Scottish winter climbing news

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

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

    This is an inspirational book.

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

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

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

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

    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.

    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.