Is It Cheating to Climb with Three Axes?

The line of Navigator (VI,6) on Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin. This very secluded cliff can only be seen from the West Highland Railway or from the summit ridge of Meall Garbh (another rarely visited winter venue). (Archive Photo Andy Nisbet)

Andy Nisbet, Steve Perry and Dan Bailey added an excellent new route to Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin in the Central Highlands on February 11. Andy takes up the story:

“Is it cheating to climb with three axes? So Steve Perry asked in the middle of the crux section. The jury of Dan Bailey and myself on the ledge below decided it wasn’t. It could only be a question from the leashless era, as Steve had fallen some 10m when a large block pulled and he ended up with no axes. Fortunately one of them landed up beside us but the other was well up the pitch. Having lowered a loop of rope for the lower one, and then again to borrow mine, the third was retrieved and the pitch successfully climbed, sustained turfy grooves that could only be linked with a bit of guile.

Actually we’d done well to be there at all, having rather missed the inversion weather and replacing it with whiteout. We were on Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin at a crag you can only see from the railway, hence its neglect until Mike Geddes soloed an unknown route there in an unknown year, and I heard about it posthumously. I had climbed there in 2000 and several times in 2013 but have never heard of anyone else visiting the cliff. The approach to the cliff is from above at a break in the cornice where the ridge to its summit changes direction. Fortunately I realised that we had changed direction and must have passed the break, which is about 50m long.

Next challenge was to find the cliff, and then the route – the descent was diagonal across steep snow. Now it was completely white and we edged our way down, feeling for each step in case of losing balance; it would have been a terminal slide on hard snow. After a while, Dan thought he spotted some a dark shape ahead; was it the cliff? It turned out it was, but where on a big cliff. Again fortunately, the snow conditions were very similar to those in a photo I’d brought with me, so we soon picked out that we were at three rocks shown in my photo. And it wasn’t difficult to find the start of the route, an iced groove.

After a suggestion to solo it was turned down by the others, I felt very happy with that decision as I led it, reaching the second pitch of my projected line. Unfortunately the small gap in the ice on my photo turned out to be a 6 foot roof but there was a good looking line to its left, albeit with a bulging start. Steve took over and despite a commentary of suggestions from the belayers as to how to climb it, managed to work out a sequence, which the seconders didn’t use. Higher up, it was much steeper than it looked (when isn’t it), but he cracked it despite the airtime.

The third pitch turned out to be much easier and very icy (I’m good at planning these things) and left Steve with an innocent looking chimney-crack. It very much wasn’t easy but Steve led it with some precarious bridging and occasional watch me comments while I seconded it using a more old fashioned method. As on previous routes, our line felt pretty substantial and we gave it 150m VI,6, provisionally named Navigator. The return to the car even includes the Munro and the excellent walking conditions saved some torch battery life.”

About Simon Richardson

Simon Richardson is a passionate Scottish winter climber
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