Scottish Winter - FINAL REPORTby Dan Goodwin - Mountain Plan Apr/2010
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This is the last of our regular series of Scottish winter conditions updates from Dan Goodwin of MountainPlan.com. Dan gives a round up of what has been climbed, where good venues for the weekend might be and also some very important links to avalanche and weather information.
Please check the sportscotland Avalanche Information Service and the Mountain Weather Information Service while planning your trip, there are some very unique and dangerous avalanche conditions at present. Winter mountaineering often involves gathering all the information that you can to help make a decision on where is best and safest to head for. Keep in mind that all the information that you gather may not appear that way on the ground when you get there and that the decision making and info gathering is carried out throughout the day.
This is the final report for this season, and what a season it's been with some of the best conditions many have seen for decades!
I hope the reports have been of some use to those planning trips this winter. The intention was to highlight some of the best areas and give an indication of conditions, with a few notes of what people have been up to - including some of the action from both instructors and winter hot-shots. I hope we succeeded.
It's certainly been the best winter with regards to snow and ice during my lifetime and must live up to the mythical 80's and tales of 'in my day we had proper winters'. Guidebook writers could have a tricky time when the next round of guides come out with a huge amount of new ice appearing through January and conditions being good from sea level up.
As far as the current situation goes in the mountains, the winter is certainly not over yet and could go on for some time with many teams still out on the Nevis ice lines and skiers still making it to the car in the Cairngorms (with some inventive patch hopping) from a tour on the plateaux.
We have over the last week seen a thaw with some very warm and sunny weather across the Highlands. On Sunday Aviemore recorded the highest temperatures in the UK not a title its often associated with.
I skied through the Corries earlier in the week and did notice a team on the Mess of Pottage and also the Fichaill Buttress with winter kit on. This isn't on in my opinion - it may look 'Alpine' but bear in mind it's not the Alps and our ethics require the crags to look white and be frozen. Please leave your crampons and axes at the foot of the route, as there is no need for them on the buttress climbs as they are at the moment. There are plenty of other things to do in the Highlands with axe and crampons and the routes will be there next season but not if folks start levering the blocks off and ripping out the turf!
The forecasts though are alluding to a drop in temperatures over the next few days with the threat of fresh snow across some tops. This could prolong things yet further. Certainly on Ben Nevis things are getting soft and could do with a refreeze.
Also worth noting is that the excellent avalanche information service comes to close on the 15th of April.
This service is available from the 15th of December to the 15th of April, there is still plenty of snow and large cornices present so there will still be an avalanche threat. Generally this will be wet snow slides and full depth avalanches and of course cornice collapse, which often triggers the slope below it. Not nice avalanches to be caught in with wet heavy snow that will set like concrete when it settles so watch out.
Ben Nevis still has plenty of ice to go at although it sounds like a refreeze is needed with some soft snow and large cornices starting to shift. The ice, according to many parties, is great to climb on but not so good for the screws!
Mike Pescod commented:
"Warm temperatures and big sunshine meant that very few people were climbing the plentiful ice. The team in Point Five Gully abseiled out and it looked like the team on Slav Route was about to do the same. It was very nice on Tower Ridge though and Smiler climbed Green Gully saying it was great.
Early starts are essential when it is this sunny and warm if you are to avoid falling ice and sluffs of snow. There is still lots and lots of ice and if we do get colder temperatures the climbing will come in again very quickly. However, the cool down this week does not look likely to happen now so it might be next week before we see any kind of refreeze." Mike Pescod IFMGA Guide Abacus Mountaineering.
Andy Wardle was out enjoying the classic Orion Direct:
"Charlie and I made the drive over to Ben Nevis yesterday and climbed Orion Face Direct. The freezing level was above the summit for most of the day making the climbing conditions pretty bold and slow going towards the top. There were teams on Point Five, Hadrian's Wall and Tower Ridge amongst others. The Ben could do with a big freeze for the ice route to firm up but in the mean time the ridges look great." Andy Wardle MIC, Focus Mountaineering
Rock fall will also be a significant issue under these warmer temperatures so take great care around the buttresses.
Al Halewood was out over the weekend and did Green Gully commenting:
"We headed in to Coire na Ciste in warm spring-like weather and watched a huge cornice collapse just left of Two Step Corner sweeping the easy start to No. 3 Gully Buttress (the pair of climbers tucked in under the buttress kept well right on steeper ground and didn't hang about!).
There was no one on Green Gully so that became our route for the day. The snow on the surface was a little rotten and the ice trickling with water but still plenty to climb. Kenny who did Tower Ridge (in fine conditions) said that from the looks of people backing off things around Indicator Wall that climbs there don't seem to be in good condition however.
With the thaw after a cold winter there was also lots of loose rock around, especially near the belays at the top of pitches 2 and 3 on Green Gully- even polished nut cracks may be behind blocks that have only been being held in place by ice so take care." Al Halewood MIC, Climb when You're Ready
Garadh Gully, Tower Scoop, Tower Ridge, Douglas Gap West and East gully, Number 3 Gully Buttress, Number 2,3,4 Gully, Green Gull and Ledge Route.
On Aonach Mor, Easy Gullys have been done up and also down on ski's. There are some very large cornices still insitu around Lochan which at some point will drop - often sweeping the snow on the scarp slopes with it.
In Glen Coe it's really only the easy gully lines that have been reported as being done such as Broad Gully on Stob Coire nan Lochain. The buttresses will now be looking very black and more summery. There is still good cover on the upper slopes at Scotland's original ski area though.
There is still plenty of snow cover throughout the Cairngorms some of which will remain for many weeks yet. The buttresses in the Northern Corries are dry rock now and where the turf has been exposed this has softened. Looking into Lochan on Monday the great slab has begun its spring slump with some huge crevasses across it. It's a well known spot for a full depth avalanche as the snow pack sits on top of granite slabs.
With the warmer spring temperatures melting the rime, snow and ice from the buttresses drips down running under the pack, lubricating the slabs - so eventually the pack slides off in one big avalanche. There are some good images of this on the SAIS site and their blog for the Northern Cairngorms. It would be a very dangerous place to hang out in these temperatures and there have been tales of people getting caught in it.
Looking around many of the corries there is evidence of avalanche activity with cornices collapsing as well. There was a huge slide reported at Glen Shee on Glas Maol. It would be awful stuff to be caught in wet heavy snow that would set like concrete around you.
One other major hazard in the Corries at the moment is rock fall keep a wary eye up towards the Red Gully area when heading up or down the goat track as the debris often makes it down and across the path area. I have seen some large blocks in this area and can see them dotted right round the Corrie, any cornices or wet slides will also bring blocks down in it.
Still plenty to do though with the gullys still well chocked with snow. With a good refreeze some pleasant trips up the easier gullys could be the best option. Quite a nice and easier day is to head up one of the easier gullys in the Northern Corries before heading over to Loch Avon and coming back over Afterthought aręte in big boots (no crampons). Or heading up the atmospheric Castlegates gully and onto Ben Macdui.
There is also some great touring on offer with excellent cover throughout the higher ground. The snow is often pretty firm in the morning and later in the day softening to a slush low down. Starting out with the ski area you may have to make a bit of walk to gain the snowline. The ski area have said they will be operating through until the May bank holiday and then weekend after that.
Be aware that earlier in the week a man was arrested for having a fake season pass. If you're thinking of sneaking onto the lifts to get up high for a tour or a couple of extra runs on the way back (not that I am suggesting the model citizens here on UKC would think of such a thing) then be aware they are checking thoroughly with some fierce consequences.
Routes that have been climbed recently in the Cairngorms:
Spiral Gully, Aladins Mirror and the Direct icefall, Diagonal Gully on Stag Rocks, Castlegates and Pinnacle Gully on the Shelter Stone. Plenty of ski tours including the four tops with a little hoofing and pisted skiing.
Springtime is certainly in the air in the North West with many folks heading to the rock climbs instead of more wintry ventures. The snow has receded stripping many hills altogether, some snow may stick in the gullys on the higher summits.
Andy Wardle has been climbing on the crags of the North West and commented:
"With the soaring temperatures over the last few days, Charlie and I made the sensible choice to swap ice tools for sun cream and embarked on a couple of days rock climbing in the Northwest. We visited Diabeg and Applecross climbing a number of classic lines on perfect rock. There looks to be only a trace of snow on the highest peaks and the crags are dry! Time to wake the arms up after a long winter." Andy Wardle MIC, Focus Mountaineering
Which I think sums up the winter situation there well!
Mike Lates emailed me last week to let me know that he was shifting the conditions report to the rock climbing forum which is perhaps an indication that the winter has ended on the island.
It's certainly been a great season there with some amazing ice appearing earlier in the season and some good snow cover for large parts of the winter. Though Mike has pointed out that there are still some large and extensive snow patches of very hard snow around. Some teams have failed on the ridge due to this. Mike has been posting the latest conditions in the rock destinations forum for those who wish to know more.
Many thanks to those who have sent information in and contributed images to help with this report it's been a great help.
Thanks to Mike Pescod, Rob Jarvis, Ian Parnell, Tim Neill, Owain Jones, Malcolm Bass, Ron Walker, Al Halewood, James Edwards, Andy Wardle, James Thacker, Blair Fyffe, George Mcewen, Alan Kimber, Mike Lates, Adam Hughes, Greg Boswell and Rocio Siemens. Apologies is I have missed anyone off!!