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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Blackmount Wall

Iain Small approaching the South-East Face of Buachaille Etive Mor above Glen Etive. The prominent right-trending traverse line of The Chasm to Crowberry Traverse can be seen rising from the deep cleft of The Chasm on the left. The new VII,7 addition on North Blackmount Buttress is situated on the furthest right buttress above the traverse line, in a line below and left of the summit. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The heavy snowfall at the end of January fell without any wind and coated the Scottish mountains with a uniform layer of powder snow. This was a boon for skiers, but for classic winter climbing it needed to consolidate a little. Fortunately, the cold was intense, and soon permeated the fluffy light snow and rapidly froze the turf below. This combination of deep snow and frozen conditions created a brief window of opportunity on southerly aspects before the February sun started stripping it all.

On February 1, Iain Small and I were in Glen Coe and attracted to the idea of a winter route on the South-East Face of Buachaille Etive Mor. This myriad of buttresses and gullies is rarely visited in summer, and hardly ever in winter.

We hummed and hawed about exactly what to do and where to climb on the face, but after looking through binoculars Iain spotted a continuous line of white on the north-east flank of North Blackmount Buttress. Fortunately Iain knew the area well (although rather modestly he claimed he didn’t) as he had added a handful of new E4s and E5s on the face in recent summers. Most importantly, Iain knew that The Chasm to Crowberry Traverse, which was first climbed by Glover and Collinson in April 1898 and takes a rising traverse across the face, was the key to reaching our buttress.

Glover and Collinson’s route was one of the first climbs to be recorded on the Buachaille, and following its well-defined line up short gullies and terraces interspersed with short walls was a fulfilling outing in itself. Iain’s hunch that there was a good line on North Blackmount Buttress was correct, and we climbed three excellent sustained pitches with a bold crux through a difficult to protect roof at half-height. The route was sheltered from the sun, and the upper pitch following well-cracked grooves in an exposed position on the upper crest of the buttress was a delight. The party climbing Curved Ridge above and to our right must have wondered what route we were doing.

We coiled our ropes on the flat top of the buttress and then traversed across a snow slope before plunging down through deep powder on the upper part of The Chasm to Crowberry Traverse to regain our steps and the conclusion of a satisfying day.

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Far East Vishnu

Murdoch Jamieson on the first ascent of Shiva on the Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe. This sustained icy mixed route takes the prominent groove to the right of Vishnu. There is no confirmed grade at present but the route is thought to be in the VII,8 to VIII,8 range. (Photo Guy Robertson)

On January 30, Murdoch Jamieson and Guy Robertson added an excellent winter-only line on the Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe. Shiva takes the obvious left-facing corner right of Vishnu.

“Guy had tried it many years ago with Pete Macpherson but they bailed due to bad weather,” Murdoch told me. “We climbed it in two big pitches – 40m and 50m.  Guy’s first pitch follows some ledges, aiming for an obvious V-groove. This provided some cool climbing with thin feet in places and finishes with an awkward move right at a pinnacle.

My pitch follows the obvious corner above. It was very turfy and icy with several steep bulges and a little run out in places. But it had good turf, hooks and ice with a finish up a squeeze chimney.  Maybe we are both biased, but we think this is a great addition to the Far East Wall as it will regularly come into condition. The climbing is proper filthy icy mixed!

I must admit, I feel a bit empty writing this. Andy was straight on my case the minute I was off the hill after a new route wanting all the info.  Its saddens me that I did my usual and let him stew for a bit before I submitted the information. I always enjoyed our chats, and Andy’s knowledge of Beinn Eighe will probably never be matched.

Although Andy was always in contact straight away, Steve invariably made the first contact after I uploaded my photos to ‘Flickr’. We chatted on a regular basis, and I talked with him moments before Guy arrived at my house in Dingwall before our Shiva ascent. I voiced my concerns that I was scared. Guy has a strong reputation for opening up very hard new lines, but I had never climbed with him in winter before so felt some anxiety. After all, I am not Greg Boswell. However, Steve being positive and psyched for everyone, pointed out I was strong and nothing to worry about. I replied that I am p*** weak, but Steve’s response was that he wished he was as p*** weak as me and to get on with it.  Inevitably when I got home that night he was immediately in touch and psyched for me. That was Steve, through and through.”

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Andy Nisbet (1953 – 2019)

Andy Nisbet making the first ascent of Pension Plan (V,7) on Beinn Eighe in March 2007. Andy Nisbet was the most prolific Scottish winter climber in the history of the sport, and his achievements rank with the world’s best. But above all, he will be remembered for touching many people’s lives through the development of mixed climbing and an unfailing commitment to share his deep knowledge of the Scottish mountains. (Photo Dave McGimpsey)

The British climbing community is reeling from news of the deaths of Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry on Ben Hope on February 5. All climbing accidents are tragic, but this one cuts deep to the core of who we are and what we do. Andy Nisbet was the undisputed figurehead for Scottish winter climbing and his sudden passing is almost impossible to comprehend.

This is a difficult piece for me to write. My mind is a mixture of whirling thoughts and emotions and I’m still coming to terms with the immense contribution that Andy made to our sport. He impacted us all, as a pioneer, documenter and faithful friend. It is no exaggeration to say, that without Andy Nisbet, Scottish winter climbing would not have the breadth, vibrance, variety and energy that it has today.

Let me start with my own personal journey. Despite being based in the South of England I became captivated by Scottish winter climbing when I was a student. Our university Club booked the CIC Hut for a week each Easter holiday and I’d been fortunate enough to climb a few of the Grade V classics on the Ben. Rather kindly, the SMC sent us a copy of their Journal, and I can remember very clearly the excitement of pulling the distinctive sky blue-covered volume from its brown envelope one sunny day in the autumn of 1980.

The lead article was by Andy about the first winter ascent of The Link on The Black Pinnacle on Lochnagar with John Anderson. Andy’s writing captivated me – I thought I knew a little bit about Scottish winter climbing, but the intricacies of difficult mixed climbing on one the most challenging cliffs in the Cairngorms was like entering a different world. The technical difficulties were clear (The Link was one of Scotland’s first Grade VIIs), but above all, it was the adventure and pioneering spirit that shone through. I read and re-read that article, and resolved that one day I would climb The Link.

A succession of aborted trips made me realise that to learn the Scottish winter craft, I needed to live closer to the Highlands. This led to a deliberate choice of career that I knew would eventually lead me to Scotland. Ten years after reading Andy’s article, I moved to Aberdeen. Lochnagar was now my local cliff and six years later I climbed The Link with Chris Cartwright. It was the one of my happiest ever climbing days, but more significantly, Andy had set me on a course that was to define my life.

When a complete history of Scottish mountaineering is written, several names will stand head and shoulders above the rest. The great legendary figures of the past such as Raeburn, Marshall, Smith and Patey will be linked with one contemporary climber – Andy Nisbet. Andy’s winter record is without comparison – by the mid 1990s he had made first ascents of over a quarter of the 600 or so routes graded V or over, with a distinct bias towards the higher grades. In total, Andy is thought to have climbed over one thousand new Scottish winter routes. One has to look to the records of Fred Beckey in North America, or Patrick Gabarrou in the Alps to find climbers whose influence has been as long-lasting and profound.

Andy was born in 1953 in Aberdeen. His parents had a keen interest in the hills and took him hillwalking from an early age. In his teenage years he started to collect Munros, and he was given a rope for his eighteenth birthday in order to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A year later he completed his last Munro in the company of fellow school friends Alfie Robertson and Kenny McLean.

In 1971 Andy started studying biochemistry at Aberdeen University. He joined The Lairig Club (AUMC) and began regular rock climbing on the local sea cliffs. The following summer he attended a Glenmore Lodge rock climbing course with Alfie Robertson. The pair were so enthused that they signed up for a winter course in the New Year. Keen to gain some experience before their course, they visited Lochnagar on Christmas Eve and climbed Raeburn’s Gully – their first winter route. The seed had been sown and that winter they climbed on Lochnagar every weekend and by the end of the season they were climbing Grade IV.

The 1974/75 winter was poor, but Andy continued to work his way through the Lochnagar classics including Douglas-Gibson Gully, his first Grade V. He also recorded his first new route, Yoo Hoo Buttress on Broad Cairn Bluffs, a short Grade III buttress climb. The following season Andy and Alfie got really stuck into the winter game making ascents of several Grade Vs such as South Post Direct on Meagaidh and Gargoyle Direct on Lochnagar. The harder routes however, only succumbed after long campaigns, experience that was to stand Andy in good stead later in his career. Eagle Ridge (VI,6) for example, the Lochnagar test-piece of the day, was only climbed during a 12-hour push on their third attempt. Andy told me that they wore their woollen breeches over their waterproofs to get extra adhesion on the icy rock.

In 1977 Andy came of age as a winter climber with the first winter ascent of Dagger on Creagan a’Choire Etchachan, his first Grade V new route. Andy’s breakthrough into the big time came the following December when he made the first winter ascent of Vertigo Wall (VII,7) on Creag an Dubh Loch with Alfie. This intimidating and very steep Patey VS, high on Central Gully Wall, was heralded as one of the last great problems of the time. They only climbed two pitches the first day and spent a miserable 18-hour bivouac on a small ledge at the end of the traverse. They continued next day using several aid points, and finished after midnight just as their torches ran out, and arrived back at the car at 6am next morning.

Vertigo Wall was the hardest mixed route in Scotland at the time,” comments Cairngorms climber and historian Greg Strange. “I doubt if anyone else could have done it in any better style. Andy was already recognised as a very determined and bold winter climber.” Greg’s comments ring true. The big serious Ben Nevis Thin Face routes such as Albatross VII,6 and Pointless VII,6 were not climbed until later that winter, and The Shield Direct VII,7, which in many ways is similar in style and difficulty to Vertigo Wall, was not climbed until 1979.

The winter of 1980 saw a race between rival Edinburgh and Aberdeen teams to pick the major Cairngorm plums. In January, conditions on Creag an Dubh Loch were exceptionally icy. The Edinburgh team of Rab Anderson and Rob Milne were there first, and climbed the long-sought after White Elephant (VII,6) on the Central Slabs. They were later overheard in a pub talking about the exceptional amount of ice on Goliath. Word got back to Andy who climbed the route four days later with Neil Morrison. It didn’t go all Andy’s way that winter however, as later in the season he was beaten to the prestigious first ascent of The Citadel (VII,8) on the Shelter Stone by Murray Hamilton and Kenny Spence, when he crashed his car leaving Aberdeen.

Hard mixed climbing in the early 1980s was a rather different game to now. The crux pitches on the big Shelter Stone routes for example, were originally ascended on powder-covered rock wearing thin gloves. In 1981, Andy began to experiment with mixed climbing techniques on Carn Etchachan above Loch Avon. It was a poor winter with little snow and ice, but the deep cracks of the Northern Cairngorm granite proved ideal for jamming ice axe picks. It was another three years however, before the term ‘torquing’ was coined for this technique. “Colin MacLean made a winter attempt on The Outlands on the Tough-Brown Face with Arthur Paul”, Andy explained, “and he came back raving about laybacking up cracks by torquing their axes. People had used axes in cracks before, but this was the first time it had been done move after move. Colin was so excited that he persuaded me to go up and try Nymph (VII,8) the next weekend.” The route turned out to be an eye-opener, with MacLean leading the crux pitch a 30m vertical corner entirely on torques. The technique had been proven and a whole new spectrum of difficulty was now open.

Nisbet and MacLean formed a formidable partnership during the winter of 1985. In January they visited Glen Coe to try one of the great problems of the day – Unicorn (VIII,8), the classic summer E1 corner-line in Stob Coire nan Lochan. “Climbing in Glen Coe felt like going into bandit country,” Andy told me. “There was a strong rivalry between the Creag Dubh and Etchachan clubs at the time, and when we arrived at the Kings House, Ian Nicolson guessed which route we were going for and said there was no snow on it. We went up anyway, found it covered in hoar frost, and climbed it on our first attempt. On the way home we dived into the Kings House, told Nicolson, and then ran out of the bar before we were lynched!”

Whilst the West Coast climbers gnashed their teeth that one of their best winter lines had been poached by Aberdonians, Nisbet and MacLean were already working at their next project – a winter ascent of The Needle (VIII,8) on the Shelter Stone. “It took two weeks of continuous effort,” Andy recalled. “We worked out the best winter line, waited on weather then climbed the first two pitches as a recce to the winter start. We then sat out more bad weather before climbing the route with a bivouac in mid February.” Even though it was climbed nearly thirty-five years ago, The Needle is still one of the most sought after high standard winter routes in Scotland and has only seen a dozen or so repeats. Back in the mid-1980s it was probably the most difficult mixed climb in the world. No Siesta on the Grandes Jorasses (a similar breakthrough for the Alps at the time) was not climbed until 1986.

Later that year, Andy started working at Glenmore Lodge where he met Andy Cunningham. Although Cunningham was new to high standard mixed climbing, he was quick to learn, and the two Andys formed one of the most effective partnerships in the history of Scottish mountaineering. Over the next three winters they added over 25 outstanding Grade V routes all over the Cairngorms and Northern Highlands. These included Salmon Leap (V,5) on Liathach, the bold Vishnu (VII,6) on the East Wall of Coire Mhic Fhearchair and the demanding Postern Direct (VII,8) on the Shelter Stone.

It was their routes in the Northern Corries however, which were to have a profound influence on the shape of Scottish mixed climbing. Fallout Corner (VI,7) and The Migrant (VI,7) in Coire an Lochain are now both recognised as modern classics, and receive many ascents each winter. Greg Strange doesn’t mince his words in talking about the significance of these routes. “Above all else, Andy should be remembered for his continued pushing for the recognition of technical mixed climbing. In 1981 when he did his first Carn Etchachan routes, people were concerned that they weren’t really winter ascents at all, as they just had a dusting of snow and were climbed on frozen turf. Now of course, it is recognised that these are the ideal conditions to do this type of climbing, and the routes are at their best. Through the development of modern mixed, Andy opened up a new form of climbing.”

Andy’s knowledge of the Scottish mountains became unparalleled, and he was New Routes Editor of the Scottish Mountaineering Journal for nearly 30 years. Along with Allen Fyffe, he authored three editions of the Cairngorms guide, two volumes for the Northern Highlands, compiled the very successful Scottish Rock Climbs and Scottish Winter Climbs volumes, and wrote major sections in several other Scottish guidebooks. “You can always tell an Andy Nisbet contribution,” says Roger Everett, a previous general editor of SMC guides, “because the descriptions are full of cross-references to other routes. This can only stem from a deep knowledge of where the routes go.”

Over the past 25 years, Andy became the most prolific explorer of the Northern and Western Highlands. Working with Martin Moran taking winter climbing courses from a base in Loch Carron in the 1990s provided a superb opportunity for investigating some of the less well-known corners of the Highlands. The transition from chasing the hardest ascents to pure exploration was a natural progression and resulted in hundreds of brilliant new routes with strong partners such as Jonathan Preston, Dave McGimpsey, Sandy Allan and latterly Steve Perry. We climbed together occasionally – I was always struck at how efficiently Andy moved in the mountains. His ice technique was extremely good and his footwork was exceptional. He particularly enjoyed padding up blank slabs.

Andy and I corresponded frequently, checking details about routes and corroborating first ascent details. I would often come home to find three or four messages from Andy in my inbox. He was meticulous, patient and very polite with whoever contacted him, regardless of the route they had climbed. This friendliness extended to the hill where Andy was warm, humorous and always intensely interested in what others were up to.

He was an inspirational President of the SMC from 2010 to 2012 and was awarded the prestigious Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture in 2014. His quiet manner, bushy red beard, unbounded enthusiasm and unfailing optimism became synonymous with Scottish mountaineering. He had hundreds of social media friends, and many people felt they knew him without ever actually meeting. Andy’s influence was universally positive and far reaching.

The loss of Andy Nisbet leaves a gaping hole that will be impossible to fill. It is only in his passing that we realise how much we have lost. He invented the mixed climbing game that we play today and ensured it was accessible to all by accurately sharing information via the Journal and guidebooks. Andy was our leader, our inspiration, and our mentor. Scottish winter climbing will never be quite the same again.

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Steve Perry (1971 – 2019)

Steve Perry below Binnein Shuas in summer 2015. Strong and powerful, Steve Perry seamlessly transitioned from long distance hill walking to rock climbing and winter mountaineering to became one of the most forceful climbers of his generation. (Photo Sophie Grace Chappell)

The terrible accident on Ben Hope on February 5 robbed Scotland of two of its finest climbers. The exact details will never be known, but it seems likely that Steve Perry and Andy Nisbet fell from the upper section of a new route on the West Face. The news has devastated the Scottish climbing community.

I first ‘met’ Steve Perry on Facebook when I was cycling from Lands End to Shetland. I was doing it in a semi-adventurous style, wild camping along the way and never quite sure where I would end up each night. Steve offered helpful and practical advice, and when I enquired about his own experience, he explained that he had not done it on a bike but on foot. His inspiring 32-week journey included all the 3000ft summits in England, Wales and Scotland and made my own little adventure pale into insignificance. A few years later over the 2005-6 winter, Steve made a continuous winter round of the Munros on foot, an incredibly arduous undertaking and the only time this has ever been achieved.

So it was no surprise that when Steve turned his attention to climbing, his strength, fitness, enthusiasm and determination immediately shone through. Steve first appeared on the scene in winter 2013 when he was living in the North Coast village of Bettyhill and persuaded Andy Nisbet to attempt an unclimbed icefall on Ben Hope with his wife Katie. The result was Hopefall (III) and the beginning of the modern development of winter climbing on Ben Hope.

Later Steve moved south to Inverness, and in 2015 formed a strong partnership with Andy Nisbet. They roamed far and wide, climbing dozens of new routes all over the Cairngorms and Northern Highlands, often at a frantic pace. It is difficult to single out individual routes, but the 470m-long Tower Ridge Integral (V,6) on Ben Hope, and Steve’s forceful lead of Theory of Relativity (VII,9) on Lurcher’s Crag were clear highlights. This season, Steve and Andy added Shapeshifter, the first Grade VIII on Lurchers’s Crag in the company of Helen Rennard. Another notable coup was the first ascent of Easan Feidh (VI,6), a 100m frozen waterfall near Ben Klibreck with Sophie Grace Chappell.

Unfortunately, I never climbed with Steve, but we corresponded often, and I was always struck by his immense enthusiasm for both the physical act of climbing and the landscape Scottish mountains. Steve was a man of considerable integrity and held in great regard by all who knew him as this personal tribute from Sophie Grace reveals:

“The first time I met Steve was because I wistfully commented on Facebook that I’d never climbed Ardverikie Wall. Steve’s response—to a comment from someone he’d never even met—was, as always, completely open and completely direct: he just said “Well, let’s go and climb it then.” Next thing I knew, we did, one fabulous summer day in September 2015. Andy came too, and spent the day on a shunt, examining lines next to the Wall for the Guide he was writing at the time. Up we went, slowly (the slab was seepy that day), while Andy yo-yoed back and forth on his shunt, up and down, in and out of sight, waving to us occasionally and shouting inaudible encouragement and course corrections.

Anyone who’s stayed in Steve’s house, in the grounds of Dalcross Castle near Culloden, will know that pretty well everything in his personal life was directed towards becoming a better climber—and he was already a better climber than I’ll ever be. Apart from the packed bookshelves, his place was basically a (very neat and tidy) gym—more fingerboards and weights and pull-up equipment and wobble-boards than you could shake a stick at. The same applied to his food and drink. He was no pie-chips-and-beer merchant, he was a brilliant chef, and it was all scientifically planned to build the right kind of muscle. It’s not often you hear a strong Todmorden accent offering you another pint—of water—or saying “If you’re still hungry, Sophie, I’ve made us a massive salad with loads of avocado and pine-nuts in it.”

Above all, there was Steve’s unending, boyish, infectious enthusiasm for the hills. Just like his main climbing partner Andy, Steve was utterly dedicated to finding wild and fabulous adventures in Scotland’s most astonishing and magical remote places. He always had a million and one plans and dreams on the go; and I too was in his plans and dreams for future adventures, just as he was in mine. He and Andy were actually planning to climb with me this week: I was next trip up after the Ben Hope climb that they never came back from.

Steve Perry and I won’t now fulfil any more dreams together. I’m surely not the only one who is heartbroken about that today.”

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Fives Wall

Iain Small climbing the first pitch of Fives Wall (VII,7) on Ben Nevis during the first winter ascent. This rarely climbed summer route climbs the left side of Number Five Gully Buttress. (Photo Simon Richardson)

When Iain Small suggested we pay a visit to Number Five Gully Buttress on the Ben, I was intrigued. This steep diamond-shaped wall nestled between Number Five Gully and Ledge Route has a south-easterly aspect and rarely holds winter conditions for long, but Iain reasoned with the cold, snowy weather it was worth a look.

The buttress has been largely ignored in winter until recently when Malcolm Bass – Simon Yearsley team (ably assisted by Jim Higgins and Helen Rennard) have made ascents of Free Range and Turkish. Both routes are based on summer lines and look pretty meaty Grade VIIs. The other winter route on the wall is Slanting Slit (VI,6), based on the summer VS line of The Slant. It was first climbed by Mal Duff and S.Greenhaugh in 1994, and like many of Mal’s Nevis routes it looks an inspiring climb and well ahead of its time.

Ben Nevis was very beautiful on January 31, but conditions were far from optimal with deep powdery snow and no underlying base. We waded up to the buttress from the left over Moonlight Gully Buttress and set off up Fives Wall a – Jimmy Marshall summer route from 1953. Intriguingly, this was the first ever route that Marshall (who celebrated his 90th birthday last week) climbed on Nevis.

The first pitch was harder than it looked, and featured a lonely 15m-high unprotected wall that Iain climbed on blobs of centimeter-thick ice. The second pitch was equally testing, with blind cracks, awkward traverses and steep corners leading to the big platform on Ledge Route. We scampered down this as night fell with the splendour of an almost totally white Ben glowing above us in the starlight.

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Skye Twin Pack for Sakano and Bishop

Tom Bishop following the new Direct Start (VI,6) to Frankland’s Gully (V) on Sgurr Sgumain in the Cuillin of Skye. The original start to this rarely climbed route (first ascent by Clive Rowland and party in March 1981) came in from the right. (Photo Masa Sakano)

Masa Sakano and Tom Bishop had two excellent days climbing on Skye at the end of last week, which resulted in the ascent of an unclimbed gully in Coire Scamadal and a new Direct Start to the rarely climbed Franklands’s Gully on Sgurr Sgumain.

Masa takes up the story:

“On Friday February 1, we headed to Coire Scamadal near Old Man of Storr in Isle of Skye,
which hosts many top quality ice and some mixed routes though they rarely come in condition. After four days of deep freeze (which followed three days of big thaw), we thought we might have a chance.

No, we were wrong. Even Scamtastic wasn’t in a leadable state, Grade VI ice routes were definitely out, and the buttress was mostly black, despite eyeball-hammering blizzard in the morning. Instead we climbed the next major gully of Vertigo Gully, 100 metres or so to the right (facing in), and named it Tom’s Gully (III). Though there were plenty of icicles hanging here and there in the gully, the conditions were sub-optimum with loose rock and mostly soft turf except those covered with ice. Basically, turf looked too dry, which is not the word I often use to relate to Skye… If everything was frozen solid, it would be a decent and sustained Grade III snowy mixed route (a bit like Twisting Gully in Stob Coire nan Lochan), with four short vertical sections in two long pitches (roughly 90m in length). Freeze-thaw cycles are needed!

The following day (February 2), we aimed higher to North Buttress of Sgurr Sgumain, wading powdery snow, and did Frankland’s Gully with a new Direct Start, roughly following the P1 (5a) of the summer route Grannie Clark’s Wynd.

I was mightily impressed with the quality of the pitch! 45m of very sustained mixed climbing with two cruxes: an overhanging bulge in the first 15m cracked corner and the 10m-long flake-crack in the upper part. At one stage in the upper crux, I relied on a single side-point of a crampon on a tiny rounded 2mm-edge (though perhaps I just missed to spot an easier move). I guess the Grade is VI,6.

I think Frankland’s Gully is one of those underrated routes (maybe not many repeats?) I found it (combined with Direct Start) is one of the best Scottish mountain mixed routes I have ever done! Any of the following three long pitches after P1 merits Grade V individually with different characters. The meat of P3 is several metres of a burly offwidth crack, where a series of stein pulling works best apparently, as Tom found in seconding (I hadn’t in my lead and had to fight hard). The icing on the cake was the last part of this 300m long route: a narrow gully with through route to suddenly pop out to the ridge, where a rucksack must be taken off at the exit!”

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Boswell Makes Third Ascent of Anubis

Greg Boswell making the coveted third ascent of Anubis (XII,12) on Ben Nevis. First climbed by Dave MacLeod in February 2010, this is only one of two winter routes in Scotland to be graded XII. The moves are thought to be M11 in difficulty. (Photo Hamish Frost)

Big news from the weekend was the third ascent of Anubis (XII,12) on Ben Nevis by Greg Boswell. The first winter ascent of this overhanging summer E8 on The Comb was made by Dave MacLeod in February 2010. It is widely regarded as the most difficult winter route on Ben Nevis, and along with Greg’s route Banana Wall in the Northern Corries, it is the only route in Scotland that merits a Grade XII rating.

The heavy snowfall at the beginning of the week turned Ben Nevis as white as a Christmas cake, and Greg was quick to take the rare opportunity to attempt this severely overhanging line when it was completely frosted. Greg tried the route with Helen Rennard on January 30 and then returned three days later to make his successful ascent with Robbie Phillips on February 2.

“I had gone for the on sight earlier in the week on Wednesday,” Greg told me. “But after taking my time to figure out the hard moves leaving the ground, I fell off mid-way up the steep corner-crack over the bulge. The terrain above me looked super hard and intimidating, so even though I had another go that day, my head and arms weren’t up to the task. I fell just above me previous high point and decided to take my gear out and vowed not to let it get the better of me. A big thanks to Helen Rennard for the belay and support.

Returning on Saturday with Robbie Phillips, I was ready for a fight! I swiftly got to the point I reached on my first attempt, but I nearly blew it when a thin axe placement ripped on the steep ground, shock loading me into one arm. I composed myself again and managed to make some upward progress. After the bulge, the steepness died off a little, but the placements got so bad! I found myself way above my gear, hooking a tiny sloping edge with very poor and unbalanced footholds. This is when I had to have a stern word with myself!

‘If you’re going to get yourself into this situation, you’ll have to deal the f**king consequences!’

I struggled to make any upward moves as there were no ‘usable’ placements to be found. I dropped a sling over a dodgy looking spike of rock and managed to get a couple of other very suspect looking backups placed, all whilst trying not to move my axe pick a mm to either side, through fear of it blowing off.

I now had no choice but to continue. After what felt like an age, I committed to a series of moves that were on some of the poorest holds I’ve ever used, knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to reverse any of them. As one axe ripped, the other happened to stick on a round sloper and I was able to do a ‘big heart in mouth’ cross through to an awkward torque in the baggy crack.

‘Breathe… just breathe,’ I thought.

It wasn’t long before I was below the overhanging corner, but now I was happy. There was another big roof above and still some very technical and hard climbing to do, but eventually I managed to mantle onto the snowy ledge at the top of the pitch and feel the overwhelming sensation of achievement hit me like a train.

Robbie seconded the pitch and then I led the remaining 230m of Grade V and III ground to the plateau, where we sat and watched the most beautiful sunset before descending Number Three Gully.

All in all, it was a perfect day on an outstanding route. I’m psyched to make the third ascent of Anubis and hats off to Dave and Dani for doing it previously.”

Anubis is a route that attracts superlatives. There is no doubt that Dave Macleod’s first winter ascent in February 2010 was visionary in concept and years ahead of its time. The route was repeated by Swiss climber Dani Arnold on his second visit to attempt the climb in March 2016. Although no stranger to Scottish mixed, Arnold is best known for setting speed records on the north faces of the Eiger and the Matterhorn, and his repeat of Anubis is undoubtedly the most difficult Scottish ascent ever achieved by an overseas visitor. Greg’s ascent of Anubis makes him the only climber to have climbed two Scottish Grade XIIs. And finally, Robbie Phillips only started serious winter climbing this season, so seconding such a climb is an achievement in itself. One can only wonder what the next chapter will hold for this extraordinary route.

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A Little Line on Nevis

Simon Watchman leading The Cherry on Top Finish (III,5) to MVG on Number Three Gully Buttress. This two-pitch route was climbed at the beginning of January and offers a useful option when conditions on the mountain are very thin. (Photo Toby Archer)

The title of this post comes from an email that Toby Archer sent to me last week regarding a possible new line on the left wall of Number Three Gully climbed on January 4 when conditions all over the Highlands were extremely lean. “I was climbing on the Ben with my friend Simon Watchman,” Toby wrote. “Our Plan A (following Chasing the Ephemeral of course!) was Number Three Gully Buttress, but conditions were very bare at the base of the buttress and visibility really poor, so we couldn’t see an obvious way to get up the steep rock to the platform where the route starts traversing up and rightwards.

Instead we carried on up Number Three Gully towards the plateau. We went past Gargoyle Wall and Winter Chimney, but not too far beyond them noticed a chimney/thin gully line also on the left. Having dragged all the climbing kit up there, this seemed like a quick target to do some ‘proper climbing’, rather than just continuing to plod up Number Three. I led the chimney-groove in about 50 metres of III,4 to more open slopes not far below the plateau. It would have been possible from there to just climb easy snow onto the top, but Simon climbed a short but fine corner-line in small buttress above. That pitch was about another 15 metres, with the corner itself being fun and well protected climbing at about III,5 although, as I said, completely avoidable!

The only thing in the guidebook around there is El Nino, but that description didn’t fit what we climbed at all. In ‘average conditions’ I’m sure the upper buttress that Simon led may well be hidden by the cornice, and the main pitch that I led is likely to disappear below the snow build up as well, plus I’m sure it has been climbed before so this isn’t a new route claim. But for early season, or after a very big thaw, the line might be worth mentioning as a possible route for those of us who think Gargoyle Wall and its neighbours are rather too intimidating looking! If you or any readers of scottishwinter.com have any idea of what we climbed I’d be very interested!”

Subsequent correspondence with Toby revealed that the first pitch of their line was the same as MVG (III) that was first recorded by Robin Clothier and Andy Forsyth in October 2012. The second pitch may well be new however, and if so, Toby and Simon would like to call it the Cherry on Top Finish (III,5). “The route was the cherry on top of a great day out,” Toby explained. “We had the wonderful cloud inversion on the summit – it was a sweet little route on top of the frosted cake of Number Three Gully Buttress!”

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