Scottish winter climbing news

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    Roger Everett on the first ascent of Rumbling Ridge (III,4) on Braeriach. Rocky ridges make good early season routes as their relatively low angle means they collect snow and they do not rely on frozen turf. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Everett on the first ascent of Rumbling Ridge (III,4) on Braeriach. Rocky ridges make good early season routes as their relatively low angle means they collect snow and they do not rely on frozen turf. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    After a very warm November, the winter season season finally got underway in the first week of December as westerly winds brought snow to the higher tops. As usual, The Northern Corries were the most popular venue and there were ascents of The Message, Pot of Gold, Hidden Chimney and Invernookie in Coire an t-Sneachda, and over in Coire an Lochain, Savage Slit and Ewen Buttress also saw ascents.

    Over on Skye, Mike Lates, Jamie Bankhead and Iain Murray made an ascent of BC Buttress on Sgurr Thearlaich. This relatively high altitude crag overlooking the Great Stone Shoot comes into condition very fast, and the trio found an alternative start which brought the grade down from IV,5 to IV,4.

    Finally on December 5, Roger Everett and I added to our collection of obscure routes on the north side of Braeriach with the first ascent of the three-pitch Rumbling Ridge (III,4). This provided a good early season excursion to blow away the autumn cobwebs. The name refers to the rickety second pitch, which is a lot more solid after Roger trundled a series of stacked blocks.

    With storms and blizzards forecast for the next few days, it looks like winter has now well and truly arrived!

    Simon Yearsley making an ascent of Savage Slit (V,6) in Coire an Lochain on Cairn Gorm. Savage Slit reliably comes into condition with the first snows of the winter and is a popular early season choice. (Photo Helen Rennard)

    Simon Yearsley making an ascent of Savage Slit (V,6) in Coire an Lochain on Cairn Gorm. Savage Slit reliably comes into condition with the first snows of the winter and is a popular early season choice. (Photo Helen Rennard)

    Strong westerlies brought the first real snows of the 2013/214 Scottish winter season during the last days of October. There are rumours of an ascent of Fingers Ridge (IV,4) in Coire an t-Sneachda during the first snowfalls last week, but the first batch of this season’s winter routes were climbed over the weekend and Monday.

    Blustery conditions and poorly frozen turf, meant that many folk climbing in the Northern Corries went away empty handed over the weekend, but further west, parties were more successful on the mountaineering classics suxh as the Aonach Eagach and Ledge Route on Ben Nevis.

    Yesterday (November 4), Duncan Hodgson and Mark Chadwick visited the Northern Corries and climbed the modern classic Hookers Corner (VI,6). Next door on No.4 Buttress, Helen Rennard and Simon Yearsley made an ascent of Savage Slit (V,6).

    “Sensible route choices are always important, but none more so than with the first snows of the winter,” Simon told me. “It’s tempting to rush out to “grab the white stuff”, but it was pretty obvious that from following the forecasts that no turf would be frozen by Monday (as Helen found out the day before when she’d taken a walk into Coire na Ciste on the Ben to check out conditions), so it was all about routes which can be climbed in a good coating of snow but don’t rely at all on turf. Routes like Fingers Ridge, Crest Route, Crypt Route, Hookers Corner Savage Slit and Mess Of Pottage are good objectives, and yesterday was no exception!

    Helen and I walked into Coire an Lochain with deep snow in the boulders around the eponymous lochan and the cliffs plastered with rime and heavy snow. Savage Slit was beautifully white, with lots of effort needed to uncover the cracks for gear, and coupled with the wind it was a full-on reintroduction to Scottish winter! Mark Chadwick and Duncan Hodgson found similar conditions on Hookers Corner, and later in the day we also bumped into Lou and her partner after they’d done a route on Mess of Pottage, and also heard later that Andy Nisbet and Dave McGimpsey enjoyed a fun (and possibly slightly more sheltered) day out on Fingers Ridge. I must admit I did feel pretty tired after the Ice Factor Festival of Ice Comp on Saturday, but walking back down to the car park, we both agreed that it felt wonderful to be back in the swing of things… here’s to more white stuff!”

    Roger Webb on the final section (common with The Blood is Strong) on a new Grade III on Cregan Cha-no on Cairngorm on December 30. This photo was taken during a slight lull in the wind – storm conditions persisted throughout the day and the route was ironically named Captain Fairweather. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb on the final section (common with The Blood is Strong) on a new Grade III on Creagan Cha-no on Cairngorm on December 30. This photo was taken during a slight lull in the wind – storm conditions persisted throughout the day and the route was ironically named Captain Fairweather. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The weather over the Christmas –New Year holiday period was very challenging with high winds putting the hills out of bounds for much of the time (for sensible folk at least). Rather frustratingly, the fluctuating temperatures were on the cool side and conditions at mid-height across many of the ranges were very good, with well-frozen turf, neve and ice.

    December 27 was the best day and several teams were busy on Ben Bevis. Iain Small and Blair Fyffe added a difficult new pitch to the left of Rogue’s Rib and Michael Barnard and Ron Dempster added a good new finish to Jacknife on The Douglas Boulder. The Off Road Finish (IV,4) steps down and left from the belay at the end of pitch two, climbs the corner at the back of the ledge and continue up through the obvious square-cut chimney above.

    I ventured into the hills on December 30 with Roger Webb, rather hoping that the forecast 80mph winds with 100mph gusts were an exaggeration. We decided to play it safe and make a visit to Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm, which is probably the crag with the shortest approach in Scotland. But even a few hundred metres from the car park we were being blown off our feet. Rather stubbornly (and stupidly perhaps) we continued, reasoning that the east-facing cliff would be sheltered from the westerly winds. Unfortunately this was not the case, and the cliff was a maelstrom of blowing spindrift – the day quickly became a matter of climb something quick and get down as soon as possible.

    We climbed the prominent rib to the right of the groove of The Blood is Strong which takes in several technical and steep steps. “This is not a day to break a leg,” Roger reminded me as I struggled on the steep initial wall, and we emerged on to the plateau after two pitches in a whiteout facing into the gale. Roger had wisely put on his goggles below, but as soon as I dug mine out of my sack they immediately filled with snow and ice.

    The navigation back to the car was technically easy – we knew we had to travel due west for about a kilometre until we hit a ski fence and then turn south, but walking straight into the wind was almost impossible, and made doubly worse for me as I could barely see through my now useless goggles. For a few minutes I thought that we were going to have to crawl, and the situation reminded me of descending Cerro Torre in a storm ten years ago. But soon enough we found the ski fence, dropped a little height and if it wasn’t for our stinging cheeks and eyes, we would have wondered what all the fuss had been about.

    For all those brave and determined enough to succeed on a winter route, whatever the grade, over the holiday period, I salute you. The Scottish hills really bared their teeth, and the weather conditions at times were as challenging as you are likely to meet anywhere else in the world.

    Looking across to Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower on Ben Nevis. This superb feature contains some of the finest Grade VI mixed climbing on the mountain. Stringfellow (VI,6) takes a zigzag line up the buttress, whilst Smooth Operator (VI,7) follows a line closer to the crest. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    The current spell of cold and snowy weather has resulted in some excellent ascents in Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. This corrie is ideally suited to early season mixed with routes mainly dependent on hooks and torques rather than frozen turf.

    Many of the modern classics have had ascents such as Sioux Wall and Gargoyle Wall on Number Three Gully Buttress, Darth Vader and Lost the Place on Creag Coire na Ciste and Slab Climb and Sidewinder on South Trident Buttress. Over on Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower, Smooth Operator also had an early repeat.

    The finest ascent of the week so far took place in Monday November 26 when Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell made the third ascent of The Knuckleduster (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress. Greg repeated this route last season with Will Sim (adding a more direct finish), but this time he returned with Guy to take a more direct (and natural) winter line on the summer crux pitch.

    Their ascent was particularly remarkable as they only started climbing at 11.30am after being stymied by unstable snow conditions approaching a line in Observatory Gully. It is a significant journey from here to the foot of N3GB, especially in deep snow, and their success was underpinned by resolute determination coupled with swift and efficient climbing. Whatever the grade of course, both of these qualities are key requisites for successful Scottish winter climbing!

    Sandy Simpson moving past ‘the Anvil’ on the first ascent of Anvil Corner (VI,6) on Creagan Cha-no in November 2010. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    The recent snow and cooler temperatures are beginning to bring the crags in the Northern Cairngorms into winter condition. Activity is picking up in the Northern Corries where routes that do not rely on frozen turf such as Honeypot, Pot of Gold, The Message and Pygmy Ridge have received ascents.

    I’ve just been contacted by Gary Gray who visited Creagan Cha-no today (November 27) and made an ascent of Anvil Corner (VI,6) with Dafydd Morris. His enthusiastic email gives a flavour of the current conditions:

    “It was not a great day for climbing with poor visibility and a fair bit of wind, but fortunately we were protected by the route from the worst of it. The turf was not [completely] frozen, but good enough when it mattered. Both pitches were excellent and sustained, so good value for such a short route. The route wasn’t plastered, unlike the crag in general, so gear was plentiful but awkward to place at times. A great route and worthy of a couple of stars at least!”

    Graham Dudley on the first pitch of Birthday Treat (IV,4) on Braeriach during the first ascent on November 18. This three-pitch route lies in Coire Ruadh on the north side of the mountain and sports a fine third pitch through the upper headwall. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    It’s been a testing couple of weeks for winter climbers with a succession of westerly weather systems sweeping across the country. This has brought rapidly fluctuating temperatures with freezing levels rising well above the highest tops. It has also been wintry at times, but the snow has often fallen on unfrozen ground resulting in poor climbing conditions. As a result there has been limited winter climbing on offer, and several folk have devoted their energy to honing their fitness and technical skills at Newtyle and other dry tool venues.

    Winter climbing has not been a total write-off however, and the last two weekends have coincided with snowfall followed by brief ridges of high pressure that have cooled things down a little. The trick to climbing in conditions like these is to pick a cliff that is high and exposed to the prevailing wind but has not been buried by too much by snow.

    Although a few routes have been climbed in the Northern Corries, they have been sheltered from the prevailing westerlies by the broad mass of the Cairngorms and the lean conditions have not been representative of the higher corries in the massif. Coire Ruadh on Braeriach for example, has provided some good climbing on frozen turf, neve, ice and snow over the last two weekends.

    Other climbers have chosen to climb on the West, which has had more snow, but warmer temperatures. Enterprising ascents of note (for the conditions) include North-East Buttress on the Ben, Kid Gloves in the Mamores and Moonshadow on Stob Coire nan Lochan.

    All is now set to change with snowfall and cold winds sweeping in from the north. At long last, it looks like the winter proper is about to start!

    Braeriach Again

    Roger Everett on a new Grade III on Braeriach. Conditions at 1100m in the Cairngorms were excellent on Sunday November 11 with well-frozen turf, hoared up rock and good neve. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    After last week’s thaw, most folk were fairly pessimistic about winter climbing this weekend, but with temperatures dropping during Saturday, there was clearly good winter climbing to be had. There were mixed views as to whether to east or west, but one thing was for sure, a high crag was important to ensure a refreeze. I was concerned that the west had thawed more than the east, so Roger Everett and I opted to visit Coire an Lochain on Braeriach on Sunday Nov 11.

    The crag up and left on the corrie rim gave an excellent new Grade III on neve, well frozen turf and hoar-encrusted rocks. We descended back around to the west side of the corrie and climbed a short, but good IV,4 on Blade Buttress, the sharp feature dividing Y-Gully in two.

    Those venturing further west mainly concentrated on the Ben with ascents of North-East Buttress, Castle Ridge and Glover’s Chimney. The finest ascent of the weekend that has come to light so far, is an early repeat of Dr Noe (VI,6) on Ben Cruachan by Stuart MacFarlane and Gary Gray.

    Roger Webb on a new VI,6 in Coire an Lochain on Braeriach. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Catching upon some late news: It was a ‘busy’ morning in the tiny Glen Einich car park last Sunday morning (November 4) with four teams gearing up at 6am for the cycle into Braeriach. Colin Wells and Penny Clay were headed for Sphinx Ridge in Garbh Choire Mor but they were stymied by the large amounts of snow on the plateau. “We stomped over the shoulder to the corrie, totally gobsmacked by the volume of snow and having to make diversions avoiding the incipient windslab that had already built up, “Colin told me afterwards.

    “In the gloop we neared the corrie rim and realised that quite large cornices had formed already, so we headed for the spur and shelf on the Angel’s Peak side. Because of having to navigate blind and avoid slab, it had been more time-consuming than usual and was now probably too late in the day anyway to make an enjoyable ascent mostly in daylight. However, just as we grabbed a quick bite to eat before plunging down, the mist rose briefly to reveal – Sphinx Ridge completely buried in a Mr Whippy-style fondant covering from tip to toe, topped by unhelpful cornice. In fact, just about every route was pretty much artexed. It was clear that any climbing was going to involve massive amounts of energetic digging and not be very secure at all, so we decided to cut our losses and bail out…”

    Roger Webb and I had more luck in Coire an Lochain. This coire is disappointing from a technical winter climbing point of view, however there is one steep section of rock, which provided a sustained four-pitch VI,6 outing.

    I’m not sure where on Braeriach the next two teams were bound, although ascents of West Wall Route and Campion Gully in Coire Bhrochain were reported on UKC, although it is more normal to approach this coire from the Lairig Ghru side.

    A busy day in the Northern Corries. Andy Munro climbing Auricle (left) and Andy Inglis on Ventriloquist in Coire an Lochain. (Photo James Richardson)

    It was an excellent winter climbing weekend in the Cairngorms with teams active on many crags including Braeriach, Coire Sputan Dearg, Lochnagar and the Shelter Stone.

    The Northern Corries were especially popular with dozens of parties enjoying the early winter sunshine. Conditions were particularly good for so early in the season with frozen turf and generally dry cracks all coated with a healthy layer of new snow and hoar frost on the steep sections.

    James Richardson sent me the above picture with tongue in cheek comment – “Shows typical winter solitude on No. 1 Buttress in Coire an Lochain.” James was climbing Auricle with Andy Munro, and Andy Inglis was partnered by Helen Rennard on Ventriloquist. “James and Andy were next to us all the way up,” Helen explained. “It was very sociable. We shouted ‘Andy’ and they both turned around for the photo!”

    Guy Steven about to abseil into Number Three Gully on Ben Nevis with the line of El Nino (III,4) and the La Nina Start (V,6) on Number Three Gully Buttress behind. This two-pitch buttress route lies above Winter Chimney on the left wall of Number Three Gully. The original line was climbed on ice in March 1998, but the new direct start provides a more technical early season mixed alternative. (The original El Nino line starts further left and joins at the first prominent dogleg on the topo). Lying high on the mountain the buttress comes into condition quickly with the first snows of the winter. (Photo Al Halewood)

    Whilst the Northern Corries have remained busy over the last few days with ascents of the early season classics such as Pygmy Ridge, Fingers Ridge and Fallout Corner, activity has now started on Ben Nevis.

    On October 31, Kenny Grant and Guy Steven made the probable third ascent of Archangel on Creag Coire a Ciste. This stepped line of corners was first climbed in February 2005, and was surprisingly late in the winter development of the crag considering it is such a prominent line. Despite a high freezing level, Kenny and Guy found good conditions with a reasonable snow covering and dry well protected cracks. I found one of the pitches quite scary on the first ascent with Chris Cartwright and we gave the route a grade of VII,7, but it now seems to be settling down at VI,7.

    The day after (November 1) Guy was back on the Ben once again to climb the classic Gargoyle Wall on Number Three Gully Buttress with Al Halewood. This time conditions were not so kind, and the cracks were very icy and covered in a deep layer of snow. After a pitch they decided to retreat, and headed up Number Three Gully looking for something else to save the day. They ended up climbing La Nina (V,6), a new direct start to El Nino, the buttress to the right of Winter Chimney.

    “We looked up and thought it looked about III,4,” Al told me. “But as so often happens, it caught us napping and left us both hanging full arm on a superb hook in a pick-width crack as our feet popped off the sloping left side of the groove we were climbing. Guy reckoned that move was approaching the difficulty of things on Archangel the day before and there was some more good stuff higher on the pitch…”