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    Scottish winter climbing news

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    Iain Young making the first ascent of Boustie Buttress (III,4) in Corrie of Clova in the Angus Glens. (Photo John Higham)

    Iain Young making the first ascent of Boustie Buttress (III,4) in Corrie of Clova in the Angus Glens. The mid-December cold blast even brought relatively low-lying routes in Glen Clova into winter condition.(Photo John Higham)

    “Whilst not quite in the same league as Boggle or Culloden,” Iain Young writes, “John Higham and I enjoyed a fine (civilised, sunny and short) day out in Clova on Saturday December 13.

    With all ways west and north-west out of Aboyne apparently suffering from closed snow gates, and thinking Lochnagar or Beinn a’Bhuird would be very hard work, we decided to try Corrie Brandy. However on the way in we changed our minds and headed into the Corrie of Clova to climb one of the two attractive ribs catching the morning sun. Three short pitches, with the crux a surprisingly steep, (well frozen) turf-filled groove cutting through the final tower – Boustie Buttress (III,4).

    John of course at some stage remembered he had actually been in there 15 years before and soloed the rib to the right…  Home in time for a cold beer and an early meal. The Angus Glens are surprisingly varied.”

    Guy Robertson climbing the crucial second pitch of Culloden (IX,9) on Creag an Dubh Loch during the second winter ascent. This sensational mixed route was one of the first Grade IX routes in Scotland to receive an on sight first winter ascent. (Photo Greg Boswell)

    Guy Robertson climbing the crucial second pitch of Culloden (IX,9) on Creag an Dubh Loch during the second winter ascent. This sensational mixed route was one of the first Grade IX routes in Scotland to receive an on sight first winter ascent. (Photo Greg Boswell)

    On Saturday December 13, Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell pulled off the second ascent of Culloden (IX,9) on Creag an Dubh Loch’s formidable Broad Terrace Wall. This exceptionally steep summer E2 was first climbed in winter by the top trio of Iain Small, Gordon Lennox and Tony Stone in December 2010.

    “We swithered a bit over route choice but in the end Culloden seemed sensible,” Guy told me. “Firstly because it’s such a great line which came highly recommended by three of the country’s best winter climbers, and secondly because it only has three pitches and we might just be able to get up it in daylight! Every pitch provided superb climbing – the first very long and sustained but not too difficult, the second shorter but very strenuous and aggressive, and the third a steep, complex and very committing finale. Overall, solid at grade IX was our consensus. The icicle was there for the technical crux getting into the groove on pitch two, and although Greg knocked this off the remaining ice was useful nonetheless. Like all the most memorable days our ascent wasn’t without incident – on the third pitch, in a rather ‘strung out’ predicament I managed to get my axe firmly jammed in the only good placement for pick or protection. After some protracted and very precarious but wholly ineffective wriggling and jiggling to try and get it out I gave up, clipped it as a decent runner and lowered a loop of rope down to Greg to get a loan of one of his axes. The vicious bulge and fist crack above were then duly dispatched just in time to catch the last rays of a dying day…”

    I was intrigued as to how Guy and Greg came to make the inspired choice of Creag an Dubh Loch for their first route of the season. After all, Dubh Loch is normally thought of a cliff that takes a long period of cold weather to come into condition.

    “Our main reason for going to the Dubh Loch was simply that it’s the best crag in Britain!” Guy joked. “Seriously though, there are lots of different options and styles there, and it rarely disappoints. It’s been a very wet couple of months in the east so the chances of ice were quite favourable; the low altitude meant that deep snow (at least on the crag) should be less of a concern; and the forecast was better for this side of the country with a warm front moving in late in the day. Broad Terrace Wall is also exceptionally steep so the turf more likely to be exposed and well frozen. As it turned out it was a great choice with a very snowy and icy (though not rimed) cliff and an approach that wasn’t too strenuous despite still taking about four hours in all. A night in the bothy helps to break up the approach though.”

    Roger Webb climbing the headwall on the North-West Buttress (IV,4) of Beinn a’Mhuinidh. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb climbing the headwall on the North-West Buttress (IV,4) of Beinn a’Mhuinidh. This is probably the first route to be climbed on the summit cliff of the mountain. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    On Saturday December 13 Roger Webb and I decided to gamble on the summit cliff of Beinn a’Mhuinidh in the Northern Highlands. We had stared at this NW-facing crag whilst descending Slioch on several occasions, and as far as we knew, nobody had ever visited it before. With a cliff base at 550m it is low-lying, but we were counting on it being blasted free of snow and fully frozen.

    Our optimism was misplaced because as we approached the foot of the face through a snow storm the ground was still soft under our feet, and the cliff covered in snow and not as steep as we had hoped. Prospects looked bleak, so whilst Roger sorted the gear, I headed right to look at a steeper looking buttress that was just visible a long way to the right. From underneath I could see that it reared up into a steep headwall. This was excellent news as there would be little reliance on turf, but there was no obvious line and it looked extremely difficult. As I walked back to Roger, I looked back, and through the blowing snow there was a hint of a right-trending diagonal weakness. So perhaps there was a way?

    We climbed easy snow and ice up the lower half of the buttress to reach the foot of the headwall. The rock was worryingly compact, there was no belay and failure looked increasingly likely. But sure enough,  a hidden gash cut deep into the crag, so I stamped out a platform in the snow and Roger set off up the gash that soon reared up into a steep chimney. Hopeful looking spikes turned out to be rounded and useless, so Roger continued up as we were blinded by yet another snowstorm. On the plus side, the turf was frozen.

    But you should never give up when Scottish winter climbing. When the chimney tightened and steepened, Roger found a crucial cam placement that gave him the confidence to commit to the squeeze section above. After a brief struggle he moved up to a good ledge on the blunt crest of the buttress. When I came up I was concerned about the blank-looking wall above, but miraculously the rock changed at this point from completely unhelpful to cracked and featured. It had stopped snowing too. An excellent pitch linking grooves up the headwall led to easier ground, where Roger bounded along the final easy ridge to the top. All that was left to do was to bag the summit and then descend the long south-easterly slopes back to Incheril.

    Martin climbing the second pitch of Boggle (VIII,8) on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe during the first winter ascent. (Photo Robin Thomas)

    Martin Moran climbing the second pitch of Boggle (VIII,8) on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe during the first winter ascent. (Photo Robin Thomas)

    Last week’s ferocious storms relented on Saturday December 13 providing a well-timed weather window before a quick thaw on Sunday. The fast onset of winter made venue choice tricky, as lying snow had insulated unfrozen turf, and there were deep drifts on some of the approaches. The solution was to go where the wind had scoured the hillside, and where the crags faced into the wind so the exposed vegetation was frozen. The Northern Corries fitted the bill as they were windblown, and provided good mixed climbing conditions. Ben Nevis on the other hand was not so good as it had collected large amounts of snow and most climbing was restricted to the lower lying cliffs such as the Douglas Boulder.

    An excellent choice was Beinn Eighe where Martin Moran and Robin Thomas took full advantage of the wintry conditions. “After several years of eyeing the line, I finally got on Boggle on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe on Saturday,” Martin told me. “It was worth the wait and a special thrill to climb a Robin Smith route in winter.”

    Boggle (E1) was first climbed by Robin Smith and Andy Wightman in October 1961 and was unrepeated for over 40 years. “Boggle is one of the mystical routes pioneered in summer by the late Robin Smith in his brief but mercurial career,” Martin explains on his blog. “The route climbs the central portion of the Eastern Ramparts on East Buttress. His description was as enigmatic as it was vague. He said, ‘Climb by cracks, grooves, flakes, corners, hand traverses and mantleshelves away up and right on the crest of the pillar.’ Since 1961 it probably remained unrepeated until Andy Nisbet climbed it 10 years ago, found the features and confirmed a modern grade of E1, 5b. Boggle remained one of the few E1’s on the mountain that had not received a winter ascent.”

    Martin and Robin graded their winter ascent of Boggle VIII,8, and described it as “a monolithic and super-sustained winter line with pitch grades of 8, 8 and 7.”

    Although the season has barely started, the first winter ascent of Boggle will almost certainly be a contender for one of the stand out ascents of the winter.

    Ally Swinton looking up the line of Punching Numbers (VI,7) on Creagan Cha-no. Mac’s Crack (VI,7) is the obvious deep crack on the left. (Photo Gav Swinton)

    Ally Swinton looking up the line of Punching Numbers (VI,7) on Creagan Cha-no. Mac’s Crack (VI,7) is the prominent deep cleft on the left. (Photo Gav Swinton)

    Ally Swinton visited Creagan Cha-no with his Dad, Gav Swinton, on December 5. Walking under the cliff, Ally noticed that the steep intermittent crack-line to the right of Mac’s Crack in the Tower Area wasn’t on his topo, so he decided to give it a go. Ally started up the obvious groove (common with Mathers-Mellergard) before continuing up the corner and roof line with a wild final sequence. It had “good gear and pumpy moves”, Ally told me. “The route really packed a punch. I found an amazing Stein pull in the crux section that gave the route some real character.”

    Ally and Gav called their new line Punching Numbers. The Mac’s Crack wall is steeper than it looks from below and I’m sure this new addition fully deserves its VI,7 rating.

    Kev Shields climbing the IV,5 mixed version of The Gift on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. North Gully lies just to the left. (Photo Steve Holmes)

    Kev Shields climbing the IV,5 mixed version of The Gift on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. North Gully lies just to the left. (Photo Steve Holmes)

    On December 5, Kev Shields and Steve Holmes made an enterprising ascent of the mixed ground just right of North Gully on Ben Nevis. “It was pretty sketchy on slabby terrain for two pitches then easier wandering,” Kev told me. It was great fun, and we reckoned it was top end IV,5.”

    It turned out that this is the line followed by the Gift, a III,4 ice climb that sometimes comes into condition late in the season. Kev and Steve have no wish to claim a new route, however their outing clearly provided a very different climbing experience to the ice version of The Gift.

    In the past, ascents such as this were considered similar to routes that bank out in a heavy winter, and dismissed as little more than curiosities. Times and attitudes change however, and with leaner winters and the rarity of some routes forming ice, we may see more early season ascents like this in the future. And why not? Good climbing is good climbing, and especially so when the route follows a logical line.

    Andy Inglis on the second pitch of Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. The second pitch continues up the narrow crack at the top of the picture in line with Andy’s helmet. (Photo Will Sim)

    Andy Inglis on the second pitch of Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. The third pitch continues up the narrow crack at the top of the picture in line with Andy’s helmet. (Photo Will Sim)

    Will Sim and Andy Inglis enjoyed an excellent two days on the Ben at the beginning of this week. On Sunday December 6 they made an ascent of Sidewinder (VII,7) on South Trident Buttress. This route has become popular in recent seasons and is good early in the winter as it is a pure snowed-up rock route. Their ascent was particularly impressive as Sunday was a wild and stormy day on the West, especially high up on Ben Nevis.

    The main event took place on the following day (December 7) when Will and Andy made the second ascent of Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9). This futuristic-looking line to the right of Sioux Wall on Number Three Gully Buttress was first climbed by Greg Boswell and Adam Russell in November last season.

    “It’s a mega route and has the hallmarks of a future classic,” Will told me “Two hard pitches, the first thin, techy and run out and the second steep and pumpy – brilliant! A great find by Greg.”

    Elsewhere on the Ben, activity has been slowly picking up with routes climbed lower down on the mountain such as Jacknife, The Great Chimney and the South-West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder – all sensible choices in the current wild and windy weather.

    Roger Everett on the first ascent of Rumbling Ridge (III,4) on Braeriach. Rocky ridges make good early season routes as their relatively low angle means they collect snow and they do not rely on frozen turf. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Everett on the first ascent of Rumbling Ridge (III,4) on Braeriach. Rocky ridges make good early season routes as their relatively low angle means they collect snow and they do not rely on frozen turf. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    After a very warm November, the winter season season finally got underway in the first week of December as westerly winds brought snow to the higher tops. As usual, The Northern Corries were the most popular venue and there were ascents of The Message, Pot of Gold, Hidden Chimney and Invernookie in Coire an t-Sneachda, and over in Coire an Lochain, Savage Slit and Ewen Buttress also saw ascents.

    Over on Skye, Mike Lates, Jamie Bankhead and Iain Murray made an ascent of BC Buttress on Sgurr Thearlaich. This relatively high altitude crag overlooking the Great Stone Shoot comes into condition very fast, and the trio found an alternative start which brought the grade down from IV,5 to IV,4.

    Finally on December 5, Roger Everett and I added to our collection of obscure routes on the north side of Braeriach with the first ascent of the three-pitch Rumbling Ridge (III,4). This provided a good early season excursion to blow away the autumn cobwebs. The name refers to the rickety second pitch, which is a lot more solid after Roger trundled a series of stacked blocks.

    With storms and blizzards forecast for the next few days, it looks like winter has now well and truly arrived!

    John Dalton making a rare traverse of the Rum Cuillin in winter conditions. The transitory nature of winter conditions on the mountains of the Inner Hebrides means that  completing such a traverse is an almost impossible expedition to plan. (Photo Iain Young)

    John Dalton making a rare winter traverse (III) of the Rum Cuillin in 1983. Awkward access, low altitude and the transitory nature of cold conditions means that planning winter mountaineering on the Scottish Islands in advance, is an almost impossible task. (Photo Iain Young)

    Soon after the new SMC guidebook Inner Hebrides and Arran was published, Iain Young contacted me about the Rum Cuillin in winter.

    “Back in early spring 1983, John Dalton and I traversed the full Rum Cuillin ridge in pretty much full winter nick, “ Iain explained. “John and I were on the island for a week doing geology field work (I did much of my PhD research there) and were staying in one of the bothies around Kinloch Castle. After getting to bed one foul, wet and cold night we woke to one of those all too rare, perfect, West Highland mornings – cold, clear and a hard frost – and to see plastered hills. We immediately gave up on the idea of ‘work’ and set out on a traverse of the ridge under snow.

    Conditions were close to perfect – light rime, plenty of snow, no neve, frequent verglas, snow down to just below the level of the Trallval-Ainshval col. We weren’t burdened with axes, crampons or rope, but I’d done the ridge twice before in summer, and the Hallival-Askival section probably twice more, so we were armed with quite some knowledge of the holds! Starting on Barkeval, everything was taken direct as per the classic summer traverse (I recall one exciting section on the Askival  pinnacle where a combination of melting off, and prising verglas from, little holds with my fingers was required – and the tricky little slab on the way up Ainshval was also thought-provoking), though I am not sure whether or not we went to the West top of Trallval which is off of the main ridge line.

    Overall, we thought it was technically harder than the Aonach Eagach or Curved Ridge, though much  escapable – perhaps akin in difficulty to Castle Ridge on the Ben in winter. Crampons etc. would certainly have made the tricky parts much, much easier and much more secure… A fantastic and rather unique day out –  given the difficulty in getting there, it would be very hard to plan for such a thing.”

    Aside from the Skye Ridge, winter ascents of Scotland’s major ridge lines have not been systematically recorded, so it would be interesting to know if anyone else has had the rare good fortune to make a winter traverse of the Rum Cuillin.

    The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland, compiled by Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton, has just been published by Vertebrate Graphics. It is one of the most significant books about British climbing to be produced in recent years. The cover photo shows Dave MacLeod climbing Dalriada (E7) on The Cobbler. (Photo Dave Cuthbertson)

    The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland, compiled by Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton, has just been published by Vertebrate Publishing. It is one of the most significant books about British climbing to be produced in recent years. The cover photo shows Dave MacLeod climbing Dalriada (E7) on The Cobbler. (Photo Dave Cuthbertson)

    This is an inspirational book.

    Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton have compiled contributions from 25 authors describing 33 of the most significant mountain crags in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The book is published in large format and illustrated with many action shots and outstanding landscape photographs by Colin Threlfall and Dave Cuthbertson, resulting in a lavish celebration of Scottish summer and winter climbing. The chapters describe the nature and character of the crag together with a brief recent climbing history and a ‘Story’ by the author on their individual experience. Guy and Adrian state in their Introduction that “many of the climbers have enjoyed extended love affairs with the crags they describe” and the resulting writing shines through as authoritative, and sometimes very personal too. This makes for compulsive reading, and it is hard to put the book down as all too quickly you are swept away to the sharp end of a long and lonely lead high in the Scottish mountains.

    When Guy gave me the brief to write one the chapters (the Fhidhleir’s Nose), I was a little concerned that the standard of climbing to be described in the book was too high. Many of Scotland’s recent cutting edge routes are highlighted, and to complete the full list you would need to be proficient at Grade IX and E8. The secret of success for the likes of Hard Rock and Cold Climbs was that the routes were just about accessible for the climbers of the day, however The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland addresses a different remit. Although three or four routes are highlighted in each chapter, the purpose of the book is to portray the nature of the cliffs and the character of the climbing rather than presenting a simple tick list of climbs. In a similar way to Cold Climbs and Hard Rock however, I suspect in the coming decades many of the harder routes mentioned will become well-travelled. But more importantly, my worry that the book would be too inaccessible is dispelled by the nature of the writing. Rather than take an elitist stance, the authors have written in a ‘you can do it too’ style, which is as refreshing as it is engaging.

    I have no doubt that The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland will play a part in updating the broader perception of Scottish climbing and stand as an important historical record. The developments in the Scottish mountains over the last couple of decades have largely gone under the radar screen, which is surprising, as arguably the Scottish Highlands and Islands are the most exciting adventure climbing playground in the British Isles. Whilst the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal has painstakingly recorded new route descriptions, and magazine and journal news reports have attempted to put some of these routes into context, many will be unaware of the quiet climbing revolution that has been taking place north of the border. The majority of the accounts in the book would have merited a contemporary magazine article in themselves, but with the exception of one or two routes that have been described on this blog or reported on UKC, most have passed unnoticed. This is probably how many of the climbers involved would have wanted it, but it is fortunate that they have now taken up the opportunity to recount their experiences, so a flavour of the last 20 years of Scottish climbing history has been preserved for posterity.

    In their Introduction, Guy and Adrian state their aim is to inspire the next generation. There is no doubt that The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland will succeed in doing this. Congratulations to all who contributed and for Vertebrate Publishing for their commitment and for delivering such an outstanding production. The publication of books like this is a rare event, so if you have a strong interest in Scottish trad climbing, be sure to get yourself a copy.