All posts by Ken

Fancy winter walking or mountaineering in the Scottish Highlands?

Hannah and I (Ken) guide for Hike Pyrenees during the summer, and when working, we’re often asked “what do you do for the rest of the year?”, to which I normally reply “this job pays so well, that we spend the rest of the year on our yacht in the Caribbean.” Well, unfortunately, as much as I’m sure Phil would love to pay us enough to do so, we actually have to work and spend most of our year at home, in the Scottish Highlands, where we run West Coast Mountain Guides, a company that specialises in delivering mountaineering guiding and instruction, mainly in the Fort William (Ben Nevis) and Glencoe area, but also on the Black Cuillins on the Isle of Skye. 

Working in the mountains is very season dependent, with the late autumn and early winter (I.e. now), being one of the quieter periods of the year.  The days are short and conditions may be neither here nor there, however, right this minute, we’re perhaps in one of the most settled and wintry conditions I’ve experienced at this time of year.  It’s been cold and crisp for over a week, and this pattern looks to continue for the immediate future, which bodes very well in the lead up to our busiest time of year, winter.

West Coast Mountain Guides Winter ourses

Stunning winters day in the Scottish Highlands

The hills of the Scottish Highlands are transformed once they’re cloaked in snow and ice, and the challenges they pose far outweigh their modest stature.  Conditions can change rapidly, with clear skies and good visibility one minute to strong winds and white out conditions the next, but to the well equipped mountaineer or hillwalker, the rewards and satisfaction of summiting Munros (hills over 3000ft), successfully climbing a snow filled gully or balancing along a snow covered ridge make it all worthwhile.

West Coast Mountain guides Winter Mounaineering Courses

Winter Mountaineering on Aonach Mor

We offer a number of winter courses for all abilities, from those looking to take their first steps in crampons and learn how to use an ice axe through to introducing hillwalkers to the more technical skills required to tackle steeper gullies and ridges.  We also offer private guiding; these are bespoke days for individuals or groups who may have specific objectives and goals.  This could be anything from hillwalkers looking to walk up Ben Nevis either via the pony track from Glen Nevis or by balancing their way along the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, through to guiding some of the finest ice climbs that Scotland has to offer.

West Coast Mountain guides Private Guiding

Hillwalkers enjoy the CMD Arete, Ben Nevis

Once the snow have finally receded, we spend our springtime on the Isle of Skye, guiding on the dramatic Cuillin Ridge, which is unquestionably the most dramatic ridge in the UK.  The entire ridge is 11km along, and sports 11 Munros, most of which require scrambling (using hands and possibly a rope) to reach the summits of.  We actually run courses and private guiding there right through the summer and autumn too, and will employ other Mountaineering Instructors, many of whom are close friends to run the courses on our behalf.

We also arrange private guiding on the hills closer to Fort William and Glencoe through these months too, such as along the Aonach Eagach or up Curved Ridge, both of which are excellent summer scrambles, achievable by many hillwalkers.

West Coast Mountain Guides Skye Courses

Scramblers on the Black Cuillins, Skye

So that’s really it in a nutshell.   Hannah and I would be delighted to see some familiar faces (and new faces too!) in the Scottish Highlands, and I truly believe that when the Scottish Highlands are good, they are amongst the finest mountainous areas in the world.  Of course, the Pyrenees are too!

Mountaineering in the Pyrenees: 25 Classic Mountain Routes

Not only do I enjoy long and strenuous treks in the high mountains, I enjoy mountaineering in almost, if not all it’s forms, from bouldering, through to sport climbing, ski touring, alpine climbing, and climbing in the Greater Ranges.  Enjoying all these disciplines generally mean a number of things, including:

a) the next trip is always planned
b) day’s off are spent doing more of what I love
c) new guidebooks to an area I frequent excite me

Here, in the Spanish Pyrenees, one of the trickiest things when it comes to climbing and mountaineering, is finding information for particular routes and areas, as the information (route diagrams, photos and descriptions) might be found hidden on a blog somewhere on-line, in a routes book in a local bar or cafe, in a guidebook, which may be out of print, or through word of mouth.  It’s a very different story to back in the UK, where every mountaineering and climbing route can be found in up to date and by and large, easy to get hold of guidebooks, normally without fail.

I was therefore quite excited to see that Vertebrate Publishing had recently translated into English ‘Pyrénées, les plus belles courses’ by mountain guide François Laurens.

None of the routes mentioned in the guidebook are new, far from it, but up until now, much of the information for these 25 mountaineering routes, only really existed in French or Spanish, and whilst there will be plenty of you who are reasonably handy when it comes to understanding either of these two languages, mountaineering descriptions can often use very specific terms, for which the exact translations may prove crucial when actually trying to follow the exact line when out in the mountains, so an English guidebook is hugely welcome.

The 25 hand-picked routes, many of which are ridge traverses and rock climbs span much of the Pyrenees, although are largely concentrated to the higher, central Pyrenees (Aragon on the Spanish side, and the eastern end of the Pyrenees Atlantiques, Haute Pyrenees and Haute Garonne on the French side).   The format for each route description will feel very familiar if you’ve used the more well known guidebooks, for the Alps, by the same publisher.  For those that haven’t, fear not, this guidebook is very easy to use, unlike many of the older, monochrome (and out-of-date) guidebooks available for the area.

The descriptions start with the essential facts: starting points, difficulty, timings, best time of year, required gear and first ascensionist, followed by a brief history of the route, before giving a detailed description of the route, and just as importantly, the decent.  Coloured photos and topos and maps are used throughout.

There’s no doubt, that this guidebook gives an inspiring selection of some of the classic mountaineering routes in the Pyrenees, however, I do have a couple of thoughts:

Firstly, the guidebook is quite francocentric, with only a fraction of the routes being easily accessible to those on the Spanish side, of which all bar one are in the central and eastern parts of the autonomous community of Aragon.

Secondly, the Pyrenees cover an enormous distance and area, and to have only selected 25 routes for such an extensive range seems like a slightly wasted opportunity to open up what are some of Europe’s most beautiful mountains to the rest of the world.

Gudiebook Mountaineering in the Pyrenees

Refugio Respomuso in the beautiful Circo de Piedrafita

Hiking the GR11: A Practical Guide

I’ve just finished putting together a guide to the GR11. The GR paths are a network of extensive paths that criss-cross Europe, mostly in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.  Here in the Spain, GR stands for ‘Gran Recorrido‘ and here in the Spanish Pyrenees, we have a number of these GR paths linking key settlements, passes and valleys, but perhaps the most challenging and impressive of these GR routes and the one that many of our hikes are based around is the GR11.  The GR11 stretches the entire length of the Spanish Pyrenees, from Hondarribia, on the Atlantic coast to Cap de Creus, on the Mediterranean coast, and covers a total of 840km, which is divided into 46 day long sections.

The guide can be found here: Hiking the GR11: A Practical Guide

 

 

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Discovering Ordesa

Things are now quietening down now for our season here in the Pyrenees, and last week, we ran our final Discover Ordesa week.  For those seeking a bit more peace and quiet in the hugely popular (and rightly so) Ordesa & Monte Perdido National Park, mid-September can prove to be a fantastic time to visit, particularly as we can drive into the main car park in the National Park, known as the ‘Pradera’ (during the peak season, there is a compulsory shuttle bus service from Torla to the Pradera). Continue reading