Sunday, 21 December 2014

Glencoe's Secret Mountain

We found ourselves in Glencoe yesterday with an unpromising avalanche forecast and a tight weather window. Plan A had been climbing, but with gale force winds not easing until lunchtime,  a relatively high freezing level, and of course, that avalanche forecast, we opted for Plan B. Plan B is often a good idea and in this case it didn't disappoint.

An enjoyable glen walk to the foot of the mountain.
 We braved a walk in which was advertised as long, but was a doddle by Arran standards, and went for a recce of Sgor na h-Ulaidh.  If you haven't heard of it, thats not surprising.  Virtually invisible from the road, and lacking in the stardust of Glencoe's other peaks, it doesn't see much traffic.

Northern face of Sgor na h'Ulaidh

Despite being often overlooked, it sports an impressive northern aspect with quite a few recorded routes.  These start at around 650m, so with the freezing level above 800m conditions were a bit mild for climbing here yesterday, but it was good to get the lie of the land.  We traversed under the face and up to the western bealach, from where we climbed steep turf to the ridge.

Approaching the summit of Sgor na h-Ulaidh
Despite the improving weather, it was wild on the ridge. We didn't hang about on the top, but dropped down the north eastern side where we were pleased to find some scoured neve (despite the av forecast) to descend. Avoiding the windslab took us in to exciting ground and this was the first proper workout for my front points this season (and my head).  Even non-climbing Plan B days are mountaineering in winter! Finally, our route off the hill took us over a second snowy top, beyond which were were able to drop down in to the glen.

Lots of scoured surfaces, and fresh deposits in the strong winds.
Looking east from the shoulder of Sgor na h-Ulaidh


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Summits with friends

I had a stunner of a day on the hill yesterday with Wally and Kirstie.  We traversed the main ridge all the way from Cioch na h-Oighe to Goatfell summit.  The forecast was a bit iffy, but mostly the weather was not as bad as expected, although there were a few intense snow and hail showers, and gusty winds towards Goatfell. No matter, we had a ball regardless, warmed by gobsmacking views and the sheer joy of being out in the hills with good friends.

Glen Sannox, Cioch na h-Oighe on the left

Steepish ground and wintry scrambling

It's a belter of a ridge!

Cir Mhor and Caisteal Abhail

All smiles on Goatfell summit.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

First Snows

This title is all wrong of course, because Goatfell has been looking wintry for at least a week, but these are my first snows, and I've been enjoying them since the recent "Weather Bomb" storm abated.


This was Goatfell yesterday.  The wild spindrift was fun, I'd forgotten what a proper winter maelstrom feels like.  We didn't go to the top, because near the summit buttress it quickly turned less fun...


Today I was on my own and after a late start wandered in to Glen Rosa and up to The Saddle. The weather seemed comparatively quiet, and I enjoyed watching the Sea King from HMS Gannet training in the Glen. She attracted the attention of a Golden Eagle, and to my surprise, the eagle chased her over Goatfell and out of its territory.

HMS Gannet training in Glen Rosa

From The Saddle, I took the new path up to the summit of Cir Mhor (I think). The path was mostly buried, especially near the top so I ended up taking the turfiest line I could find between the drifts and the slabs. The snow was very fluffy and unconsolidated, and by the time I passed behind the Rosetta Stone I was wading above the knee. I did get some stunning views and for a change it was not too windy so I could enjoy playing with my new camera.... If anyone is wondering whether there is any winter climbing to be had one Arran I'd say... not yet.  Lots of powder, and turf frozen where exposed, but soft under all that snow, with no ice to be seen.

The Witches Step as seen from The Saddle

Big views down Glen Sannox

Gully behind the Rosetta Stone

The Western Hills from the west flank of Cir Mhor

Looking back towards Goatfell

Tracks left by one badass bunny rabbit on the summit.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Keep right at the Prickly Pear

Right now I'm sitting by the woodburner, all togged up in my winter gear (luckily lofting insulation is on test for the next issue of Outdoor Enthusiast), and the last two weeks would be a distant dusty memory, if it weren't for a little bottle of Argan Oil, from a Berber womens co-operative, carefully carried home from Morcocco in my hold luggage. I'm trying to recreate my favourite dish from the Kasbah Restaurant in Tafraout- a subtly fragranced take on a classic, chicken tagine with olives and lemon. Some incredible smells are wafting from my kitchen and I reckon I've just about nailed it, with the help of that argan oil, (although I might have gone too heavy on the preserved lemon...).

The Ameln Valley, Anti Atlas of Morocco
Sadly I can't recreate the ferocious sunlight, the big views and the lurid orange quartzite of the Jebel L'Kest range in the Anti Atlas of Southwest Morocco.   I've just returned from one of the most exciting climbing trips I've ever had, and luckily it all went pretty much to plan. 

We flew in to Agadir, and picked up a hire car.  After much angst we shelled out for a 4x4 which turned out to be a good call as not only are there lots of rough tracks to negotiate to get to the crags, but while we were out there they were also digging up pretty much the entire stretch of main road from Agadir to Tafraout. Tarmac was in short supply.

The climbing is situated on either side of the Jebel L' Kest escarpment, giving distinct north and south regions. We headed south to start with, and a rented apartment in Tafraout, giving us easy access to the crags of the Ameln Valley. We don't climb hard, but there was plenty to go at amongst the easy routes.  Highlights of this part of our trip included the fabulously alpine Sun Ribbon Arete (S) on the bizarrely shaped (and named) Bunny Ears at Robin Hood rocks, and some superb cragging at Cheshire Cheese Crag and Tizgut gorge.

Bunny Ears, Robin Hood Rocks
 Blacksticks Blue Slabs (S), Cheshire Cheese Crag
Tafraout itself is a busy if scruffy town, not yet given over to all things touristy, but well used to receiving trekkers and climbers, and with a few good eateries and basic hotels. The Kasbah was the place to eat and be seen, and seems to be in league with the brothers over the road at Maison Troc, who will sell you a carpet if you wish (or even if you don't). The food is excellent and I was happy to eat salad and all sorts of other contraband without ill effects. Elsewhere in the town I can recommend the Hotel Tanger for dinner (no idea about the rooms), were the food is almost as good, a quarter the price, the service a bit more relaxed, and the locals dine. Expect to be offered a small selection of delicious tagines with bread.  Couscous generally has to be pre-ordered as round here it isn't the 5 min prep type. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning there is a souk in town. Its a good place to stock up on picnic goodies such as olives and dates.

On non climbing days we wafted around the hills and scrambled on remote peaks on the edge of the Sahara. On a particularly gentle day headed down south to the oasis at the Gorge D' Ait Mansour. Here actual water sloshes along the bottom of a spectacular palm filled sandstone gorge. The towering walls here are hundreds of metres high, with villages perched on their lower slopes to avoid the occasional flash flood. A clamber to the summit of Jebel L'Kest (2359m) was quite literally the highpoint of the holiday.  We approached from the precarious vilage of Anergui (the drive is an experience in itself), and negotiated a maze of rocky alpine valleys to locate the South Ridge, a great wee scramble to the top with stunning views that stretch accross Morocco from ocean to peak and desert. 

The Summit of Jebel L'Kest 2359m
Gorge'D'Ait Mansour
Moving north and leaving Tafraout behind, we based ourselves for a couple of days at the sumptious Tizourgane Kasbah (a fairytale fortified guesthouse, refreshingly quiet after the town) and barely scraped the surface of the acres of rock located within easy driving distance of Igaoudnidif. We tried  a friendly if occasionally loose little crag at Tizi Gzaouine, and some very accessible (if a little hot) cragging on south facing Ksar Rock,  The classic severe, Desert Man at Ksar is aptly named, as we sweltered in the direct sun at midday.

Wally feeling the heat on Desert Man (S) Ksar Rock
As a finale we went big, with a day up in the high hills at Adrar Asmit. The 1 hour walk in seemed intimidating after a couple of weeks of roadside rock but we soon remembered that we are from Scotland and it's basically still cragging, and got on with it. The highlight of our trip was here: Wild Country, a mere V Diff, with occasionally scrappy climbing, but a fabulous mountaineering experience and stunning views across the northern valleys of the L'Kest range, with the sea visible in the west and the snowcapped main Atlas peaks to the north.

Getting some exposure on Wild Country (V Diff)

Suspect belay (cairn- but the base was good...!)) summit of Adrar Asmit.
With guidebook descriptions that read "keep right of the prickly pear" and "descent straightforward if prickly", it was never going to be an pain-free trip. The climbing was at all times exciting, although this was often as much due to suspect rock as the situations.  The rock is baked in the desert heat of the summer and is prone to fracturing, often without warning.  If in doubt, hit it!  Even in the lower grades, trad climbing here is a serious undertaking, with self rescue being the order of the day. At Tandelt Crag in the Lions Face area of Ameln for example, we found a scary array of loose rock not mentioned in the guide, which may have developed recently? We also witnessed apparently spontaneous rockfall at this crag.

There have been a lot of new routes put up in a short time, and as a result many have seen only a handful of ascents and although we found the grading to be fair, if even quite friendly, stars seem to have been awarded quite enthusiastically so take these with a pinch of salt. However, for us the destination was a superb choice, with lots and lots of rock, at grades to suit all comers. The objective dangers and need for self reliance combined with good mountain sense served mainly to heighten the sense of adventure rather than detract from the experience.
More info and guidebooks: http://www.climb-tafraout.com/

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Hello! Remember Me?

What a season that was!  My poor blog has been utterly neglected, mostly due to lack of internet access and spare time for the last eight months. It's been a crazy and wonderful season. Here it is summarised in photo form.

March saw me canoing on Loch Shiel, working for the wonderful Shearwater Adventure

In April, Wally and I were on holiday in Fontainebleau

In May I visited Ailsa Craig with Ocean Breeze Ribtours

In July I experienced the warm heart of Africa on an expedition to Malawi

We trekked on Mt Mulanje for six days. 

In August, I explored my home with clients.
This is the lovely waterfall along the shore west of Kildonan. 


A rainbow above Glen Sannox

September saw me expeditioning again.
This is The Hutchison Memorial Hut in the Cairngorms.

It's October now, and I'm back to enjoying Arran!
This is the ridge of the Warrior looking along to Suidhe Feargus. 



Friday, 14 March 2014

Sgurr na Ciche and Garbh Chioch Mhor

In a happy coincidence, what felt like the first good weather of the year happened at the same time that my husband had a week off work.  However, with warm temperatures and monster cornices prevalent throughout the Highlands we faced the reality that even with the settled weather, winter climbing is a particularly risky business right now.  We've been away from the action, and with no first hand experience of conditions, we opted for less committing activities, whilst making the most of the good weather. Sadly this might be the first winter in 15 years that I haven't ticked a graded climb.

We kicked off the week on Sunday night with an evening stomp from Loch Arkaig up the forest road in Glen Dessary to A'Chuil Bothy. We found the bothy in good shape, and soon had a fire going and dinner on.

A' Chuil Bothy
The following morning was more damp than we had expected. However, after  second brew, the clouds parted and things looked more positive. We were soon heading up the glen in the direction of the peaks overlooking the Mam na Clioch Airde (the stony pass to Sourlies Bothy and Knoydart).

Looking down Glen Dessary
Just below the first bealach, we struck up through open ground in the direction of Sgurr na Ciche. This munro is a spectacular cone of rock- a proper mountain that I've admired a lot from the Knoydart side. It's one of those peaks that just asks to be climbed and ever since I first laid eyes on it I've been slightly obsessed. From the Glen Dessary side, it is less impressive, but still steep and fun.

In the gully that leads to the ridge
To gain the ridge, we postholed up a chossy gully filled with hollow snow and boulders in to a col between the Sgurr and its neighbour, Garbh Chioch Mhor. From there it was possible to strike up snow runnels to the summit ridge. Fun in ascent, these gave pause in descent! The views from the top were worth the work, and it's something I will relive every time I look at the eastern skyline from Knoydart.

Final snow cone to the summit. 

Looking west to Loch Nevis and Knoydart
Awkward descent....
From Sgurr na Ciche, we followed the switchback ridge over Garbh Chioch Mhor and it's little brother, Garbh Chioch Bheag.  The sun shone and the views were stupendous. In the clear conditions the terrain should have been straightforward, but the treachery of the soft snow and sagging cornices kept us guessing.

Looking back to Sgurr na Ciche
Garbh Chioch Mhor summit
Final switchback to the bealach.
Beyond the Chioch Bheag, we descended in to the bealach.  It's traditional to continue here on to Sgurr nan Coireachan, but it had been a long day, and to prove we are not baggers, we left it for next time, and struck down hill in to Glen Dessary and dinner in the bothy.

Monday, 3 March 2014

A Novice Skier's first tour


This winter has been mission learn-to-ski for me and it has been a slow (very slow) and often painful journey.  This weekend marked a watershed because, under the gentle guidance of experienced friends Dave and Pauline (plus Wally), I was coached and nurtured up a hill, off piste, with skins on.  Not only that, but I skied (some) of the way back down.  The received wisdom is that you really need to be a proficient piste skier to ski tour in Scotland, and as I'm still limping down green runs, this is far from a description of me. My survival on Saturday is entirely due to excellent route choice by my friends, good instruction, and benign conditions.  I admit I was terrified some of the time. The rest of the time it was brilliant glorious fun.

Skinning up on to the plateau of A Bhuidhenach Bheag. 

We set off from Dalnaspidal in the Drumochter pass in the direction of A' Bhuidhenach Bheag, a rounded munro on the east side of the A9.  Skinning up hill on my new touring skis was a revelation.  I'm happy to report that this aspect of ski touring was way easier than expected, and much easier than walking up hill.  Eureka!  I'm a convert.  


Fabulous views of Glen Garry
I did find the navigation very disconcerting when the clag came in.  At times we were in whiteout conditions, and the plateau is very featureless in those parts. On foot, I'm used to being fully plugged in to the landscape.  On skis, I had no idea of my speed, and suprisingly even found the slope aspect and gradient hard to judge. Skiing in a whiteout is also very unbalancing. Lots more practice required here....

And the descent?  Well, the initial slopes were wind scoured icy snow and I panicked. Having never skied anything so steep or technical, the skis came off and I stomped down the hill.  I'd packed the crampons for this eventuality, but my second hand ski touring boots were fine on the crusty ice so I was soon able to catch up with the others at the point where the snow softened and the gradient eased.  On the easier ground, I settled in to my tentative snowplough turns feeling right at home on the gentle slopes. Lots to learn- but I'm very keen, and happy to mark the milestone of my first munro by ski.

Cruising very very gently down the hill!