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    Dave Almond climbing the first pitch of The Secret (VIII,9) on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. Most photos of The Secret show the spectacular crack cutting through the headwall, but the first pitch provides excellent climbing in its own right. (Photo Graham Dawson)

    Dave Almond climbing the first pitch of The Secret (VIII,9) on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. Most photos of The Secret show the spectacular crack cutting through the headwall, but the first pitch provides excellent climbing in its own right. (Photo Graham Dawson)

    With the late start to the season, high standard ascents have been quite rare so far this winter, so I was delighted to hear that Dave Almond and Graham Dawson made an ascent of The Secret (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis last week. “It’s been a long wait for the season to start,” Dave explained. “So I used the time to its maximum to pack in some extra dry tooling sessions in Wales.”

    “With a reasonably cold forecast a contingent of Scousers from Liverpool headed up with high hopes,” Dave continued. “Saturday I ended up trying to get up a route using every variation but the right one. Defeated I retreated to the valley with all the usual mind games going on in my head. Sunday the weather was disgustingly warm, windy and wet which left me ever more time to ponder. On Monday December 15, despite a nasty forecast, Simon Frost and I had the joy of breaking a new trail in the fresh deep powder up to Stob Coire nan Lochan and were rewarded with a windless, sunny day and a lovely ascent of Inclination (VII,8). I felt soothed.

    Tuesday was another warm, wet and windy day and I took the chance to rest. On Wednesday December 17 I met up with Graham Dawson who had accepted my invite to have a look at The Secret despite it being a few grades harder than his norm. Another trail breaking session ensued giving plenty of time for self-doubt. I had previously climbed the first pitch two years ago but escaped up the Cornucopia finish due to lack of daylight. The Secret looked a fair bit whiter than the last time. Could I protect it?

    There was no time to delay as the walk in had eaten up time, I cracked on and must say that first pitch is really excellent climbing. Graham followed up incredibly fast giving me a little leeway for the second pitch. From the belay, the top pitch looked like an iced up crack line that I doubted would take cams. As I made progress I realised I was correct and it was difficult to get nuts to settle in the flaring verglas. Lots of deep breathing and I made it past the first difficult section to some small ledges that I thought I could get a rest on. Maybe I let my concentration go a second, as I felt quite solid when my right axe ripped and off I went all the way to stop beneath Graham.

    The light was starting to dim and I asked Graham if he was ok for me to have a last go. ‘Yes’ was the answer and off I went with a bit more haste and a lot more speed. The second pitch is good sustained climbing and I topped out on a large block just short of the cornice. Graham followed me up in increasingly poor light and heavy spindrift and continued up over the cornice in to a nasty storm.

    I was absolutely delighted to have been able to climb this route. Thanks to Graham for his patience. Maybe the tooling sessions paid off after all!”

    Steve Perry on the first ascent of Flying Saucer (VI,7) on Stob Ban. The route follows the line of North Ridge Route that is incorrectly marked in the SMC Ben Nevis guidebook. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry on the first ascent of Flying Saucer (VI,7) on Stob Ban. The route follows the line of North Ridge Route that is incorrectly marked in the SMC Ben Nevis guidebook. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry added an excellent new route to Stob Ban in the Mamores on December 16.

    “It’s hard to know where to go at this time of year,” Andy writes. “Actually it’s easy if you have a free choice, but if you’re like me, then it has to be a new route, not too hard and suitably frozen. You could add to my requirements ‘not too long a walk’ also, so this makes it tricky compared to new Grade VIIs or VIIIs many miles from the road, of which there are many. So after a long contemplation and a lucky picture on someone’s blog, which looked like most of the soft snow had melted, I suggested Stob Ban to Steve Perry.

    We set off in the early morning gloom and it wasn’t long before I realised that unlike the Cairngorms, none of the powder high up had melted. So my bright idea turned into wading through soft snow and an expectation that the turf would be insulated. It took about three hours to get to the crag, shortened by Steve helping the old man and carrying both ropes. The best unclimbed line on the South Buttress is a big turfy trough which narrows down into a steepening groove before ending in a gently overhanging smooth wall which never seems to form solid ice. Fortunately the line is shown as being a route in the Ben Nevis guide, which maybe explains its lack of attention. Or maybe the climbing world is full of purists waiting for the magical day when the ice is complete.

    After an arduous wade (for Steve) up the approach slopes, without a hint of anything being frozen, I was really quite surprised to see lots of ice. I shouldn’t have been, since it’s been a wet autumn and cold for a few days, but I was in a pessimistic mood. That was until I dug through soft snow down to the cliff base and reached turf which seemed to take a pull on an axe, although fully frozen would have been an optimistic assessment. But the climb was on!

    The direct line was quite icy but a bit off being climbable (and a long way off being climbable by us), so we started up to the left side. This is the same start as a 2010 route called Tippy Toe, but we soon diverged and gained a turf ledge level with the top of the overhanging wall. It wasn’t a very wide ledge and piled high with soft snow that had a tendency to collapse, causing your heart to miss a beat until you landed on the turf underneath. After about 10m, rope drag and 50m out meant that it was time to belay, although the poorly cracked rock caused some anxiety until an unexpected nut relieved some of it.

    The next pitch would be the crux and really depended on the quality of the ice, which could have been anything from solid to mush. An easy traverse and a solid swing of the axe immediately indicated that this was worth a go. The ice was variable in depth, good enough to climb but it meant you wouldn’t be coming back down, other than as a flying saucer. Which does focus the mind on success. After a couple of steep moves, a step left gave a rest and search for a runner. It was the common dilemma of whether you chip away the ice hoping for a crack or leave it thicker for climbing. But just as I was getting concerned, I tried on the left and there was one. The next section looked like the crux, a balancy ramp with ice blobs followed by a small roof and white above, which could either be a blank slab or nice turf.

    I’m not actually sure what it was, but it took axes and was over quickly once you committed yourself. The continuation was a mixture of good placements and soft ones, but progress was made as long as you didn’t pull too hard, and finally the base of the trough was reached. The trough was better frozen and more enjoyable, followed by a long pitch up the summit crest and moving together to the cairn. Steve could tick this one on his third round, whereas I was in my usual hurry to carry on down ahead of imminent mist and darkness.

    South Gully gave a brilliant long bum slide back to the sacks, a bite to eat and then more sliding. The name had to be Flying Saucer and the grade felt like VI,5. It might drop a grade in better conditions, but actually the conditions were OK.”

    Iain Young making the first ascent of Boustie Buttress (III,4) in Corrie of Clova in the Angus Glens. (Photo John Higham)

    Iain Young making the first ascent of Boustie Buttress (III,4) in Corrie of Clova in the Angus Glens. The mid-December cold blast even brought relatively low-lying routes in Glen Clova into winter condition.(Photo John Higham)

    “Whilst not quite in the same league as Boggle or Culloden,” Iain Young writes, “John Higham and I enjoyed a fine (civilised, sunny and short) day out in Clova on Saturday December 13.

    With all ways west and north-west out of Aboyne apparently suffering from closed snow gates, and thinking Lochnagar or Beinn a’Bhuird would be very hard work, we decided to try Corrie Brandy. However on the way in we changed our minds and headed into the Corrie of Clova to climb one of the two attractive ribs catching the morning sun. Three short pitches, with the crux a surprisingly steep, (well frozen) turf-filled groove cutting through the final tower – Boustie Buttress (III,4).

    John of course at some stage remembered he had actually been in there 15 years before and soloed the rib to the right…  Home in time for a cold beer and an early meal. The Angus Glens are surprisingly varied.”

    Guy Robertson climbing the crucial second pitch of Culloden (IX,9) on Creag an Dubh Loch during the second winter ascent. This sensational mixed route was one of the first Grade IX routes in Scotland to receive an on sight first winter ascent. (Photo Greg Boswell)

    Guy Robertson climbing the crucial second pitch of Culloden (IX,9) on Creag an Dubh Loch during the second winter ascent. This sensational mixed route was one of the first Grade IX routes in Scotland to receive an on sight first winter ascent. (Photo Greg Boswell)

    On Saturday December 13, Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell pulled off the second ascent of Culloden (IX,9) on Creag an Dubh Loch’s formidable Broad Terrace Wall. This exceptionally steep summer E2 was first climbed in winter by the top trio of Iain Small, Gordon Lennox and Tony Stone in December 2010.

    “We swithered a bit over route choice but in the end Culloden seemed sensible,” Guy told me. “Firstly because it’s such a great line which came highly recommended by three of the country’s best winter climbers, and secondly because it only has three pitches and we might just be able to get up it in daylight! Every pitch provided superb climbing – the first very long and sustained but not too difficult, the second shorter but very strenuous and aggressive, and the third a steep, complex and very committing finale. Overall, solid at grade IX was our consensus. The icicle was there for the technical crux getting into the groove on pitch two, and although Greg knocked this off the remaining ice was useful nonetheless. Like all the most memorable days our ascent wasn’t without incident – on the third pitch, in a rather ‘strung out’ predicament I managed to get my axe firmly jammed in the only good placement for pick or protection. After some protracted and very precarious but wholly ineffective wriggling and jiggling to try and get it out I gave up, clipped it as a decent runner and lowered a loop of rope down to Greg to get a loan of one of his axes. The vicious bulge and fist crack above were then duly dispatched just in time to catch the last rays of a dying day…”

    I was intrigued as to how Guy and Greg came to make the inspired choice of Creag an Dubh Loch for their first route of the season. After all, Dubh Loch is normally thought of a cliff that takes a long period of cold weather to come into condition.

    “Our main reason for going to the Dubh Loch was simply that it’s the best crag in Britain!” Guy joked. “Seriously though, there are lots of different options and styles there, and it rarely disappoints. It’s been a very wet couple of months in the east so the chances of ice were quite favourable; the low altitude meant that deep snow (at least on the crag) should be less of a concern; and the forecast was better for this side of the country with a warm front moving in late in the day. Broad Terrace Wall is also exceptionally steep so the turf more likely to be exposed and well frozen. As it turned out it was a great choice with a very snowy and icy (though not rimed) cliff and an approach that wasn’t too strenuous despite still taking about four hours in all. A night in the bothy helps to break up the approach though.”

    Roger Webb climbing the headwall on the North-West Buttress (IV,4) of Beinn a’Mhuinidh. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb climbing the headwall on the North-West Buttress (IV,4) of Beinn a’Mhuinidh. This is probably the first route to be climbed on the summit cliff of the mountain. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    On Saturday December 13 Roger Webb and I decided to gamble on the summit cliff of Beinn a’Mhuinidh in the Northern Highlands. We had stared at this NW-facing crag whilst descending Slioch on several occasions, and as far as we knew, nobody had ever visited it before. With a cliff base at 550m it is low-lying, but we were counting on it being blasted free of snow and fully frozen.

    Our optimism was misplaced because as we approached the foot of the face through a snow storm the ground was still soft under our feet, and the cliff covered in snow and not as steep as we had hoped. Prospects looked bleak, so whilst Roger sorted the gear, I headed right to look at a steeper looking buttress that was just visible a long way to the right. From underneath I could see that it reared up into a steep headwall. This was excellent news as there would be little reliance on turf, but there was no obvious line and it looked extremely difficult. As I walked back to Roger, I looked back, and through the blowing snow there was a hint of a right-trending diagonal weakness. So perhaps there was a way?

    We climbed easy snow and ice up the lower half of the buttress to reach the foot of the headwall. The rock was worryingly compact, there was no belay and failure looked increasingly likely. But sure enough,  a hidden gash cut deep into the crag, so I stamped out a platform in the snow and Roger set off up the gash that soon reared up into a steep chimney. Hopeful looking spikes turned out to be rounded and useless, so Roger continued up as we were blinded by yet another snowstorm. On the plus side, the turf was frozen.

    But you should never give up when Scottish winter climbing. When the chimney tightened and steepened, Roger found a crucial cam placement that gave him the confidence to commit to the squeeze section above. After a brief struggle he moved up to a good ledge on the blunt crest of the buttress. When I came up I was concerned about the blank-looking wall above, but miraculously the rock changed at this point from completely unhelpful to cracked and featured. It had stopped snowing too. An excellent pitch linking grooves up the headwall led to easier ground, where Roger bounded along the final easy ridge to the top. All that was left to do was to bag the summit and then descend the long south-easterly slopes back to Incheril.

    Martin climbing the second pitch of Boggle (VIII,8) on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe during the first winter ascent. (Photo Robin Thomas)

    Martin Moran climbing the second pitch of Boggle (VIII,8) on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe during the first winter ascent. (Photo Robin Thomas)

    Last week’s ferocious storms relented on Saturday December 13 providing a well-timed weather window before a quick thaw on Sunday. The fast onset of winter made venue choice tricky, as lying snow had insulated unfrozen turf, and there were deep drifts on some of the approaches. The solution was to go where the wind had scoured the hillside, and where the crags faced into the wind so the exposed vegetation was frozen. The Northern Corries fitted the bill as they were windblown, and provided good mixed climbing conditions. Ben Nevis on the other hand was not so good as it had collected large amounts of snow and most climbing was restricted to the lower lying cliffs such as the Douglas Boulder.

    An excellent choice was Beinn Eighe where Martin Moran and Robin Thomas took full advantage of the wintry conditions. “After several years of eyeing the line, I finally got on Boggle on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe on Saturday,” Martin told me. “It was worth the wait and a special thrill to climb a Robin Smith route in winter.”

    Boggle (E1) was first climbed by Robin Smith and Andy Wightman in October 1961 and was unrepeated for over 40 years. “Boggle is one of the mystical routes pioneered in summer by the late Robin Smith in his brief but mercurial career,” Martin explains on his blog. “The route climbs the central portion of the Eastern Ramparts on East Buttress. His description was as enigmatic as it was vague. He said, ‘Climb by cracks, grooves, flakes, corners, hand traverses and mantleshelves away up and right on the crest of the pillar.’ Since 1961 it probably remained unrepeated until Andy Nisbet climbed it 10 years ago, found the features and confirmed a modern grade of E1, 5b. Boggle remained one of the few E1’s on the mountain that had not received a winter ascent.”

    Martin and Robin graded their winter ascent of Boggle VIII,8, and described it as “a monolithic and super-sustained winter line with pitch grades of 8, 8 and 7.”

    Although the season has barely started, the first winter ascent of Boggle will almost certainly be a contender for one of the stand out ascents of the winter.

    Ally Swinton looking up the line of Punching Numbers (VI,7) on Creagan Cha-no. Mac’s Crack (VI,7) is the obvious deep crack on the left. (Photo Gav Swinton)

    Ally Swinton looking up the line of Punching Numbers (VI,7) on Creagan Cha-no. Mac’s Crack (VI,7) is the prominent deep cleft on the left. (Photo Gav Swinton)

    Ally Swinton visited Creagan Cha-no with his Dad, Gav Swinton, on December 5. Walking under the cliff, Ally noticed that the steep intermittent crack-line to the right of Mac’s Crack in the Tower Area wasn’t on his topo, so he decided to give it a go. Ally started up the obvious groove (common with Mathers-Mellergard) before continuing up the corner and roof line with a wild final sequence. It had “good gear and pumpy moves”, Ally told me. “The route really packed a punch. I found an amazing Stein pull in the crux section that gave the route some real character.”

    Ally and Gav called their new line Punching Numbers. The Mac’s Crack wall is steeper than it looks from below and I’m sure this new addition fully deserves its VI,7 rating.

    Kev Shields climbing the IV,5 mixed version of The Gift on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. North Gully lies just to the left. (Photo Steve Holmes)

    Kev Shields climbing the IV,5 mixed version of The Gift on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. North Gully lies just to the left. (Photo Steve Holmes)

    On December 5, Kev Shields and Steve Holmes made an enterprising ascent of the mixed ground just right of North Gully on Ben Nevis. “It was pretty sketchy on slabby terrain for two pitches then easier wandering,” Kev told me. It was great fun, and we reckoned it was top end IV,5.”

    It turned out that this is the line followed by the Gift, a III,4 ice climb that sometimes comes into condition late in the season. Kev and Steve have no wish to claim a new route, however their outing clearly provided a very different climbing experience to the ice version of The Gift.

    In the past, ascents such as this were considered similar to routes that bank out in a heavy winter, and dismissed as little more than curiosities. Times and attitudes change however, and with leaner winters and the rarity of some routes forming ice, we may see more early season ascents like this in the future. And why not? Good climbing is good climbing, and especially so when the route follows a logical line.

    Andy Inglis on the second pitch of Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. The second pitch continues up the narrow crack at the top of the picture in line with Andy’s helmet. (Photo Will Sim)

    Andy Inglis on the second pitch of Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. The third pitch continues up the narrow crack at the top of the picture in line with Andy’s helmet. (Photo Will Sim)

    Will Sim and Andy Inglis enjoyed an excellent two days on the Ben at the beginning of this week. On Sunday December 6 they made an ascent of Sidewinder (VII,7) on South Trident Buttress. This route has become popular in recent seasons and is good early in the winter as it is a pure snowed-up rock route. Their ascent was particularly impressive as Sunday was a wild and stormy day on the West, especially high up on Ben Nevis.

    The main event took place on the following day (December 7) when Will and Andy made the second ascent of Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9). This futuristic-looking line to the right of Sioux Wall on Number Three Gully Buttress was first climbed by Greg Boswell and Adam Russell in November last season.

    “It’s a mega route and has the hallmarks of a future classic,” Will told me “Two hard pitches, the first thin, techy and run out and the second steep and pumpy – brilliant! A great find by Greg.”

    Elsewhere on the Ben, activity has been slowly picking up with routes climbed lower down on the mountain such as Jacknife, The Great Chimney and the South-West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder – all sensible choices in the current wild and windy weather.

    Roger Everett on the first ascent of Rumbling Ridge (III,4) on Braeriach. Rocky ridges make good early season routes as their relatively low angle means they collect snow and they do not rely on frozen turf. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Everett on the first ascent of Rumbling Ridge (III,4) on Braeriach. Rocky ridges make good early season routes as their relatively low angle means they collect snow and they do not rely on frozen turf. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    After a very warm November, the winter season season finally got underway in the first week of December as westerly winds brought snow to the higher tops. As usual, The Northern Corries were the most popular venue and there were ascents of The Message, Pot of Gold, Hidden Chimney and Invernookie in Coire an t-Sneachda, and over in Coire an Lochain, Savage Slit and Ewen Buttress also saw ascents.

    Over on Skye, Mike Lates, Jamie Bankhead and Iain Murray made an ascent of BC Buttress on Sgurr Thearlaich. This relatively high altitude crag overlooking the Great Stone Shoot comes into condition very fast, and the trio found an alternative start which brought the grade down from IV,5 to IV,4.

    Finally on December 5, Roger Everett and I added to our collection of obscure routes on the north side of Braeriach with the first ascent of the three-pitch Rumbling Ridge (III,4). This provided a good early season excursion to blow away the autumn cobwebs. The name refers to the rickety second pitch, which is a lot more solid after Roger trundled a series of stacked blocks.

    With storms and blizzards forecast for the next few days, it looks like winter has now well and truly arrived!