The legendary Aonach Eagach

The words “Aonach Eagach” are enough to send shivers down the spine of many a hillwalker, conjuring up images up knife-edge pinnacles with stupendous exposure extending mile after mile after mile, finished off with all the complexities and challenges that the Scottish weather has to offer. Oft-described as “Crib Goch on steroids” and widely heralded as the “best ridge on mainland Britain” (it is presumably the Cuillin ridge on Skye that wins the overall “best ridge in Britain” title), the (in)famous Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe is a grade 2/3 scramble running between the summits of Am Bodach and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, the highlight of which is a kilometre-long exposed section of “crazy pinnacles” from Meall Dearg to Stob Coire Leith. It is this section that gives the ridge its reputation and under a covering of snow makes the route a real mountaineering challenge, with a winter grade of II/III in the hardest of conditions. The name “Aonach Eagach” translates to “notched ridge”, which is an apt if not somewhat underwhelming description.

Lorna, Imogen and myself decided that last weekend’s Lancaster University Hiking Club trip to Glencoe would be a perfect opportunity to do the ridge, and so with the sentiments of the previous paragraph running through my head, I found myself on the slog up Am Bodach at 8.30am last Saturday morning, after arriving in Glencoe at 11.30pm the evening before. Lorna and Imogen had done the ridge before, in some deep and wet snow back in 2010, whereas it was my first time. On paper, the ridge shouldn’t have posed any problems for the three of us – in fact I’d read that it gets its grade more due to exposure and commitment, rather than technicality, and we’re all comfortable with exposure and used to commitment (the Alps is good training for that!) – but somehow the legacy and aura of the ridge still made me a little tentative.

Imogen tackling the first of the difficulties

Imogen tackling the first of the difficulties after Meall Dearg

We’d packed climbing gear, comprising a half-rope, a few nuts and hexes, lots of slings and the usual harness, helmet and so on. In the summer, the ridge is a sole-able scramble, however in the winter it is more common to move together on a rope and even pitch certain parts. We weren’t entirely sure how much snow was up there, but had imagined it would be a lot icier than it was.  Crampons were donned before the first tricky steps down at the start of the ridge, but we decided to leave the harnesses off for the moment.

The hardest parts of the ridge were probably the down climbs (as demonstrated nicely by Lorna here!).

The hardest parts of the ridge were probably the down climbs (as demonstrated nicely by Lorna here!)

The ridge looking rather ominous ahead

The ridge looking rather ominous ahead

The snow wasn’t too deep, and there wasn’t too much ice, making it easier going than we’d imagined. We soon found ourselves overtaking a roped party on the summit of Meall Dearg, before tackling the pinnacled section that, by that time, I was very-much-so looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint. The exposure was a-plenty (bar the clouds obscuring the view) and the scrambling challenging but extremely fun and long-lasting. I’ll spare the details, save to say that it lived up to its reputation as the best ridge in mainland Britain. We ended up taking our climbing gear for walkies, though others on the ridge were roped up and we noticed some newly-placed ab tat along the way.

Lorna and Imogen on the

Lorna and Imogen on the “crazy pinnacles”

The early start was worth it, as we were back down at the campsite whilst it was still light, at just after 4pm. We bumped into the guys that we overtook in the Clachaig later on, and they hadn’t got down until 7pm, after descending Clachaig Gully. The ridge itself took us 3.5 hours from summit to summit.

Looking back on the ridge

Looking back on the ridge

Sgorr Dhearg’s NE ridge

The scrambling fun didn’t stop after the Aonach Eagach! Lorna had suggested doing Sgorr Dhear’s NE ridge, and coincidently a few others had independently been thinking the same thing, so a fairly big group of around ten of us set off early on the Sunday morning. The ridge, which gets a winter grade of I, was exposed and not altogether straightforward in places, and to steal a phrase from the guidebook we were using, had “a real mountaineering ambience”. Other rather apt phrases from said guidebook describe it as an “easy but invigorating scramble” with “exposed aerial passages”. This all made the slog up to the ridge from sea level seem worth it in the end.

Ascending Sgorr Dhearg's NE ridge en masse

Ascending Sgorr Dhearg’s NE ridge en masse

The impressive head wall of Sgorr Dhearg

The impressive head wall of Sgorr Dhearg

The morning was overcast, but the sun did make an afternoon appearance as we were making our descent. By the time we were setting off back to Lancaster, the sky was clear! All-in-all, another brilliant weekend in Glencoe. Bring on next year!

‘C’ Ordinary Route on Dow Crag

It’s the day before we (me and Lorna) head out to the Vanoise National Park in the Alps, and I’ve finally managed to catch up on writing blog posts! This one is about a day out we had on Monday – a final bit of Alps training and a final chance to make the most of the weather.

For a while we have been wanting to repeat Giant’s Crawl, a brilliant Diff route on one of the Lakes’ most popular crags, Dow Crag. With that in mind, we decided to head up to Dow Crag on Monday morning and go for a climb. However, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to do another three-star Diff on the crag that neither of us had done before – the Ordinary Route on C Buttress – as it would be much better “Alps practice” to do a route we’d never done before. I’d also read that the route was better than Giant’s Crawl, and after being recommended it by a guy I was working with at the weekend, the final decision was made.

Top of pitch five (i.e. our pitch three)

Top of pitch five (i.e. our pitch three)

We went for a “lightweight” approach, well, as lightweight as you can get with climbing gear. Owing to the weather, the waterproofs were ditched and replaced with a thin insulated jacket “just in case”. We sweated our way up to Goats Tarn, before checking the route and heading to the lowest part of the crag, which is where the climb starts from. I lead the first pitch, and no sooner had I brought Lorna up, another two groups arrived at the bottom of the climb – phew, just in time! Lorna lead the second pitch, before I accidentally joined pitches three, four and five together. This wouldn’t have been a problem, had it not been for the rope drag which made dragging myself up the slabs on pitch five hard work. The climbing was relatively straight forward, but in a fantastic position we great exposure – I can see where it gets its three stars from! Lorna take over once more for pitch six, which was by-far-and-away the crux of the route (though whether we were actually on the route is debatable). I was glad of the rope above me as I teetered around a protruding bulge before awkwardly pulling myself over a block with little hand-holds and plenty of exposure – good lead Lorna! The final pitch added some excitement in the form of a rightwards traversing gangway that threw me a bit off balance. I soon topped out onto Easy Terrace (another route on the crag that gets a grade 3 scrambling grade) and belayed from a massive block.

Lorna leading the crux pitch - the difficulties lie just above

Lorna leading the crux pitch – the difficulties lie just above

The difficulties weren’t quite over, and we struggled finding our way up the buttress directly behind the climb – we headed around to the right before branching up left, whereas I think in retrospect the best approach would be to follow Easy Terrace leftwards for a short while first, as we eventually found a path coming from that direction. After summitting, we descended via Blind Tarn, which gave us an opportunity to take a dip in the refreshingly cold waters without the crowds of people that we gathered around Goats Tarn.

Topping out on Dow Crag

Topping out on Dow Crag

Corvus: How to avoid the queues

How to avoid the queues on one of the Lakes’ most popular multipitches? By bivvying, of course! If you’ve read my last few posts you’ll have seen a recent trend of making the most of this fantastic weather we’ve been having recently, whilst get in some quality Alps training. Lorna and me were joined by Mouse, Calum and Sarah for a weekend in Borrowdale.

The weekend started off on the Saturday with a hot and sweaty slog up Sour Milk Gill to gain the summit of Green Gable. The plan for the day: A 20km semi-horseshoe over Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts, before descending to Buttermere and reascending to return via Robinson, Hindscarth and Dale Head. The toughest part was, as expected, the drag back up from Buttermere to Robinson. We decided to take the steep path skirting east of Goat Crag to gain the summit directly, and it really was quite tortuous in the intense afternoon sun. We had the summits to ourselves (except for a passing Bob Graham round heading the other direction) and it soon became worth all the effort.

Buttermere from Fleetwith Pike

Buttermere from Fleetwith Pike

Back at the car park in Seatoller, we had our tea and packed our bags with climbing gear, before setting off for the 2km walk-in up Combe Gill to the base of Raven Crag. As was expected, the bivvy was particularly midgey, but this time I was armed with a midge net and so had a much more comfortable night than last weekend.

Mouse's midge-proof bivvy setup

Mouse’s midge-proof bivvy setup

We were up early, and were greeted by a fantastic cloud inversion as we made our way up to the base of the climb (Corvus, D***), which we arrived at for 7am. Me and Lorna took alternate leads, whilst Mouse led the other two up behind us. I lead the first pitch, which after a few delicate traversing moves at the top led nicely onto a damp ledge for the belay. Lorna took over for pitch two – a groove that took a little bit of tought – before I combined three and four together. Pitch three was a scrambling traverse left-wards across the crag, whilst pitch four was back in the vertical with an awkward chimney graced with hand-holds aplenty – a bit of a squeeze with a rucksack on! Lorna took over once more for pitch five, which this time was a right-wards scrambling traverse, and that left me with the fantastic and (in)famous Hand Traverse pitch – a 10m traverse on a vertical wall with fantastic hand holds but a bit lacking in the footholds. I teetered my way off the belay ledge and onto the traverse, placing a nut pretty much straight away. The next few moves were a bit bare on gear, before a good ledge-like foothold was reached with a couple of great cam placements above (I was glad I took the advice of the guide I had read that recommended taking cams). The final few moves of the traverse again didn’t have any decent footholds to speak of, and after pulling myself up onto the next belay ledge my arms breathed a sigh of relief. I decided to belay there so I could lean out an take a few photos of Lorna making the traverse – which has equally as severe consequences for the second as it does for the leader. Lorna combined the next few pitches together, and we were soon at the top of the crag, basking in the bright morning sunlight whilst sorting out our gear.

The cloud inversion burning off in the early-morning sun

The cloud inversion burning off in the early-morning sun

The climb (Corvus, D***), which takes a devious route up Raven Crag

The climb (Corvus, D***), which takes a devious route up Raven Crag

The fantastic Hand Traverse pitch (on that good foothold I was talking about)

The fantastic Hand Traverse pitch (on that good foothold I was talking about)

Lorna following me over the Hand Traverse

Lorna following me over the Hand Traverse

The climb deserves every one of its three stars, and the Hand Traverse more than makes up for the broken-up nature of actual climbing pitches. We headed down over Thonrythwaite Fell, descending steeply eastwards off the its northern ridge to collect our bivvy gear. Setting off early was definitely the right choice, as we could see many other groups on the route which we’d had to ourselves.

P.S. Did you know? “Corvus” translates to “Raven”, and the climb is on Raven Crag.

Attack of the flies: Why not to bivvy without a midge net!

It’s not often that you get perfectly still bright sunny days out in Snowdonia, which probably describes why bringing a midge net didn’t even cross my mind on a bivvy trip me and Lorna did a couple of weeks ago. Bad mistake…

The Saturday was spent enjoying an impressive spectrum of colours and smells in the gardens of Powis Castle with my Mum and Dad, before we all headed to Snowdonia on the Sunday. The plan was for us to do a walk on Sunday and then for them leave me and Lorna there few a couple of days of Alps training. The walk we chose was the popular Carnedd Llewellyn horseshoe from Llyn Ogwen – comprising of the summits of Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Daffydd and Carnedd Llewellyn. It’s a route I know well, but one that Lorna hasn’t done for many years. Unexpectedly, it was quite cloudy and Carnedd Llewellyn – the highest mountain in Wales outside of the Snowdon range – has a whispy covering for most of the day. It was still very hot though, and this made for hard work; by the time we were back at the car I hardly felt like the walk-in to our bivvy spot of Llyn Bochlwyd!

Powis Castle

Powis Castle

Clouds rolling over the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen

Clouds rolling over the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen

We picked the windiest spot we could find for the evening, though that only amounted to the odd breath every now and then. After a quick swim, we settled down for our tea of couscous and quiche, and before too long a black cloud of midges had descended. Even after applying Avon Skin So Soft (which apparently is a good midge repellent, though I’m not so sure I agree now), we were still being plagued, and so headed to bed. Unfortunately for me, the drawstring closure on my bivvy bag (an Alpkit Hunka) doesn’t close properly, and even if you do close it properly it’s very difficult to breathe inside the bag – a bit of a design flaw. This meant that I was still being plagued and after an hour or so of torture I gave in and somehow managed to squeeze into Lorna’s hooped bivvy bag (it’s a good job we’re both thin!) and finally got some sleep.

Lovely sun set

Lovely sun set

 

Main Gully Ridge, 3***

The midges were still out in full force the next morning, and so our breakfast of Sainsbury’s Basics scotch pancakes (surprisingly tasty!) was rather rushed. We dumped our gear around the far side of the Llyn and started the slog up to the base of our route – the three-star grade 3 scramble of Main Gully Ridge on Glyder Fach’s northern face. The route follows a vague ridge line that borders Main Gully on the right, before traversing left across the Chasm Face and joining up with other routes on the face for a few hundred metres of fantastic grade 1/2 scrambling. Even though it was only 7am, it was already very hot work and we had to have a large rest at the base of the route to recover.

The line of Main Gully Ridge, 3***

The line of Main Gully Ridge, 3***

We decided to move together at the start, but after gaining the ridge by an easy groove I was presented with a foothold-less chest high block that I didn’t like the look of. I think the guidebook talked about “pulling strenuously over a block”… I shouted down for Lorna to put me on belay, placed my trusty number 4 nut safely in a crack and awkwardly heaved myself over the obstacle. The next couple of steps weren’t much easier and so Lorna stayed belaying me whilst I worked my way up the difficulties, placing a few slings along the way. After creating a nice belay, I brought her up before pitching the next bit again to overcome pretty much all of the difficulties that the route posed. It is this section that gives the ridge its grade 3 rating.

The start of the grade 1 Main Gully (left) and Main Gully Ridge (right)

The start of the grade 1 Main Gully (left) and Main Gully Ridge (right)

From then on, we moved together, practicing placing gear on the rope between us even though it (or the rope) weren’t really necessary at this point. This style of movement – moving together in “Alpine style” – is different to usual “pitched” climbing in that no belays are taken and both climbers move at the same time. It is generally used on “easier” ground where the chance of a fall is less but still present, and it is typically used in Alpine ascents where moving at speed is imperative. Coils of rope are taken around the chest to leave 10-20m of rope between climbers (depending on how hard the ground is). The leader places gear – known as runners, as the rope runs through them – which the second then removes, trying to keep two or three bits of gear on the rope at the same time. The rope can also be wound around rocks to help increase the friction in the event of a fall.

Moving together at the top of Main Gully Ridge

Moving together at the top of Main Gully Ridge

This initial plan was to then drop down to Llyn Bochlwyd, pick up our bivvy gear and walk over to the base of the Clogwyn y Person arete for the following morning. However, we were both far too worn out (I blame the heat!) and so instead we simply headed down the Gribin ridge and stayed at Llyn Bochlwyd for a second night – totalling an impressive 3km for the first day’s walking! Of course, being the weather as it was, another swim was simply compulsory!

Lovely views of Castell y Gwynt and Glyder Fawr

Lovely views of Castell y Gwynt and Glyder Fawr

 

Bristly Ridge

It wasn’t quite as midgey on the Monday night, but I still had to resort to Lorna’s bivvy bag again. The following day, instead of climbing again, we thought it would be a good option to take our bivvy gear with us and walk out to Capel Curig over Bristly Ridge. This proved as strenuous as I had feared it would be with 15 kg of gear on my back (I weighed it when we got home!), but it definitely served good Alps practice. For me, Bristly Ridge surpasses most other scrambles I’ve done – it is such a good quality route for its grade, and there is lots of exposure to be had by taking the most direct line.

The Great Pinnacle. The way down in to the right.

The Great Pinnacle. The way down in to the right.

There are lots of feral goats on the Gylders. It's impressive watching them negotiate the steep rocky steps that us humans struggle with!

There are lots of feral goats on the Gylders. It’s impressive watching them negotiate the steep rocky steps that us humans struggle with!

The walk out seemed to go on forever, made only worse by hoards of horse flies that bugged us (pun intentional!) for most of the descent of Y Foel Goch. After what seemed like an age, we arrived back in Capel and caught the bus to Betws-y-Coed and then the train back to Chester, via Llandudno Junction.

Scrambling with bivvy gear – Alps training!

It seemed like a fantastic idea to do a grade 3 scramble fully laden with bivvy gear as perfect Alps training – we weren’t so sure of that half-way up Pinnacle Ridge, being thrown off balance by the huge bags on our back on every move we made! The idea came about when deciding what kind of “Alps training” to get done this weekend – climbing, fitness, getting used to lugging big bags around – when it dawned on us we could roll them all into one in a somewhat epic route from Patterdale back to Burneside, via the brilliant Lakeland classic grade 3 scramble of Pinnacle Ridge.

Despite the heavy load, I was thoroughly enjoying heaving myself over rocky steps and teetering over pinnacled crests. The ridge is in a fantastic position, the exposure is quite considerate and on a dry day (which it was) it is one of the most satisfying climbs in the Lakes. The technical difficulties are low for the most part, except for one pitch, the “Crux wall”, which amounts to a 10m wall of around Diff standard. The pinnacles themselves – which come after said wall and form the iconic picture of the ridge given in any guide book you see – are a lot easier than they look, but nonetheless are seriously exposed and a slip at the point could prove fatal. Despite its exposure, the ridge is surprisingly sheltered, and even on days when you’re being blown about all over the place on the summit, only a few breaths are felt on the ridge.

Imogen on the

Imogen on the “crux wall” of Pinnacle Ridge

Lorna, Imogen and me on the final pinnacles of the ridge

Lorna, Imogen and me on the final pinnacles of the ridge

I always forget how draining scrambling and climbing can be, and after the ridge I was already quite tired – I wasn’t looking forward to the walk over Fairfield and Red Screes and then up the other side of the Kirkstone Pass yet to come! We soon settled into a good pace and the sunny weather and plethora of typically-Lakeland views took my mind off my weary legs and aching shoulders. The lure of the Kirkstone Inn was too great when we reached the pass and we decided it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to rehydrate here before finding a bivvy spot somewhere towards Thornthwaite Crag: The choice of beer on my part as the rehydrating fluid probably wasn’t the best one!

By the time we had settled into our comfortable spot  just below the summit of Caudale Moor, the sun was already setting and the lighting changing to a lovely golden red. It’s always a special feeling, being up in the mountains late in the evening when everyone else is making there way home, and this occasion wasn’t any different. Some of my favourite moments in the mountains have been lying in my bivvy bag, gazing up at the stars, enjoying the cold evening breeze brushing across my face.

Our bivi spot in the evening

Our bivvy spot in the evening

The next morning, weather still in check, we summitted Caudale Moor, followed shortly by Thornthwaite Crag, Harter Fell and Kentmere Pike. By lunch time, we had made good progress and were just starting the ascent to Sleddale Forest and Potter Fell. Unfortunately, this meant leaving the well-formed paths of the Lakes’ more popular fells behind, and despite the dry spell of late, the going got considerably tougher! There were vague paths here-and-there, but for the most part we found ourselves bog trotting and marsh hopping over strangely spongy ground that we couldn’t help thinking we might disappear into at any moment. We were rewarded for all this hard work by the most amazing forest of bluebells just east of Staveley – photos nor words do justice to the breathtaking blue sea of delicate flowers that carpeted the entire forest floor. A perfect end to a lovely few days in the fells.

Ascending Potter Fell - you can see most of day two's route, from just past Red Screes onwards

Ascending Potter Fell – you can see most of day two’s route, from just past Red Screes onwards

Photos don't do it justice!

Photos don’t do it justice!

The Mourne Mountains

Back at the start of the year, Lorna and myself decided it would be a good idea to try and get a trip in to Ireland this year. Our initial thoughts were cycle touring around the Ring of Kerry area, however, being on a budget and with transport options to get there and back amounting to well over £100 each, we turned our attention to Northern Ireland and the Mourne Mountains, just south of Belfast. It soon transpired that we could buy one of ScotRail’s “Rail & Sail” tickets for a little under £60 return each, all the way from Lancaster – a bargain not to be missed!

The trip panned out as follows: A day of travelling, followed by a night in the Hostelling International hostel in Belfast that evening, then another day of travelling to a campsite in Bloody Bridge (on the east coast, just south of Newcastle). Three nights at said campsite, and then another day of travelling to Tollymore Forest Park (just west of Newcastle), two nights there and finally a day back in Belfast and a final night in the same hostel. We took our climbing gear with us, making for a very heavy load and a lot of hard work lugging it around.

For our first day out on the hill, the weather forecast was good, and so we decided to make the most of this and go climbing. From Bloody Bridge, we walked up to meet the Mourne Wall (see later) and then down to Annalong Buttress in the Annalong valley. The rock type of the Mournes is predominantly gritstone, widely heralded by climbers as “God’s own rock”. I’ve only been climbing on it a few times, but I am really starting to get a taste for it – especially so as I worked my way up Britton’s Route, enjoying the fantastic grip it offers and great exposure smearing my way up slabs, grooves and cracks. I’ve got a feeling I ended up off route, as it felt much harder than the Diff grade it gets, but either way it was fantastic fun and probably one of the best leads I’ve done.

Annalong Buttress and Slieve Binnien

Annalong Buttress and Slieve Binnien

Me leading the start of

Me leading the first pitch of “Britton’s Route” (Diff)

Britton's Route

Most of the route (belay spot marked by the green spot)

The next day, the forecast was quite a bit worse, with frequent showers expected all day long. Walking was hence the choice, and we did quite a long one (20km / 1600m ascent) taking in the central ridge to the east of Ben Crom reservoir, and also Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard. The weather was as expected, and typically April-y, with plenty of showers interspersed with quite a bit of sun, and a lot of wind.

Me beside the The Mourne Wall

Me beside the The Mourne Wall

Slieve Binnien and the hill we did early in the day from near the summit of Slieve Donard

Slieve Binnien and the hill we did early in the day from near the summit of Slieve Donard

The campsite in Bloody Bridge was well hidden away – in fact I had to phone the owner to get directions to where it actually was, as there are no signs to it from the road. We were the only ones staying there, which was probably fortunate as there were only a couple of toilets for quite a large camping area. The facilities were clean and adequate – pretty much what you’d expect for the £6 per person per night. The owner was very friendly, even offering a lift to Newcastle should we want any supplies (there are no shops in Bloody Bridge).

Tollymore’s campsite was quite a bit different, catering for caravans and campervans as well. The facilities were quite dated but cleaned regularly, and the showers were great (apart from the lack of shower curtain meaning it was difficult not to get your clothes wet). They charge £16.50 per pitch per night, which we thought was a bit unfair for campers like ourselves taking up a fraction of the space of some of the bigger caravans (though there is also a charge of £4.50 a day for any vehicles). Fortunately, the guy who took our money must have also thought it was unfair as he only charged us for one evening instead of two!

Enjoying the evening sun at the Tollymore campsite

Enjoying the evening sun at the Tollymore campsite

Our final day’s walking saw the best weather we had all week, with plenty of sunshine but still bitterly cold winds. We returned to the Mourne Wall, but this time its northern-most section along the Mourne’s northern-most mountains. The Mourne Wall is an impressive 22-mile long dry stone wall built between 1904 and 1922 to keep livestock out of the catchment area for the Ben Crom and Silent Valley reservoirs. At its tallest, it reaches 8 feet, and maintains a width of over 2 feet for its entire length – making it plenty wide enough to walk along, although I presume such a practice is discouraged. I also presume that it is no longer used for its initial purpose, owing to a large number of breaches along its length, and the presence of livestock within its boundaries. Nowadays, it brings a great deal to the tourist industry of the area, especially around the Slieve Donard, where on a sunny weekend hoards of tourists can be seen making the ascent by following the wall up from the south and across from the west.

We started off up the Trassey Track, following the route of the Newcastle Way and the Mourne Way, before branching off up an old quarry track to the col between Slieve Bearnargh and Slieve Meelmore. After a delightful contour around to Slieve Bearnargh’s summit col, we popped up both summits and carried on along the wall. The walking was easier than the previous walk, and a well-trodden path exists along most of the Wall. The final slog up Slieve Commedagh wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, and there we were rewarding with quite stunning views out across not just the Mournes, but also Newcastle, the east coast and up to Belfast.

From the summit of Slieve Bearnagh

From the summit of Slieve Bearnagh

Lorna on the summit of Slieve Commedagh

Lorna on the summit of Slieve Commedagh

Instead of rushing back all in the same day, we split the journey over two again, and spent most of the following day exploring Belfast. We took a walk down to Queen’s University and the Botanic Gardens, and spent a good deal of time in the Ulster Museum. That evening, we went for a pizza at a little cafe-cum-pizzeria near the university, called “Cafe Renoir”. I would highly recommend it to anyone staying in Belfast – the pizzas were tasty and imaginative, the coffee was lovely, the desserts were all home made, generouly-portioned and delicious and the atmosphere was nice and relaxed.

Queen’s University, Belfast

Despite the effort carrying around climbing gear, and the mixable weather, we both thoroughly enjoyed our trip and were happy to get the most out of this fantastic area of mountains.

Warton Upper Crag

Our local area is littered with scores of crags, both little and large, and mainly present because of bygone limestone mines. One of the largest and arguably the most famous in the region just north and west of Lancaster – the Silverdale and Arnside area – is Trowbarrow, and it is this quarry that I took my first tentative steps of my first rock climb (The Original Route, for those interested). There are a group of us that quite often frequent the crag in the evenings during the summer months, and it makes for a great social outings, even if not much climbing is done!

Alex leading the quarry classic, Coral Sea (VS 4c ***)

Finger of Fun, supposedly a VD. Photo stollen from UKC (© Stu Tyrrell, Jun 2009)

As of recent, and in an attempt to widen our horizons a little, a few of us have been making the most of another fantastic little crag in the area – Warton Upper Crag. It lies just off the summit of Warton Hill, and commands a precarious position with fantastic views of the local area.  The routes are all short, 8m at most, meaning their adjective grade is somewhat lower than the technicalities that the routes pose. A fine example of this is the route Finger of Fun, a strenuous flake system that gets the grade of VD (Very Difficult, ironically one of the easiest grade climbs you can get) but, to me at least, feels at least two grades harder. Myself and Lorna top-roped it last weekend, and it was a real struggle! I’m glad I didn’t trust the grade and attempt to lead it.

One of the classics of the crag is Twin Cracks (VS 4c *). Alex lead this climb back in October, and I failed to second it, a failure I’d like to blame on wasting my energy trying to get Alex’s gear out. Lorna and me top-roped it last weekend and both found it a good deal easier (Lorna completed the route first time around in October), and to further prove the grading system at the crag is a little obscure, we both found it easier than Finger of Fun, despite being four grades harder!

There are a good number of fantastic little climbs and it is a great choice of crag to keep away from the crowds and get an awesome view in the process. Just down the path is Warton Pinnacle Crag, which I have on good authority is equally as fun, and so we shall be paying it a visit in the near future!

Alex leading Twin Peaks (VS 4c ***).

Alex leading Twin Cracks (VS 4c *).

More sun on the Isle of Skye

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was last on Skye, but the Hiking Club was running a Jubilee bank holiday weekend trip to Skye for four nights, and as a driver I got the trip for £20, so I couldn’t really miss out on the opportunity! This trip took place from 1-6 June.

Elgol

Boats in Elgol Harbour

It was rather dull when we left Lancaster on Friday afternoon, but the further north we headed, the better the weather got. Rannoch Moor and its surrounding mountains looked fantastic as we drove over it in the evening light. After a few stops at Lesmahagow (for chips!), Hamilton (for tents), Luss (to swap drivers) and Fort William (for money for the campsite), we finally arrived at the campsite in Sligachan at just before midnight. It was still surprisingly light and I managed to pitch my tent without a head torch.

Saturday

The next day, we decided to ease ourselves in with a walk up the fantastic mountain Bla Bheinn (Blaven). It’s the only Munro on the island not on the main Cuillin Ridge, but arguably offers better views. When there sun is out and there are no clouds, the panoramas from the summits are simply stunning. The traverse of Bla Bheinn and its neighbour Clach Glas is a mountaineering classic, offering extremely exposed climbing at Diff level. Unfortunately I only read about the traverse after I’d got home and so it was too late! As it was, our ascent up the eastern ridge gave plenty of fun scrambling opportunities.

Bla Bheinn

Bla Bheinn south west top from the main summit

Blaven

On the south west summit of Bla Bheinn

After the walk, we drove further down the road to the little harbour of Elgol, and spent a while exploring its rocky beach and interesting sea cliffs. Boats from Elgol will take you to the beautiful secluded Loch Coruisk.

Elgol

The Black Cuillin from the beach at Elgol

The In Pinn

Mouse taking shelter under the In Pinn

Richard, Mouse and myself had planned an Alpine start on the Cuillin ridge for the following day, and so that evening we drove the minibus down the Glen Brittle and bivvyed outside. The Alpine start was for a number of reasons: To avoid crowds on the In Pinn; to avoid the heat of the midday sun, which I never thought would be a problem on Skye; simply to give us more time to get more of the ridge done and; it’s good practice for the Alps! After a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep with a large rocky digging into my back, we were up at 4am and walking for twenty-past.

Sunday

Our route was up Coire na Banachdich, firstly to the summit of Sgurr Dearg and the In Pinn. The walk in started without a cloud in the sky, but by the time we had got to the summit, the clouds has rolled in and were whipping up over the summit with impressive speed. The sight of the In Pinn silhouetted against these fast-moving clouds made it look rather daunting. The wind was cold and even with an insulated jacket on I struggled to keep warm at the belay points and on the climb. It was Richard’s first outdoor climb, and what better what to start than with an exposed ridge followed by an even more exposed abseil, all in bitterly cold winds!

After the climb, we took shelter on the other side of the summit and had a bite to eat – I say a bite, neither of us had eaten since breakfast at 4am and I consumed three bagels in quick succession and Mouse demolished a whole Jamaican ginger cake.

For Sgurr Dearg, we followed the ridge towards Sgurr na Banachdich and onwards over Sgurr a Ghredaidh and Sgurr a Mhadaidh. The section after Sgurr na Banachdich is absolutely fantastic – it’s not technically too difficult, but has some fantastically exposed scrambling with breathtaking views. There were a few parties on this section roped up, but we didn’t feel it necessary at all.

Loch Coruisk

Loch Coruisk from the between Sgurr na Banachdich and Sgurr a Greadaidh

Sgurr a Mhadaidh

Me on Sgurr a Mhadaidh

From Sgurr a Mhadaidh, we headed down towards the col before Sgurr Thuilm. This was the descent route described by the book “The Munros” by Cameron McNeish, however we soon found ourselves presented with a knife-edge crest with a number of roped parties climbing towards us. Whilst descent would have been possible, the down climbing wouldn’t necessarily have been easy and we have just got in everyone else’s way who were ascending. We instead cut off the ridge and headed directly down scree interlaced with rocky steps and boulders into Coire a’ Ghreadaidh. In retrospect, the best option would have been to retrace our steps to An Dorus (The Door) and descend the large path from there. In the coire, we stopped by a stream for a good half an hour and took in the afternoon sun. We were back at the minibus for 3pm.

That evening, after Sarah set fire to a trangia by putting petrol into it instead of meths (possibly my fault for storing my petrol by the meths…), we headed to the pub to sample some of the Isle of Skye Brewery’s finest ales – I particularly recommend Pinnacle Ale! We chatted about the day and our adventures – the other group had been up the Corbet Glamaig via some very steep scree slopes.

Monday

I think we must have still been tired from the previous day, because Mouse, Richard and myself all opted for some coastal bagging as opposed to another day on the ridge. We drove north, firstly to the Old Man of Storr. The Old Man is one of many rock stacks protruding from the mountain The Storr, each one as impressive as the next.

Needle Rock

Needle Rock next to The Storr, taken from the base of The Old Man of Storr

Staffin Bay

A bit of promotion for the Hiking Club at Staffin Bay!

For lunch, we headed further up the coast to Staffin Bay, where some brave souls decided to take a dip in the sea – it was a bit cold for me! After a spot of lunch, we drove back to the campsite so everyone else could grab their swimming gear, and then down Glen Brittle to the Fairy Pools. This time, nearly everyone entered the water, but not for long as it was rather cold! The highlight had to be swimming under an underwater arch in one of the many plunge pools.

That evening, we practised a bit of crevasse rescue on the campsite, before heading to the pub once more.

I think we all wished we could have stayed for longer, but the minibus was due back on Wednesday and so unfortunately Tuesday was home time! To break the day up, we set off early in the morning and stopped off a few times along the way. The first stop was at the iconic Eilean Donan castle, near Glen Shiel – we contemplated going in, but it was £6 each and so decided against it. We stopped once more at The Clachaig for lunch, and of course in Lesmes for chips a few hours later!

The combination of good weather and the fact that we were on the island for longer than our usual weekend trips means this trip will stick in my mind for a long time. It was a brilliant weekend!

Eilean Donan castle

Eilean Donan castle

Sun and snow on the Isle of Skye

Seeing as my last post was well over a year ago, I thought I’d best make an effort to keep on top of this blog from now on! I might even add some posts retrospectively if I get the chance.

This post is about a trip to the Isle of Skye from Friday 30 March to Tuesday 3 April. The aim of the trip was to have a look at parts of the Cuillin Ridge and get a general feel for the place. Skye is completely different to any other mountain range in the UK, feeling distinctly Alpine but with Scottish island weather to contend with. For this reason, it offers difficulties and challenges that the mainland Munros don’t – the fact that Cicerone’s Walking The Munros book has a separate introduction to the Skye section outlining the seriousness of mountaineering in the area says it all!

The shear quantity of exposed gabbro rock makes the mountains extremely attractive to mountaineers and scramblers, and some fantastic fun can be had on many of the exposed and intricate ridges of the Cuillin range. They are often regarded as the finest mountains in Britain.

Friday

Imogen, Lorna and myself set off from Burneside at just gone 10am, in rather dull and cloudy weather. The further north we got, the better the weather became and by the time we stopped at Luss on the banks of Loch Lomond for lunch, the sun was out in full force and it felt like the middle of summer.

We stopped once more on the A82 over Rannoch Moor to make the most of some stunning views by Lochan na h-Achlaise. It’s usually either pitch black or awful weather when we’re driving over the moor and so it was nice to see what this beautiful area looks like in the sun!

Loch na h-Achlaise

Loch na h-Achlaise by the side of the A82. Most scenic road in the country?

Seawater-erosion

Interesting erosion on the beach at Elgol.

Upon reaching Skye, we detoured to the scenic harbour of Elgol in the south of the island. It had turned a bit cloudy and the views over Loch Scavaig to the Cuillin Hills was particularly dramatic. There was some rather interesting seawater-erosion in the cliffs on the beach, where the water had eroded the rocks into circular hollows. Eventually, we got to the campsite in Portnalong at just gone 7pm and pitched our tents, made tea and got an early night. The others (Alex, Charles, Daniel and Alex’s Dad, Don), arrived at just gone 1am.

Elgol

Looking out over Loch Scavaig to the Cuillin Hills from Elgol.

Saturday, the Cuillin Ridge

The Inn Pin

The Inn Pin

The weather forecast was surprisingly good for the day and so we all got up early to try and recce as much of the Cuillin Ridge as we could. We headed to Glenbrittle and the initial plan was to have a look at TD gap (widely regarded as the trickiest step on the ridge, graded at VDiff but apparently much harder), King’s Chimney (Diff) and possibly the Inaccessible Pinnacle (Sgurr Dearg). The In Pinn is graded a Mod climb and the only Munro that needs a rope to ascend.

It turned out we had walked into the wrong corrie (Coire Lagan) however and were too far along the ridge for TD gap and the King’s Chimney. We slogged up a scree slope to the left to gain the ridge and scrambled northwards towards the In Pinn, for the most part sticking to the ridge. Dependent on what guide you read, the ridge proper for this section gets the grade of Mod or even Diff, but our scrambling didn’t seem that difficult and so I can only presume that on the odd occasion we strayed from the ridge we were missing out the difficult sections. I probably enjoyed this section more than any other part of the ridge and it felt great to be soloing such an exposed ridge with such good rock and fantastic views.

Next came the In Pinn and Dan led the eastern ridge (Mod), which I found surprisingly easy. There was plenty of exposure and a bit of a wind made it entertaining in places. An abseil off the western face brought us to the main summit area of Sgurr Dearg, where we picked up the ridge and scrambled onwards towards Sgurr na Banachdich. This time the scrambling was much easier, at its most difficult around grade 1. From the summit of Sgurr na Banachdich, Lorna, Imogen, Dan and myself headed down the ridge over Sgurr nan Gobhar, whilst Alex and Charles carried along the ridge over Sgurr a Ghreadaidh. Another scree slope led us down to grassy slopes above the Glenbrittle Youth Hostel and we sat down basking in the warm evening sun.

The Cuillin Ridge

Looking back along the Cuillin Ridge and towards Sgurr Dearg from near Sgurr na Banachdich

We had a bit of an altercation with the campsite owner (I won’t go into the details!) that evening and so decided to move to the Glenbrittle campsite the following day.

Sunday, rain!

The weather was pretty miserable when we woke up and after moving to Glenbrittle we decided the best option was a coastal walk. It didn’t really brighten up all day, though it was nice taking in some sea air and giving our legs a rest after the previous day. That evening a few of us headed to the Old Inn in Carbost, a lovely little pub with log fire, decent beer, Scottish music and a very cosy feel.

Monday, Bla Bheinn (Blaven)

Bla Bheinn

Walking across to Bla Bheinn's south west summit

It was rather windy on the campsite when we woke up and Lorna, Imogen and myself decided the initial plan to recce TD gap and King’s Chimney wasn’t such an attractive idea anymore, and so we decided to do a walk up the only Munro on the island not on the main Cuillin ridge – Bla Bheinn. The others still went ahead with the initial plan.

The weather was actually quite good and it soon turned out that the wind was purely a localised effect on the campsite, as it seemed rather still everywhere else. The route we took up with via Bla Bheinn’s south-eastern ridge to a col between there and the Corbett Clach Glas, followed by a short scramble onto the summit. It is reckoned that Bla Bheinn offers some of the best views anywhere on Skye and it was easy to agree with this as when the clouds cleared we were greeted with some breathtaking views out of the sea and across to the Cuillin ridge. The fact that you are looking right down to sea level makes the views even more impressive.

Our descent was down the south-eastern ridge of Bla Bheinn’s south west summit and then back down Coire Uaigneich the same way as we came up. We stopped for a painfully-cold paddle in Allt na Dunaiche on the way back, which definitely helped revive my weary feet!

It started raining again that evening and so once again a few of us retired to the pub. Unfortunately, this time, they’d ran out of draught beer!

South west summit of Bla Bheinn

Lorna and Imogen on the south west summit of Bla Bheinn

Tuesday, snow!?

We were initial planning on staying up until Wednesday, however particularly strong winds during the night resulted in a few bent tent poles and so we decided to head home early. Also, rather surprisingly, we awoke to a thin layer on snow on the ground in the morning. Driving back it became clear just how much snow Scotland had received – the north-western mainland had a very thick covering and the mountains looked fantastic. A stark contrast to the sunny and warm weather earlier on in the week!

A82

The view from the A82 on the way back. It couldn't be much more different to earlier in the week!