January Update

Forrest Templeton on the first ascent of True Grit (V,7) on The Stuic on Lochnagar. The crux was particularly burly and demanded a forceful approach. (Photo Simon Richardson)

January has been disappointing month for Scottish winter climbers. The weather has been dominated by warm high pressure systems and any snowfall has quickly disappeared with sudden thaws. The dry air and associated wet bulb effect has allowed the remaining snowpack to freeze but opportunities have been limited. The snow gullies in the Northern Corries on Ben Nevis have been popular, and there have been one or two other interesting ascents. Steve Holmes and Ali Rose repeated Grand Central at the head of Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis. Encountering icy conditions they found it a grade easier than the first ascent and rated it a bold V,5.

The finest climbing day of the month was Sunday January 9 when an east-west split resulted in a wonderful winter day on the Cairngorms, with the hills frozen and white with fresh snow. Contrary to the weather forecast, this band of cold clear air also extended across to the far North-West where three teams were in action on An Teallach.

Doug Bartholomew and Graham Wyllie made an early repeat of Lord Berkeley’s Seat (VI,6). According to Andy Nisbet and Simon Jenkins, who made the first ascent in 1991,” this spectacular route up the vertical front face of the Seat is not as hard as it looks, and is possibly V,5 with well frozen turf and not too much snow.” Looking at the photos of Graham and Doug’s ascent this is hard to believe, but the route clearly deserves more ascents. Erick Baillot, Andy Sharpe also had their eye on Lord Berkeley’s Seat that day, and as consolation, made the third ascent of Monumental Chimney (V,7).

The big news from An Teallach however, was Guy Robertson and Adam Russell’s second ascent of TheWailing Wall (IX,9). This outstanding line up the left side of the upper Hayfork Wall was first climbed by Martin Moran and Murdoch Jamieson in December 2010. Guy is working on a new book about Scottish winter climbing and told me he was going to attempt the route a couple of weeks before. Hats off to Guy for predicting good conditions so far in advance, and being in position in the right place at the right time with two photographers, especially given the weather forecast! Their ascent is reported on UKC with a couple of outstanding images by Hamish Frost.

On the same day, on other side of the country, four parties visited The Stuic on Lochnagar. Stuart Macfarlane and Di Gilbert made an early repeat of The Stoee Chimney – when conditions are lean, going under the chockstone seems to be the way to go at IV,6. Ascents were made of First Light and Daybreak Corners, and Forrest Templeton and I made the first ascent of True Grit (V,7). This takes a line up the centre of the depression between Bonanza and Twilight Groove and features a stenuous second pitch up an overhanging niche and groove that was superbly led by Forrest.

Unreported from December 28 was the first ascent of Polished Up (VI/VII,6), the line of cracks on the wall between Slaterless and Seam-stress on Fiacaill Buttress in Coire an t-Sneachda by Wojciech Polkowski, Sebastian Gidelski. Surprisingly, this short but good-looking addition, had not been recorded before.

Finally, a cold north-westerly blast brought the northern corries of Braeriach briefly into condition on January 20. Mark Robson and I added Against All Odds (IV,6) on Elation Buttress in Coire an Lochain and Wolf Moon (IV,6) to the right of Hostage to Fortune in the neighbouring Coire Ruadh. Conditions were good for mixed climbing that day with frozen turf and well rimed up rock, but needless to say, the situation was only temporary, and warm air soon moved in stripping the cliffs.

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Mistral Early Repeat

Dave Almond making an early repeat of Mistral on Beinn Eighe’s West Central Wall. Originally graded VII,7, it is now thought to be pushing Grade VIII and a notable achievement for 1991. (Photo Dave Keogh)

On January 9, Dave Almond and Dave Keogh made an early repeat of Mistral on the West Central Wall on Beinn Eighe. First climbed in winter by Andy Nisbet and Brian Davison it has a fearsome reputation and is certainly more testing than the VII,7 grade given by the first ascensionists. Dave Almond takes up the story:

“With all the festivities over and the weather cooling I arranged to meet Dave Keogh for some fun on Beinn Eighe. Mistral was chosen as Dave has only recently started to test his abilities on Grade VIIIs. Mistral is graded VII,7 with the caveat that recent previous teams suggest it is more like Grade VIII.

My master plan was to split my journey up from Liverpool by stopping overnight at Roybridge to ease the mileage. Thursday evening after dining at Roybridge I set off as a snowstorm was coming in, arriving at Beinn Eighe at 10pm. Relaxing after the drive I realised I’d left my boots, crampons, hard shells and axes in the accommodation in Roybridge. So I threw the master plan out of the window and spent the next 6 hours driving to Roybridge and back through a hideous snow storm.

One hour’s sleep later we walked in and managed to miss the turn to cross the river and squandered an hour. We then had the worst conditions under foot I’ve ever had with no base and knee-deep snow all the way up the south side. We eventually found and dug the abseil out and dropped down to the base of the cliff with guidebook in hand. “Climb the obvious deep V -groove”. So we did that and I realised we were on Bruised Violet VIII,8 which Dave wasn’t too thrilled about. We traversed the ledge and found Mistral but it was now 1pm so we abseiled off down West Central Gully and had the joy of a chest deep wade up Fuselage Gully. We topped out and arrived back at the car absolutely destroyed.

Two days later we were back after a leisurely drive without the snowstorm. After a good six hours sleep, we had an easy walk in, kicking steps into good névé. We abseiled in and were straight on the route for a 10am start. The first pitch was almost Euro style ice climbing followed by a pitch up an awkward chimney with a potential nasty fall. The crux pitch starts with a bulging wall followed by a substantial overhang onto another bulging wall followed by some tenuous steep climbing – a 30m-long series of sustained cruxes on marginal hooks.

The finale is a traditional deep, Grade VI Scottish chimney which we climbed in the dark emerging to the surreal cloudless, windless, moon and starlit vista of the snow-capped mountains of Beinn Eighe.

Beinn Eighe is my favourite cliff and despite the epic fail on our previous outing, it only seemed to amplify the joy of our successful ascent. Scottish winter climbing at its best even if hard won. And as a footnote, I think Andy Nisbet and Brian Davidson slightly under graded their efforts in 1991!”

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Lurcher’s Repeats

Louis Kennedy climbing Wolf Whistle (VII,7) on Lurcher’s Crag. This route was first ascended by Kacper Tekiele, Sandy Allan, Andy Nisbet in February 2018 and had possibly not seen a repeat. (Photo Nathan Adam)

Nathan Adam has had a busy winter so far, notching up some excellent ascents in the West and East. Here he describes a couple of early repeats on Lurcher’s Crag:

“Yesterday (January 9) we had a grand day on Rottweiler which I think may have been the fourth ascent according to UKC. It is a brilliant route that finds a smart way up the right side of the Amphitheatre Wall, the first pitch is enjoyable and sustained and the second has a quite ridiculous move off the big pinnacle. We thought VI,6 overall was a fair grade as there was some tricky moves but generally good protection throughout. Surprisingly there was no one else there at all but the Northern Corries had a steady stream in and out.

Today, Louis and I went back up in the hope of trying Berserker (VI,8) which had caught our eye the day before. It would’ve been our first go at tech 8 but unfortunately there was already a team established on it. I had brought some photos of other routes and liked the look of Wolf Whistle which we managed to convince ourselves was realistic at VII,7 seen as we had been intent on VI,8!

I started up the corner as per the description and was soon at a standstill as the cracks blanked out above a good block. It seemed like the corner above was totally devoid of any decent hooks so looking over to my right I spied an overhanging groove that had a crack in it. From the good block I managed to teeter rightwards onto a sloping slab and gain the base of the groove. From here a serious of strenuous moves with decent hooks and very small footholds led to an awkward exit onto another blank, sloping ledge. With a grunt and udge I managed to make the ledge thankfully, with another deeper groove now above me. This was super thin with a blank section in the middle but finished with a glorious chockstone and great turf to a spacious belay.

Louis soon joined me and finished up the next short pitch up a deep crack before I took us on a final pitch to the top. Checking the description whilst back at the bags revealed I had stepped right into the double groove system of Jaws without realising. Thankfully it turned out to have decent gear and some excellent hooks! I’m assuming this is probably the second ascent of Wolf Whisper/Jaws after Kacper, Sandy and Andy did the first ascents in 2018 but would be keen to hear if anyone has repeated it already.

So, it turned out a bit of a hybrid and not entirely sure of the grade, but it felt harder than any of the other VI’s I climbed this week. It has some great climbing on it although it’s a bit escapable in a few spots, but I’d say it’s worth a star or two.”

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Jacobite Buttress

Neil Adams on the first ascent of Raising the Standard (V,7) on Sgurr Ghiubhsachain. This excellent looking climb lies on the recently developed Jacobite Buttress above Loch Shiel. (Photo Nathan Adam)

Neil Adams, Nathan Adam and Garry Campbell made an excellent addition to Sgurr Ghiubhsachain’s Jacobite Buttress above Loch Shiel on Friday January 7. This newly developed cliff is described in Neil’s highly anticipated Winter Climbs West guidebook that will shortly be published by the SMC. In the meantime, Neil describes the history of climbing on Jacobite Buttress and his recent ascent:

“I went in to Sgurr Ghiubhsachain (south of Glenfinnan) twice last winter, with Kev Hall and Helen Rennard. Helen and I attempted to find the one existing route on the mountain, Bestial Devotion (III,4, first climbed by Steve Kennedy and Andy MacDonald, which had been described as overlooking Loch Shiel. However, our explorations of the Loch Shiel side of the hill resulted in an unremarkable Grade II/III gully which we called Chasing Wild Geese.

On the same day, we climbed the obvious fault on the NE-facing crag left of the top of the NNE Ridge (a classic summer scramble and winter Grade I), which we christened Jacobite Buttress in honour of the Glenfinnan memorial at the head of the loch. It turns out this was the line that Steve and Andy had climbed – it was just about recognisable in hindsight, and very entertaining! Kev and I had more luck, climbing a good line on the left side of the crag and a steep chimney branching left off Bestial Devotion (The Uprising and The Young Pretender, both good Grade IVs). Ali Rose also added a couple of lines to the right-hand side of the crag – White Rose (III,4) and Flora (II). However, the steep wall between the routes I did with Kev remained unclimbed and had been in my mind ever since.

I’d arranged to climb with Nathan on Friday, and fortunately he’s keen on speculative punts on esoteric crags! His mate Garry joined us, which lightened the load and boosted morale as we set off from Glenfinnan in the rain. Fortunately, the weather soon cleared and after a pleasant approach up the NNE ridge, the crag was white, and the turf was frozen. I had no excuses – the pressure was on to climb the route.

Nathan led a good introductory pitch up a turfy groove with a pokey start. From there, I stepped right and climbed a series of grooves which cut through the steep wall. These were surprisingly accommodating, with positive hooks and plentiful gear, though the climbing was steep and sustained with slopy footholds. Eventually the angle eased, and I reached a perfect block belay. Garry led a relatively straight-forward pitch up a turfy groove to the top.

We had a bit of debate about the grade, and eventually settled on V,7 – it’s too well-protected to be a VI, but a bit trickier than most V,6s. Whatever the grade, it’s a cracking route and deserves some repeats, as do the other routes on this crag. Sticking with the Jacobite theme, we called it Raising the Standard.

There are a few other lines still to be climbed, and a few other crags in the area which (as far as I know) have not been explored, at least in winter. It is also a beautiful, wild setting with a gorgeous outlook over the hills of Glenfinnan, northern Ardgour and Moidart. Considering that the approach starts 20min drive from Fort William, it’s amazing that this area hasn’t had more attention.”

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Iron Man Ridge

Forrest Templeton on the crux pitch of the 200m-long Iron Man Ridge (III,4) on Sgurr an Lochan Uaine in the Cairngorms. (Photo Simon Richardson)

It’s been an unsettled season so far, but Wednesday January 5 offered a possible opportunity to escape the recent gales and storms. The weather was clearing from the west, so at first glance, the Central Cairngorms was not a logical choice, but Forrest Templeton and I had a plan.

On the south flank of Sgurr an Lochan Uaine there is an attractive south facing ridge framed by two snow gullies. It is a prominent feature, and visible for a long time when walking up Glen Derry, but there are no records of an ascent in either summer or winter.

One reason for its neglect, in winter at least, is that it faces south and starts quite low at 800m. This means that to find it in condition it needs to be climbed in mid-winter to avoid any sun and directly after a heavy snow fall. So, last Wednesday was a logical day to attempt the route – with any luck it would have been draped in snow by the northerly blizzards the day before and the overcast forecast guaranteed no sun.

The approach is long – nearly 14km – but we thought we would be able to cycle as far as Derry Lodge. Unfortunately, our calculations did not account for deep drifts on the track, and we spent an hour in survival cycling mode, ploughing through intermittent soft deep snow to reach the Lodge. Continuing on foot was little easier and it took us nearly five hours to reach the foot of the route.

The ridge was beautifully white, but it was defended by deep drifts topped by windslab. We made progress by a curious ‘swimming’ motion that distributed our weight as we moved between the safety of buried heather clumps. The big effort was worth it because once on the ridge the climbing was excellent on beautifully featured granite. The first half was sustained Grade II with lots of interesting weaving around corners and behind pinnacles.

When we reached a distinctive notch behind a prominent tooth, the way was barred by a steep wall split by an awkward undercut chimney. Forrest took the lead, and I was soon following through up another pitch of mixed to where the difficulties eased. From here it was easy scrambling to the top of the 200m-long feature.

Ominous looking windslab meant that it was not safe to descend the flanking gullies so our way back home was over the top of Derry Cairngorm (we avoided the summit cone) and down the long south ridge back to Derry Lodge. The terrain was initially windblown but as we moved into the lee of the mountain the drifts piled high and we battled our way down to the Lodge in the evening gloom. There was more survival biking in the way out, and I went over over my handlebars in a snow bank but no harm was done. We were both exhausted when we arrived back at the car – it had been a tough day.

A few days later, and rather tongue in cheek, Forrest suggested that with all the cycling, walking and ‘swimming’ we call the route Iron Man Ridge. The route may only have been III,4 but it had given us a memorable outing deep in the Cairngorms. Needless to say, we had seen nobody else all day.

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Geologists’ Ridge

John Higham pulling through the crux of Geologist’s Ridge (IV,4) on the 450m-high South-West Face of Conival. This 11-pitch long route is one of the most significant discoveries of the season so far. (Photo Iain Young)

Iain Young and John Higham had a superb day on January 5 making the first ascent of Geologists’ Ridge (IV,4) on the 450m-high south -west face of Conival in the Northern Highlands. Iain and John have a strong track record of seeking out big prominent lines such as Table Rib on Cul Mor and Hindmost Ridge on The Devil’s Point, and Geologists’ Ridge is a magnificent addition to their collection.

“My winter got off to a bad start,” Iain told me. “Two attempts to climb were foiled by poor choice of objective rather than there being no conditions, and other commitments kept me away from the hills in the other brief cold spells.

The New Year period didn’t look too encouraging with record warm temperatures, but then the winds turned northerly, we got snow and gales, followed by a brief ridge of high pressure for 5th January. Fortunately, John was also free, and is always keen, so we elected to go high and turfy, and also somewhere sheltered from the wind. The southwest flank of Conival had intrigued me for years – as you drive north over Knockan into Elphin on a winters morning you see that it is formed of a number of long broken spurs that catch the sun and looks positively alpine.

One of those spurs had already been climbed by John and Eve Mackenzie – Explorers’ Ridge (SMCJ 2013) – but I knew from summer visits that there was a steeper looking line to its right, so we made that our objective. The long walk into the Bealach Tralgill was eased by us taking only one 60m 7.3mm rope and a light rack, but it’s still a long way in fresh snow.

The line itself gave generally easy to moderate climbing in fine situations but with two much steeper pitches through the obvious barrier wall. We kept the rope on the whole way and ended up with eleven, mostly rope-stretching pitches with the two steep ones being much shorter. Gorgeous summit views in the late light and back to the car in the dark after another memorable day out in the far northwest.

As to the name, well the two famous geologists, Ben Peach and John Horne, used to stay at Inchnadamph (they have a memorial there) while they did their seminal mapping for the Geological Survey in the late 1800’s. Geologists’ Ridge crosses several major thrust faults associated with the Moine Thrust. John and I are both geologists by background, so it seems not only an appropriate name, but also a worthy companion to Explorers’ Ridge.”

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Juggling Crampons on The Jester

Oliver Skeoch almost at the top The Jester (V,7) on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe. The difficult exit right from the overhanging crack was subsequently overcome by Ryan Balharry resulting in the first winter ascent. The route was chosen because a broken crampon prevented climbing a longer route. (Photo Ryan Balharry)

On December 9, Oliver Skeoch and Ryan Balharry made the first winter ascent of The Jester (V,7) on Stob Coire nan Lochan. This small but impressive pinnacle lies at the foot of Pinnacle Buttress and is well seen on the approach to the corrie. It was first climbed in summer by Ian Clough and Geoff Arkless in June 1966 and graded Severe.

“We had walked up and were planning to climb Chimney Route,” Ollie told me. “Spirits were high as I’d been climbing in the corrie the day before and knew that conditions were pretty good. As we got to the base of the route Ryan over-enthusiastically kicked his crampon and the front bail snapped, leaving it dangling from his boot. With the main plan of the day scuppered (and a lesson learned about repair kits), we decided to have a wander and see if there was anything that we fancied climbing with one crampon.

This was Ryan’s first trip into the corrie in winter and he had seen the pinnacle of The Jester on the approach. I mentioned that it had a route on it in summer and we ended up stood at its base looking up at an overhanging crack that looked too feasible not to be tried.

As the working crampons were mine the first attempt fell to me. I climbed the overhanging crack, doing a fair bit of digging in the rimed-up cracks to place gear. A huge move off one axe to gain a higher thin crack led to a stuck axe and a hasty retreat to the last bit of gear. After a rest I went back up to retrieve the axe but couldn’t commit to the moves round the corner to the ledge. I lowered off and we pulled the ropes and we exchanged leads.

Ryan swiftly dispatched the crack but again struggled to commit to the moves round the corner. He rested on the gear and then managed to place a bulldog where I had got my axe stuck and with this he managed to climb to the ledge. He arranged gear and assessed the final moves to the top.

A heinous pull and heel-hook-come-bum-straddle led to the mantel onto the top. He lowered the crampon down and I sent the bag up to him. After fitting the crampon I blasted up the route and joined him on the top. We took some photos and then rigged an abseil around the top of the pinnacle. I abseiled first and we did a test pull after which Ryan readjusted the ropes and joined me at the base.

We celebrated with chips and hot chocolates at the Clachaig!”

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Princess Cut

Mark Robson on the first ascent of Princess Cut (VI,6) on Glas Leathad Beag on Ben Wyvis. The climb is exceptionally steep for a turf-based route and Bulldogs were the most effective form of protection. (Photo Simon Richardson)

During the first Coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020 when we were only allowed to venture away from our homes on foot or bike, Mark Robson discovered an unclimbed crag on Ben Wyvis. The 100m-high Diamond Buttress is situated on Glas Leathad Beag at the north-easterly end of the mountain overlooking Loch Glass. A keen mountain runner, Mark found the cliff when out for a run with his dog from Dingwall. The mica schist cliff is shaped like a diamond and is exceptionally steep, but the plentiful vegetation made it more suitable for winter than summer.

Last season, Mark roped in Neil Wilson, who also lives nearby to take a look. They cycled up Glen Glass a couple of times last January and climbed three routes – Winter Skills (V,6), Cycle of Doom (IV,5) and Six Finger Gully (II). They are all strong lines cleverly outflanking the steepest ground threading their way through the overhangs. Mark was keen to try another line that would meet the central challenge of the cliff and persuaded me to visit the cliff on December 10. Timing was crucial – the crag had to be fully frozen with a snowline high enough to allow the cycle approach.

We started early and when the cliff came into view just after dawn my heart skipped a beat. The crag is shaped like a perfect diamond and stood out proud from the corrie. The top appeared to overhang the base for most of its length – I don’t think I’d ever seen such a steep winter cliff in Scotland.

Mark had his eye on an offwidth crack right of centre so we’d come armed with a full armoury of big gear including a Camalot 6, and a home-made Hex 13 together with two single ropes to hold the inevitable falls. When we looked up to study the potential route all the icicles appeared to be hanging outwards. I’d seen this effect before – I knew it was not because gravity operates sideways on Wyvis but because the central part of the cliff was overhanging all the way.

Winter climbing up continuously overhanging terrain is well beyond my skill set, but I knew that if we found more of a diagonal line there might be a way. We spent 20 minutes or so looking around, and as luck would have it, there was a hidden slanting fault running up and right from the lowest part of the cliff. It was impossible to judge the angles, but we decided to give it a go.

I chose the first pitch, which fortunately proved easier than it looked. An ice bulge and good turf led through a constriction to an exposed arete and a superb hidden stance around the corner. Mark’s pitch was a different matter, and he spent two hours weaving an intricate line up and right to join the exit of the offwidth crack. I couldn’t see much from my stance, but I occasionally caught sight of a cramponed boot hanging in space, or the rack dangling free from behind Mark’s back. When I kicked snow off my ledge it fell free to the cliff base landing a couple of metres out.

Mark ran it out to the top of the cliff, and then it was my turn to follow. I was very grateful to be second on the rope, but I could not afford to fall as I would pendulum and become suspended in space. Mark’s protection consisted mainly of Bulldogs and I was grateful for the extra thick ropes when I had to untie one when it jammed behind an overhang.

We called the route Princess Cut. When we discussed the grade, I suggested the route did not give much change from Grade VII, but we ended up with a more conservative VI,6. Mark is not only a superb climber but also a modest man.

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Tuberculosis Repeated Again

Ali Rose making an early repeat of Tuberculosis on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe. The first ascensionists graded the route VI,6 but subsequent repeats rate the climb at least a grade harder. (Photo Steve Holmes)

Steve Holmes and Ali Rose made an ascent of Tuberculosis on Stob Coire nan Lochan on December 10. This excellent looking mixed route takes the corner system right of Crest Route on North Buttress. It was first climbed by Dave Hollinger and Guy Willett Feb 2004 and graded VI,6. It was repeated by Dave Almond, Helen Rennard and Blair Fyffe in 2012 who thought it was a great route worthy of Grade VII. Steve and Ali agree…

“Ali and I climbed a line today which I think is Tuberculosis,” Steve told me. ”I note you have it down as VI,7 on scottishwinter.com, but today under much more wintry conditions we certainly felt it warranted VII,7. We split the main pitch in two so we both got some good climbing and thought it worked really well as there is a large ledge on the right 10m up. Anyway, I am (shamelessly) ticking the crag and we thought it’s another great addition to SCNL.”

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Lucky Sunday Arete

Macauley Wood making the first ascent of Lucky Sunday Arete (III,4) on Ben Lawers dramatically illuminated by the setting sun. (Photo Liam Campbell)

On December 5, Liam Campbell, Macauley Wood and Jamie Whitehead visited Creag Loisgte on Ben Lawers and made the first ascent of Lucky Sunday Arete (III,4). Creag Loisgte lies on the south flank of the south-west ridge of the mountain and is well seen when approaching Ben Lawers from Beinn Ghlas. The main feature is a Balcony Rib (III), a narrow-crested ridge near the west end of the crag, which was first climbed by Graham Little in April 1992. The same day Graham climbed three gullies to the right although it is possible they had been climbed before in the 1980s. Lucky Sunday Arete lies left of Balcony Rib and is a fine addition by the Glasgow-based team. Liam takes up the story:

“We left Glasgow later than normal on Sunday and during the drive we were debating where to go with such a short day. I threw Ben Lawers into the mix as I knew there were a few decent gullies. On a previous walk up the Munro I’d seen a fun-looking line, but I think Macauley took some convincing! On the approach to the crag when we were looking for a safe exit from the gullies due to the amount of powder collected in them, I noticed a cracking looking corner above a low turf ledge. This led to a narrow ledge above the gully to the face of a short arete. All in all, it gave a short but extremely fun route with the sun setting behind us. It was one lucky Sunday!”

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