession with Paramo. The views were glorious too, with Ben More in the West and Schiehallion to the North and snow everywhere. Whoop.

Hoar frost on the summit fence on Ben Chonzie

That evening I met up with Gwilym in Stirling and he drove us up to the Youth Hostel in Glenmore. We got up at an unreasonably early hour and walked into Sneachda, where everything was covered in wind, cloud and powdery snow. Oh so much powdery snow. The cloud made it difficult to see where any of the routes were, let alone if any of them were in condition, so once we'd identified the whereabouts of The Runnel we decided it was probably full of enough snow to be worthwhile. The initial few metres offered the promise of ice, but it was short lived, and there was much upwards swimming. This was improved when a party of 7 soloists appeared and buried me in a mountain of snowy debris. Oh yes. Whilst this was going on Gwilym was doing battle with a rather thin groove which was rather lacking in any ice to aid upwards progress. After some creative swearing he made it up and I had a bit of an adventure following him. There were knees and some strategic arse-wedging, and it all felt rather thin and exciting.

Upon reaching the belay I discovered that Gwilym had considerately stopped just below the cornice, which was rather fun looking. I'd never had any one-on-one time with a cornice before, so I was rather apprehensive, but this was soon forgotten as I battled with the powdery nightmare between me and it. Eventually I worked out that burying my arms in the snow was more effective than trying to excavate any axe placements and managed to wrestle my way through the cornice. I was treated to a glorious blast in the face with some epic winds whipping across the plateau, and once Gwilym had joined me we quickly decided that running away was a sensible plan.

After a pleasant evening drinking whisky and chatting to some very random folks, we got up stupidly early again and marched back into Sneachda. The forecast was much better and the winds and cloud had gone from the previous day. Our initial plan was to head up Fingers Ridge, but this was already crawling with people, so we set off up some appealing iced up slabs at the start of Spiral Gully, aiming to head off onto the buttress of Wavelength. I led the first pitch, which had some thin ice, but also some really excellent sold neve, which was a pleasant surprise after the previous day's powdery travails.

On the next pitch Gwilym decided against abandoning the pleasant gully for the rather bare looking buttress, and headed up a fun little chimney thing. A couple more pitches of excellent varied climbing lead to the top, which was pleasantly cornice-free, and much less windy than the day before. We contemplated another route, but there were already 17,000 people in the floor of the corrie and we didn't want an epically late finish, so we headed back down, past hundreds of skiers in Coire Cas, to the car.

The final pitch of Spiral Gully

I stayed at my Aunt's and headed South the next morning, but was persuaded by a promising sounding forecast to check out Sharp Edge on Blencathra. Things looked murky and grim in the car park, but after a few minutes I was out of the cloud and above a spectacular cloud inversion stretching all the way to the North Pennines. Sharp Edge was short lived but really good fun, with just enough ice left on it to require crampons, and the views from the top of Blencathra were stunning. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around bagging the 4 nearby tops and generally feeling glad to be alive.

Knowe Crags fron Blencathra

Helvellyn shaped aceness

So all in all a pretty successful long weekend. My first winter routes of the year and plenty of those perfect days that make it all seem worthwhile. More of this please.

The following weekend I was heading back North to Aviemore with Andy. Being a lower class of human being than Gwilym he was all for dossing in a car park, and I'm not above that sort of thing, so we arrived at 1am on Saturday morning and slept for a whole 5 hours, before being woken by the glorious sounds of Aztec Camera. We had designs on Route Major on Carn Etchachan, but Andy persuaded me to walk in via Sneachda to see what the snow conditions were like. I was pretty sure there'd be snow everywhere like the previous weekend, but as the pre-dawn light filled the corrie I was proved wrong. There was no snow anywhere except the gullies. The buttresses were black and uninviting, so we recalibrated our expectations and decided to head over to Hell's Lum.

Dropping down the gully we were amazed how much ice the crag was holding, although the warming temperatures were making everything look a bit melty. There was evidence of avalanche debris on the other side of the crag, but it didn't look recent, and we decided to head up the impressive cleft of Hell's Lum itself. There was a remarkable amount of ice on the left wall, which was dripping ominously, but the snow and ice in the gully was perfectly climbable. Andy led the first pitch up a small ice step, and I set off up the second. There was a decent ice screw placement and a bonus peg, but after that the gear got a little bit non-existent and the sun had come out and the snow was soft and sugary. It seemed to take an eternity to tiptoe delicately/wade gracelessly up the well-ploughed groove through the cornice, but the feeling of sitting at the top in the sunshine was glorious.

We celebrated our success by promptly getting lost in the mist and wandering round in a huge circle for several hours. It turns out that our cunning failure to bring a compass wasn't actually that cunning, and the feeling of despair upon dropping out of the could and realising that we were further away from the car park then we'd started was pretty miserable. Eventually, after walking back to the base of the crag and retracing our approach steps we made it back to the car, and retired to Aviemore to plan. Here we learnt that the forecast was for even warmer weather and "anticyclonic gloom" on Sunday, so we decided that we didn't fancy climbing any more slush and drove home again. I can thoroughly recommend not spending 14 hours out of 40 driving when you've only spent 4 of them sleeping, but it was probably just about worth the trip for the route we did climb, which was pretty ace.

So, hopefully it will either cool down and snow a lot, or warm up and turn into Spring soon...


  1. Did Andy morph into Gwilym half way up Hell's Lum? And dropping out of the could is always useful for navigation :)

    Ben Chonzie was my first Munro and we had similarly awesome snowy views and lots of mountain hares - I think it's quite a nice Munro in winter!

  2. Ahem, fixed now...

    We decided we were definitely at the top of either one of the Northern Corries, the Lairig Ghru or Loch Avon, but it was pretty disappointing to find out it was the latter and that the shouts we could hear were people on the route we'd climbed an hour or so previously!

    We saw a hare and a ptarmigan on Ben Chonzie too :)