Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These Conditions Reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

At long last we've had some success on Skye. The high pressure system over Europe has brought brilliant early Autumn weather to most places. Yesterday we had some cloud and strong wind on the southern half of the Cuillin Ridge but with the forecast for the wind to drop and the clouds to clear Will and I hoped for the best.

We climbed the first three Munros in the cloud and caught very brief glimpses of the view. The rocks were wet in the morning so we by-passed the TD Gap but climbed Kings Chimney to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich which was still quite slimy. On Inaccessible Pinnacle it felt like we climbed out of the cloud and we saw the first sign of blue sky.

Having made good progress we carried on over Sgurr a'Greadaidh in the warm glow of the setting sun. Deep shadows and warm colours are a wonderful feature of a September traverse. There was even some water available at An Dorus for the overnight stay and set us up well for the second day. Compared with June, the nights are long at the moment so we got a good long rest too.

This morning dawned beautifully and with a temperature inversion we were warm up on the crest of the ridge. A few clouds in the glens made the scale of the mountains seem even bigger. Dry rock and just a light breeze made perfect conditions for the second half of the traverse which we did in great time.

Naismith's Route was a real highlight near the end too. Will has done lots of scrambling and mountaineering as well as a lot of training so it's no surprise he did so well on the traverse. I'm so glad we got some of the most spectacular views I've seen of the Cuillin as well.

Friday, 25 September 2015

For the second day of lead rock climbing coaching with Kate and Johan we were back at Poldubh. We started on Clapham Junction, a steep, awkward, polished, technical climb with excellent protection. It was still wet too, especially the finger lock cracks. This route was not chosen to be easy, in fact it was chosen because it would be very hard to climb and easy to fall off (and safe enough). Kate did an excellent job and really pushed herself. She placed excellent protection and committed to the climbing before taking a lead fall from above the protection. Hopefully Kate will use this experience to give her confidence on climbs she leads in the future. Having faith in your protection is key to lead climbing.

The rain showers did not clear very quickly so we went to The Gutter and climbed this in three pitches before abseiling off. We did a practice SPA type rescue, a lead of Tear on SW Buttress and finally I led us up Resurrection. Johan now has a good idea of how to place protection and lead trad climbs. She will make the transition from sport climbing very well and settle quickly into Scottish climbing.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Back with students from West Highland College in Glen Nevis I was teaching lead rock climbing again yesterday. Kate has done a lot of climbing before and wants to push her grade while Johan has done a lot of climbing on sport routes but nothing using traditional protection. The rain surrounded us for a few hours in the morning without quite reaching us so we enjoyed some dry rock to start off with. We were at Hangover Buttress which has a couple of climbs that are well sheltered from the rain so even when the rain got to us we were dry for a while. The rain did arrive in the end though and we enjoyed the super slippy mica schist in the wet! If you go rock climbing in Scotland you need to be prepared for anything!

Friday, 18 September 2015

For the second day of lead coaching with Bala'sz and Jenny we went to Buachaille Etive Mor to climb the uber classic Agag's Groove. This was to give the guys a feel for the bigger climbs with a much bigger feel. We drove out of the valley mist and up the glen into fantastic sunshine so we knew we were onto a great day. We used the bottom section of Curved Ridge to go over some Alpine moving together on a rope skills before setting off up the climb. This we did simulating Jenny and Bala'sz leading but with me going up each pitch first to provide a rope from above. They placed their own protection and did their own belaying all the way and the top rope was quite loose to provide a little of the leading sensation!

Few places are better for rock climbing in the sunshine than Rannoch Wall. We had a wonderful time climbing up, soaking up the warm sun, before abseiling down January Jigsaw. There were anchor ropes in places for this making it a bit easier and these often get tidied away at the end of the summer. It turned into a very sociable day with a few other climbers around to chat with. It was great to see a few people out enjoying the climbing, the weather and just being out in the hills.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

West Highland College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, has two new degree courses to go along with the Adventure Tourism Management course that has been running for a few years now. Adventure Performance and Coaching is a B.Sc. course and Marine and Coastal Tourism. With more students studying in Fort William there are more coaching days for local providers and more people getting out onto the crags in Glen Nevis. Today was a great day at Poldubh with several teams of student climbers out having fun and a few coaching teams.

Jenny and Bala'sz have done quite a lot of indoor climbing and sport climbing before but little lead climbing outdoors so we got down to the nuts and bolts (well, cams) of climbing. We practised placing nuts, hexes, slings and cams at ground level and chatted through the pros and cons of each. We then climbed Pinnacle Ridge to consider the mechanics of placing protection on the lead.

Up at Pine Wall Crag we covered belay set ups before going up The Gutter in four pitches. This is a fantastic climb for your first lead. There are lots of protection placements and good belay stances, and the climbing is straightforward so you can concentrate on the gear. The guys soaked it all up very well and we went on to do a quick abseil using a prussic as a safety back up. It was nice to see a baby Scots Pine growing out of Pine Wall too!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Since I came back from Italy the weather in Scotland has been really quite good. Last weekend I helped marshal the Ben Nevis Race in great sunshine but a bitterly cold wind. Monday was a wonderful warm and sunny day above the clouds on Tower Ridge. On Tuesday I looked after a very fit group of American walkers mostly in their 50s and 60s to walk up Ben Nevis. Being from California it was not hot for them but it was hot for most other people up there.

On Wednesday I was working with first year degree students at West Highland College. We went up Ledge Route on Ben Nevis which gave me a great opportunity to tell them all about the North Face Survey and to show them the rare mouse ears and saxifrages at the top of Number Four Gully. I was out with the same students on Friday as well on a traverse of Meall Cumhain above Steall in Glen Nevis. Yesterday I looked after nearly 200 people on the Dream Events Ben Nevis Charity Challenge with a team of six guides. The high pressure had moved away and strong SE winds made it quite heavy going near the top so we turned people around at 1200m. Today I helped the rescue team try to get a stuck calf out of Steall Gorge. It's a busy and varied life as a mountain guide!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

After a week and a half of climbing in Switzerland and being very well acclimatised after a night spent at the Margherita Hut at 4554m, John and I were ready for a suitable finale to our trip to the Alps. The weather forecast was good, we were fit and a friend of mine had just climbed the Aiguille Noire de Peutery South Ridge. This is a route that John and I had talked about in the past and we had climbed the Innominata Integral a few years ago and enjoyed this part of Mont Blanc. So, that was it, decision made. We would give it a go.

The South Ridge is an enormous undertaking. Think about climbing Ben Nevis from sea level on a continuously steep and narrow VS granite ridge in a very impressive position and you will not be far wrong. It has a simple approach of one hour across a boulder and scree field, tricky climbing right from the start and a descent of about six hours down the loose East Ridge with many abseils. Most people will take one long day to reach the summit and then need to spend the night somewhere before descending the next day. So there are many logistical questions to answer - what shoes do you wear, what ropes do you use, is there snow for water on the route and is it worth taking a stove, how cold will it be, how much food do you take? The more kit you carry, the slower and harder work it will be. You might also go super light and try to get up and down in one very long day. This was the tactic that Tim and Max used, two British guys who turned up at the bivi hut to climb the route as well. Having climbed the West Ridge of Salbit last year we thought they would stand a good chance of doing it but we were sure we'd want to savour the climb a little longer and spend the night near the summit.

Even getting to the bivi hut to start the route from is an impressive undertaking. From the car park in Peutery the hanging valley seems impregnable and it would be if it were not for many ladders and chains in the cliffs below. However, this seems nothing to the very impressive South Ridge that sits above, full of vertical towers and perfect, compact granite.

Some people walk up from the valley and start the climb straight away. A bivi is often made on Point Welzenbach doing it this way and the hope is to complete the climb on the second day and descend all the way to the valley. It is possible to do the whole thing in two days like this. However, John and I were in no rush and we decided to get to know the area a bit better which is highly recommended. We took a day to explore the starting pitches of the route and to climb part way up Point Gamba. This has a bolted climb up it from the col to its south which is about UIAA IV and would need two ropes to abseil down. We had just one 60m single rope so we satisfied ourselves with a recce for the the climb the next day.

The recce and watching another team climb the route were invaluable to making good progress at the start of the climb. It is not completely obvious where to go until you are well up Point Bifide and established on the crest of the ridge. Even then there was at least one section where none of the guide book descriptions quite seemed to fit the ground we were on. Most of the time the pitches were longer and the distances further than described. It's bigger than you think! We carried on climbing up pitch after pitch of perfect rock, lapping up the exposure and the quality of the climbing. After 14 hours on the go it started to get dark so we were forced to stop and spend the night on the crest of the ridge above the twinkling lights of Courmeyeur.

With virtually no snow around we did not take a stove so we drank a mouthful of water (we carried just over 2ltrs each), ate a sandwich and settled down for a good night's sleep. Tim and Max were jealous of our acclimatised snores since this was the first climb of their trip and we were at 3700m. Next morning we knew we could wait for the sun to warm the rock before setting off. In fact it did not freeze over night and we had a very comfortable night.

An hour and a half later we were taking selfies next to the Madonna on the summit. What an amazing place with the Brenva and Freney faces of Mont Blanc behind, the view down the length of the Aosta Valley in front and great peaks such as Les Grandes Jorasses to both sides. We soaked it up as long as we could but we knew the descent was long and tiresome so we set off. The best route has changed a bit over the years as more fixed abseil points have been added. Following the cairns is a good idea but there are several lines of cairns to choose from! Either way it will take a good amount of time and rushing is ill advised. It's a long way down!

So we got back to the bivi hut late in the afternoon with no energy left for the climb down the ladders to the valley. Max and Tim got there not long before us feeling the same way! Luckily the very friendly group of Italian's who stayed in the hut at the weekend and who made us pasta and coffees also left some polenta. We scraped together what we had with the polenta and Max and Tim's couscous to make a fantastic meal. We had shared the climb with these guys, helped each other out and it was a very nice way to finish the climb and our trip to the Alps with a dinner under one of the Alps' most impressive ridges after having climbed it!

So I can highly recommend taking your time a little in the Alps. On an expedition to a new place you would think nothing of taking a day to recce the area and get a feel for what you are getting yourself into. In the Alps it can be a good idea to do the same, especially if you are taking on one of the longer climbs. In a world where everything is done at fast pace, take a moment to savour just being there in the mountains and let them help you make the best decisions about how to go about climbing them.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Sometimes you need to keep the faith in the weather forecast. Looking out from my window this morning it looked grey and dull but as I walked up the Allt a'Mhuillin to meet Gordon the clouds seemed to turn a little blue before I walked through the layer of cloud in the glens into spectacular sunshine. It was one of the best cloud inversions I have seen in Scotland.

Gordon has spent many great days in Scottish hills and on Ben Nevis. Today was his day to climb Tower Ridge and he could not have chosen a better day. The rock was bone dry, there was no wind and the sun shone in a deep blue sky all day. Down below, the sea of clouds lapped at the CIC Hut until midday.

Despite the great weather there were few people around. We had Tower Ridge to ourselves but for one other person and there was one other team on Observatory Ridge. On the way down I also saw a pair of climbers on The Bat, enjoying the rare dry rock.

We could see Skye over the clouds quite easily and the cloud layer seemed to stretch out over the sea beyond. Eventually it did break up and disappear as Gordon and I went down Ledge Route back to his tent but the sun was still brilliant and warm. We have another few days of sunny calm weather with the current high pressure and it might still be dry at the weekend too.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

After fresh snow in the Alps it can be a good plan to do a snowy route so John and I decided to traverse Lyskamm, a classic snow crest above Zermatt. No five hour walk in this time, instead a swift cable car ride to nearly 4000m along with many other people. Happily we came out of the valley cloud a couple hundred metres before the top of the lift. Equally happily someone had made an excellent boot trail up Castor, the peak you need to traverse to get to the Quintino Sella Hut. We made it there in good time ready for good Italian cuisine to set us up for the traverse.

John and me starting up Lyskamm
Overall we thought that more in the way of snow would be far preferable to more in the way of ice. It felt quite secure despite being brilliantly exposed and we did the whole traverse in an hour and a half. 

Lyskamm has a face of about 1000m on its North side over which the traverse crosses 4km of snow crest with a reputation for cornices and occasional double cornices. The fresh snow of the previous day had been blown along the crest so it was quite variable in depth from knee deep post holes to nothing at all. 

John with Zermatt giants behind
Normally, a stay at the Margherita Hut at 4554m involves sitting around feeling ill before going to bed as early as possible. This time we were treated to the most extraordinary meal I have ever had in an alpine hut; fresh broccoli soup with tomato and courgette penne pasta to start, fresh tomato and basil salad and roast pork for the main course and melon and pineapple with tasty chocolate treats for afters. The chef received a round of applause and photos were taken. The only bad thing about the meal was there was so much of it we could finish it all (a rare thing when I am around). 

The ridge connecting Zumsteinspitze to Dufourspitze has the East Face of Monterosa dropping away 2500m from your feet. It is the biggest face in the Alps and the sunrise bathes it in a warm orange glow. The climb only takes a couple of hours since the starting point is so high but then you have a very long walk down to Zermatt past the shiny new hut.

Descending Dufourspitze, Lyskamm behind

Monterosa Hut
Castor, Lyskamm and Monterosa

Friday, 4 September 2015

Douves Blanches Arete

Modern life moves at a frenetic pace and climbing mountains suffers in the same way. As a mountain guide I often feel the need to go from one climb to the next with no break in between, to deliver as much climbing as possible in the time available. In some ways, value for money can be measured by the number of routes done in an Alpine trip. However the concept of slow adventure is gaining momentum and the trip I just came back from with John shows that there is more to a quality experience than the route count.

Douves Blanches Arete

When we met in Sion we had a two day weather window of mediocre conditions so we went to Arolla with the intention of climbing the Douves Blanches Arete. This is a dramatic rock ridge at reasonable altitude with very fine climbing up to about 5a and a quick and easy descent. Everything you want in a warm up route especially with a night being looked after at the Bertol Hut. A dinner of lasagna set us up perfectly and the altitude of the hut started the process of acclimatisation. On the route the rocks were a bit icy and the clouds a bit threatening so after traversing La Quille and Crete de Coq we traversed the scary looking slabs back around the side to our starting point. Despite not completing the route it was a very fine day out and got us in the mood for more top quality rock climbing.


Baltschiederklause is five hours of spectacular walking up from Auserberg near Visp. All the climbing there is quite long as well so you want a spell of settled weather for several days to make it worthwhile the effort of getting there. This was promised us so John and I walked up in the clouds to the very warm reception from Jolanda the guardian. If you want to leave behind the hustle of Chamonix and Zermatt this is a great choice with several excellent ridge climbs and lots of multi-pitch rock climbs with only a small handful of people there to share them with.

Blanchetgrad, Breithorn

Our first morning there turned out misty and damp so, even though we knew the sun would burn away the clouds, we decided to take a day of preparation and reconnoitring. The Blanchet Ridge on the Breithorn has an approach across a dry glacier covered in rocks and, with no snow, it is important to establish the best way to the start of the climbing. We spent a very useful day learning the way across the glacier and getting to know the area better. Simply being surrounded by such large, clean, rocky peaks was a great experience and time very well spent.

Blanchetgrad crux pitch

Next morning in perfect conditions but with no moon to help we found the start of the climb directly. The guide book description understates the length and difficulty of the climb, something we had established in advance as well. We found the climbing to be excellent and in a fantastic position.

Top of Blanchetgrad, Bietschhorn East face in the background

The rock is nearly all solid and if this route was above the Chamonix valley it would be a well established classic. We had it to ourselves and made a new trail in the snow on the glacier back to Baltschiederlicke. With no snow in this gully we were entertained with loose mush to climb down, a medium that some of us cope with better than others! It was a 13 hour day but another excellent dinner at the hut set us up for another climb the following day.

Bietschhorn East Spur

As you drive down from Zermatt towards Visp there is a beautiful pointed peak right in front of you on the far side of the Rhône Valley. This is the Bietschhorn and at just under 4000m it is not on most people's radar. We had dreams of climbing its SE Ridge but getting to it seems impractical with the state of the glacier at the moment. A good cover of spring snow would be required. So John and I decided on the East Spur which does get a handful of ascents. As it was there were three other teams climbing it along with us. The East Spur has lots and lots of very nice climbing on it as long as you stick to the crest of the spur. In some places this looks quite improbable but it all goes and the rock to each side is certainly less than perfect.

Swiss mountain rescue
Unfortunately one team just above us discovered this to their cost and they took a fall of about 40m while moving together. Luckily they fell either side of a small shoulder which caught the rope. Unfortunately one of them had sustained a seriously broken ankle by this time. Twenty minutes later they were being lifted off the ridge along with their friends to a hospital. No doubt he got the surgery he needed within a few hours of the fall. Swiss efficiency is quite reassuring sometimes.

Mountain rescue in action

So after a delay of nearly an hour John and I continued to the top, checking and double checking every hand and foot hold. The view from the top is amazing and the impression on us was made even more profound by the accident on the way up.

Climbing after the rescue

The descent was delicate under half a metre of fresh snow with no track so it was another 13 hour round trip back to the hut. Jolanda held a wee soirée for us to hear about the rescue we were caught up in and to tell us of another one near the Stockhorn. We toasted helicopter day and were grateful everyone got back down and would climb again, all be it some sooner than others.

Delicate snowy conditions on the descent of Bietschhorn

We walked down the next day and the flowers looked even prettier than on the way up. The Baltschiederklause is certainly recommended as a place for very good quality rock ridges with a much more adventurous feel than anything around the regular Alpine hotspots. If you combine the Stockhorn South Ridge on the way to the hut with the Blanchet Ridge, Jagihorn South Ridge and Bietschhorn East Spur you will have a very successful trip. There are also a couple of easier snow peaks such as Breitlauihorn to enjoy along with the rock climbs both big and small right behind the hut.

The next day was a well timed rainy day so we took it as a cue to have a rest looking up at the Zermatt 4000m peaks, our objectives for the next trip.