Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in March, 2011

    Doug Lang on Ben Nevis brandishing a bent warthog ice screw that held him on a fall on Comb Gully Buttress. Doug had a mountaineering career spanning six decades and was one of Scotland’s foremost mountaineers. (Photo Ken Crocket)

    Iain Small and I had just descended from the Ben the Saturday before last when we heard the terrible news that Doug Lang had been found dead in an avalanche in Coire Fee earlier that morning.

    The short message on my phone was almost impossible to comprehend. Doug appeared to be infused with the energy of perpetual youth. He had climbed non-stop in the Scottish hills for over five decades and showed little sign of slowing down. He was the ultimate role model in showing how it is possible to continue mountaineering throughout one’s life. The exact details of Doug’s accident will never be known, but it appears that he had climbed up to the head of Coire Sharrock, checking out recent additions and further new route potential, before descending A Gully, presumably with the intention of climbing a mixed line in Coire Fee.

    Doug had been at the forefront of Scottish mountaineering for over 50 years. He is most well known for the development of Binnein Shuas with Graeme Hunter in the late 1960s, and the first ascent of Ardverikie Wall – one of Scotland’s most loved mountain rock climbs. Doug was at the cutting edge of Scottish rock climbing during that period with first ascents of Falseface and Sword of Damocles on Creag an Dubh Loch.

    Winter was Doug’s forte, and Ben Nevis his major playground. Together with Neil Quinn, he cut steps up many the hardest routes of the day and including the third ascent of Orion Direct. They were key players in the curved axe revolution in the early 1970s, with notable first winter ascents of Slav Route (VI,5) and Left Edge Route (V,5), and in 1977 they climbed the 770m-long American Pie (V,5) on the North Face of Castle Ridge. On Lochnagar they made the first ascent of Winter Face (VI,6) on the Black Spout Pinnacle – a superb natural winter line that has seen very few repeats. Doug ranged far and wide, and other three star first ascents include the popular B Gully Chimney (III,4) in Coire Fee and The Wand (V,5) on Creag Meagaidh.

    In recent years he formed a strong partnership with Colin Stead and was a regular on SMC Meets to the CIC Hut. The pair made a series of excellent additions to Ben Nevis in the 1980s and 1990s. I was particularly struck by the impeccable line of The Edge of Beyond (VI,6) on the East Flank of Tower Ridge, and very envious of Roaring Forties (V,6). This neglected route takes a compelling line up a beautiful V-shaped groove slicing through the headwall of Comb Gully Buttress and deserves to see many more ascents.

    But it is Doug’s infectious enthusiasm that will be missed most. We shared a passion for overseas climbing journals, and without fail he would come bounding across the room between courses at SMC dinners to share news of the latest super route reported in the American or Canadian Alpine journals.

    Doug was an inspirational president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club from 1992 to 1994. Hundreds of people paid their last respects at his thanksgiving service in Dundee this afternoon. Doug’s contribution to Scottish mountaineering was immense and he will be deeply missed.

    Andy Nisbet on the first ascent of Wild West (V,6) on the Far West Buttress of Beinn Eighe. This sustained V,6 takes the gully wall to the right of Westlife. (Photo Garry Smith)

    Some late news – on Wednesday March 16, Andy Nisbet, Garry Smith and Jonathan Preston added another new addition to this year’s bumper crop on the Far West Buttress on Beinn Eighe. Andy continues with the story:

    “Like me, Garry Smith had finished his winter’s work and the forecast was good. Walking conditions were difficult almost everywhere but we knew Beinn Eighe was not buried and the ground was frozen. But walking wasn’t going to be easy so a team of three was better to share the gear. Jonathan Preston was also keen on Far West Buttress, so he joined us.

    There was quite a big trail up the path, and Jonathan and Garry had heard on the radio that it was the 60th anniversary of the plane crash in Coire Mhic Fhearchair, with RAF lads having been in to pay their respects (and in the best tradition to do some climbing too). Unfortunately only one set of tracks went up the front of the mountain and they did a U-turn halfway up. But the top was now in sight and we had three to break trail, so we made it only half an hour slower than normal.

    So we reached plan A feeling fit and burst out laughing at my optimism. So a plan B was urgently needed and we wandered under the crag searching for something sensible. The gully wall right of a November route, Westlife, seemed to fit the bill. A soon as I set off, I realised my optimistic mood was still around, but the usual helpful quartzite and good protection kept me progressing. An initial corner had to link up with higher corners, but a view from the side showed a corner-crack in the wall. The pitch gave sustained climbing at technical 6 but with good ledges every few metres and led to the terrace.

    Jonathan volunteered for the next pitch, which went under a huge chockstone and then managed to reach the right arete of the gully wall. This would have been pretty exciting but a ledge led right to an easier finish. Wild West was a name which suited the theme and V,6 seems the normal grade on this wall. Surprisingly the wind had got up so Garry got some good spindrift pictures as we bum slid our way quickly down to the path.”

    Nick Bullock on Bullhorn-Benson Variation (VII,8) to West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe. The pair climbed the route in error for the normal line last March and their new addition has only just come to light. (Photo Pete Benson)

    I received an intriguing email from Pete Benson last week…

    Hi Simon

    I have just been looking through my photos of last year with Guy [Robertson] of West Central Gully [on Beinn Eighe], and he was confused.

    “Did you not climb the line on the left after the first pitch as described in the guidebook?”

    “Ehh, no we climbed on the right!”

    As we didn’t have a guidebook, Nick [Bullock] and I climbed the icy corner on the right to reach an icicle, which seemed like the obvious line on the day (it had much more ice) and followed this directly on thin ice up to the summit snow slopes. So it looks like we did a new line.



    One look at Pete’s photo shows that this is indeed, a testing and challenging new line. I immediately checked with Pete to ask for a name and grade.

    “I think the Bullhorn-Benson Variation sounds about the same grade as the original from speaking to Guy (VII,8) but it will be very dependent on the amount of ice available when you are forced to quit the corner and span to the thin ice on the right. As for a name… I think to leave it as a variation to West Central Gully would be the most appropriate!”

    Iain Small on the fifth pitch of Rogue’s Rib Direct (VII,7) on Ben Nevis. This is the first time the 200m-high buttress to the left of Italian Climb has been climbed in winter. Previous ascents began at two-thirds height after starting up Italian Climb. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    For Iain Small and I, it was another tough call this weekend on where to go. East or west, mixed or ice were the choices, but in the end our decision was simply based on access. After the heavy snowfalls last week we needed to choose somewhere high enough to be frozen, but also possible to walk in to. After throwing around various options, Iain said “Lets just go the the Ben. We know there is a trail up there. How about looking at the buttress left of Italian Climb?”

    The feature left of Italian Climb is known as Rogue’s Rib and it was first climbed by Tom Patey and Jerry Smith in April 1956 as a summer rock climb. In typical Patey fashion, they took the line of least reasistance and started up the snow-filled Italian Climb to miss out the imposing lower buttress, and just climbed the top part of the rib. This was the line taken by Ian Clough and G.Grandison on the first winter ascent in January 1960, and to the best of our knowledge the complete buttress was unclimbed in winter.

    Rogue’s Rib is an impressive feature. Black, prominent and menacing it frames the right side of Tower Ridge as you look up into Coire na Ciste from the CIC Hut. I’d wondered about climbing it before, but it is not often in winter condition, and it looked rather hard. After all, Patey and Clough were two of Scotland’s greatest climbers and not one to shirk a challenge.

    So there was nothing for it, but to have a look for ourselves. On Saturday March 19 we gingerly approached the foot of Italian Climb, hugging the side of the cliff, and mindful of the avalanche in Garadh Gully that had swept some French climbers into the Gulch a few days before. It’s always exciting to launch up a ‘new’ feature, especially on the Ben, where the nature of the rock is all important. We know the Creag Coire na Ciste is well cracked for example, and the Orion Face is more blind and featureles, so what would Rogue’s Rib be like?

    “The cracks are good and it’s turfy,’” Iain yelled down after climbing ten metres of the first pitch. He made good progress, but then slowed down.

    “It’s slabby without much gear, but I think it will go…”

    The rope paid slowly out and then it was my turn to follow Iain’s lead, and as usual I was soon admiring his skill and confidence. My pitch looked steeper but a hidden chimney led to a good platform. Iain then led an awkward corner and then a long connecting ridge to the upper buttress. This is where the Clough route joined. We didn’t get the guidebook out, but the natural way through the final tower was obvious and followed a narrow gully feature. The problem was the gully was bottomless and ended in an impending wall, so I climbed cracks on the right and then edged ever so carefully across smooth slabs into the gully bed. (An old in-situ peg and krab showed that someone had been that way before, and in hindsight the peg was probably used for tension). Once in the gully, the snow was unconsolidated and it was deceptively steep, but eventually I reached a belay below an undercut squeeze chimney

    When Iain came up, he took one look at the chimney, and launched up the undercut wall above. This led eventually into a continuation of the squeeze chimney and the crest of Secondary Tower Ridge. Our day finished with a long pitch to Tower Ridge itself and then a quick down climb to reach the CIC Hut just before it became dark.

    The climbing on the upper buttress was quite tough and we assumed that Clough and Grandison must have found an easier way, but when I read the guidebook this morning I realised they climbed similar ground to us – the delicate traverse and steep narrow gully, but finished up the squeeze chimney. Clough rated his route Grade IV, and uncertain of the grade I gave it IV,5 in the 2002 Ben Nevis guide, but a modern rating for their route would be at least VI,6.

    A bit more digging through my bookshelves this afternoon (the Marshall guide and 1960 SMC Journal) revealed that their ascent took seven hours. I’m not surprised, because their climb was a major achievement for the day, and comparable in technical difficulty to the (now celebrated) Smith-Holt ascent of Tower Face of the Comb climbed just twelve months earlier (and also originally graded IV!)

    Iain and I were less modest – Rogue’s Rib Direct was an excellent outing at VII,7 and a very enjoyable one at that!

    Pete Benson on the steep first pitch of Godzilla on Beinn Bhan. This new IX,8 takes a direct line into the upper pitches of The Godfather. “A super-direct, true winter-only line with awesome turf-dependent climbing and a really spectacular feel – the stuff of dreams!” (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Pete Benson, Nick Bullock, and Guy Robertson added another demanding route to the Giant’s Wall on Beinn Bhan on Monday March 14. Godzilla (it was something of a monster) takes a direct line to join the last two pitches of The Godfather.

    “I’d studied this part of the wall a bit,” Guy told me, “but I still didn’t think it would go on-sight as it takes in some pretty steep and complex territory. Pete sent a powerful corner-crack feature to get us going, but above this the upper half of the lower wall has lots of ill-defined, overhanging possibilities. After a fair bit of probing Nick unlocked this with a bold lead up a little groove involving strenuous tech 8 above very poor protection. I then managed to gain the first big terrace by another spooky and quite steep pitch with most of my runners apparently popping out underneath me! Pete stepped in to the fray again to blast the smooth corner above which just left us with a quick romp up the top section of The Godfather.

    We topped out at around 6.30pm, probably about 11 hours on the route. As usual on this face much of the time and effort was taken up route-finding on the crux. I think a grade of IX,8 is appropriate – not desperately hard, but not a route for top-roping or dogging! Falling off on either pitch 2 or 3 wouldn’t be pretty. It’s undoubtedly one of the best lines either of the three of us have done anywhere – roll on winter 2011!”

    Steve Ashworth on the first ascent of Raptor (VI,7) on the Far West Buttress of Beinn Eighe. The picture shows Ashworth on the initial bulge which is shared with Crackhead. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet has continued his excellent run of routes on the Far West Buttress of Beinn Eighe with another new addition on Saturday March 12. The appropriately named Raptor (VI,7), is his seventh new addition to the crag this season, and was climbed with Steve Ashworth and Brian Davison.

    Andy takes up the story:

    “Brian Davison and Steve Ashworth were committed to coming up north when the weather forecast changed as a low pressure deepened. But it was still approaching from the south so the north-west seemed the best bet. It had been snowing much of the week up there, but I still had doubts whether the turf would be frozen. A short route on Beinn Eighe’s Far West Buttress was a safe option, then we could consider the weather for the Sunday.

    There was no sign of the predicted sunshine when we arrived and I think we all knew the snow was arriving early. We had a trail-breaking Steve out in front and a party of three to split the load carrying, so we made the crag in good time despite the snow. My plan was to climb the improbable line the previous route Crackhead had escaped from, although I had seen that it was possible from No Fly Zone [a new V,6 climbed with Chris Pasteur and Duncan Tunstall] a couple of weeks ago.

    I was happy to let the others do the leading, so Steve set off up the groove of Crackhead with reassurances that its key chockstone was solid. He was using prototypes of next season’s Grivel axes, with no hammerheads or adzes, so we wondered how he’d manage in the wide cracks. But the occasional can-opener move didn’t slow him down until he’d reached a roof in the main groove, well after the point where Crackhead leaves. Passing the roof on the left proved tricky but there was a fine rest in an eyrie below another roof and above some larger roofs. This also had to be passed on the left and proved tricky.

    By now it was snowing and Brian had to choose where to go next. The logical line was the fault climbed by No Fly Zone, but I persuaded Brian to try the rib on its left. A roofed corner seemed like it might be different to Far West Buttress, so Brian started up this. The roof looked substantial so he made a huge step (by my standards) to a ledge on the right and then made some steep moves up the rib. Unfortunately he was forced into the top of No Fly Zone but by now the weather was deteriorating and the seconds weren’t complaining. As always on Beinn Eighe, there were some great moves, exciting exposure and good protection. The eyrie suggested the name Raptor and there was no flying, though we did cross its route. It seemed the hardest route so far on the crag, so VI,7 was agreed. The descent was quite a wade but the snow seemed safe enough!”

    The Vertigo Wall area on Creag an Dubh Loch. Vertigo Wall (VII,7) is shown in red and the More Vertigo Finish (climbed last Saturday is marked yellow. The false attempt is shown in green. (Archive Photo Henning Wackerhage)

    Last weekend was wild and stormy with significant snowfall across the Highlands. Despite this, there were good routes climbed on Ben Nevis, in Torridon, and in the Cairngorms. Several teams came back wide-eyed after full-on Scottish adventures, but the most exciting tale I heard came from Henning Wackerhage who visited Creag an Dubh Loch on Saturday March 11 with Robbie Miller and Andrew Melvin.

    After weighing up the various options, the threesome decided to make an ascent of Vertigo Wall. First climbed by Andy Nisbet and Alf Robertson in 1977, this VII,7 was a landmark in Cairngorm climbing and is considered to be one of the best winter routes in the country.

    The team made good progress, but a route finding error on the fourth pitch led them out of the main corner line across a hidden weakness onto the undercut and very exposed left wall. After this difficult and committing lead, they realised they had made a mistake, and the situation began to look bleak when they failed on the next pitch. Instead, they continued left to reach a ledge in the vicinity of the summer E3 Wicker Man, and Henning made a bold lead up a leaning offwidth leading to a blank slab.

    “The slab was the scariest climbing I have ever done,” Henning wrote on his blog. “Thin hooks out of balance with no gear and the central gully wall exposure below. Somehow I managed to inch up the slab to a position where a big tuft of turf and safety were near but yet so far. Some moss did not even yield a marginal placement but finally I excavated a poor sidepull, kept the axe steady, placed my front point out of balance high up and with a lot of stretch just about managed to whack the axe into the turf. The left axe followed and I made the sweetest pull up of my life, scraped my feet up, ran a few steps, fell mentally and physically exhausted into the snow and shouted ‘safe’ into the void below.”

    It was now 7pm, but the epic did not end there. It had been snowing all day, and it took another four hours to wade back to the car park which was blocked with snow. Fortunately they were able to drive out with one of their cars, eventually arriving back in Aberdeen at 1am on Sunday morning.

    The three-pitch More Vertigo Finish was given a technical grade of 8. “The final slab was the boldest and thinnest I have ever climbed,” Henning explained,  “and the psychological crux was the last move way above gear to reach that tuft of turf on the plateau. As for stars, the positions are wild and unlikely for the grade, especially the swing moves are excellent and the only minus is that the line is not straight up. However, I’d rather leave the grade and stars to others.”

    There was a new addition in Glen Coe on Friday March 10 when Adam Hughes, Colm Burke and Dave Burke added the Japseye Variation (VI,6) to Yen on the Far Eastern Buttress on Aonach Dubh.

    “I spotted a crack half way up the wall that was looking pretty good and whiter than anything else on the steeper routes,” Adam told me. “I could not find it in the guide as a summer or winter route, so thought we could give it a go. An easy pitch led to a ledge and belay below the crack. The crack was steep to start with thinnish hooks and poor feet, but good gear. This continued to a good rest at about 6m. Hooks improved with height from there after a tricky move from the rest. This led into a chimney at the top and easy ground. A great day out considering the poor forecast!”

    Smear Fear

    The Eagle Buttress headwall on Lochnagar. Where Eagles Dare (VII,8) takes the central line of cracks up the middle of the headwall. Eagle-Eye (VII,6 and partially hidden) climbs the grooves defining the headwall’s left side and State of Independence (VII,8) takes the right arête. Last Sunday’s addition follows the line of ice grooves running diagonally right below the headwall and takes the hanging ice smear leading to the iced slab above. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    I’ve been watching the ice grow high up on the right side of Eagle Buttress for several weeks now. In summer, the right arête of the Where Eagles Dare headwall (climbed by State of Independence) is delimited in its right by a steep wet slab poised above an overhanging flared slot. In winter, with a good build up and freeze –the slabs drool ice down its vertical left wall.

    Sunday March 6 seemed like a good opportunity to try the line and Iain Small was keen to give it a go. We climbed unroped the first three pitches of Eagle Buttress and then I led a long 80m pitch (we moved together) of technical 6 up icy ramps and steep grooves to below the ice smear. It looked very steep and alarmingly thin – the ice was no more than 3cm thick and it hung like a curtain detached from the wall and was only anchored at its top and on its right side.

    Iain is the finest thin ice climber I know, and he managed to outwit this precarious sheet by backing and footing up the flared slot before reaching over a bulge to slightly thicker brittle ice. It was one-notch first-time placement terrain and a less delicate approach would have shattered the ice and collapsed the pitch. When I followed, the whole thing vibrated alarmingly and I was very grateful to lead up to the security of the exit gully that finished with bomber neve all the way to the cornice.

    This type of route is difficult to grade. On the day, Iain’s bold lead was technical 7 so an overall VII,7 seems right, but with thicker ice it could easily drop a grade to VI,6. The question is, how often does the smear form like this? With routes like Parallel Gully B in condition, ice routes are in good shape at the moment on Lochnagar, so it may never get much better. I’ll keep watching and time will tell!

    Steve Fortune climbing the crux groove of Parallel Gully B on Lochnagar. A massive rock fall eleven years ago removed the right wall of the lower chimney and the route has rarely formed good ice since. (Photo Chad Harrison)

    Lochnagar has been in good icy condition recently. Polyphemus Gully has seen close to 20 ascents with many teams stating that it is easy Grade IV. Other icy gully lines that have been climbed recently include Parallel Gully A, West Gully, Gargoyle Chimney, Giant’s Head Chimney. Moonshadow and Scarface. But perhaps the best indication of good conditions is that the lower section of Parallel Gully B is a continuous streak of ice.

    Parallel B is not really a gully at all after the 2000 rock fall, and its famous initial chimney is now an open groove defined by fresh clean-cut granite. It was climbed by Steve Fortune and Chad Harrison on Sunday March 6. “The groove is nicely iced up at the moment, if a little thin,” Chad said afterwards. “We thought VI,5 at present but more psychological than difficult. Excellent steep bulge higher up as well – a great route – it’s a mega classic line and very doable at present, and still worth three stars or more in my book!”

    To the best of my knowledge, it was March 2010 when Jason Currie made the first ascent of Parallel B in its new state post rock fall, but it may have been climbed before. If you know of a prior ascent please add a comment or drop me an email.

    The West Face of Aonach Beag from the summit of Ben Nevis. The triangular Broken Axe Buttress is on the left and the trapezium-shaped Raw Egg Buttress on the right. The broken ground between them forms a fine series of icefalls that are often in condition late in the season. Glycerol Gully (II) lies just left of centre. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    Andy Nisbet had a great weekend, climbing two routes on Beinn a’Bhuird on Saturday and a visit to the West Face of Aonach Beag the following day. Here is Sunday’s story:

    “My legs needed an easier time so I headed towards the Gondola with the hope that misty weather would clear and I’d find an ice line on Aonach Beag. It didn’t clear and the west was warmer than the east, but I picked my way down under the West Face and was lucky to recognise the approach to Cryogenic Corner, climbed a few weeks before. The line to its right still held ice, although it was very wet and you could hear the water flowing underneath. Glycerol Gully (Grade II) was a name which contrasted with the condition of Cryogenic Corner.

    Aonach Beag’s summit was well frozen but I’ve always found it a spooky hill, with the summit perched on the cornice and the cairn always buried. Leading a large party up there in a white-out as a student, we tied an ice axe on the end of the rope and kept throwing it ahead to see if we were about to walk over the cornice. We didn’t but there was only relief, not pleasure when we got back down. This time I chickened out of the summit and was heading down when I found footsteps from yesterday. I knew it had been clear so I followed them back up to where it went flat and they wandered about, obviously trying to decide where the highest point was. Not a prefect day, what a difference a couple of degrees of temperature makes.”