Scottish winter climbing news

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    Craig Lamb leading the crux section of K9 (IV,4) on Lurcher’s Crag on Sunday February 16 – one of four teams to climb the route that day. Or is this route Window Gully? (Photo Simon Richardson)

    A leader on the crux section of K9 (IV,4) on Lurcher’s Crag on Sunday February 16 – one of four teams to climb the route that day. Or is this route Window Gully? (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Everett and I were rather confused when were climbing on Lurcher’s Crag on February 16. It was our first visit to the cliff, and the folks climbing the attractive icefall to our left had told us that they were climbing K9, yet the team we met on the top said they had just done Window Gully. We both suspected a case of mistaken identity, because the icefall crux, which involves cutting a window from behind the icefall and stepping on to the front face, reminded us of a famous John Cleare photo of Bill March making the first ascent of Window Gully in March 1972. It’s interesting that we both remember that photo, but we’re both of an age that when we started climbing front pointing was just being developed, and Bill March was one of the stars of the show.

    As if by chance, a couple of days later I received an email from John Lyall that Andy Nisbet forwarded onto me, which helped to explain our confusion:

    “I’ve been puzzled by the description of Window Gully and its position on the crag for a long time,” John wrote. “So when I was on the crag last week I took my camera to sort things out. I was climbing K9, and my photo shows the lower icefall going through the big roof, the rock features behind and the snowdrift all fitting with the first ascent photo of Window Gully.

    I think the confusion goes back to the Bill March 1973 guidebook, where only North Gully is described, but South Gully is mentioned. When Window Gully is described in the next guide (1985), it is described as being between North and South Gullies, but it should have said North and Central Gullies, as Central had now been climbed. The Window Gully icefall presently in the guide is not far enough up the crag, nor is there a position to get a photo like this.

    In 2010, the outside of this icefall was climbed by a few teams up the steepest right hand section, at V,6. Stuart Carter was one of the folk, but he had followed tracks.

    The Bill March guide also mentions summer ascents of what are now Drystane Ridge and Collies Ridge, both at Moderate in the current guidebook. He also names Southern Ridge, which is now called Deerhound Ridge, and grades it Mod. He also describes a route up the buttress to the left of North Gully, giving a grade of Mod and listing the first ascensionists. I feel a bit like Robin Campbell delving into the archives!”

    Allen Fyffe, who made the first ascent of K9 with his son Blair in March 1996, agrees with John’s assessment that the icefall is the same, but it’s not quite as simple as that because Allen and Blair linked in an impressive upper icefall during their ascent. This second icefall is up and left of the main line, so is not always climbed as a follow-on from the lower ‘window’ icefall, and for sure, it was not climbed by Bill March in 1972.

    So if this unravels the history behind K9, what about the route now known as Window Gully which lies a hundred metres further right? Andy Nisbet made an ascent in February 1984 – are there any earlier takers?

    Robin McAllister on the first ascent of The Water Margin (E2) on Portobello. Robin made a significant contribution to Scottish climbing during the 1990s, and is best remembered for his challenging additions to the Southern Highlands, his series of difficult winter repeats and for developing the Galloway sea cliffs. (Photo Andrew Fraser)

    Robin McAllister on the first ascent of The Water Margin (E2) on Portobello. Robin made a significant contribution to Scottish climbing during the 1990s, and is best remembered for his challenging additions to the Southern Highlands, his series of difficult winter repeats and for developing the Galloway sea cliffs. (Photo Andrew Fraser)

    A few days ago, the terrible news broke that Robin McAllister had died at the young age of 47. Robin was based in Ayrshire and was one of the driving forces in Scottish winter climbing during the 1990s. He spectacularly emerged on the scene in January 1995 when he made the first winter ascent of Direct Direct on The Cobbler with Dave McGimpsey. The winter ascent of this fierce summer HVS took Southern Highlands climbing up a full notch and has seen very few repeats. Originally graded VI,8, it was repeated by Dave MacLeod six years afterwards, and was later upgraded to VII,9 in the guidebook. It is still considered to be one of the most challenging winter outings on the mountain.

    That winter, the McAllister-McGimpsey team also made the second ascent of Rab Anderson’s excellent, but intimidating, Deadman’s Groove (VII,7) on the Cobbler’s South Peak. This set a theme for Robin’s climbing. Over the next three seasons he made second ascents of The Screaming (VIII,8) on Beinn an Dothaidh, Inclination (VII,8) on Stob Coire nan Lochan, Vertigo Wall (VII,7 – second free ascent) on Creag an Dubh Loch, Prore (VIII,8) in Coire an Lochain and The Cardinal (VIII,8) on Beinn a’Bhuird.

    “By today’s standards these routes might not seem particularly impressive,” Dave McGimpsey recalls. “But gear has improved so much since then, and Robin was one of very few climbers in Scotland at the time actually trying to repeat these routes. If he’d maintained his momentum I think he would have progressed on to repeating the big VIIIs in places like the Shelter Stone and Creag an Dubh Loch – he was certainly strong and bold enough. High magazine published a list of all the Grade VIIIs at the time, which Robin obsessed over for a good while, but sadly he suddenly stopped climbing and it was never to be.”

    Robin also left his mark with dozens of new winter routes across the Highlands, but it was in the Southern Highlands that he scored his greatest successes. He was most proud of the first ascents of Interstellar Overdraft (V/VI) on Merrick with Stuart Mearns, and Resolution (VI,7), which follows a peerless line taking the full challenge of the great central wall on The Brack, with Dave McGimpsey and Andrew Fraser.

    In summer, Robin climbed many of the big routes across Scotland up to about E5, but it was in Galloway where he left his mark. “This was not just in terms of his 150 or so new routes,” Andrew Fraser remembers, “but in being the driving force behind almost all of the hard routes and development of the Rhinns peninsula. Routes which spring to mind are Behind the Mask (E1) on Mullwharchar, Spectacular Bid (E6) on Meikle Ross, Edge of the Abyss (E4) on Finnarts Point, Sweaty Trembler (E5) at Portobello, Zero Tolerance ( E5) at Laggantalluch Head, and the development of the Kiln o’ the Fuffock and Crammag Head. In fact, almost every single hard route in the South-West is a McAllister creation. Elsewhere, The Blundecral, True Finish (E5) and Gulliver’s Travels (E2) on the Meadow Face on Arran, and Tales of the Old Days (E5) on Creag Ghlas were Robin routes. All these climbs were done in a ten-year climbing span from 1990 to 2000.”

    Scott Muir recalls that Robin took him up his first ever winter climb – North Wall Groove on the Cobbler with Dave McGimpsey – when Scott was fifteen years old. “It was his drive and enthusiasm for new routing, and climbing with him on the sea cliffs of Stranraer and around Ayrshire and the Southern Highlands, that set me on course for a life of climbing and exploration. He was a massive inspiration, role model and mentor – his passion for climbing and the mountains was infectious.”

    Although Robin or I never climbed together, I came to know Robin quite well. It seems strange to say it now, but the 1990s was a pre-Internet age, and climbing information was shared by word of mouth, journals and magazines. I often had long conversations with Robin on the phone when he would describe his latest adventures, and quiz me for details of routes he aspired to do. I was intrigued that he wanted to repeat some of my climbs, but more importantly, I was struck by his infectious enthusiasm, boundless energy and plain love for the sport.

    Rest in peace Robin – you will be sadly missed.

    (Thanks to Andew Fraser, Dave McGimpsey and Scott Muir for their help in compiling this tribute).

    Lee Harrison moving up to the foot of Snuffleupagus (IV,6) in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries. The route follows the line of corners directly above Lee’s head. (Photo Michael Barnard)

    Lee Harrison moving up to the foot of Snuffleupagus (IV,6) in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries. The route follows the line of corners directly above Lee’s head. (Photo Michael Barnard)

    On November 23, Michael Barnard and Lee Harrison climbed Snuffleupagus (IV,6), a new two-pitch line in Coire an Lochain on the very left side of No.4 Buttress. “It starts up grooves and corners parallel to and left of Oesophagus,” Michael told me. “It then moves leftwards to finish near a route called Sarcophagus which I chanced upon a couple of years ago. That had been done on the solo so the bleak name seemed justified, but this time we decided to go for something more upbeat!”

    Given the active and constructive recent discussion about the recording of routes on popular cliffs, I asked Andy Nisbet’s opinion on Lee and Michael’s route. “Snuffleupagus is different,” Andy explained. “I’m guessing a bit without going there, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been considered as a route until recently. But nowadays folk treat cliffs like crags – every feature can be climbed and claimed as a new route. Creagan Cha-no is like that and folk are liking it. So perhaps the old school like me should just go with the times… it will go in the Journal, although hopefully I’ll get a chance to look at it first!”

    The right side of No.4 Buttress in Coire an Lochain on Cairn Gorm showing the line of Torquing to Myself. 1. Torquing Heads (VII,7), 2. Western Slant (IV,5), 3. Cut Adrift (III,4), 3a. Cut Adrift RH Start, 4. Torquing To Myself (III,4). (Photo and Topo Simon Yearsley)

    The right side of No.4 Buttress in Coire an Lochain on Cairn Gorm showing the line of Torquing to Myself. 1. Torquing Heads (VII,7), 2. Western Slant (IV,5), 3. Cut Adrift (III,4), 3a. Cut Adrift RH Start, 4. Torquing To Myself (III,4). (Photo and Topo Simon Yearsley)

    Simon Yearsley had an enjoyable day in the Northern Corries on November 25, coming away with a possible first ascent on No.4 Buttress in Coire an Lochain. His climb raises some interesting aspects about the recording of new routes.

    “I was due to climb with Helen Rennard again on Monday,” Simon explains, “but she was pretty tired after two days on the Ben – one new route and one VIII,8, so she gave her (very understandable) apologies. The forecast was excellent, so I pottered up to Coire an Lochain by myself to check out the far right hand side of the crag. It’s probably fair to say that 99.9% of the Northern Corries have been well and truly explored by several generations of keen instructors from Glenmore Lodge. However, given that there’s always the chance of finding the 0.1%, and also that I’d been giving a talk recently, extolling the virtues of new routing in Scotland and encouraging folk to look at existing venues with “New Route Eyes”… so I thought it appropriate to check out this wee area. It looked like the ground immediately right of “Cut Adrift” could hold give a short route, and at a grade I hoped I’d be able to solo.

    I found it a bit nerve racking starting out to solo a route, but things quickly settled down and progressed quite quickly to a fine blocky ledge below the steep final wall. A flaky crack lead out left, but I must admit it took a couple of nervous attempts to start the crack. Once committed it was of course much easier than contemplation, and I was soon standing on the plateau. Coire an Lochain doesn’t have too many reasonable IIIs, so, whilst the route is fairly minor, it is a useful addition, especially as it makes a good early season line. I must admit to chuckling about the name – I’d stood on the blocky ledge for a good ten minutes, muttering to myself about I should start the final flake crack… seeing as the route lies close to Torquing Heads and Torquing West… ‘Torquing To Myself’ seems appropriate.”

    Simon sent his account to Andy Nisbet, editor of the highly authoritative New Routes section in the SMC Journal, who was quick to respond. “It’s unlikely that Torquing to Myself hasn’t been done before,” he wrote. “Glenmore Lodge instructors including me, have taken folk up routes in that area, but it’s difficult to be precise about exactly where we went.”

    I pushed Andy a little further, and asked whether Torquing to Myself would be recorded in next year’s SMCJ.

    “It’s difficult to know what to do with this route,” Andy replied. “It took some persuading to include [the nearby] Cut Adrift (in the SMCJ) but I actually went and did it myself. And it was good, and not what I’d done before (but others might have). But Simon Y’s line has been climbed before, or roughly so, because it’s less steep than Cut Adrift and does bank out a lot, in fact in mid-season is Grade II. But it’s a bit like Sneachda and the routes that were regular Glenmore Lodge routes but never recorded (like the ribs between the Trident Gullies). After several attempts to claim them, Allen Fyffe did put them in the last guide, and rightly so. The area on the right side of Fiacaill Buttress is another area used by instructors. I’ve had a couple of claims, but I know the routes have been done hundreds of times and have refused; again maybe they should be in the next guide. The “twin ribs” are another instructor area that perhaps should be in the guide, as they are good fun if rather trivial to more experienced folk.

    But that’s not a reason why they shouldn’t be recorded because, as Simon points out, he enjoyed the day and if he felt it worthwhile, then so will others. So I think I’ll put it in the SMCJ as a first recorded ascent. I don’t actually know what I did [in this area] – you just took your two students and soloed up ahead of them leading, pointed out runner placements and generally supervised, not thinking about where you went or recording it; there was enough to worry about. Glenmore Lodge have stopped that sort of instruction these days.”

    “I’m pretty relaxed about all of this, “Simon responded, “but if I had to choose, I think I’d come down on the side of recording all routes, and if this means that we document some routes as first recorded ascents, then that seems in my view to be a positive thing. I think we’ve moved on a long way from the days of ‘don’t record’.”

    So the conundrum – should we record good and accessible lines in popular areas that are known to have unlisted ascents (such as the Northern Corries), or avoid any possible ambiguity by purely focusing on new routes (typically very hard) that are more certain to be breaking new ground?

    This blog is a celebration of Scottish winter climbing. As per my statement of March 5, the original post was kept live for a number of days and has now been removed.

    Looking towards the summit of Nanga Parbat from one third of the way along the Mazeno Ridge. This 13km ridge, long considered to be one of the greatest unclimbed challenges in the Himalayas, has just been climbed by Scottish climbers Sandy Allan and Rick Allen in a gruelling 14-day ascent. They reached the summit on July 15 and then took four days to descend the mountain via the Diamir Face. (Photo Rick Allen)

    On July 15, Rick Allen and Sandy Allan succeeded in making the first ascent of the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat (8126m). This 13km-long route was first attempted in the 1970s and was widely considered to be one of the Himalayas last great challenges. It is the longest ridge on any 8000m peak and Rick and Sandy’s ascent and descent took an arduous 18 days.

    This blog deliberately focuses on Scottish winter climbing, so I do not intend to describe their ascent here, and neither is it my story to tell. However, their success does have direct relevance to, as both Rick and Sandy are Scottish climbers with a strong background in Scottish winter climbing stretching back over 30 years. Sandy has taken part in many first ascents, often partnering Andy Nisbet. It is difficult to single out a single climb, but the route that springs to mind is the first ascent of The Rattrap (VIII,8) on Central Gully Wall on Creag an Dubh Loch in 1986. This was only the second time this stupendous face had ever been climbed in winter, and despite at least a couple of determined attempts, the route is unrepeated.

    Rick has a similarly impressive Scottish winter pedigree, with the first winter ascent of the spectacular Raven’s Edge (VII,7) which he climbed with Brian Sprunt in 1984, to his name. The last time I climbed with Rick was in February 2009 when he was on a flying visit to Aberdeen. It was a typical Rick Allen determined and opportunistic outing. Rick had dug out some ancient climbing clothes from the 1980s from his attic, we skied up Glen Callater in deep powder snow (Rick on ancient wooden skis) and against all the odds, climbed a good new icy mixed line on Creag an Fhleisdeir.

    It is Rick and Sandy’s combined Himalayan experience however, that undoubtedly contributed to the Mazeno success. I cannot do full justice to all their climbs, but their routes include the Muztagh Tower (Sandy), a 12-day first ascent on Ganesh II (Rick) and new route on Dhaulagiri (Rick). Together, they have climbed a new route on Pumori, previously summitted Nanga Parbat, and both climbed Everest (on separate trips).

    Before they left for Pakistan, Rick sent an email to friends and colleagues describing the forthcoming trip to Nanga Parbat. Both Rick and Sandy had attempted the Mazeno Ridge with Doug Scott in 1992 and 1995 and were well aware of the commitment and risks involved. “If you are someone who prays, please pray for us,” Rick wrote. “If not, please pray anyway.”

    Rick and Sandy’s ascent of the Mazeno Ridge has been described as the most important British success in the high Himalaya since Steve Venables ascent of the Kangshung Face in 1988. From a Scottish perspective, it is almost certainly the most impressive mountaineering achievement since Dougal Haston climbed Everest in 1975.

    I was thrilled when I heard of their success last Thursday. My emotions ranged from relief that they were safe and well through to great excitement at their fantastic success. But above all, it is hugely inspiring that two friends I’ve known for over 30 years, have pulled off the mountaineering ascent of their generation.

    Postscript July 25: I wrote the above account when information on the Mazeno Ridge ascent was still limited and scant. Full details are now emerging on the expedition website which is retrospectively updating the diary of events. It is clear that Rick and Sandy’s success was greatly supported by the rest of the team – Cathy O’Dowd from South Africa and Lhakpa Nuru, Lhakpa Rangduk and Lhakpa Zarok from Nepal. All are highly accomplished Himalayan climbers in their own right (Cathy for example, was the first woman to climb Everest from both the north and south sides), and all six traversed the Mazeno Ridge to the Mazeno Col – an outstanding achievement in its own right.

    All go in Coire an Lochain during the BMC Winter Meet in January. Will Sim leads Nocando Crack (VII,8) and Urban Novak from Slovenia styles up The Vicar (VII,8). (Photo Dave Almond)

    Simon Gee and Justin Tracey from Reeltime Adventure have made an excellent video of last month’s BMC International Winter Meet.

    “Hopefully catches a bit of the spirit of the event without getting bogged down on any one route or party,” Simon told me.

    I think they have one an excellent job in capturing the nature of the meet. I have been fortunate enough to attend many of the winter meets and I felt this year’s was the best one ever. The friendly atmosphere created by Nick Colton and Becky McGovern from the BMC is very inclusive, and although some very impressive climbs were done, all standards were catered for the event was not at all elitist.

    The winter meets run every two years or so, and if you are an enthusiastic winter climber and know your way around the Scottish mountains, I would recommend participating. It is a great opportunity to meet other climbers, both from abroad and the UK, and to showcase our unique style of climbing.

    The CIC Hut on Ben Nevis in April 2009 during the hut upgrade work and a few months after the new roof was installed. The roof of the sleeping quarters (the nearest part of the hut to the camera) was the one that was damaged in the Great December Storm. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Good news – The SMC released the following statement earlier this week:

    “Thanks to the work carried out by Neil McGougan, John Orr and team, the roof on the CIC hut has been repaired and will be fully open from 16 January 2012.”

    Bill Brooker enjoying a summer ascent of Mitre Ridge on Beinn a’Bhuird in the Cairngorms in August 1976. Bill is near the top of the route (where Bell’s Variation exits) and is wearing his trademark beret. (Archive Photo Greg Strange)

    When I first visited Aberdeen in the mid 1980s, my good friend Rick Allen took me along to an Etchachan Club meeting. Unlike other climbing club evenings, this was not held in a pub, but somewhere in the University, and was a member’s slide show. Pictures were shown of the latest new routes, both summer and winter, hard routes in the Alps, and secret projects in the Cairngorms. At the centre of it all and conducting proceedings was a distinguished looking gentleman in his fifties, and Rick whispered in my ear that this was the legendary Bill Brooker.

    Bill Brooker was at the heart of Scottish mountaineering for over 60 years. At the age of 14, he cycled to Skye and climbed Sgurr nan Gillean. Later that evening he heard talk of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and asking whether it was really ‘inaccessible’, he was told, “It is for the likes of you!” This was too great a challenge to be ignored, and next day with no previous climbing experience at all, the young Bill Brooker went and soloed it.

    At the age of 17 he burst on to the Aberdeen climbing scene in January 1949 with the first winter ascent of Crystal Ridge (III) on Coire Sputan Dearg. Later that summer he added several new routes to Lochnagar and made the second ascents of Parallel Buttress and Tough-Brown Ridge Direct. The following winter he pioneered of two of Lochnagar’s most loved winter routes – Shadow Buttress A (IV,5) and Giant’s Head Chimney (IV,4), and then in the winter of 1953 in the company of Tom Patey, he made his most celebrated climbs – the first winter ascents of Eagle Ridge (VI,6) on Lochnagar and Mitre Ridge (V,6) on Beinn a’Bhuird. Even today, these are amongst the most sought after winter climbs in Scotland.

    The climax of Brooker’s winter climbing career took place in 1956, when during successive weekends, he made the first winter ascents of Parallel Buttress (VI,6), Route I (V,6) and Eagle Buttress (IV,3) on Lochnagar. It is easy to forget these routes were climbed before front point crampons and twin tools. Aberdeen climbers were masters at climbing snowed-up rock, and even though ice was climbed by cutting steps using a single axe, the standard of Cairngorm mixed climbing was extremely high.

    Brooker was also an accomplished rock climber and added many first ascents to the Cuillin on Skye including the well known Crack of Dawn (HVS) and Dawn Grooves (HVS). But of all his routes, the first ascent of Waterkelpie Wall (a seven pitch E1) on Creag an Dubh Loch, which he climbed with Dick Barclay in August 1958, I find the most astonishing. This was the first route to venture onto the imposing Central Gully Wall, and to attempt this daunting line with only a small handful of pegs and a few rope slings shows incredible bravery and confidence, and puts our modern armoury of protection into perspective.

    Bill Brooker’s charm and outgoing nature meant he was a natural ambassador for Scottish climbing. He became president of the SMC and edited the influential SMC Journal for twelve years. He moved from his job as a teacher to Aberdeen University and he was eventually honoured by becoming a Master of the University. Unfortunately, a cruel illness robbed him of his youthful athleticism and he became increasingly immobile as he became older and was unable to access the hills.

    Despite his illness, Bill maintained a keen interest in Scottish climbing. On several occasions Niall Ritchie and I visited Bill’s home and showed him slides of recent Scottish climbs. He always had a twinkle in his eye, and I remember describing the first ascent of Sour Grapes – a corner high on Lochnagar – and his eyes lit up when he recognised the feature projected on the screen. “I always wondered what that would be like as a route,“ he told us.

    Bill Brooker’s death in November was a huge loss to Scottish climbing. He was a great man and his life touched many people in both his personal and professional life, but for climbers, he will be forever remembered as the architect of some of the greatest mountain climbs in the land.

    The Arch Wall area of Creagan Cha-no on Cairngorm. (Click on photo for larger image). 1. Jenga Buttress (III,4), 2. Daylight Robbery (V,6), 3. Smooth as Silk (VII,7), 4. Arch Wall (VII,7), 5. Arch Enemy (V,5), 6. Fingers and Thumbs (IV,5). Anvil Buttress lies to the left. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    Following on from the Creagan Cha-no – Anvil Buttress Topo post, the photo above shows the routes on Arch Wall. This wall typically provides two-pitch routes up to 70m long, with pride of place going to the eponymous Arch Wall (VII,7) and Smooth as Silk (VII,7), although later in the season the lower 15 or 20m can bank out. As I said in the previous post, Creagan Cha-no is best considered an early to mid season crag.

    I chanced upon the cliff in September 2010 when walking down Strath Nethy with a Silver DofE Expedition from the Aberdeen Deeside Explorers group.

    We were planning a traverse of the Cairngorms from Glenmore Lodge to Braemar, but we had to call off the trip after the first night. The weather was horrendous with snow and gale force winds, and later we found out that we’d experienced the coldest September night on record on the Cairngorms. As we retreated down Strath Nethy from Loch Avon the rain stopped and the clouds began to clear, and I noticed a frieze of cliffs high up on the plateau edge. They looked attractive, but rather small from afar, but the following weekend I went along to have a look. I was delighted to find a well featured little cliff comprised of excellent granite. It was another wet day, but between the showers I wandered up Duke’s Rib at Moderate (later climbed at Grade II).

    Intrigued, I checked through my collection of Cairngorms guidebooks when I returned home. The crag was referred to in the 1960 Mac Smith guide to the Northern Cairngorms, but was considered to be too short for worthwhile climbing. (In those days a winter route was required to be at least 500ft long to be valid, and even summer routes had to be at least 300ft in length to be worthy of recording). Subsequent climbing guidebooks to the Cairngorms mentioned Cha-no, but more recent editions dropped the reference, so the cliff faded into obscurity.

    But tastes and styles change. Fifty years on it is perfectly acceptable for a mixed route to be 60m in length if it has good climbing, and in this respect Creagan Cha-no fits the bill!