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    Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published by Simon Richardson

    Matt Buchanan making the first winter ascent of Arch Chimney on Creag Tharsuinn in Arrochar. This was one of the last ‘old school’ summer routes on the cliff to receive a winter ascent. (Photo Dafyyd Morris)

    Matt Buchanan making the first winter ascent of Arch Chimney (V,5) on Creag Tharsuinn in Arrochar. This was one of the last ‘old school’ summer routes on the cliff to receive a winter ascent. (Photo Dafyyd Morris)

    Dafydd Morris and Matt Buchanan laid an old ghost to rest with the first winter ascent of Arch Chimney on the Upper Buttress of Creag Tharsuinn on January 22.

    “Matt and I headed back to Creag Tharsuinn to give Arch Chimney a go, once again!” Dafydd explained. “I say again, because when we did the winter ascent of Hangover in the corrie two years ago we had a look at it, but on that occasion it was a hoared up rocky chimney/corner line. We went back later that season to try it only to spend four hours taking the gear for a walk in waist deep snow. Zero visibility meant we wandered aimlessly round the cliffs trying to get our bearings without success so beat a not so hasty retreat to the Village Inn in Arrochar for consolation pints!

    This time, the deep snow was still there, and to our horror so was the low cloud cover. After another wander round, thinking bloody hell not again, the cloud lifted and presented the crag to us, and right enough, we were miles away from our objective. A wade later to the bottom of the route revealed an icy slabby corner. Luckily we’d left all the ice gear behind as we’re really good at reading conditions!

    So I managed to get a great peg in at the bottom of the pitch, and that was it gear-wise pretty much. The ice was too thin for screws anyway. Back and footing up the corner it was a bit awkward swinging the axes in the confined space but this led to a great belay below the Arch pitch which Matt dispatched pretty sharpish. The route was 65 to 70 metres all together and followed the summer line. We had the usual debate about the grade. I thought V,4 whilst Matt gave it V,5. I guess it would really depend on the ice build up on the first pitch. A great day out whatever – you gotta love the Southern Highlands. This time the pint in the Village Inn tasted a bit sweeter!”

    Iain Small on the first winter ascent of Private Eye (VIII,8) on Mainreachan Buttress on Fuar Tholl. The route was first climbed in 1974 by the all-star team of Boysen, Braithwaite and Nunn and graded Scottish VS. The guidebook description has the ominous warning that ‘the route looks very hard and is reported as such.’ (Photo Murdoch Jamieson)

    Iain Small on the first winter ascent of Private Eye (VIII,8) on Mainreachan Buttress on Fuar Tholl. The route was first climbed in 1974 by the all-star team of Boysen, Braithwaite and Nunn and graded Scottish VS. The guidebook description has the ominous warning that ‘the route looks very hard and is reported as such.’ (Photo Murdoch Jamieson)

    Iain Small and Murdoch Jamieson had a memorable couple of days climbing in the Northern Highlands last week. First off was Fuar Tholl on January 22.

    “We reckoned the North-West would be a better venue with a higher snow line and reports of good ice and conditions in general,” Iain told me. “I was keen to revisit Mainreachan Buttress and Murdoch was easily persuaded, with the promise of a first visit in glorious weather plus a possible new line to try. Private Eye was one of the last remaining summer lines to await a winter ascent and its ‘Scottish VS’ grade and worrying description made it an ideal proposition. After a memorable dawn walk in we geared up and descended to find the conditions were very favourable, with ice hanging and the rock white.

    We made a different start to the summer slabby ramp of pitch 1 and then tried to follow pitch 2 to the cave belay but Murdoch was drawn left onto a fantastic ice drool that emerged from an icicle-festooned, overhanging fault. As he was belayed below this, I had the delicate task of not braining Murdoch. It was a pumpy, slightly worrying pitch with gear never feeling solid in the icy, shattered rock, but a stiff pull onto a ledge led to more conventional mixed corners and the girdling ledge below the last pitch.

    Murdoch started with the light dimming and was soon nearing the top and making encouraging noises as to the quality. It was all reassuring hooks, gear and turf – the perfect finale. We aren’t sure how much of the original Private Eye we followed but we took the best winter line on the day. Returning to Inverness, Murdoch checked with his landlord Donnie, who of course had done a summer ascent, and could recall a cave!”

    Tom Livingstone following Un Poco Loco (VII,7) on Bidean nam Bian in Glen Coe. Together with Dave Almond, Tom climbed three excellent routes in a period of very windy and stormy weather in the middle of January. (Photo Dave Almond)

    Tom Livingstone following Un Poco Loco (VII,7) on Bidean nan Bian in Glen Coe. Together with Dave Almond, Tom climbed three excellent routes in a period of very windy and stormy weather in the middle of January. (Photo Dave Almond)

    Tom Livingstone and Dave Almond had a very successful four days climbing in Glen Coe and on the Ben earlier in January. The weather was particularly wild that week, but even so, they succeeded on Un Poco Loco (VII,7 – January 13), Strident Edge (VI,7 – January 14) and Centurion (VIII,8 – January 16). Tom has written a full version of their trip on his blog, and a concise version follows below:

     

    The Beat

    Dave looked up, scoping out the climbing above. He tilted his head and, without warning, his orange helmet rolled backwards, falling straight off. It bounced onto the steep slab and then tumbled out of sight. We were both speechless – how had that just happened? His head torch was still attached and we were on the fifth pitch of Centurion, a classic VIII,8 on the Ben. It would be dark in 90 minutes and we still had over 100 metres of climbing left. ‘This just got interesting!’ I thought.

    ***

    We walked up to Church Door Buttress on Tuesday, seeking refuge from a fresh storm ploughing off the Atlantic. Dave’s new toys were put to good use: his new 19 million lumen headtorch is capable of lighting up the entire mountain, and the GPS watch performed well. We left a breadcrumb trail as we zigzagged up; ‘Water,’ ‘Camp 1,’ ‘Meadow.’

    Un Poco Loco is a fantastic four-pitch route taking an improbable line up the centre of the buttress. A giant, shattered arch hung overhead as I scrabbled around, trying to find my feet. Dave hunkered on the belay below, his feet going stamp, stamp, stamp, trying to ward off the cold. I found tenuous hooks and laybacked off parallel cracks. Howling winds, waves of spindrift, verglas: this certainly was fun. Pulling onto the belay ledge brought relief and the internal chatter began to quieten.

    ***

    The following morning we walked into the Ben with Centurion in mind. Within 50 metres of the CIC hut my boot sank through a snowdrift and plunged into a stream, soaking my foot. The only consolation was that Carn Dearg Buttress looked black, and we wouldn’t be going anywhere near Centurion. We scratched around for an alternative objective. Coire nan Ciste was too avalanche-prone, the lower buttresses were black, a storm was due to slam into Scotland at 6pm that evening and it was already 10.30am… how many lemons does it take for an epic?

    We settled for Strident Edge on the Trident Buttress with Dave Keogh coming along for the ride (an Irishman staying at the CIC). We avoided triggering any slides on the wade up and I started climbing the main pitch around 1pm. The climbing flowed by, and I pulled into the belay groove some time later.

    We topped out in darkness with worsening weather. By the time we were down-climbing back into the Ciste the winds were horrific – blowing us about like puppets, making us hunch over ice axes. The straightforward descent turned into a bit of a Weston-Super-Mare. Irish Dave dropped his head torch but we found it 100 metres lower – lucky man. After a long walk back to the hut (why isn’t there an outside light that comes on at night?) we finally re-packed and headed down to Fort William. I don’t think Irish Dave knew what he was letting himself in for, but hats off for rolling with it and staying strong when the storm hit!

    ***

    Friday morning and we were stood beneath Centurion again, this time lucky enough to have it in decent winter conditions. Dave climbed the first pitch by headtorch, dispatching the tricky and technical moves in style. He was obviously on some weight-loss mission as a Scotch egg and Twix bar flew past my head when he got to the belay I launched into the second pitch – an impressive overhanging corner system with nearly 40 metres of climbing. As it says in the guidebook, the holds just keep coming and the gear keeps on giving. It felt amazing to be stemming wide with loads of air beneath my feet, the belay in sight and the beat of Centurion pulsing through my arms.

    I belayed Dave using a large hex for a belay plate, since he’d forgotten his. I had a smile on my face and we cruised, mellow, floating on the high. I barely needed to swing my arms to keep warm, and we flowed through the route until pitch five When Dave’s helmet fell off his head, I definitely skipped a beat. It’s certainly one of the least expected things to happen to your partner as they climb. He had loosened the straps to make it more comfortable, but perhaps a bit too much.

    Thankfully, Dave’s head is pretty hard and he led the pitch fine, sans helmet and headtorch. When I reached his belay, at the junction with Route II, I figured it would be dark in an hour, we still had 100m of climbing to go and we didn’t know how hard it was. However, Dave wanted to continue, so I obliged and we sprinted for the top.

    We pulled it off just in time, topping out in near-darkness and descending Ledge Route in a giddy, schoolboy ‘just-got-away-with-it’ haze.

    Thanks for a great week Dave, and for choosing ‘up.’

    Simon Yearsley making the third ascent of Castro on the South-East Face of Sgurr and Fhidhleir. Two days later, Simon’s partner Helen Rennard returned to the Fhidhleir to make an ascent of the Nose Direct. Helen joins a small group of climbers who have climbed more than one route on this prestigious winter cliff. (Photo Helen Rennard)

    Simon Yearsley making the third ascent of Castro on the South-East Face of Sgurr and Fhidhleir. Two days later, Simon’s partner Helen Rennard returned to the Fhidhleir to make an ascent of the Nose Direct. Helen joins a small group of climbers who have climbed more than one route on this prestigious winter cliff. (Photo Helen Rennard)

    Helen Rennard scored a notable double on the Fhidhleir last week with ascents of Castro and the Fhidhleir’s Nose. Helen takes up the story:

    “Simon Yearsley and I were free to go climbing on January 19, and with the very cold temperatures and snowy weather, we both thought the same thing – The Fhidhleir’s Nose! We drove up through the day on the Sunday so we’d get a view of the Fhidhleir and also to check out the walk-in, which can be notoriously difficult under powder. Everything was looking good – The Nose was white and there was enough snow to outline the path, but not enough to make the going tough. In the warmth of the Elphin Hut we discussed plans and Simon suggested we try Castro instead. I agreed, with both of us thinking this would be a first winter ascent (having not read page 149 of The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland, or having checked the SMC journals carefully enough!)

    In the morning we set off under a starry sky and arrived at the base of the route at first light. We were both apprehensive about the climb ahead but the clear skies, sunshine and stunning views helped to calm us. My belay at the top of pitch one was in the sunshine, a rare event when climbing Scottish mixed!

    Simon later summed up the route – ‘Six pitches, overall VII,6. Highlights: the icy corner on Pitch 3; keeping a cool head with 25m of unprotected Tech 6 climbing above a big ledge; and Helen’s awesome route-finding on pitch 6 after I’d spent one and a half hours not finding the way through the final steep rock barrier [thanks, Simon!]‘ We thought the route was quite serious, with all but the last pitch rather lacking in gear. Topping out under the stars we made our way down and back to the bags. Thinking we’d done the first winter ascent I texted Simon Richardson, only for him to reply that he and Iain Small had climbed the route in 2009! Ours was the third ascent. [The second ascent was made by Colin Lesenger and John Davidson in February 2010]. Still, it was fantastic to have climbed a route on that face, especially in such stunning weather.

    After a day of eating, sleeping and eating cake in Ullapool, I headed back into the Fhidhleir with Neil Silver and Simon Davidson on Wednesday (January 21) to climb The Nose Direct, which was high up on all of our wish lists. We had a long and memorable day out, with difficult route finding (none of us having climbed the route in summer). Neil did a brilliant job leading the crux in the dark, and we finally topped out with a blanket of stars above and the Northern Lights in the distance. It felt comforting to follow our old footsteps all the way back to the car with each of us lost in thought.

    A very long day meant that I only had time for a couple of hours sleep in the back of my car (with all of my clothes and boots still on!) before driving home and heading straight to the office. Needless to say I wasn’t on my best form at work!”

    Sandy Allan on the final arete of Zeus (III) on Beinn Liath Mhor. Fuar Tholl and Sgurr Ruadh complete the backdrop. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Sandy Allan on the final arete of Zeus (III) on Beinn Liath Mhor. Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh complete the backdrop. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Some of the best ever icy mixed lines have been climbed in the last few days,” Andy Nisbet writes. “But despite slight embarrassment about reporting much more modest ones, even they have a story.

    After a very tiring and fruitless wade through deep snow to Beinn Bhan, Sandy Allan and I looked for somewhere near the road and potentially blown clearer than Beinn Bhan. I climbed a ridge on the south face of Beinn Liath Mhor at a grassy Severe some 10 years ago (or was it 15?), and had been waiting ever since for it to freeze; finally there seemed to be a chance and the walk-in wasn’t too far in deep snow.

    A few days ago (January 21), we reached the base of Coire Lair and immediately lost the path under snow. A set of footsteps went up towards Beinn Liath Mhor by the walkers’ route, so we followed them before traversing under the cliff. Unfortunately my ridge was at the far end, and the going was very rough, so Sandy kept spotting nearer lines while my ridge stayed stubbornly out of sight. Eventually a fine looking gully wore down my resolve despite my worry that white streaks on the rocky steps might just be powder. Sandy told me not to be so negative and they turned out to be good ice, so we soloed the whole route, carrying both ropes and a rack of gear (Half Pipe Gully, 200m, II).

    I was still keen on my ridge and there was a diagonal descent back to the cliff base. I had to work on Sandy to go back down to the land of deep powder and I had to keep quiet that I couldn’t really remember where my ridge was. I had some memory that it was the ridge left of Artemis, the only recorded winter route on the cliff and climbed by Sonya Drummond and Diana Preston in 2009. I remember Sonya phoning me up from the top of the mountain at 10pm in even deeper snow and asking ‘How do we get off? It’s all cliffs and avalanche prone slopes.’ I was in my warm living room at the time.

    When Sandy and I finally made it round there, I think I recognised the ridge and aching legs declined the direct start for an easier groove round on the right. We soloed up to an ice step to put on the rope but it looked easy, so we soloed on, and on, and to the top over a lovely but optional arete (Zeus, 250m III). I don’t know where the Severe bit was, maybe the start or an easy slab with a strip of turf which could have been scary in summer.

    Back home in Strathspey almost in daylight and reading on t’Internet about all the amazing conditions, for tomorrow my legs couldn’t face anything other than a return up the nice footsteps of the day before. Jonathan Preston was keen to join us, and he was tired from several days working on the hill. But it was the last good day of the current spell. One of the lines Sandy had spotted the day before looked good in my summer pictures so we headed there with much more ease than the day before, rather helped by the gear split three ways. For some reason Sandy wasn’t so keen on the line this time, and I was, so Jonathan could laugh at the old guys bickering. The start was a narrow chimney which I refused to lead with a sack and Sandy refused to haul it, so we bickered some more and Sandy led it with his sack. The next pitch was a chimney too, which I led with my sack and Jonathan led a third pitch with some ice (Grey Vote, 180m, IV,5).

    It seemed a bit early for going home despite deteriorating weather, but funnily enough Sandy disagreed. I offered to go and solo another ridge but despite being accused of route bagging, the others soloed it too (McTwist, 200m, II). The weather was worse on top but I had refused to take a map or compass on such a simple hill. I soon had some sympathy for Sonya as I took a poor line but fortunately recognised the wrong valley below and sidestepped the embarrassment. Two great days with just a hint of FOMO (I had to Google that one) over all the big icy mixed lines.”

    Greg Boswell on the crux pitch of Range War (X,10) on Creag and Dubh Loch. This was the second on-sight Grade X led by Greg in the space of four days and is a significant event in the history of Scottish winter climbing. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Greg Boswell on the crux pitch of Range War (X,10) on Creag and Dubh Loch. This was the second on-sight Grade X led by Greg in the space of four days and is a significant event in the history of Scottish winter climbing. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    The 100m-high Broad Terrace Wall on Creag an Dubh Loch is one of the most awe-inspiring cliffs in Scotland. It is situated above a steep lower wall and all the routes are sensationally exposed. It overhangs for much of its height, but the angle tips back considerably the wrong side of vertical between the lines of Sword of Damocles and Culloden. In summer this section is breached by two mythical climbs – Flodden (E6) and Range War (E4). Both routes are rarely climbed, but Flodden is slightly cleaner and sees occasional ascents when the cliff is dry. Range War is the steepest line, but unfortunately the first pitch is very vegetated and the route has only been visited a handful of times since its first ascent by Kenny Spence and Duncan McCallum in July 1983. It had been noted however as a possible futuristic winter line.

    Over the last three seasons Greg Bowell made a winter ascent of Range War one of his prime objectives. He made the long approach into Dubh Loch seven times to recce or attempt the route, but it was only in condition on one of these occasions, and then it was thawing fast. Finally on January 22 the stars aligned, and Greg and Guy Robertson made a tough approach through deep crusty snow to find the cliff hoared up and dripping with icicles and frozen turf.

    The pair decided to climb an alternative start to the left of original summer line, so Guy led a long and sustained pitch up steep turf and a series of overhanging capped corners to the Grass Balcony, a welcome ledge in a sea of overhanging rock. (This pitch was climbed last season by Doug and Uisdean Hawthorn). Greg then prepared himself for the daunting 35m-long overhanging crux pitch that is graded 6a in summer. After his outstanding lead of The Greatest Show on Earth just three days before, Greg was initially unsure whether he had the physical and mental strength to make the lead.

    “I started up with every move nudging my thoughts into the correct headspace, and found myself enjoying every second of the experience’” Greg wrote on his blog. “I composed myself and tried not to let the technical torques and moves get one arm more pumped than the other. I continued up and then the pump started to sneak in. I was shaking and looking for the next move, shaking and looking, this process went on until I decided to charge for the niche that looked like it would be home to a nice comfortable rest. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be. The route’s steepness was deceptive and although the niche wasn’t as steep as the lower wall, it was still very overhanging. I fought to get some gear in and try and de-pump my now burning forearms. Deep Egyptians and contortions were tried to relieve my arms, and finally, once I had scoped what looked like the way to sanctuary, I powered on through the steep capping roof of the niche to gain a wild and astonishingly exposed position on the overhanging arête. Hundreds of meters of cliff dropping away below me with nothing but air between me and the corrie floor. This is a memory that will last a lifetime!”

    Greg had climbed the crux, but the pitch was still far from over.

    “After that it was out onto and over the ice-capped overlap and into a position below another steep ice smothered bulge. At this point the head games had returned, I really didn’t want to blow it at this point, but the next section of climbing was not too hard but very off balance. With only a turf hook half hammered into the capping ice, as there wasn’t enough for screws (which we did remember this time), I had thoughts of fluffing it and taking the ride into the exposure in the back of my head as I committed. Eventually I gained easier ground and the comfort of the ice cave where I belayed and took in the exposure in a more comfortable state.”

    Guy followed and led the top pitch on thick bulging alpine style ice to the top.

    Greg contacted me the following day. “Scotland has gone and worked its magic again,” he said. “Another outstanding route went down yesterday. Three years I’ve been wanting this one, and it was worth waiting for and all the unsuccessful walk-ins. Breath-taking and possibly up there as one of the best pitches I’ve ever done!”

    Greg and Guy gave Range War (Winter Variation) the same grade as The Greatest Show on Earth at X,10. Two new Grade Xs in the space of four days significantly raises the bar, and in response, the small but tight-knit world of Scottish winter climbing world has collectively gasped in astonishment.

    Guy Robertson leading the first pitch of The Greatest Show on Earth (X,10) on Cul Mor during the first ascent. The route continues up the wall above starting from the small ice smear up and left of Guy’s head. The route goes into Scottish winter climbing history as the first on sight of a new Grade X. (Photo Greg Boswell)

    Guy Robertson leading the first pitch of The Greatest Show on Earth (X,10) on Cul Mor during the first ascent. The route continues up the wall above starting from the small ice smear up and left of Guy’s head. The route goes into Scottish winter climbing history as the first on sight of a new Grade X. (Photo Greg Boswell)

    Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson pulled off a remarkable coup yesterday (January 19) when they made the first ascent The Greatest Show on Earth (X,10). This awe-inspiring route takes the huge blank wall on the right side of Coire Gorm on the north face of Cul Mor in Coigach. North-West climbers had been eyeing up this imposing wall for the last 20 years, but defended by a large overhang and plum vertical above, it was clearly a route for the next generation.

    Guy led the first pitch, a steep icefall leading to a small terrace below the overhang, before handing over to Greg who then pulled out the lead of his life. Greg is no stranger to big and bold leads but this pitch stretched Greg to the max. A vertical ice pillar led to the start of the roof that was protected by a couple of inverted Bulldogs and a poor cam. After several attempts Greg pulled through the roof and set off up the impending wall above, climbing further and further above his poor protection.

    “Once I was fully committed and beyond the point of no return, the big fall and dodgy gear left my thoughts completely,” Greg explained on his blog. “I got a little flustered when I couldn’t see a way above the roof and my only axe placement in a thin smear started to slip, but I was committed now, so I had to force myself to calm down. I looked around, took some deep breaths and opted for some very powerful and dynamic moves to get myself out of that situation. Unfortunately all it did was take me further away from my so-called gear and into some of the boldest and most technically difficult moves on marginal placements that I’ve done… I rocked up over the lip of the roof on the tiniest of footholds, praying that it didn’t blow off, and eventually found myself in a semi rest but very off balance position. I struggled to hammer in and clip a turf hook, which surprisingly felt like I’d just clipped a bolt, as long as I didn’t rip the turf off the wall… After composing myself again, I slowly teetered upwards and finally felt the addictive rush of joy you get when you know you’ve basically just gone all or nothing and managed to scrape through by the skin of your teeth!”

    Above, a couple of easier but excellent icy mixed pitches, led to 100m of easier ground that the pair soloed to the top. The Greatest Show on Earth was graded X,10 and put to bed a well-known Northern Highlands last great problem. But more significantly, this was the first time a new Grade X had been climbed on sight. Nick Bullock’s lead of the crux pitch of Nevermore in 2013 hinted that this breakthrough was not far away, and Greg’s outstanding performance on Cul Mor has now made it a reality.

    The Greatest Show on Earth is a milestone in the development of Scottish winter climbing. I suggested to Greg that his feet could have hardly left the ground since climbing the route. “You’re right there mate,” Greg replied. “Apart from feeling a little tired, I’m on Cloud Nine!”

    Looking north-east to Slioch with Atlantic Wall forming the left skyline. The wall itself is 250m high and the adjoining ridge a further 200m. Over 450m elevation gain is required to reach the summit making the winter routes on Slioch amongst the longest in the British Isles. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Looking north-east to Slioch with the impressive Atlantic Wall forming the left skyline. The wall itself is 250m high and the adjoining ridge a further 200m. Over 450m elevation gain is required to reach the summit (the most feasible descent) making the winter routes on Slioch amongst the longest in the British Isles. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    When Cold Climbs was published in 1983, the first two chapters on Beinn Bhan and the Fainnaichs were a revelation. These areas were terra incognita for most Scottish climbers at the time, and they launched a multitude of dreams as keen winter climbers began to expand their horizons from Ben Nevis, Glen Coe and the Cairngorms.

    Thirty years on and the publication of The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland is having a similar effect. Roger Webb’s inspiring chapter on Slioch’s Atlantic Wall has intrigued many, and it was clearly not going to be long before the cliff saw some attention this winter. Before this season, Skyline Highway was the only winter route on the wall to have seen a repeat.

    On Saturday January 17, Erick Baillot and Rob Bryniarski repeated The Sea, The Sea (VII,7) the plum line up the centre of the face. This Roger Webb-Neil Wilson creation stems back to March 1996.

    “These were the best conditions I’ve ever seen on a sandstone crag,” Erick told me. “The turf was frozen solid, there was ice forming in lots of places and there was a solid blanket of snow from 400m. We linked a lot of pitches. I led pitches 2, 3 and 4, and linked pitch 6 and the 40m groove above to give a full 60m. Rob led on and we climbed 80m of easier mixed ground moving together and we still finished [the lower wall] in the dark. By then a strong south-westerly wind had picked up and we were battered by graupel. We went up to the summit via the incredibly long upper ridge and descended by the bealach between the two summits. The crag is amazing and I will go back to it despite being such a big day (we were 15 hours car to car).”

    I think Erick and Rob’s ascent was impressively quick. When I last climbed on Atlantic Wall Roger and I arrived back at the car after a 16-hour trip and Roger commented that this was the first time he’d ever climbed on Slioch and returned the same day he set off!

    Twerking

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Twerk (V,5) in Coire nan Eun deep in the Fannaichs. This little known cliff on the north side of An Coileachan has probably been visited only half a dozen times. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Twerk (V,5) in Coire nan Eun deep in the Fannaichs. This little known cliff on the north side of An Coileachan has probably been visited only half a dozen times. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    The continuous run of stormy weather this winter has made choosing a venue and selecting an appropriate route particularly challenging. As ever, Andy Nisbet has consistently demonstrated the knack of being in the right place at the right time. Take this recent example from the Fannaichs:

    “The winter of 1994 was one of the great ice years that regularly happen every seven or eight years (1979, 1986, 1994, 2002, 2010, 2017),” Andy writes. “I climbed a lot in Coire Ghranda (Beinn Dearg) that year and returning to the car, I kept seeing white streaks on a distant cliff in the Fannaichs. On the last weekend before the weather turned mild, I decided to visit and approached along the route I had been watching, a long way from the Ullapool road. One reason for going that way is that I wasn’t really sure where the cliff was, so it seemed to make sense keeping it in view on the approach. For once the white streaks did turn out to be ice, and I had a great day (in retrospect) scaring myself on routes I shouldn’t really have soloed, the justification being that the ice was a once in a lifetime chance.

    I didn’t really expect anyone else to go there, but several parties did, culminating in what must have been a great day when Erik Brunskill and Dafydd Morris climbed the hard and serious Slam (VI,6) and followed it with Feral Buttress, one of the steepest Grade IIIs in Scotland. There is my speculation that they did it after Slam and were on such a high that they didn’t notice the hard bits. They also cycled in from Grudie, which did seem much more sensible.

    Twenty years after my first visit, the feeling that any day there would be an anti-climax had worn off, so I walked under the cliff on a Fannaichs Munro bagging trip. It’s not very big, but turfy, north facing and with a couple of possible lines all fitted the bill for a visit. Sandy Allan and I sat in the layby on a warmish day in February 2014, hummed and hawed for a while, then decided to go home. Much later in the year (December 28), Jonathan Preston and I were thinking of somewhere to go, and it seemed to fit the bill.

    The cycling road turned out to be quite icy and the weather turned out to be mistier than the forecast had said. It’s not the easiest cliff to approach, with a narrow terrace across a very steep hillside only being shown on the 1:25000 map and not on the 1:50000, and it was very white up there. I cursed not setting my altimeter when we ended up wading around in deep snow on a small ledge, which ended in nothing. Some backtracking and a second attempt higher up luckily turned out to be correct.

    The cliff was rather plastered in snow but we still decided to try the harder line on the far right. We soon found out that the snow had rather insulated the turf, and as I struggled up the first pitch, I began to remember that Erik had tried a line somewhere near and backed off due to lack of gear. I presume we were trying an easier line because I did reach a big ledge below some very steep and smooth ground. Jonathan was tempted to give it a go, but I persuaded him to climb a turfy ramp off to the right. It clearly wasn’t easy as he disappeared out of sight, but then reappeared directly above my head waving with enthusiasm; obviously he’d cracked it. The last pitch turned out to be much easier than it looked from below, helped by the turf being exposed and well frozen. We called it Twerk (V,5), nothing to do with Jonathan’s climbing style.

    A week later (January 4) it was warmer but the turf had been frozen on Lurcher’s Crag the day before. The temptation of a clear road was enough for a return to the easier line. This time Jonathan took his GPS to find the approach terrace and we reached the crag quickly. This line was on the left of the East Buttress and the ice on the first pitch was much thicker than on the first visit. It was still a bit smeary and ended in bottomless soggy sphagnum moss. Jonathan’s pitch was more technical and took a slightly twisting line up steep turfy ground. The weather was warming all the time so the descent was very boggy, but we even got home in daylight. The route was named Twist (III,4).”

    Shangri-La

    Jonathan Preston moving along the horizontal section at the top of El Dorado (III,5) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm during the first ascent. The great defile of the Larig Ghru and the cliffs of Sron na Lairige can be seen behind. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston moving along the horizontal section at the top of El Dorado (III,5) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm during the first ascent. The great defile of the Lairig Ghru and the cliffs of Sron na Lairige can be seen behind. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Shangri-La might be overstating it a bit, but an overlooked section of crag on a very accessible cliff is my idea of a revelation’” Andy Nisbet writes. “One wild and warm day in December (there were a few of those!), I was after some exercise and looked at a picture of Lurcher’s Crag. All the good lines had been done but I was only after some exercise, so what about the upper crag left of Central Gully? No routes, so why not go there?

    Arriving at the Cairn Gorm car park mid-morning, the weather was as unpleasant as I had thought. But there was only me, so I could just go as far as I wanted. The advantage of being late is that there was a trail through deep wet snow to ‘Lurcher’s Ridge’, and then it wasn’t far to the crag. The wind was a howling westerly but there was the usual shelter in the vortex on the summit. And there wasn’t any snow on the crag, or even in Central Gully. But once you’ve left the car, turning back is a waste of effort, so I put crampons on and descended into the maelstrom. The aim was to get back up as quickly as possible so I took the first ledge on to the crag and zigzagged my way up to reach the top with some relief. Back out of the gale, I actually thought the climbing was OK and it would make a reasonable winter route.

    Forwarding a month or so to January 3, the weather had just turned cold but had still to settle down (will it ever?) so I suggested the crag to Jonathan Preston as a handy place to go, and he agreed with surprising enthusiasm. Even as we descended into Central Gully with the usual upward gale, then traversed out to the start of the route, he still continued enthusiastically out to a crest beyond and told me there was loads of turfy crag below. This did rather puzzle me, but I was focussed on the line above, so I called him back and set off. Now with a rope, I took an overlap direct and on the second pitch, Jonathan climbed a direct groove to very much improve the line (it was Grade III,4).

    That was quick, so why not investigate the turfy ground below, and try to link up with the crest on the left. This time we had to descend further and bypass the crux pitch of Central Gully (which you can do on the left, looking down). Coming back under the pitch, it was surprisingly icy, certainly thick enough to climb and nicely soft with water trickling down, but I doubt wet ice screws would have held. Fortunately we didn’t have to decide, but needed to investigate a lot of rock beneath our first route. Our first excited impression of ice smeared crack-lines soon mellowed when reality kicked in and actually they were steep, smooth and blind.

    We moved on to an icy corner which looked more reasonable, and then a deep V-groove which was hidden until underneath and looked quite easy. It turned out to be much better and steeper than it looked. The back was well iced but squeezed in there with your axes in the ice, it turned out to be very hard to step up or even see your feet (not helped by snow blowing up your nostrils and me being long-sighted anyway). Pulling harder than permitted by good style seemed to work and led to easy ground with another slabby tier above, this time with blobs of turf and definitely no hard pulling. Jonathan soon reached his footsteps from the earlier recce and continued up the crest for a long pitch. The finish was easier but we decided on IV,4 overall. We called it Shangri-La, and the first route Beyul.

    We couldn’t leave when there was another line, this time right of our first route and overlooking the top of Central Gully. The first pitch was fairly easy but the second had two short overhanging sections, both on amazing hooks round chokestones, finishing on a horizontal crest (III,5). We called it the last on the theme, El Dorado.

    The nice thing about local climbing is that you get down in daylight, and without a rush.”