Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in March, 2012

    Skye Sea-Cliffs & Outcrops, authored by Mark Hudson, has recently been published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Although this is primarily a rock climbing guide, it is the only guidebook to describe the recently developed winter climbing on The Storr and Coire Scamadal. The cover photo shows Mike Hutton’s photo of Man of Straw (VS 4c) on Neist Point. (Reproduced with permission of the Scottish Mountaineering Club)

    Hard on the heels of Skye The Cuillin, the SMC have recently published a new guidebook to the outcrops and sea cliffs of Skye. Authored by Mark Hudson, this is a carefully written and beautifully illustrated book that opens up a myriad of climbing opportunities on this fascinating island. Like many SMC guidebooks this is a labour of love and Mark’s enthusiasm for the island, and its huge variety of climbing, jumps off every page.

    Although mainly a rock climbing guide, a review of this book does have a place on this blog as it includes descriptions of the winter climbing in Coire Scamadal. This recently developed venue is considered by several well-travelled ice warriors to be the finest ice climbing venue in Scotland. The carefully researched History section explains that Vertigo Gully (VI,7) was the given its technical grade by the first ascensionists (Martin Welch and Stewart Anderson) because “it was harder than any Scottish [ice] route or any WI,6 on the continent that the team had climbed. It makes this the hardest pure ice in Britain but will clearly vary with conditions.” Is this route set to be the modern equivalent if West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe, long thought to be the hardest gully climb in the land?

    Naturally the guidebook details well-known rock venues such as Kilt Rock and Elgol, but also included are the excellent-looking mountain dolerite cliffs of Carn Liath in Trotternish, which have been developed over the years by Mark Hudson and Roger Brown. I was particularly struck by the number of superb looking climbs on the sea cliffs at Neist. Like many climbers I’d visited the area years ago, and climbed the classic Supercharger on Stallion’s head, but not realised that Colin Moody and friends had been busy opening up hundreds of excellent looking routes on peerless looking rock on the adjacent cliffs.

    Skye sports a complex and rugged coastline with several dozen sea stacks. This is the first book that gives these a comprehensive treatment, and will open up the challenges of these spectacular formations to a wider audience. Mark has even included a tick list of stacks at the back of the book, and I was tickled to see that Stac an Tuill, which Mark Robson and I reached with an epic 800m swim, is described as one of the most inaccessible stacks in Scotland and “it would be quite unsporting to use a boat.” Who needs winter when you can continue ‘mountaineering’ through the summer with objectives like these!

    Andy Huntington leading the second (crux) pitch of The Curse of the Hobgoblin (V,7) on Sgurr Thearlaich on Skye. The route starts just right of E Gully and climbs the obvious steep groove before stepping right to a steep blind crack. (Photo Mike Lates)

    Andy Huntington, Mike Lates and Robin Clothier snatched a good new route in the Cuillin on Sunday (March 4). Andy takes up the story:

    “I was over at Elgol with Robin on Saturday and we did a route before the tide came in and the rollers threatened take Robin off the belay. We were generally bemoaning the end of winter and trying to not get too depressed. As usual Robin was talking about the Ben and ‘how we could be climbing Hobgoblin [on Number Three Gully Buttress] today’.

    Early next morning Mike pokes his head out the door and sniffs the air. It’s coldish and there’s a dusting on the tops. A flurry of activity and we’re chucking the tools into the car and heading for Glen Brittle, Sgurr Thearlaich and the Great Stone Shoot – Mike’s current favourite crag.

    The day and night before was squally rain showers and then a snap-freeze overnight down to 550m.  That’s all this crag needs to come into nick, and on Sunday it was fantastic! It’s dolerite with very little turf to freeze and the rock gives great fun mixed climbing.

    Unfortunately Robin was snoozing under the route and got hit on the leg by the only unfrozen block that fell from the crag -  The Curse of the Hobgoblin.”

    The Pineapple Cliff on Beinn Eighe (in summer conditions) with the line of Jammy Dodger (III,5) marked. The gully is much deeper than it appears from below and the grade could be lower with a good build-up. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet had an exciting adventure in Torridon today (March 5):

    “You just never know how jammy you might be until the last moment. Things weren’t looking good. I’d postponed my client’s visit because of the lack of snow, then my replacement partner Dave had decided to buy a house on the best day of the week. So I’d been racking my brains for a good solo venue and with the rainfall radar suggesting there had been a fair bit of snow in the north-west, I decided to go to the Pineapple Cliff on Beinn Eighe to try a gully line I spotted a few years ago. The guidebook photo showed some short steep chimneys so I thought I ought to take 25m of rope and a half rack.

    But arrival in Torridon was worrying; there really didn’t seem to be much snow. I was asked by some folk in the car park whether the big Grade I gullies on Liathach were complete and I had to admit they weren’t. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by snow conditions on Beinn Eighe before, even when the hillside facing the car has been completely black as it was today. And I was rather committed. So I set off in warm sunshine just to have a look.

    It was better in Coire Mhic Fhearchair but not fully winter and as I set off down towards the Pineapple Cliff, still in warm sunshine, even the rock was dry. Still, at least I could make a summer ascent of the gully. At least the cliff was out of the sun but the rock walls were bare. It was a bit of a surprise to find a large patch of neve under my gully, probably the largest patch on the whole of Beinn Eighe and still frozen in the shade. So crampons on and up into the gully. I was really amazed how deep it was, and as it snaked into the steep cliff the deeper it got, always with a base of neve. As I climbed up, I remembered an old report about the last unclimbed easy gully in Scotland and thought smugly how wrong it had been (this was it, maybe?). But then I felt a bit disappointed that it was long way to come for a Grade I, especially bringing a rope.

    But you just never know, and at the last turn the gully suddenly ended in a deep cave enclosed by smooth walls and topped by a big roof with icicle stalactites. It suddenly made sense. I remember abseiling into a deep gully with Brian Davison after we’d been avalanched many years ago after making the first winter ascent of Sidestep. Fortunately we didn’t like the snow conditions and had kept the rope on while Brian set off up from the top of the cliff towards the summit above. Soon the slope avalanched and Brian was swept back over the cliff. I took some force too but my single nut belay held, at least partly because the rope caught in a crack. About three metres of rope sheath was torn off and Brian sprained his ankle. It was also dark by this time and the weather was deteriorating. The slope above was several hundred metres of high angle windslab, so we took the only option of abseiling back down the cliff to a very long walk out. One abseil into a hopeful gully saved us, before Brian had to limp for several hours and I had to carry both rucksacks up over the ridge of Beinn Eighe and back to the car. There was so much snow by this time that we couldn’t even find the path and ended up a few hundred metres down the valley from the car park.

    It had puzzled me for years where this gully was, and as time went on, I just assumed the excitement had exaggerated its depth. Now I’d found it again and it looked like it was having the last laugh. I really had no idea how I was going to finish and a retreat with the long walk loomed. But there had to be a way; I did have a rope and some gear, even a couple of pegs, which are good for back-rope belays as they take an upward pull. There was a hopeful groove on the left of the cave, but when I climbed into the cave, it took an unfortunate resemblance to the crux groove of Sassenach. A ledge on the right wall did look more hopeful but I wasn’t sure how I would get on to it, whether I could stand in balance on it and what there was to pull out on to a bigger ledge above. The rock in the cave was rotten but after about ten minutes I did manage to get a reasonable peg where its wall met the roof and a slightly hollow nut below.

    I admit I was thinking more of aiding out but I did realise that my belay was actually higher than the ledge and wondered if I could tension on to it. As I planned this manoeuvre, I found out that I could just bridge the gully enough to get a leg on to the ledge. But I was still uncomfortably stretched across the gully and a hopeful crack was just out of reach. After an enforced retreat to give my legs a rest, I found a better position and could just reach the good crack. Two nuts in this meant I now had a rope above me in two directions, so there was no excuse for not making a simple step despite the commitment. As soon as I made the step, everything fell into place. The turf-topped crack had an embedded chockstone so a big pull was possible and the turf above was semi-frozen, just enough to take my axes.

    I don’t think it was that hard, more my nerves, and it would probably bank out to Grade II. So Grade III,5 and I think I was a jammy dodger today. After that hour for 10ft, it was a stroll back up into the sun and the thought that actually I’d had a good day and bagged a rather good “Internet Route” – by definition a route which is too obscure and far from the road to ever make it into overcrowded future guidebooks, but would sit on the pages of the Internet in case anyone was ever inspired.”

    The Mummy

    Pete Macpherson moving up towards the overlap and crux ramp of The Mummy (VIII,8), a winter version of Mullahmaloumouktou on Lochnagar. “Pete drew the short straw and was soon absorbed in some rather intricate, wobbly and quite pokey climbing to mantel into the right-trending ramp, which led past a token Pecker and shaky peg to a committing mantel onto a little pedestal at its top,” Guy wrote later on his blog. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Some late news – on January 23 Guy Robertson and Pete Macpherson made the first ascent of The Mummy (VIII,8) on The Cathedral on the Southern Sector of Lochnagar.

    The Mummy is a winter version of Mullahmaloumouktou, a summer E2 first climbed by Dore Green and myself in July 1999. The route follows the zigzag ramps on the mummy-shaped tower at the left end of the crag, and when climbing it in summer I was aware that it would make a good winter climb. I returned the following February with Chris Cartwright (we were on good form and had made the first winter ascent of The Crack on Ben Nevis two weeks before) but after I had pulled over the overlap on the first pitch I was unable to make any further progress. The ramp was covered in a uniform layer of powder and I couldn’t find any placements or cracks for protection. Reversing the overlap was not an option, and teetering on tiny holds it was only a matter of time before I fell off.

    When I eventually fell I was surprised how long it took before the rope came tight, and I came to a stop just above the belay. Three runners had pulled and I was held by a Hex 9. Fortunately I was unhurt (although my back felt jarred for several days afterwards) and we scurried off right and climbed Sepulchre (V,6), an excellent Greg Strange-Brian Findlay addition from 1987.

    The fall made me reassess my approach to winter climbing as I’d taken a long fall the previous season from Red Guard on Carn Etchachan when an axe failed. Once again, several pieces of gear ripped and I fell a long way and was lucky to escape with just a few bruises. These are the only two (significant) winter falls I’ve ever taken and I’ve been particularly careful ever since. The disturbing lesson from my two experiences was that even apparently good protection can pull if the cracks are at all icy.

    Guy and Pete had no problem, of course, on their ascent of The Mummy, although I was a little relieved to hear Guy describe the ramp pitch that I fell off as the crux of the route and rather spicy!