November Cold Snap

Mark Robson celebrating at the top of The Guardian (V,6) in Coire an Lochain on Braeriach after making the second ascent. The lochain below is renowned for its beautiful blue colour and is thought to be the highest loch of comparable size in the country. (Photo Simon Richardson)

After a very warm first half of November, the cold easterlies that set up in the middle of the month were good news for winter climbers. The big decision was whether to go east or west. Going west meant better weather but limited snow, whilst heading east meant the opposite. East was a safer option for snow, but the winds were stronger and visibility poorer.

In the event, most climbers opted to go east and climb in the Northern Cairngorms. In Coire an t-Sneachda the popular early season favourites such as The Message, Fingers Ridge, Hidden Chimney and Pygmy Ridge all saw ascents. Harder routes climbed included Belhaven, Pot of Gold, Smokestack Lightnin’, Watch Out and Wachacha. Across in in Coire an Lochain the ever popular Savage Slit, The Hoarmaster, Hookers Corner and Western Route were all climbed as well as the more testing line of The Vagrant.

Creagan Cha-no proved popular too, with climbers taking advantage of the new SMC mini-guidebook to the cliff. The classic lines of Jenga Buttress, Chimney Rib and Anvil Corner saw ascents, and the awkward looking Mac’s Crack saw an early repeat.

Mark Robson and I headed into Coire an Lochain on Braeriach on November 25 where we repeated The Guardian with a new Alternative Start (IV,4). This avoids the technical and poorly protected crux wall led by Roger Webb on the first ascent, and reduces the grade to an enjoyable V,6.

Across in the West, Tainted Elixir and Dr Noe on Ben Cruachan were climbed, and on Ben Nevis, Dave Almond and Helen Rennard made an early repeat of Hanging Garden (VII,8). This direct finish to Babylon takes the soaring arête directly above the Gargoyle Cracks and was first climbed by Greg Boswell, Jon Frederick and Stuart Lade in February 2017.

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New Mini Guidebook to Creagan Cha-no

Roger Webb on the first ascent of Ghost (IV,7) on the newly named sector Grooved Pinnacle Buttress that lies to the right of Blood Buttress on Creagan Cha-no. This route was one of four new routes added to this part of the cliff during the October cold snap. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Today, the Scottish Mountaineering Club published a mini-guide to the popular and easily accessible Creagan Cha-no on the east side of Cairn Gorm. This is the first guidebook published for the cliff and includes all routes climbed until the start of the current season. Over 65 routes are described with grades ranging from II to VII and illustrated with eleven topos and a map.

The mini-guide can be downloaded as a pdf from the SMC website


The cost is £2.99 and all profits go to the Scottish Mountaineering Trust.

The guide has been has been selling like hot cakes, and within minutes of it coming on sale Alex Riley pointed out a small omission. On January 8 this year he climbed a Left-Hand Finish to Once Were Alpinists (III,6) with Caelan Barnes and Sam Palmer. “Rather than moving right at the overhang I moved left over the rib making a few hard mantelshelf moves up on breaks,” Alex told me. “Obviously the route gets a bit of comedy grade, but it felt much harder and bolder than expected, and moving left as I did it probably weighs in at V,7. It’s not a huge variation, but worth logging due to the quality of the climbing and the exposure… It’s a great finish, I was pretty gripped leading it!”

No doubt there will be a few other routes that have escaped inclusion, and many other new climbs will be climbed this season. So as usual, if you have any news about climbing on the cliff please get in touch so we can maintain the definitive record.

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The Edge of Profanity

Martin Hind following the The Edge of Profanity (V,7) on Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm during the first ascent. Martin has given up with axe torques at this point, and is hand jamming the flared offwidth – note the dangling ice tool by his feet. (Photo Roger Webb)

Finding good early season winter climbing conditions can be a tricky business. The winter weather that started on the night of October 26 came in on strong north-westerlies depositing deep snow on eastern aspects and insulating the turf. The well-known early season cliffs in the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm have a helpful north-west facing aspect, and on October 28 the Mess of Pottage saw ascents of Sharks Fin Soup, Honeypot and The Message. Over in Coire an Lochain, the ever popular Savage Slit and Western Route also saw ascents.

Roger Webb, Martin Hind and I visited Creagan Cha-no on the eastern side of Cairn Gorm on October 28. We soon realized that this east-facing crag was a poor choice. Not only was the turf buried under windblown snow and largely unfrozen, but the cliff was catching the full force of the late autumn sun.

Fortunately I knew of an ‘unclimbed’ line of grooves and cracks on the north-facing right flank of Left Buttress, and sure enough this was in the shade and nicely hoared up too. I say ‘unclimbed’ because below the crux section on the final impending wall we found a wire nut and screwgate karabiner, which we presume had been used for retreat. The climbing was awkward and sustained up to this point, but above, the crack opened up into a flared offwidth. It was only after repeated falls that I managed to stack a couple of large hexes which gave me the confidence to squirm upwards to a tiny patch of exposed frozen turf that enabled a scary top out onto a blank slab. Martin, who is far more naturally gifted climber than I, followed with style and elegance. The falls and ensuing rest point mean that a clean ascent awaits, but The Edge of Profanity (V,7) certainly packed a punch for its short length.

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New Winter Season Kicks Off In Style

Stephan Wrede on the first ascent of Tour de Force (VI,6) on Sgurr Thearlaich on Skye. Unusually heavy October snowfalls brought high snowed-up rock routes into winter condition at several venues across the Highlands. Stephan is from Canada and this was his first experience of mixed climbing. (Photo Mike Lates @skyeguides)

Mike Lates and Stephan Wrede gave the new winter season a flying start on October 28 with a new route on The Cuillin. Tour de Force (VI,6) is situated on the Great Stone Shoot Face on Sgurr Thearlaich. The three-pitch route starts 10m right of BC Buttress and follows a series of corners and grooves guarded by brutal roof on the first pitch. The late October snows have brought several high and exposed cliffs into good winter climbing condition. The trick, as always in very early season, is to choose snowed-up rock routes rather than those that rely on frozen turf.

“It feels like Christmas has come early,” Mike told me. “The first two pitches had very steep cruxes that luckily yielded sinker placements (eventually). A total bonus was climbing in the sun on some properly good ice on the easier-angled third pitch. It was a busy day on the hill and some bold souls even appear to have been going for a fast Traverse wearing microspikes rather than crampons!”

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Jenga KerPlunk Finish

Ross Cowie on the first ascent of the KerPlunk Finish (VII,7) to Jenga on Sail Mhor in the Northern Highlands. This section of the mountain is notoriously loose and a few large blocks we trundled during the making of the route! (Photo Pete Davies)

On March 31, Pete Davies and Ross Cowie climbed Jenga (VI,7) on Sail Mhor in the Beinn Eighe massif and finished up KerPlunk (VII,7), a spectacular exit on the left wall.

The deeply-cut gully of Jenga has an exciting history and was first attempted by Brian Davison and Andy Nisbet in 1996. Unfortunately Brian dislodged a rock, which caused a stack of blocks to fall on top of him resulting in a helicopter rescue. Brian and Andy returned in March 2000 with Dave McGimpsey and Dave Wilkinson to complete the route, which sports an impressively steep finish.

“Jenga gully has a great ambience and its headwall forms an impressive hidden amphitheatre,” Pete told me. “KerPlunk is quite steep, but as it’s possible to bridge and back and foot much of the way, the climbing isn’t too difficult. Good hooks and, for us, very helpful snow ice conditions. There were some loose blocks in places that added an air of seriousness. We trundled the worst offenders when seconding but some suspect rock may remain. Probably one to avoid early season or if things don’t seem fully frozen. All in all, it sounds similar to Jenga in this respect, given Andy’s experience on that line!”

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Catheter Corner

Forrest Templeton leading pitch 1 of Catheter Corner (V,6) on The Scorrie high above Glen Clova. Forrest has led the way with six new routes on this spectacularly positioned crag in recent seasons. (Photo Forrest Templeton Collection)

Forrest Templeton, Kevin Murphy and Matt Smith added an excellent three-pitch mixed route to the north-facing cliffs of The Scorrie in Glen Clova on March 31.

“After yet another beastly easterly, I reckoned it may be worth a punt returning to Clova to have a go at a wee line I had been eyeing up,” Forrest Templeton told me. “So last Saturday, Kevin, Matt and I headed up the Glens. Our objective was high up on the Scorrie so we parked at the car park and followed the Scorrie path. It did seem cold enough and sure enough, as we got higher the snow hardened as did the turf.

Dropping down from the obvious boulder on the ridge we passed below the start of One Man Gastric Band/Scorrie Romp and contoured round the toe of the buttress and belayed below an inset rectangular slab leading up to a capping roofed corner. This was pitch one and was climbed on small turfy protrusions with the occasional torque, crossing a small overlap about half way and a small tree to belay in the obvious corner.

Pitch two constituted the crux and involved a series of underclings on sketchy footholds moving rightwards to reach awkwardly into a turfy groove for axe placements. The corner-groove was followed past another welcoming and more substantial tree over small overlaps to reach the Gastric Band just below an attractive right angled left-facing slabby corner where a commodious and comfortable belay can be arranged.

The third pitch was started on the left side of the slab and followed more turfy protrusions interspersed with some good cracks until a move right into the corner can be made about two-thirds of the way up. Above the difficulties a belay on a large detached block was reached, which lies almost directly between where the Scorrie Romp and One Man Gastric Band converge. From here we followed easier ground to the Scorrie cairn.

Although short, Catheter Corner (V,6) is a good line with a decent amount of quality climbing packed into its short length.”

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More Beinn Chuirn

Sharon Tinsley enjoying Prospectors (IV,4) on Beinn Chuirn during the first ascent. This steep little crag near Ben Lui in the Southern Highlands has provided some excellent mixed climbing this season. (Photo Martin Holland)

Martin Holland revisited Coire na Saobhaidhe on Beinn Chuirn on March 30 with Sharon Tinsley and Ian McIntosh.

“We climbed a couple of what I think are new lines,” Martin told me. “The first (Prospectors) was a very nice Grade IV,4 turf/rock line on the left-hand side of the corrie, which we felt was worthy of a star or two. The second (Gold Star Start) was a short ice line on the lower tier of the right-hand side of the corrie, and would make a good III,4 direct start to the existing route Silver Star (see SMC Journal 2009) in the correct conditions.

It’s worth noting that this corrie is one of those where everything is considerably steeper than it looks from below. We underestimated the standard of the lines we climbed by at least one grade before we got on them, and even the approach slopes are deceptively steep!”

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Gryphon Grooves

Forrest Templeton leading the lower ice gully during the first ascent of Gryphon Grooves (VI,6) on Lochnagar. The combination of recent easterly storms and freeze thaw lead to abnormal ice build up in the gully lines on West Buttress which have normally stripped out by early March. (Photo Simon Richardson)

A key piece of advice in Chasing the Ephemeral is take time to assess conditions at the base of the cliff before you start climbing. The ten minutes you spend at this point can be the most critical point of the day and make all the difference between success and failure.

The conundrum that Forrest Templeton and I faced as we stood below the great North-Eastern Corrie of Lochnagar on March 25 was that it was very hard to determine the conditions on the crag. Almost all the cliff was plastered white, buried beneath deep rime. It was difficult enough to pick out individual lines on the buttresses, let alone decide how climbable they might be. Was there ice beneath all that rime or just bare rock? It was impossible to tell. The north-west facing aspects looked slightly less blutered, so after 30 minutes of pondering we started heading up towards the Shadow buttresses. Soon after I heard Forrest shout from behind me:

“Hey Simon, what are those ice lines up there?”

Forrest was pointing up towards West Buttress, which I had written off as a possibility as it is fully exposed to the sun late in the season. But sure enough, Gargoyle Chimney was fat with ice, and the gully line of Gargoyle Direct to its right, had an enticing thin white ribbon running down it. Now Gargoyle Direct does not climb the gully in its entirety, but follows the buttress to its right in its lower section, so this was too good an opportunity to miss.

We ascended the lower tier by following the first two pitches of Quasimodo, which contained a thin layer of sticky ice and boded well for the climbing above. Forrest made short work of the lower gully finding good placements just where it mattered, and then made a bold set of moves through the icy overhang above. Gargoyle Direct re-joins the gully-line at a wide snow bay this point, but the gully splits just above, and I knew the narrow left branch was unclimbed. I remember looking down it from the neighbouring Bell’s Buttress one stormy day with Chris Cartwright and thinking it would make a good climb.

The problem was the left branch was blocked by an impasse of huge chockstones forming a large roof draped in a spectacular frieze of icicles. Rather hopefully I climbed up underneath them and tried to excavate a way through, but the passage was far too narrow. There was nothing for it but to climb up the outside of the hanging icicle frieze. A short five-metre gully on the right gave access to the base of the icicles where a good crack miraculously appeared in the smooth wall that took a cam and a nut. Courage was in short supply, but the runners provided sufficient encouragement to pull onto the frieze, which promptly began to collapse under my feet. Fortunately the axe placements were good, and some wide bridging and a couple of frantic heaves took me up to some good turf and the top of a rather unlikely-looking pitch.

Forrest made a strong lead of the left branch that narrowed to only 30cm wide at one section and soon we were in the amphitheatre with the Gargoyle winking at us from just below the plateau 30m above. Even though it was over 20 years ago, I can still remember leading the pitch up and right under the Gargoyle when Alastair Robertson and I made the first ascent of Quasimodo, and finding it tough. This time was no different, and it proved to be a battle with icy cracks and huge sheets of rime that occasionally detached and tried to pull me off as they fell through the ropes.

We shook hands on top reflecting that Gryphon Grooves (VI,6) had been an excellent climb – sustained, interesting and somewhat unusual. But best of all, it was completely unexpected and the result of an eleventh hour route choice. The few minutes before you start climbing are precious and can be the most important part of the day!

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Moulin Rouge

The 250m-high subsidiary buttress between Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower and Glover’s Chimney in Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. 1. Pinnacle Buttress Direct (V,5), 2. Moulin Rouge (VI,6), 3. Pinnacle Buttress Right-Hand (IV,4), 4. Glover’s Chimney (III,4). (Photo Simon Richardson)

For me, the beautiful proportions of Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower makes it one of the most alluring features on Ben Nevis. So much so, that I’ve climbed seven routes on its crest and flanks, but in my focus to unravel its secrets I had ignored the subsidiary buttress to its right. This area was first explored by Donald Bennet and R.Tait in November 1957 by a Grade III line that traverses in from Broad Gully a long way left. The buttress was finally climbed in its entirety by Rab Carrington and Brian Hall in March 1976 by a route called Pinnacle Buttress Right-Hand (IV,4). I’m not sure if the route has ever been repeated in its entirety, as the initial start left of the icefall of Glover’s Chimney is extremely steep and rarely forms, although it is possible to avoid this section by coming in from Glover’s itself. The first ascent description is very brief, but it is likely that Rab and Brian finished up the final section of the Western Traverse on the Great Tower.

Robin Clothier and George Armstrong were the first to climb the prominent ice line dividing PBOT and its subsidiary buttress in March 1989. Pinnacle Buttress Direct (V,5) is a very fine climb and sees a number of ascents nowadays, but between the Direct and Right-Hand lie another series of grooves, and these were the focus of Sophie Grace Chappell and I on March 20. The problem is how the gain the grooves as the lower section of the buttress is undercut. As it happens, the lower section of the Pinnacle Buttress Direct icefall divides, and the right-hand branch leads to a hanging terrace cutting across the face. This proved to be the key, and led to excellent and surprisingly independent climbing up the grooves above. After three long pitches we were under the snow slopes leading up to the steep headwall on the western side of the Great Tower.

The beautifully white rimed headwall looked too good to miss, so we started up the initial section of Rotten Chimney, and made the awkward right step of the Western Traverse to gain the hanging corner slicing straight up the centre of the wall. The climbing was steep, but fortunately there was good ice beneath the deep rime. As always there was a trade off however, and protection and belays were difficult to find.

After six long pitches (and a false start walking up to a route in Observatory Gully earlier in the morning), time was getting on. Dusk was falling as we scampered across Tower Gap and headed up the final crest of Tower Ridge to the plateau. In keeping with the nightclub theme on PBOT (Stringfellow and Goodfellas) we called our climb Moulin Rouge. It felt VI,6 on the day, but in less icy conditions it may be a little more friendly. Having said that, any route that tackles the 250m-high west flank of the Great Tower is a meaty undertaking and I suspect that Rab and Brian’s Pinnacle Buttress Right-Hand is a notch intergraded!

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Tempest Corners

Robin Clothier starting up the initial mixed corner of Tempest Corners (VI,6) on Ben Nevis. The route follows the series of grooves to the left of Joyful Chimneys on South Trident Buttress. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The grooves left of Joyful Chimneys on South Trident Buttress on the Ben had fascinated me for years. The problem is that they need ice and by the time this has formed in early March, the morning sun is high in the sky and quickly strips the face. This winter boded well however – it has been a cold snowy season without too much sun – so on March 17 Robin Clothier and I went to have a look.

As anyone who was out climbing last weekend knows only too well, the winds last Saturday were ferocious. When we reached the bottom of the route it was too cold to consult the guidebook so we started up the route from memory. We climbed an ice groove right of a long straight rib, and then continued up a steep set of right-facing corners to reach easier mixed ground above. After two mixed pitches on a ramp overlooking Joyful Chimneys we reached the junction with Pinnacle Arête. The route was four rope lengths to this point and we then moved together up the final 100m of the arête to the plateau.

It was a good climb, worth VI,6 for the second pitch alone, but back in the hut when I checked the guidebooks I realised that we had started up Jimmy Marshall’s original line of Joyful Chimneys and then joined the finishing pitches of The Copenhagen Interpretation higher up. Most folk nowadays miss out the first two pitches of Joyful Chimneys and start from Central Gully (as described in Mike Pescod’s guidebook), so we could have recorded our route as a link between Joyful Chimneys Original Start and The Copenhagen Interpretation finish, but it would have all felt rather unsatisfactory.

New lines on the Ben are precious and need to be treated with respect, so there was no option, but to go back and turn it into a fully independent route. So next morning Robin and I returned to the long straight rib, but this time climbed the mixed groove on its left side from where a hidden traverse led right to the VI,6 corner pitch. Above, instead of following the mixed ramp of The Copenhagen Interpretation, we climbed an inset gully on the left that led through a series of vertical bulges to a broad platform on the upper right side of the second tier of South Trident Buttress. Hanging above was a beautiful right-facing mixed corner, white with hoar frost. This feature looks very steep from the corrie floor, but now we were underneath, it began to look possible. The problem was the wind was still very strong – so strong in fact that the most violent gusts were blowing the rack that was hanging in the belay up the cliff.

But now was our chance, so I headed up into the corner, which soon bulged into a vertical flared offwidth with smooth sidewalls. There was no possibility of any protection but an unlikely cam placement lured me onto the vertical right wall where a series of holds led upwards. It was one of those pitches, that was far easier than it had any right to be, and although completely absorbing it simply flowed. Soon I was belayed at the top of The Clanger and from where a quick traverse onto the upper crest of Pinnacle Arête took us to the plateau and 20 minutes later we were coiling the ropes in the shelter of Number Four Gully.

So all in all, it was a magnificent route and well worth the two-day effort to piece it together. As for a name, Robin suggested Joyless Grooves because of the ordeal with the wind, but Tempest Corners (VI,6) seems a little more appropriate.

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