Scottish winter climbing news

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    Great Mountain Days in Scotland has recently been published by Cicerone. This attractive hill walking guide by Dan Bailey covers terrain likely to be encountered by Scottish winter climbers looking to climb away from the well-known venues. The cover depicts An Sgurr from Seana Bhraigh’s summit. (Photo courtesy Cicerone)

    Dan Bailey first appeared on the publishing scene in 2006 with Scotland’s Mountain Ridges. This appealing and attractive guidebook (more like a medium format book), which is well illustrated with OS-style maps and good colour illustrations, brings together the finest ridge climbs and scrambles across the Highlands. Quite deservedly, the book was well received, and building on this success Dan has written The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland and now Great Mountain Days on Scotland, all based on the same format, and published by Cicerone.

    Subtitled 50 Classic Hillwalking Challenges, this book describes mountain expeditions in Scotland that offer a degree of challenge due to their length or amount of ascent and descent. All the well-known outings are here such as the Lochaber Traverse, Fisherfield Six and Cairngorm 4000ers, but there are also a number of routes that Dan has devised himself such as the The Sgurr na Ciche Range in Knoydart. Rather than tackle this ‘Rough Bounds round’ via Glen Dessary, he describes a longer itinerary via Loch Quoich. This makes it easier to include Ben Aden (described as the ‘the roughest (and best) of all Corbetts’) but it also ‘offers an aesthetic advantage, too, as the skyline to be traversed is visible for most of the approach.’

    For the most part these are lengthy expeditions that can be accomplished in a day in summer with fell running shoes, but in winter they will be demanding two-day expeditions. Dan favours this more relaxed approach even in summer, and in the Introduction he states that he considered Great Mountain Days and Wild Nights Out as an alternative title for the book. Beautifully produced, Great Mountain Days in Scotland can be considered the modern day equivalent of the Big Walks, first published by Ken Wilson and the Diadem Press in the 1908s.

    Although not immediately obvious, the content of this book has a strong cross over with Scottish winter climbing, as even the most hardened mixed climber will likely spend time walking in the Scottish hills, whether it be to check out alternative venues or get fit for the coming season.Certainly when next autumn sets in, and the rock boots are put away and the hills beckon, I’ll be turning to Dan Bailey’s latest volume for inspiration.

    Skye Sea-Cliffs & Outcrops, authored by Mark Hudson, has recently been published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Although this is primarily a rock climbing guide, it is the only guidebook to describe the recently developed winter climbing on The Storr and Coire Scamadal. The cover photo shows Mike Hutton’s photo of Man of Straw (VS 4c) on Neist Point. (Reproduced with permission of the Scottish Mountaineering Club)

    Hard on the heels of Skye The Cuillin, the SMC have recently published a new guidebook to the outcrops and sea cliffs of Skye. Authored by Mark Hudson, this is a carefully written and beautifully illustrated book that opens up a myriad of climbing opportunities on this fascinating island. Like many SMC guidebooks this is a labour of love and Mark’s enthusiasm for the island, and its huge variety of climbing, jumps off every page.

    Although mainly a rock climbing guide, a review of this book does have a place on this blog as it includes descriptions of the winter climbing in Coire Scamadal. This recently developed venue is considered by several well-travelled ice warriors to be the finest ice climbing venue in Scotland. The carefully researched History section explains that Vertigo Gully (VI,7) was the given its technical grade by the first ascensionists (Martin Welch and Stewart Anderson) because “it was harder than any Scottish [ice] route or any WI,6 on the continent that the team had climbed. It makes this the hardest pure ice in Britain but will clearly vary with conditions.” Is this route set to be the modern equivalent if West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe, long thought to be the hardest gully climb in the land?

    Naturally the guidebook details well-known rock venues such as Kilt Rock and Elgol, but also included are the excellent-looking mountain dolerite cliffs of Carn Liath in Trotternish, which have been developed over the years by Mark Hudson and Roger Brown. I was particularly struck by the number of superb looking climbs on the sea cliffs at Neist. Like many climbers I’d visited the area years ago, and climbed the classic Supercharger on Stallion’s head, but not realised that Colin Moody and friends had been busy opening up hundreds of excellent looking routes on peerless looking rock on the adjacent cliffs.

    Skye sports a complex and rugged coastline with several dozen sea stacks. This is the first book that gives these a comprehensive treatment, and will open up the challenges of these spectacular formations to a wider audience. Mark has even included a tick list of stacks at the back of the book, and I was tickled to see that Stac an Tuill, which Mark Robson and I reached with an epic 800m swim, is described as one of the most inaccessible stacks in Scotland and “it would be quite unsporting to use a boat.” Who needs winter when you can continue ‘mountaineering’ through the summer with objectives like these!

    Winter Climbs in the Cairngorms, authored by Allen and Blair Fyffe, was published last month by Cicerone. The cover photo shows Neil Johnson on the top pitch of Swan Song (V,6) on Fiacaill Buttress in Coire an t-Sneachda.

    I have a battered copy of the second edition of this popular guidebook on my bookshelf. It is over 30 years old (the staples are rusting) and was written by one of the world’s greatest ice climbing pioneers – John Cunningham. I have certain fondness for this little paperback guide for not only was it my first Scottish guidebook, but it also conjures up memories of woollen breeches, straight shafted ice axes and bendy Salewa crampons in an age when Grade V really meant something.

    The new fifth edition, written by the father and son team of Allen and Blair Fyfe includes Creag Meagaidh as well as the Cairngorms, and reflects the change in emphasis of Scottish winter climbing from ice to mixed over the past three decades. It is a very attractive book, bright and clear and well laid out. It is illustrated with excellent crag topos (some such as Perseverance Wall and The Cathedral on Lochnagar have never been published before), and a series of superb action photos by Henning Wackerhage. Henning is the only climber I know who carries a full size DSLR with him on every route, and his resulting images are both beautiful and evocative, and just make you want to get out and go climbing.

    Unlike its sister Cicerone volume (Ben Nevis and Glen Coe) that sets out to be comprehensive, Cairngorms and Creag Meagaidh is a selected guide. I feel this is wholly appropriate, because unlike the SMC definitive guidebooks that have to be fully comprehensive by definition, a selected guidebook can be more creative and point newcomers to the better cliffs and corries, and highlight not just the finest, but also the most do-able routes.

    In this regard, Allen and Blair have done a superb job, especially in the Northern Cairngorms. The route choice is imaginative, and includes several recently developed cliffs such as Lurcher’s Crag and Sron na Lairige. Allen is also author of the Northern Cairngorms section of the SMC guide, knows his subject well and writes with authority. If I had to make a single criticism, it would be that the route selection in the Southern Cairngorms is a little predictable. Sure, you have to include the great Lochnagar classics, but in the main, the selection appears to be fairly conservative. For example, including a selection of routes on The Stuic, which contains some of the most enjoyable short middle grade routes in the Cairngorms, would have been a useful addition.

    Overall this is a great little guidebook and a natural complement to the SMC title. A newcomer to the area may well be attracted to this new Cicerone guide, but the aficionado will probably always be drawn the SMC fully comprehensive volume (I would say this of course, because I am one of the authors). However, I suspect that even the most hardened Cairngorm climber will also appreciate the Cicerone book for its different perspective and excellent diagrams and illustrations.

    Skye The Cuillin, authored by Mike Lates, has just been published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. The cover photo shows Captain Planet (E4) on the Basteir Tooth. This prominent summit, and the neighbouring Am Basteir, come into winter condition quickly and are home to several modern test-pieces such as Hung, Drawn and Quartered (VIII,8) and Shadbolt’s Chimney (VI,7). (Reproduced with permission of the Scottish Mountaineering Club)

    I’ll start off by stating that I’m not particularly qualified to review this new guidebook. An infrequent visitor to Skye, I’ve only climbed a handful of routes in the Cuillin, and I only finally got around to traversing the Ridge in September last year. In winter my record is even more sparse, and I’ve only succeeded on a single route. My unfamiliarity is partly because I’ve always found the Cuillin rather confusing – the myriad of corries with access from different points requires a deep knowledge of the area, especially if winter climbing is in the agenda – so I was intrigued to see if this new guide to the Cuillin would improve my knowledge of the geography of the range.

    Authored by local mountain guide and enthusiastic Skye aficionado Mike Lates, the new SMC guidebook to the Cuillin is a complete re-write of the previous volume (published in 1996). Mike has done an outstanding job demystifying the Cuillin massif through the use of clear route descriptions, and close to a hundred detailed crag and (all-revealing) crag location photodiagrams. The book has been edited by Brian Davison, and has been beautifully laid out by Susan Jensen, all under the watchful eye of SMC production supremo Tom Prentice. At 320 pages, the book is slimmer and more compact than the last edition and fits comfortably in a rucksack or jacket pocket.

    Mike’s route descriptions are clear, and he goes out of his way to help the reader. For example, his description of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse is both helpful and informative, and unlike some other guidebooks, it does not make you feel inadequate if you’re unable to match Shadbolt and MacLaren’s first ascent time and complete the route under 12 hours. Mike makes a sensible analysis of what constitutes a successful traverse, recommends a multi-corrie reconnaissance campaign and suggests a more realistic time of 12 to 16 hours for the final attempt. He sets out a winter traverse strategy too, which is essential reading for those planning to attempt the ultimate mountaineering expedition in the British Isles.

    I was surprised at the number of winter routes included in the book. Alongside the well-publicised ascents by Mick Fowler, there have been 70 winter additions in recent years, mainly by Dave Ritchie and Mike Lates himself, who both clearly understand the interplay of winter conditions on these mountains. The number of deep clefts and gullies slicing through the Cuillin make it ideal mixed winter terrain when north-westerlies have filled these prominent features with snow or rimed the exposed crests with hoar.

    So after a couple of weeks of study, no longer do the Cuillin feel quite so terra incognita. I’ve heard enthusiastic and positive feedback from other climbers too, so I’m sure that this excellent guidebook will inspire countless summer and winter adventures for many years to come.