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    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.”

    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.

    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.’”

    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…”

    James Wheater on the first ascent of Icefall of Doom (V,5) on Creag an Dubh Loch. This steep two-pitch route lies on the right wall of North-West Gully on the far right-hand side of the cliff. (Photo Steve Addy)

    James Wheater on the first ascent of Icefall of Doom (V,5) on Creag an Dubh Loch. This steep two-pitch route lies on the right wall of North-West Gully on the far right-hand side of the cliff. (Photo Steve Addy)

    On March 2, Steve Addy and James Wheater visited Creag an Dubh Loch and made the first ascent of the striking blue icefall halfway up the right side of North-West Gully. It lies up and left of the icefall of Blizzard Nightmare and the summer routes such as The Strumpet, and rather surprisingly for such a prominent feature, it had not been climbed before. Steve takes up the story:

    “Last February I soloed up North-West Gully and spotted the icefall but it wasn’t quite complete. I didn’t think any more about it, but fast-forward to February 16 this year when James and I were skiing over the frozen Dubh Loch. We were struck by the monstrous cornices, the amount of snow build-up and the tantalising streaks of ice on the cliffs. Then James spotted the obvious icefall, and we both thought it looked good and guessed that it was probably unclimbed.

    So on Sunday past (March 2), we trudged up to the Dubh Loch with vague plans of looking at this icefall, Bower Buttress or trying a route on the Central Slabs if the snow had consolidated. The cornices were still huge and the snow didn’t feel great, so we decided to have a look at the icefall. It was good to salvage the day with this route, which although short, was good fun! We called the route (with tongue in cheek) Icefall of Doom and graded it V,5.”

    Also on March 2, Jason Currie and Neil Morrison took advantage of good, but slightly thawing ice conditions, to make the third winter ascent of Sword of Damocles on the nearby Broad Terrace Wall.

    Will Sim climbing the crux pitch of Open Heart (VIII,9) in Coire an Lochain during the third ascent. The very heavy snow conditions this season mean that few teams have ventured on to the higher buttresses of the Northern Corries in recent weeks, and only the very steepest routes have escaped the huge amounts of snow. Massive cornices overhanging significant portions of the cliff are another major hazard. (Photo Mark Chadwick)

    Will Sim climbing the crux pitch of Open Heart (VIII,9) in Coire an Lochain during the third ascent. The very heavy snow conditions this season mean that few teams have ventured onto the higher buttresses of the Northern Corries in recent weeks, and only the very steepest routes have escaped the huge amounts of snow. Massive cornices overhanging significant portions of the cliff are another major hazard. (Photo Mark Chadwick)

    Will Sim and Adam Booth visited Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries on February 24, and made the probable third ascent of Open Heart (VIII,9). This very steep test-piece, which takes a direct line up to the crux of Ventriloquist, was first climbed by Ian Parnell and Guy Robertson in April 2006. It saw a second ascent by Dave Almond and Simon Frost in December 2011.

    “It’s a cool route and a good line,” Will told me.” It felt a bit necky in its current icy state, but it was still just about protectable. It was interesting to head in to Lochain for the first time since early December, as its been “out of bounds” most of the season due to being totally buried. The amount of snow at the bottom is insane, and the peg that protects the tricky traverse on the first pitch of Ventricle (normally eight metres up) is now at ankle height when you gear up, and a glacier is in full flow over the Great Slab!”

    Iain Small leading the opening pitch of Vishnu (VII,7) on Beinn Eighe’s Far East Wall during the second ascent. This prominent line, first climbed by Andy Nisbet and Andy Cunningham in February 1988, has waited over 25 years for a repeat. (Photo Murdoch Jamieson)

    Iain Small leading the opening pitch of Vishnu (VII,7) on Beinn Eighe’s Far East Wall during the second ascent. This prominent line, first climbed by Andy Nisbet and Andy Cunningham in February 1988, has waited over 25 years for a repeat. (Photo Murdoch Jamieson)

    There are two absolutely classic-looking traditional winter lines on the stupendous Far East Wall on Beinn Eighe – Kami-kaze and Vishnu. Both routes were climbed by Andy Nisbet in the 1980s during the initial winter exploration of the crag. The steep and well-protected Kami-kaze (VI,7) is now approaching modern classic status, and has already seen several ascents this season.

    Vishnu is a different story however, and although it is 26 years since its first ascent, it had not seen a repeat. It requires icy conditions, and was discussed as a possibility during the BMC International Meet in January, but nobody took up the challenge until February 16 when an enterprising three-man team made a spirited attempt that was foiled by deteriorating conditions after the leader had climbed the crucial ice pitch in the middle of the route.

    The long-awaited second ascent fell three days later to the crack team of Murdoch Jamieson and Iain Small on February 19. Murdoch, fresh from his success on The Root of All Evil, takes up the story:

    “On Wednesday Iain and I returned to the crag. Our first option was not a goer so we settled on doing Vishnu. I felt slightly intimidated with the grade and knowing that a team had bailed on Sunday. Iain linked the first two pitches, and I then set off up pitch three, where with a bit of digging, I uncovered some good wires. Iain did the top pitch, which certainly felt a bit more like real climbing, and was tricky. He managed to get wires on the right before stepping left onto the ice. Overall VII,7? I don’t know – that first pitch is pretty serious but not technically that hard.”

    Iain swithered about the grade too, but eventually both Murdoch and Iain settled on a grade of VII,7. (The route has been graded VII,6 up to now, but was first climbed before the two-tier grading system was in place). The fact that two such talented climbers were unsure of the grade speaks volumes – it would be safe to assume that Vishnu is at the upper end of the Grade VII category!

    Greg Boswell on the first ascent of Making the Cut (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe. The route climbs through the stepped roofs before taking the soaring crack line to the left of West Central Gully. (Photo Nick Bullock)

    Greg Boswell on the first ascent of Making the Cut (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe. This stupendous route climbs through stepped roofs before taking the soaring crack line to the left of West Central Gully. (Photo Nick Bullock)

    The gales that raged throughout the BMC Winter Meet prompted many team to visit the North-West Highlands to seek some shelter from the South-East winds. This proved to be an unexpected bonus, as the Torridon Mountains were in excellent winter condition.

    Beinn Eighe, with its high north-facing cliffs was the initial venue of choice, and the classic lines of Fuselage Gully, East Buttress, West Buttress and Central Buttress soon saw ascents. On Wednesday January 29, Will Sim and Michelle Kadatz from Canada made the fourth ascent of the fabled West Central Gully (VII,8), arguably the most difficult gully climb in Scotland. Will came back raving about the climb, mightily impressed that Mick Fowler and Mike Morrison climbed this steep route way back in 1986. Also on Wednesday, Neil Adams and Nejc Marcic (Slovenia) made a possible second ascent of second ascent of  Sting (VII,7) , Andy Inglis and Martin Zumer (Slovenia) made the third ascent of Hydroconicum (VIII,8), and Dave Almond and Michal Sabovcik (Slovakia) climbed the now classic Blood, Sweat and Frozen Tears (VIII,8).

    The following day (January 30), the pace stepped up another notch when Nick Bullock, Jon Walsh (Canada) and Greg Boswell made the first ascent of Making the Cut (VIII,8), a major new line taking the soaring crack-line left of West Central Gully. Will Sim and Olov Isaksson (Sweden) also added Crazy Eyes (VII,9), another very strong line taking the left-facing corner, roof crack and offwidth corner above Hydroponicum. (The name is a tribute to Magnus Kastengren who represented Sweden at the last BMC Winter Meet and died recently after an accident when skiing on Mount Cook). Will and Olov climbed their new route so fast that they had time to nip up the classic West Buttress later that day. Andy Inglis made a return visit with Piotr Sulowski (Poland) and climbed the brilliant Sundance (VIII,8), and Simon Frost and partner made an early repeat of West Buttress Directissima (VII,8).

    The last day of the week (Saturday, February 1) saw something of a North-West showdown. Beinn Eighe continued to stay popular with more ascents of Central Buttress, Shang High, Kami-kaze and another ascent of Sundance by Dave Almond and Gustav Mellgren (Sweden), but the centre of the activity transferred to Beinn Bhan where there were four teams in action in the stupendous Coire nan Fhamair. Nick Wallis and Tito Arosio (Italy) climbed Gully of the Gods (VI,6) and Adam Booth and Slovenian climbers Nejc Marcic and Martin Zumer made an early repeat of Great Overhanging Gully (VI,7). Genesis (VII,7) saw its fourth ascent in the hands of Andy Inglis and Piotr Solowski (Poland), and Will Sim and Olov Isaksson (Sweden) also made the fourth ascent of The Godfather (VIII,8).

    Nearby in Coire na Poite, Neil Silver and Kenshi Imai from Japan pulled off the long-awaited second ascent of the 370m-long Realisation (VI,6). “It was a top quality route with sustained interest throughout,” Neil told me. “It’s at the top end of the grade and a harder outing than Central Buttress on Beinn Eighe.”

    The easily accessible winter cliffs on Meall Gorm proved popular. Gwilym Lynn and Felix Sattelberger (Germany) added a Direct Start (IV,4) to Cobalt Buttress, and Ian Parnell and Michelle Kadatz made a variation to The Blue Lamppost taking Grade VI vegetated grooves in the lower section before finishing up the final chimney to give a good VII,8. Just to the right, Rattlesnake (V,7) also saw an ascent. Elsewhere in the Torridon area, George (III,4), Poacher’s Fall (V,5) and Headless Gully (V,5) on Liathach were climbed in good icy conditions, and further south on Fuar Tholl, Right-End Buttress (III) was enjoyed by at least two parties.

    The most impressive achievement on the final day however, was the first ascent of Last Orders (VII,8) on An Teallach by Neil Adams and Kenro Nakajima (Japan). This magnificent groove-line, which cuts through the right side Major Rib, was one of the most significant routes of the week.