Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in November, 2011

    Roger Everett walking along the wind-swept Braeriach plateau above Coire Bhrochain on Sunday November 27. The strong north-westerly winds had scoured west facing aspects (i.e. the crag in sunlight on the right), whilst the more sheltered east side of the coire was white with new snow. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The unseasonably warm November temperatures came to an abrupt end on Friday November 25 with snow down to low levels across the Highlands accompanied by biting north-westerly gales. Dorsal Arête (II) on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe saw a quick solo ascent before warm winds swept in that night stripping most of the snow away.

    The freezing level on Saturday was well above the tops, but with more snow and cold temperatures forecast for Sunday, Roger Everett and I decided to pay a visit to Braeriach. Fortunately the predicted 110mph winds did not fully materialise, but even so, it was a long and gruelling approach through horizontal rain that eventually merged into a blizzard as we gained height. On the crag, the horizontal turf was frozen just enough to be weight bearing, which allowed us to climb an easy buttress before we were blown back across the plateau as the weather cleared.

    Temperatures are continuing to fluctuate this week with a generally snowier, and colder outlook for the weekend. Winter climbing is definitely on the cards, but it will need careful route choice to avoid unfrozen turf insulated by new snow.


    The aluminium marker post at the head of Number Four Gully was installed in 1954 by Dr Donald Duff, a keen climber and surgeon working at Belford Hospital in Fort William. Ever since, it has been a welcome sight for climbers searching for the top of Number Four Gully in poor visibility. The post was originally straight, but has been bent over the years by parties using it as an abseil anchor. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    For some inexplicable reason, the marker post at the head of Number Four Gully on Ben Nevis was removed last week and flung down the gully. A few days later on November 14, in a very public-spirited act, it was recovered and replaced by Alan Halewood. The John Muir Trust (who own the south side of Ben Nevis) are now inviting comments from the general public on whether the post should be retained – see

    If you have strong views on this, I suggest you take part in the consultation. This is the content of the email I have just sent to the JMT:

    “As author of the SMC climbing guidebook to Ben Nevis, I am writing to you about the Number Four Gully marker post on Ben Nevis.

    Whilst I am aligned with the overall JMT objective of removing man made objects from Scottish mountains, the Number Four Gully marker post is a special case. It has been in place for nearly 60 years and has become a key navigational aid on the mountain. I strongly oppose to its removal for the following reasons:

    1. The Allt a’Mhuilinn is the most common approach to the north face of the Ben, and Number Four Gully is the most used descent on this side of the mountain. This is because (with the marker post in place) it can be 100% identified in a whiteout, and the gully itself is very safe in the majority of conditions. The cornice is rarely impassable and the gully rarely avalanches.

    2. The general area at the top of Number Four Gully can be a confusing place in poor visibility, even to the most experienced of Scottish mountaineers.

    3. Removing the marker post will make the Tourist path to the Halfway Lochain the default descent in conditions of poor visibility. This will lead to considerable erosion from the majority who will cut back to the Allt a’Mhuilinn above the dam to return to the North Face Car Park.

    4. The current winter guidebooks to Ben Nevis (Ben Nevis – SMC 2002, Scottish Winter Climbs – SMC 2008, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe – Cicerone 2010) all recommend Number Four Gully as the surest descent of the north side of Ben Nevis. All these books will remain in print for a number of years and will therefore pose a considerable threat to those unaware of the marker post removal. Searching for a marker post that is not there is an extremely dangerous situation. I suggest that the SMC and Cicerone are key stakeholders in this decision and should be fully involved in your deliberations.

    5. In poor visibility, the top of Number Three Gully can be confused with the top of Number Four Gully. Number Three Gully avalanches frequently and is a far more dangerous descent in poor conditions. This could be potentially lethal to anyone making this mistake.

    6. If it is decided to remove the marker post, I suggest that an 18-month warning is given before its removal (i.e. at least one winter season). This will allow the vital information that the post is to be removed, to be communicated more effectively than if it happens a few months before the winter season starts. Warning signposts in car parks etc. will help, but many climbers start in the dark when signposts are not visible and there is no guarantee that they are read.

    I support removal of the Abseil Posts in Coire Leis. Climbing skills and equipment have improved considerably since they were installed and they are very rarely used for abseiling. A distinctive cairn to mark the descent into Coire Leis is a good idea.

    Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like further input.”

    Roger Everett climbing the crucial central ice pitch on an early repeat of Tir na Og (V,5) on Ladhar Bheinn in February 1986. This highly coveted 350m-long route, was first climbed by Higgins and Foster in February 1978, and has only seen a handful of ascents. The evocative Gaelic name means ‘Land of Eternal Youth’. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    There is an interesting thread running on UKC at the moment compiling a list of rarely in condition Scottish winter classics. The concept is a paradox of course – a route cannot really be deemed a classic until it has had a body of ascents confirming its quality and reputation – but the meaning of the thread title is clear. What are the most coveted routes in Scotland that require very special conditions to make them climbable?

    Quite understandably, the list has focused on ice routes that take long periods of cold weather to bring them onto condition. Jamie Bankhead went one step further however, and proposed Tir na Og on Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart. There is no question that this is the most sought after winter route in the Western Highlands, and it has only seen a very small handful of repeats. Jamie posted that climbing Tir na Og “would be more meaningful to me than the Eigerwand,” which is an apt comparison, because Spider Buttress, the home of Tir na Og, is rather Eiger-like in appearance, complete with its own Spider-shaped snowfield high on the face.

    I was fortunate enough to climb Tir na Og about 25 years ago, so I reflected on the conditions required to bring the route into condition. The route needs a heavy snowfall and a sustained period of cold lasting several weeks to freeze the turf and allow the central ice pitch to form. This is quite an unusual blend of weather conditions, especially for a route that lies so close the sea, but it made me think about other great Scottish cliffs that require an even more precise combination of weather events to bring them into condition.

    My first thought was Magic Bow Wall on Sgurr an Fhidhleir. This 400m-high cliff faces Southeast, lies on a peninsular surrounded by sea on three sides and starts at an elevation of only 300m. Being so close the Western seaboard it needs an exceptionally sustained freeze to bring it into condition, but even so, the face has been climbed three times in the last twelve years (albeit by three different routes), and the neighbouring Fhidhleir’s Nose normally comes into condition at least once every season.

    So snowfall and cold temperatures are important, but some routes require an even more unique blend of weather conditions that have to take place in precisely the correct sequence. Minus One Buttress on the Ben and Central Gully Wall on Dubh Loch fall into this category. They need a snowfall carried on a particular wind direction, followed by light winds to keep the white stuff in place in place coupled with a series of very gentle temperature fluctuations to bind it to the cliff. As a result, Minus One Buttress has only been ascended five times in winter (by three separate routes), and the front face of Central Gully Wall has only seen six ascents (on four separate days) in a period spanning over thirty years.

    So my votes for the most elusive Scottish winter ‘classics’ go to the eponymous Minus One Buttress (VII,6) on Ben Nevis and Mousetrap (VII,7) on Creag an Dubh Loch. Both routes have seen three ascents apiece.