Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in February, 2012

    Iain Small moving up towards the crux section of a new VII,8 on Lochnagar’s West Buttress. Rather perversely, the snowstorm was welcome as it kept the cliff attractively wintry and shielded it from the sun, which typically strips this part of the cliff from mid January onwards. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    West Buttress on Lochnagar sports a number of excellent winter routes, but apart from Black Spout Buttress and West Gully, they are relatively unfrequented. The climbs are long and feel rather committing, but more importantly, this aspect of the corrie faces south-east, and the upper sections of the routes are liable to strip in the sun. Climbing here is always a balance between daylight, recent snowfall and cloud cover.

    West Buttress was attractively white on the morning of Sunday February 19, so Iain Small and I decided to take the gamble that the high cloud would shield the cliff from the sun. After climbing a line to the right of the upper section of Isis with visiting Swedish climber Magnus Stromhall during the Winter Meet, I was aware that there was another line cutting to the left. The problem was how to start it, but on the lower tier, to the right of the initial groove-line of Isis is a well-defined corner cutting into the right edge of the buttress overlooking the entry grooves of Western Slant. This looked good, but it was defended by a very steep and blank-looking corner.

    As always, Iain was up for the challenge, but it soon became clear that even reaching the corner was going to entail some tough climbing. An old wire suggested that someone had tried this way before, but after a little hesitation Iain stepped up into a blank slabby groove and deftly made his way to the foot of the corner. Protection was difficult to arrange, but eventually Iain launched up the crux. With nothing for his feet on the marble-smooth side walls he had to make two consecutive one arm pull ups to surmount the corner and enter the groove above.

    From below it looked like Iain had cracked it, but it soon became clear from his body position that the footholds in the groove were non-existent. Iain was forced to make a long and careful sequence of tenuous moves, moving further and further away from his poor collection of runners a long way below. One tiny crampon slip and he was on for a potentially leg-breaking fall. I couldn’t bear to watch, but eventually Iain reached the sanctuary of good turf and we both breathed again.

    The following four pitches were sustained Grade VI, with good climbing up the square-cut gully of Isis and continuing up the fault and left facing corner above to the top. We finished just as it was getting dark and reached the car at 8pm, some fourteen hours after leaving it. It had been a long, and rather trying day!

    Bjorn-Ovin Bjornstad on the first ascent of Haste Not (VI,6) on Creag Meagaidh’s Post Face. Looking for a quick route to finish the day, the party initially thought they were climbing Post Haste (IV,4). (Photo Ben Tibbetts)

    On February 13, Ben Tibbetts was climbing on Meagaidh with Norwegian climber Bjorn-Ovin Bjornstad.

    “After a couple of good routes we wandered back down Easy Gully and fancied something easy to finish the day,” Ben told me. “The ice lines high up the gully looked great, and fairly amenable. I checked the guidebook and figured the prominent line must be Post Haste without looking or thinking too hard. It looks in the end that we did a line about 40m to the right of Post Haste, which was truly excellent, climbing, but much harder than expected. It was about 120m in all, with the first pitch 40m of stiff 5. The second pitch was 30m, and I turned the steepest section on the right as it was bulging, but was still a very sustained pitch. The last pitch eased a little and Bjornovin was forced to exit right under an overhanging rock prow to avoid a vertical snow exit. All in all really superb climbing and very sustained…. I have no doubt it has been climbed before as it is so obvious, but do you have an record of it?”

    I thought at first that Ben and Bjorn had climbed The Lost Post (VI,5), a route first climbed by Kev Neal and Ian Rudkin in February 2003, but although it looks like they finished at a similar point, Ben and Bjorn started further right and took in steeper climbing lower down. Feel free to email me if you have an alternative idea!

    All go in Coire an Lochain during the BMC Winter Meet in January. Will Sim leads Nocando Crack (VII,8) and Urban Novak from Slovenia styles up The Vicar (VII,8). (Photo Dave Almond)

    Simon Gee and Justin Tracey from Reeltime Adventure have made an excellent video of last month’s BMC International Winter Meet.

    “Hopefully catches a bit of the spirit of the event without getting bogged down on any one route or party,” Simon told me.

    I think they have one an excellent job in capturing the nature of the meet. I have been fortunate enough to attend many of the winter meets and I felt this year’s was the best one ever. The friendly atmosphere created by Nick Colton and Becky McGovern from the BMC is very inclusive, and although some very impressive climbs were done, all standards were catered for the event was not at all elitist.

    The winter meets run every two years or so, and if you are an enthusiastic winter climber and know your way around the Scottish mountains, I would recommend participating. It is a great opportunity to meet other climbers, both from abroad and the UK, and to showcase our unique style of climbing.

    The Summit Buttress of Beinn Fhada in Glen Coe showing the lines of The Rhyme (red) and Last Orders (blue). James Roddie made first ascents of these two well defined Grade II/III mixed routes on February 19. (Photo James Roddie)

    Over the last month James Roddie has made a few solo trips to the unfrequented West face of Beinn Fhada in Glen Coe.

    “On February 3 I explored the North-East top of the West face, and found an unrecorded rib about the same length as Micro Rib in Coire nan Lochan,” James told me. “Continuing the insect-based theme of route names on the North-East top, The Gnat (III) seemed appropriate. After downclimbing a snow-gully I moved over to the Summit Buttress, and the crest that forms the Western flank of The Ramp gave a pleasant turfy Grade II that I called The Rampart.

    Far more fruitful however was my trip to the Summit Buttress on February 19. A few weeks back on Bidean nam Bian I’d seen through my binoculars a pair of narrow buttresses on the right hand side of the Summit Buttress. They definitely weren’t recorded but I decided to go and see if they were worthwhile.

    Identifying features from below is quite a challenge on West face, and it was definitely the case with these two buttresses. But after some exploring I managed to find them, and from below they revealed their true nature – far more distinct and more worthy of attention than they appeared from neighbouring summits.

    I chose the right hand buttress first. The route started with a short, steep wall and an awkward narrow corner. After this easier turfy ledges moved up to a second wall that I climbed via a small chimney on the right hand side, though the entire wall looked inviting and of similar difficulty at Grade III. Easier ground led to the ridge crest. I called this right-hand buttress The Rhyme (II/III).

    After descending a gully I climbed the steeper left-hand buttress. Similar to The Rhyme, an initial steep wall was followed by turfy ledges – though on the first wall on this route I had a bit of a fright when my left axe ripped out from behind a small chockstone during an awkward move. The crux on this second route was very enjoyable – I climbed a slanting crack up a steep rock wall with quality hooks, and this delivered me to the easier ground above. This steeper route was of slightly higher quality to the first, and I called it Last Orders (II/III).”

    Andy Nisbet making the crucial traverse on blobs of turf during the first ascent of Haggis Raclette (IV,3) on An Tealleach. “Sandy must have been hungry as he had already planned a haggis raclette for the evening,” Andy explained. “Although he never did make it, the idea survived in the route name!” (Photo Sandy Allan)

    “The warmer weather had arrived, though not as warm as at present,” Andy Nisbet writes. “I was trying to think of somewhere to go when a post appeared on UKC asking about conditions on An Teallach. Sure enough, someone posted a picture taken the previous day and I couldn’t help noticing ice on a line on Gobhlach Buttress, which I’d tried to solo in 2010. Then I’d backed off when the ice thinned and I reached the point of no return. In fact, I escaped into and climbed Gobhlach Ramp instead. But the new line was still iced despite the thaw and a couple of partners should tip the scales.

    When Sandy Allan, John Lyall and I arrived at what is one of An Teallach’s lowest buttresses on February 6, the snow level had risen above its base but we didn’t think there would be complaints when the route was on ice. An icy ramp led up to the base of the crucial ice pitch. Again the ice thinned, but I think this is normal because the water source drips on to the slab rather than flowing from its top. This time, however, I could risk a traverse right on to some blobs of turf. One of these provided a hopeful bulldog (hopeless would be more accurate) but other than that, the ice was too thin for screws but fine for climbing on a slab. Beyond this Sandy and John led a turfy pitch each before we soloed easily up to the top to give the 300m-long Haggis Raclette (IV,3).

    Descending the nearby Central Gully, the buttress between it and our route looked attractive and about Grade III, although no one had the energy to try it. A couple of week’s later Jonathan Preston and I were about to start a week’s work on Monday. The forecast was great for the Sunday (February 19) but awful after that. So we persuaded ourselves that we wouldn’t be too tired if we did an easy route, and the buttress came to mind. Driving past the Fannaichs, everything was very white and we were worried about deep snow on the walk-in and on the descent. Despite snow down to sea level, it was never deep and even on the crag it looked good. A wade up to the start in knee deep graupel was slightly worrying but once on the buttress, all went well and the steepest tier even had a turfy chimney which made the route only Grade II. It would have been nice if it had been slightly harder to justify carrying in a rope and rack, but it was a lovely day.”

    The line of Feathered Friend (V,5), a new two-pitch direct start to Crow Road on Bellevue Buttress on Creag Meagaidh. Recent remains (blood included) of a bird on the first pitch was the reason for the route name! (Photo Ken Applegate)

    On February 3, Ken Applegate was working for Abacus Mountain Guides and had a good day out with Vic Wallace on Creag Meagaidh.

    “Our initial plan was to climb Eastern Corner (III) and then traverse rightwards to continue up Ritchie’s Gully (IV,4),” Ken told me. “However on reaching the base of Eastern Corner we came across a team of three who were just about to start up it. Not wanting to follow a team up a corner due to the high likelihood of falling ice, never mind the ever pressing issue of time, I decided to head round to the left of Bellevue Buttress, to the base of an icy groove that I had spied on the walk-in. From a distance, it was clear that the line was complete, and looked to be at about upper-end Grade IV/Grade V, so perfect for our day’s objectives.

    On arriving at the base of the route, the compelling line looked to be in good condition, so I set off up the first pitch, up steep snow-ice. The snow-ice was generally good, taking a few screws in reasonable ice, and soon I found myself wedged in a small cave, 30m up at the first belay, a convenient wind scoop, capped by a huge block. Good water ice in the back of the cave allowed for a solid, if slightly cramped, ice belay.  From this point, a couple of steep moves left (crux) on good axe placements above the steepening, enabled steady progress out of the cave and with plumb vertical ice dropping away beneath, a healthy dose of exposure was ever present (good screws in solid blue ice protect the moves out left). Moments later, I gained easier angled snow-ice above, before a further 15m of climbing gained belay number two, a good rock belay, 20m left of a huge rock pinnacle.

    Pitch three continued directly up a further 50m of sustained Grade IV snow-ice, before reaching another ice belay on the right, in the back of an open cave, again formed by a wind scoop, capped by a couple of large blocks. A steeper section, again of about Grade IV led up and left initially, before gaining the easier angled snow slope above, after which a further 60m gained the plateau.”

    It turned out that Ken and Vic had climbed a two-pitch direct start to Crow Road (V,5), an icy mixed route that Ian Parnell and I ascended in November 2004. It is probably better as a pure ice route, and as Ken explained it was “all in all, an adventurous day out, with some great climbing (possibly two stars) up quite a striking line.”

    Roger Everett moving up into the hidden snow bay on the first ascent of Goulotte Cachee (IV,4) on the east side of Cairn Gorm. The route follows a streambed in summer that is likely to ice regularly. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Thaws followed by a re-freeze are a great time to enjoy easier mountaineering routes. I had been waiting for a chance to climb a new line on Coire na Spreidhe on the east side of Cairn Gorm, and last Sunday (February 12) was the ideal opportunity. Approaching rarely climbed crags with no idea about conditions other than gut feel is always a bit of a risk, but I had a hunch that the crucial ice pitch would be frozen as it is a stream in summer. Roger Everett was keen to take a look too, and we were treated to a magnificently clear morning that felt more like April than mid February.

    After soloing the first couple of Grade II pitches on low angled ice we reached a snow bay and Roger led the crucial ice pitch. After that we unroped for the rest of the 300m-long route, so we were on the plateau by 1.30pm. There was time to head off to Creagan Cha-no where the shadowed north-east facing Arch Wall was still white and frosty from light snowfall the night before. A croaking Ptarmigan at the foot of our route (the right rib of the Finger and Thumbs Gully) provided the name for our climb (Ptamigan Rib – IV,5) which followed a good line but took in some existing climbing on Mac’s Crack and the steep section of Fingers and Thumbs itself. By the time we had reached the plateau the cloud had rolled in which only made us appreciate the beautiful morning even more!

    Paul Cunningham on the first ascent of Wildcat Flap (V,6) on the Upper Rake, on Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, Skye. This was one of three new routes climbed on the Skye Winter Meet that was organised by local guide and Cuillin guidebook author, Mike Lates. (Photo Brendan Croft)

    Mike Lates organised a very successful winter climbing meet on Skye from February 3-6. Despite a thaw that stopped all play on the Saturday, good icy conditions were found on three out of four days.

    On February 3, Paul Cunningham and Brendan Croft climbed Wildcat Flap (V,6) a new route on the Upper Rake, on Sgurr a’Mhadaidh. “We took a sustained line next to the summer chimney of Fox Trap,” Paul told me. “We followed it for a pitch, before branching out onto the right-hand wall. The second pitch started out bold, delicate and technical, and ended with a well-placed and well-protected crux. We called it Wildcat Flap after the discovery of paw prints in the coire, leading all the way up the upper rake and stopping mysteriously at the foot of our climb. As we walked up, following the prints, we had declared that it must be a wildcat, but turned out it was probably a fox!”

    The other two new routes fell to Mike Lates and Susan Jensen. On February 3 they climbed High Visibility (VI,6), a ‘continuous line’ on the buttress right of Gully E on Sgurr Thearlaich, and they returned to the same cliff after the thaw two days later to make a direct ascent of Gully E at Grade III. More details can be found on Mike Lates’ blog.

    Sron na Lairige

    Sandy Allan on the final rib of Kowloon (IV,4) during the first ascent. This route lies on the east-facing cliffs of Sron na Lairige above the Lairig Ghru which have only seen slow development in recent years despite reasonable access from the ski area. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Sron na Lairige, on the Braeriach side of the Lairig Ghru, is a cliff largely visited by locals when an east facing cliff with middle grade routes is wanted,” Andy Nisbet writes. “The classic is Lairig Ridge, originally climbed in summer by Bill Brooker in 1950 and in winter by Greg Strange and Bob Ross in 1985. Without the urgency of competition, new routes have gradually worked rightwards and this year the right end of the cliff has seen some action.

    The rightmost route was a buttress with its crest climbed by Polar Bear (IV,4). Seeing icy conditions from Lurchers Crag, but actually a day too late as it had started thawing (January 8), Sandy Allan and I climbed the corner between this buttress and an unclimbed one to the right. A picture on his blog caused a stir on UKC as it showed little snow but the base of the corner was hidden on the picture and climbed on ice at IV,4 – Goth’s Corner. The route names here have a gruesome theme, or should that be Ghru-some?

    On a rather wild day at the end of the month (January 30), Sandy Allan, Dave McGimpsey and I went in to explore the buttress right of Goths’ Corner. A photo from across the valley showed a turfy corner, and it was certainly cold and snowy enough. This right-facing corner turned out to be easier than expected at Grade III (named Blood Brothers), so there was time to try a mean-looking roofed corner to the right. A thinly iced groove led to the roof which turned out to be an imposter, where a step left gained good turf. A final rib led to easy ground and the finish of Kowloon (IV,4). We had walked in with John Lyall and clients who amicably avoided competition by climbing two new routes on the next buttress right. And they were keen enough to climb a third the next day, but that’s John’s story!”

    The line of South Face Direct (I/II) on the Forcan Ridge. The prominent gully to the right of Sgurr na Forcan’s southern spur leads directly to the summit ridge. (Photo Michael Ramage)

    On February 7 Duncan Robb and Michael Ramage had a good find in Glen Shiel, when they climbed a previously unrecorded 120m-long gully on the south side of the Forcan Ridge on The Saddle.

    “It’s a great little route in a popular location’” Duncan told me. “We only climbed it by chance on the day as it looked in good nick from the bottom. It provided a straightforward route with an airy top out on the ridge to the east of the summit.”