Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in January, 2011

    Guy Robertson on pitch 7 of Stone Temple Pilots on the Shelter Stone. The route links the summer lines of Steeple, Haystack and Spire directly up the front face of the crag and sets a new benchmark for continuous difficulty during a winter that has already broken all records. “Super-sustained, well-protected, strenuous and spectacular are just some of the many adjectives that spring to mind when describing this great climb.” Robertson said afterwards. (Photo Pete Macpherson)

    Guy Robertson and Pete Macpherson pulled off a major coup on Friday (January 28) when they climbed a new direct line up the front edge of the Shelter Stone. Their new route, called Stone Temple Pilots (named after a 90s rock band), links the first three pitches of Steeple with the crux pitch of Haystack, followed by a new pitch into Citadel and a finish up Spire.

    “For me, the Shelter Stone is in some ways Scotland’s ultimate winter cliff,” Guy told me. “It’s rarely in good wintry condition, it’s remote, the routes are very long and arduous, and the climbing is just utterly fantastic, getting progressively harder and more out there the higher up one gets! To climb a directtissima up the front edge has been a long-standing dream for me, and I was very lucky to have Pete on the other end of the rope.”

    The pair left the car at 02.30am and started up the lower Steeple corners at 05.20am, climbing the first big pitch in the dark and the next two as dawn broke. They then continued up through the crux 5c pitch of Haystack.

    “Pete dispatched this very smoothly despite a slip at the start of the difficulties (rather than lower down he just hopped straight back on),” Guy explained. “We split this pitch (Pete had downloaded all his kit) and then we stepped left before the end of the ramp onto a commodious ledge and belay.  We didn’t have a guidebook and couldn’t remember where Haystack went, and with the clock ticking it all began to get rather exciting!  With no choice but to forge on, Pete opened a new hard pitch straight up then slightly left, eventually joining Citadel where this goes right to below the headwall.

    Then it was my big lead.  Despite cramping biceps and only a couple of hours light left, I managed to drag myself up the penultimate pitch of Spire before Pete dispatched the last 5b crack of Steeple – just in time for the darkness to envelope us.”

    Guy and Pete have yet to grade Stone Temple Pilots, although Guy has made the following statement.

    “Both Pete and I feel strongly that there is considerable over-grading surrounding today’s trendy, short routes.  I’ve climbed quite over two dozen grade VIII’s and IX’s now – including others as well as my own – and most of these I’m fairly sure I could have led all the pitches if push came to shove.  This route however (and The Steeple for that matter) are in a different ball park altogether; there’s just no way on earth I could conceive of leading it from bottom to top [by myself].  So does that make it grade X?  In my opinion it doesn’t – but other route grades would need to come down.  If that’s not going to happen then maybe grade X it should be…

    …Whatever the grade, it’s kind of irrelevant.  The Stone has some of the most inspiring and challenging winter climbing this great country has to offer.  For a well-balanced and keen team there’s probably nothing anywhere else to compare!”

    Austrian climber Charly Fritzer making the second ascent of To Those Who Wait (IX,9) on Creag Coire na Ciste, Ben Nevis. The Secret is the prominent crack-line just right of the arete. (Photo Greg Boswell)

    Well known German climber Ines Papert is visiting with Austrian Charly Fritzer, and it’s all go in the Scottish mountains at the moment!

    On Wednesday January 26, Ines teamed up with Pete Macpherson made an early ascent of  Daddy Longlegs (VIII,9) in Coire an Lochain whilst Charly climbed Ventricle (VII,8) with Greg Boswell. On Thursday (January 27) they headed up the Ben. Mike Tweedley and Greg made the second ascent of Apache (VIII,9) and Charly repeated To Those Who Wait (IX,9), Greg’s test-piece on the hanging crack above Number Three Gully, first climbed just four weeks ago. “Charly got it second go after falling because a chockstone ripped on his first attempt, and Ines might be going back to try it again later in the trip,” Greg reported.

    Yesterday (January 28),  Mike and Greg visited Coire an t-Sneachda and repeated Pete Macpherson and Martin Moran’s recent route, Omerta (VIII,9). “I managed to climb the route on sight, but only just,” Greg told me. “The crux pitch is mega pumpy and technical. I found it very strenuous to protect due to the dirt and ice in the cracks, and once you had got the hard won protection it was not very good. I thought it was high in the grade.”

    Neil Silver (belaying) and Simon Davidson climbing Darth Vader (VII,7) on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. Finishes to Darth Vader and nearby climbs marked as follows: A – Darth Vader, B – Catriona, C – Alternative Finish to Darth Vader, D – Cornucopia, E – Avenging Angel. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

    Simon Yearsley sent me the above photo the other day asking me to clarify the finish to Darth Vader, so I’ve labelled the exits of DV and its surrounding climbs as they were climbed on the first ascents.

    I suspect that the finishes to Darth Vader and Cornucopia are often inter-changed. When Chris Cartwright and I climbed Cornucopia in April 1996 (the first route to gain the platform below these finishes) it was dark, so we fumbled around in the dark before climbing Finish D. The following March when we climbed Darth Vader, we finished up A, as it was the other obvious exit. Both finishes are a little harder than they look and weigh in at about Technical 6.

    Simon noted that when he climbed Darth Vader with Malcolm Bass on March 17 2008 he took Finish C. “It was probably at the same sort of grade as the DV crux pitch,” Simon told me. “When we did it, it had a useful smear of ice down the top of the right wall which you could dynamically stick from just below the topmost part of the corner.”

    Neil Silver and Simon Davidson, who climbed Darth Vader last Saturday, also took Finish C, but this time there was no useful smear of ice, and they thought it to be a tough pitch.

    So, I’m intrigued how other folk have finished Darth Vader, and whether Finish C has been climbed many times before – please drop me an email or leave a comment.

    Iain Small gaining the foot of the hanging groove on the first ascent of Goodfellas (VII,8) on Ben Nevis. This six-pitch route climbs the impressive front face of Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower on Ben Nevis has fascinated me for years. It is an elegant feature running up to the Great Tower from Coire na Ciste just to the left of Glover’s Chimney. Way back in 1996, I realised that the Bennet-Tait Grade III avoided the buttress completely and climbed grooves to the right, so that March, Chris Cartwright and I set out to climb the crest of the buttress itself.

    The result was Stringfellow, a sustained VI,6 that takes a zigzag line up the buttress. It was our first foray into mixed climbing on the Ben and felt very adventurous with success in the balance until the very end. The route is one of my favourite climbs on the mountain with some good climbing in a great situation, but it doesn’t climb the true crest of the buttress. I’ve been back to PBOT several times since and added more routes, such as Face Dancer (VI,6), which teeters up the bold slabs on its left flank, and Butterfingers (V,6) finds its way up the hidden chimneys on its right side. Chris and I returned in March 2001 with the intent of climbing a direct line up the crest, but although Smooth Operator (VI,7) contained some fine climbing, it is essentially a direct line up the right flank rather than the crest.

    After Smooth Operator, I put the idea of a direct out of my mind until a couple of years ago when I noticed a hanging groove that cut up onto the very crest of the buttress from the left. Could this groove be the key? 

    Iain Small and I went up to have a look on Friday January 21. We approached the first terrace by the slanting icy grooves of Fatal Error, and then I led a series of corners straight up from the beginning of the Stringfellow ramp to near the base of the hanging groove. From here, the groove looked very steep. It sloped the wrong way with no apparent footholds and was defended at its base by a blank-looking slab. But we were there now, so Iain set off and soon uncovered a hidden rail that allowed him to delicately balance across the slab to the foot of the groove.

    Conditions on the mountain were probably too icy in places for hard mixed, but the groove was sufficiently overhung that the cracks at the back of the groove were free of ice and took a couple of small cams as some much-needed protection. As suspected there were few footholds, but the freeze-thaw cycle of the past few days had coated the rock with a layer of icy rime that would not quite hold body weight, but was enough to relieve some of the tension in the arms. Iain made a beautiful lead, gently easing himself up the groove to a good niche.

    I led up through the niche and onto the rounded buttress crest, and then we entered the left-hand crack and groove system above to join Stringfellow just below its final headwall. We reached the foot of the Great Tower just as it was getting dark, and then three pitches up Tower Ridge took us onto the plateau.

    So is this the final solution to Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower? It is for me I suspect, but I did catch Iain peering down the overhanging ground dropping away beneath him as he seconded the fourth pitch, so I suspect the PBOT story will run and run!


    Helen Rennard climbing easy ground above the crux section of Gaddzooks (VI,6) on Creagan a’Choire Etchachan. This mid-height crag does not often form good ice, but Andy Nisbet believes that conditions last weekend were the best for over 30 years. (Photo John Lyall)

    Lured by good icy conditions after their recent ascent of Kukri on Creagan a’Choire Etchachan, Andy Nisbet and Helen Rennard returned on Saturday January 21, this time accompanied by John Lyall. They came away with the excellent Gaddzooks (VI,6), an ascent of the original summer line of Avalanche Gully taken by Mr. and Mrs. Gadd in 1955, which follows a groove system left of the main gully line. Andy takes up the story:

    “This old man was surprised to make it to Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan in only two and three-quarter hours from the Car Park, but young Helen was just as far ahead and middle-aged John in his correct position. Conditions on the classic ice routes were quite thin but I was amazed to see thin ice down the back of The Dagger while Djibangi had only a smear. The Dagger was in the best condition I’d seen since the first ascent in 1977, and certainly climbable. I remember [on the first ascent] having to always place one foot above the other as the ice wasn’t wide enough for conventional climbing, but the ice was excellent quality and looked much the same today. I seem to remember an old peg in the wall making life less scary but I’m sure that’s rusted away.

    The good ice on Saturday was enough to tempt us on to the front face where there might be less snow, and turning the corner made us happy, as the first pitch of Avalanche Gully had thick ice and the subsequent grooves on the left which we intended to climb had been recessed enough to survive the thaw. I’d known about the line for years but to get good walking and climbing conditions wasn’t so easy. John had taken his blunter crampons and Helen wanted the hard pitch, so I led up the ice and belayed at the base of a crack up the left wall under the main overhang which blocks the gully and needs conditions like 1986 to form.

    I actually did Helen no favours as her pitch turned out to have three right angles and brought her to a reluctant halt below easy ground. She cruised up the technical crux and also the groove before spotting some old steel pegs presumably from the original summer ascent by Mr. and Mrs. Gadd. One at least was positioned like it had been used for aid, but the route was never written up properly. Despite being 55 years-old they were still in passable shape and she climbed past them to traverse into a big ramp on the right (parallel to the one Avalanche Gully finishes up). Now rope drag increased and a belay was taken. Continuing the first pitch up the crack would have improved matters a lot (in hindsight). But despite an uncomfortable position, the main difficulties were over and the top of the ramp gave a nice pitch leading to the upper section of Pioneer Buttress.

     John came up with the name, ‘Gaddzooks! the Gadd pegs were still there!’”

    Martin Moran topping out after his recent new route with Pete Macpherson on Druim Shionnach. The route was graded VII,8 making it one of the most difficult climbs in the glen. (Photo Pete Macpherson)

    On Wednesday January 19, Martin Moran and Pete Macpherson added a good new route to Druim Shionnach in Glen Shiel.

    “We’re not sure what the name is yet,” Pete told me, “but it goes up the big left-facing corner which is on the left side of the prominent recess half way up the big ramp in the corrie. The corner is slabby on the left side and overhanging on the right with fantastic hooks but tiny edges for feet. Martin did his usual steady lead up the crux corner before committing to the left wall to pass the massive roof at the top. The second pitch consisted of easier climbing up turfy ramps and ledges to the top. We gave it VII,8 and it made for a nice short day out!”

    Andy Nisbet balancing up the crux inset slab on the first ascent of Kukri (V,6) on Creagan a’Choire Etchachan. The name fits in with the Etchachan ‘dagger’ route theme - a kukri is a Nepalese/North Indian curved knife. (Photo Helen Rennard)

    On Wednesday January 19, Andy Nisbet and Helen Rennard visited Creagan a’Choire Etchachan in the Central Cairngorms. They climbed Kukri (V,6), a good mixed route based on the grassy fault and inset slab which bounds the right side of the arete of Delicatessen.

    “With walking conditions after the thaw so good,” Andy told me, “it seemed a good chance to climb an obvious line on Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan which I’ve been eyeing up for years but never fancied the walk. We made it in three and a half hours which shows I’m slowing up despite the slipstream from Helen. A little fresh snow overnight made climbing conditions even better. A couple of thin moves on the slab might just have made technical 7 but V,6 is equally possible. A huge top chokestone was worrying me but Helen bridged up the steep icy groove below it and found a hidden route out left. We finished quickly and returned by a high route over the plateau practising navigation, not ideal since you could see Bennachie near Aberdeen quite clearly! The route started by walking over the ice on Loch Etchachan. Halfway across Helen asked me if I’d ever fallen through ice into a loch. I said no, because you can only do it once as you die. She noticeably speeded up!”

    Andy Nisbet just after pulling through the roof on the first ascent of Arch Enemy (V,5) on Creagan Coire Cha-no on the eastern side of Cairngorm. In hard snow conditions the approach took less than one hour making it one of the most accessible cliffs in the Cairngorms massif. (Photo John Lyall)

    I knew that Andy Nisbet would not be able to resist taking a look at Creagan Coire Cha-no, the little crag I’ve visited a few times this season on the eastern side of Cairngorm. After the thaw on Tuesday January 18, he went for a look with John Lyall. They weren’t sure of the best approach and initially descended in the wrong place.

    “On our second attempt we found a short gully at the north end and soon had some crag to fit the picture,” Andy told me. “A long traverse under the crags picked out all the routes, so we knew where not to climb. John fancied a corner-line on the south face of the left ridge but I thought it looked hard, so left it to him. But the corner was full of chokestones so despite running out of slings, the route went well (Cutty Sark – IV,5).

    The easiest descent was immediately on the south side of the central ridge (Anvil Buttress), somewhere which perhaps often is free of cornice, and that led us directly to another easier line, a gully above Anvil Corner. Approaching from above it looked easy, so we started further down next to Anvil Corner where thoughts of soloing it soon ended. A short V-groove proved tricky and we learned at the finish of Anvil Gully (IV,4) that this crag is steeper than it looks.

    The same descent led us back under Anvil Buttress to a line we’d spotted earlier on the Arch Wall area. This time I thought it looked OK so set off casually to meet an awkward chokestone and bring back reality. This wall has a north aspect and was very wintery – all the rock was verglassed but there was neve on the ledges and the turf was great. A short step wasn’t so short, and then a short corner wasn’t so short and protection wasn’t so easy. In a precarious position at the corner base, I decided to place a peg in a crack in the left wall using my adze. This gave me little confidence for steep moves above, but since it’s still there, I clearly was wrong [about how good it was]. This left crack was full of blueberry but gave surprisingly solid placements in the very icy conditions. Over the top was good ice (thank goodness) leading to the steepness of snow you only get under a cornice. Some of this hadn’t fully frozen so a clutch of runners were placed on an isolated rock, beyond which the cornice stopped at a short arete.

    The route (Arch Enemy, nothing to do with any competition of course) was hard to grade with me thinking it had felt a bit intimidating, but John finding little problem seconding it. So he persuaded me down to V,5 with a very logical argument. All these routes were one pitch, a bit shorter than we’d expected, but there was a good build-up at the base and the shorter lines had maybe been left [by Simon and friends].”

    Greg Boswell making the first on sight ascent of Happy Tyroleans (IX,10) on No.3 Buttress in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries. (Photo Greg Boswell Collection)

    Nineteen-year Greg Boswell is on a roll. Brimming with confidence after a superb recent run of routes, Greg visited Coire an Lochain on Wednesday January 19 and made the first on sight ascent of Happy Tyroleans, the impending corner-line to the right of The Demon on No.3 Buttress, with Mike Tweedley.

    “It was an awesome route, one of the steepest I’ve climbed in Scotland,” Greg told me. “Initially I thought the difficulties were going to be high on the crux pitch, but the whole pitch was super-sustained throughout. The last rock-over move onto the slab felt very out there and exposed. Mike did a superb effort to clear and climb the second pitch, which was buried under a thick layer of crusty snow-ice and verglas. All in all it was a good hard route and like most of the routes in Coire an Lochain, it didn’t disappoint!”

    The history of Happy Tyroleans is a fascinating one, and central to the development of hard technical climbing in Scotland over the last decade. The route was first climbed by Austrians Florian Schranz, Heinz Zak and Egon Netzer during the 2001 International Meet at Glenmore Lodge.

    Zak had heard that there was an unclimbed line in Coire an Lochain, and was pointed at a thin crack and groove-line on the impending front wall of No.3 Buttress to the right of The Vicar. The route had been tried by a couple of Scottish teams over previous winters, and there were a couple of nuts in place in the lower half of the first pitch. Schranz set off up the initial shallow corner, clipped the in-situ gear and continued upwards placing two pegs on the lead. Unfortunately, he had to take a rest on each peg after placing it, and by the time Zak and Netzer had followed the pitch it was getting late, so they abseiled off leaving the pegs in place. Two days later they returned, Schranz re-led the pitch without any falls or rests, and Zak made a clean on sight lead of the second pitch to reach the top. Uncertain of the workings of the Scottish grading system, the Austrians gave the route a modest grade of VII,9, but Happy Tyroleans was immediately recognised as one of the most difficult technical routes in the country.

    The Austrians had pulled off an almost unique feat in Scottish winter climbing by adding a ground breaking new route whilst visiting from overseas. From a Scottish viewpoint, the perspective provided by these top continental climbers was invaluable. Firstly, by redpointing the route the Austrians had deviated from the traditional Scottish on sight and ground-up approach, but this had allowed them to push the technical envelope. Secondly, they were meticulous about their equipment. I went to a workshop by Schranz one evening that focused on how to sharpen your tools. Sharpening picks was anathema to many Scottish mixed climbers at the time as it makes them wear down faster, but Schranz was adamant that you have to do everything possible to stack the odds in your favour when climbing a hard route. The overriding impression was that the Austrian’s success on Happy Tyroleans was driven as much by careful preparation and focus as it was by superb technical skill and gymnastic ability.

    The ascent of Happy Tyroleans acted as a catalyst for pushing Scottish technical winter standards forward. Three weeks later, some national pride was restored when Alan Mullin completed his long-standing project just to the left of Happy Tyroleans, which he called Demon Direct (IX,9). Dave MacLeod also attempted to repeat Happy Tyroleans during the 2001 season, and came very close to an on-sight flash when he fell from the very top of the first pitch. MacLeod made three more attempts to repeat the route that winter, but these failed low down on the first pitch due to thick ice in the crack that prevented Friend protection.

    In early January the following year (2002), MacLeod visited the Coire an Lochain with Alan Mullin intent on laying his Happy Tyroleans ghost to rest with a clean ground-up ascent. Conditions were perfect with the cliff well hoared up and the cracks free of ice. Mullin attempted the route first, but handed over lead to MacLeod who then led both pitches. MacLeod stated afterwards that the route was harder than any other winter route he had climbed before and the grade felt like IX,10. “I’m happy to have done a ground-up ascent of a route which required redpoint tactics from some of Austria’s best mixed climbers”, he commented afterwards. “It just goes to show that Scottish routes, standards and ethics aren’t so far behind (if at all) or dated as some would like to think!”

    Greg’s on sight is a significant event. Not only does it complete the Happy Tyroleans story, but is a clear demonstration of how winter standards have progressed over the last ten years.

    Simon Yearsley on the second pitch of The Promise (III), the first route to be added to the Sron na Lairig Summit Buttress in Glen Coe. This 100m-high crag is now home to three mixed routes. (Photo Dan Peach)

    When Simon Yearsley and Malcolm Bass climbed the classic ridge route of Sron na Lairig on the south east ridge of Stob Coire Sgreamhach last December (see Major New Ice Venue in Glen Coe), they also spotted a potential new crag on Sron na Lairig itself. The SMC Glen Coe guidebook mentions ‘an easy grade I gully which leads up to join the main route’ on the summit buttress to the right of the ridge, but Malcolm and Simon were attracted by the short but steep buttress immediately right of the gully. The base of this summit buttress is at 900m, faces due north, and the steep central wall provides an obvious challenge, with other interesting lines to each side.

    Simon returned on 22 December with Dan Peach, and they headed up to the ‘Sron na Lairig Summit Buttress’. They climbed The Promise, a 110m-long Grade III which takes a pleasant line up the left edge of the main summit buttress, before moving right into a pleasant hidden and twisting gully line to the top of the buttress. Simon, Malcolm and Dan then focused on developing the ice routes of Eilde Canyon, but the Sron na Lairig Summit Buttress was proving too much of a draw for Malcolm and Simon’s more usual mixed climbing tastes.

    On 8 January they headed past the Eilde Canyon, and higher up into the Eilde Coire with Paul Figg and Neil Silver. Both teams were successful, with Malcolm and Paul climbing the most obvious weakness in the steep central wall – a fine grey pillar which petered out into a steeper barrier before the angle relented a little before rearing up again at the very top. The Grey Pillar (VI,7) gave a superb, if short,  two pitch route, probably deserving of two stars, and finishing via a steep corner crack. Simon and Neil found another fine line starting right of the steep central section via an awkward chimney, before heading back left on the main buttress to a conspicuous slot on the skyline. The Slot (V,6) is another excellent route which pulls through the eponymous final obstacle to belay on the summit on the same large block as The Grey Pillar, making for  a very sociable finish as one by one the climbers arrived on the summit gabbling  excitedly about their routes and taking in the glorious prospect down Loch Etive. Thin turf was a feature of both routes, and neither was particularly easy to protect.

    “The ‘Sron na Lairig Summit Buttress’ is a fine wee crag which is reminiscent of Lost Valley Minor Buttress,” Simon told me. “With a cliff base of 900m and facing due north it should be in condition pretty frequently with a trio of fine routes and more still to do!”