Book Review – The Big Rounds

The Big Rounds by David Lintern describes running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. The book was published by Cicerone in August and retails at £18.95.

There is a strong cross over between mountain running and winter mountaineering. Both are endurance sports that demand a high level of fitness and no small amount of focus and determination. Many winter climbers run to keep fit and enjoy the exhilaration of moving fast and light over mountain terrain. Indeed, Wendy Dodds, the first person to complete the Paddy Buckley Round and one of the runners profiled in the book, describes herself ‘more than a mountaineer than a runner’.

David Lintern’s innovative book about running and walking the Big Rounds – the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay – will appeal to many hill goers. All three rounds involve just over 8000m ascent. The Bob Graham is the most well known and traverses much of the high ground in the Lake District over 61 miles. The Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay rounds are located in Snowdonia and the Western Highlands and are 62 and 57 miles long. The rounds are described in increasing difficulty with the Bob Graham first, followed by the Buckley and finally the Ramsay. Even though it five miles shorter and less technically challenging, the Ramsay edges the Buckley as the most difficult because it is more remote, has poorer weather and is harder to reconnoitre.

What particularly attracted me to this book is that it puts as much emphasis on walking these great rounds as running them. Sure they may involve two or three overnight camps, but they set significant challenges for hill walkers. After a detailed introduction, David describes each round in turn with a detailed route guide, followed by a section on practicalities, history and then a personal runner’s story.

This strong emphasis on people is followed up by nine interviews with ‘People of the Rounds’ from Nicky Spinks to Charlie Ramsay himself. The interviews include quotes such a ‘Big fun hill days – it’s as simple as that’ and ‘You don’t need to be super-human’ that will no doubt provide inspiration for us mere mortals to get off the couch and attempt one of these great expeditions, whether wearing walking boots or running shoes.

I enjoyed studying The Big Rounds. The 192-page book is beautifully produced in A5 format and illustrated with inspiring photos and the all-important maps showing each round are especially clear. Unfortunately my hill running days are well behind me, but walking one of these rounds is now firmly on the To Do List!

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Scottish International Winter Meet 2020

Canadian climber Jon Walsh making the first ascent of Making the Cut (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe’s Central Buttress during the 2014 Scottish International Winter Meet. This sensational climb takes the soaring crack-line left of West Central Gully. (Photo Greg Boswell)

Fantastic news – the winter meet is back!

Today, Mountaineering Scotland announced that they will be hosting the 2020 International Scottish Winter Meet.

The meet has been running since 1997 and was last held in 2016. The event has attracted climbers from all over the world eager to experience the unique Scottish winter experience. Overseas guests will paired up with experienced UK-based hosts – an excellent tried and tested formula that has proved to be very successful. In return for sharing their local knowledge and expertise, UK climbers gain a wider perspective by climbing with their (sometimes very accomplished) international visitors. In previous years several hosts and guests have formed strong partnerships that have gone on to make major ascents further afield and in the Greater Ranges. This is not an elitist event however, and will be open to a cross-section of climbers and abilities.

Starting in Aviemore on Saturday February 22, the week-long event is a result of close partnership with the British Mountaineering Council, the Alpine Club and the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and will be part of a programme of events and activities in 2020 to celebrate 50 years of Mountaineering Scotland.

The format will be different to previous years. Instead of being based in a single location, climbers will rotate between huts, and all participants will spend at least one night in the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis. The event will finish with a celebration event in Aviemore on Friday February 29 that will be open to the wider Scottish winter climbing community.

How to become involved, either as a host or by offering support, will be communicated by Mountaineering Scotland in October.

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Book Review – The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains

The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains by Tom Prentice provides descriptions for the Cuillin Ridge and 100 select routes for climbers and hillwalkers. The cover shows Am Basteir and Sgurr a’ Fionn Choire. The book was published by Mica Publishing in May.

For climbers and mountaineers, the Island of Skye is one of the most sought after destinations in the British Isles. Opportunities for adventure amongst the mountains, sea cliffs and sea stacks abound, but there is no question that the Cuillin peaks are the main attraction. In summer, the traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is one of the most celebrated mountaineering undertakings in the country, and in winter it is a world-class outing.

So it is no surprise that The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains, a new large A5 format guidebook by Tom Prentice, initially focuses on how to succeed on this great challenge. Tom does this by outlining the intricacies of the Ridge with a detailed summit-by-summit description illustrated with 23 photo diagrams. There is no doubt, that this is the most detailed description of the Cuillin Ridge ever published, and will be a boon for summer visitors intent on traversing the Ridge, or making reconnaissance trips prior to a successful traverse, whether it be for summer or winter.

Tom has devoted four pages to Ridge planning and tactics. He acknowledges that one-day traverses are frequent, but suggests that for many climbers, a two-day traverse with prior knowledge from previous visits is the surest recipe for success. On sight traverses of the Ridge in summer are still rare, and likewise, few winter traverses of the Ridge occur without prior knowledge in summer.

It would be a mistake to think this book is just about traversing the Cuillin Ridge however. Tom goes onto describe ascents and rounds of peaks throughout Skye (such as the Trotternish Ridge and the mountains of Kylerhea on the east side of the island) as well as the Cuillin. Many of the itineraries are well-known, such as Pinnacle Ridge on Gillean or the round of Coire Lagan, but others are less frequented such as the North Ridge of Sgurr na h-Uamha at the northern end of the range. As Tom notes “Some guidebooks suggest Sgurr na h-Uamha as a potential consolation prize after failing on Sgurr nan Gillean’s South-East Ridge. Be warned – anyone expecting an ‘easier day out’ will get a very nasty shock.” He goes onto to recommend the route should only be attempted in dry condition and many will require the security of a rope.

This first hand detailed experience underpins the quality of information in the book. Tom has spent successive summers on Skye checking all the routes, and taking hundreds of photographs. The result is a beautiful production, which is almost certainly the most detailed illustrated guidebook ever published for the Skye mountains. But in many ways it is the balance of routes included in the book from sub 2000ft Marilyns to major mountaineering undertakings that sets The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains apart. Whatever the weather, this book presents a choice of rewarding options that will make the long trip to the Hebrides worthwhile. Hillwalkers, scramblers, climbers and winter mountaineers intent on visiting Skye will find it both an invaluable reference and a source of endless inspiration.

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Season’s End

The last Grade V ice climb of the winter? Crag Jones and Andy Bunnage made an ascent of a very thin looking Smith’s Route high on Ben Nevis on April 12. (Photo Crag Jones)

Hopes for good late season conditions were thwarted by another major thaw in March. By way of compensation, a heavy snowfall in the Cairngorms followed by a helpful thaw-freeze cycle brought the easier north-facing gullies into condition and several teams enjoyed romping up the easier classics in the Northern Corries.

Across on the West conditions were leaner. The most popular technical route on the Ben was Gardyloo Gully, which provided a sporting Grade III. In many ways, extremely lean conditions are the best time to climb this classic route as it is often blocked by a monstrous cornice. Ascents were also made of Glover’s Chimney, Central Gully Right-Hand and Tower Scoop. A strong French team backed off the third pitch of Point Five Gully.

The most eye-catching climb was a very thin looking Smith’s Route by Crag Jones on April 12. “The brave second was Andy Bunnage,” Crag explained. “He was lashed under the roof, in case the whole caboodle came down. It was that thin – the icicle was very hollow!”

To maintain the winter psyche until next season (just six months away), Robert Taylor has put together a set of podcasts interviewing current activists about their Scottish winter and mountaineering exploits. So far Robert has interviewed Simon Yearsley, Helen Rennard, Robbie Phillips and myself. Paul Diffley of Hot Aches Productions has also very kindly made available the full audio of his interview with Jimmy Marshall.

Robert has a good flowing style and the topics range from Robbie talking about seconding Greg Boswell on Anubis to Helen revealing Andy Nisbet’s caramel shortbread habit. Robert has plans for many more interviews, so listen in to Vertical Voice – Stories from the Steep at:



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The Chancel First Winter Ascent

Andy Inglis climbing the first pitch of The Chancel (VIII,8) on Beinn a’Bhuird. This technically challenging route is the second summer Extreme to be climbed in winter on the mountain. (Photo Guy Robertson)

Guy Robertson and Andy Inglis pulled off one of the finest climbs of the season on March 18 when they made a first winter ascent based on The Chancel on Beinn a’Bhuird. This five pitch E1 on the West Face of Mitre Ridge was first climbed by Dave Nichols and Greg Strange in May 1978. It was originally graded HVS 5b, but an early repeat upped the grade to E1 5b.

“Great day on Beinn a’Bhuird yesterday,” Guy told me. “Andy Inglis and I climbed The Chancel – first three pitches as for summer (second pitch the definite crux), then the obvious turfy winter line on the wall above the ledge (right of the summer line), then a finish up West Side Story to gain the top of the First Tower. Five superb pitches, and pretty good value at VIII,8. The climbing on the second pitch was comparable in style and difficulty to that found on the harder routes on Lochnagar’s Tough Brown Face, but with generally good protection.

It really is such a joy to climb on this great cliff in winter – there are very few places like it for quality, scale, remoteness and commitment. We did quite well – with some quite challenging snow conditions out across the open moor – leaving the car just before first light and topping out on the route as the sun went down (and the moon came out). Nonetheless it was still an 18-hour day car-to-car – 22 if you include the driving and faffing! I was certainly glad of my double helping of pudding the night before, and I’ll be having puddings with my dinner for the remainder of this week!

On a historical note, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first Beinn a’Bhuird Extreme to be climbed in winter conditions. [Not quite correct – another Extreme was climbed on Beinn a’Bhuird in 2012 – The Primate (VIII,8) by Pete Davies and Donie O’Sullivan]. This is unsurprising to me, having climbed two grade IXs there previously, the hardest of which was 5a in summer. The Northern Corries this is not…”

As Guy implies, winter climbing in Garbh Choire on Beinn a’Bhuird is a major undertaking. The corrie is ten miles from the road and one of the most remote in Scotland. A reconnaissance was made a week before, and the eventual ascent required many hours of trail breaking through deep snow. All round Scottish winter climbing adventures don’t come much bigger than this!

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Feast of the East – Second Ascent

Matt Glenn on the second ascent of Feast of the East (VIII,9) on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe. The demanding and technical route was first climbed in winter by Martin Moran, Murdoch Jamieson and Francis Blunt in December 20111. (Photo Jamie Skelton)

On March 16, Jamie Skelton and Matt Glenn made the second winter ascent of Feast of the East (VIII,9) on the Eastern Ramparts on Beinn Eighe. The route was first climbed by Andy Nisbet and Gill Ollerhead in May 1992, and the first winter ascent fell to Martin Moran, Murdoch Jamieson and Francis Blunt in December 2011.

“Myself and my friend Matt Glenn got pretty excited after reading about Heavy Flak and Shiva getting done recently and started scanning for other routes in the same area,” Jamie told me. “We decided to have a go at Feast of the East which is a four-pitch route on the Eastern Ramparts. We found some really steep but positive climbing through well-defined cracks and corners.

I lost the game of rock-paper-scissors so Matt went first. Initially the first half of the first pitch went well with gear and big hooks. After that there was a delicate section to negotiate, to get around a small projecting roof as for the summer route, first to the right, and then back left on flat ledges. This then led onto the big ledge below the main event – the pitch off the ledge is a summer 5c – it’s short and packs a punch. It follows a right-facing corner, which passes two large roofs on small positive hooks and good gear, however it is void of any really footholds making for an extremely strenuous series of footless pulls (possibly soft tech 9) to gain the small ledge.

Above lay another pitch the summer 5b that proved tricky being iced. It follows the same crack line with some rests in some pods to belay on the next big ledge. The last pitch involved a wild step straight off the belay. Moving around the right arête away from the belay and onto a big hanging slab led to bomber placements with much exposure up to easier ground. Overall, it is a superb route, one of the most enjoyable I’ve done”

Jamie and Matt have had a very successful season with ascents of Ventricle (VII,8), Darth Vader (VII,7), Sioux Wall (VIII,8) and the second ascent of Shapeshifter (VIII,8). In addition, Jamie has made ascents of Daddy Longlegs (VIII,9) with Jack Morris, and the hard test pieces of The Needle (VIII,8) and Centurion (VIII,8) with Tim Miller. Given the difficult season we have had this is a remarkable collection of routes!

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Moonpig on Aonach Mor

Graham Wyllie at the base of the chimney during the first ascent of Moonpig (IV,5) on Aonach Mor. This route climbs the left flank of the buttress containing Foosyerneeps. (Photo Cam Bevan)

Strong winds and frequent snowfall have resulted some very dangerous snow conditions recently, especially on the West. On March 8, Graham Wyllie and Cam Bevan visited Coire an Lochain on Aonach Mor. Conditions were tricky, but careful route choice meant they came away with a good two-pitch new route called Moonpig (IV,5) on the right side of the corrie.

“We approached via the climbers col to have a look at Grooved Arête,” Graham told me. “But avalanche conditions meant that traversing the apron below the crag was a no-go. The buttress that holds Foosyerneeps looked like a safe option in the conditions so we headed up there. We had not taken a guidebook and only had descriptions of the routes we couldn’t reach so we decided to wing it and see what we found. We climbed an interesting and varied route on the left of the buttress that included a narrow chimney. Checking the guidebook later the route we climbed didn’t resemble Foosyerneeps at all, which stays on the right.”

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Neverthought Arête

The prominent line of Neverthought Arête (III,4) on Stag Rocks on Cairn Gorm is marked in red. It was climbed back in November and rather surprisingly does not appear to have been recorded before. The classic Afterthought Arête (III) follows the blue line. (Photo Graham Wyllie)

Without question, it has been a dismal Scottish winter season. The warm weather through most of the peak winter climbing period in February upset many people’s dreams, and the tragic loss of Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry coupled with the recent fatalities in Glen Coe and Ben Nevis has only made things worse. The wind has been taken out of many people’s sails, and the current stormy weather giving rise to dangerous avalanche conditions is just adding to the gloom.

I received an email the other day from Graham Wyllie about a possible new start to Afterthought Arête on Stag Rocks that helped to lift my spirits.

“Ryan Alexander and I went in for a look at Stag Rocks on November 18 and decided to go down the Y-shaped gully and onto Afterthought Arête,” Graham told me. “Without looking at the guidebook we headed up the first arête from the gully’s lower reaches. I realised this was a different line a couple of weeks ago while belaying on the Shelter Stone and seeing parties on an ascent of Afterthought Arête well to the right of where we climbed. I led the route, but it was only Ryan’s second winter climb, so it was a good effort from him.”

The route is such an obvious line that it is surprising it has not been recorded before. New ascents in plain sight such as this make me smile, as it seems incredible that nobody has been there before. John Lyall, who knows the crag well, agrees that there is no record of an ascent, but wonders whether it was not noted before because it is escapable into the gully on the left. This is a real possibility, but there again, folk are climbing routes in leaner conditions nowadays which tends to make lines more distinct. So if anyone has climbed the line before, please get in touch (email or add a comment) so we can set the record straight.

Graham and Ryan have provisionally called their new addition Neverthought Arête and graded it III,4.

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Alex Runciman (1960 – 2019)

Alex Runciman on the exposed final pitch of Number Three Gully Buttress (III) on Ben Nevis. Alex was a keen attendee of the Scottish Mountaineering Club CIC Meets and had climbed many of the classic winter climbs on the mountain. (Photo Grahame Nicoll)

Grahame Nicoll’s atmospheric photograph of Alex Runciman perched above the misty void on Number Three Gully Buttress (III) on Ben Nevis is one of my favourite winter climbing images. It is no coincidence that it was published in both the 1994 SMC Ben Nevis guidebook and Chasing the Ephemeral.

Unfortunately after a short illness, Alex died earlier this month, and Scottish winter climbing lost one of its most enthusiastic devotees. Alex was a joiner by profession, but his lifelong love of the outdoors led him to found a series of outdoor shops in Scotland. The first was the iconic Mountain Man Supplies in his hometown of Perth, which led to further shops in Ullapool, Aviemore and Braemar. The early success of the business was attributed to Alex’s unbounded enthusiasm – it was said that you would go into his shop to buy a pair of socks but inspired by Alex’s passion for the mountains you would leave with a full set of kit!

Alex was a Scottish mountaineer through and through. He completed three rounds of the Munros and climbed many of Scotland’s winter classics. He was particularly fond of climbing on Ben Nevis where his joinery skills were used to fit new windows in the CIC Hut – a major job. Alex also developed a liking for climbing in the Southern Cairngorms and particularly on Beinn a’Bhuird. He added several new routes to Coire an Dubh Lochain and Dividing Buttress, but the only one that is recorded is the first winter ascent of Tearaway (IV,3). For Alex it was all about being in the mountains rather than personal glory.

Grahame Nicoll climbed often with Alex in the 1990s and recalls many great days together. “I remember seeing Alex in the shop one Christmas Eve, conditions were good and he was itching to get out, however being very much a family man with three young daughters we had to wait until Boxing Day. We went to Meagaidh, had the corrie to ourselves, and did North Post. We topped out to see a fantastic sunset and a full moon rising. Alex was ecstatic and there was much whooping as we glissaded off the hill.”

Alex was a generous man and took great interest in the routes Chris Cartwright and I were climbing in the early 2000s. He kitted us out for a remote expedition to Canada, and on another occasion Chris turned up below Ben Cruachan with a cardboard box with a set of brand new ice tools for us each. Alex said he liked what we were doing and wanted to contribute, if only in a small way. But my abiding memories of Alex are his broad smile, bright eyes, and infectious enthusiasm. The Scottish hills are all the less for his passing.

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Heavy Flak on Beinn Eighe

Murdoch Jamieson climbing the third pitch of Heavy Flak (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe’s Eastern Ramparts during the first winter ascent. This spectacular route is one of the most difficult new additions this season. (Photo Uisdean Hawthorn)

Murdoch Jamieson and Uisdean Hawthorn pulled of a notable first winter ascent when they climbed Heavy Flak on Beinn Eighe on February 2. This summer E1 on the Eastern Ramparts was first climbed by Geoff Cohen and Murray Hamilton in July 1978.

“We climbed it in three pitches,” Murdoch told me. “I took the first pitch which ascends the right side of the roof to a little ledge. I think the summer description says traverse in from the right, which would make sense. Under the roof it was icy and dirty, and in summer I suspect it would be rather loose. It was a bit committing to leave this little ledge and gain the crack but I was fine once established. It was just pumpy.

Uisdean took us up the summer 5b pitch. It looked mental from below but this pitch was made for modern hooking with sinker hooks and good thin cracks for mono points. All that said, it was still very pumpy. The top pitch however was probably the crux. An icy wall with some very steep strenuous moves led to a groove.  I’m glad I’m tall as it was a long reach to the ice, but once in the groove the ice was fairly good. It was runout so maybe it felt harder than it should have done given the quality of the ice. Overall, we think the route was harder than Boggle, but probably still in the VIII,8 Grade.

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