Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in October, 2011

    John Higham approaching Am Basteir on the first day of a two-day traverse of the Cuillin Ridge in March 2010. Sgurr a’Fionn Choire is the rocky peak on the left. (Photo Iain Young)

    So, what were you doing in early March 2010?

    You may well have been climbing on the Ben – the Minus Face was superbly iced at the time – but another venue that was in prime winter condition was The Cuillin on Skye. Iain Young has recently compiled a fascinating video of a two-day traverse of the Cuillin Ridge he made with John Higham on 10-11th March 2010. Not only does this provide an insight into what it takes to complete one of the country’s most sought after mountaineering objectives, it also captures the full Scottish winter climbing experience – waking up in the car at 3am in the morning, incomparable sunrise views, tricky mixed climbing, persevering in poor visibility and a spindrift-filled bivouac. So, for some inspiration as the new winter season fast approaches, take a look at Iain’s words below and click on the link to watch the video.

    “The traverse itself wasn’t flawless – for example we missed out the Inaccessible Pinnacle as the weather was closing in fast and we were fast running out of time – but as a mountain experience it was close to perfect. For me at least, it was the end of a quest that had started more than 30 years ago. In that time, half of which was spent living overseas, I kept searching for that combination of fitness, free time from work and family, like-minded partner, weather and conditions, which is almost unattainable. When I was a student, this was compounded by the lack of a car.

    Previous attempts are almost as memorable as the eventual execution – dossing on the tarmac in darkness and drizzle in the Kyle car park waiting for a ferry, terrified we’d be squashed by a parking lorry; walking towards an Andean Cuillin, glimpsed between the clouds as an approaching warm front started to strip the ridge before our eyes; driving north in a blizzard that turned to torrential rain on Skye and then sliding the car off the road above Tyndrum in another snowstorm on the way home; reaching a plastered Ridge in perfect weather but unable to make any significant progress due to conditions of deep powder over bare rock…

    Eventually, sitting at work in Aberdeen one Monday in March 2010, with the weather fast improving and having been cold for days, I emailed John who I think had just spent the weekend climbing on Meagaidh. After some ‘will we/won’t we’ discussions, we cancelled everything for the next two days, I nipped off home at four to get gear, drove off over the Lecht and so to Sligachan. Taking my car at Glen Brittle beach we grabbed a few hours sleep in the back of John’s car back at Sligachan, before the all too familiar, all too early, alarm.

    The first day was simply sublime, the second was very, very Scottish. Much of the Ridge was new to us, and while that added to the experience, it for sure also added to the time. The continuity of the seriousness (the snow was very, very firm underfoot) was both surprising and impressive. The Ridge in winter is truly an Alpine undertaking, yet set in the middle of the Sea of the Hebrides, and while there is much in the mountains of the world that is harder, I’m not sure anything could be better.”


    Skye The Cuillin, authored by Mike Lates, has just been published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. The cover photo shows Captain Planet (E4) on the Basteir Tooth. This prominent summit, and the neighbouring Am Basteir, come into winter condition quickly and are home to several modern test-pieces such as Hung, Drawn and Quartered (VIII,8) and Shadbolt’s Chimney (VI,7). (Reproduced with permission of the Scottish Mountaineering Club)

    I’ll start off by stating that I’m not particularly qualified to review this new guidebook. An infrequent visitor to Skye, I’ve only climbed a handful of routes in the Cuillin, and I only finally got around to traversing the Ridge in September last year. In winter my record is even more sparse, and I’ve only succeeded on a single route. My unfamiliarity is partly because I’ve always found the Cuillin rather confusing – the myriad of corries with access from different points requires a deep knowledge of the area, especially if winter climbing is in the agenda – so I was intrigued to see if this new guide to the Cuillin would improve my knowledge of the geography of the range.

    Authored by local mountain guide and enthusiastic Skye aficionado Mike Lates, the new SMC guidebook to the Cuillin is a complete re-write of the previous volume (published in 1996). Mike has done an outstanding job demystifying the Cuillin massif through the use of clear route descriptions, and close to a hundred detailed crag and (all-revealing) crag location photodiagrams. The book has been edited by Brian Davison, and has been beautifully laid out by Susan Jensen, all under the watchful eye of SMC production supremo Tom Prentice. At 320 pages, the book is slimmer and more compact than the last edition and fits comfortably in a rucksack or jacket pocket.

    Mike’s route descriptions are clear, and he goes out of his way to help the reader. For example, his description of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse is both helpful and informative, and unlike some other guidebooks, it does not make you feel inadequate if you’re unable to match Shadbolt and MacLaren’s first ascent time and complete the route under 12 hours. Mike makes a sensible analysis of what constitutes a successful traverse, recommends a multi-corrie reconnaissance campaign and suggests a more realistic time of 12 to 16 hours for the final attempt. He sets out a winter traverse strategy too, which is essential reading for those planning to attempt the ultimate mountaineering expedition in the British Isles.

    I was surprised at the number of winter routes included in the book. Alongside the well-publicised ascents by Mick Fowler, there have been 70 winter additions in recent years, mainly by Dave Ritchie and Mike Lates himself, who both clearly understand the interplay of winter conditions on these mountains. The number of deep clefts and gullies slicing through the Cuillin make it ideal mixed winter terrain when north-westerlies have filled these prominent features with snow or rimed the exposed crests with hoar.

    So after a couple of weeks of study, no longer do the Cuillin feel quite so terra incognita. I’ve heard enthusiastic and positive feedback from other climbers too, so I’m sure that this excellent guidebook will inspire countless summer and winter adventures for many years to come.

    Helen Rennard leading the crux corner of The Third Man (IV,6) in Coire an Lochain. This excellent route, is a direct version of Sidewinder on the front face of No.4 Buttress, but is not climbed as often as the more well known routes on the cliff. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet and Helen Rennard notched up their first winter ascents of the season with an ascent of The Third Man (IV,6) on the Northern Corries, on Thursday October 20. This was the first time that Andy had climbed the route since making the first ascent with Sandy Allan some 28 years ago.

    Andy Nisbet has an incomparable Scottish winter record. His first new route was way back in 1975, and since then he has climbed well over a thousand new winter routes. He is still as active as ever, making dozens of first ascents each season, in all corners of the Highlands. Many of these climbs are of the highest quality, and have shaped the nature of Scottish winter climbing as we know it today. One has to look to the pioneering records of Patrick Gabarrou in the Alps, or Fred Beckey in North America, to find anything comparable on a world scale.

    It is tempting to think that Andy’s Scottish winter record can never be bettered, but who knows? As winter climbing gains more popularity, and shorter, more technical mixed routes gain increasing acceptance, the opportunities in the Scottish mountains are limitless. It will of course, take talent and vision supplemented by unbounded dedication and drive.


    Sean Peatfield in action yesterday, on the corner pitch of The Message (IV,6) on the Mess of Pottage in Core an t-Sneachda. Three days of cold winds and snowy weather, and the ever-reliable Northern Corries were well rimed providing good winter sport. (Photo Iain Munro)

    The wind swung around to the North on Monday and winter began on the Scottish hills with the first significant snowfalls of the season. On Tuesday October 18, Ledge Route (II) on Ben Nevis was climbed and Alan Halewood made a solo ascent of Tower Ridge (IV,3).

    Alan has made early season solo ascents of Tower ridge something of a speciality in recent years, but the description of Tuesday’s ascent on his blog sounds a little more exciting than normal: “The Little Tower passed in a slippery, thrutchy blur, the snow useless and ice thawing and often detaching from the rock when given a quick scrape… The climbing up the side of The Great Tower on icy rimed up rock felt like proper winter… sketchy, slippery nervy with a spindrift of hail patting my helmet.”

    On Wednesday, several parties visited the Northern Corries and Joris Volmer and Nathan White ticked the modern classic Hoarmaster (V,6) in Coire an Lochain. The weather quietened down for Thursday morning and more teams were out to take advantage of the overnight frost. Iain Munro and Sean Peatfield climbed The Message (IV,6) in Coire an t-Sneachda, and across in Coire an Lochain, Savage Slit (V,6) saw an ascent by James Edwards and Ross Jones.

    All these routes were a race against time as a warm front was racing in from the West. By Thursday evening the crags had stripped, but there can be no doubt – the new season has definitely begun!

    Brian Davison (circled) crossing the upper part of the Orion Face and nearing the finish of the Girdle Traverse (V,4) of Ben Nevis. The route was climbed right to left (see footsteps across the snow slope lower right), and at 4000m long it is the longest winter route in the British Isles after the Cuillin Ridge Traverse. (The other major Scottish winter girdles – Tom Patey’s Crab Crawl (IV,4) on Creag Meagaidh, and Martin Moran’s Das Rheingold (V,4) on Beinn Bhan, are 2400m and 2800m in length respectively). The Girdle Traverse of Ben Nevis was the second of Davison’s girdle traverses that make up the Trilogy Traverse of Scafell, Ben Nevis and Snowdon. (Photo Jason Wood)

    The first snows arriving on the Scottish hills last week reminded me of a recent conversation I had with Brian Davison. Brian is probably best known for the first winter ascent of Mort on Lochnagar. When he climbed it with Andy Nisbet in 2000, it was one of the first Grade IXs to be climbed in Scotland, and it is still unrepeated. But not only is Brian an exceptional winter mountaineer, he is also an outstanding all-round climber and endurance athlete, although many of Brian’s achievements go unnoticed by the majority of climbers.

    Brian was recently back from a trip to Jebel Misht in Oman where he had climbed a new 3000m E4. (Yes, I do mean a three thousand metre-long route!) The pillar was first climbed by a French party over a number of weeks with helicopter support, but Brian and his partner climbed their new route in a single day. Whilst my mind was boggling over this, Brian then talked about climbing all the Lakes Classic Rock routes, unsupported and on foot, in a day. I can’t recall the exact the details, but sixteen routes and approximately 42 miles running, is a big day out by anyone’s standards.

    These feats reminded me of an email Brian sent to Steve Ashworth and I in February 2010 about the completion of the Trilogy Traverse. This is another of Brian’s achievements that has slipped under the radar screen, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to highlight it on

    “As my partners on the girdle traverses of Ben Nevis and Scafell I thought I’d let you know that yesterday I did a girdle traverse the Trinity Buttress on Snowdon. After completing the traverse of the Ben I realised there was only Snowdon to do and I had completed the set.

    As far as I can tell from the guide and other Welsh climbing info it hasn’t had a winter ascent either. That could be due to the fact there isn’t a great natural line and traverses are never high on climbers tick lists.

    The route wasn’t as good as the other two and seemed to involve a lot of climbing in and out of gullies as well as up and down to try and find the right way. With 6 inches of unconsolidated powered snow on the ledges conditions weren’t as friendly as they could have been but at least the turf was frozen. I’d give it IV and say you have to be confident at climbing up and down at grade III, but to be honest at that grade you could climb anywhere on the entire cliff.”

    Any takers out there for a single season Trilogy Traverse?