Thin Ice Special

    The thin ice master at work. Iain Small about to start a 25m unprotected lead during the first ascent of a new VII,7 on Creag na Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Conditions change quickly in late March. The day after our ascent of Failure Is Not An Option on the North Wall of Carn Dearg, the temperature was warmer and Iain Small and I had to look higher up on Ben Nevis to find climbable routes on March 23.

The steep area of cliff between Central Rib and North Gully on Creag Coire na Ciste ices readily. I knew there was an unclimbed line to the right of Tinkerbell, so we followed teams heading towards Green Gully before bearing right to the foot of North Gully. Here a steep curving ramp curls up through the lower tier and leads to a steep tower between Tinkerbell and Tick Tock Croc. This gave me an excellent mixed pitch on steep hidden flakes and took us to the foot of the meat of the climb – the thinly iced groove running parallel with the icefall of Tinkerbell Direct.

The groove was typical Iain Small territory – thin ice, often only one to two centimetres thick, and no protection for 25 metres. Above, a single runner safeguarded the steep moves to the girdling ledge beneath the top of the cliff. I expected Iain to traverse right here and climb the hanging corner left of Wendigo’s finishing snow funnel, but instead he continued up a steep narrow V-groove. It looked desperate from below, but was furnished with helpful extruded holds resulting in an, as yet unnamed, VII,7.

The next day (March 24) we were back to climb the parallel groove the right, which is really the true line of Tick Tock Croc. I made the first ascent of TTC with John Ashbridge and Robin Clothier in March 1999. It was a horrible day and conditions were very poor, but we knew we had missed the main event by bypassing the crux groove. This time Iain led it without Continue reading

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Failure Is Not An Option

Iain Small working his magic on thinly iced slabs during the first ascent of Failure Is Not An Option (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis. The bold climbing low down on the five-pitch route was an exciting prelude to highly technical and strenuous climbing above. (Photo Simon Richardson)

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Ben Nevis Update

Richard Bentley climbing the modern classic Stringfellow (VI,6) on Ben Nevis. Throughout March conditions on Britain’s highest mountain improved and a good variety of classic routes were climbed. (Photo Richard Bentley Collection)

It’s been a difficult season, but as March progressed, good winter climbing was found on Ben Nevis. The problem this winter has been the lack of any base. Any snowfalls have quickly disappeared due to rapid thaws, but the Ben’s altitude preserved more snow, and as the month progressed winter climbing on the mountain began to return to something more close to normal. Until this point, climbing had been largely restricted to the classic ridges, easy-angled terrain or very steep snowed-up rock and mixed routes climbed immediately after heavy snowfalls.

Richard Bentley was one of the first to recognise that conditions were changing for the better in early March when he made ascents of the modern classics Stringfellow on Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower and Strident Edge (with Kevin Roet) on South Trident Buttress. He notes that Strident Edge is a bit of sandbag and is possibly worth VII,8 rather than its given grade of VI,7.

Around this period (March 7), Greg Boswell, Adam Russell and Guy Robertson added a challenging new link up on the East Flank of Tower Ridge. Their contribution was named Frosty’s Vigil (VIII,8) as recognition to Hamish Frost who waited near the top to take photographs. It now appears that their route links Clefthanger, Tripod and The Piecemaker with sections of new climbing between these routes.

Cold weather at the start of March, followed another cold snap in the third week began to produce more typical winter conditions, and the classic ridges – Tower Ridge, Castle Ridge, North-East Buttress and Observatory Ridge saw multiple ascents. Icy mixed routes such as Wendigo and Tower Face of the Comb were also climbed. High up on the mountain the snow banks started to weep ice. This was not enough for the routes on Indicator Wall to form but good enough for the classic gullies such as Comb and Green and Glover’s Chimney. And best of all, in the last week in March, Point Five Gully had several ascents – it was looking like 2017 was going to be a year where this talisman route was not climbed at all, but fortunately that was not to be!

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Meshuga

Steve Perry traversing the spectacular crest of Mullach Fraoch-choire above Glen Shiel after making the first ascent of Meshuga (III). This season’s mild and unconsolidated conditions have generally favoured steep snowed-up rock routes rather than more traditional middle grade outings such as this. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

“It’s been that sort of winter, where you either climb steep rocky routes or, on the assumption that all easier routes have turf, you put up with mediocre conditions,” Andy Nisbet writes. “And if you’re looking for easier new routes, you also have to walk a long way. So that explains, at least to the enthusiast, why I’ve walked to the cliff on Mullach Fraoch-choire four times this winter in the fruitless hope for good conditions. It is above 900m and north-east facing; you might have thought…

The first time I went to explore the cliff seen from a distance on A’ Chralaig, it turned out to be the summit cliff seen from an odd angle, and too small to be of interest to me. So I walked along the ridge to Mullach Fraoch-choire and climbed an easy uninspiring line up the central of the three buttresses, but thought the left side of the northern buttress was worth another visit.

I was a bit optimistic and fancied a light sack, so went back on my own later in January. It wasn’t fully frozen at the base, so I moved on to an easy looking line further right. Which was fine, until the buttress ended at an unexpected pinnacle. It was easy to escape off right down a snow gully but I was feeling a bit frustrated, so I finished up a steep groove, which wasn’t very wise on my own. I got away with it (or I wouldn’t be writing this!). To be honest, it wasn’t until I got home and read the route description in the guide, that I realised I’d repeated my own route with a direct final pitch.

The good new line was still waiting and early March was snowy. So I persuaded two good trail breakers that this was the place to go. I should have known that Glen Shiel can get loads of deep snow, but even this was a surprise. The hills did look very white, but we set off anyway. Both Sandy Allan and I thought about turning back but neither of us said anything. And then we’d have had to catch Sarah Sigley who was powering on up through knee-deep crusty snow. By the time we got to the cliff four hours later, I barely had the energy to climb anything, let alone a potentially tricky buttress. So we waded up a mostly easy line that divided the central and north buttresses to reach the Munro crest, and then had some fun descending along it. I remember failing on this Munro when I was 18 years old and hadn’t done much winter hillwalking and the guidebooks didn’t mention that it was one of Scotland’s trickier Munros in winter. We called our line Carry on Nurse (Grade II) in honour of Sarah’s trail breaking, even if the name is a bit personal for Scottish naming traditions.

Four days later (March 9) I’d just about recovered enough to go on the hill again. The others were working but Steve Perry’s job had just finished, and he is a good trail breaker too. In fact the hills were even whiter but some warmer weather had raised the snow level to about 500m and when we got to that height, the snow was sticky rather than crusty, which made better steps for me to follow. We reached the ridge crest in good time (just under three hours) but were amazed just how much snow there was on the cliff. The wind had been westerly and perhaps the snow had been sticky, so it looked like the snow had blown in and stuck to the face. Despite the depth, it didn’t seem avalanche prone, so we descended the Grade I chute between the south and central buttresses, followed by a wade across to our line.

The turf was better frozen and the deep snow cleared fairly easily, so we did manage to wander around and not have to pull over any particularly steep steps. And we actually got four long pitches out of it, the last one finishing up a nice easy ridge to a small top on the summit ridge. Meshuga (Grade III) seemed a suitable name, since you’d have to be meshuga to walk up there four times. And the wind had dropped for the lovely descent down the summit crest, hence the accompanying photo. Phew! No turf was harmed in the making of this route.”

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When The Icicles Don’t Hang Straight

Iain Small leading the ice-filled corner on the second pitch of The Ninety-Five Theses (IX,9) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe. The route takes the continuously overhanging groove system right of last year’s addition Gates of Paradise. The double roof with its hanging icicle fringe can be seen above. (Photo Simon Richardson)

So here I am, belayed halfway up Church Door Buttress on Bidean nan Bian wondering why the icicles aren’t hanging straight. It is Tuesday March 7 and it’s gently snowing. Iain Small is above me climbing a vertical ice-filled corner so the icicles must have been blown outwards by the wind. Iain moves up confidently and shards of ice fall out behind me. The angles don’t make sense. If Iain is climbing vertical ground then gravity appears to be operating at an outward angle.

Then the brain adjusts and the worrying truth sets in. The corner that Iain is climbing is, in fact, overhanging. This means that the double tier of capping overlaps at the top of the corner are full blown overhangs.

All this is consistent with the first pitch. The opening V-groove looked innocuous enough, but it turned out to be the wrong side of vertical and only succumbed to extreme bridging with one foot placed flat on the smooth wall on the left and the right front point teetering on a tiny 45 degree sloping smear just a couple of millimetres wide. It took Iain over an hour to unlock the precise footwork to swing left onto an overhanging fin and claw his way up. Each time his probing failed he swung back down and hung one-armed off his tool. It looked a good placement, but when I got there it was a tiny wobbly hook.

Iain is now at the top of the corner and approaching the first overhang. His pace has slowed as the angle becomes more extreme and he searches for protection. Eventually quantity of gear rather than quality persuades him upwards through the bulge to below the second capping overhang. The original plan was to pass this on the left, but blank crack-less rock forces a direct approach over the metre-wide icicle-draped roof.

I can’t bear to watch and carefully pay out the rope. Iain explained afterwards that he used a single notch stein pull to gain the two-centimetre thick ice at the lip. He then released the stein pull, made another placement and hung free with both tools from the lip. The only way to move upwards from a position like this is to make a one-arm pull up but Iain managed to find a knee bar under the roof, which provided enough body tension to make the next placement. His next tool pulled but fortunately it did not rip all the way through and he was able to pull up, place both feet on the ice, and climb the icefall to easier ground. It was an extraordinary set of moves with a massive fall potential.

I arrive at the belay with my eyes on stalks. The physicality – technical difficulty – protection equation does not compute. My immediate impulse is to vigourously shake Iain’s hand. Never have I done a winter route that is continuously overhanging from start to finish. Iain’s lead of The Shape Of Things To Come on Ben Nevis five days before had been an eye-opener, but The Ninety-Five Theses (IX,9) is something else again.

Just remember – take careful notice of those icicles!

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Cloudjumper

The awkward delicate moves on the second pitch of Cloudjumper (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis. This is the third route added by the MacLeod-Rennard team to the steep area of cliff left of The Great Chimney on the East Flank of Tower Ridge. (Photo Helen Rennard)

“Dave MacLeod and I headed up the Ben last Sunday (March 5),” Helen Rennard writes. “We had been thinking of climbing something up in Coire na Ciste and Dave had kindly offered to belay me on something (I tend to go into seconding mode when climbing with him) but it was looking too black. After an hour or two of drinking tea in the hut – our usual routine when we go up the Ben, which always results in us finishing in the dark – we headed up Observatory Gully to have a look at another new route. The East Flank of Tower Ridge, and higher up by Tower Scoop, are areas that hold conditions later in the season and we’ve climbed new routes up there at this time of year for the last three years, all in February or March.

On Sunday we did a new line left of Red Dragon (which we climbed in 2015), taking a leftward slanting ramp to a short very steep wall (crux). Dave had an exciting time leading this as he hooked a loose block pulling through the crux. He managed to downclimb without it coming off, then went back up again to pull it off in a relatively controlled manner (i.e. it just missed his face). Pitch two traversed off to the right before joining the higher part of Red Dragon above. The traverse looked straightforward but was sketchy and technical. We came across some old gear on the route, on the first pitch and at the first belay, and wondered whether this was from a previous attempt or from folk abbing off Tower Ridge. It turned out it belonged to Pete Davies (who I was out with the following day) and Tim Marsh who had tried the line twice about five years ago. Their high point had been the start of the traverse on pitch two. They had bypassed the crux wall by going round it to the left. We called the route Cloudjumper (another dragon name – Dave wasn’t up for my suggestion of Puff the Magic Dragon) and gave it VIII,9.

We bumped into Greg Boswell, Guy Robertson and Adam Russell at the top car park who were heading up the next day, and gave them some beta about where was white. On the Monday (March 6) Pete and I went into Stob Coire nan Lochan to try something new that he’d spotted. It felt pretty warm walking up and was just above freezing all day. There was a section top right of SC Gully that was about the whitest bit of cliff on the whole crag. We broke out of SC Gully at about half height and climbed a new route up a chimney round the right side of a pillar. This had a very traditional feel with a tight squeeze and some big chockstones (there was a possible through-route, but we went over). It was really good fun. I thought about VI,6, Pete thought V,5, so I was maybe a bit tired! I made it down in time to attend a group interview at West Highland College that evening by a student whose dissertation is on what motivates people to go winter climbing. An interesting topic and it worked well as a group interview.”

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Salvation Ribs

John Jackson leading the start of West Coast Boomer on Beinn Alligin with Joanne McCandless looking on. The new route Salvation Ribs (IV,3) starts ten metres left of this point. (Photo Martin Holland)

On March 4, John Jackson and Martin Holland headed in to Beinn Alligin with a couple of teams to attempt the classic Grade IV ice gully of West Coast Boomer on Tom na Gruagaich.

“John, Joanne McCandless and Graeme Crowder started up West Coast Boomer, but the ice was thin and it was taking a while,” Martin explained. “So myself, Doug Spencer and Neil Hamlet climbed the buttress immediately to the left. It was typical of the area with sandstone tiers separated by vegetated terraces. The bottom three tiers weren’t particularly helpful in terms of cracks and were climbed on rock and turf with sparse gear and deviations out left to avoid steeper sections.

After four pitches we were able to move back right to overlook West Coast Boomer and the angle eased as we followed the crest of the narrowing buttress/ridge. John’s party came out of West Coast Boomer on to the same buttress after three pitches, and our lines merged.

Salvation Ribs (IV,3) are best climbed with well frozen turf and could save the day if the ice lines are not in condition.”

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Chamonix Scottish Raid

Jon Bracey climbing the first pitch of War and Peace (VII,8) on No.4 Buttress in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries. This was the fourth high standard route climbed by the Helliker-Bracey team during a four-day hit from Chamonix. (Photo Matt Helliker)

Chamonix-based guides, Matt Helliker and Job Bracey had a very successful four-day visit to Scotland at the end of February.

With little knowledge of conditions, they headed up to Stob Coire nan Lochan on their first day (February 27) and made an ascent of the test-piece Unicorn (VIII,8). They stayed in Glen Coe the following day and climbed Neanderthal (VII,7) on Lost Valley Buttress. Both routes were first climbed in the 1980s but still hold their own today as challenging routes.

The pair then turned their attention to the Northern Corries where they climbed The Vicar (VII,8) and then finished up with War and Peace (VII,8) on their fourth day. Once again, these two routes from the 1990s are highly respected outings.

Four big routes in four days is a pretty good haul, especially this winter which has had challenging conditions. One secret to Matt and Jon’s success was to choose snowed-up rock and steep mixed routes. These climbs come more rapidly into condition than more conventional mixed or ice climbs, and have been the routes of choice this season which has suffered from not having any prolonged build up to build a helpful base of snow on low-angled ground and ledges.

A good overview of Matt and Jon’s trip can be found on Matt’s blog.

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Satyr – Nearly!

Ian Parnell leading the difficult first pitch of Satyr (IX,9) on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe. This sustained IX,9 was first climbed in winter by Donald King and Andy Nelson in December 2010 and has seen a number of repeats. (Photo Ian Parnell Collection)

Tim Emmett leading the difficult first pitch of Satyr on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe. This sustained IX,9 was first climbed in winter by Donald King and Andy Nelson in December 2010 and was repeated in January 2012 by Guy Robertson, Pete Macpherson and Nick Bullock. (Photo Ian Parnell)

Ian Parnell and Tim Emmett had a great day on Stob Coire nan Lochan on March 3 when they climbed the first three pitches of Satyr (IX,9) before finishing up the final pitch of Central Grooves.

“There was a nice long weep of thin ice falling down the first pitch,” Ian told me. “This attracted us to the route on the day and also it was the most wintry-looking of the harder routes.

Not having a description for the winter ascent we ended up splitting the first pitch at the flake ledge at 20m. Tim led the first bold bit and then I led the better protected Tech 9 crux ‘traverse’ taking a short fall before lowering and starting again.

Then Tim led the linking pitch. I led the offwidth pinnacle-flake, and then with the top pitch holding little snow, I thought best that we finish up the final bit of Central Grooves. Having read up since I’ve got back, I see that the top pitch of Satyr is obviously a tough one with a fall taken on the first ascent – but it was pointless dry tooling it. So we obviously don’t claim an ascent of Satyr, but it was a superb day out with some very interesting and varied climbing and an incredible sunset!”

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The Shape Of Things To Come

Iain Small on the first pitch of The Shape Of Things To Come (IX,9) on the North Wall of Carn Dearg on Ben Nevis during the first ascent. The route takes its name from the book by H.G.Wells and follows the 20th Century literary theme on the wall. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Iain Small on the first pitch of The Shape Of Things To Come (IX,9) on the North Wall of Carn Dearg on Ben Nevis. The route continues in a direct line up the vertical wall above for three pitches and takes its name from the book by H.G.Wells. (Photo Simon Richardson)

I had the privilege of accompanying Iain Small on a journey up the North Wall of Carn Dearg on March 2. This excellent but unfrequented cliff is situated left of The Shroud on Ben Nevis. Steep and rocky and lying low on the mountain, it is a good choice when conditions are snowy high up. And this was just as well because the morning dawned stormy with frequent blustery blizzards that persisted throughout the day.

We had the psychological advantage that between us we had climbed every route on the wall, and we approached the cliff with a cheerful optimism. But I knew from the outset that we were in for a tough time, and even more so after Iain had revealed the plan for the day in the CIC Hut. The objective was to climb a direct line up the centre of the wall in the vicinity of Brave New World, a IX,8 that we had pioneered together six years before.

I use the term ‘we’ here rather loosely, as I just led a very easy section of Brave New World, and I knew on this climb my role would once again be that of helpful second. This route was Iain’s shout and he was climbing exceptionally well – he had ambled up Knuckleduster Direct the day before with Murdoch Jamieson and was back in the hut with hours of daylight to spare.

Suffice to say, Iain floated up his new line. I have never seen him climb so well. The first two pitches were Tech 9 and the third pitch was only fractionally easier. I have never done a climb that is so sustained – there were no moves less than Tech 7 in its 120m length, and there were very few of those. The smooth overhanging groove of the second pitch was the technical crux – the sidewalls were impossibly smooth with nothing for the feet. Above a difficult-to-place peg, there was an unprotected six-metre section on tiny placements in a centimetre-wide dribble of ice and dirt in the back of the impending corner. It is almost impossible to watch someone leading a pitch as bold and tenuous as this, so I focused assiduously on the rope directly in front of me. My greatest concern was being unable to follow the pitch. If I had fallen off when seconding l would have lost contact with the rock and been left hanging free in space.  It would have been game over and we would have had no option but to retreat.

Iain and I have climbed two routes before that have been graded IX. In both instances, Iain considered for several days before giving them their grade. The Shape Of Things To Come was different. As soon as we had abseiled down, Iain said that he was going to grade the route IX,9. I could only agree – the adrenaline was still coursing through my veins when we arrived back at the CIC Hut.

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