Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in February, 2011

    Duncan Tunstall on the first ascent of Pearl Buttress, Beinn Dearg. This IV,5 route is based on an icefall on the right side of the lower tier of the buttress containing Wall of Retribution on the Glensquaib Cliffs. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet and Duncan Tunstall had an energetic day on Tuesday (February 23), climbing two new lines, Pearl Buttress (IV,5) and Peace Process (IV,3), on the Glensquaib Cliffs of Beinn Dearg. The tactics for the day combined reconnaissance, psychology, conditions with a dash of verve and was conducted with all the efficiency of a military operation. It’s a complicated tale, so Andy takes up the story:

    “Duncan had climbed Wall of Retribution on Saturday and been tempted by a thin line of ice to its right. It’s always a guess as to whether it would be thicker or thinner, with Duncan being optimistic and me pessimistic according to our usual character. But it was worth a visit, with plan B and plan C in reserve. The weather was drier but warmer than forecast and the ice had thawed a lot, so plan B was engaged, to bypass the lower ice by turf on the right. The ice was still thick on the second pitch, a fine chimney, leading to a big terrace. I began to wonder if Plan C could be climbed as well so I headed up the easiest line. Duncan’s enthusiasm for plan C had waned so he went left and finished up a steep but unexpectedly helpful wall.

    Duncan had enjoyed Wall of Retribution but found it V,5 and was amused that I’d soloed it 30 years before, although it must have been in better nick despite the guidebook description of “unexpectedly steep”. So he suggested the name Pearl Buttress as a Pearl Anniversary for the cliff. IV,5 with the last pitch or III,4 by an easier option on the right.

    Time was getting on, but knowing how good conditions were on The Ice Hose made me determined to look at plan C, linking up two very wet slab areas right of the West Buttress and which I’d spotted in the summer a few years ago. Sure enough they were thick ice, so despite the disparaging comment in the guide (which had come from previous editions) that the face was indeterminate and icefalls high up had been climbed, it seemed that 1000ft of snow and ice was unlikely to have been done and not recorded.

    There was barely time even to solo and get back in daylight, so the ropes were left and fingers crossed that the wet ice was solid. As it turned out to be, but it still took an hour to climb quickly. As to whether it was Grade III or IV, who knows but as a big face with little rock, we went for IV,3. The name Peace Process seemed topical but hardly as amusing as the Rev. Paisley Memorial Gully, where each edition of the guide has to up the years in the description, “The second main gully is also straightforward, uncompromisingly direct, not to be taken too lightly and prematurely named (even after 35 years!).” Now 44 years and approaching the Golden Anniversary!”

    The line of Crimson Buttress (VI,7) on Sgorr Ruadh. Brown Gully (III) is the obvious gully line on the left, and Parallel Lines (III) takes the right branch starting from just below half-height. (Archive Photo Andy Nisbet)

    When Andy Nisbet made the first ascent of Woundwort on Sgorr Ruadh earlier in the winter, he’d noticed an obvious icy chimney near its start leading up left to some pleasant grooves and ramps on the crest of the buttress, so on Sunday February 20 he went to have a look with David Bell. Andy was expecting the route to be Grade IV but Crimson Buttress turned out to be a rather more challenging VI,7!

    “Approaching up the Central Couloir reminded me that there was some steep ground which I’d chosen to forget,” Andy told me. “The first pitch via the chimney was pleasantly suitable but it led to a groove with bulging steps. Still, there might be flakes embedded in turf. I stepped into the base of the groove and couldn’t get off the ground – not a good start. After a bit of indecision, I tried on the left. After some more indecision, I leaned off a dubiously wedged block, trusted my feet on a sloping foothold and entered the groove. Further indecision about whether this was a good idea, I pulled over a bulge and got stopped again. At least there were good runners behind larger wedged blocks but I failed to find any good placements above.

    Traversing right was the only option but the continuation groove looked little better. Somehow you mustn’t stop until all options have run out, and the first hold on the traverse was good. The only snag was the second wasn’t as good and now committed, the third definitely wasn’t and I was now 3m away from the runners and more committed. But then my luck changed and I could just stay in balance to reach turf. The continuation groove was reached, runners were good and there were fine torques and placements in the back. We’d cracked it!”

    To finish the route, they crossed Parallel Lines and climbed the buttress on its left.

    “It is not a major route,” Andy concluded, “but I like the climbing on Sgorr Ruadh. Sometimes it’s very helpful for sandstone and sometimes not!”

    Ali Cashman climbing the second pitch of Truly Accidental (III,4) on Stag Rocks. This three-pitch route climbs directly up the buttress between The Accidental Tourist and Truly, Madly, Chimbley. (Photo Martin Holland)

    Every so often I receive an email from Martin Holland letting me know about his recent explorations. These are often in the Southern Highlands, and although not often in the highest grades, Martin’s choices are often well chosen and in venues a little off the beaten track.

    Taking advantage of the strong southerly winds last week, Martin was one of the first to realise that Stag Rocks on Cairngorm would be a good and safe venue. On Thursday February 17 he visited the Cascade area with Ali Cashman and climbed a new 140m-long line up the buttress between The Accidental Tourist and Truly, Madly, Chimbley.

    “It’s not a major route,” Martin explained, “but the first two pitches had interest. The first was particularly worthwhile and following a natural line. It was climbed mostly on ice, snow and frozen turf with the odd rock move. It felt quite bold in places on the day as the ice and snow was quite cruddy and soft, but I’ve graded it assuming good ice in the groove.”

    They called their route Truly Accidental (III,4). Martin did not let on whether they actually meant to go that way, but mistake or not, its nice to see a medium grade route being added to a reasonably accessible area such as Stag Rocks. It just goes to show that the Cairngorms are far from being worked out!

    Brave New World

    Iain Small pulling into the bulging crack-line on the third pitch of Brave New World (IX,8) on Ben Nevis during the first ascent. This four-pitch route lies between Kellett’s North Wall Route and The Past is Close Behind on the North Wall of Carn Dearg. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The weather forecast for last weekend was terrible, but as the week progressed climbing on Sunday began to look a possibility. Iain Small and I hummed and hawed about where to go, trying to balance avalanche risk and high winds. In the end Iain suggested we visit Ben Nevis and climb on the North Wall of Carn Dearg.

    When Iain made the first ascent of The Past is Close Behind (VIII,8) last season with Blair Fyffe, he noted that there was a direct line up the vertical walls to the left. So at 8.00 am on Sunday February 20, we uncoiled our ropes below the first pitch. The initial wall and impending ramp was far harder than it looked, but fortunately the second pitch up the chimney of Macphee’s Route (which is normally climbed in descent) was easy enough. The third pitch took another tapering ramp leading to a bulging crack-line and corner that led through the awkward third tier.

    By the time we reached the Diagonal Terrace it was 3pm. We already had two pitches of technical 8 below us and were level with the top of the difficulties of Kellett’s North Wall Route, but above us loomed the vertical fourth tier.

    I struggled to make out a clear line up this imposing 35m-high wall. The lower third was cut by a deep overhanging corner, but this ended at a prominent overhanging niche that defended an apparently crack-less impending headwall. Iain was undeterred, and he racked up with quiet confidence. The corner was hard, the placements were sparse, but slowly he made upward progress.

    Iain then went out of sight for nearly an hour. Eventually the rope began to pay out and I looked up to see him under the metre-wide roof with the ropes hanging free below him. With no runner in sight he shouted, “Watch me!” I couldn’t bear to watch as he slowly pulled on to the impending headwall.

    The puzzle of the headwall took another 45 minutes to solve. There were no obvious crack systems, and Iain tried straight up, left and right, vainly searching for a the combination of placements that would take him into the finishing grove. As twilight fell there was a whoop of delight as a hard move right led to a hidden hook and the certainty of success.

    I followed in the gloom an arrived gasping on the finishing snow slope. Iain’s performance had been a privilege to watch. I’ve climbed with many outstanding winter climbers over the years, but never before had I seen anyone tackle such a sustained, difficult and blind pitch, completely on sight, with no idea on whether the line would go or whether it was possible to protect.

    Iain suggested we call the route Brave New World after the Aldous Huxley novel. “It sits well with other route names,” he explained. “Huxley was a pacifist, like Kellett (although not a conscientious objector as he was medically unfit for military service). It’s a nice foil to Past is Close Behind and also another book title to go with The Cone Gatherers.”

    We were unsure of the grade but eventually settled on IX,8. For me, Iain’s lead of top pitch captures the very essence of the modern Scottish winter game  – climbing into the unknown on a steep, technical and challenging line. A Brave New World indeed!

    The Pretender

    Nick Bullock on the first ascent of The Pretender (VII,9) on the East Flank of Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis. “Hand jams, drop knees, and all modern techniques are required,” Bullock said afterwards. (Photo Lucasz Warzecha)

    On Thursday February 17, Nick Bullock, Andy Turner and Bruce Poll visited Ben Nevis and added a challenging new route to the East Flank of Tower Ridge. The Pretender (VII,9) lies on the buttress to the right of The Great Chimney and is 55m-long. The first pitch climbs the lower buttress via steep ice steps, leading to a large shelf below a very steep wall. The wall is split by a wide chimney-crack low down, somewhat reminiscent to Darth Vader, and goes into a very steep wide crack with a thin overhanging recess running right into an overhanging finish.

    “The main pitch is approximately 25 metres long and very sustained with loads of tech 7, 8, and a few moves of 9,” Nick told me. “Knee bar rests, head jams and shoulder jams are advisable, and available for the weak (me), or not needed for the strong (Andy). The main pitch is very well protected by a good rack of cams up to Number 4 and a good selection of wires. Unfortunately an axe ripped on the final moves (the crux) and I fell off. On the second attempt after I regained the rock from below the fall and topped out.”

    Given recent comments on short technical rotes and grading, Nick thought carefully about the appropriate grade for The Pretender. “It took a while for me to settle with VII,9 as the climb is very short, very safe, and easy to approach, and easy to get off. No commitment required, just arms and go juice and the ability to hold on!”

    Tony Stone on the final corners of Angels with Dirty Faces (VIII,8) on Creag Coire na Ciste, Ben Nevis. The first ropelength of this three-pitch route would make an excellent start to Avenging Angel and provide a direct line up the huge recessed corner to the right of Darth Vader. (Photo Tony Stone Collection)

    Iain Small and Tony Stone are not only two of the most talented climbers on the Scottish winter scene today, but they are also amongst the most modest. Take yesterday for example. Iain and I were headed for Carn Dearg on the Ben and popped into the CIC hut for a brew. As usual, I had a quick look in the Climbs book, and there was a note from Iain about a new Grade VIII he had climbed with Tony the previous weekend.

    “Hey Iain, you never told me that you climbed a new route last weekend!”

    “Oh it was nothing much, I just hadn’t got around to telling you yet…”

    The new climb in question is the very impressive line of corners and offwidths in line with Avenging Angel on Creag Coire na Ciste. Above, the route follows steep crack and corners left of the finish of Archangel. Angels with Dirty Faces (VIII,8) was climbed on Saturday February 12 and was so named because they both became rather mucky clearing out the impending cracks for the gear placements!

    Greg Boswell on the third ascent of The Hurting (XI,11) in Coire an t-Sneachda. Boswell battled high winds and icy conditions to record the second ground up ascent of this renowned test-piece. (Photo James Dunn)

    Yesterday (February 18), Greg Boswell continued his extraordinary run of routes with the third ascent of The Hurting (XI,11) in Coire an t-Sneachda. This 35m-long test-piece, was first climbed in winter by by Dave MacLeod in February 2005 and only received its second ascent by Andy Turner last month.

    Greg first attempted the route last Saturday (February 12). Unfortunately he took a fall when his axe ripped pulling over the roof. Greg then returned on Tuesday (February 15), but conditions were poor with strong winds and blowing spindrift, and he fell off at the top of the steep crack on the headwall, tantalisingly close to the top.

    “Yesterday I returned [with James Dunn] to find the route very white and again with a very strong wind hitting the wall,” Greg told me. “I could only get half as much gear as on my previous attempts due to the build up of ice in the cracks, which made this the scariest attempt yet. I reached my previous high point with the wind growing stronger with every second that passed.

    I managed to move quickly past the strenuous moves on the smeary foot placements, to arrive on the less steep top section of the headwall. This is where things got really really scary! I couldn’t find any gear and my last two cams would definitely have ripped out of the icy cracks, that I had shoved them into as I rushed to find better foot holds before my pumped arms gave up.

    After about half an hour trying to figure out where to go, I made the thinnest move I have ever done with a zero cam in a turfy/icy crack as my last runner eight metres below, and the gear below wasn’t much better. I felt sick and tired, but falling was definitely not an option! I forged my way up the blind white abyss and reached a good neve ledge. Easy moves led to the top. The pain and Hurting was over…”

    I commented to Greg that just reading his account made my palms sweat.

    “Yes, it was very exciting,” Greg replied. “It will be safe Grade V,5s for me for a while… :-)

    The north side of Craig Maskeldie in Glen Esk. The new addition Logue’s Direct (V,6) is a direct version of Shaula Ridge, the prominent buttress on the right. The left skyline is Maskeldie Buttress bounded by Lee Gully on the right. The gullies either side of Shaua Ridge are Dochty Gully and Unich Gully. (Archive Photo Duncan Tunstall)

    Duncan Tunstall has continued to explore the cliffs of Glen Esk on the south-east side of the Cairngorms. On Tuesday February 15 he teamed up with Stephen Venables to straighten out last year’s addition Shaula Ridge (III,5) on the north side of Craig Maskeldie.

    “Stephen was lecturing in Newcastle so we chose an early start for a day out on Lochnagar,” Duncan told me. “Alas the road was closed due to snow, so our meeting was rapidly rearranged to Glen Esk, the only hill reachable by us both, albiet still a risk as we have hardly had a cold February.”

    Things started to look up when the pair got a lift in an estate Landrover and despite the cliffs above Carlochy being completely black, the north side of Craig Maskeldie was wintery.

    “This gave us one obvious option,” Duncan explained. “Straightening out Shaula Ridge by climbing the lower central ridge that had been by-passed by the easy ground in the centre of the crag on the first ascent. This gave three new pitches, of which the second is well worth a visit, and now the last pitch provides an excellent conclusion rather than a sting in the tail. Who knows, it might even get a repeat! We felt it was worth a new name and chose Logue’s Direct and gave it V,6 – and a far better addition to that side of the glen than the previous line.”

    Roger Webb approaching the foot of Slioch's Main Buttress at dawn. The eight-pitch Katabasis (VI,6) takes grooves near the left skyline. The front face of the buttress is climbed by The Sea, The Sea, Xenophon and Skyline Highway. Main Buttress follows the blunt shadowed right edge and Slioch Slim Plan ascends the face by a right-slanting line at two-thirds height. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb and I made the long haul into the north face of Slioch on Tuesday February 15. We added an eight-pitch route folowing a line of grooves near the left edge of the 200m-high Main Buttress. Katabasis (VI,6) kept us guessing all the way and we emerged on the summit after climbing the 150m-high continuation ridge in the teeth of a southerly gale. We finally made it back to the car after a 16-hour day.

    With a four-hour approach, and a descent of similar length, and all on rough uneven ground, any route on Slioch is a big undertaking. Roger, who has pioneered all the winter climbing on Main Buttress to date, was suitably chuffed – “This is the first time I’ve arrived back at the car the same day that I set off!”

    Donnie O’Sullivan climbing the crucial second pitch of Special Delivery (VI,6) on Creag Meagaidh. The cascade is unlikely to completely touch down, but icy mixed climbing, which may not be visible from the corrie floor, allows the icefall to be gained with suprising ease. (Photo Pete Davies Collection)

    On Saturday February 12, Pete Davies, Donnie O’Sullivan and Mike Gardner made a superb addition to the Post Face on Creag Meagaidh. Special Delivery (VI,6) takes the prominent icefall above Staghorn Gully, which doesn’t completely touch down and is approximately 50m to the right of last year’s new addition Postal Strike. There were two long pitches of ice climbing – one to reach the base of the main cascade, the cascade itself which was the crux, and then two easy pitches to reach the plateau.

    “It’s a definite three star route,” Pete told me. “I’m really pleased as I’d not had a chance to climb on the Post Face before. I saw the line in long distance photos and was intrigued as to why it wasn’t in the guide and finally got round to going and having a look. Think we got quite lucky with conditions as pretty much the entire route was climbed on ice, even the crux mixed section to gain the main icefall had blobs of really well bonded thin ice. Might be a bit trickier without these. I lead the first pitch up to the base of the main cascade, which fell to Donnie who dispatched it in fine style and then Mike led pitch 3. The fourth was easy ground.”