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    Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published by Simon Richardson

    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 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)

    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 Graphics 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.

    PS Guy and Adrian will describe the story behind the book at a North-East Mountain Trust talk in Aberdeen on November 26.

    Inner Hebrides and Arran was published a few months ago by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. This attractive guidebook covers the mountains south of Skye including the winter climbs on Arran. The cover photo shows Pete Whillance climbing Little Red Book (HVS 5b) on Aird Dearg on Mull. (Photo Colin Moody)

    Inner Hebrides and Arran was published a few months ago by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. This attractive guidebook covers the mountains south of Skye including the winter climbs on Arran. The cover photo shows Pete Whillance climbing Little Red Book (HVS 5b) on Aird Dearg on Mull. (Photo Colin Moody)

    Back in the spring the SMC published Inner Hebrides and Arran, a comprehensive guidebook covering the climbing from Canna in the north to Arran in the south. Islands described range from the well-established venues of Rum and Eigg, to newly developed cliffs on Canna, Muck, Coll, Tiree, Islay, Jura and Cara. Authored by local experts Colin Moody and Graham Little, the book includes descriptions for over 2500 routes, many of which have not appeared in print before.

    The guide has been produced in A5 format, which allows for larger photographs than the current SMC guidebook series, and a two-column layout for easier reading. The production team led by Tom Prentice and Susan Jensen have done an outstanding job in laying out the book, which is well illustrated with attractive maps, exceptionally clear crag photo diagrams and inspiring action photographs. This complements the carefully researched text, and the complete package just makes you want to book the next ferry, grab your rock boots and chalk bag, and head out climbing!

    From a winter perspective Arran is the main interest, and the crags are described and illustrated in a clear and informative way. Winter climbing on Arran was a blank on my personal map until April last year when Stuart MacFarlane persuaded me over to try a new route on Beinn Nuis. Our trip was a memorable and fulfilling experience, and made me better appreciate the outstanding winter contributions made by Alistair Walker, Dave Saddler, Scott Muir and Graham Little himself over the last couple of decades. I was particularly struck looking up at the The Riddle in Core Dangean. Steep and uncompromising it is a compelling winter line but it looked far more challenging that its given grade of V,6. Like most of the harder winter routes on Arran, I suspect that it is unrepeated.

    Well done to Colin and Graham for writing such an informative and inspiring guidebook, and hats off once again to the SMC for publishing a handsome volume to this lesser known part of our remarkable Islands.

    Colin Grant climbing the great Scottish sea cliff classic Prophecy of Drowning (E2) on Pabbay in the Outer Hebrides. Colin climbed at a high standard in summer and winter for over fifty years and was an inspiration for all that knew him. (Photo courtesy John Hutchinson)

    Colin Grant climbing the great Scottish sea cliff classic Prophecy of Drowning (E2) on Pabbay in the Outer Hebrides. Colin climbed at a high standard in summer and winter for over fifty years and was an inspiration for all that knew him. (Photo courtesy John Hutchinson)

    In September, Glasgow climbers were shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Colin Grant. Colin had been a lifelong mountaineer with a seemingly ageless capacity for climbing and hill walking. Colin was well into his third round of Munros and still climbed to a high standard. In his mid sixties he made ascents of modern Scottish classics such as Prophecy of Drowning (E2) on Pabbay and Gemini (VI,6) on Ben Nevis – big impressive routes that climbers many years younger would be delighted to add to their tick list.

    In the 1970s Colin pioneered winter climbing in the Bridge of Orchy hills, often in the company of Colin Stead. The two Colins added the classic lines of Slow March and Far West Buttress to the North-East Coire of Beinn and Dothaidh, and were first to climb routes on Meall Bhuidhe (The Circus) and on Creag Coire an Dothaidh (BO Buttress ascended the same day as Salamander Gully by Ken Crocket and John Hutchinson). Colin also paired up with Ian Fulton to climb Second Coming, the first winter route on the very impressive Creag an Socach, as well as adding the rarely climbed Central Grooves to nearby Ben Cruachan.

    Further afield in the Central Highlands, Colin made the first winter ascent of Slab Rib Variation on the First Platform of Ben Nevis with Colin Stead and added the quasi-classic Turf Walk to Aonach Mor with Roger Everett. Colin also visited the remote and enigmatic Maiden Crag on Ben Alder with Chris Rice and Roger Webb to add Nightshift (probably unrepeated).

    A committed family man, there was far more to Colin than climbing. Gifted academically, Colin studied Chemical Engineering at Strathclyde University and then worked in industry for a time, before returning to Strathclyde as a lecturer. He became head of the Chemical Engineering Department in 1987 and held that post for 20 years, making him the longest serving departmental head in the history of the University, before becoming the Dean of the Engineering Faculty. Colin was awarded many professional honours and was highly respected by colleagues and students alike.

    Colin was not one to suffer fools gladly, but he would always challenge with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. When I was in my mid-twenties I remember him bending my ear on a journey up to Creag Meagaidh that I was paid too much (rates for Petroleum Engineers are typically more than Chemical Engineers), but on the hill he was fast, focused and good company. After climbing North Pillar (the only route on the Post Face that Colin hadn’t climbed) in double quick time, we were wondering what to do next when Colin suggested that we attempt the imposing feature to the right of Trespasser Buttress in the Inner Corrie. Buttons (III,4) was one of my first new winter routes in Scotland, and full credit goes to Colin for spotting the ingenious line that was far more straightforward than it had any right to be.

    Colin was a stalwart of the Rannoch Mountaineering Club, organising all their overseas climbing trips, and was a role model for not growing old. Somehow, Colin gracefully maintained the energy and capacity of youth and it is difficult to believe that he is no longer with us. I for one will miss Colin at the SMC dinner next month, as he always made a point of seeking me out for some playful banter and figurative poke in the ribs. Colin will be greatly missed.

    Andy Nisbet topping out on Just A Spot O’Sightseeing (IV,6) on the Mess of Pottage in the Northern Corries. This was the first recorded winter ascent of this summer Severe. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

    Andy Nisbet topping out on Just A Spot O’Sightseeing (IV,6) on the Mess of Pottage in the Northern Corries. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

    Andy Nisbet and Simon Yearsley succeeded on the first winter route of the season today (November 5). Simon takes up the story:

    “It’s been a pretty warm autumn, and although I’ve had a growing sense of excitement as I always do at this time of year, it’s been tinged with growing frustration that it just hasn’t got cold. So, it was good to see the winds turn to the north this week, and things start to get white! There was lots of fresh snow on the Ben and the higher Cairngorms from Monday, and a few rumours circulating about folk getting out, but for me, the weather didn’t really look like it was playing ball until Wednesday… and I’ll admit it, I was really tired after the drytooling competition at Ice Factor on Saturday. So, a few hurried texts with Andy on Tuesday and we had a plan – a very simple plan… head into the Norries and see what was white and climbable. Harry Holmes (far stronger than me and so not as tired after the comp) texted me saying he had the same idea, so it looked like it might be a sociable day too.

    It had snowed pretty hard overnight, and with a few squally snow showers on the way into Coire an t-Sneachda, all the cliffs in the coire were wonderfully white. We headed over to Mess of Pottage as I wanted to look at the summer route – Just A Spot O’ Sightseeing. This 90m Severe was done in 2006 by Olivarius and Hughes, and climbs Hidden Chimney Direct, before moving over easier ground, then slabs and cracks to a steeper finish in the buttress right of Hidden Chimney. This part of the Mess of Pottage is very well travelled, and local guides often take a variety of different lines in the upper section if Hidden Chimney is full of climbers… Andy thinks he’s done Hidden Chimney Direct at least 15 times! The summer route Just a Spot o’ Sightseeing takes a line well suited to early season conditions, being rockier than the easier lines to its right, which are grouped together as Jacob’s Edge. As such, it seems worth describing and naming as a winter route. Later in the season it can be as easy as Grade III, this grade depending on Hidden Chimney Direct Start banking up. Who did it first is lost in the snows of time.

    The line actually fits together really well as a winter route, especially in early season before things bank out: the first pitch is Hidden Chimney Direct which as it often is in lean verglassed conditions, felt about IV,6, then an easier section followed by some fun slabs and cracks; and the finish up the steeper buttress proving much easier than it looked, and in a great position. It’s also a bit longer than the summer 90m – the pitches were 50m, 45m and then 25m, giving 120m of nice climbing.

    Harry and his partner Rob Taylor also had a fun day with an ascent of Honeypot. We all finished just after lunchtime, and afterwards, the ever-keen Harry and Rob went down to Newtyle to put some hours getting even stronger on the drytooling route, Too Fast & Furious. Andy and I went to the cafe and ate cake…

    Also taking advantage of the short weather window were Simon Davidson and Kevin Hall.  Round the corner in Coire an Lochain, they had the corrie to themselves and climbed The Hoarmaster in, to quote Simon, ‘Good early season nick, rime and frozen blocks – always worth a punt this time of year before the cracks get choked.’

    Looks like the weather’s warming up again over the next few days, so it just goes to show, with early season stuff, you just got to grab it when you can!”

    Looking up the line of Total Kheops (VI,6) on the left side of the upper part of Minus One Buttress. This outstanding line is one of the finest thin face routes added to Ben Nevis in recent years (Photo Remi Thivel)

    Looking up the line of Total Kheops (VI,6) on the left side of the upper part of Minus One Buttress. This outstanding line is one of the most aesthetic-looking thin face routes added to Ben Nevis in recent years. (Photo Remi Thivel)

    Remi Thivel has provided more details about his inspirational run of routes on Ben Nevis climbed with Laurence Girard in early March.

    After warming up on Minus One and Minus Three gullies on March 10, Remi and Laurence had an outstanding day on March 11 when they started up Astronomy, crossed over to the Basin and then made the second ascent of Spaced Out (VII,7) before finishing up the icy wall left of the Orion Direct exit. Climbing solo, Remi then made the second ascent of a more direct version of Shooting Star (VI,6) thinking it was Urban Spaceman.

    The following day (March 12) they made an early repeat of Point Blank (VII,6) before adding Total Kheops (VI,6) on the left flank of Minus One Buttress. This beautiful-looking corner is very rarely iced, and is one of the most compelling new ice lines added to the Ben in recent years. Remi and Laurence’s tally of four outstanding routes over two days is one of the most impressive displays of thin ice climbing the mountain has ever seen.

    The pair was assisted by the outstanding conditions that week, but not surprisingly, Remi knows Ben Nevis well and this was his ninth trip to the mountain. “I decided to climb the dihedral [of Total Kheops] when I got to the bottom just because it looked very nice,” Remi told me. “I didn’t know it had never been done before. The ice was thin but sticky and very good, and it is not very steep. I did not know my client before the trip, but she was very motivated for anything so we just climbed all day and every day. Such beautiful conditions, we had to take advantage of it!”

    Nick Bullock climbing pitch 5 of The Shield Direct (VII,7) on Ben Nevis on 24th March. Instead of going left above the chimney-flake as per the guidebook description, Bullock and Guy Robertson continued straight up an icicle-draped overhanging wall, which proved to be the crux of the route. If anyone else has gone this way then please get in touch as it will be recorded as an alternative finish in the next edition of the SMC guidebook (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Nick Bullock climbing pitch 5 of The Shield Direct (VII,7) on Ben Nevis on 24 March. Instead of going left above the chimney-flake as per the guidebook description, Bullock and Guy Robertson continued straight up an icicle-draped overhanging wall, which proved to be the crux of the route. If anyone else has gone this way, then please get in touch, as it will be recorded as an alternative finish in the next edition of the SMC guidebook. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    “And again, like all of the times before in this winter of difficult conditions and wrong weather forecasts, Guy Robertson, normally so knowledgeable in where to go, procrastinated,” Nick Bullock writes. “An Teallach, Beinn Eighe, Glen Coe. I received text messages throughout the day, each one telling me what crag and what time to meet. Finally, at 7pm, Cairn Dearg, the venue I had suggested at the start of the text tennis, was decided upon.

    The heavy snow storm on Saturday, followed by rain, more snow, rain, snow and almost the first frost of winter on Sunday night, made for possibility anywhere on Cairn Dearg but neither Guy nor myself had been on The Ben for a while and I felt the weight to produce something good for Guy as he had once again been building pressure like my coffee pot.

    ‘Something will be in Guy; it has to be given that snow and a frost.’

    6.30am – And as we walked the frozen gravel, avoiding the snake tongues of clear blue ice welded to the surface of the footpath, I could sense the weight lifting from both our shoulders.

    The CIC Hut was near and like the frost scraped from my windscreen earlier, the alpenglow warmed the white summits for the first time of my 2014, and in this one fell swoop, it made up for much of the battling. We were still heading for Cairn Dearg, but with open minds and a monster rack of gear, hopefully we had all bases covered. The only two things we did not bring were ice screws and a guidebook.

    9.00am – Gently, I flicked an axe. The pick curved in the cold air and penetrated a thin skin of ice. Gentle, the second axe-pick connected but with downward dragging force, the pick sliced, puckered and wrinkled the frozen water until it caught and held on some hidden obstruction. I breathed deep and stepped from the snow. Above me, the steep corner of The Shield Direct with a continuous stream of thin ice beckoned. And above this, the two hundred and eighty five metres – flakes, chimneys, rock-overhangs, snow-fields, overhanging-ice, history, reputation, connection, surprise – Fowler and Saunder’s thirty-five year-old climb.

    Once again an axe arced gentle and the pick penetrated thin with a stabbing flesh squish. Spindrift lifted from the summit slopes poured down the line clotting my eyelashes. I shouted to Guy,

    ‘Do you know where we are going?’

    His answer was succinct, ‘Up.’”

    Iain Small moving up to the first crux bulge on a new VIII,8 on Ben Nevis. This sustained 50m-long groove was the climax to the five-pitch route on the North Wall of Carn Dearg. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Iain Small moving through a bulge on From The Jaws of Defeat, a new VIII,8 on Ben Nevis. This sustained and spectacular 50m-long groove was the climax to the five-pitch route on the North Wall of Carn Dearg. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The vertical triangular headwall on the left side of the North Wall of Carn Dearg on Ben Nevis is split by a spectacular groove that runs up to the very apex of the wall. It had fascinated me for years, so when Iain Small suggested we try and climb it last Sunday (March 23), I jumped at the chance.

    Unfortunately, conditions were not too helpful as a deep thaw had stripped the cliffs the previous week, and before it had a chance to re-freeze, a heavy snowfall had smothered the crags on Friday and Saturday. We hummed and hawed about trying something in Coire na Ciste instead, but in the end we settled for Plan A and headed up to the base of Carn Dearg.

    Iain and I had climbed the deep chimney on the left side of the triangular headwall when we made the first ascent of The Cone Gatherers in 2008. On that occasion we raced against darkness as we climbed into the gloom of the December twilight, which sums up the challenge of climbing on this wall because it is such a difficult place to get to.

    This time, with longer March days we felt we had time on our side, but our initial choice of line ground to halt in deep snow overlying unfrozen turf. With our time advantage quickly slipping away, it would have been easy to turn tail, but instead we knew that we had to find an alternative that relied solely on snowed up rock. I remembered that the rock was clean and steep on the wall left of Staircase Climb Direct that I had climbed with Chris Cartwright way back in 1999, so we retraced our steps and headed up towards that.

    The tactic worked. Iain led a spectacular tech 8 pitch left of an overhanging prow, and then we ploughed up easier ground for a couple of pitches to gain the foot of the triangular headwall. The snow was deep with a layer of windslab, and at one point I was considering the wisdom of continuing (especially when we heard the boom of one of the Castle gullies avalanching), but there was the odd running belay, which encouraged upward progress.

    The first pitch on the headwall was steep and devious, but eventually it led to the base of a spectacular 50m-long groove that soared vertically upwards into the late afternoon sky. This was a perfect Iain Small pitch, with reasonably straightforward tech 7 climbing to start, but as it steepened the protection became sparser, and two crux sections led to a devious slabby finish. At the top, Iain likened it to a mini version of The Great Corner, but there was no time for pleasantries as the light was fading fast.

    Two long snow pitches took us onto the upper crest of Ledge Route, where a welcome set of footsteps wound down into the lower reaches of Number Five Gully and the warmth and welcome of the CIC Hut. It had been a fine adventure snatched from the very jaws of defeat.

    The Minus and Orion faces on Ben Nevis on 12 March 2014. The red arrow shows the icy V-groove climbed by Remi Thivel and Laurence Girand that afternoon. A perfect combination of heavy snowfall, short thaw and freeze brought the thin face routes into the best conditions in living memory, but unfortunately the optimum conditions only lasted two days before they were swept away with warm air from the Atlantic. (Photo Mike Pescod)

    The Minus and Orion faces on Ben Nevis on 12 March 2014. The red arrow shows the icy V-groove on Minus One Buttress climbed by Remi Thivel and Laurence Girard. A perfect combination of heavy snowfall, short thaw and freeze brought the thin face routes on Ben Nevis into the best conditions in living memory, but unfortunately they only lasted three days before being swept away with warm air from the Atlantic. (Photo Mike Pescod)

    I’ve been trying to find out more details on the extraordinary run of routes climbed on Ben Nevis by a French team staying at the CIC Hut a couple of weeks ago. I was climbing on The Ben on Sunday so was able to extract the following details from the hut book.

    Laurence Girard and guide Remi Thivel started their campaign on March 10 with ascents of Minus One and Minus Three gullies. The weather was cooling down that day after a quick thaw over the weekend had transformed the huge amount of snow lying on the Orion and Minus faces into perfect neve.

    On the morning of March 11, Remi and Laurence started up Astronomy, crossed over to the Basin and then climbed a line between Space Invaders and Journey into Space before finishing up the icy wall left of the Orion Direct exit. Although this line is similar to Shooting Star (climbed by Robin Clothier and Rich Bentley last season), to my knowledge this link up had not been climbed before, and the pitches on Orion Face may be new.

    In the afternoon Remi then made a remarkable solo on the Orion Face. He started up Urban Spaceman (which only saw its first repeat last year) and continued up the chimney of Zybernaught to finish, taking 40 minutes in all.

    The following morning (March 12), Remi and Laurence climbed Point Blank on Observatory Buttress, which Remi wrote was “fantastic and exposed.” In the afternoon they started up Minus Two Gully, but instead of stepping left into the upper gully after the first two pitches, they continued up and into the clean-cut V-groove on Minus One Buttress left of the crux corner of Subtraction. This outstanding feature is rarely iced and was unclimbed in either summer or winter. “The dihedral was fantastic’” Remi wrote. “It was 35 metres-long, 75/80 degrees of thin ice, and protected by a C3 yellow and a C4 green.”

    The perfect conditions disappeared overnight as warm front swept in from the south-west, so Remi and Laurence concluded their remarkable haul of routes with an ascent of Match Point in the rain before finishing up Observatory Buttress Direct climbed on wet snow.

    It was raining and windy the following morning, but they put it to good use – “ A long lie-in and a good breakfast…”

    Murdoch Jamieson nearing the top of Minis One Superdirect (VII,8) on Ben Nevis. This was the first time the direct line up the centre of Minus One Buttress had been climbed in winter, although this pitch had previously been climbed by Guy Robertson, Pete Benson and Nick Bullock four years before. (Photo Iain Small)

    Murdoch Jamieson nearing the top of Minus One Superdirect (VII,6) on Ben Nevis. This was the first time the direct line up the centre of Minus One Buttress had been climbed in winter, although this pitch had previously been climbed by Guy Robertson, Pete Benson and Nick Bullock four years before. (Photo Iain Small)

    Following their new route on the Astronomy face of Ben Nevis, Iain Small and Uisdean Hawthorn had an even more outstanding day on March 12.

    “Wednesday was another stunning day with a good frost and rock-solid snow,” Iain told me. “Murdoch [Jamieson] joined us and we followed the line of French teams heading back to the Minus and Orion faces – wise choices given the monster cornice/seracs threatening most other areas. Observatory Buttress also seemed safe, and we spotted a team on a very fat-looking Point Blank.

    With so many quality lines on offer we thought hard and settled on the line of Minus One Buttress as the most aesthetic and compelling, given the generous conditions. Other lines were put aside for another day. With the sheer quantity and quality of neve I was quietly hoping for a very direct line but was happy just to get on this most elusive of winter features.

    Uisdean romped up the first pitch to the big plinth then it was decision time – follow the original winter line or move out right onto the front face as per the summer line. ‘Take a look’ was the consensus. I was totally enthralled climbing that pitch, not really believing you could find conditions that would make it possible, and yet we were there, soaking it up and smiling. This long pitch took us to below the upper Chandelle-like buttress where we joined the line taken during Guy Robertson, Pete Benson and Nick Bullock’s ascent of Minus One Direct.

    Murdoch got a great pitch up this on thin ice, and then Uisdean had a slightly unconsolidated lead to the final crest and another dash up North-East Buttress and into the sun. So Minus One Buttress Superdirect (VII,6). There are so many variations on Minus One Buttress now for both summer and now winter I don’t fancy being the writer of the next guidebook. [Don’t worry Iain, that’s me!] Our take on the route will be a rare memory from an unsettled and sometimes frustrating winter. Murdoch even went as far to say that it was ‘quite good!’”

    Uisdean Hawthorn on the first ascent of Dark Star on Ben Nevis. This five pitch-long VI,5, takes the line of grooves on the left side of the Astronomy face overlooking Minus Gully. It had been lusted over by Nevis winter aficionados for several decades waiting for the right conditions. (Photo Iain Small)

    Uisdean Hawthorn on the first ascent of Dark Star on Ben Nevis. This five-pitch VI,5 takes the line of grooves on the left side of the Astronomy face overlooking Minus One Gully. It had been lusted over by Nevis winter aficionados for several decades waiting for the right conditions. (Photo Iain Small)

    The thaw last weekend and high pressure and overnight frosts earlier this week, finally transformed the huge quantities of snow on Ben Nevis into ice and neve, to the delight of those fortunate enough to be in the vicinity mid-week.

    “The Minus Face was in stunning condition, “Iain told me. “I had been watching the webcam and hoping that signs of actual rock emerging from the previous uniform whiteness meant neve. And it did, like I’ve never seen before! I managed to get hold of Uisdean (Hawthorn) and we arranged for a day on Tuesday, then Murdo (Jamieson) would join us on Wednesday if the conditions were OK . [They were - second post to follow!] No ambiguity about that, a welcome change after so many call offs and aborted days out. Time to cash in on the Ben in classic garb!

    On Tuesday (March 11) we aimed for the Astronomy face and a line of corners and grooves bounding it’s left side and overlooking Minus One Gully. This gave us five fine pitches on perfect neve and ice, finishing up North-East Buttress in beautiful sunshine. Dark Star was VI,5 in those conditions, but on an average year it could prove quite thin in places.

    There was an Alpine feel to the Minus Face with the many French teams based at the CIC Hut making the most of conditions. Left-Hand Route and Right-Hand Route were popular along with the Minus gullies, and one guided team followed the Smith-Holt Route into the basin and finished up Spaced Out. The guide then soloed Great Slab Rib and up Urban Spaceman – a pretty good day out!”