Saturday, 19 January 2013

Snowfall and Storm

Pat and I headed up to Scotland in the wake of a heavy thaw, hoping for conditions to improve. There seemed to be a lot of snow around on the drive to Fort William, and everyone we passed on the hike up to Ben Nevis said there had been a huge dump of powder on the mountain, subsequently creating a big avalanche risk. We pitched our tent below the north face, shivered, and wondered what to do. Both getting to and exiting a lot of the routes would be very dangerous indeed.

For our first route we swam up unconsolidated snow towards the Douglas Boulder, a lower pinnacle of Tower Ridge separated by a deep gully. We then soloed up easy mixed terrain into the gully itself, hoping to climb the steep wall of the boulder to South West ridge, which would lead us to the summit. Passing the easiest entry point, we climbed a short mixed ramp to a hanging spike belay underneath what looked like a good pitch, and sorted out the gear.

I led the pitch, up a series of steep walls and cracks broken by narrow ledges of snow. It was the first properly technical mixed climbing I’d ever done. Hooking my axes into seams and edges, torquing on blocks and handholds, crampons balancing, teetering, I clawed my way upwards, not finding as much gear as I wanted. The crux was a committing bridge around a protruding block into a thin crack, and the pitch was sustained until the last pull onto the crest of the South West ridge. There was one nut I thought maybe good enough to hold a fall.

I brought Pat up, and we swung leads to the top of the Boulder. Pat did a great job on the final crux, a desperate, grovelling pull up a corner with no feet to reach the summit. All in all we climbed four pitches, and I’d guess the route with our alternative start was around grade IV. In worsening weather and billowing spindrift we abseiled into the gap formed by the gully and downclimbed steep, rubbish snow to get off the face.

It snowed all evening and all through the night, increasing the avalanche risk even higher, so we waited a day before attempting another route, hoping a cold snap would sort it all out again. We then got up really early to try the classic North East Buttress. However, as we climbed steepening snow and rocks to a ramp leading onto the face of the buttress, the snow conditions just got worse and worse. I broke off mini windslabs with every step, and could see fresh slide scars on the slopes around me. We had a quick discussion then turned back for the tent, packed up, and headed off the mountain with the intention of moving over to the Cairngorms. On the hike down we met another climber who luckily avoided injury falling 30m or so off Point Five Gully when the ice he was climbing sheared off.
We got one day of perfect weather on Coire an t’Sneachda, and set off hoping to climb a classic route called Fingers Ridge. However, we started too far right, and ended up on terrain we couldn’t identify in the guidebook. Pat led a rising traverse up a brittle icefall to a belay in a gully. Ignoring the obvious line, I climbed a steep rib just right of the gully, past a very hard move up a wide crack. I committed, was hanging off one tool and crap feet placements when I realised the leash of my other tool had got tangled in the last bit of gear. Thrashing around, fingers uncurling from the axe handle, I tried to uncoil the mess, and only just freed the tool in time to sink it and avoid falling off. Another hard step led to much easier, turfy ground, and finally a good belay ledge at the end of the difficulties. We have since checked, and believe this pitch could be a new variation to the adjacent route, Goat Track Gully.

Two scrappy pitches up snow and turf, a traverse left onto an exposed ridge to avoid the risky exit slope, and a final tricky tower, led us to the summit plateau of the crag. In blue sky, sunshine, and ferocious wind, we walked back down the ski pistes of Cairngorm Mountain. Then a howling blizzard rolled in, raged throughout the night, and the road to the ski station was closed the following morning. We once again had to beat a retreat off the mountain, aware that the avalanche risk was simply too great. I decided against staying up by myself, due to having no definite partner to climb with and not wanting to solo anything in such dangerous conditions (or alternatively go mad with cold alone in a tent). Hopefully I’ll be able to get back up there in a week or so.
(In the extremely unlikely event that the variation we climbed was a first ascent, we will name it Ringer's Fridge (get it?), grade III 4.)

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Alps Photos Part 2

Hiking through spectacular scenery towards the Rimpfischhorn.
The view of the Matterhorn (4478m) from our base camp.
The Rimpfischhorn (4198m). All the main difficulties of the route lie in surmounting the tooth shaped summit buttress.
Our surprisingly comfy bivy at the start of the route. The big peak in the background is the Weisshorn (4506m).
Traversing Point 4001m, all the hard stuff still ahead.
Jordan leading up the final tower to the summit.
The view from the top.
After several attempts in 2010, I finally stand on the summit of the Rimpfischhorn.
Descending the ice couloir, which was in terrible condition, with the Monte Rosa massif in the background.
An atmospheric Matterhorn the evening before our attempt.
Me arsing around on one of the numerous fixed ropes on the Hornli Ridge.
Not this time!
Back down safe as the weather deteriorates. Not exactly sure what I'm doing with my hand...
And finally, me, in my pants, pointing at the Matterhorn.