The Edge of Profanity – Second Ascent

Dave Brookes making his first attempt on The Edge of Profanity (V,7) Creagan Cha-no in mid November. He returned two weeks later to make the second overall and first clean ascent. (Photo Mark McGinnes)

On November 30, Dave Brookes and Jules Harris put to bed a well-known problem on Creagan Cha-no when they made the first free ascent of The Edge of Profanity. This short, but deceptively steep route, was first climbed early last season.

“A couple of weeks ago, Jules and I were at the southern end of Creagan Cha-no,” Dave told me. “I saw a fine natural line going up the face of a buttress with what appeared to be a wide crack in the top half – I hadn’t got a clue what it was but it did look great, so I had a go at climbing it. Everything went well until the last tricky moves at the top at which point I fell off.  After a few more falls I gave up, but back in the van some quick research revealed it to be The Edge of Profanity, which was still awaiting a clean winter ascent.

Last Saturday Jules and I returned. I managed to climb it clean, ground up, first time – there’s nothing like a good rest between attempts! It was an awesome day to be out in the mountains and the route was a proper workout!”

Saturday was a busy day across the Northern Cairngorms with many teams climbing the classic routes in the Northern Corries. Cha-no was well frequented too, and Roger Webb and I added a new IV,4 on the right flank of Blood Buttress. A Special Sort of Idiot (Roger was referring to me as I made him come down and reclimb the top pitch when he strayed onto an existing route) takes the grooves, wall and arête between Captain Fairweather and the depression of Flood Warning.

Steve Elliot and Graeme Gatherer took good advantage of the perfect day when they made an early repeat of Cherokee Chimney (V,6) on Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach. They were not the only team to take advantage of the excellent mountain travel conditions that day and arrived at the abseil point at the top of Great Gully just before another team of three. Queuing on Braeriach – now that must be a first!

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Dundonnell Face

Roger Webb approaching the headwall during the first ascent of Dundonnell Face (IV,4) on Beinn Alligin. Slioch lies in the background. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The night of November 18/19 was the coldest in the recent cool snap and Neil Wilson, Roger Webb and I were lucky enough to be in Torridon. Next morning the turf was brick hard at sea level so we set our sights on a tempting unclimbed objective on Benn Alligin – the 200m-high triangular face framed by Backfire Ridge and the dramatic cleft of Diamond Fire.

When we arrived below the face it became immediately clear why it was unclimbed. Two blank-looking vertical sandstone bands cut across the cliff with no visible way through and the face was topped by an imposing headwall. We hummed and hawed, looked left and right, and eventually decided that with a bit of faith there may just be a line that wiggled its way through.

As is so often the case with Scottish winter climbing, optimism can take you a long way, and five pitches later we had successfully negotiated the bands and were approaching the headwall. Fortunately the rock was blockier here, and I led a pitch up a hidden slanting groove and then traversed right along a narrow ledge to the centre of the wall where a narrow line of turf led up to its apex. I’d left Roger no option but to climb the turf, but he dispatched it with style to arrive at a large block crowning the top of the face. A traverse across the Horns in the setting sun provided a fitting end to the day.

There was an unashamedly proprietorial reason behind the route name. Throughout the climb we had admired the views east across Torridon and north up the coastline towards An Teallach. Neil and Roger are proud members of the Dundonnell Rescue team that has its base at the foot of An Teallach, so we settled on Dundonnell Face. The route had one or two moves of approaching Tech 6 but in fuller conditions these will become easier, so an overall grade of IV,4 seemed appropriate for a very traditional Scottish winter outing.

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All Go High Up in the West

Garry Campbell climbing the initial steep corner of the third pitch of Aonach Wall (V,6) during an early repeat. This six-pitch line is situated on Raw Egg Buttress which lies high on the west face of Aonach Beag. (Photo Nathan Adam)

Temperatures warmed up during the second half of last week, but on the high crags in the West winter hung on, and some excellent routes were climbed. On Stob Coire an Laoigh, the modern classic Taliballan (V,6) had several ascents together with Centrepoint (VI,7) and early repeats of Cobra Corner (VI,6) and The Wee Grey Man (IV,5). High up on the Ben, Gargoyle Wall (VI,6) has been popular and Iain Ballantyne and Callum Johnson had a good couple of days with Darth Vader (VII,7) and Stringfellow (VI,6)

I was intrigued to receive an email from Nathan Adam, who climbed Aonach Wall (V,6) on Anoach Beag’s Raw Egg Buttress on November 22 with Garry Campbell and Ali Rose. Raw Egg Buttress is another high altitude location that freezes fast, but is not visited often.

Nathan wondered whether Aonach Wall had been repeated. I thought it may have seen a second ascent, but I could find no record when I searched my files. I think Roger Everett and I originally graded it V,7 when we first climbed it in 1988. The two-tier grading system was just being introduced at the time, and perhaps we made it sound overly fierce and put off subsequent ascents (although it soon settled down at V,6 in the 1994 Ben Nevis guidebook).

“We found a peg on the third pitch, and Ali and Garry noticed some tat on the guidebook fifth pitch, so I assume it has been repeated, but reckon it deserves more attention, “ Nathan told me. “We thought the route was worth two stars as the climbing on the last two pitches are great quality, and even those below that are still good sport with steep climbing between easier ground. I’ve found the routes on the West Face of Aonach Beag to be some of the most enjoyable mixed climbing I’ve done. “

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The lines of Berserker (VI,8) – left, and Shapeshifter (VIII,8) – right, on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm. These two excellent mixed routes lie on the buttress to the left of Deerhound Ridge. (Photo Jamie Skelton)

Jamie Skelton and Dave Almond had an excellent two days climbing in Northern Cairngorms last week that resulted in an early repeat of The Snowpimp (VIII,9) in Coire and Lochain and a new route on Lurcher’s Crag. Berserker (VI,8) takes a parallel line to the left of Shapeshifter (VIII,8), last winter’s fine addition to the crag by Steve Perry, Andy Nisbet and Helen Rennard last winter. Jamie takes up the story:

“Back in January I contacted Steve Perry about doing the second ascent of his route Shapeshifter when he told me of a possible line to the left of that route. I had this in mind when I arranged to climb with Dave Almond for a couple days this week. On November 20 we post holed our way in towards Lurcher’s against a Southeasterly blowing into our faces suspecting the cliffs were going to be stripped bare. Visibility was down to 30m so we decided to head into Lochain and leave Lurcher’s for another day. Eventually we were surprised with the sight of a very heavily hoar frost-covered cliff. The Snowpimp was chosen and after a lot of clearing and a bit of huffing and puffing was duly dispatched.

The following day [November 21] we returned to Lurcher’s with better visibility but worse conditions underfoot. After toiling to the base of the route we geared up and Dave took the first pitch up an awkward V-groove. I lead off up the next pitch involving a short slightly overhanging wall followed by corners and cracks. Half way up I decided the rucksack was making it a bit more of a challenge than I had suspected so we changed to big wall tactics establishing a hanging belay between the very spacious ledge systems and threw in a bit of bag hauling for good measure. Dave accepted the challenge of the crack system to the left of the final arête and enjoyed a bit of a fight before joining the final few moves of Shapeshifter. The route offers hard moves with good rests in-between and has good protection throughout.”

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Early Bird

Oonagh Thin on the first ascent Early Bird (III) on The Saddle in Gen Shiel. The very wet autumn has led to unusual amounts of ice for so early in the season across many parts of the Highlands. (Photo James Milton)

James Milton and Oonagh Thin made an exploratory visit to The Saddle in Kintail on November 16. Their enterprise paid off with the first ascent of Early Bird (III), a two-pitch ice route on the North-West Face. James takes up the story:

“Oonagh and I were in the area for EUMC bothy meet. Having driven up in the dark, a vague outline of snow was enough to convince us to brave a long walk in to attempt to find some in condition climbing. We were fairly certain the Forcan Ridge would be climbable and therefore decided to climb it and try find something on the North-West face of The Saddle. The idea to climb on the face came from looking around the area on FATMAP and OS maps whilst procrastinating. A few vague pictures were enough to justify the approach.

The climb up the Forcan Ridge was brilliant and in great condition. Having summited The Saddle at 11am we descended to under the North-West Face to realise it was significantly less steep or featured than we had thought, although there were a few enticing lines. The most obvious was Big Gully (we were unsure whether this has been climbed in winter), but on reaching the base it seemed its high sides had sheltered it from the snow leaving it very bare. [Big Gully had its first winter ascent courtesy of Andy Nisbet and party in February 1994]. Looking around for another line, we came across a large area of ice, most of it discontinuous, but one clear line looked complete and climbable.

I set off on the first pitch following a series of ice steps, each slightly harder than the last, until I reached a much lower angle section. I followed this up to a large ledge below a steeper and more sustained section of ice, and found a much appreciated rock belay. Oonagh set off up the pitch, easily climbing the sustained ice to top out after 15m. It was a fun little route that was definitely worth the approach in conjunction with the Forcan Ridge.”

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Local Hero

Guy Robertson on the first ascent of Local Hero (VIII,9) on Hayfork Wall on An Teallach. The route was named in memory of the great North-West pioneer and activist Martin Moran. (Photo Greg Boswell)

November 18 was a cold and settled day across the Highlands and Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson made best use of the opportunity with an excellent new route on the Hayfork Wall on An Teallach. Local Hero (VIII,9) takes the left-hand corner system on the main wall to the left to the Wailing Wall area. This 90m-high wall is situated at an altitude of 900m, collects snow readily and is often in condition, and is the home of The Forge (X,10), Greg and Guys’ superb addition from last season.

The wall was first breached by Haystack (VI,7 Andy Nisbet and Dave McGimpsey January 2000), but it was Martin Moran who fully recognised the mixed climbing opportunities when he climbed several new routes including the outstanding line of The Wailing Wall (IX,9) with Murdoch Jamieson in December 2010. Tragically Martin was lost in an expedition in the Indian Himalaya last summer.

“The three-pitch route itself was pretty special, but the weather made it even better!” Greg told me. “The line was enjoyable throughout and had good gear on both hard pitches, but despite first impressions, it was very pumpy with lots of sustained climbing up the overhanging groove system, culminating with some funky out there moves through the steep bulge on the third pitch. All this made for the perfect way to start the season and get the juices flowing.

We settled on the pumpy grade of VIII 9 and called the route Local Hero In memory of Martin, as he had brought this magnificent area to our attention and he was in both of our thoughts throughout the day. It felt only right to name the route in his honour.”

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White Walkers

Mark Robson making the first ascent of White Walker (V,6) on Creagan Cha-no. Good riming and helpful ice-free cracks made last Sunday a perfect opportunity to try this attractively featured granite wall . (Photo Simon Richardson)

Mark Robson and I took the easy option on Sunday November 17 and arrived late at the Cairn Gorm Ciste car park in the full knowledge that others would be ahead of us and making a trail to Creagan Cha-no. The cold snowy weather has provided a good start to the season, but the Cairngorms now have almost too much snow. Teams failed to make it into the Northern Corries on Thursday due to deep drifts. Cha-no is a good alternative in these conditions as its approach slopes are often more scoured by northerly winds, but even so, Mark and I were grateful for the well-beaten track to the top of Recovery Gully.

Teams were already at work on Anvil Corner and Chimney Rib when we arrived, but we headed south to Blood Buttress where we climbed the series of square-cut corners between Half Blood and The Blood is Strong. I’d been wanting to climb this line for some time so it was satisfying to find it was worth the wait and provided a worthwhile IV,5.

We then visited Grooved Pinnacle Wall area and climbed the cracked arête between Fox Gully and Ghost. Mark couldn’t resist trundling a huge flake when he was seconding so it had to be called Vandal’s Arête (IV,5). Mark then redeemed himself by leading the superbly featured wall of flakes and cracks to the right of Ghoul. The ice-free cracks swallowed up cams as Mark moved swiftly upwards towards a menacing final offwidth. I thought this would be real stopper, but an unlikely hidden hold kept the grade of White Walker to a reasonable V,6.

To finish off we climbed the groove and corner to the left of Broomstick Buttress. I’d failed on this last season, and thought that with more snow banking it would be a straightforward Grade II. This would certainly be true if the snow was consolidated , but much wallowing below the final corner meant this was probably the most strenuous Grade II that I have ever climbed.

By the time we arrived it was dark so we were grateful for the trail back to the car park. Last on the crag and last to finish – it had been a good day.

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All Go on The Stooee

Dave Kerr approaching the through route on the second known ascent of The Stooee Chimney (IV,7) on Lochnagar. The original climb climbed the outside of the chokestone at IV,7, but taking the more logical through route was thought to be worth a more amenable IV,6. (Photo Erick Baillot)

I was intrigued to find out that Erick Bailot and Dave Kerr climbed The Stooee Chimney on The Stuic on Lochnagar on Sunday November 10. The Stooee Chimney is the obvious central line and was the first route ever attempted on the North-West Face way back in November 1995. Stymied by a huge chokestone, I returned two months later and climbed it with Gordon Scott. I can’t remember if the through route was blocked or not that day, but we found a strenuous way around the outside of the chokestone and graded the route IV,7. I suspect this rating has put off subsequent ascents and I’m pretty sure that Erick and Dave’s ascent is the first repeat.

“We had a grand old day in Coire an Eun,” Erick told me. “Neither of us had ever been before. Being back to the car by 16:00 felt luxurious and I managed to make it back home to eat dinner with my kids after two routes! We started with Morning Has Broken (V,6) and then did The Stooee Chimney which we both found really fun. We went into the through route probably at an easier grade (IV,6?) then on the outside and right as per description. It was too inviting to ignore.

So this season’s count officially opened with two routes we’re happy to give two stars each. We weren’t the only team there – Stuart MacFarlane and Robin Clothier on Saturday [they climbed First Light (IV,5) and Stegosaurus Rib (II)] and an Aberdonian team doing two easier lines further east.”

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Winter Starts

Mark Robson emerging from the cloud during the first ascent of Mixed Blessings (III,5) in Coire nan Clach on Braeriach. The highest Cairngorms cliffs have long approaches but typically provide good early season mixed. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Winter in the Scottish Highlands started in late October when a cold north-westerly deposited a layer of snow on the West. Conditions were typically early season, with the turf not fully frozen, and the best climbing conditions were found in the colder and less snowy Cairngorms with routes climbed in the Northern Corries, Creagan Cha-no and Braeriach.

An unhelpful thaw over the first weekend in November curtailed activity, but there was more snow last week, this time mainly in the East. Teams climbing mid-week in the West reported well frozen turf but little snow, whilst those climbing in the Northern Corries found fresh powder overlying terrain that was not always completely frozen.

Mark Robson and I decided to head into Coire nan Clach on Braeriach on November 8. I’d been in there the previous week and was confident the corrie was high enough to provide good climbing conditions. An unexpected early morning blizzard deposited a couple of inches of low lying snow that nearly put us off committing to the long approach, but fortunately we persevered. Knowing that the weather was forecast to improve through the day we purposely made a late start, and found helpful conditions of frozen turf and powder covered rock whilst making the first ascent of Mixed Blessings (III,5) on the buttress to the left of Schoolmaster’s Gully. As Mark led the steep crux pitch, the cloud base slowly lowered beneath us and we were treated to a spectacular inversion with the cliff bathed in the late afternoon light. Scotland at its best!

We finished by climbing Luxembourg Rib (II) by torchlight, an excellent outing under powder, and then descended by the light of the waxing moon.

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Scottish Winter Climbing Meet – Call For Hosts

Takaaki Nagato from Japan making the first ascent of Sake (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. This difficult three-pitch route, which takes the left side of the wall between Babylon and Winter Chimney, was one of the highlights of the 2012 Scottish Winter Meet. (Photo Simon Frost)

The Scottish Winter Climbing Meet has been a highlight on the international climbing calendar for 20 years and has attracted climbers from across the world eager to experience the unique Scottish winter experience. The meet has been running since 1997 and was last held by the British Mountaineering Council in 2016. Overseas guests will be paired up with experienced UK-based hosts – an excellent formula that has proved to be very successful in the past. In return for sharing their local knowledge and expertise, UK climbers gain a wider perspective by climbing with their (often very accomplished) international visitors. In previous years many hosts and guests have formed strong partnerships that have gone on to make major ascents further afield and in the Greater Ranges.

Invitations to overseas federations for guests to attend the 2020 Scottish Winter Climbing Meet have just been sent out, and applications for hosts are now open:

Host Experience

  • You must be 18 years old or over.
  • You need to be a competent climber with experience of winter climbing in Scotland.
  • Your technical lead grade is less important than the need to be an experienced and competent winter climber with sound navigation skills and the ability to cope safely with all that Scotland can throw at you.
  • You need to be skilled at winter navigation, especially in whiteout conditions.
  • Some guests may have done little or no winter climbing, so it is essential that you feel confident climbing with such partners.
  • You need to be a MS / BMC / MI / AC/ SMC member.

Your Role

  • You will be teamed up with an international guest climber. Your role is to climb together and show them what winter climbing in Scotland is all about.
  • If possible, partnerships will be changed during the week so that you can climb with different people.

Venue & Dates

  • Venue: Start and finish at Aviemore Youth Hostel.
  • Intervening five days will be based at SMC Huts. Every climber will spend at least one night in the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis.
  • Dates: Saturday 22 to Saturday 29 February 2020.
  • Arrival evening: Saturday 22 February (no climbing on this day).
  • Host briefing (it is important that all hosts attend): Saturday 22 February at 8pm.
  • Climbing for six days – Sunday to Friday.
  • Evening celebration event – Aviemore, Friday 28 February.
  • Departure day: Saturday 29 February (no climbing on this day).
  • The event is heavily subsidised by Mountaineering Scotland, BMC, Alpine Club and the SMC.

How To Apply

  • Please read the Host Information Sheet on the Mountaineering Scotland website, complete the Host Application Form and submit by Friday 22 November 2019. 
  • Mountaineering Scotland will contact all applicants by 6 December to let them know the outcome of their application.
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