Lockdown Catch Up

Dave MacLeod on the first winter ascent of Rose Innominate (IX,9) on the West Face of Aonach Dubh in Glen Coe. This pitch climbed more of a seam rather than a crack, with axes resting on dirt rather than hooks – a bold lead. (Photo Helen Rennard)

While Mainland Scotland is in full lockdown, I do not feel it is appropriate to report ongoing winter climbing activity on scottishwinter.com, so I’m using this post to catch up on recent weeks. The extended spell of cold and snowy weather over Christmas and New Year led to a high level of activity across the Highlands. To maintain the record, I have summarised all new ascents (that have been reported to date) climbed up until the January 4. Please continue to send me details of new routes for publication in the SMC Journal.

Northern Highlands: Back in early December, John Higham, Iain Young visited Canisp where they made a winter ascent of North Rib (II/III) the prominent feature tat drops north from the summit shelter. Later in the month, Callum Johnson and Andy MacKinnon visited Barrel Buttress on Quinag on December 28 and came away with the first winter ascent of the summer E2 Beefhart. This excellent VII,7 was described as “well protected, steep with a real out there feeling.” Further South that day, Tim Miller, Jamie Skelton made the first winter ascent of Groovin’ High (VII,8) on the Far East Wall on Beinn Eighe.Excellent cracks and good hooks meant the climbing was enjoyable as it is in summer.

The Cairngorms: On December 24 the Cairngorm ski road was closed due to Covid restrictions, which limited activity in the Northern Cairngorms. Undeterred, Erick Baillot and Dave Kerr approached Lurcher’s Crag on skis on January 4 where they made an ascent Shapeshifter (VIII,8). They reported it to be an excellent climb, but possibly a little over graded and accessible to more climbers than the rating suggests. A month earlier they visited the same area of crag and repeated Rottweiler (VI,7) adding the Mongrel Mutation Finish (V,6). On the South side of the massif, Dan Moore and Martin Stephens found a Direct Variation (V,5) to the central section of Moonshadow on Lochnagar, and in Glen Clova, Dave Slade, James Lamont discovered Get Into The Groove (III,4). This takes the right side of Waterfall Buttress high up on the left side of Winter Corrie.

Central Highlands: The high amounts of snow meant climbing on Ben Nevis was hard work. Ascents were made of the classic ridges, but by far the most popular venue was the Douglas Boulder. Nearby, Huw Scott, Nathan Adam added The Final Fowl (IV,6) on the right wall of West Gully. Nathan was also active in Coire Dearg on Mullach Nan Coirean in the Mamores. At the end of December, he climbed Positive Education (III,4) with Cameron McIlvar, the wide gully just right of the left edge of the crag. He returned three days later to add Triple G (III), the shallow curving gully just left of centre.

Glen Coe: The low freezing level and snowy conditions favoured technical snowed-up rock routes in Glen Coe. On December 28, Greg Boswell, Graham McGrath, Hamish Frost added False Penance (IX,10) on Church Door Buttress. This route takes previously unclimbed terrain up the overhanging groove left of Un Poco Loco. The following day, Dave Macleod and Helen Rennard visited Stob Coire Nam Beith and made the first winter ascent of Tarbh Uisge (IX,8). Three days on January 2 later they visited the West Face of Aonach Dubh with Andy Nelson and made the first winter ascent of Rose Innominate which resulted in a bold and technical IX,9.

Southern Highlands: The ever-tightening travel restrictions prompted many climbers to look for winter venues closer to home which has resulted in some interesting ascents. On January 2, Rosie Rothwell, Joe Barlow climbed Frosty Peat (I/II), the broad buttress 500m south of Arrow Buttress on Meall Nan Tarmachan. Two days later, the same pair added Hexellent (II) and Ba Buttress (III) to the left side of Coire Ban on Meall A’ Choire Leith. On Ben Lomond, Sam Wainwright and Sebastian Wolfrum found Break Dance (IV,5) on the rightmost buttress in the corrie. Finally, on The Upper Tier of The Brack, Ole Kemi, Stuart McFarlane made a fine discovery with End Of The Line (V,7), which takes the wall between Elephant Train and Elephant Gully.

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New Age Raiders

Greg Boswell powering up the first ascent of New Age Raiders (IX,9) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe. The route forces its way through exceptionally steep ground right of The Ninety-Five Theses – another testing IX,9 that takes the prominent overhanging corner left of centre. (Photo Hamish Frost)

On December 22, Greg Boswell and Callum Johnson added New Age Raiders (IX,9) to Bidean Nam Bian in Glen Coe. This superb addition to Church Door Buttress climbs very steep ground to the right of The Ninety-Five Theses (IX,9) before the angle of the crag eases to the right. Greg took the ferociously overhanging first pitch and Callum continued up the steep and icy terrain above.

Callum takes up the story:

“The gothic walls of Church Door Buttress glisten white in the first light of the day. Steep corners and enticing grooves, icicles hanging free overhead A nervous shiver – an intimidating place. A line is chosen; steep cracks, corners and grooves aiming for a roof, and a weakness – a possible way through?

Greg leads the impressively steep first pitch, probing many dead ends but eventually finding a way. Such is the case with on sight new routing. Gear and hooks are well spaced, giving the climbing a committing feel. I follow, cutting loose on the first steep section to swing feet from right to left to twist and reach for the next hook. Steep corners lead to a small ledge below the icicle-draped roof.

I make committing moves to leave the belay and pull into the icy continuation corner. The exposure is superb and with icy cracks the gear is hard won. The angle soon eases and icy ground leads to the summit.”

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Metamorphosis – Complete Summer Line

Central Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis showing the line of Metamorphosis (IX,9) climbed by Tim Miller and Jamie Skelton. The original VIII,9 version of the route via the Cranium Crack is shown in the left. (Topo Tim Miller)

Tim Miller and Jamie Skelton notched up the first new Grade IX of the season when they made the first complete ascent of Metamorphosis on Ben Nevis. This sustained summer E2 was first climbed in winter by Iain Small and Gareth Hughes in March 2009 and graded VIII,9. They took the natural winter start up the deep crack of Cranium (an E1 alternative start to Heidanger) before moving right to join Metamorphosis after its first summer pitch. Climbed on sight, this was an inspirational lead by Iain Small, and years ahead of its time.

Tim and Jamie thought the route was unclimbed in winter when they set off from the valley early on December 7. “Just by chance we met Iain Small and Dave MacLeod when walking up Ben Nevis on Monday, ” Tim explained. “We found out that Iain had climbed Metamorphosis via the Cranium start in 2009 with Gareth Hughes. Not too disheartened we thought we would try the original summer line.

It has a steep start which involved some hand jams followed by a good rest, then a a few steep but positive hooks. After this the route breaks onto a blank slab where all the hooks are very thin and it continues like that into the corner above which is the crux and slightly run out. We then belayed on a big ledge and climbed up the steep flake pitch, as already climbed by Iain and Gareth. Then a shorter easier pitch to the top.

In total we only added an extra pitch of climbing, but it took us a lot of effort over three visits and consumed most of the past week for us. Monday and Tuesday we took turns inching a little higher each time before pinging off and swapping leads until Jamie managed to get us to the top of the pitch with a few falls. We had a rest day on Wednesday and then came back yesterday (December 10). This time we knew where the gear went and where some of the crucial hooks were. After both popping off on a few attempts I miraculously managed to climb the pitch clean to the top. Jamie then made a very impressive on-sight of the second flake pitch.

Despite having limited experience climbing Grade IX, we found it considerably harder than any other winter routes we have tried and we thought it justified the IX,9 grade.“

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Fathomless on Garbh Bheinn

Matt Glenn on the first ascent of Fathomless (VII,7) on the Upper Tier of Garbh Bhein. This is only the second winter route to be climbed on the Upper Tier of the South Wall. (Photo Jamie Skelton)

Jamie Skelton and Matt Glenn continued the winter interest in Garbh Bheinn by making the first ascent of Fathomless (VII,7) On December 3. The route starts up the summer HVS Excalibur before moving right.

“The steep initial pitch was well suited to winter,” Jamie told me. “It was straightforward to protect and had a variety of positive little hooks which helped bring us up to the belay ledge. The next pitch of the summer line traverses a slab to the left above a big roof. We both had a try at this, inching further along, each time on sketchy edges.

Eventually the absence of gear kicked our small brains into gear, and we had a look at other options. In the end we chose to go rightwards off the belay ledge and climb a more obvious and straightforward winter line to the top of the crag just next to the summer route Guenevere.”

Fathomless is only the second winter route to be climbed on the Upper Tier of the South Wall and follows Neil Adams and Alasdair Fulton’s made winter ascent of Sgian Dubh (V,6) in January 2009.

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Quoth the Raven – Nevermore

Iain Small hard at work on the overhanging groove during the first ascent of Nevermore (VIII,8) on Ben Nevis. This much-eyed line lies on Number Five Gully Buttress. Its steepness can be gauged from the hanging icicle up and left of Iain’s head. (Photo Dave MacLeod)

Iain Small and Dave MacLeod succeeded on an outstanding new route on December 7, when they made the first ascent of Nevermore (VIII,8) on Number Five Gully Buttress on the Ben. The great soaring overhanging corner on the right side of the buttress had been eyed up by several teams, but its all-relenting steepness had deterred all attempts. The buttress faces south-east which means it is very much a mid-winter venue, best climbed before the sun rises too high in the sky.

“With the recent north-easterly blast of cold air, Number Five Gully Buttress had a great coating of hoar on it, which is a rare thing,” Iain told me. “The big overhanging wall and corner are often black, receiving plenty of early morning sun later in the season so it was always going to be a good early season target.

Dave started up a wide crack corresponding to the start of Turkish but then took a direct line over a thrutchy roof/block and then an excellent layback flake to gain the bottom of a sloping ledge that led to the corner. (I think Turkish probably  climbs initial crack then steps left up walls to gain a diagonal ramp that then leads to the big sloping ledge).

The big top corner had a well-defined crack for continual torqueing, but the walls offered mostly sloping foot holds. That combination pretty much wore me out for the first day of the season, but it was a great route.

We named the route Nevermore (VIII,8) from the Edgar Allen Poe poem – The Raven. One of that genus did over our sacs as we looked down from the route. It managed to unzip both lid pocket zips and eat my pieces then throw the rest of the contents over the surrounding area. Luckily my car keys were clipped onto a tab. Later we heard Murdo and Blair had the same treatment up by Number Three Gully Buttress. So next time I will be forewarned, although I’m not sure what the solution will be to deter such wily corvids!”

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After Church Arete

Dave Slade on the first ascent of After Church Arete (II) on Little Glas Maol above Caenlochan Glen. Due to limited time the climb was made at night – keen men! (Photo James Lamont)

James Lamont and Dave Slade made an enterprising first ascent last night (December 6) when they climbed the buttress bordering the east side the north face of Little Glas Maol. After Church Arete (II) lies east of the cliff containing The Ramp and Slanting Ramp.

I was intrigued by the night climbing photo James sent me. “Due to work/family commitments Dave and I can often only eek out some climbing time in the evenings,” he explained.  “We’ve done quite a few ‘night-time ascents’. We set off from Glen Shee yesterday at 14:20, back at the car for 19:45. Not a breath of wind and an epic sunset on the walk in. Just need to take lots of batteries!

That’s the reason for the route name by the way – Dave attends church on a Sunday so we couldn’t head off until he’d finished at church!”

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Johnson-Miller Twin Pack

Callum Johnson starting up the second pitch on the first ascent of Never Never Land (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe. The wide crack can just be seen exiting the roof’s left-hand side provided a strenuous crux. (Photo Tim Miller)

On December 4, the day after their ascent of The Flying Fox (VIII,8) on An Teallach, Callum Johnson and Tim Miller visited the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe and climbed a second new route. Never Never Land was graded VIII,8 which makes it two Grade VIII first ascents on consecutive days for the dynamic young duo. Two new Grade VIIIs in two days is a rare feat– a well-known example took place in March 2009 when Andy Turner made the first winter ascent of Sassenach (IX,9)on Ben Nevis followed by Bruised Violet (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe the following day.

“We walked in with tired legs, up and over to have a look at the quartzite tiers on Beinn Eighe,” Callum explained. “We had some ideas but had an open mind to go and climb whatever looked best. A strong north-easterly wind was hitting the crag and made it feel fairly full-on with lots of snow being blown around.

We ended up climbing a new route at the far-right end of Eastern Ramparts, starting between Fairytale Groove and Happy Ever After to the girdle ledge. This first pitch followed a series of good corners. The second pitch climbed the right-hand side of the smooth white wall, via a groove to a roof with a wide crack exiting leftwards, then up the continuation groove and cracked wall. The crux section involved some strenuous stein pulls(!) around a roof with only small edges for crampon points, then an awkward wide crack. Thankfully the positive hooks returned for the upper section of the pitch.

The route was generally fairly typical Beinn Eighe style, steep positive hooking with good gear – we were both shouting about how much fun it is to climb!”

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The Flying Fox

Callum Johnson on the run out first pitch of The Flying Fox (VIII,8). This serious and sustained route climbs the right side of Hayfork Gully Wall on An Teallach. (Photo Marc Langley)

The first significant new route of the season fell to Callum Johnson and Tim Miller on December 3 when they climbed the right side of the Hayfork Gully Wall on An Teallach. The Flying Fox (VIII,8) lies to the right of The Silver Fox after starting up its first pitch.

“The weather was perfect, with not a breath of wind, and superb views,” Callum told me. “I had wanted to climb on this impressive wall after descending Hayfork Gully a couple of years ago. Seeing Greg and Guy’s route last season reminded me of it again. And then, after reading Martin Moran’s comments after the first ascent of The Wailing Wall on scottishwinter.com, I thought it would be a good early season option. Tim was easily convinced.

Conditions weren’t quite as good as I hoped – the snow had not stuck to the steepest sections of the wall, but we found a line that was in winter nick.

I started up The Silver Fox which was very bold! Thin turf hooks and thin feet with potential 8m ground fall. I continued for 25m before breaking right and up a groove towards an obvious left facing corner. Tim then led the vertical corner – steep and well protected but with some tiny footholds, then the technical wall above

I led a third pitch, up a wide steepening groove to below a roof before stepping right and climbing balancey easier angled narrow grooves. We topped out onto the ridge in the fading light – windless, with the stars starting to appear – Scottish winter at its best!”

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Curly’s Arete Second Ascent

Greg Boswell climbing pitch 2 of Curly’s Arete (VIII,8) during the second ascent. This snowed up rock route lies on the front face on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. (Photo Hamish Frost)

Greg Boswell, Callum Johnson and Hamish Frost pulled off a notable repeat on November 25 when they made the second ascent of Curly’s Arete on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. This steep VIII,8 follows the right edge of the great Knuckleduster corner and was first climbed Ian Parnell and Sean Isaac from Canada during the 2007 International Winter Meet. Although it is not a summer rock route, the route style is very much snowed up rock climbing, and was an inspired choice for the thin early winter season conditions we are experiencing just now.

“Yeah it was cool to see this area looking wintry,” Greg told me. “It’s always good to give the Number Three area a sniff when the freezing level is hovering around 900-1300m. We climbed in a three with Callum, Hamish and I swinging leads throughout.

I’d been thinking of climbing this section of wall since I did Tomahawk Crack back in 2012. I messaged Ian Parnell at the time to roughly see what the deal was, and I’ve been keeping it in the back of my mind ever since for an occasion just like this. When the conditions are limited, this wall really holds onto the whiteness and gives some awesome sport. We basically just followed our noses and took the obvious cracks through the original steepness then direct up the face following the right side of the arête. Some thin and involved climbing throughout with adequate but not super easily won gear made for an awesome early season route to get us dialled-in straight off the mark.”

As is so often the case, local knowledge was key to the ascent. “Greg’s superb knowledge of the crag led us to choosing the route,” Callum observed. “Although if he hadn’t already climbed all of the other routes(!) anything on the Sioux Wall face would have been a good option on Wednesday). Snowed-up rock was all it needed, and anything that avoided turf or loose blocks. It was a good route, and as Greg says, we followed our noses up the right-hand side of the arete, linking up some thin discontinuous cracks. There were some delicate thin moves on pitch 2 and then a long third pitch with a bit of everything.”

Making the best of the available conditions, Greg, Callum and Hamish made an ascent of the modern classic Babylon (VII,7) the follow day. This is another route which is suited to snowed up rock conditions. Curly’s Arete was named after New Zealand climber Karen ‘Curly’ McNeill who disappeared on the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker in Alaska in 2006.

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New Winter Season Finally Underway

Roger Webb on the first ascent of Another Pointless Eliminate (III,4) on Creagan Cha-no. The route starts up the wide crack between Mainmast and Cutty Sark. (Photo Gary Kinsey)

It’s been an unusually slow start to the Scottish winter season. Normally by the second half of November winter climbing is in full swing, but temperatures have been higher than usual and the weather very unsettled. Winter routes were climbed on the morning of November 4 in the Northern Corries and Braeriach, and a cold day after overnight snow brought snowed-up rock routes in the Northern Corries into condition on November 19. Early season favourites such as Savage Slit, Fallout Corner, Hidden Chimney, The Message and Pot of Gold were all climbed.

A thaw and cooling brought out more climbers on Sunday November 22. In the snowier West, Gargoyle Wall on Ben Nevis and Golden Oldy on Aonach Mor saw ascents, but those looking for sport in the Northern Corries were generally frustrated by the bare wind-blown crags. Several teams headed for east-facing Creagan Cha-no, which had more chance of holding onto the precious snow as Roger Webb explains.

“Frustrated by the lack of winter (but not as frustrated as those stuck in levels 3 and 4), Gary Kinsey and I went, along with numerous other hopefuls, to Cha-no on Sunday. We were hopeful that snow blown on the westerly winds may well have been deposited there. It had been, but unfortunately a lot had melted straight off. It helps if you know the crag as there are numerous little sheltered north-facing pockets that hold snow and cold better than other areas. Along with another party we headed for one such pocket, the Mainmast Area. Happily it was suitably white although it was necessary to choose rock rather than turf based options.

The others quickly got on to Mainmast while Gary and I, having already done it and Cutty Sark, opted for the central crack-line. This turned out to be an entertaining III,4. It goes straight up to the middle ledge and then in an artificial effort to keep it separate takes the left-hand exit from the wide finishing chimney of Cutty Sark which cuts out right.

The other party, Andy Harrison and Calum Agnew, having rapidly despatched Mainmast, being twice as fit, twice as brave and half our age then repeated our route (which we called Another Pointless Eliminate) in half the time with half the runners and twice the style. A fun day out!”

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