Smear Fear

The Eagle Buttress headwall on Lochnagar. Where Eagles Dare (VII,8) takes the central line of cracks up the middle of the headwall. Eagle-Eye (VII,6 and partially hidden) climbs the grooves defining the headwall’s left side and State of Independence (VII,8) takes the right arête. Last Sunday’s addition follows the line of ice grooves running diagonally right below the headwall and takes the hanging ice smear leading to the iced slab above. (Photo Simon Richardson)

I’ve been watching the ice grow high up on the right side of Eagle Buttress for several weeks now. In summer, the right arête of the Where Eagles Dare headwall (climbed by State of Independence) is delimited in its right by a steep wet slab poised above an overhanging flared slot. In winter, with a good build up and freeze –the slabs drool ice down its vertical left wall.

Sunday March 6 seemed like a good opportunity to try the line and Iain Small was keen to give it a go. We climbed unroped the first three pitches of Eagle Buttress and then I led a long 80m pitch (we moved together) of technical 6 up icy ramps and steep grooves to below the ice smear. It looked very steep and alarmingly thin – the ice was no more than 3cm thick and it hung like a curtain detached from the wall and was only anchored at its top and on its right side.

Iain is the finest thin ice climber I know, and he managed to outwit this precarious sheet by backing and footing up the flared slot before reaching over a bulge to slightly thicker brittle ice. It was one-notch first-time placement terrain and a less delicate approach would have shattered the ice and collapsed the pitch. When I followed, the whole thing vibrated alarmingly and I was very grateful to lead up to the security of the exit gully that finished with bomber neve all the way to the cornice.

This type of route is difficult to grade. On the day, Iain’s bold lead was technical 7 so an overall VII,7 seems right, but with thicker ice it could easily drop a grade to VI,6. The question is, how often does the smear form like this? With routes like Parallel Gully B in condition, ice routes are in good shape at the moment on Lochnagar, so it may never get much better. I’ll keep watching and time will tell!

About Simon Richardson

Simon Richardson is a passionate Scottish winter climber
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