Duncan Tunstall (1962 – 2022)

Duncan Tunstall climbing in Glen Esk in the Southern Cairngorms. Duncan added hundreds of new routes across Scotland and was at his happiest when pioneering adventurous new ground. (Photo Henning Wackerhage)

My friend Duncan Tunstall died last month. Duncan lived with an inoperable brain tumour for 20 years, but this never stopped him living life to the full. Duncan had huge energy, great imagination, and an unstoppable love for adventure. He made first ascents in the Karakorum, China and the Alps and climbed well over 200 new routes in Scotland.

Duncan joined the North London Mountaineering Club in the 1980s and enjoyed many climbing adventures with Mick Fowler and friends on the loose sea cliffs in the South-West. In 1987 he visited the Karakorum with Stephen Venables and Phil Bartlett where they made the first ascent of the spectacular Solu Tower (5957m) on the Biafo-Solu divide, just south of the Hispar Pass. He returned to Pakistan in 1991 and ventured up the little-known Nobande Sobande Glacier where he made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Hanispur (c5900m) with Wiz Pasteur and Angus Atkinson.

Other expeditions followed including an attempt on the West Ridge of Nilkanth (6596m) in the Indian Garwhal with Chris Pasteur in 1993, and ascents in the Russian Altai Mountains with Mick Fowler and Paul Allison in 1998. In 2005, Duncan made his finest ascent in the Greater Ranges when he climbed the 1300m-high North Face of the impressive Xiashe (5833m) in Sichuan, China with Ed Douglas. Their new route took five days and was the second ascent of the peak by just a few days.

In the early 2000s Duncan was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He decided to leave his job as an oil trader in London and move, with his wife Jacqui to Aboyne in Aberdeenshire where he spent his time volunteering for local charities and exploring the Southern Cairngorms. His desire to look round new corners soon led to first ascents on Lochnagar and Beinn a’Bhuird, but Duncan was always attracted to the unusual. He thoroughly explored Glen Esk in the Angus Glens, an area rarely visited by climbers. He made the awe inspiring 200m-high Earn Crag his own with first ascents of Dschubba (V,7) and High Grade Low Grade (VII,8) with Andy Nisbet and Dave Almond – all big five pitch routes on very steep and adventurous terrain. On Craig Maskeldie he added Snowlake Reunion (IV,5) with Stephen Venables and the magnificent eight-pitch long Once in a Blue Moon (VII,7) with Henning Wackerhage and myself.

Although Duncan was powerfully built, he was surprisingly good on his feet as a rock climber and very skilled at ascending loose rock. He led me up the first ascent of Golden Buttress – serious six pitch E3 on Earn Crag with confidence and style. We enjoyed many adventures together from climbing sea stacks to seeking out new crags, but our finest undertaking was the first ascent of the SW Spur of Punta Baretti on the south side of Mont Blanc in 2009. Duncan was the perfect partner for this Walker Spur scale adventure that was very much a leap into the unknown. On the second day, Duncan’s skill with unstable ground was essential, and he sent tons of rock crashing to the glacier a thousand meters below when we encountered a huge band of rotten schist. We had three bivouacs and Duncan constructed excellent head-to-toe platforms whilst I cooked dinner each night.

Closer to home, Duncan added dozens of routes to the sea cliffs at Longhaven – some of the longest on the Aberdeenshire Coast – and from 2008 to 2014 he developed the crags at Vat Burn in Deeside resulting in an excellent new venue with over 130 climbs. Duncan did not lead all the routes and generously offered them to his friends once the lines were cleaned – the list of first ascensionists includes Andy Nisbet, Mark Atkins, Stephen Venables, Jamie Andrew and Julian Lines. In 2015 Duncan moved on to clean Bellamore Craig under the summit of Pannanaich Hill and another 80 routes were added to the area. These Deeside climbs are Duncan’s legacy – his efforts resulted in over 200 routes that will be enjoyed for generations of climbers to come.

Duncan was considerably more than just a climber. He was so full of life, that at times, it was both intoxicating and unnerving to be with someone who didn’t know whether the current day was to be their last. Duncan had a quick intelligence and was a stimulating conversationalist. His mind darted from one thing to the other, often obliquely and at a tangent, but always sharp and insightful. Being in Duncan’s company was both exhilarating and exhausting, but he was also generous and kind.

Stephen Venables described Duncan as one of the loudest, bluntest, kindest, most loyal and most provocative companions he had ever had in the mountains. There is no doubt that Duncan Tunstall was both a force of nature and one of climbing’s great characters – the world is a lesser place for his passing.

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The Fear Factory

Greg Boswell stepping out on to the huge hanging icicle of The Fear Factory (WI6R) on the Little Brenva Face on Ben Nevis. This magnificent feature was the last great unclimbed icefall on Ben Nevis. (Photo Hamish Frost)

On form Greg Boswell succeeded on one of the most prized objectives on Ben Nevis on March 6 when he made the first ascent of The Fear Factory (WI6R), the prominent hanging icicle on the lower part of the Little Brenva Face, with Guy Robertson and Hamish Frost.

The upper part of the hanging ice fang was climbed Dave MacLeod and Andy Nelson when they climbed The Snotter in February 2013. They ascended steep rock further right to gain the ice, but the prize of the complete ice feature remained.

“Finding an ice feature so distinct in Scotland is almost unheard of,” Greg told me. “Even in European terms, it would be classed as a big crazy piece of real-estate, let alone on Ben Nevis!

It was an absolute pleasure to reach the huge fang completely on ice. The climbing itself wasn’t overly physically taxing. The main difficulty was dealing with the delicate fang and the lack of protection – it was too dangerous to place screws in case it detached. In the end it was a 20m run out from my last protection to finally reach the safety of the easy ground above.

All in all, it was an amazing route and totally surreal to belay Hamish and Guy up the line after having climbed such an out-there pitch. We called the route The Fear Factory and opted for the Continental grade of WI6R as we feel this is the logical way to grade such an out of the ordinary Scottish route.”

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An Ice Surprise

Andy Harrison on the first ascent of An Ice Surprise (IV,4/5) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm. The route continues up the line of steep icefalls on the left for another four pitches to the to the top of the cliff. (Photo Dave Riley)

Dave Riley and Andy Harrison had an excellent day on Lurcher’s Crag on February 25. They climbed a continuous run of ice between Central and Diamond gullies up the highest part of the crag resulting in the 365m-long An Ice Surprise (IV,4/5).

“We had a fantastic day on Lurcher’s Crag making the most of the weather window and the aspect,” Dave told me. “We traversed the bottom of the crag looking for the best line and were enticed by very icy conditions in the central depression directly below the apex of the cliff. We climbed four pitches on ice, with some nice steep sections through overlaps, before joining easier terrain in the middle of face. We moved up this to below the summit buttress and took icy grooves and a gully (previously climbed by Have an Ice Day) to the left of St Bernard’s Ridge. This led to easier ground for a long pitch to the top. For sure some of this ground has been covered before, but maybe not as a continuous direct line?

The split grade is annoying but if the line of least resistance was taken through the lower icefalls, then IV, 4 would be fine, however, on the day we climbed a few body lengths of vertical ice. In addition, I’m pretty sure we joined the groove pitch of Have An Ice Day which Andy, Sandy and Steve graded V, 5. They climbed it in mid-December when I presume it was less banked out and leaner, whereas we found it more like IV, 4 in fuller conditions.”

As Dave says, parts of this route may have been climbed before, but it is not possible to say for sure. Existing description make no mention of approaching the upper cliffs from directly below via the icefalls, so this section is likely to be new. Unfortunately, detailed knowledge about Lurcher’s was lost with Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry’s tragic accident on Ben Hope in 2019. Whether this ascent follows completely new ground or not, it certainly provides an outstanding icy adventure directly up the centre of the cliff.

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Far North Holibobs

Robin Clothier making the first ascent of the Left-Hand Finish (III,4) to Positive Vegetation on Stac Pollaidh. This excellent route first climbed by Erik Brunskill and Dafydd Morris in November 2001. (Photo Stuart McFarlane)

Stuart McFarlane, Di Gilbert and Robin Clothier had a productive few days in the North-West last week. 

On February 16, they walked into Beinn Dearg, hoping to escape Storm Dudley. The plan worked and they made the first ascent of the Dudley Direct Start (IV,6) to The Tower of Babel. This climbs the lower tier below original, giving an additional 50m climbing at same grade. The full force of Storm Dudley hit them at the top of the route however, and the walk out with over 30cm of fresh snow made for hard going.

On Friday 18 February, after poor weather the day before, they enjoyed the scenic walk up to Bucket Buttress on Quinag “After getting a feel for this excellent steep crag, Robin and I climbed Di Time (IV,6),” Stuart explained. “This starts to the left of Beer Time and joins its chimney, before moving back right up a steep wall. Due to Jenga blocks visible from below, Di wisely decided that two seconds on this pitch was unwise and stepped aside for this route.

Saturday February 19 dawned a spectacular, cold and clear morning. The prize of winter climbing on Stac Pollaidh, could not be missed! Robin had climbed December Grooves with Euan Fowler the month previously, and I fancied Positive Vegetation (IV,5). I led crux pitch onto the big ledge, belayed beneath upper wall. We traversed left for 45m to beneath two parallel corners. Three Day Grooves takes the bigger left-hand corner, but Robin climbed the steeper right-hand one that finished with a pull onto a massive blob of turf. We graded our new finish III,4.

Climbing on Stac Pollaidh is right up there with Beinn Nuis on Arran – mountain, snow and sea!”

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The Last Crusade

Guy Robertson on the first ascent of Last Crusade Winter Variation (IX,9) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe. The route continues up the grooves above to gain the hanging ice fang. Gates of Paradise (VIII,8) takes the prominent V-groove to the right and gains the front face of the ice. The icicle-draped overhang of The Ninety Five Theses (IX,9) can be seen high on the right. (Photo Greg Boswell)

Greg Boswell has just returned to Scotland after two months of high standard ice and mixed climbing in the Alps. He put his fitness to great effect on February 21 when he climbed a winter version of The Last Crusade on Church Door Buttress on Bidean Nam Bian with Guy Robertson. Without doubt, this new IX,9 is the route of the winter so far.

“The main attraction on Monday was the big hanging ice fang that was looming over the top of the crag,” Greg told me. “We opted for the two corner systems than ran up to the ice directly. We didn’t have a guidebook with us, but on the second pitch I was forced left slightly to eventually gain the big corner running parallel to the ice feature. I climbed this for a bit then blasted right to gain the ice. It was such a fun pitch to lead with some tricky climbing and hard-won gear, as the whole crag was glazed in a layer of bullet hard verglas. Looking at the guide when we got back, it turned out that we’d done most of The Last Crusade apart from the last corner where I moved right halfway up this to reach the beautiful ice cascade.”

The Last Crusade is rated E3 in summer and was first climbed by Rab Anderson and J.May in 1992. Iain Small was first to recognise the winter potential of the right-hand side of Church Door Buttress with first ascents of Gates of Paradise (VIII,8) and The Ninety Five Theses (IX,9). Iain had noticed that in summer there seems to be a constant spring-fed weep down that section of the cliff that forms a set of hanging icicles in winter. This ice grows quickly when the temperature rapidly fluctuates as we’ve seen recently.

Greg rated Last Crusade Winter Variation a ‘very stiff’ IX,9. “It wasn’t as hard as Lost Arrow, but the crux was nippy, and my gear fell out mid crux due to the verglassed cracks. But it might feel safer in different conditions.”

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Livingstone On a Roll

Tom Livingstone making an early repeat of Happy Tyroleans (IX,10) in Coire an Lochain. This fierce Northern Corries test-piece was first climbed by the Austrian team of Florian Schranz, Heinz Zak and Egon Netzer during the 2001 International Winter Meet and is one of the most difficult new Scottish winter routes ever put up by an overseas team. (Photo Ryan Balharry)

It has been a challenging season so far with limited snow during the first part of the winter and a continuous run of storms through January and February. High standard climbing and new route activity has been (literally) thin on the ground. Determination, enthusiasm, and talent can take you a long way in Scottish winter however, and Tom Livingstone has just returned to Chamonix after a two-week trip that yielded a very impressive run of routes:

6 Feb – Central Grooves (VII,7), Stob Coire nan Lochan, with Tim Exley, Callum Johnson

8 Feb – Hobgoblin (VI,7), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson

8 Feb – Hanging Garden (VII,8), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson

8 Feb – Winter Chimney (IV,5), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson

8 Feb – Lost the Place (V,5), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson

9 Feb – Point Five Gully (V,5), Ben Nevis with Tom Seccombe, Tim Exley

9 Feb – Indicator Wall (V,4), Ben Nevis (solo)

9 Feb – Smith’s Route (V,5), Ben Nevis with Tom Seccombe, Tim Exley

10 Feb –Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9), Ben Nevis with Tom Seccombe

11 Feb – Bavarinthia (IX,9), Coire an Lochain with Tom Seccombe

13 Feb – Happy Tyroleans (IX,10), Coire an Lochain with Tom Seccombe

15 Feb – Bandit (VII,8), Beinn Eighe with Ella Wright

18 Feb – Immortal Memory (IX,9), Beinn Eighe with Matt Glenn, Callum Johnson

19 Feb – Local Hero (VIII,9), An Teallach with Matt Glenn, Callum Johnson

Tom’s trip included the Young Alpinist Group meet and a week welcoming some Slovenian friends to the delights of Scotland.

“I’m back home now but I kind of wish I could stay another month in Scotland” Tom told me. “I really enjoyed the two weeks I spent there, and although Scotland is tricky it’s flipping amazing! I guess we were lucky with the weather and conditions and fingers crossed it stays good for you all! There were so many routes I remembered I’d wanted to do for ages, and unfortunately the list is only getting longer! I was focussed on the Young Alpinist Group and climbed with them and we climbed some tricky routes that I’d wanted to do for a while. We also hosted some Slovenian friends (strong but new to Scottish winter). I’ll try to make the next trip a more personal one!”

Postscript 23 Feb: Greg Boswell made the following comment on Instagram regarding the grade of Happy Tyroleans – “I personally think this route needs the same treatment as when The Secret got given X,10. It’s majorly over-graded and this factor is probably stopping people from trying it. Happy Tyroleans is VIII,9 at the most, maybe even Tech 8. Not bringing this up as anything to do with Tom’s ascent, I just really enjoyed the route and think many others would too if the word got out that it’s not what the guidebook suggests. Just thought I’d comment this as @simon_scottishwinter is prob the best way to get the word out there before any new guidebooks etc.”

Thank you Greg for the very helpful feedback. For consistency, I always use the published grade in my reports unless there is a strong consensus otherwise, but hopefully your comment will encourage more folk to try the route.

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All The World’s A Stage

Forrest Templeton on the crux pitch of All The World’s A Stage (VI,6) in Glen Clova’s Corrie Farchal on the first ascent. The route climbs over the icicle-draped roof with bold climbing on blank powder-covered slabs above. (Photo Simon Richardson)

On Sunday February 6, Forrest Templeton and I visited Glen Clova. It had been warm during the week, but we had a hunch that it was just cold enough to freeze the turf above 700m or so, and Corrie Farchal would be white with new snow blown over the plateau. The gamble paid off and the cliff was in good condition. We were not the only people with the same idea – a pair from Edinburgh was also in the corrie climbing Silver Threads Among the Gold.

Our plan was to attempt the two-tiered buttress left of Seven Ages of Man on the left side of the cliff. The first tier provided fun climbing up a curling chimney cutting deep into the mountain, but the second tier is a vertical wall capped by a long overlap. This was always going to provide the main challenge of the route and Forrest takes up the story:

“Although the line through the second tier was inviting, we could not tell if there was a way out at the top. Potentially an exit looked possible at the top of the initial groove, but the alternative was a long rightwards rising traverse towards a break in the overlap on the right.

I started climbing the initial groove which had a long reach for a boss of turf. Fortunately, there was a good runner because my axes ripped, and I was able to test it effectively! Progress to the top of the groove was okay but there was a distinct lack of runners due to the slabby nature of the rock. The top exit was impractical given that my last last runner was a sling round a wee icicle, and it looked hard very hard above, so I moved rightwards eventually reaching what we thought would be the crux – pulling through the overlap onto a frozen turfy ledge.

Fortunately, there were a couple of good gear placements on the lip, but fear turned to terror when I surmounted the overlap and my hammer bounced straight back off a steep slab instead of turf! There was over a foot of snow stuck to the slab and I desperately cleared it left and right looking for that elusive placement. I felt as if I was on the roof of the Duomo in Florence but amazingly a vague crack appeared which allowed me to progress using side pulls with my axes. The crack petered out at a small, rounded convex ledge and then without warning, gravity took over and my hammer skelped off. Before I knew it, I was heading for the streets of Florence.

I’m still getting used to leashless axes and their stretchy lanyards and I know they aren’t designed to shock load. Fortunately, I was able to disprove this theory and ended up dangling with my legs back over the overlap. It turned out that the hammer had hooked itself on the axe which had amazingly stayed in place!

I went back up and passed my high point. Although the slab was now not quite as steep, it was still holdless and I was conscious I was getting further and further away from my runners on the lip. The slab ended at an overlap with a big, jammed flake that was just out of reach. I popped a hex on the end of my hammer and reached up to slot it in the crack. Now I knew any fall would be less impressive, and after a couple of steep steps and a short section of snow, I reached a belay at full stretch of the rope.

At the top of the pitch, I discovered the trigger had slid right down my hammer shaft so I couldn’t get hold the handle properly. I figured this unexpected movement had caused the hammer to pop off the rounded convex ledge!”

It had been a brave and forceful lead by Forrest and was at least VII,7 on the day. In keeping with the Shakespeare theme, we called the route All the World’s A Stage, and assuming that in better conditions ice would form on the crux slab, we settled on a grade of VI,6.

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Raw Egg Twin Pack

Huw Scott on the first pitch of Old Yoker (VI,7) during the first ascent. This excellent looking technical route lies on the left wall of Ruadh Eigg Chimney situated high up on the West Face of Aonach Beag. (Photo Nathan Adam)

Huw Scott, Tom Fullen and Nathan Adam added a couple of good new mixed routes to Raw Egg Buttress on Aonach Beag on February 9.

Old Yoker (VI,7) starts at the base of Ruadh Eigg Chimney and takes the obvious slim turfy left facing corner in the wall right of Blackbeard, and Youthful Enthusiasm (V,6) climbs the crack and offwidth corner right of Old Yoker.

These are the first new routes added to the buttress for over 14 years. Interest in the crag has revived recently, partly due to the inclusion of Top Gun (V,6) in Chasing the Ephemeral, and it is good to see the other routes gaining attention too. Nathan and Huw have visited the crag several times over the last couple of winters and have made early repeats of Top Gun (V,6), Aonach Wall (V,6) and Ruadh Eigg Chimney (IV,5).

“I’d walked up to Raw Egg Buttress twice the week before with the hope of trying Salmonella but both times it turned out to be black,” Nathan told me. “So when it became light on the walk through Coire Giubhsachan and revealed a black crag I was feeling pretty disheartened. The wind had been up to no good and between that and the thaw a few days before it had been stripped clear.

Huw still seemed keener than Tom and me – we’d spied a few lines round the side of the crag on our walk up the week before and he was full of enthusiasm that they’d be in. I was less certain but had nothing else to lose other than take a look. It turned out that the slight change in aspect led to the cliff being lightly rimed and well frozen, perfect for mixed climbing and we managed two new lines. Both gave excellent steep and technical climbing, typical of the style on the buttress. They are about as high as you can go on the cliff so may save the day if the front face turns out to be black!”

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How to Report a New Route

Robin Clothier on the first ascent of Shangri La (V,5) on South Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis. The route was climbed in January 2021 and the route description was included in the 2021 SMC Journal that was published last November. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Scottish new routes are recorded in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal which is published annually. In addition, new route descriptions are stored in a database which forms the basis for SMC guidebooks. The database aims to be comprehensive and currently contains c.40,000 routes on 7,000 crags across Scotland. The route count increases daily as climbers discover and record new climbs.

To submit a new route follow this link from the SMC website. This takes you to the SMC New Routes page where you can input a route description directly into the holding area of the database. The route is then checked and verified, and you will receive a personal email confirming receipt of the description and whether it covers new ground. Topos and action photos can also be submitted, and new topos can be created from scratch using a simple tool.

The New Routes page contains useful information such as the New Routes sections from previous journals, a running list of route comments, and links to scanned SMC Journals and mini guides.

The cost of publishing the New Routes Section in the Journal is supported by the Scottish Mountaineering Trust.

The deadline for sending route descriptions for the 2022 Journal is 31 May 2022.

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January Update

Forrest Templeton on the first ascent of True Grit (V,7) on The Stuic on Lochnagar. The crux was particularly burly and demanded a forceful approach. (Photo Simon Richardson)

January has been disappointing month for Scottish winter climbers. The weather has been dominated by warm high pressure systems and any snowfall has quickly disappeared with sudden thaws. The dry air and associated wet bulb effect has allowed the remaining snowpack to freeze but opportunities have been limited. The snow gullies in the Northern Corries on Ben Nevis have been popular, and there have been one or two other interesting ascents. Steve Holmes and Ali Rose repeated Grand Central at the head of Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis. Encountering icy conditions they found it a grade easier than the first ascent and rated it a bold V,5.

The finest climbing day of the month was Sunday January 9 when an east-west split resulted in a wonderful winter day on the Cairngorms, with the hills frozen and white with fresh snow. Contrary to the weather forecast, this band of cold clear air also extended across to the far North-West where three teams were in action on An Teallach.

Doug Bartholomew and Graham Wyllie made an early repeat of Lord Berkeley’s Seat (VI,6). According to Andy Nisbet and Simon Jenkins, who made the first ascent in 1991,” this spectacular route up the vertical front face of the Seat is not as hard as it looks, and is possibly V,5 with well frozen turf and not too much snow.” Looking at the photos of Graham and Doug’s ascent this is hard to believe, but the route clearly deserves more ascents. Erick Baillot, Andy Sharpe also had their eye on Lord Berkeley’s Seat that day, and as consolation, made the third ascent of Monumental Chimney (V,7).

The big news from An Teallach however, was Guy Robertson and Adam Russell’s second ascent of TheWailing Wall (IX,9). This outstanding line up the left side of the upper Hayfork Wall was first climbed by Martin Moran and Murdoch Jamieson in December 2010. Guy is working on a new book about Scottish winter climbing and told me he was going to attempt the route a couple of weeks before. Hats off to Guy for predicting good conditions so far in advance, and being in position in the right place at the right time with two photographers, especially given the weather forecast! Their ascent is reported on UKC with a couple of outstanding images by Hamish Frost.

On the same day, on other side of the country, four parties visited The Stuic on Lochnagar. Stuart Macfarlane and Di Gilbert made an early repeat of The Stoee Chimney – when conditions are lean, going under the chockstone seems to be the way to go at IV,6. Ascents were made of First Light and Daybreak Corners, and Forrest Templeton and I made the first ascent of True Grit (V,7). This takes a line up the centre of the depression between Bonanza and Twilight Groove and features a stenuous second pitch up an overhanging niche and groove that was superbly led by Forrest.

Unreported from December 28 was the first ascent of Polished Up (VI/VII,6), the line of cracks on the wall between Slaterless and Seam-stress on Fiacaill Buttress in Coire an t-Sneachda by Wojciech Polkowski, Sebastian Gidelski. Surprisingly, this short but good-looking addition, had not been recorded before.

Finally, a cold north-westerly blast brought the northern corries of Braeriach briefly into condition on January 20. Mark Robson and I added Against All Odds (IV,6) on Elation Buttress in Coire an Lochain and Wolf Moon (IV,6) to the right of Hostage to Fortune in the neighbouring Coire Ruadh. Conditions were good for mixed climbing that day with frozen turf and well rimed up rock, but needless to say, the situation was only temporary, and warm air soon moved in stripping the cliffs.

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