Theory of Relativity

Steve Perry on the crux section of Theory of Relativity (VII,9) during the first ascent. This fierce technical problem is one of two new routes added to Lurcher’s Crag in the Northern Cairngorms this season. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

Steve Perry on the crux section of Theory of Relativity (VII,9) during the first ascent. This fierce technical problem is one of two new routes added to Lurcher’s Crag in the Northern Cairngorms this season. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

“Last February I’d been soloing some new routes on the southern end of Lurcher’s Crag with Andy Nisbet,” Steve Perry writes, “when we came across a very steep looking corner-cum-groove line that Andy thought looked about Tech 9 (he’s usually right). On a day of soloing Grade III’s we certainly weren’t psyched for jumping on anything so hard, but we kept it in mind, although good late season ice stopped us from returning.

After a few early season warm up routes in the Northern Corries, we agreed to go and take another look at this corner along with Jonathan Preston (November 7). Conditions on the descent from the top of Lurcher’s Gully looked promising in the thick mist, and contouring in under the crag confirmed our hopes – the corner was in! I had made the most noise about the line, so found myself on the sharp end with Jonathan on belay and Andy taking photos.

The crux was definitely going to be an overhanging groove around 10m up, so I was quite surprised to find myself hanging backwards off my axes on the very start whilst trying to gain the ramp, though good placements in the corner crack and an half decent peg saw me on to it. This was even steeper than it looked! The ramp went fine and I was soon pulling onto a stance beneath the crux, where standing up was quite precarious. The pick-friendly corner crack on the ramp was shallow and unhelpful, so I pushed an axe up with my fingertips and hoped it would sink – no such luck. I did however find a bomber nut at head height, which threw out any excuses not to try. Both sides of the groove where smooth, but a crack high on the right wall saw the axe pick disappear and it was time to take a look.

I pulled up on the one axe with both arms, locked off and reached higher up that right wall with the other axe and found another great placement. My left front point now found a tiny edge and by bridging out, so did my right. The next axe placement was the left and blind but felt ok. I now hurried to get my left foot high on an obvious rail and take some weight off which I managed with a body swing, but even then no weight really came off. A last ditch effort saw me pull completely over the overhanging section into what was now only slightly overhanging and the nut now well below. A few frantic seconds of digging for higher axe placements never worked, though I found a great hex placement which I could only stare at as the forearm fuse finally burned out – I could do nothing but let go… boom… the nut held!

On the next attempt I went straight for the good hex and then dug out the higher placements – they were there after all. I now moved up to a plinth belay and climbed onto it like mounting a horse – the gracious art of winter climbing!

Andy, and then Jonathan joined me at the belay where we let Jonathan climb through onto the final cracked headwall, which had some great hooks and a tricky final move. The rest was easy ground. Grading wasn’t easy for a short route but the illusion of steepness suggested the name Theory of Relativity (VII,9).

November 23 saw us hiking back into Lurcher’s and trying a new line to the right which Jonathan had spotted. This time we were joined by my girlfriend Sarah Sigley. The conditions on descent seemed worse than before but we found this new groove line was quite deep and hidden from the sun. Andy took up the lead and immediately found himself in the middle of a steep boulder problem start, whilst at the same time trying to place a peg one handed – he managed. Scabby turf in the back had frozen well and helped him reach deep cracks up left where he gained ground ahead of some tricky moves as the groove snaked back right. The rope continued to pay out and then he was out of sight.

We heard the shout for safe and I went first, then Sarah. The groove opened out to Andy’s belay and above was a short wall with a hard looking hanging groove or a huge block chimney to the left. We decided on the chimney. Tricky moves and good gear helped me get stood on the huge block, where across the gap, deep hooks led to a difficult short wall mantel. The route now moved rightwards up easier ground to a short corner, which could be climbed direct or via a thin arête comprising upright blocks. I went for the arête and after passing over the top of the corner, found myself at the same belay as the top of Theory of Relativity. Safe!

The bottom pitch was quite sustained so we decided on the name Wolfpack (VI,7). The name derived from the fact that this was the last new line left on Lurcher’s (if you believe that) and thus became quite anticipated, with five people hoping to get on it the week before! Unfortunately everyone was turned back by strong winds that day.”

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New Winter Season Underway

Dave Almond leading the delicate second pitch of Sake (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis during the first ascent. This difficult three-pitch route to the right of Babylon on Number Three Gully Buttress was first climbed by Simon Frost and Takaaki Nagato from Japan during the 2012 BMC Winter Meet. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Dave Almond leading the delicate second pitch of Sake (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis during the second ascent. This difficult three-pitch route to the right of Babylon on Number Three Gully Buttress was first climbed by Simon Frost and Takaaki Nagato from Japan during the 2012 BMC Winter Meet. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Winter has arrived on the Scottish mountains. Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry were first off the mark on Friday November 4 with an ascent of the classic Fingers Ridge in Coire an t-Sneachda. They were fortunate that it started to snow in earnest as they began the route and they reported good mixed climbing conditions with the turf frozen from previous days of cold weather.

During the weekend significant snow fell over the Cairngorms and several parties battled up early season favourites of Savage Slit and The Message. Less snow fell on the west and Stuart Macfarlane and Andy Clark made a good route choice with an ascent of Noe Buttress (IV,4) on Ben Cruachan that had been well frozen by the strong northerly winds.

On Monday November 7, the weather improved and Dave Almond and Helen Rennard were one of several teams to take advantage of the early winter blast. “Winter made an early appearance this year so I blasted up from Liverpool and took the opportunity to grab the second ascent of Sake (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis with Helen Rennard,” Dave explained. “The route was originally climbed in January 2012 on the BMC meet by my good friend Simon Frost and his Japanese guest Takaaki. I am surprised it hadn’t had a second ascent before, but maybe that’s because it’s hidden away around the Babylon corner amongst a glut of other top-end quality routes. The climb definitely merits the grade and offers three pitches of distinctly different climbing making it an excellent day out.”

Sake takes the impressive line left of Winter Chimney finishing up the impressive hanging groove to the right of the final chimney of Babylon. Like many routes high on Number Three Gully Buttress it is exposed to northerly winds and comes quickly into condition.

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James Edwards (1976 – 2016)

James Edwards on the Cairn Gorm plateau after making the first ascent of Daylight Robbery (V,6) on Creagan-Cha-no. (Photo Simon Richardson)

James Edwards on the Cairn Gorm plateau after making the first ascent of Daylight Robbery (V,6) on Creagan-Cha-no. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Scottish climbing lost another much-loved figure in August after James Edwards slipped and fell in the Fisherfield mountains. James was setting up a radio relay station for the Wilderness Challenge on behalf of the Dundonnell Mountain Rescue Team, who then had the unenviable task of rescuing one of their own. The rescue was conducted successfully, but tragically James died a few days later in hospital.

James studied Environmental Geology at Sheffield University and soon discovered he was a natural at winter climbing. Although he later climbed many testing routes such as The Citadel (VII,8) on the Shelter Stone and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (VII,7) on Ben Nevis, from the very beginning James was looking beyond the classics. His first significant new routes took place with Gareth Hughes in January 2003 in Coire an Laoigh in the Grey Corries where he found Choc-a-Block (VI,6) and The Epithany (V,6). A week later, he was back with fellow Sheffield University climber James Thacker to add The Alternate (IV,5) and Chaf Direct (IV,6).

The following season, James really got into his stride with first ascents of Turf War (V,6) on the Douglas Boulder and the difficult Under The Weather (VII,7) on the West Top of Bidean, both with Gareth Hughes. By this point, James was taking Scottish winter climbing seriously, and the previous summer he made a reconnaissance visit to Coire nam Fhamhair on Beinn Bhan. The intention was to scope out the wall right of Die Riesenwand for a possible repeat of The Godfather, but James noticed a couple of lines left of Genesis on the left side of the crag. He returned at the end of December with Sam Barron and climbed Revelations (VI,6), a superb natural line of weakness near the left end of the cliff. Three weeks later he was back with Hughes to add Biblical Knowledge (VI,5), which takes the left edge of the fault-line taken by Genesis. These ascents were noteworthy and turned heads. This was well before the mixed climbing leashless revolution and few people dared to conceive new lines on one of the most impressive and feared walls in the Highlands.

James made his home near Inverness and the North-West quickly became his local hunting ground. Little known terrain perfectly suited his enquiring mind and exploratory nature. He climbed regularly with Roger Webb, Neil Wilson, Gary Kinsey and Martin Hind pioneering many new routes from Finlay’s Rise (V,6) on Beinn Dearg to Enigma Variations (VII,8) on Stac Pollaidh, and Finny’s Cave (V,6) on Beinn Dearg Mor to Roseroot (V,6) in the Fainnachs.

James was also a strong alpinist, and early in his climbing career he climbed a number of grandes courses including an icy ascent of the Walker Spur. James drew heavily on his alpine and Scottish expertise when he spent a year in New Zealand on a teaching exchange and immediately set his sights on exploring new ground. During the winter of 2004 he climbed a new route on the 800m west face of Mt. Huxley (2505m) with Sam Barron, spending a night in a snow hole near the summit. James also teamed up with Steven Fortune and Paul Warnock for an 1100m route on the south-east face of Mt. McKerrow (2650m) – Fortune Favours the Bold (TD). His most impressive first ascent took place on Mount Aspiring (3033m), the “Matterhorn” of New Zealand, in January 2005. After an attempt the previous spring, James climbed 24 Hour Party People (ED2), a direct line on the South Face with Kevin Neal and Ollie Metherell involving thin icy mixed up to Scottish VII and bold climbing on ‘weetabix rock’. These climbs were remarkable achievements for a visiting climber and represent the most important alpine ascents by a British mountaineer in the Southern Alps in modern times.

The first time James and I climbed together was in the Southern Sector on Lochagar in November 2006. We clicked immediately and had a brilliant day climbing three new routes including Ghost Dance (V,6) and Starlight and Storm (V,5). James was eager to climb the cruxes of both routes and he pulled through steep bulges and danced up steep walls with confidence and grace. We finished off with a Grade II gully, and intriguingly this was the route that James raved about most afterwards. James was training to be a guide at the time and he explained it would be an absolutely perfect route to introduce new climbers to the sport.

This commitment to help other people summed up James. He became an inspirational schoolteacher, always full of enthusiasm and looking for ways to enhance the experience of his pupils. It was a cruel irony that James should die whilst on rescue team work. James left us far too young when he still had so much more to give. Tanya his wife, and their two sons Finlay and Reuben, have much to be proud of, and the world is truly a lesser place for the passing of James Edwards.

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Book Review – A Passion for Climbing

John Wilkinson making an early ascent of Shrike (E2) on Clogwyn du’r Arddu in 19666. Note the spliced slings, hemp waistband, threaded nuts and RD shoes! (Photo John Wilkinson)

John Wilkinson making an early ascent of Shrike (E2) on Clogwyn du’r Arddu in May 1966. Note the spliced slings, hemp waistband, threaded nuts and RD shoes! (Photo John Wilkinson Collection)

My great friend John Wilkinson has kept a diary throughout his climbing life. Last year, after encouragement from several of his climbing partners, he published it as A Passion for Climbing. John came into climbing at the relatively advanced age of 28 and the book describes over 50 years of adventures from 1962 to 2014.

A Passion for Climbing is well titled, as this is a book about a lifelong love affair with rock climbing and mountaineering. John has climbed extensively across the UK, but he is probably best known for his Alpine record, which numbers well over two hundred ascents. Although John never climbed the very hardest routes, he succeeded on an extraordinary number of major climbs, and mountain guides apart, John is almost certainly the most prolific British alpinist of his generation. Looking at John’s copy of Rebuffat’s 100 Best is an eye-opener as nearly three-quarters of the routes are ticked!

This book is a pure celebration of the climbing game. The exuberance and excitement of John’s early climbs in the Alps and North Wales during the 1960s shines through, as does the urgency and raw nerve required to climb many of the hardest routes of the day with rudimentary equipment. John forged a strong partnership with Ron James, and together they climbed many challenging routes such as the Buhlweg on Roda di Vael in the Dolomites, as well as the first ascent of the three star Girdle of Lower Amphitheatre Wall (E1) on Craig yr Isfa. Scottish winter climbing is represented by a productive visit to Ben Nevis and a brief account of the first ascent of Roaring Forties (IV,4) on Aonach Mor. This was climbed on a typically windy day and was named by John to fit in with the storm-bound nomenclature of the early climbs.

As Senior Member of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (John was a Fellow at St Hughes College) John formed a number of productive partnerships with younger climbers in the second half of his climbing career. The teams were well balanced – John‘s experience and knowledge would often provide the know-how of when, where and what to do in return for not being at the sharp end of the rope. This took him to Yosemite, Colorado, Squamish and Morocco as well as expeditions to the Kishtwar Himalaya and the Cordillera Blanca. The sheer number of high standard routes is impressive. For any climber in their fifties thinking of toning down their climbing, they should think again. Ascents of the Gervasutti Pillar and the West Face of the Petites Jorasses (descending into Italy) are big routes in anyone’s book, but an afternoon ascent of the 25-pitch long French Route on the Crozzon di Brenta is simply awe inspiring!

Passion for Climbing has been published privately. The 236 page book is illustrated with more than 75 colour photos. A copy can be obtained for the cost of postage and packing (£6.00) – please email Tom Prentice <Tpoutdoor@aol.com> for details.

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Des Rubens (1952 – 2016)

Des Rubens on the summit of the Stockhorn (3212m) in the Bernese Oberland. Des was a highly accomplished mountaineer with many first ascents in Scotland as well as the Himalayas and North and South America (Photo Geoff Cohen)

Des Rubens on the summit of the Stockhorn (3212m) in the Bernese Oberland. Des was a highly accomplished mountaineer with many first ascents in Scotland as well as the Himalayas and North and South America (Photo Geoff Cohen)

In late June, the Scottish climbing community were shocked to hear of the death of Des Rubens in the Alps. Des was one of the most energetic and likeable activists on the Scottish scene and many climbers were deeply saddened by his passing.

When I first came to live in Scotland in the mid 1980s there were several climbing partnerships such as Nisbet and MacLean and Milne and Anderson doing great things in the Scottish mountains. But one highly effective team that immediately caught my eye was the Edinburgh-based group of Des Rubens, Geoff Cohen, Gordon Macnair and Dave Broadhead. Rather than extending the technical envelope they were pushing boundaries in other ways – exploring the North-West and climbing a significant routes. In those days there were no up to date climbing guidebooks to the Northern Highlands, which was very much unknown terrain. Weekend after weekend, Des added new routes such or made important repeats such as the second ascent of Der Riesenwand (VII,6) on Beinn Bhan (with Geoff Cohen) and the first ascents of Potala Buttress (IV,5) on An Teallach, Toll Dubh Chimney (V,5) on Liathach and The Boundary (IV,5) on Sgurr Mor in the Fannaichs (all with Dave Broadhead).

Des’s appetite for exploratory mountaineering was a continuing theme throughout his life. He first visited Afghanistan with Ian Rowe when he was 20 years old, and three years later he led the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club expedition to the Thui group in the Hindi Raj in Pakistan where they made four first ascents. Overall, Des went on over a dozen major expeditions, from India to the Karakorum, and from Peru to the Canadian Coast Range. In 1984 he made a highly successful visit to the Caucasus with Dave Broadhead climbing several summits including the highly-prized Ushba (4690m), and the following year he reached 7770m on the unclimbed South-West Ridge of Gasherbrum III (7952m) with Geoff Cohen – a bold attempt on a difficult mountain that has only been climbed twice.

Des was also an enthusiastic alpinist with major routes such as the Walker Spur to his credit, but arguably his most inspiring climb was the long and serious Peuterey Ridge on Mont Blanc which he climbed with Geoff Cohen in 2013 when they both had a combined age of 127. From 2008 to 2010 he was a popular and influential President of the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

Des had a highly successful family and professional life. After training as a physics teacher, he moved into outdoor education and introduced thousands of children to the outdoors. He promoted a strong ‘can do’ attitude and instilled confidence in many young people as they were about to set out on their adult lives.

For all his mountaineering and professional success, it is Des the person that will be most remembered. He had a warm and amiable personality and always had time for everybody else. He took more pleasure from what others were doing rather than his own achievements, and he always made whoever he was speaking to feel special. His memorial service was attended by over 400 people – a fitting tribute to a great man who had influenced and touched so many different people’s lives.

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Chasing The Ephemeral

Chasing The Ephemeral – 50 Routes for a Successful Scottish Winter will be published by Mica Publishing in November. The cover photo shows Robbie Miller on the second pitch of the Cumming-Crofton Route (VI,6) on Beinn a’Bhuird. (Photo Henning Wackerhage)

Chasing The Ephemeral – 50 Routes for a Successful Scottish Winter will be published by Mica Publishing in November. The cover photo shows Robbie Miller on the second pitch of the Cumming-Crofton Route (VI,6) on Beinn a’Bhuird. (Photo Henning Wackerhage)

As soon as the second edition of Ben Nevis – Britain’s Highest Mountain (which I co-authored with Ken Crocket) was published in 2009, Tom Prentice asked me whether I would like to write a book about Scottish winter climbing. The original idea was to produce a selected guidebook describing 50 of the finest routes, but the more we discussed it, the concept gradually began to change. The problem with describing the absolute best Scottish winter routes is that they require good conditions and many become climbable all at the same time. For me, being in the right place at the right time has always been the underlying Scottish winter climbing skill, so the selection criteria for the book evolved into a series of routes that cover the full range of climbing opportunities throughout the season – from snowed up rock routes in the first snows of November through to high up ice routes in April.

After three years of discussion with Tom, I finally put pen to paper in 2012. It immediately became clear that this was a book about winter climbing strategy and tactics. I set about describing how to choose the most appropriate route to suit the prevailing weather and conditions (strategy) and then how to approach, climb and decend safely and efficiently (tactics). These strategy and tactics have been derived from long personal experience. Like many folk I have juggled climbing with a full time job and family, and have not had the flexibility to go climbing exactly when I pleased. In fact for nearly 20 years, my climbing was constrained to Sundays, but by careful choice of routes and venues I was able to successfully winter climb nine Sundays out of ten. I have described these thought processes in the book and then illustrated them with a selection of outstanding winter routes that I have enjoyed. Many will be well-known favourites, but others will be less familiar. My intention is not to create a tick list, but to prompt Scottish winter climbers to think widely about where to go and what to do.

Chasing the Ephemeral – 50 Routes for a Successful Scottish Winter will be a sumptuously illustrated book with routes from III to VII covering all major winter climbing areas in Scotland. Many people have kindly helped review the text and provided images, and I will be contacting a few more folk for some final photos in the coming weeks as we move to the final stages of production and publication date of November 2016.

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Capricorn on Ben Nevis

Nick Bullock leading the thin ice smear on Capricorn (VIII,7) on Ben Nevis. This outstanding single pitch addition climbs the thin snaking ice line directly above the twin Grooves of Gemini on the North Face of Carn Dearg. (Photo Tim Neill)

Nick Bullock leading the thin ice smear on Capricorn (VIII,7) on Ben Nevis. This outstanding single pitch addition climbs the thin snaking ice line directly above the twin grooves of Gemini on the North Face of Carn Dearg. (Photo Tim Neill)

Carn Dearg Buttress on Ben Nevis became particularly icy at the end of February and the classic Gemini (VI,6) saw many ascents together with the very good, but less frequented Waterfall Gully Direct Finish (VI,6). On March 10, just before the cold spell ended, Nick Bullock and Tim Neill nipped in for an excellent new addition on the Gemini headwall.

“The line takes an often-prominent ice smear that often forms to the left of the twin grooves and Direct finish to Gemini,” Tim told me.” It appears to lead to nowhere, or at the very least, to an area of compact rock.

From the good belay just left of the foot of Gemini’s twin grooves, the route pulls over the overlap on the left leading to a good pillar of ice in a left-facing groove. This leads to a stance on a small ledge to its right on a shoulder after 30m or so.

Nick then climbed the icy groove above until it was possible to pull out left onto the surprisingly steep smear. This was followed to a more helpful and better-protected groove exiting right onto a snowy ledge. There was a possible bomber belay here, but instead, Nick continued up the technical and well-protected shallow groove above, to reach easy ground below the crest of Ledge Route.

The route is provisionally called Capricorn (Nick’s star sign and holding the same traits required for a successful lead… ) It felt VIII,7 on the day, but it could may well feel a touch easier with slightly better ice. Nick led all the hard ground in one monster pitch.”

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Immortal Memory – Second Ascent

Uisdean Hawthorn on the third pitch of Immortal Memory (IX,9) during the second ascent. This demanding winter-only line on the Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe was first climbed by Guy Robertson and Jason Currie in January 2013. (Photo Murdoch Jamieson)

Uisdean Hawthorn on the third pitch of Immortal Memory (IX,9) during the second ascent. This demanding winter-only line on the Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe was first climbed by Guy Robertson and Jason Currie in January 2013. (Photo Murdoch Jamieson)

It’s been something of a landmark year on Beinn Eighe with repeats of many hard routes, and on March 3,  Murdoch Jamieson, Ian Parnell and Uisdean Hawthorn continued the trend with the second ascent of Immortal Memory (IX,9).

“ We had a social walk in with Dave Macleod and Steve Perry so the walking was easy,” Murdoch explained. “Descending the gully and turning left, we all became very excited.  The Far East Wall was looking very wintry in terms of Far East Wall standards.  (With it being so steep, I guess it’s hard for it to get in such good condition).  All of a sudden there was too much choice!  I left the decision up to Ian and Uisdean. They settled for Immortal memory [whilst Dave and Steve went for Sundance].

Ian nominated himself to start us off.  Uisdean sent me up the second pitch.  It’s pretty physical and pumpy.  Not much feet along with being very steep.  Things were nicely gazed in verglas so I was made to work harder for my protection – a relentless pitch.  Uisdean took on pitch 3, which again is superb.  It never gave up till he rocked over the top of the crag… no nice easier ground at the top to relax like the other routes I’ve been on.

We went back a few days later, the crag was blacker than black!”

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New Routes on Binnein Shuas

Binnein Shuas North-West Ridge  A. Location, Location, Location (55m III,4), A1. Location, Location, Location via Cave Man Start 55m (III,5) B. Laggan Fantasy (30m IV,5), C. Summit North-West Buttress (40m II). D. Bogle Eyed (30m, III), E. Off Yer Knees (30m, III). (Topo Martin Holland)

Binnein Shuas North-West Ridge A. Location, Location, Location (55m III,4), A1. Location, Location, Location via Cave Man Start 55m (III,5) B. Laggan Fantasy (30m IV,5), C. Summit North-West Buttress (40m II). D. Bogle Eyed (30m, III), E. Off Yer Knees (30m, III). (Topo Martin Holland)

“On March 6 Andy Clark, Rob Wright and I needed a short day with options to cut off early, so we headed for Masa and Yuki Sakano’s routes on the North-West Ridge of Binnein Shuas,” Martin Holland writes.

“We climbed an alternative start to Location, Location, Location; the cave mentioned in Masa’s description is actually a through route. Andy, Rob and I climbed this and it gave a hilarious squeeze/thrutch with rucksacks needing to be removed part way up. Like all squeezes it’s difficult to grade, but the final moves out of the cave felt hard, but with good protection, so we’re suggesting a grade of III,5 and a name of The Cave Man Start.

Higher up we climbed Bogle Eyed, which again gave a good quality, ice pitch and must form quite readily. We then aimed for what I thought was Summit North-West Buttress. We climbed what looked like the “obvious zig-zag snow line”, however, it felt somewhat nippy for a II and we popped out about 20m North of the summit rather than ‘80m West’; so not the same line, but a good pitch direct to the summit.

With the benefit of better visibility on Saturday and topping out I now know I incorrectly located Bogle Eyed relative to Laggan Fantasy when I reported it last year on scottishwinter.com. Bogle Eyed is actually roughly level with and about 100m left (East) of Laggan Fantasy.

The line we climbed on Sunday to near the summit is on what I’d guess would have to be called the Summit North or just the Summit Buttress. The Off Yer Knees name is Andy and Rob’s suggestion as it was a regular cry from Andy to Rob on the day!”

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Wall of the Early Morning Light – Direct Start

Andy Nisbet on the first pitch of the Direct Start (V,5) to the Wall of the Early Morning Light on Beinn Bhan. The complete outing provides nearly 400m of sustained ice climbing on one of Scotland’s finest winter cliffs. (Photo Dave McGimpsey)

Andy Nisbet on the first pitch of the Direct Start (V,5) to the Wall of the Early Morning Light on Beinn Bhan during the first ascent. The complete outing provides nearly 400m of sustained ice climbing on one of Scotland’s finest winter cliffs. (Photo Dave McGimpsey)

Andy Nisbet, Dave McGimpsey and Steve Perry made an excellent three-pitch addition to Coire na Poite on Beinn Bhan in Applecross on March 5. Andy takes up the story:

“When Dave McGimpsey, Jonathan Preston and I were climbing a new mixed line left of Silver Tear in 2013, Dave pointed out an obvious right-slanting line up the back of Coire na Poite and asked what it was. When I said it was nothing, he was most surprised. It looked a logical natural line in a popular corrie. I later realised it joined Wall of the Early Morning Light and was therefore an unclimbed direct start. We agreed to climb it together.

It may not have been in nick in 2014 or 2015; at least the weather wasn’t cold enough to inspire me to go there. Plus Dave was mostly working away and not climbing, so the route had to wait. So it was most convenient when Dave’s contract ended just as conditions looked promising. Skye had been in great icy nick the previous weekend and Applecross was near Skye, certainly far away from the unconsolidated conditions in the higher mountains. The only worry was that no-one had logged Silver Tear on ukclimbing, and only a couple of March Hares had been logged, but all my instincts said that conditions would be good apart from perhaps the walk-in on crusty snow over heather. We agreed to climb on Saturday (February 5), and fortunately Steve Perry’s new job had been delayed, so we had three for trail breaking.

In the end, the walking was as good as it ever is for that corrie, with little snow until the final slope into the corrie bowl was reached, and then you could often walk on top with only the occasional crusty collapse. And when we reached the corrie, we couldn’t believe how icy good the conditions were. Even the top vertical icefall of Silver Tear was fat, and our line was ice top to bottom. I guess so many places were in nick that Beinn Bhan had just gone unnoticed.

The second pitch, where we would join the main groove line, had an obviously steep entry, but we talked about how the first pitch might be soloable, thereby saving us some time. What a joke when we got close; it was clearly steep and sustained and I volunteered to lead it. I ran out of 60m rope conveniently at a rock wall, but still well below the groove; our assessment of scale was well out too.

Steve took over for pitch 2. By now it had started snowing and the wind had got up, despite all the forecasts saying it would be dry, so it became increasingly irritating as waves of spindrift were flowing down the cliff, although with no great volume. Steve in the lead actually didn’t notice, concentrating on climbing carefully and placing all our ice screws on this steep pitch; only he was strong enough to double up in the middle of the steepest section. The belayers were worried in case he needed ice screws for a belay, but again he just reached rock.

Dave’s turn; a near vertical corner was hidden ahead. Dave romped up it, despite being the steepest ice he’d climbed for three years, and we reached the line of Wall of the Early Morning Light. I was wondering why they took such a wandering line in 1971 and now I knew. Steep ice at V,5 wasn’t in favour until front pointing was established. But the rest wasn’t exactly low angled, just a bit less on the arms, as I found leading a long groove pitch.

A couple more pitches, each slightly easier than the previous, led us to the summit snow slope. It turned out to be wind blown hard snow, and there was a convenient break in the cornice. It’s always hard to judge scale but the anticipated 70m turned into 40m, and we were up in daylight in much better weather. The plateau was solid ice so the going was easy, but we still needed torches for the final descent to the car. Maybe not surprising after 370m of steep ice and snow on one of Scotland’s biggest and best cliffs in such good conditions.

We felt we could only give it three stars when the even more sustained Silver Tear sat nearby and gets its four. But it’s still a very fine route, and another, which could make my winter. More to come I hope.”

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