With a forecast for cold temperatures and reports of good winter climbing conditions the previous weekend, Matt and I headed north on Friday night to see what we could find.
Heavy snow was forecast for the east, so we decided to head west to Glencoe to avoid the inevitable ski crowds of Cairngorm and potential avalanche hazard in the corries. We parked up at Loch Achtriochtan, had a brew under starry skies, and settled down for a night in the back of the car.
With a bit of cloud cover coming in overnight, it was a little warmer as we headed up to the north face of Stob Coire Nam Beith the following morning, but it’s all relative! Winds were still light at this stage so the walk in was pleasent enough. As we approached the base of the face, it was clear just how much the thaw during the beginning of last week had stripped back the snow on the buttresses, but the gullies still seemed to be holding plenty, so we opted for a route on the right called Cleftweave.
The approach was a little awkward due to the lack of snow – loose rock, wet ice and a dusting of fresh snow, but after pitching the first tricky ‘dry’ section, and passing some beautiful drippy icicles, we got into the gully proper.
Crossing over a small ridge to avoid a very thin looking corner system (early season bravery!), I skirted back ’round to pick up the main gully again and a short wall. I suspect that this normal holds more ice and is therefore straightforward, but it proved quite interesting without much build up. Protection had been hard to come by to this point – the gully walls being very compact and not offering much in the way of gear placements, but fortunately this section was protectable with a good hex. Matt joined me at the belay, having taken the (harder?) mixed variation, and continued up into the worsening weather.
The bulk of the route was over at this point, so we agreed that I’d lead off and then we’d move together to the top. This would have been fine if the snow conditions we’d experienced up to that point had continued. Unfortunately, the now considerable amount of snow falling was being blown about and redeposited in a strengthening wind. Not only did this make picking out a way ahead quite difficult (what with having to keep your eyes shut!), but it was also creating pockets of windslab.
I decided a bit of gear was in order, just in case, and spotted a useful looking spike on the right. As I approached the spike though, the depth of the patch of windslab I was on increased. I was just wondering quite how unstable this was, when it decided to show me in dramatic fashion. A section from my feet to about 6 feet above my headed parted company and shot off down the gully. Having spotted the risk beforehand, I was making sure my foot and tool placements were solid, and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t a particularly deep slide, but I was surprised by the weight of it. Hastily, I lobbed a sling over the spike and breathed again.
It was very difficult to see anything now with spindrift everywhere, but I knew I had to pick out a line avoiding the worst of the windslab. It was with a resonable amount of relief that I topped out onto the summit plateau.
Picking our way carefully from the summit, we picked up the descent ridge and headed down. With snow still falling, and more forecast for the next day, we thought it prudent to jump in the car and head home.
Winter climbing – always a giggle!