Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in December, 2011

    The Arch Wall area of Creagan Cha-no on Cairngorm. (Click on photo for larger image). 1. Jenga Buttress (III,4), 2. Daylight Robbery (V,6), 3. Smooth as Silk (VII,7), 4. Arch Wall (VII,7), 5. Arch Enemy (V,5), 6. Fingers and Thumbs (IV,5). Anvil Buttress lies to the left. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    Following on from the Creagan Cha-no – Anvil Buttress Topo post, the photo above shows the routes on Arch Wall. This wall typically provides two-pitch routes up to 70m long, with pride of place going to the eponymous Arch Wall (VII,7) and Smooth as Silk (VII,7), although later in the season the lower 15 or 20m can bank out. As I said in the previous post, Creagan Cha-no is best considered an early to mid season crag.

    I chanced upon the cliff in September 2010 when walking down Strath Nethy with a Silver DofE Expedition from the Aberdeen Deeside Explorers group.

    We were planning a traverse of the Cairngorms from Glenmore Lodge to Braemar, but we had to call off the trip after the first night. The weather was horrendous with snow and gale force winds, and later we found out that we’d experienced the coldest September night on record on the Cairngorms. As we retreated down Strath Nethy from Loch Avon the rain stopped and the clouds began to clear, and I noticed a frieze of cliffs high up on the plateau edge. They looked attractive, but rather small from afar, but the following weekend I went along to have a look. I was delighted to find a well featured little cliff comprised of excellent granite. It was another wet day, but between the showers I wandered up Duke’s Rib at Moderate (later climbed at Grade II).

    Intrigued, I checked through my collection of Cairngorms guidebooks when I returned home. The crag was referred to in the 1960 Mac Smith guide to the Northern Cairngorms, but was considered to be too short for worthwhile climbing. (In those days a winter route was required to be at least 500ft long to be valid, and even summer routes had to be at least 300ft in length to be worthy of recording). Subsequent climbing guidebooks to the Cairngorms mentioned Cha-no, but more recent editions dropped the reference, so the cliff faded into obscurity.

    But tastes and styles change. Fifty years on it is perfectly acceptable for a mixed route to be 60m in length if it has good climbing, and in this respect Creagan Cha-no fits the bill!

    The Anvil Buttress area of Creagan Cha-no on Cairngorm. (Click on photo for larger image). 1. Chimney Rib (IV,4), 2. Recovery Gully (I), 3. Flaked Out (VI,7), 4. Anvil Gully (IV,4), 5. Anvil Corner (VI,6). Jenga Buttress (III,4) is the next major rib off photo to the right. To the right of this is Arch Wall. (Archive Photo Sandy Simpson)

    Several people have asked me for a topo of Creagan Cha-no, the recently developed winter cliff on Cairngorm. The photo shows the Anvil Buttress area, and a topo of the Arch Wall area will be covered by a second post. Full route descriptions can be found in the 2011 Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal that was published in December.

    Creagan Coire Cha-no is an attractive little granite cliff tucked under the east flank of the Cha-no spur on Cairngorm overlooking Strath Nethy. The cliff faces east so it is best considered an early to mid season venue. It strips quickly when the sun rises high in the sky in March and April.

    Cha-no is not a major crag, but it does have the distinction of being the most accessible winter cliff in the Cairngorms. It lies less than 2km away from the Coire na Ciste car park and the approach from the plateau via Recovery Gully (NJ017063) takes just over an hour. The cornice can normally be avoided on the left (looking down). The return is even quicker at about 45 minutes.

    The crag is 70 metres high at its highest point, and sports 15 two-pitch routes, ranging from Grade II to VII. Most of the major features have been climbed, but there is potential for several shorter lines. With a cliff base of 950m, the routes come into condition early. Later in the season the cliff catches the sun, and some routes may bank out and have cornice difficulties. Cha-no provides a welcome alternative to the Northern Corries, with, a beautiful view and a ‘remote’ feel away from the hustle and bustle of the ski area.

    The cliff is steeper than it looks, and (something of a novelty for a Northern Cairngorms crag), the cracks are very vegetated. The finest routes are Jenga Buttress (III,4) and Anvil Corner (VI,6) – both climbed on my first winter visit to the cliff with Sandy Simpson last November.

    CIC Hut Update

    Will Sim, Greg Boswell and James Dunn waiting out the great storm in the CIC Hut on December 8. The roof of the old hut has been damaged (now the sleeping quarters) which is off photo to the left. (Photo Will Sim)

    The SMC have recently issued a note on the CIC Hut as follows:

    “As you may be aware, the CIC Hut sustained significant damage to the roof during the recent exceptional weather. A large area of roof cladding on the Allt a’Mhuillin side of the original building has been lost. It is hoped that a weather window may emerge in early January to enable materials to be flown up to effect a temporary repair with more permanent work taking place in the spring.

    There has been some water ingress to the interior but fortunately not enough to render the premises wholly unusable. Occupation numbers will however have to be restricted until the temporary repairs take place.”

    The left side of No.4 Buttress in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries. From left to right the routes are: Red 67 -Deep Throat (V,6), Pink – Aqualung-Gaffer’s Groove-Bulgy Combination (V,6), Yellow - Swallow-Tail Pillar (VII,8), White – Gaffer’s Groove Winter Variation (V,5), Red – Bulgy (VII,7), Yellow 74 – Savage Slit (V,6), White 75 – Prore (VIII,7), Red – Fallout Corner (VI,7). The route When the Wind Blows (VI,7) mentioned below, starts up Bulgy to below the double roofs, and then traverses left to finish up the upper section of Gaffer’s Groove. (Topo Andy Nisbet/SMC Cairngorms guidebook/Martin Hind)

    Last Sunday (December 16), James Edwards was tempted away from his beloved Northern Highlands to climb in the Northern Corries, with a surprisingly prominent new route in mind. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, but I’ll let James tell the story:

    “I have always found the area of No. 4 Buttress near Gaffer’s Groove and Aqualung a bit confusing.  For example, I thought the route When the Wind Blows went up the groove-line parallel to Bulgy. When the new guidebook came out with a very clear diagram of that section of the cliff, I was surprised to see the groove-line untracked, and seemingly nothing to do with When the Wind Blows. I thought this was a bit strange at the time, but gave it no more thought, as I had other routes to keep me busy for a while. However last weekend fates conspired for a short Northern Corries day, so Martin Hind and I went to have a look at that bit of the cliff.

    Martin started up the corner of Aqualung, and after clipping an in-situ peg whilst crossing Gaffer’s Groove, he decided to continue on rather than belay there. He continued on up the ‘unclimbed’ groove, which was a funnel for the spindrift making for very unpleasant insecure moves on God knows what, with eyes closed due to the snow blowing around.

    Martin soon completed a full 60m of climbing and reached the easy ground that joins the top pitch of Bulgy. I stripped the belay and wore two sacks to climb, as neither of us fancied descending the Couloir. I recognised the moves on the start of Aqualung, but the powder swim up the groove-come-chimney was new to me. I led through and climbed an easy pitch to gain the plateau, where I must have looked like a very strange genetically modified snail, with my two large sacks on my back! When Martin came up he met an old friend Ewen Todd, and partner Rab, coiling their ropes after topping out to Western Route. Martin told me that he hadn’t seen Ewen since punching him at a party in Glasgow in the 1980s, and thought that he had better apologise, as Ewen looked a bit bigger than him now! It’s funny, the old friends that you bump into in the Corries.

    It turns out that of course, that the groove had been done before, probably first by Rab Anderson and certainly by Guy Robertson, Pete Benson and Es Tressider. It all stemmed from a slight error in the original SMC guidebook where the summer line of Gaffer’s Groove (the one we climbed), was never marked, but the winter version of it was, which takes a different line. The combination of Aqualung, Gaffer’s Groove and Bulgy does take a very strong natural feature up the cliff however, and could be worth noting for those No. 4 Buttress aficionados who are running out of things to climb at a mere mortal grade V,6 or thereabouts.”

    Vince Aerts pulling through one of the many chokestones on the third pitch of Great Overhanging Gully (VI,7) on Beinn Bhan in Applecross. This legendary route was first climbed by Mick Fowler and Phil Butler in 1984, and has seen very few repeats, but it saw two ascents last weekend. (Photo Pete Davies)

    At first sight, the North-West Highlands were not a logical choice last weekend, with heavy showers, dumping high levels of snow across the region. Parties attempting the classic Liathach and Alligin ridge traverses were unsuccessful, due to time consuming deep snow and dangerous avalanche conditions at the head of gullies.

    Helen Rennard and partner, decided to take the gamble however, and were rewarded with a brilliant weekend. On Saturday December 18, they made an early repeat of Tango in the Night (VI,7) on Sgorr Ruadh, which is reckoned to be one of the best mixed routes on the Northern Highlands. Despite tired legs, they went in to Beinn Bhan the following day, and climbed the awe-inspiring Great Overhanging Gully (VI,7), an archetypical Mick Fowler route, first climbed in March 1984.

    “It was the hardest day’s climbing I’ve ever had!” Helen told me afterwards. Helen explained that the walking conditions were tough, but the route was technically demanding as well. I was intrigued, because GOHG was first repeated by Dave Hesleden and Chris Cartwright in February 1994, and it was they who gave it its current two-tier grade. I spoke to Dave and Chris, and they both agreed that they thought the grade was fair. “We weren’t trying to be competitive or anything,“ Chris said. “After all, it was a Fowler route!” But as Chris explained, it was nearly 18 years ago now since they climbed the route (they also made the first free ascent in the process) and couldn’t remember for sure. (I suspect they were both climbing extremely well at the time, as they made the first ascent of Foobarbundy on Liathach the day afterwards (still unrepeated), which at VIII,7 is still arguably, one of the most difficult ice routes in Scotland).

    Pete Davies (another very accomplished Scottish winter climber with first ascents of hard routes such as The Brass Monkey and Catriona on Ben Nevis to his name), and Belgian climber Vince Aerts, climbed the route last Saturday, so I asked his opinion.

    “We thought it was pretty hard as well,” Pete told me, “because the difficulties are sustained all the way to the top. If The Godfather is given VIII, and Genesis VII, then VI (all be it at the top end of the grade), might be about right, I suppose. The overhangs are always well protected with a few run-outs on the less steep ground in between. I think it’s the best winter route I’ve done. It had everything – Ice, turf, overhangs, spindrift, overhangs, consolidated snow, overhangs, unconsolidated snow, overhangs, night time finish! We had a fly-by from a Golden Eagle as well!”

    Pete sent me the photo above, and all becomes clear. Dave and Chris reported good ice on their ascent in 1994, whilst Pete’s photo shows thin and fragile ice, so upward progress last weekend must have mainly relied on rock and frozen vegetation.

    Whilst Helen was climbing on Beinn Bhan, Roger Webb and I were having our own adventure on Beinn Damh in Torridon. This Corbett has some long winter climbs on its east face, but Roger knew of a vertical quartzite cliff directly under the summit, so we decided to go and have a look. Unfortunately, the rock was very unhelpful and difficult to protect, but we succeeded on our objective of climbing the curving cleft left of centre, that breaches the central line of overhangs, to give access to an icy groove above. Due to a communication error we carried three ice hooks up the mountain, which was just as well, as they provided all the key protection on the climb. Roger’s name suggestion, The Bulldog Spirit (V,5), was apt in more ways than one!

    Jumping Jupiter

    Greg Boswell on the first winter ascent of Jumping Jupiter (VIII,8) on Carn Etchachan. This summer E2 takes cracks on the left side of the slab of Time Traveller, and was first climbed by John Lyall and Andy Nisbet in August 1997. (Photo James Dunn Visuals)

    Greg Boswell, Ian Parnell and James Dunn made a rainy walk across the Cairngorm plateau through frequent slushy showers on Wednesday December 21 to the top of Carn Etchachan. Greg and Ian abseiled down to the foot of the summer E2 Jumping Jupiter, whilst James Dunn positioned himself to take photos.

    “We abbed down to find our route very white but the temperature was quickly rising,” Greg told me. “The route was home to some thin and slightly bold climbing with a hard crux through the first roof/overlap. I belayed after the first crux pitch under the roof above the slab. The roof of the second pitch was not playing ball, and after some dithering around, I turned the roof via the arete on the left and made a rightward trending traverse to gain the summer line again, and finished as for that. We gave the route VIII,8. This was the last route before Christmas, so time for a rest and a bit of training, so I’m ready to get stuck in as soon as my Mum lets me leave the house after the festive period!”

    Stuart McFarlane on the fourth pitch of Hogwart’s Express on The Brack on Arrochar. This steep mixed route climbs the right edge of the slabby wall right of Resolution, and finishes up the final pitches of the summer route Mainline. The final section, as shown in the photo is also the crux pitch of last year’s addition The Elephant Train. (Photo Stuart Burns)

    On Sunday December 19, Stuart Burns, Erick Baillot and Stuart McFarlane, repeated Hogwart’s Express (VI,7) on The Brack. This fine looking route was first climbed by Andy Clarke and Frank Yeoman in January 2001, and is a very steep line taking the right edge of the Resolution wall, finishing via the top fault of the summer E2 Mainline.

    “The route was not adorned with secure protection on the first three pitches,” Stuart M told me. “It was more VI than 7!”

    Stuart B (‘Burnsie’) agrees. “I thought it was VI,6 and high in the danger grade and low in the technical grade. Andy Clarke gave it VI,7 on the first ascent. I suspect we had more ice on our ascent, which had been forming from the snow melt – helpful for teetering up slabs when it sticks on, but not so helpful if you can’t find any gear!”

    Other Arrochar news is the third ascent of Direct, Direct (VII,9) on The Cobbler, by Andy Sharpe and Garth. They made a well-timed ascent, climbing this Arrochar test-piece on Saturday December 10 under a good covering of hoar frost.

    Greg Boswell on the second pitch of Scarface Wall (VIII,8) on Lochnagar. This steep mixed route, which curves leftwards across the impressive steep right wall of Raeburn’s Gully, was first climbed by Guy Robertson and Ian Parnell in April 2006. (Photo Will Sim)

    Fresh from their outstanding success on Stone Temple Pilots on the Shelter Stone, Greg Boswell and Will Sim visited Lochnagar on Sunday December 18. Their intention was to make the second ascent of Crazy Sorrow (IX,10), which received its first full winter ascent in the hands of Guy Robertson and Pete Benson last season. (The crux pitch had previously been climbed by Alan Mullin and Steve Lynch, but they abseiled off without climbing the difficult third pitch and did not complete the route).

    Will added a more difficult entry pitch, before Greg pulled over the crux roof but decided that the upper part of the pitch was not sufficiently icy. The pair decided to retreat, and by way of consolation, they climbed Scarface Wall (VIII,8), a Guy Robertson-Ian Parnell creation on the right wall of Raeburn’s Gully. They completed the first three pitches (all the independent climbing) to join The Straight-Jacket, before deciding to abseil back into Raeburn’s Gully to reach their rucksacks as it became dark. I’ll leave the ethics on whether this constitutes a true second ascent or not, to others, but since the 1980s there has been a tradition of abseiling down from difficult routes on Lochnagar (i.e. on The Pinnacle and Tough Brown Face) once easy ground has been reached. (Unfortunately, Alan Mullin and Steve Lynch did not climb as far as easy ground on their Crazy Sorrow attempt in 2002).

    A steady flow of routes have been climbed on Lochnagar so far this season including Quick Dash Crack, Spellbound, Transept Route and Shadowlands. Pete Davies, Tim Marsh and Donnie O’Sullivan made an ascent of The Link Direct on the Pinnacle, and on the Tough-Brown Face, Dave Almond and Simon Frost climbed Tough Guy, taking the corner direct on the second pitch, and suggesting an overall grade of VII,8. They also dismissed the 1980s Lochnagar tradition, and climbed the full height of the cliff, to finish on the plateau.

    Glen Prosen Ice

    North Craig in Glen Prosen in the Southern Cairngorms with the new routes climbed by Henning Wackerhage and Arno Alpi marked. Red - White Plains Drifter (IV,5 45m); Yellow - Whitewash (IV,5 50m); Blue - White Sun of the Desert (III,4 45m). The central arête in the photo is taken by the summer HVS High Plains Drifter. (Photo Henning Wackerhage)

    On Saturday December 17, Henning Wackerhage and Arno Alpi took a chance, and visited North Craig on Mayar in Glen Prosen. This glen is rarely visited by climbers, and lies south of Glen Clova. Their optimism paid off, as the south-facing crag (which up until now was home to just a single rock route) was attractively icy, and they climbed three new single pitch ice routes.

    “We encountered thin and hollow sounding ice making the climbing interesting at times,” Henning explained on his blog. “But after a prolonged freeze on an icy day with sunshine most routes should be up to a grade easier, deserve more stars and the crag will be a mini Beinn Udlaidh (so we hope!). Presumably conditions will be good here if Look C Gully in Corrie Fee is in nick. We started with the most icy route. Unfortunately the ice was quite thin and hollow sounding in places. Nonetheless, it is a rare privilege to climb ice in the sunshine in December in Scotland!”

    CIC Hut Winds

    Robin Clothier (right) assesses the damage to the CIC Hut roof after the great storm earlier in December. Winds of 165mph were recorded that day on Cairngorm (a mere 20 minutes flying time away) and car windscreens were blown in down in Fort William. (Photo Will Sim)

    James Dunn, who was in the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis together with Greg Boswell and Will Sim on December 8, has put together a brief video of the wind that day, and the damage to the CIC Hut roof.

    After taking the video, the trio attempted to descend, but the wind was so strong and they had to retreat back to the hut. The next day the winds died and they made the second ascent of The Knuckleduster.

    The new roof, which is less than three years old, was torn off due to the failure of a fixing. The previous roof lasted over 80 years, which says a lot for the robustness of traditional materials. The CIC Hut has now been temporarily repaired due to the efforts of Hut Custodian Robin Clothier and other members of the SMC, but it is still uncertain whether the hut will remain open through the winter.