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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Book Review – Crazy Sorrow

Crazy Sorrow edited by Grant Farquhar describes the life of Alan and Mullin, one of the most influential Scottish winter climbers of all time. The cover shows a Heinz Zak photo showing Alan Mullin climbing at Rudolfshutte in Austria. The book was published by Atlantis Publishing in August and is available from Amazon.

Crazy Sorrow is a significant book. It documents the life of Alan Mullin who stands alongside Raeburn, Patey, Smith and Nisbet as one of great innovators of Scottish winter climbing. Grant Farquhar should be congratulated for not only describing the life story of this important pioneer, but also for capturing the spirit of a key period in Scottish climbing history.

Alan Mullin made an unconventional entry into the world of climbing. He joined the army at the age of 16, and spent eight years in active service before he retired due to an injured back. Without the constraint of a full time job, he was able to turn his considerable energy to Scottish winter climbing. After experimenting with some of the easier routes in the Northern Corries, he was leading difficult Grade VI within 12 months. He formed a strong partnership with Steve Paget, and in October 1998 (Alan’s third season), they made the second winter ascent of The Needle (VIII,8) on the Shelter Stone.

The following year Mullin and Paget upped their game a notch further and returned to the Shelter Stone to make the first winter ascent of The Steeple (IX,9) with the Dusk till Dawn Variation. The route was climbed in a single 24-hour push by climbing continuously through the night. Two weeks later, Mullin was in the headlines again with the first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder, an E1 rock climb on the Tough-Brown Face of Lochnagar. This was the first (and only) time a new Grade VIII had ever been soloed. It stunned the climbing world, not least because no other party made it into the corrie that day as the weather was so bad. Niall Ritchie’s long distance shot of Alan climbing the route with avalanches crashing down either side (reproduced in the book), remains one of the most iconic winter climbing photos ever taken.

The impact of these routes on the Scottish winter climbing scene was electric. It normally takes years of experience to acquire the spectrum of skills necessary to climb high standard winter routes, so how could a relative newcomer operate at the highest standards of the day? The answer partly lay in Alan’s rigorous training regime, but mainly in the total focus and unswerving determination he applied to his routes. As someone new to the Scottish winter game, Alan was unencumbered by the weight of history, and almost unknowingly smashed his way through psychological barriers. Many other climbers realised that they could also increase their performance, and over a couple of seasons in the late 1990s, average standards rose a full grade. No longer were Grade VIIs the province of the elite, but they were accessible by weekend climbers too.

Despite the inspiration Alan provided, he had an uneasy relationship with the climbing community. He claimed to respect no other climber’s achievements, but in effect, he deeply craved recognition by his peers. At first this was forthcoming, but eventually it became increasingly withheld as it was realised that the majority of his ascents were flawed. Several of his routes were climbed when not fully in condition, and others used a point or two of aid. Whilst Alan was always honest about the manner of his climbs, his enthusiasm to describe the intensity of his experience meant that he sometimes forgot to immediately relate all the details.

Alan was on a quest to find a Scottish climb that was comparable in technical difficulty to the hardest bolt protected climbs elsewhere. In November 2002 he fulfilled his dream when he made the first winter ascent of Crazy Sorrow, a difficult E3 6a on the Tough-Brown Face of Lochnagar with Steve Lynch. The route goes through a huge roof on the second pitch with scant protection. Alan graded it X,11 and suggested it was a contender for the hardest traditional mixed climb in the world. Unfortunately the gloss was taken off this remarkable lead by allegations that he had inspected the route beforehand, and climbed it when it was out of condition. Once the photos were published it was clear that the route was in bona fide winter condition, but once again Alan’s impatience had got the better of him and he had abseiled off after the crux pitch and failed to complete the route.

Frozen Sorrow was the last of Alan’s great climbs, and he announced his retirement soon after. He was clearly disenchanted with the climbing world for not recognising his achievements on his terms, but his body was also taking the toll from his intense training regime, and he was living with a series of chronic injuries. Alan found it impossible to control the demons that had driven him so hard during his short but remarkable climbing career, and tragically, he took his own life in March 2007.

Grant Farquhar has made an important contribution to Scottish mountain history by pulling together this account of Alan Mullin’s all too short and turbulent life. Crazy Sorrow is based on Alan’s writings, contemporary accounts by other climbers and more recent interviews. Grant skilfully adds colour to the climbing narrative with accounts of Alan’s tough upbringing and brutal time in the army that sets the context for Alan’s later climbing career. Grant is a professional psychologist and is well placed to explain the internal conflicts that Alan faced at the end of his life.

Crazy Sorrow is not a comfortable read, but it documents a vibrant and important phase of Scottish climbing. The tragedy of the Alan Mullin story is that Alan never recognised his profound influence on the climbing world. If he had, his life may not have been so troubled, and perhaps he would still be with us today.

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Book Review – The Big Rounds

The Big Rounds by David Lintern describes running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. The book was published by Cicerone in August and retails at £18.95.

There is a strong cross over between mountain running and winter mountaineering. Both are endurance sports that demand a high level of fitness and no small amount of focus and determination. Many winter climbers run to keep fit and enjoy the exhilaration of moving fast and light over mountain terrain. Indeed, Wendy Dodds, the first person to complete the Paddy Buckley Round and one of the runners profiled in the book, describes herself ‘more than a mountaineer than a runner’.

David Lintern’s innovative book about running and walking the Big Rounds – the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay – will appeal to many hill goers. All three rounds involve just over 8000m ascent. The Bob Graham is the most well known and traverses much of the high ground in the Lake District over 61 miles. The Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay rounds are located in Snowdonia and the Western Highlands and are 62 and 57 miles long. The rounds are described in increasing difficulty with the Bob Graham first, followed by the Buckley and finally the Ramsay. Even though it five miles shorter and less technically challenging, the Ramsay edges the Buckley as the most difficult because it is more remote, has poorer weather and is harder to reconnoitre.

What particularly attracted me to this book is that it puts as much emphasis on walking these great rounds as running them. Sure they may involve two or three overnight camps, but they set significant challenges for hill walkers. After a detailed introduction, David describes each round in turn with a detailed route guide, followed by a section on practicalities, history and then a personal runner’s story.

This strong emphasis on people is followed up by nine interviews with ‘People of the Rounds’ from Nicky Spinks to Charlie Ramsay himself. The interviews include quotes such a ‘Big fun hill days – it’s as simple as that’ and ‘You don’t need to be super-human’ that will no doubt provide inspiration for us mere mortals to get off the couch and attempt one of these great expeditions, whether wearing walking boots or running shoes.

I enjoyed studying The Big Rounds. The 192-page book is beautifully produced in A5 format and illustrated with inspiring photos and the all-important maps showing each round are especially clear. Unfortunately my hill running days are well behind me, but walking one of these rounds is now firmly on the To Do List!

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Scottish International Winter Meet 2020

Canadian climber Jon Walsh making the first ascent of Making the Cut (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe’s Central Buttress during the 2014 Scottish International Winter Meet. This sensational climb takes the soaring crack-line left of West Central Gully. (Photo Greg Boswell)

Fantastic news – the winter meet is back!

Today, Mountaineering Scotland announced that they will be hosting the 2020 International Scottish Winter Meet.

The meet has been running since 1997 and was last held by the British Mountaineering Council in 2016. The event has attracted climbers from all over the world eager to experience the unique Scottish winter experience. Overseas guests will paired up with experienced UK-based hosts – an excellent tried and tested formula that has proved to be very successful. In return for sharing their local knowledge and expertise, UK climbers gain a wider perspective by climbing with their (sometimes very accomplished) international visitors. In previous years several hosts and guests have formed strong partnerships that have gone on to make major ascents further afield and in the Greater Ranges. This is not an elitist event however, and will be open to a cross-section of climbers and abilities.

Starting in Aviemore on Saturday February 22, the week-long event is a result of close partnership with the British Mountaineering Council, the Alpine Club and the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and will be part of a programme of events and activities in 2020 to celebrate 50 years of Mountaineering Scotland.

The format will be different to previous years. Instead of being based in a single location, climbers will rotate between huts, and all participants will spend at least one night in the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis. The event will finish with a celebration event in Aviemore on Friday February 29 that will be open to the wider Scottish winter climbing community.

How to become involved, either as a host or by offering support, will be communicated by Mountaineering Scotland in October.

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Book Review – The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains

The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains by Tom Prentice provides descriptions for the Cuillin Ridge and 100 select routes for climbers and hillwalkers. The cover shows Am Basteir and Sgurr a’ Fionn Choire. The book was published by Mica Publishing in May.

For climbers and mountaineers, the Island of Skye is one of the most sought after destinations in the British Isles. Opportunities for adventure amongst the mountains, sea cliffs and sea stacks abound, but there is no question that the Cuillin peaks are the main attraction. In summer, the traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is one of the most celebrated mountaineering undertakings in the country, and in winter it is a world-class outing.

So it is no surprise that The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains, a new large A5 format guidebook by Tom Prentice, initially focuses on how to succeed on this great challenge. Tom does this by outlining the intricacies of the Ridge with a detailed summit-by-summit description illustrated with 23 photo diagrams. There is no doubt, that this is the most detailed description of the Cuillin Ridge ever published, and will be a boon for summer visitors intent on traversing the Ridge, or making reconnaissance trips prior to a successful traverse, whether it be for summer or winter.

Tom has devoted four pages to Ridge planning and tactics. He acknowledges that one-day traverses are frequent, but suggests that for many climbers, a two-day traverse with prior knowledge from previous visits is the surest recipe for success. On sight traverses of the Ridge in summer are still rare, and likewise, few winter traverses of the Ridge occur without prior knowledge in summer.

It would be a mistake to think this book is just about traversing the Cuillin Ridge however. Tom goes onto describe ascents and rounds of peaks throughout Skye (such as the Trotternish Ridge and the mountains of Kylerhea on the east side of the island) as well as the Cuillin. Many of the itineraries are well-known, such as Pinnacle Ridge on Gillean or the round of Coire Lagan, but others are less frequented such as the North Ridge of Sgurr na h-Uamha at the northern end of the range. As Tom notes “Some guidebooks suggest Sgurr na h-Uamha as a potential consolation prize after failing on Sgurr nan Gillean’s South-East Ridge. Be warned – anyone expecting an ‘easier day out’ will get a very nasty shock.” He goes onto to recommend the route should only be attempted in dry condition and many will require the security of a rope.

This first hand detailed experience underpins the quality of information in the book. Tom has spent successive summers on Skye checking all the routes, and taking hundreds of photographs. The result is a beautiful production, which is almost certainly the most detailed illustrated guidebook ever published for the Skye mountains. But in many ways it is the balance of routes included in the book from sub 2000ft Marilyns to major mountaineering undertakings that sets The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains apart. Whatever the weather, this book presents a choice of rewarding options that will make the long trip to the Hebrides worthwhile. Hillwalkers, scramblers, climbers and winter mountaineers intent on visiting Skye will find it both an invaluable reference and a source of endless inspiration.

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Season’s End

The last Grade V ice climb of the winter? Crag Jones and Andy Bunnage made an ascent of a very thin looking Smith’s Route high on Ben Nevis on April 12. (Photo Crag Jones)

Hopes for good late season conditions were thwarted by another major thaw in March. By way of compensation, a heavy snowfall in the Cairngorms followed by a helpful thaw-freeze cycle brought the easier north-facing gullies into condition and several teams enjoyed romping up the easier classics in the Northern Corries.

Across on the West conditions were leaner. The most popular technical route on the Ben was Gardyloo Gully, which provided a sporting Grade III. In many ways, extremely lean conditions are the best time to climb this classic route as it is often blocked by a monstrous cornice. Ascents were also made of Glover’s Chimney, Central Gully Right-Hand and Tower Scoop. A strong French team backed off the third pitch of Point Five Gully.

The most eye-catching climb was a very thin looking Smith’s Route by Crag Jones on April 12. “The brave second was Andy Bunnage,” Crag explained. “He was lashed under the roof, in case the whole caboodle came down. It was that thin – the icicle was very hollow!”

To maintain the winter psyche until next season (just six months away), Robert Taylor has put together a set of podcasts interviewing current activists about their Scottish winter and mountaineering exploits. So far Robert has interviewed Simon Yearsley, Helen Rennard, Robbie Phillips and myself. Paul Diffley of Hot Aches Productions has also very kindly made available the full audio of his interview with Jimmy Marshall.

Robert has a good flowing style and the topics range from Robbie talking about seconding Greg Boswell on Anubis to Helen revealing Andy Nisbet’s caramel shortbread habit. Robert has plans for many more interviews, so listen in to Vertical Voice – Stories from the Steep at:



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The Chancel First Winter Ascent

Andy Inglis climbing the first pitch of The Chancel (VIII,8) on Beinn a’Bhuird. This technically challenging route is the second summer Extreme to be climbed in winter on the mountain. (Photo Guy Robertson)

Guy Robertson and Andy Inglis pulled off one of the finest climbs of the season on March 18 when they made a first winter ascent based on The Chancel on Beinn a’Bhuird. This five pitch E1 on the West Face of Mitre Ridge was first climbed by Dave Nichols and Greg Strange in May 1978. It was originally graded HVS 5b, but an early repeat upped the grade to E1 5b.

“Great day on Beinn a’Bhuird yesterday,” Guy told me. “Andy Inglis and I climbed The Chancel – first three pitches as for summer (second pitch the definite crux), then the obvious turfy winter line on the wall above the ledge (right of the summer line), then a finish up West Side Story to gain the top of the First Tower. Five superb pitches, and pretty good value at VIII,8. The climbing on the second pitch was comparable in style and difficulty to that found on the harder routes on Lochnagar’s Tough Brown Face, but with generally good protection.

It really is such a joy to climb on this great cliff in winter – there are very few places like it for quality, scale, remoteness and commitment. We did quite well – with some quite challenging snow conditions out across the open moor – leaving the car just before first light and topping out on the route as the sun went down (and the moon came out). Nonetheless it was still an 18-hour day car-to-car – 22 if you include the driving and faffing! I was certainly glad of my double helping of pudding the night before, and I’ll be having puddings with my dinner for the remainder of this week!

On a historical note, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first Beinn a’Bhuird Extreme to be climbed in winter conditions. [Not quite correct – another Extreme was climbed on Beinn a’Bhuird in 2012 – The Primate (VIII,8) by Pete Davies and Donie O’Sullivan]. This is unsurprising to me, having climbed two grade IXs there previously, the hardest of which was 5a in summer. The Northern Corries this is not…”

As Guy implies, winter climbing in Garbh Choire on Beinn a’Bhuird is a major undertaking. The corrie is ten miles from the road and one of the most remote in Scotland. A reconnaissance was made a week before, and the eventual ascent required many hours of trail breaking through deep snow. All round Scottish winter climbing adventures don’t come much bigger than this!

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Feast of the East – Second Ascent

Matt Glenn on the second ascent of Feast of the East (VIII,9) on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe. The demanding and technical route was first climbed in winter by Martin Moran, Murdoch Jamieson and Francis Blunt in December 20111. (Photo Jamie Skelton)

On March 16, Jamie Skelton and Matt Glenn made the second winter ascent of Feast of the East (VIII,9) on the Eastern Ramparts on Beinn Eighe. The route was first climbed by Andy Nisbet and Gill Ollerhead in May 1992, and the first winter ascent fell to Martin Moran, Murdoch Jamieson and Francis Blunt in December 2011.

“Myself and my friend Matt Glenn got pretty excited after reading about Heavy Flak and Shiva getting done recently and started scanning for other routes in the same area,” Jamie told me. “We decided to have a go at Feast of the East which is a four-pitch route on the Eastern Ramparts. We found some really steep but positive climbing through well-defined cracks and corners.

I lost the game of rock-paper-scissors so Matt went first. Initially the first half of the first pitch went well with gear and big hooks. After that there was a delicate section to negotiate, to get around a small projecting roof as for the summer route, first to the right, and then back left on flat ledges. This then led onto the big ledge below the main event – the pitch off the ledge is a summer 5c – it’s short and packs a punch. It follows a right-facing corner, which passes two large roofs on small positive hooks and good gear, however it is void of any really footholds making for an extremely strenuous series of footless pulls (possibly soft tech 9) to gain the small ledge.

Above lay another pitch the summer 5b that proved tricky being iced. It follows the same crack line with some rests in some pods to belay on the next big ledge. The last pitch involved a wild step straight off the belay. Moving around the right arête away from the belay and onto a big hanging slab led to bomber placements with much exposure up to easier ground. Overall, it is a superb route, one of the most enjoyable I’ve done”

Jamie and Matt have had a very successful season with ascents of Ventricle (VII,8), Darth Vader (VII,7), Sioux Wall (VIII,8) and the second ascent of Shapeshifter (VIII,8). In addition, Jamie has made ascents of Daddy Longlegs (VIII,9) with Jack Morris, and the hard test pieces of The Needle (VIII,8) and Centurion (VIII,8) with Tim Miller. Given the difficult season we have had this is a remarkable collection of routes!

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