Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in January, 2012

    Takaaki Nagato from Japan making the first ascent of Sake (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. This difficult three-pitch route takes the left side of the wall between Babylon and Winter Chimney. The only other route in this area is Ian Parnell’s Burning with Anxiety (aka Snuff Wall) that was climbed in March 2008. (Photo Dave Almond)

    The BMC Winter Meet visited Ben Nevis en masse on Friday January 27 and came away with an impressive haul of routes including Sioux Wall, Smith’s Route, Darth Vader, Babylon, North-East Buttress, Tower Ridge, Gargoyle Wall, Tower Face of the Comb and Thompson’s Route.

    But the route of the day (and hardest new route of the week) fell to Simon Frost and Takaaki Nagato from Japan who climbed Sake (VIII,9), the impressive line around the arete to the right of Babylon. Simon led the delicate second pitch, and Takaaki tip-toed up the crux, the impressive hanging groove to the right of the final chimney of Babylon. Throughout the meet, Takaaki and his colleague Ryo Mastumoto, impressed everyone with their quiet and efficient climbing style that resulted in a string of impressive ascents such as The Vicar and Daddy Longlegs in Coire an Lochain, Where Eagles Dare on Lochnagar and Unicorn in Glen Coe.

    Markus Griesshammer from Germany on the first ascent of Red Dwarf (VII,7) on Stacan Dubha. This route takes the prominent groove system to the right of Goldilocks, which saw its first ascent earlier this winter. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The Loch Avon Basin has been a much-visited venue this season, and it was a popular location of Day 2 (January 24) of the BMC Winter Meet with two ascents of the classic Postern on the Shelter Stone. Iain Small and Magnus Stromhall from Sweden made a rapid ascent of Citadel, and across on Stacan Dubha, Markus Griesshammer from Germany joined me for a new route up the prominent pillar on the left side of Stacan Dubha. The four-pitch Red Dwarf followed a line of grooves and cracks up the right side of the Goldilocks pillar, with Marcus pulling out the stops leading the technical second crux on the third pitch. The following day he showed his mixed climbing credentials by on sighting Fast and Furious at Birnham.

    Carn Etchachan also saw several visits during the meet with ascents of Guillotine, Route Major and Scorpion.

    Caption: Nick Bullock about to commit to crux section on the first full winter ascent of the Mindless Finish (IX,10) to Pic ‘n Mix in Coire an Lochain, Northern Corries. “My axes we alternately blowing, and if I’d come off, it would have been a 60ft fall on to two Bulldogs,” Nick explained afterwards. (Photo David Mora)

    On Day 1 (January 23) of the BMC International Meet, Nick Bullock set the pace with the first full winter ascent of the Mindless Finish (IX,10) to Pic ‘n Mix. This summer E3 5c pitch is followed by the original Pic ‘n Mix for 10m before taking a rising traverse to the right.

    “I was climbing the second pitch when Dave Garry, who was on Hoarmaster, shouted across to me,” Nick told me. “’Why are you going around the corner, when you can go straight up,’ Dave called. ‘It still hasn’t been done!’ So I went straight up. It was an emotional experience because it was difficult to protect the verglassed cracks and I found it very hard going for the slab at the top. I had to commit to very steep moves on absolutely nothing!”

    Nick’s partner, Bayard Russell from New Hampshire in the US, who had made a smooth lead of the first pitch, summed it all up – “Hey, that was rowdy man!”

    Greg Boswell on the second free ascent of Don’t Die of Ignorance (XI,11) on The Comb on Ben Nevis. There was fierce competition to repeat this line - over the last two seasons several strong teams have attempted the route with no success. (Photo James Dunn Visuals)

    I have a long backlog of ascents to write up from last week’s BMC Winter Meet, but some posts just can’t wait…. Greg Boswell and James Dunn pulled off a coveted repeat yesterday (January 29) when they made the second free ascent of Don’t Die of Ignorance on Ben Nevis. The route which traverses around the steep front nose of The Comb to gain the attractive central groove system was first climbed by Simon Yates and Andy Cave in February 1987 and graded VI,6 and A2. In March 2008 Dave MacLeod succeeded in freeing the route with Joe French on his sixth attempt. The route was graded XI,11 making it the most technically difficult winter route on the mountain.

    “I had a go at the on sight on Friday with Jen Olsen [a visiting US climber on the Winter Meet], but I dropped a tool mid crux,” Greg told me. “I then had another go but a small flake ripped after finishing the traverse. James and I went back yesterday and I got it first time with a fairly smooth ascent. The crux traverse was powerful and thin, but the icy wall above the crack was utterly terrifying with a good 10m run out above a dodgy hook. Some of the thinnest climbing I have ever done. A sterling effort for Mr MacLeod to free such an awesome line!”

    Martin Moran on the third pitch of Rudolf (VIII,8/9) on Beinn Eighe. Martin considers that the first winter ascent of this summer E2 up the centre of the Far East Wall is the most difficult winter route he has climbed on the mountain to date. (Photo Martin Moran Collection)

    Murdo Jamieson and Martin Moran had a great day on Beinn Eighe on Monday January 23 with the first winter ascent of Rudolf (VIII,8/9) on the Far East Wall.

    “Conditions were just right after three days of humid cool weather,” Martin told me. “It was well worth the wait after a long fallow period since Christmas. We reckon the route was near the top end of Grade VIII but not quite Grade IX, very comparable to but slightly more sustained than The Needle. I think the game will have to move on to the E3s to get a definite winter IX on Beinn Eighe; the protection on quartzite is just too good! Murdo thought it a full grade harder than Pic’n Mix which he’d done in friendly conditions the previous week.

    Having done a few routes now on Beinn Eighe my graded list would be:

    Rudolf   VIII,8/9

    Pale Rider   VIII,9

    King of the Swingers  VIII,10

    Feast of the East  VIII,9

    Sundance  VIII,8

    Hydroponicum  VIII,8

    Blood, Sweat and Frozen Tears  VII,8

    It may seem strange that an VIII,8 should be harder than an VIII,10 but that’s how the grading system should work with the real challenge given by the first number!”


    Iain Small pulling through the crux roof of Fly Me To The Moon (VII,8) on Creag Meagaidh. This steep overhanging wall lies on the right side of Crescent Gully in the Inner Corrie. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    On the evening of Sunday January 22, Iain Small and I were planning to be at Glenmore Lodge for 7pm for the start of the BMC International Meet, so we were looking for a suitable nearby winter venue. Unfortunately the crags in the Northern Cairngorms were rumoured to be rather lean and black, so we wondered about venues further west. It had been warm in Glen Coe on Saturday, but at least it had snowed a little, so we settled on Meagaidh as a compromise somewhere in the middle that may have held on to a little of the cold as well as catching a little snow.

    The weather was awful on Saturday night and the car was rocked by the wind, and by morning it was raining and not looking very hopeful. But you never know with the Scottish winter game, so we shouldered our packs and headed off towards the Inner Corrie. I hadn’t climbed up there for years, but I remembered an unclimbed wall and the possibility of a new mixed climb.

    Two hours later we were peering up through the blowing snow at the impending right wall of Crescent Gully. It looked far more difficult than I remembered, but with nothing to lose, I started leading up the steep first pitch. The protection was spaced, the climbing was steeper than it appeared from below, and before too long the ropes were hanging free below me. But at least it was classic turfy winter climbing and after 50m I was at the halfway ledge staring up at a crack that pierced the centre of the headwall through multiple overhangs.

    Even Iain hummed and hawed when he came up to the stance and studied the pitch, but once he set off, both hooks and runners kept appearing. After a pumpy wall, the crux roof entailed a huge bridge to the only foothold far on the left. Soon it was my turn, and I struggled through the crux with the sack tugging behind me, leaving a straightforward mixed pitch up the crest of the upper buttress to the plateau.

    I first noticed this line nearly 20 years ago when I was taking crag photos for the 1994 Ben Nevis guide. I noted the possibility of the route at the time and wrote, “Two hard pitches. Looks steep. Probably Grade V.” Two decades later, with the route finally in the bag, we felt VII,8 was a more realistic estimate!

    Nick Bullock on the crucial second pitch of Guerdon Grooves on Buachaille Etive Mor’s Slime Wall. After 28 years, this iconic route was finally repeated yesterday. “I felt a greater weight on my shoulders from the history rather than my climbing rack,” Nick explained afterwards. (Photo Nick Bullock Collection)

    I’m just back from the International Winter Meet at Glenmore Lodge. This superb biennial event consists of 40 guests from 20 different countries climbing with 40 Scottish-savvy British climbers all under the watchful eye of Becky McGovern and Nick Colton from the BMC. The weather was kind, which meant winter routes were climbed every day but one, and a superb selection of outings were completed from straightforward hill walks to new Grade IXs. It will take several posts to describe the highlights, but without doubt the outstanding ascent of the meet took place on Saturday January 28 when Nick Bullock, Guy Roberson and visiting US climber Bayard Russell made the second ascent of the legendary Guerdon Grooves on Slime Wall of Buachaille Etive Mor.

    Guerdon Grooves, which takes the daunting wall left of Raven’s Gully, was first climbed as a summer route in 1948 by John Cunningham and Bill Smith. Graded HVS 5a, it has a reputation for poor protection, and its first winter ascent by Arthur Paul and Dave Cuthbertson in January 1984 was a clear step forward in Scottish winter climbing. Originally graded VI, it was the earliest route to be given Grade VIII (pre-dating Unicorn by a full year) when the grading system was made open-ended in the early 1990s, and the current guidebook grades it IX,8. Any attempt at a rating was pure speculation however, as the route had repulsed all repeat attempts and built up a huge reputation.

    “The crux of the route was actually starting it,” Nick explained. “But when I started leading the second pitch there was some really useful ice in the cracks. It was a brilliant pitch, the most stunning of the route.”

    The full story of their nine-hour ascent is for Nick, Guy and Bayard to tell, but when I asked Nick about the grade he just grinned and said it may be best if it was kept an enigma. Undeterred, I asked Bayard who had just completed a whirlwind six days climbing several hard routes including a new Grade IX in the Northern Corries. “You know Simon,’ he drawled in his soft East Coast accent, “I don’t know much about this Scottish climbing game, but the route that really stands out for me this week was Trail of Tears on Lochnagar.”

    Winter Climbs in the Cairngorms, authored by Allen and Blair Fyffe, was published last month by Cicerone. The cover photo shows Neil Johnson on the top pitch of Swan Song (V,6) on Fiacaill Buttress in Coire an t-Sneachda.

    I have a battered copy of the second edition of this popular guidebook on my bookshelf. It is over 30 years old (the staples are rusting) and was written by one of the world’s greatest ice climbing pioneers – John Cunningham. I have certain fondness for this little paperback guide for not only was it my first Scottish guidebook, but it also conjures up memories of woollen breeches, straight shafted ice axes and bendy Salewa crampons in an age when Grade V really meant something.

    The new fifth edition, written by the father and son team of Allen and Blair Fyfe includes Creag Meagaidh as well as the Cairngorms, and reflects the change in emphasis of Scottish winter climbing from ice to mixed over the past three decades. It is a very attractive book, bright and clear and well laid out. It is illustrated with excellent crag topos (some such as Perseverance Wall and The Cathedral on Lochnagar have never been published before), and a series of superb action photos by Henning Wackerhage. Henning is the only climber I know who carries a full size DSLR with him on every route, and his resulting images are both beautiful and evocative, and just make you want to get out and go climbing.

    Unlike its sister Cicerone volume (Ben Nevis and Glen Coe) that sets out to be comprehensive, Cairngorms and Creag Meagaidh is a selected guide. I feel this is wholly appropriate, because unlike the SMC definitive guidebooks that have to be fully comprehensive by definition, a selected guidebook can be more creative and point newcomers to the better cliffs and corries, and highlight not just the finest, but also the most do-able routes.

    In this regard, Allen and Blair have done a superb job, especially in the Northern Cairngorms. The route choice is imaginative, and includes several recently developed cliffs such as Lurcher’s Crag and Sron na Lairige. Allen is also author of the Northern Cairngorms section of the SMC guide, knows his subject well and writes with authority. If I had to make a single criticism, it would be that the route selection in the Southern Cairngorms is a little predictable. Sure, you have to include the great Lochnagar classics, but in the main, the selection appears to be fairly conservative. For example, including a selection of routes on The Stuic, which contains some of the most enjoyable short middle grade routes in the Cairngorms, would have been a useful addition.

    Overall this is a great little guidebook and a natural complement to the SMC title. A newcomer to the area may well be attracted to this new Cicerone guide, but the aficionado will probably always be drawn the SMC fully comprehensive volume (I would say this of course, because I am one of the authors). However, I suspect that even the most hardened Cairngorm climber will also appreciate the Cicerone book for its different perspective and excellent diagrams and illustrations.

    Dave McGimpsey on the lower section of Cribbage (III) on Coire Garbhlach in Glen Feshie. The pair could not decide to where to belay, so ended up climbing the route unroped. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet made another visit to Glen Feshie yesterday (january 20):

    “With a good forecast before a very windy weekend, but rain moving in to the West, another trip to Coire Garbhlach felt right. A complex rib between the two gullies of Corkscrew and Moss Ghyll was the unfilled gap. After having such a hard time on an unfrozen Corkscrew, I was nervous about the turf despite friends assuring me the Cairngorms were well frozen.

    An easier walk-in and the sight of a cliff not deeply buried like last time didn’t convince me until I hit the first sod and it was good. So Dave McGimpsey and I set off soloing until we reached a steeper bit. But the turf was so good that we kept on going until we reached an easier middle section. Then Dave spotted a turf ledge which led across a steep wall overlooking the gully of Moss Ghyll (climbed in December), so I went looking for a steeper bit where we might rope up. And there was a steeper bit but we didn’t rope up, so we reached the top rather quicker than we’d planned. We’d been ribbing, or maybe that was Cribbage (Grade III).

    It seemed a bit early to go down, and we had carried a rope and a rack, so we decided to put them to some use by straightening out the Corkscrew. The gully at the top end of the crag is Grade I and made a useful descent. This time we did rope up although the turf was still excellent, and it felt nice with a rope despite only one runner in a long pitch (still IV,3). And we reached the top earlier than expected, but this time the legs said to go home.”

    Keith Ball enjoying The Crab Crawl (IV,4) - Tom Patey’s classic girdle traverse of the Creag Meagaidh cliffs. At 2400m in length, it is one of the longest climbs in the British Isles. (Photo Tim Neill)

    Collectors of Cold Climbs routes will be interested in the email I’ve just received from Tim Neill:

    “Keith Ball and I thought about Ben Alder for Monday just past too! It was such a nice day, but probably the best thing to do was something more traditional than trickier/modern. We had a great day on Meagaidh doing The Crab Crawl in the end! Don’t know if it’s a route that’s so much in vogue these days, but conditions were perfect, with great neve, bomber turf, and great ice where needed to cross the bits of the Post routes on the third part. We finished with half an hour of daylight to spare!”