Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in January, 2010

    Iain Small on the first ascent of The Great Corner VIII,8) on Raeburn's Buttress, Ben Nevis. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    On Sunday January 24th, Iain Small and I teamed up to make an attempt on the huge vertical square-cut corner on the right flank of Raeburn’s Buttress. Climbers have stared at this fantastic feature for decades and at over 90m high it is equivalent to a double-sized Cenotaph Corner. We approached via Compression Crack and after a steep lower pitch, Iain took over the lead and pulled out the stops with a breathtaking lead of the intimidating upper corner, which led around a double series of overlaps to the easier technical 7 continuation groove. Three easier pitches then led to the summit of Carn Dearg. Iain commented afterwards that this was probably the most intimidating lead he had ever made and The Great Corner weighed in at a worthy VIII,8.

    Alasdair Fulton on the first ascent of The War Path (VI,6), Coire Scamadal, Trotternish, Skye. (Photo Ben Weir)

    The vertical basalt cliffs of Coire Scamadal on the north side of The Storr in Skye are dripping wet most of the year but have the potential to be a natural ice trap. Facing north-east, and easily visible from the main road north of Portree, they have attracted the attention of ice climbers over the years, but most have been thwarted by their relatively low altitude and proximity to the sea. They were eventually breached by Mike Lates who climbed an icy gully cutting through their left side in two instalments in the late 1990s. Scamtastic (V,5) saw a second ascent by Mick Fowler and Dave Turnbull last season.

    Well aware of the potential of the corrie, Mike was determined to return as soon as conditions became good. The cliff started to ice through December, and finally after New Year the ice was thick enough to climb. On the January 4, Mike enlisted Andy Huntington for the first ascent of Top Scam (V,6), the central ice line topped by an ice umbrella. Lates returned four days later with Martin Welch to add Scamadaladingdong (IV,6), the prominent icy recess to the right of Scamtastic.

    Other teams had been alerted to the potential, and on Saturday January 9, Robin Clothier and Doug Hawthorn picked The Fine Line (VI,6), the plum route on the cliff up the vertical ice sheet on the imposing right side of the cliff. Whilst Robin and Doug were engrossed on their route, Alasdair Fulton, James Sutton and Ben Weir attempted the 140m-high central ice line right of Top Scam. They were beaten back by a wet first pitch and saved the day with the third ascent of Scamtastic, determined to return early next morning.

    “The walk in was quicker this time,” Alasdair told me. “But we were not quick enough to beat Doug and Robin. They were making swift tracks towards our route until they doubled back and aimed for another unclimbed line – our previous tracks fooling them into thinking we had climbed it the previous day! This time I was going old school – Goretex instead of soft shell – and this time the first pitch was a success. It was pumpy, technical and steep. Still wet in the cave, but not enough to dampen the fire! Ben took over for pitch two, but James was still pumped from seconding with the pack, so I got the final pitch. It was harder than I anticipated, 85 degree ice and not as good for screws or feet. At one point both feet ripped…”

    Whilst Fulton, Sutton and Weir were engaged on The War Path (VI,6), Robin and Doug climbed The Shard (VI,6), the huge hanging cigar to the right of Scamadaladingdong. After a brief thaw, Martin Welch and Stewart Anderson returned three days later and climbed Vertigo Gully (VI,7), the prominent incised corner on the right of the cliff whilst Doug and Ben climbed the equally impressive Slilverpine (VI,7) up the hanging chimney to the right of The Fine Line. This concluded a remarkable ten days of development and the establishment of one of Scotland’s steepest ice climbing areas. No doubt these superb routes will attract considerable attention next time we have a major freeze.

    Dave MacLeod on the first ascent of Jane's Weep on Aonach Dubh, Glen Coe. At VIII,8 this is the highest graded ice route ever climbed in Scotland. (Photo Dave MacLeod Collection)

    Dave MacLeod has had a productive week in Glen Coe coming away with five difficult new ice climbs. On January 8 he visited the crag right of Chancellor Gully low down on the south side of the Aonach Eagach and climbed the left-hand of vertical thin icefalls with Donald King to give Liquidation (VI,6). The route went fairly quickly, so the pair nipped up to the Lady Jane Wall on Aonach Dubh and made a rare repeat of Willie Todd’s 1986 icefall Exellerator (V,5). Dave returned to Chancellor Gully two days later with Sam Wood to climb Frozen Assets (VII,7), the rather steeper and thinner series of dribbles, pencils and hanging fangs to the right.

    Whilst he was climbing Exellerator, Dave had spotted several steep ice smears forming down the Lady Jane Wall, so he returned on January 13 to investigate them with Blair Fyffe. Blair kicked off their campaign on the right side of the wall with a difficult VI,7 taking the steep crack and ice pillar just right of the summer E1 Blast Off. Dave then led the plum line, taking the thin dribble of ice running down the classic E2 Lady Jane. Difficult mixed moves and thin intermittent ice lead to the more continuous upper smear resulting in a bold VIII,8. On his blog Dave describes Jane’s Weep as a climber’s dream – “ice smears a few millimetres thick and occasional blobs running boldly up a wall, eventually gaining thicker ice to finish on an overhanging pillar.” Fully fired up the duo returned the following day to climb the overhanging groove left of Jane’s Weep. This looked the hardest route of the three, but good ice and hidden footholds, meant that Dangerous Curves merely weighed in at a tough VII,8.

    Jane’s Weep is almost certainly the most difficult ice pitch climbed in Scotland. There are very few Grade VIII Scottish ice routes of that grade, and Dave Hesleden and Chris Cartwright’s Foobarbundee (VIII,7) on Liathach climbed in February 1993 is probably the closest comparison.

    See Dave’s blog for more details and photos

    Guy Robertson on the first ascent of Bow Direct (VII,8), Sgurr an Fhidhleir. (Photo Pete MacPherson)

    On Friday January 8 Martin Moran, Pete Macpherson and Guy Robertson made a big addition to the Fhidhleir. Bow Direct (VII,8) takes the full length of the huge arching right-facing corner that dominates the 300m-high south-east face. The wall was first climbed in winter in December 2000 by Chris Cartwright and I with our ascent of Magic Bow Wall (VIII,8), which traverses rightwards out of the corner at half-height to climb a steep series of corners near Fidelio.

    Martin, Pete and Guy started up the lower pitches of Magic Bow Wall and continued directly up the groove above.and completed their new route in a remarkably fast time. I’d like to think that Bow Direct is a less demanding expedition than Magic Bow Wall, which has its hardest climbing after the traverse, but I suspect that Martin, Pete and Guy are just far better climbers than Chris and I were ten years ago!

    Without question, Bow Direct is a very significant new route and takes the outstanding line on this huge wall.

    Iain Small on the second pitch of The Great Prow (VII,8) on Blaven, Skye. Exceptionally snowy conditions brought the route into unusual winter condition. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Iain Small and I were very fortunate to visit Skye last Sunday January 10. The Cuillins looked magnificent in their winter garb, but travel looked difficult with feet of snow and plumes of spindrift on the Ridge. We ploughed up through thigh-deep snow on  Blaven looking for something icy to climb, but were drawn to The Great Prow that was draped in powder. It gave an absorbing winter climb that become increasingly icy as we reached the top. The crux was as per the summer route and overall we felt the route to be VII,8. We finished in the dark and gingerly down climbed Scuppers Gully, fearful that it would avalance, before starting the long slippery drive home.

    Oui Oui Direct

    Scott Muir on the coveted first ascent of Golden Shower (VI,6), Creag Dubh. (Photo Kin Hung Choi)

    The big freeze has brought many ice routes into condition for the first time in many years. With access to the hills difficult due to deep snow, low-level icefalls are the obvious choice.

    Several new ice routes have been climbed, but the most striking so far is the hanging icefall to the right of the classic Oui Oui on Creag Dubh. Easily seen from the road, this 40m hanging ice column was a well-known last great problem. It was last attempted in the great winter of 1986 when James Grossett, one of the strongest Cairngorm activists at the time, attempted to lead it. Unfortunately he was spooked by brittle vertical ice, so he called for a top rope.

    Just after New Year, Scott Muir had a hunch that it was coming into condition. “I could smell that it must have been forming, “ Scott told me. He drove to Creag Dubh on Sunday January 10 to check on conditions. “I couldn’t believe it. It was good. But there were eight cars and about 20 people climbing Oui Oui. I definitely looked suspicious eyeing up the pillar and dismissing it as ‘not in good condition’ when asked. I could feel that mad internal beast coming out for a good feed. I ran back down to the car knowing it was a race against time with the weather or someone else getting in first. I had one of those mad paranoid sleeps…. I was a bit apprehensive as I hadn’t climbed steep ice for three years.”

    Scott arrived with Andy Gatenby at 6.30am next morning but conditions were far from ideal. “The route was gushing with water,” Scott explained. “The fall was hollow with water running down the inside. The left side was reasonably solid but chandeliered and too verglassed for any rock pro on the wall. The middle section was very dodgy with very poor screws and placements. Overall it was pretty technical but I felt at home – being used to pillars and free hanging things. I got pretty pumped though, from being so being unfit.”

    Scott graded the climb VI,6 and called it Golden Shower. The next day part of it fell down when exposed to the sun even though the temperature was still –7 degC. “That’s what makes Scotland magical,” Scott enthused. “One day something’s in – the next it’s not, and may never be for another 24 years!”

    The Long March

    Simon Yearsley on the first ascent of The Long March (VIII,8), Lord Reay’s Seat, Foinaven. (Photo Malcolm Bass)

    Saturday, January 9 saw the first ascent of a new VIII,8 on Foinaven by the indomitable team of Simon Yearsley and Malcolm Bass. When this pair made the first winter ascent of Pobble on Lord Reay’s Seat back in March 2006 they had belayed under the final corner of summer E1 Breakaway, and vowed to return to climb it in winter. They left their van at 5.30am, and took nearly six hours to ski through deep crust to reach the base of the crag.

    They set off up a difficult series of steep cracks and overhanging grooves to join Breakaway and by the time they reached the fifth pitch it was dark. “Climbing big new routes in winter (especially in January) is an engrossing affair,” Simon explained. “Malcolm became particularly engrossed in a hideous fankle of ropes, rack, gear and clipper leashes whilst wedged in the confines of Breakaway’s upper corner. Unable to move up or down Malcolm had plenty of time to reflect on the atmosphere of a night-time shift on a remote cliff in the far far north before a frenzied burst of swearing and thrashing finally freed him to continue the inch by inch struggle up the crack to a superb pedestal stance at its top.”

    There was much wild whooping and night-time screaming when the final sixth pitch led to a belay right on the windy and exposed summit of Lord Reay’s Seat. An hour back to the skis the pair finally reached the road at 5.28am – a huge 24hrs since leaving. Simon summed it up succinctly afterwards. “Inspired by the enormity of the day, we called the route The Long March.”

    For more details and photos, see Simon’s website

    Roger Webb on the first ascent of Wild West (VII,6), Coire Dhorrcail on Ladhar Bheinn. This dramatic crag in the heart of Knoydart is one of the most remote Scottish cliffs. The 230m-long route was climbed in a 33-hour round trip from the Kinloch Hourn road. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    During the deep freeze of  February 1986 I had a fantastic winter weekend climbing on Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart with Roger Everett. On the Saturday we made an early ascent of the mythical Tir na Og up the centre of Spider Buttress, and next day we added the fine gully of Marguerite an Stob a’Chearcaill. It can be a mistake to recreate old experiences, but I was keen to return when conditions looked good.

    Twenty fours years is a long time to wait, but with the cold weather forecast to last well into the New Year it was easy to persuade Roger Webb to try a Knoydart adventure. The objective was a beautiful vegetated groove cutting up the centre of Landlubbers Buttress. We hadn’t counted on the road being impassable to Kinloch Hourn, the sea level paths sheeted with ice and deep snow on the approach to the coire, but we succeeded after probably the biggest single effort I’ve ever made in the Scottish mountains. It was worth it – Wild West (VII,6) is an immaculate line in a very special place.

    Our adventure began on the evening of January 2 and overall we were out 33 hours. It broke down into 10 hours for the approach, 6 hours on the route, 12 hours return and 5 hours stops (which included 3 hours sleep in Barrisdale bothy). The return took longer as we had to traverse the summit ridge and the walk back was more uphill than the way out as we had to walk the last 3 miles of road before Kinloch Hourn. On top of this there was a 7 hour drive each way from Aberdeen on snowy roads – the hour along the single track towards Kinloch Hourn had not been cleared and was on hard packed snow.

    Roger and have done several of these remote outings now, and the hardest thing is starting up the route after a long approach – you already feel you have had a full day out and you haven’t started to climb. Once we committed to the route though it was really enjoyable. The walk out was slow and we were fueled by the elation of pulling off a great climb – as always the reward is directly proportional the effort invested!

    Realisation Buttress in Coire na Poite, Beinn Bhan. Wonderland (VII,7), the new Bass-Yearsley route, is marked in orange. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

    The cold weather over the Christmas holiday has seen two big additions in the Applecross mountains. First up on Christmas Eve was Martin Moran climbing with his son Alex, who made the adventurous first ascent of big cliff low on the flanks of Meall Gorm below the Bealach na Ba – Creag a’Chumhaing (crag of the defile). “This is one of biggest and steepest cliffs in the area,” Martin explained on his blog. “It is nearly 800 feet in vertical height, forming the towering prow that frames the postcard view down the pass. No-one is known to have climbed it.” After five sustained pitches the pair reached the final tier that was guarded by a series of fierce overhangs. Fortunately a steep crack-line leading to a gargoyle feature provided a way through, but another steep groove-line above meant the pair only topped out at 9pm. The route was aptly named Peace on Earth and graded VII,7. See Martin’s blog for a full account

    On December 28 Simon Yearsley and Malcolm Bass put a long-standing objective to bed with the first ascent of Wonderland (VII,7) in Coire na Poite on Beinn Bhan. The route takes an independent line on the big wall between Realisation and Harlequin Rib.

    Simon and Malcolm spotted the line when they made the first ascent of Realisation back in 2004, but they knew they needed good and cold, icy conditions for the route to go.  The first pitch was very serious (a 15m run-out on steep icy/turfy ground at one point), but each pitch after that had great climbing, often tenuous but with good gear just where it was needed.  After five independent pitches they joined Harlequin Rib for the final 150m where the angle kicked back. For more details see Simon’s website

    “The last few pitches were done by amazing moonlight”, Simon told me. “The walk-down was superb with some of the best frost crystal sparkling we’ve ever seen… or was it the elation after such a great day!”