Sunday, 28 April 2013

Winter Ascent of Musala Mountain via North and North West Ridges

That one at the back

One minute I'm walking round a well known outdoor shop when a book catches my eye, 6 months later I'm stood outside the Yastrebets ski lift station in Borovets, Bulgaria waiting for the first Gondola to take me and my pal John halfway up a mountain.

The book is Europe’s High Points and for a fairly inexperienced climber like myself it seemed to be an ideal tick list. After a 3.58 am start the previous day, we'd flown into Sofia, driven about an hour south to Borovets, checked into our apartment which is really cheap out of season and then stocked up with food a drink for the following day on the mountain.


More research

We had tried to get information on the routes on Musala, the highest point in Bulgaria, as the book only cites the ‘tourist’ route, and even under snow, that seemed a little tame. Also, the topography screamed for a circular traverse. We got a map from Stamfords, but at 50k scale and with 50m contour intervals, it didn’t give too much away. We posted on UKC and Summitpost for information, but the best we got was a couple of folk who had done the traverse in summer and one person from UKC who said it looked ‘tasty’. That whetted our appetite, and looking at the small pictures on Summitpost, we adjudged it to be around II/III Scottish, or maybe PD+/AD-, but we were sure it would have ways around the difficulties if it was so easy in summer. Oh, a mountaineers optimism eh!?

After an evening researching the route in Borovets, (‘Yeah, up here along there, do you know it? No? Oh well, another couple of Kamenitzas then’) we find ourselves at the Yastrebets uplift for the first car of the day. By 9.20am we're at the top ski station summit at  2396m, it was already clear that the mountains were going to be deep in snow and with fresh powder in parts. Fortunately an overnight frost made the downward traverse bearable although crossing the iced pistes required crampons. An hour later we arrived at the large Musala refuge, (normally used by pilgrims, as Musala is quite a holy mountain in Bulgaria apparently), closed at this time of year and deep in snow. We had a decision to make, up and down the standard route on the west side of the hill, or try to ascend via the longer North and North East ridge. As the winds were very light and the powder not too deep we headed for the classic 'summer' ridge route.

Our first target was the obvious coll just below the Ireeek summit, where there is an interesting rock formation called the Sfinksa (Sphinx), and it certainly does look like its Egyptian counterpart. Well it would have been an obvious coll had the cloud not descended halfway up the climb.

We kept to the right of large crags and found our way around a small cornice and onto the ridge. From here an upward ridge walk and a few short scrambles brought us to the summit, navigation was becoming tricky with the larger scale map as the section before (a section only printed in Cyrillic, Noeyek, at 2852m) flattened. Finding the ridge again, we roped up and climbed for an hour to the top of Malka Musala (Little Musala). We'd chosen a 30 m rope and a half rack, which for this section is more than enough as very little protection is required, and we weren't expecting major difficulties further on.

The day after, you can see the route by zooming in on our footsteps

Still in the cloud at the summit of Malka Musala a judicious compass reading was taking to be certain of our downward SSW direction. We were aware that the next ridge section was likely to be more difficult from the photographs we'd seen, but what we had underestimated was the combination of route length and technical climbing in winter conditions. It became clear to us now at about 2pm that summiting and returning to catch the last lift to Borovets at 4.15pm just wasn't an option. Fortunately we'd read that the weather station at the summit is open all year round and offers refuge so that took the pressure off, and allowed us to just concentrate on climbing safely in the fresh powder.


The climbing quickly became more difficult, the ridges very narrow and banked with fresh powder, with variable cornices on both sides. My more experienced climbing partner estimating this long ridge as Scottish Grade II/III. In between the sections where we could rope and move together we needed to make about 20 pitches and a 60m rope would certainly have been better. Still for me as a relative novice the short rope communication definitely helped. We chose to stick to the crest wherever possible as the powder snow to the side was deep and on steep ground. We'd already heard a number of distant avalanches rumbling like thunder across the mountains, and these focused the mind!

Anywhere off the summit was a tadge steep

A couple of the pinnacles needed to by bypassed, as the chimneys were filled with snow and assured footwork was required on extremely steep ground. The photograph below shows one such section which we avoided by down climbing an 8m vertical gulley, which was interesting. It was 4 hours of full on up and down climbing along the ridge now, the really interesting part being the uncertainty of a route off.

Plenty of these to negotiate

Approaching the latter section the weather improved significantly, on the one hand we were now getting great views of the mountains; on the other the final upward ridge loomed above us with what looked to be impossibly narrow ridge sections. Another hour of climbing and we came to what was hopefully the last obstacle it was now about 7.30pm and we were being treated to late evening sunshine whilst looking at a long corniced ridge that was going to be difficult to protect. Nothing for it.....I stood aside and let my more experienced climbing partner 'route find'! Once crossed, it was clear we were going to be able to walk off roped together and I was having a major breakout of elation.

After you Sir

We finally arrived at the summit at 8.15pm just as the sun was setting.

Now all we had to do was find a way into the hut. A full 360 inspection revealed most of it to be inaccessible due to snow, however there was a small tunnel leading to a likely looking window, and after banging on it for a while, a firm shove with the back of a walking axe saw it swing open.

Next morning it's easy to find!

Oh Yes :)

At least I was going to be inside for the night. Once inside though things improved rapidly, and Rosen the onsite resident weatherman turned up and offered us tea and brandy. There was a really toasty bunk room and a drying area in the kitchen. The meteorologists do one week on and one week off, and double up as de facto hut guardians when not taking their readings.

Short  journey to work

Good man

mmmhh Soup

An hour later, after warnings from Rosen that ‘I have not seen any British in 15 years here, and any Germans that come here will never eat our soup’ we were tucking into the local delicacy, tripe soup (I've learnt now that it's best not to ask and just eat) and sharing whisky. You have to have a slug of the local whisky (Rakia) before eating the soup...funny that, eh!? My friend gave him some our Glenlivet, much to his delight. After an hour or so exhaustion took over and we collapsed on our mattresses, its strange how difficult sleeping is at altitude, I think it was about 2am before I finally passed out.

Next morning we were greeted by blue skies and perfect views all around, time for a few photographs 

and a 4 hour walk down the 'tourist' route to Borovets, as it turned out the cableway doesn’t work on a Monday. The first section is anything but touristy and a slip here wouldn't be a good idea. It is protected by cables fixed to posts, a remnant of an old electricity supply I suspect. The one good thing about long but gradual routes off is they do tend to be easier on ageing knees. The clear day also gave us the opportunity to see our footsteps and plot our route accurately from the previous day.

It was almost 11hours walking and climbing to the summit from the top of the ski lift, we could have moved fast with a longer rope and maybe taken an hour or so less, but really, why would you want to rush a ridge like that? It was very Alpine in character, and it is very surprising that we struggled to find any information on it. Was it the first British winter traverse!?

Everest hut - buried in snow

Looking back up the valley

We timed the trip to perfection, as Borovets closed down that weekend. If you want a bit more life, then go earlier in the season, but you will have to ignore the ski paraphernalia on your approach, but then John, tells me it’s the same at the Briethorn for example. We had a real ‘out-there’ climb, as we knew mountain rescue was pretty limited, Bulgaria is really ‘foreign’ as it were, and there was no-one else on the mountain, so we knew we had to be self-reliant. We did under-estimate it in terms of gear, but used what we had to great effect, moving slowly but safely and only leaving one bit of tat on the abseil.
A great weekend, with some great memories

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Fairfield in the snow

This was probably the best last minute call we've made all year. The BBC weather horoscope had turned from 100% sunshine to 100% fog which clearly means possible inversion in my mind. With the roads being at best dicey we opted for Ambleside rather than any local roads. As we approached Windermere, we could see a vale of fog below and a bright pink sky above, even I was happy to be out of bed so early. We pulled into the first parking space possible to take some pictures.

With ducks

and without ducks

Same spot but looking at the cold side

My car is bloody useless in the snow and after last years experience I've taken the continental approach by having winter and summer tyres, and thank goodness I did, we only just made it off the icy car park and round to the main car park. I'd arranged to meet local pals Dolly and mini Dolly at 8.30am in the main car park and with half an hour faffing time (my issue) we left promptly at 9am. Great news too,the parking meters were out of order, it was always going to be a great day £7 saved. From here we took the higher path from the church to Sweden Bridge.

and here it is

It was about minus 6C and the cold had got to Mini's fingers, still an 'encouraging' word from mum sorted that and we were soon climbing towards the ridge.

From here the snow quickly deepened and despite mum saying 'oh its ok', events were proving otherwise. I love Jordan's disparaging look in this picture.

We stuck together for another half hour but if you are 5ft nothing it has to be difficult in deep snow. Glyno still soldiered on though ;D . Meanwhile Dolly set a new goal of Dove crag for mum and daughter. The views all the way up there were gorgeous.

and another - with sunspots

and another

That's Coniston Water under a layer of cloud too

And one from Glyn

It was pretty tough going all the way to the 873m peak, but every step was a pleasure. Once at the summit we just wanted to stay and take photo after photo.

Like the new hat? oh yeah that's Helvellyn in a cloud hat too

And Glyn with a cloud speech bubble next to his head (feel free to insert comment) 'I don't do Brucies'

It was busy and colourful up there

Despite a lack of wind it was still pretty cool on the fingers, so we decided to head lower to eat, passing skiers, snowboarders and runners on the way. All afternoon the views and the clarity of light were (and this ones for Dibs) 'awesome'.

nice valley

Ambleside and a clearing Windermere

We eventually made it off the hills at about 3pm just as golden light started hitting the hillside, it must have been a spectacular sunset. An obligatory wrong turn into Rydal Hall rather than the park path and we were back and in the pub bang on 3.43pm. As Glyno said, 'this is why I never moan about bad weather days'.

And for those missing the countryside

Form a queue ladies

Monday, 22 November 2010

Deep (and cold) Dale Horseshoe

Up the left side back down the right

I hadn't been out on the hills for about 4 weeks and therefore this Sunday was going to happen whatever the weather was throwing at us. Thankfully Glyn isn't too fussy about the weather so I was pretty confident we'd be up somewhere high in The Lakes.

By Sunday morning 6 of us headed to Glyns Co-ordinates on The Kirkstone Pass for an 8.40am meet up. Well 3 of us in my car did!, 3 other cars had somehow 'misjudged' Glyn's 'perfect' directions and ended up around the corner...........all of them.

the real start point

Still, at 9am prompt we set off bang on timeto walk over Hartsop Above How, up to Fairfield and then back via St Sunday's Crag. A dusting of snow on the top, fairly clear skies and almost no wind promised a gorgeous if uneventful walk.

Within 200 yards of setting off, Glyn was running back to the car for his camera, another 200yards on and we were suddenly in a farmers field with a free range bull. Catherine did a great job in scooting round the far side with Lexi so as not to attract attention. Another 200 yards later we were off track and bouncing on a thrown away mattress and already off track!

A bit of cross country in the direction of the now obvious ridge and were we back on track all systems go.......except for John who was a bit worse for wear.

John's leg disappears down a rabbit hole

Having decided to walk off his stomach ache we headed over the first summit and looked up to the snowy peaks in the distance. Despite my lay off and theusual partying, body abuse, beers ,cider, kebabs etc. my legs were feeling pretty good and I knew I was up for today's walk.

What's not to like?

It was a bloomin good job too, as we approached the climb to Hart Crag the weather started to close in and there was a noticeable temperature drop.

Jim does he usual flat ground sprint

You do get an extremely good view of The Priest Hole cave from this angle though. And erm I'm sure one of the other chaps has a decent picture!

As we started to climb, the solid ground turned to scree and Boothy came out (mid scree slope) with the classic, 'mind out that ones a bit loose' don't say. The light dusting of snow soon turned icy and deeper, and by the time we reached the ridge the strengthening wind was biting and the temperature well below freezing. John had also taken a turn for the worse and was really struggling to keep up. Just to assist the cloud came down and seriously reduced visibility. I'd negotiated the narrow part to Fairfield with my GPS previously in a white out, so I was quite confident this time.

To be 100% sure Glyn took a grid reference off me to match to his map......there was an eyebrow raised but nothing said. 4 miles into a 10 mile route and about 400 yards from the summit of Fairfield, John suddenly drained of all colour and energy. It was a very tough call whether to go on or to turn back, as we were already on the plateau we decided to go forwards and head off Fairfield on the planned route. We could always head down to Grisedale Tarn quickly this way. As we reached the summit the weather eased slightly and it looked like we would have plain sailing on the path back.

We hadn't counted on the frozen nature of the steep decent towards Cofa Pike though. In truth crampons and ice axes would have been really useful and if not essential then certainly recommended. In our defence the weather was much worse than forecast and we must have met another 15 people on route, none of whom had winter gear. The team did a great job of kicking steps down the iced snow slope and once down, we crossed the narrow ridge without too much of a problem.

Over the Pike and a very careful climb down the icy rocks brought us safely to the broader ascent of St Sundays Crag.

It's the pointy one and looked lovely earlier

If anyone knows this ascent, it has at least 4 false summits (I remember at least one friend cursing all the way to the top - Robbo), which isn't ideal if you're a bit drained as John was. A quick lunch break in a sheltered spot and without much incident we made the top. Surprisingly there was only me up for a snowball fight.

What could possibly go wrong now?

A complete white out is what.....that was a bit unexpected! Glyn took bearings and I went Satmap.

Now confession time, I may not have a clue how to use this machine properly.

I'm brilliant with the pictures and the Hansel and Gretel trail, but how was I to know you had to move the locating circle to the point where you were...... before giving grid refs to your pals? For 3 years now I've been giving out the wrong 'where are we' grid references. Woops. Thanks for not slugging me Glyn.

Fortunately I remembered that the path swung left from the summit and we followed the pictures perfectly on the Satmap

Once below the cloud line we headed over Birks and Arnison Crag with it's great viewpoint of Ullswater. Here's one from earlier.

Mid right hand side

If anyone knows the real route off here to get back to Deepdale Bridge then please post in the comments. We went 'off map' regular pals may spot a trend here and headed across- down , down- across, across a bit more and down a bit more, thanks for keeping us going there Jim. We could see the cars, but could we heck get to them without jumping walls. Eventually we were saved by a saint of a farmer who let us cut through her yard just as rain and darkness started to fall.

A 500 yard trudge back to the cars and then off to the pub. It turned out to be an eventful back onto the hills walk, but then again they are always the best ones. 10.5 miles in 7 hours, and everyone back safe and happy.