Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts published in November, 2012

    A distant shot of Maol Chean-dearg in the Northern Highlands showing the summit crag on the top left skyline. (Archive Photo Andy Nisbet)

    With attention primarily focused on Ben Nevis and the Northern Cairngorms at the moment, it is refreshing to have news of a new route in the Northern Highlands by Andy Nisbet, Jonathan Preston and Pat Ingram on November 28. Andy takes up the story:

    “After a day wading up The Message with insulated semi-frozen turf, I thought we ought to try somewhere with less snow but still high and exposed to the cold wind. The summit buttress of Maol Chean-dearg came to mind. You can approach from either Torridon or Glen Carron but we chose the latter as being more familiar. Pat Ingram, Jonathan Preston and I drove over to find a breeze and showers instead of the perfect day we hoped. We took 3.5 hours to reach the summit and then descended Hidden Gully to reach the crag. I soloed up a new Severe on the lower quartzite cliff a couple of summers ago and finished up the Moderate rib right of Hidden Gully so I could look at the cliff. I spotted a line of weakness, which I thought would freeze quickly, with the easier rib as an alternative if conditions were poor. I also knew that Hidden Gully was more like an easy Grade I than a II so would be fine as a descent.

    Leaving my cag at home did rather throw me on a cold windy day so I also left my camera on the top, hence the lack of action shots. Once below the line, it did look rather steep, well plastered and the turf was only frozen where exposed (fortunately that was the hard bits), but we set off anyway and it turned out to be easier than I expected. Pat led the hard bit on the third pitch and we called it Bald Eagle (IV,4) – the hill being bald head shaped in the Gaelic. Jonathan and I nipped down at the end to climb the rib, which gave a pleasant Grade II.”

    Looking across to Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower on Ben Nevis. This superb feature contains some of the finest Grade VI mixed climbing on the mountain. Stringfellow (VI,6) takes a zigzag line up the buttress, whilst Smooth Operator (VI,7) follows a line closer to the crest. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    The current spell of cold and snowy weather has resulted in some excellent ascents in Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. This corrie is ideally suited to early season mixed with routes mainly dependent on hooks and torques rather than frozen turf.

    Many of the modern classics have had ascents such as Sioux Wall and Gargoyle Wall on Number Three Gully Buttress, Darth Vader and Lost the Place on Creag Coire na Ciste and Slab Climb and Sidewinder on South Trident Buttress. Over on Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower, Smooth Operator also had an early repeat.

    The finest ascent of the week so far took place in Monday November 26 when Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell made the third ascent of The Knuckleduster (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress. Greg repeated this route last season with Will Sim (adding a more direct finish), but this time he returned with Guy to take a more direct (and natural) winter line on the summer crux pitch.

    Their ascent was particularly remarkable as they only started climbing at 11.30am after being stymied by unstable snow conditions approaching a line in Observatory Gully. It is a significant journey from here to the foot of N3GB, especially in deep snow, and their success was underpinned by resolute determination coupled with swift and efficient climbing. Whatever the grade of course, both of these qualities are key requisites for successful Scottish winter climbing!

    Sandy Simpson moving past ‘the Anvil’ on the first ascent of Anvil Corner (VI,6) on Creagan Cha-no in November 2010. (Archive Photo Simon Richardson)

    The recent snow and cooler temperatures are beginning to bring the crags in the Northern Cairngorms into winter condition. Activity is picking up in the Northern Corries where routes that do not rely on frozen turf such as Honeypot, Pot of Gold, The Message and Pygmy Ridge have received ascents.

    I’ve just been contacted by Gary Gray who visited Creagan Cha-no today (November 27) and made an ascent of Anvil Corner (VI,6) with Dafydd Morris. His enthusiastic email gives a flavour of the current conditions:

    “It was not a great day for climbing with poor visibility and a fair bit of wind, but fortunately we were protected by the route from the worst of it. The turf was not [completely] frozen, but good enough when it mattered. Both pitches were excellent and sustained, so good value for such a short route. The route wasn’t plastered, unlike the crag in general, so gear was plentiful but awkward to place at times. A great route and worthy of a couple of stars at least!”

    Graham Dudley on the first pitch of Birthday Treat (IV,4) on Braeriach during the first ascent on November 18. This three-pitch route lies in Coire Ruadh on the north side of the mountain and sports a fine third pitch through the upper headwall. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    It’s been a testing couple of weeks for winter climbers with a succession of westerly weather systems sweeping across the country. This has brought rapidly fluctuating temperatures with freezing levels rising well above the highest tops. It has also been wintry at times, but the snow has often fallen on unfrozen ground resulting in poor climbing conditions. As a result there has been limited winter climbing on offer, and several folk have devoted their energy to honing their fitness and technical skills at Newtyle and other dry tool venues.

    Winter climbing has not been a total write-off however, and the last two weekends have coincided with snowfall followed by brief ridges of high pressure that have cooled things down a little. The trick to climbing in conditions like these is to pick a cliff that is high and exposed to the prevailing wind but has not been buried by too much by snow.

    Although a few routes have been climbed in the Northern Corries, they have been sheltered from the prevailing westerlies by the broad mass of the Cairngorms and the lean conditions have not been representative of the higher corries in the massif. Coire Ruadh on Braeriach for example, has provided some good climbing on frozen turf, neve, ice and snow over the last two weekends.

    Other climbers have chosen to climb on the West, which has had more snow, but warmer temperatures. Enterprising ascents of note (for the conditions) include North-East Buttress on the Ben, Kid Gloves in the Mamores and Moonshadow on Stob Coire nan Lochan.

    All is now set to change with snowfall and cold winds sweeping in from the north. At long last, it looks like the winter proper is about to start!

    Braeriach Again

    Roger Everett on a new Grade III on Braeriach. Conditions at 1100m in the Cairngorms were excellent on Sunday November 11 with well-frozen turf, hoared up rock and good neve. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    After last week’s thaw, most folk were fairly pessimistic about winter climbing this weekend, but with temperatures dropping during Saturday, there was clearly good winter climbing to be had. There were mixed views as to whether to east or west, but one thing was for sure, a high crag was important to ensure a refreeze. I was concerned that the west had thawed more than the east, so Roger Everett and I opted to visit Coire an Lochain on Braeriach on Sunday Nov 11.

    The crag up and left on the corrie rim gave an excellent new Grade III on neve, well frozen turf and hoar-encrusted rocks. We descended back around to the west side of the corrie and climbed a short, but good IV,4 on Blade Buttress, the sharp feature dividing Y-Gully in two.

    Those venturing further west mainly concentrated on the Ben with ascents of North-East Buttress, Castle Ridge and Glover’s Chimney. The finest ascent of the weekend that has come to light so far, is an early repeat of Dr Noe (VI,6) on Ben Cruachan by Stuart MacFarlane and Gary Gray.

    Roger Webb on a new VI,6 in Coire an Lochain on Braeriach. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Catching upon some late news: It was a ‘busy’ morning in the tiny Glen Einich car park last Sunday morning (November 4) with four teams gearing up at 6am for the cycle into Braeriach. Colin Wells and Penny Clay were headed for Sphinx Ridge in Garbh Choire Mor but they were stymied by the large amounts of snow on the plateau. “We stomped over the shoulder to the corrie, totally gobsmacked by the volume of snow and having to make diversions avoiding the incipient windslab that had already built up, “Colin told me afterwards.

    “In the gloop we neared the corrie rim and realised that quite large cornices had formed already, so we headed for the spur and shelf on the Angel’s Peak side. Because of having to navigate blind and avoid slab, it had been more time-consuming than usual and was now probably too late in the day anyway to make an enjoyable ascent mostly in daylight. However, just as we grabbed a quick bite to eat before plunging down, the mist rose briefly to reveal – Sphinx Ridge completely buried in a Mr Whippy-style fondant covering from tip to toe, topped by unhelpful cornice. In fact, just about every route was pretty much artexed. It was clear that any climbing was going to involve massive amounts of energetic digging and not be very secure at all, so we decided to cut our losses and bail out…”

    Roger Webb and I had more luck in Coire an Lochain. This coire is disappointing from a technical winter climbing point of view, however there is one steep section of rock, which provided a sustained four-pitch VI,6 outing.

    I’m not sure where on Braeriach the next two teams were bound, although ascents of West Wall Route and Campion Gully in Coire Bhrochain were reported on UKC, although it is more normal to approach this coire from the Lairig Ghru side.

    Tsar Wars

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Tsar Wars (IV,5) on Sron na Lairige on Braeriach. The guillotine slab can be seen poised above. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet has had a busy start to his winter season with a number of well-known classics in Coire an t-Sneachda, but on Monday November 5 he visited Sron na Lairige with Jonathan Preston and Pat Ingram.

    “I was getting bored of Sneachda,” Andy told me, “so I persuaded Pat and Jonathan to take the turf gamble on Sron na Lairige in the Lairig Ghru. I’d often looked at the slabby left face of the buttress with the route Polar Bear up its crest. This always looked rather smooth and unhelpful so had been left as the last of the list of unclimbed lines. The start up lower grooves would have been easy but the turf was hopelessly soggy. Now it was double or quits, roping up to move into the middle of the face in the hope that crucial turf would be frozen. Still unsure, I searched around for as many runners as possible just in case. And of course it was, becoming increasingly frozen the steeper the ground became and just as it was needed.

    The crux was a small overlap with remarkable flakes over its top and suddenly the mood became confident. Jonathan led the next pitch over a guillotine slab perched above us. Both he and Pat were very careful but as last man I could pull up on it and stand on it. A final steep flakey section ended with Jonathan clutching a large flake and us telling him that whatever he did, not to let go of it. So he managed to put it back and that was all the difficulties over. Scrambling type ground then led to the plateau and an early finish. Grade IV,5 was a grade easier than we’d expected and the 7.30 start did seem a bit keen (so Pat pointed out; he had driven from Inverness for 7.30). It’s only a provisional name but Tsar Wars sounded funny.”

    Greg Boswell on the first ascent of the Candy Shop (VII,9) in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries. The route follows the steep crack and stepped niche to right of The Gathering, which lies on the pinnacle in the fork of Y-Gully. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    On Monday November 5, Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson climbed The Candy Shop (VII,9), a new two-pitch route taking the overhanging crack up the steep wall to the right of the crux pitch of The Gathering. “It was a pumpy little number, Greg told me, “with some awesome moves and worthwhile climbing.”

    A full account appears on Greg’s blog, where it sounds that a few cobwebs still need to be blown away to get into full winter gear. Greg took an unexpected fall at the start of the crux pitch when his foot blew off its placement. More drama followed higher up the pitch when one of Greg’s crampons fell off his boot and landed next door to Guy on the belay ledge.

    Rest assured that Mr Boswell will be firing on all cylinders soon. “I just can’t wait to get on some of the other lines we have in mind for this winter,” he enthused. “ It’s going to be a mental one!”

    A busy day in the Northern Corries. Andy Munro climbing Auricle (left) and Andy Inglis on Ventriloquist in Coire an Lochain. (Photo James Richardson)

    It was an excellent winter climbing weekend in the Cairngorms with teams active on many crags including Braeriach, Coire Sputan Dearg, Lochnagar and the Shelter Stone.

    The Northern Corries were especially popular with dozens of parties enjoying the early winter sunshine. Conditions were particularly good for so early in the season with frozen turf and generally dry cracks all coated with a healthy layer of new snow and hoar frost on the steep sections.

    James Richardson sent me the above picture with tongue in cheek comment – “Shows typical winter solitude on No. 1 Buttress in Coire an Lochain.” James was climbing Auricle with Andy Munro, and Andy Inglis was partnered by Helen Rennard on Ventriloquist. “James and Andy were next to us all the way up,” Helen explained. “It was very sociable. We shouted ‘Andy’ and they both turned around for the photo!”

    Guy Steven on the first ascent of Deliverance (VII,7) on the Stone Shoot Face of Sgurr Thearlaich on Skye. This south-east-facing cliff has a number of superb winter climbs that come into condition quickly due to their altitude of 800m. (Photo Mike Lates)

    Guy Steven and Mike Lates made a superb addition to the Stone Shoot Face of Sgurr Thearlaich on Skye on Sunday November 4, with the first ascent of Deliverance (VII,7). After seeing that there was a good blanket of snow on most peaks, Guy got in touch with Mike Lates to see how things were shaping up on Skye. Mike suggested it would be worth me coming across for the weekend and the pair ended up in the Great Stone Shoot below Sgurr Alasdair. They had two days, so on the first day they climbed CD Buttress (V,6), and then eyed up a striking unclimbed corner-line before stashing the gear for the following day.

    “So we walked back in and found ourselves standing below the steep corner,” Guy explained. “The first pitch consisted of steep bulges with some good torquing required and some brisk foot work followed by a bulge with next to no footholds – sustained and really fun climbing. The second pitch consisted of some awkward moves out of the alcove and over some blocks to an easier finish, which was also really good fun. We graded the route VII,7 and gave it two stars. It would be a super pitch if you linked both sections together!”

    Mike had been studying this line all summer wondering what it would be like as a winter climb. “Maybe I’ll regret giving this route to Guy if I work hard on the arms and technique this winter,” he told me. “But the truth is that it was desperate and I was well chuffed to get up it on a very tight rope!”