High and Steep on The Ben

Dave Almond going direct on the second pitch of The Knuckleduster (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis. This compelling corner-line on the front face of Number Three Gully Buttress was first climbed by Blair Fyffe and Steve Ashworth in February 2007. It has now seen five or six repeats and is one of the most sought after test-pieces on the mountain. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Dave Almond on the second pitch of The Knuckleduster (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis. This compelling corner-line on the front face of Number Three Gully Buttress was first climbed in winter by Blair Fyffe and Steve Ashworth in February 2007. It has now seen five or six repeats and is one of the most sought after test-pieces on the mountain. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Friday night’s snowfall fell with little wind and left a thick coat of snow on Ben Nevis. It snowed continuously on Saturday so the mountain now looks very wintry. On the classic routes, heavy snow over bare terrain made for testing conditions – two parties climbed Tower Ridge taking over ten hours apiece as they struggled to overcome low angled slabby terrain. Normally these sections are straightforward with a base of underlying snow, but the two feet of fresh powder on blank slabs offers neither purchase, nor any clues as to where the holds and lines of weakness may be. As the snow firms up conditions will rapidly improve.

Steep snowed-up rock routes high on the mountain were the order of the day. A couple of teams battled up The Slab Climb on South Trident Buttress on Saturday, but better weather on Sunday March 5 saw another ascent of The Slab Climb, together with successes on Gargoyle Wall and Darth Vader.

The two highlights of the day took place on Number Three Gully Buttress. Dave Almond, Dave MacLeod and Helen Rennard made an early repeat of The Knuckleduster (VIII,9) climbing the direct version first climbed by Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson in November 2012. Meanwhile, Greg Boswell added a superb direct finish to Babylon. Instead of traversing right and climbing the hanging chimney, Greg climbed straight up the soaring arête directly above the Gargoyle Cracks, which is arguably the most striking architectural line in the corrie.

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Skye Winter Festival Report

The magnificent view from the summit of Bla Bhein across Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin. Five new routes were climbed during Skye Winter Festival in January. Despite its proximity to the sea, the mixed climbing in Skye comes rapidly into condition after a heavy snowfall. (Photo Mike Lates collection)

The magnificent view from the summit of Bla Bhein across to the Cuillin. Five new routes were climbed during Skye Winter Festival in January. Despite its proximity to the sea, the mixed climbing in Skye comes rapidly into condition after a heavy snowfall. (Photo Mike Lates collection)

The seventh Skye Winter Festival was another great success. A short bout of winter at the beginning of the two-week event saw five new routes before the meet resorted to more traditional Cuillin games for the next ten days. Local mountain guide, festival organizer and Skye supremo Mike Lates, sends the following report:

“On January 12 Pok Siwinski and I visited the thinly covered North Face of Sgurr a’Bhasteir. Turf was the obvious attraction, but Mike The Bhasteird was spouting some ice, so I started up that. I was forced out onto its left arête after just eight metres which provided some excellent sporting mixed moves with occasional bomber gear. Pok headed left off the belay ledge then took steeper terrain to a semi-hanging belay below the final bulge. As another monster gust hit us I turned the bulge on the right to reach easier ground and the top of Formali Known As (IV,4). We had a beautiful walk out in a world that had turned white in just a couple of hours.

The following day (January 13), Michael Barnard headed in to Coire a’Ghrunnda with Pok and climbed a new line just left of South Crag Gully. Three other parties headed toward the huge broad flank of Sgurr Thuilm. Lucy Spark and I climbed the longest line, the 400m-long Giant’s Gully (III,6), mostly solo but with about ten short enclosed chimney pitches, with useful ice, that gave a real fight. We were very glad the blocky stuff was well frozen in. It is always hard to grade thrutches but I’d say the hardest was at least Tech 6. Sadly the final chimney thwarted our direct line. By this point the walls were thickly glazed with black ice and were giving nothing, so we landed on the crest between the two summits and a stunning Hebridean/Cuillin vista greeted us.

Mark Francis and Dave Bowdler climbed a parallel line that sounded very similar, left again on the same face. They topped out just 60m east of the summit but we didn’t see or hear them all day. Nathan Adam led Chris Brown up a shorter but similar sounding gully that started at the toe of Giant’s Gully and bore left above the recess climbed by last season’s addition, Park Lane.

On January 14 a massive team headed out to Bla Bheinn. The technical climbing teams both abbed off from near the top of good lines in good nick (so no pics or clues until those routes are complete). We introduced newcomers to twin axes and crampons and everyone eventually topped out to the Blaven panorama and a generous German chap dishing out bottles of Blaven beer. Great Gully was filled with plenty of deep powder so a mass bum slide ensued. Two other teams that day headed over to Glen Brittle for the ‘annual’ ascent of the In Pinn. This was successful despite the hefty glazing.

The annual dinner was a curry-fest in Skye Basecamp that night with over 30 guests and a talk on Gaelic hill names from Janni Diez. Amongst the team on Bla Bheinn and at the dinner were the new Torabhaig distillery site manager and boss, so when the warm weather arrived on January 15 we were all treated to a private visit just days before the first mash is put on.

Despite no snow the following week, guests enjoyed Cuillin scrambles, rock at Flodigary and Elgol and some dry tooling too. The second weekend was superb weather with 15 guests in total. Folk had a great time in the Cuillin on dry rock above some incredible cloud inversions. That evening Kevin produced a stunning venison fillet meal, rounded off with chocolate fruit fondue in the Old Inn bunkhouse.

The Seventh Skye Winter Festival was once again a resounding success. Quite simply, everyone embraces the fact that Skye is wonderful, whatever the conditions!”

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Globetrotting in Strathfarrar

Sgurr na Muice in Strathfarrar showing the remarkable ‘ridge and furrow’ geology of alternating ribs and grooves on the North-East Face. The seven-pitch long Globetrotter (IV,4) lies off the photo to the right. (Photo John Mackenzie)

Sgurr na Muice in Strathfarrar showing the remarkable ‘ridge and furrow’ geology of alternating ribs and grooves on the North-East Face. The seven-pitch long Globetrotter (IV,4) lies off the photo to the right. (Photo John Mackenzie)

After an abortive trip up Ben Wyvis a week ago, John Mackenzie and Andrew James visited the North-East Face of Sgurr na Muice in Strathfarrar on January 29. The result of their efforts was the first ascent of the 280m Globetrotter (IV,4), one of the longest new routes climbed so far this season.

“Although the South-East Face was bare, the numerous ‘ridge and furrow’ grooves and arêtes on the North-East Face were definitely frosted,” John explained. “But as they contain only thin strips of turf, Andrew and I went further right to the long curved bay that contains more turf as well as the longest routes on the cliff. This section borders the far left end of the more conventional looking crags on Sgurr na Fearstaig’s South Top.

This bay contains climbs such as Pigsty and Trotters gullies, and has the same ‘ridge and furrow’ geology, but the cliff is in tiers, separated and bottomed by a glut of turf. Knowing that it holds cold probably better that anywhere else locally I was not surprised to see it white with a light dusting of snow that complemented the extensive hoar frost.

Trotters Gully lies on the right side of this bay and I had often looked at, but then bypassed, the rather unassuming turfy buttress that borders the left side of the gully. Today was a good opportunity to have a closer look. The first impression was that it was much bigger and steeper than I had previously thought. Time was not on our side as we both had been to parties the night before and it was already lunchtime so our ‘quick nip up something not too long or hard’ might need reappraisal.

Of the several possible lines, a steepening turfy runnel led up to, and hopefully through, various rock bands. Sure enough, after a warm up pitch things steepened and options narrowed. Rock belays were excellent but of the seven long pitches only the sixth had good protection. Basically the route went straight up with a short traverse on pitch three into a hidden gully with the occasional rock spike on sidewalls giving runners.

Pitch six was definitely the technical crux and the most enjoyable with a fine slab with one inch-thick plastic ice leading directly into a very steep narrow chimney that was well protected and delightfully awkward. A further turfy runnel led to the top after 280 metres of Tech 4 and a split grade of III/IV as heavy snow would reduce difficulties somewhat.

However, it was now 5pm, gloaming was upon us and we were in an area where there was no phone signal. We should have been home by now! Two options for descent presented themselves. The shortest but most awkward was to descend the open gully called Cadha Raineach on the map, or else go over the top of Sgurr na Muice and descend the ‘Couloir’ that still had a thin strip of snow. This was longer and technically easier, but could be nasty in the dark. We chose the former.

I’ll gloss over the stumbles, the bad language, the trying to avoid sprained ankles etc. but by the time we reached the base we were struggling to catch the last photons of light. Venus shone like a head torch, but too far away to be of assistance. Orion simply mocked. To save battery we stumbled on trying not to fall into Loch Toll a’Mhuic, and having congratulated ourselves on that, promptly walked straight into one of the two neighbouring lochans.

Finding the narrow path was not easy, but we did. Only after a further photon snatching bumble did we put on the torches. Even then the path, now more resembling a scree slope in places, kept losing itself and we still had a major burn to cross. Once this obstacle had enacted its revenge, the way was simpler and the path better defined. I still managed to lose it and twist an ankle, but by then grim ‘SMC Club Determination a la the Song’ had set in. So with a limp and a grin we reached the Strathfarrar road after 7pm. The under keeper was about to set out to check if we were still alive as our wives had been phoning. A radio call sorted out the panic, but be warned, phone reception only works at the locked gate at the start of the road, so you’re on your own up there.

There is, of course, a moral to this story. An hour in the morning is worth two in the evening! Still the stars and planets were good and the route wasn’t bad either!”

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Good Going on Mitre Ridge

Looking down he middle section of Mitre Ridge (V,6) on Beinn a’Bhuird. The classic Patey-Brooker line that was climbed in April 1953 works well as both an early and late season route. (Photo Andrew Stevenson)

Looking down he middle section of Mitre Ridge (V,6) on Beinn a’Bhuird. The classic Patey-Brooker line that was climbed in April 1953 works well as both an early and late season route. (Photo Andrew Stevenson)

In a season that has consistently given difficult and demanding conditions, as well as periods when winter climbing has not been possible at all, it is pleasing to have news of an enjoyable ascent of a major classic.

“Myself and my two friends – Ross MacDonald and Stu Cossar – climbed Mitre Ridge on Saturday January 28,” Andrew Stevenson told me.

“It was in excellent nick and gave us a great adventure. Cycling into the secret howff on Friday night and setting off early it was a big 15-hour day from howff – Mitre Ridge – back to car. The Cumming-Crofton looked in good nick too, although after snowing all day the walk back in on the Sunday would of been a bit arduous!”

Conditions have changed since the weekend with a thaw on Tuesday and another forecast for Thursday, but after that, cooler temperatures and snowier weather is forecast. Hopefully this will bring Mitre Ridge back into condition and open up possibilities for ascents of other significant routes.

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Snow At Last!

Simon Richardson climbing a new V,7 on the front face of The Forgotten Pinnacle on Braeriach. The price for the excellent rimed-up crack climbing was a difficult two-pitch approach up powder-covered slabs that in a normal year would be covered in climbable snow-ice. (Photo Roger Webb)

Simon Richardson climbing a new V,7 on the front face of The Forgotten Pinnacle on Braeriach. The price for the excellent rimed-up crack climbing was a difficult two-pitch approach up powder-covered slabs that in a normal year would be covered in climbable snow-ice. (Photo Roger Webb)

Saturday’s (January 28) snowfall brought many of the higher cliffs into winter condition at the weekend. Ben Nevis was busy with many of the Early Season favorites such as Gargoyle Wall, The Clanger, Cutlass and Sidewinder seeing ascents. Notable ascents include an ascent of Sioux Wall by Malcolm Bass, Neil Silver and Paul Figg and a rare ascent of Gremlins under mixed conditions by Neil and Helen Rennard. Normally this excellent route to the right of Thompson’s Route is climbed on thin ice.

It’s not early season of course, but after the very dry winter it seems that way. Unfortunately lack of ice and ‘permafrost’ to glue the cliffs together means that many of the Ben’s mixed routes are extremely loose at the moment, and a strong team had to retreat from Sake on Number Three Gully Buttress after a belay ledge collapsed.

Mixed routes in the Cairngorms appear to be a little more solid although there are still many loose blocks. Susan Jensen and Andy Munro climbed Python on Carn Etchachan and Steve Elliot and Ross Cowie enjoyed the magnificent Postern on the Shelter Stone. Deeper in the Cairngorms an ascent of Mitre Ridge was reported, and Roger Webb and I completed an obscure, but long sought after project, when we climbed the front face of The Forgotten Pinnacle in Coire nan Clach on Braeriach.

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Give and Take on Ben Nevis

Robin Clothier climbing the easier upper section of Grand Central (VI,6) on the East Flank of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Robin Clothier climbing the easier upper section of Grand Central (VI,6) on the East Flank of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis. (Photo Simon Richardson)

We are going through a very unhelpful weather cycle at the moment where snowfalls are followed by rapid thaws and the resulting dry conditions are locked by high pressure systems for days. We desperately need significant snowfall and a rapid sequence of freeze-thaw storm cycles to bring routes into condition. In normal circumstances, snow banks ooze ice in stable weather systems, but the hills are so dry there is precious little snow to act as a source.

I met up with Robin Clothier on January 22 for a route on Ben Nevis. I’d been away ice climbing in Austria for much of the previous week and had read reports about how little snow there was on the Ben after last week’s thaw, but even these couldn’t prepare me for the shock of Observatory Gully. Normally this is full of snow many metres deep, but it was now rubble with just the tiniest sliver of snow running up the centre. Higher up it opened out into two continuous streaks but it was only once we were below Gardyloo Buttress that things began to feel wintry.

I had remembered that there was an unclimbed line of cracks in the vicinity of Tower Gully, and sure enough Robin spotted them on the right wall disappearing into the gloom up the pillar between the (unformed) lines of Upper Tower Cascade Left and Central. Temperatures had been freezing for a couple of days, and it had snowed a little the night before, so mixed climbing conditions were reasonable and the rock was white. The route followed a succession of ramps, grooves and cracks using frozen turf, old snow and new ice. Four pitches later we topped out onto the plateau feeling a little surprised that we had found something worthwhile to climb.

We were not the only optimists that day. Helen Rennard (who has probably climbed more difficult routes this season than anybody else) and Ben Silvestre cruised up Sioux Wall which had also accumulated a white coat overnight. The cracks were free of verglas making for an enjoyable ascent. Keen as mustard, Helen and Ben were in place early next morning to do another mixed route in the Number Three Gully area. The temperature was cool and there was a slight breeze, but the weather had been up to its usual tricks once again – steep mixed climbing was no longer viable as all traces of the previous day’s snowfall had vanished in the wind.

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Crazy Eyes – Second Ascent

Murdoch Jamieson on the crux section of Crazy Eyes (VII,9) on Beinn Eighe during the second ascent. This spectacular route takes the roofed corner right of Sundance on the Far East Wall. (Photo Andy Inglis)

Murdoch Jamieson on the crux section of Crazy Eyes (VIII,9) on Beinn Eighe during the second ascent. This spectacular route takes the roofed corner right of Sundance on the Far East Wall. (Photo Andy Inglis)

A significant ascent on January 14 (one of the finest winter climbing days of the season so far) was the first repeat of Crazy Eyes (VIII,9) on the Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe by Murdoch Jamieson and Andy Inglis.

“Crazy Eyes is a line that I’ve wanted to get on ever since the BMC Winter Meet in 2014,” Andy told me. “I remember a stunning morning three years ago when myself and partner Piotr Sulowski craned our necks back to take in this wild (and what would, in years gone by, been called ‘futuristic’) line with Will Sim and Olov Isaksson. We didn’t think it had been done so it was an easy decision for Will and Olov to jump on it! As it turned out they had a great time and gave the route three stars! Will raving about it afterwards should have given me a clue as to how hard it might be…!

For Murdo and I it was a miracle we even got on the route last Saturday, after Murdo ended up hip-deep in a bog on the walk-in, with the only saving grace being a meandering track (I wonder if they were drunk?!) through the deep snow left by keener climbers than us earlier that morning! The route itself was excellent with lots of variety, turf, ice, a squeeze chimney, steep cracks and a technical roof! Murdo even made it look like he had to try at one point, and I must have imagined it when I thought he shouted down he was pumped!

A very memorable and at times goey route, and a splendid sandbag at the originally suggested grade of VII,9. Chapeau Olov and Will!”

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The Prentice Pillar

Iain Small climbing the initial pitch of The Prentice Pillar (VII,8) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe during the first ascent. Rather worryingly, this pitch was partially detached from the rock face behind so the route was named after the intricately carved pillar in Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Iain Small climbing the initial pitch of The Prentice Pillar (VII,8) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe during the first ascent. This pitch was partially detached from the rock face behind so the route was named after the intricately carved pillar in Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. (Photo Helen Rennard)

On January 14, Iain Small and Helen Rennard made an excellent addition to Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe. They climbed the obvious fault on the lower front (west) face, just right of last season’s route Hoargasm (VII,8) climbed by Greg Boswell and Uisdean Hawthorn.

“It gave a good steep pitch before a ropelength of easier ground led to the headwall,” Iain told me. “A stiff corner then led to a fractured fault and finish. The main corner of the first pitch was helpfully cracked. Maybe too cracked though as daylight could be seen through the left wall, which was actually a semi-detached pillar!

I thought The Prentice Pillar would be a good name and the grade possibly VII/VIII,8. It is low in the grade although I’m feeling a bit rusty on grading given the lack of activity this season. Quite tellingly, there was more snow on the slopes below the crag a couple of summers ago when I was up doing rock routes!”

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South Trident Link-Up

Brian Pollock leading the first pitch of Spartacus on South Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis. The link-up with the rarely climbed Devastation continues up the right-facing corner-crack directly above his head. (Photo Neil Adams)

Brian Pollock leading the first pitch of Spartacus on South Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis. The link-up with the rarely climbed Devastation continues up the right-facing corner-crack directly above his head. (Photo Neil Adams)

Saturday January 14 was an excellent day for winter climbing in the Scottish Highlands and a number of excellent ascents were made. One of the most interesting climbs was a link up on South Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis.

“I had a good day on the Ben with Brian Pollock,” Neil Adams explains. “We started up the first pitch of Spartacus and belayed out right after the roof. We then traversed back left above the roof into the right-facing corner-crack directly above Spartacus pitch 1. Where the angle eases, the line trends left and meets the top of Strident Edge. It felt about VII,8 – the traverse left above the roof was the crux, but the corner above was still pretty sustained.”

Initially, Neil and Brian thought they had made a new addition, but their second pitch is common with Devastation that was climbed in winter by Ian Parnell and Andy Benson in November 2008. Devastation is graded E1 in summer and has two technically difficult pitches, but the protection was generally good, and the winter first ascensionists graded their ascent a surprisingly reasonable VII,8. Spartacus (VI,7) was first climbed by Andy Nisbet and Jonathan Preston in November 2002 during the first phase of modern winter exploration the cliff. This quickly led to the realisation that South Trident Buttress makes a fine early season venue, or in this season’s case, a location that comes quickly into condition during a tricky winter!

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Clockwork Orange

Stuart Macfarlane on the first pitch of Clockwork Orange (V,4) on Beinn an Lochain in the Southern Highlands. Last week’s ice blast brought a good variety of routes into condition right across the country. (Photo Brian Shackleton)

Stuart McFarlane on the first pitch of Clockwork Orange (V,4) on Beinn an Lochain in the Southern Highlands. Last week’s ice blast brought a good variety of routes into condition right across the country. (Photo Brian Shackleton)

Southern Highlands aficionado Stuart McFarlane is nearing the end of his quest to climb all the Grade V routes in the Southern Highlands.

“After the strong north-westerlies had been blowing hard for a few days, I arranged to go climbing with Brian Shackleton in Arrochar on January 13,” Stuart explained. “I had an inkling that the exposed Beinn an Lochain may be frozen and icy, and perhaps Bakerloo Line, one of my few remaining Grade Vs in the Southern Highlands would be in? This was confirmed as we battled against the wind, up the North-East Ridge, finding shelter beneath Kinglas Crag. But what’s that parallel line to the right…?”

The result of Stuart and Brian’s visit to Beinn an Lochain was the first ascent of Clockwork Orange (V,4). This takes a parallel line to Bakerloo line, following a right-sloping fault, with key passages on thin ice and ever-increasing exposure. Above the route steps left beneath a roof, before committing to a thinly iced wall above.

The number of Grade Vs on Stuart’s To Do list is unchanged, but there is now another excellent mixed climbing addition to the Southern Highlands!

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