Rescue Mission in the Galloway Hills

Ian Dempster starting up Frigidare (IV,4) in the Galloway Hills during the first ascent. The 125m-long route lies on the buttress to the right of Better Gully in the Rhinns of Kells. (Photo Stephen Reid)

Ian Dempster and Stephen Reid made good use of the cold conditions in the Galloway Hills on Sunday December 10 with the first ascent of Frigidare (IV,4) on Fridge Buttress in the Rhinns of Kells. The climb starts left of Andrew Fraser and Ian Magill’s Fridge Magnate (III) of 2011 before finishing just right of it on the final tier. An unexpected turn of events however, meant the climb turned into something of a rescue mission.

“It was bitterly cold, but still and clear with a good covering of snow,” Stephen explained. “It was a stunning day to be on the hill, but also meant that crampons, ice axes and walking poles balled up continuously. The route consisted of shortish harder sections interspersed with easier scrambling.

Only Ian completed the final pitch due to a dog falling from halfway up the crag and landing at my feet (an unusual and disconcerting experience when winter climbing). The dog seemed unhurt and picked itself up to join its two mates who were busy chasing goats, shortly to be joined by their two teenage owners who had managed to get themselves down the crag but ‘could na gae thersels ba’ oop agin’.

These lads had no crampons, ice axes, head torches or even gloves (at 3.30pm in the afternoon in December!) – fortunately I had two spare pairs of gloves. Ian reached the top of the final pitch and we abandoned the route and several bits of gear while I escorted the lads and dogs round the edge of the buttress and up on to the ridge. A long descent in the gloaming followed to join John and Linda Biggar who had been watching the whole thing unfold with bated breath from the edge of the forest!”

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Hobnailers’ Gully

Graeme Morrison emerging from the top of Hobnailers’ Gully (I/II) on Creagan Cha-no. Graeme was perfectly kitted out for a traditional gully climb being dressed in tweed trousers, woollen hat and ventile jacket. He used a wooden ice axe with the rope tied around his waist. (Photo Simon Richardson)

It is traditional for the President of the Scottish Mountaineering Club to lead a walk on the Sunday after the annual dinner. As the event takes place in early December, lousy weather often dictates a low level affair, although some presidents have been lucky enough to complete a round of Munros. I am currently President of the SMC and thought it would be rather fun to stretch the concept of a ‘walk’ and attempt an easy winter climb instead. And even better, if it could be a new one!

The SMC dinner was held in Carrbridge this year, which gave the option for a route on Creagan Cha-no in the Northern Cairngorms. Over 50 new climbs have been added to the crag since it was first developed seven years ago, but these have mainly focused on mixed lines and buttresses. Fortunately there was an attractive gully that had not been recorded – we just needed conditions and weather to make an ascent feasible.

The cold and snowy weather last week meant that Creagan Cha-no was collecting its fair share of snow and the turf was freezing well, but it was also in the lee of the wind and the approach down Recovery Gully was endangered by windslab. We needed a thaw and re-freeze to consolidate the snow. Then as if by magic, the stars aligned and a quick thaw on Saturday was followed by sub-zero temperatures on Sunday morning (December 3). By the time we were at the top of the crag at 11am (it was a good dinner) the snow had hardened up rather nicely.

We climbed the two-pitch route in a single rope of 18 people. With some folk having harnesses, and others simply tying into bights of rope, the ropework was a little unorthodox at times, but always safe. It took little over an hour to climb the route and was reminiscent of the Victorian era when the SMC pioneers would venture forth en masse and climb great routes of derring-do.

For the record, the 18-strong ascensionists of Hobnailers’ Gully (I/II) were: Sarah Atkinson, Stephen Blackman, Richard Bott, Alison Coull, Ian Crofton, Andrew Hewison, Chris Huntley, Graeme Morrison, Donald Orr, Jonathan Preston, Fiona Reid, Kenny Robb, Alan Smith, Graham Tough, Henning Wackerhage, Mike Watson, Roger Webb and myself.

Whilst our ascent did not match the deeds of the pioneers it was very enjoyable – I have never seen so may broad smiles on top of a route before. Once we were all up we visited the elusive El Alamein bothy (that was ordered to be removed following the Feith Buidhe tragedy in 1971 but is still there) before ambling happily back to the car park.

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Maud’s Groove

Adrian Crofton enjoying steep mixed climbing in the chimney pitch of Maud’s Groove (IV,5). This new climb is situated in Glen Doll, the southerly subsidiary glen at the end of Glen Clova. (Photo Pete Benson)

On November 30, Adrian Crofton and Pete Benson made an enterprising visit to Craig Maud at the head of Glen Doll in South-Eastern Cairngorms. Their exploration was rewarded with the first ascent of Maud’s Groove (IV,5), a steep groove-line high up on the south flank of Pinnacle Buttress.

“Pete and I were keen to find somewhere high enough to be frozen, but not so high that it would be buried,” Adrian Crofton told me. “We also wanted somewhere sheltered from the bitter northerly wind, and not too far from Aberdeen! As it happened we had been out for a walk the week before with Ken Davies and had scrambled up the gully at Craig Maud where we spotted some nice looking winter-only lines. The most obvious was a left-slanting chimney-groove.

The venue and line fitted the bill perfectly for last Thursday’s forecast and we had a fun day on this wee route of two pitches followed by a scramble to the summit of the crag, 120m in total. We were keen on an easy romp, but this gave a more testing climbing than expected. Be warned it is steeper than it looks from below!”

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Roger Webb leading the crux section of Androcles (V,5) on Beinn Heasgairnich in the Southern Highlands. This pitch through the headwall contained two runners in its 40m length. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Strong Northerlies, and blizzard conditions in the Cairngorms and Northern Highlands, pointed to a venue somewhere in the Southern Highlands, last week (November 29). I suggested to Roger Webb, who is always keen to climb off the beaten track, that a visit to Beinn Heasgairnich may be worthwhile. The cliffs in its northern corrie are relatively compact, and over the last ten years they have been thoroughly explored by George Allan, John Thomas and Billy Hood. They have climbed all the major features resulting in a series of classic gully and buttress routes. Sophie Grace Chappell and I made a visit a couple of winters ago, but despite this focused attention, a direct line through the steepest part of the cliff was still unclimbed.

The corrie is one of the most secluded in the Southern Highlands and is invisible from most viewpoints. To add to its mystique it is not described in any guidebooks and is not marked on the OS map.

Icy roads meant that despite an early start we were not climbing until midday. Fortunately, the first two pitches went quickly, leaving Roger the job of making a bottomless traverse on dwindling turf to reach the crucial steep hanging groove cutting through the headwall. The situation was spectacular, but the mica schist was particularly unhelpful, and protection was almost non-existent. He placed two runners in the 40m pitch, but fortunately the turf was frozen to winter climbing perfection.

A short final pitch saw me on the top just before a snowstorm sent us scurrying back down as night fell. In keeping with the lion theme of adjacent routes, we called our climb Androcles and graded it V,5.

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Lurching About In The Powder

Andy Nisbet on the steep section of Drystane Ridge on Lurchers Crag on the west side of Cairn Gorm. Climbing solo, Nisbet made the first ascent of this worthwhile route ten years ago and rated it Grade II, but last weekend’s re-ascent suggests a III,4 grading may be more realistic. (Photo Sandy Allan)

“It’s early season on Cairn Gorm,” Andy Nisbet writes. “I had done a couple of versions of the Fiacaill Ridge from Sneachda earlier in the month, and now routes were frozen. Not much snow, but enough to keep us happy, even if the purists would complain. The ridges at Lurchers might be too bare, but the grooves should be snowy, and one of them hadn’t been climbed. There’s always the risk that grooves at Lurchers could be smooth and slabby, but this wide one looked from the photos that it should give us the chance to zigzag past any difficulties.

Jonathan Preston was the trail breaker [November 19], leading his limping companions. I’ve been limping for a while but this was Steve’s first day on the hill since breaking his talus bone. So it wasn’t the fastest approach, especially down a soggy South Gully with a significant ice pitch low down. We reached the start of Drystane Ridge well spread apart, but at least we were able to pick out a potential zigzag line. I have all the crag shots, so I’d found the line and was given the lead.

Starting near Drystane Ridge, the key was to find a way across the groove above a steep smooth start and below a barrier wall to a weakness at the far side. The traverse was a bit spooky, on a low-angled hanging slab of very smooth rock and only a dusting of powder on verglas. It would have been a walk with any consolidated snow, but I went across on my knees for predictable friction. I could have belayed at the far end, but I couldn’t resist a short wall leading to easy ground. I should have predicted how bad the rope drag would be, but it only really kicked in once I was committed. Five minutes of pulling with both hands, followed by quick movements before the rope slipped back, allowed me to reach a spike. And as predicted, Jonathan whizzed up an easy last pitch.

Pegleg seemed a fitting name for the two hobblers in the party, and a grade of III,4, although it could well be less with a good build-up. Not that Lurchers gets a good build-up very often these days; snowy easterlies don’t happen that often any more.

Since we’d started close to Drystane Ridge, and both Jonathan and I had recently climbed it by a turfy corner on its right side, we started wondering about the crest. I was fairly sure I’d made the original ascent [climbing alone] on the crest, but I couldn’t really remember and it did look hard for on-sight soloing. There was a subsequent summer ascent that was given Moderate, and again it must have climbed the crest. The only answer was to climb the route again and see.

The weather was windy for a few days until Sunday November 26. Steve had decided to give his ankle another couple of weeks healing and Jonathan had rescue team training, but Sandy Allan was keen (and another good trail breaker in a lot more snow). Fortunately the snow on Lurchers’ Ridge had mostly blown away, so we reached a much snowier Drystane Ridge without the expected slog. The crest still looked very steep, but there had to be a way. Initially it was very helpful until I came across a barrier wall. It was hard to pick a line since the capping slab was deeply buried. It only needed one good crack but I couldn’t find one. After three attempts in different places, I was back at the same place. Reluctant to give up on something I’d soloed before, I tried once again on the right, and my axe slotted into the crucial crack. A couple of pulls with a bit more determination, and it was cracked. Easier flaky ground led to a belay, and the hope that Sandy hadn’t frozen solid.

But he ran up it, mostly to get warm again, and then ran up the easier upper ridge, so suddenly we had gone from wondering if we could do it, to being at the top. We discussed the grade, and it certainly wasn’t the Grade II in the guidebook, but Sandy had found a slightly easier way of doing the crux, so we settled on III,4. Whether I was having a good day in 2007, or just a confident one, who knows, but it shows you can’t trust soloing grades. It’s a good quality route anyway, worth a star anyway.”

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All Go on Cha-no

Roger Webb approaching the summit slopes of Road Runner (IV,5), a new route on the Duke’s Wall area of Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The popular early season cliff of Creagan Cha-no on the east side of Cairn Gorm has been busy over the last couple of weeks. In the main, it has been the popular classics such as Anvil Gully, Jenga Buttress and Chimney Rib that have seen most of the traffic. The cliff is still yielding new routes however, and the most challenging of the recent additions is a left-hand start to Mainmast by Luke Davies and Georgia Drew climbed on November 25. Cutty Ranks (IV,6) follows the corner-crack just left of the main offwidth before finishing up the original route.

On November 24 and 26, Roger Webb and I visited the Duke’s Wall area that extends from the deep V-groove of Wile-E-Coyote to Duke’s Rib. The two groove-lines to the right of Wile-E-Coyote gave Fast and Furry-ous (IV,6) and Road Runner (IV,5). They provided typical Cha-no climbing – short steep well-protected crux sections with good belays at mid-height and easier climbing above. We also climbed the prominent right-trending gully-groove on Blood Buttress at Grade III finishing up True Blood.

There are now over 50 routes on the cliff, but information on the less well-known climbs is buried deep within SMC Journals. To remedy this, the SMC are planning to publish an app later this winter that will have full set of topos making it possible to locate all the routes. Watch this space!

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The Exorcist Climbed in Winter At Last!

Guy Robertson on the upper section The Exorcist (VIII,8) on Hell’s Lum Crag in the Cairngorms. A winter ascent was first reported in 1999 but a different line to the summer route was followed. (Photo Greg Boswell)

On Friday November 24, Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell pulled off the most impressive performance of the winter so far when they made the first winter ascent of The Exorcist on Hell’s Lum Crag at the head of the Loch Avon Basin. This excellent three-pitch summer HVS was first climbed by Adrian Liddell and Bob Smith in June 1975 and lies on Grey Buttress at the left end of the cliff.

Nineteen years ago, in October 1998, Alan Mullin and Steve Paget made a winter climb in the vicinity that was widely reported as The Exorcist. Their ascent prompted controversy at the time because it was climbed just after the first snowfalls of the winter (early season climbing was not as popular as it is today), but it turned out that they did not climb the line of The Exorcist after all. Their ascent followed the Right-Hand Variation to Evil Spirits before finishing up Hell’s Lump. The climb was graded VII,8 and was an exciting ascent because the rope jammed and Mullin had to free it by cutting with his axe. It was one of the first routes in Scotland climbed with monopoint crampons and the pair used twin adzes to cope with the wide cracks.

Friday was a poor day for high standard winter climbing, with strong blustery winds and persistent spindrift. Nevertheless, Guy and Greg made a smooth ascent of the complete summer line grading it VIII,8.

“It was a good way to start off the season,” Greg told me. “Some techy thin slab climbing led into a burly and thought-provoking crux going through the overlap to gain the hanging corner. Got the juices flowing, and the yearning for more has begun! But maybe less scary granite slabs – my 45 degree training board doesn’t make you brave, just strong!”

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Optimists Arête on Ben Nevis

Ken Applegate on the second pitch of Optimists Arête (V,6) on Ben Nevis during the first ascent. This four-pitch mixed climb situated high on the mountain just left of Upper Tower Cascade Right at the head of Tower Gully. The smooth hoar-covered slabs of of Indicator Wall can be seen in the background. (Photo Steve Holmes)

Taking advantage of the good early season snowfall in the West last weekend, Steve Holmes and Ken Applegate made the long approach up Tower Gully on November 11 to the unformed Upper Tower Cascades on the East Flank of Tower Ridge. This is about as high as you can go on the Ben and the pair were rewarded with Optimists Arête (V,6) – a new four-pitch mixed route that climbs the blunt edge running up the side of the steep wall left of Upper Cascade Right. Two steep pitches led to easier-angled ground followed by stepped chimneys to finish on the plateau 10m left of the top of Tower Ridge.

“We actually went to climb last year’s addition Grand Central,” Steve explained. “But we were drawn into potentially unrecorded/unclimbed terrain – as you do! It was a surprisingly good route, each section had good climbing with some nice Tech 6 on the first two pitches. Much steeper than it looked of course, and sticking to the arête created some pretty exposed positions – nice climbing whilst everything else was a little lean.”

It was a busy weekend high on the Ben with ascents of Sioux Wall (VIII,8), Babylon (VII,7) and Hobgoblin (VI,7) on Number Three Gully Buttress – the mountain’s early season crag of choice for steep mixed climbs.

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Early Bird on Lochnagar

Drew Stevenson on the first ascent of Early Bird Groove (IV,6) on Lochnagar. This single pitch route takes the steep crack to the right of the prominent groove of Early Bird on the upper right wall of Black Spout, Left Branch. (Photo Stuart Cossar)

Full winter conditions arrived this weekend on the Scottish mountains with climbing activity on Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms and North-West. First to report a new route were Drew Stevenson and Stuart Cossar who made an enterprising first ascent of Early Bird Groove (IV,6) on Lochnagar on November 11.

“Myself and Stuart Cossar visited Lochnagar on Saturday and went high in the corrie to find something that would be good to climb,” Drew told me. “We noticed that as we climbed further up Black Spout, Left Branch and past Pinnacle Gully 2 the turf became well frozen. We spotted a groove with bulging choke stones up from Crumbling Cranny and immediately right of Early Bird. It had well frozen turf and welcome hooks and torques and we reckon it went at a grade of IV 6. The route is only 35 metres long, so we felt that it didn’t warrant Grade V, but was quite technical. It reminded us of climbing a short route in Creagan Coire Cha-no.”

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Chasing the Ephemeral Receives Banff Award

Chasing the Ephemeral: Fifty Routes for a Successful Scottish Winter, which was published by Mica Publishing last autumn, has won the Guidebook award at the prestigious Banff Book and Film Festival in Canada. (Photo Henning Wackerhage)

Several years ago, Tom Prentice from Mica Publishing asked me to write a book describing 50 of the finest Scottish winter routes. It seemed a clear brief at the outset, but the more we discussed it, the concept began to change. Many of the absolute best Scottish winter routes require good conditions and 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.

My house is crammed full of climbing books that have launched countless climbing adventures and continue to provide inspiration for many unrealised dreams. So it is very pleasing that Chasing the Ephemeral has been recognised at Banff, and the book is, in turn, inspiring others. Huge credit goes to Tom Prentice, not only for persuading me to write it in the first place, but also for his skill in turning a huge pile of raw material into such a fine finished article.

I am also indebted to the dozens of people who provided photographs and reviewed the text:

Dave Anderson, Rab Anderson, Stewart Anderson, Andy Bain, Keith Ball, Michael Barnard, David Barratt, Andy Brown, Chris Cartwright, George Cave, Sophie Grace Chappell, Geoff Cohen, Ben Cooling, Alan Crichton, Ken Crocket, Duncan Curry, Dave Cuthbertson, Peter Duggan, James Edwards, Steve Elliott, Roger Everett, Hamish Frost, Mike Gardner, Graeme Gatherer, Alan Halewood, Lee Harrison, Paul Headland, Ian Hey, Jim Higgins, Richard Hines, Steve Holmes, Andy Inglis, Murdoch Jamieson, Rob Jarvis, Jenny Jarvis, Craig Lamb, Ruth Love, Ewan Lyons, John Mackenzie, Alastair MacLean, Chris McDaid, George McEwan, Stuart McFarlane, Colin McGregor, Ian McIntosh, Robert McMurray, Alex Messenger, Dan Moore, Dafydd Morris, Neil Morrison, Scott Muir, Tim Neill, Grahame Nicoll, Andy Nisbet, Ian Parnell, Mike Pescod, Heike Puchan, Rob Reglinski, Helen Rennard, Ben Richardson, Christine Richardson, Dave Riley, Dave Ritchie, Niall Ritchie, John Roberts, Ali Rose, Marcello Sanguineti, Viv Scott, Davie Scott, Sandy Simpson, Iain Small, Helena Smith, Ian Stennett, Guy Steven, Karl Stewart, Tony Stone, Greg Strange, Ruth Taylor, Jim Teesdale, Alex Thomson, Alistair Todd, John Trudgill, Joris Volmer, Henning Wackerhage, Mike Watson, Roger Webb, Euan Whitaker, Brian Whitworth, Bob Wightman and Jeremy Windsor.

This book really was a team effort – I salute you all!

I applaud the other finalists in the Banff Guidebook category – Claude Vallier, Dimitar Dimitrov, James Rushforth, and Marc Bourdon – I look forward to admiring and learning from your work. And finally I thank the competition jury – Mayan Smith-Gobat, David Stevenson and Ian Welsted – for taking the time to properly understand what Chasing the Ephemeral is really about. At its core it is far more than a list of 50 routes, but a philosophy on how to play the Scottish winter climbing game.

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