The British climbing community is reeling from news of the deaths of Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry on Ben Hope on February 5. All climbing accidents are tragic, but this one cuts deep to the core of who we are and what we do. Andy Nisbet was the undisputed figurehead for Scottish winter climbing and his sudden passing is almost impossible to comprehend.
This is a difficult piece for me to write. My mind is a mixture of whirling thoughts and emotions and I’m still coming to terms with the immense contribution that Andy made to our sport. He impacted us all, as a pioneer, documenter and faithful friend. It is no exaggeration to say, that without Andy Nisbet, Scottish winter climbing would not have the breadth, vibrance, variety and energy that it has today.
Let me start with my own personal journey. Despite being based in the South of England I became captivated by Scottish winter climbing when I was a student. Our university Club booked the CIC Hut for a week each Easter holiday and I’d been fortunate enough to climb a few of the Grade V classics on the Ben. Rather kindly, the SMC sent us a copy of their Journal, and I can remember very clearly the excitement of pulling the distinctive sky blue-covered volume from its brown envelope one sunny day in the autumn of 1980.
The lead article was by Andy about the first winter ascent of The Link on The Black Pinnacle on Lochnagar with John Anderson. Andy’s writing captivated me – I thought I knew a little bit about Scottish winter climbing, but the intricacies of difficult mixed climbing on one the most challenging cliffs in the Cairngorms was like entering a different world. The technical difficulties were clear (The Link was one of Scotland’s first Grade VIIs), but above all, it was the adventure and pioneering spirit that shone through. I read and re-read that article, and resolved that one day I would climb The Link.
A succession of aborted trips made me realise that to learn the Scottish winter craft, I needed to live closer to the Highlands. This led to a deliberate choice of career that I knew would eventually lead me to Scotland. Ten years after reading Andy’s article, I moved to Aberdeen. Lochnagar was now my local cliff and six years later I climbed The Link with Chris Cartwright. It was the one of my happiest ever climbing days, but more significantly, Andy had set me on a course that was to define my life.
When a complete history of Scottish mountaineering is written, several names will stand head and shoulders above the rest. The great legendary figures of the past such as Raeburn, Marshall, Smith and Patey will be linked with one contemporary climber – Andy Nisbet. Andy’s winter record is without comparison – by the mid 1990s he had made first ascents of over a quarter of the 600 or so routes graded V or over, with a distinct bias towards the higher grades. In total, Andy is thought to have climbed over one thousand new Scottish winter routes. One has to look to the records of Fred Beckey in North America, or Patrick Gabarrou in the Alps to find climbers whose influence has been as long-lasting and profound.
Andy was born in 1953 in Aberdeen. His parents had a keen interest in the hills and took him hillwalking from an early age. In his teenage years he started to collect Munros, and he was given a rope for his eighteenth birthday in order to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A year later he completed his last Munro in the company of fellow school friends Alfie Robertson and Kenny McLean.
In 1971 Andy started studying biochemistry at Aberdeen University. He joined The Lairig Club (AUMC) and began regular rock climbing on the local sea cliffs. The following summer he attended a Glenmore Lodge rock climbing course with Alfie Robertson. The pair were so enthused that they signed up for a winter course in the New Year. Keen to gain some experience before their course, they visited Lochnagar on Christmas Eve and climbed Raeburn’s Gully – their first winter route. The seed had been sown and that winter they climbed on Lochnagar every weekend and by the end of the season they were climbing Grade IV.
The 1974/75 winter was poor, but Andy continued to work his way through the Lochnagar classics including Douglas-Gibson Gully, his first Grade V. He also recorded his first new route, Yoo Hoo Buttress on Broad Cairn Bluffs, a short Grade III buttress climb. The following season Andy and Alfie got really stuck into the winter game making ascents of several Grade Vs such as South Post Direct on Meagaidh and Gargoyle Direct on Lochnagar. The harder routes however, only succumbed after long campaigns, experience that was to stand Andy in good stead later in his career. Eagle Ridge (VI,6) for example, the Lochnagar test-piece of the day, was only climbed during a 12-hour push on their third attempt. Andy told me that they wore their woollen breeches over their waterproofs to get extra adhesion on the icy rock.
In 1977 Andy came of age as a winter climber with the first winter ascent of Dagger on Creagan a’Choire Etchachan, his first Grade V new route. Andy’s breakthrough into the big time came the following December when he made the first winter ascent of Vertigo Wall (VII,7) on Creag an Dubh Loch with Alfie. This intimidating and very steep Patey VS, high on Central Gully Wall, was heralded as one of the last great problems of the time. They only climbed two pitches the first day and spent a miserable 18-hour bivouac on a small ledge at the end of the traverse. They continued next day using several aid points, and finished after midnight just as their torches ran out, and arrived back at the car at 6am next morning.
“Vertigo Wall was the hardest mixed route in Scotland at the time,” comments Cairngorms climber and historian Greg Strange. “I doubt if anyone else could have done it in any better style. Andy was already recognised as a very determined and bold winter climber.” Greg’s comments ring true. The big serious Ben Nevis Thin Face routes such as Albatross VII,6 and Pointless VII,6 were not climbed until later that winter, and The Shield Direct VII,7, which in many ways is similar in style and difficulty to Vertigo Wall, was not climbed until 1979.
The winter of 1980 saw a race between rival Edinburgh and Aberdeen teams to pick the major Cairngorm plums. In January, conditions on Creag an Dubh Loch were exceptionally icy. The Edinburgh team of Rab Anderson and Rob Milne were there first, and climbed the long-sought after White Elephant (VII,6) on the Central Slabs. They were later overheard in a pub talking about the exceptional amount of ice on Goliath. Word got back to Andy who climbed the route four days later with Neil Morrison. It didn’t go all Andy’s way that winter however, as later in the season he was beaten to the prestigious first ascent of The Citadel (VII,8) on the Shelter Stone by Murray Hamilton and Kenny Spence, when he crashed his car leaving Aberdeen.
Hard mixed climbing in the early 1980s was a rather different game to now. The crux pitches on the big Shelter Stone routes for example, were originally ascended on powder-covered rock wearing thin gloves. In 1981, Andy began to experiment with mixed climbing techniques on Carn Etchachan above Loch Avon. It was a poor winter with little snow and ice, but the deep cracks of the Northern Cairngorm granite proved ideal for jamming ice axe picks. It was another three years however, before the term ‘torquing’ was coined for this technique. “Colin MacLean made a winter attempt on The Outlands on the Tough-Brown Face with Arthur Paul”, Andy explained, “and he came back raving about laybacking up cracks by torquing their axes. People had used axes in cracks before, but this was the first time it had been done move after move. Colin was so excited that he persuaded me to go up and try Nymph (VII,8) the next weekend.” The route turned out to be an eye-opener, with MacLean leading the crux pitch a 30m vertical corner entirely on torques. The technique had been proven and a whole new spectrum of difficulty was now open.
Nisbet and MacLean formed a formidable partnership during the winter of 1985. In January they visited Glen Coe to try one of the great problems of the day – Unicorn (VIII,8), the classic summer E1 corner-line in Stob Coire nan Lochan. “Climbing in Glen Coe felt like going into bandit country,” Andy told me. “There was a strong rivalry between the Creag Dubh and Etchachan clubs at the time, and when we arrived at the Kings House, Ian Nicolson guessed which route we were going for and said there was no snow on it. We went up anyway, found it covered in hoar frost, and climbed it on our first attempt. On the way home we dived into the Kings House, told Nicolson, and then ran out of the bar before we were lynched!”
Whilst the West Coast climbers gnashed their teeth that one of their best winter lines had been poached by Aberdonians, Nisbet and MacLean were already working at their next project – a winter ascent of The Needle (VIII,8) on the Shelter Stone. “It took two weeks of continuous effort,” Andy recalled. “We worked out the best winter line, waited on weather then climbed the first two pitches as a recce to the winter start. We then sat out more bad weather before climbing the route with a bivouac in mid February.” Even though it was climbed nearly thirty-five years ago, The Needle is still one of the most sought after high standard winter routes in Scotland and has only seen a dozen or so repeats. Back in the mid-1980s it was probably the most difficult mixed climb in the world. No Siesta on the Grandes Jorasses (a similar breakthrough for the Alps at the time) was not climbed until 1986.
Later that year, Andy started working at Glenmore Lodge where he met Andy Cunningham. Although Cunningham was new to high standard mixed climbing, he was quick to learn, and the two Andys formed one of the most effective partnerships in the history of Scottish mountaineering. Over the next three winters they added over 25 outstanding Grade V routes all over the Cairngorms and Northern Highlands. These included Salmon Leap (V,5) on Liathach, the bold Vishnu (VII,6) on the East Wall of Coire Mhic Fhearchair and the demanding Postern Direct (VII,8) on the Shelter Stone.
It was their routes in the Northern Corries however, which were to have a profound influence on the shape of Scottish mixed climbing. Fallout Corner (VI,7) and The Migrant (VI,7) in Coire an Lochain are now both recognised as modern classics, and receive many ascents each winter. Greg Strange doesn’t mince his words in talking about the significance of these routes. “Above all else, Andy should be remembered for his continued pushing for the recognition of technical mixed climbing. In 1981 when he did his first Carn Etchachan routes, people were concerned that they weren’t really winter ascents at all, as they just had a dusting of snow and were climbed on frozen turf. Now of course, it is recognised that these are the ideal conditions to do this type of climbing, and the routes are at their best. Through the development of modern mixed, Andy opened up a new form of climbing.”
Andy’s knowledge of the Scottish mountains became unparalleled, and he was New Routes Editor of the Scottish Mountaineering Journal for nearly 30 years. Along with Allen Fyffe, he authored three editions of the Cairngorms guide, two volumes for the Northern Highlands, compiled the very successful Scottish Rock Climbs and Scottish Winter Climbs volumes, and wrote major sections in several other Scottish guidebooks. “You can always tell an Andy Nisbet contribution,” says Roger Everett, a previous general editor of SMC guides, “because the descriptions are full of cross-references to other routes. This can only stem from a deep knowledge of where the routes go.”
Over the past 25 years, Andy became the most prolific explorer of the Northern and Western Highlands. Working with Martin Moran taking winter climbing courses from a base in Loch Carron in the 1990s provided a superb opportunity for investigating some of the less well-known corners of the Highlands. The transition from chasing the hardest ascents to pure exploration was a natural progression and resulted in hundreds of brilliant new routes with strong partners such as Jonathan Preston, Dave McGimpsey, Sandy Allan and latterly Steve Perry. We climbed together occasionally – I was always struck at how efficiently Andy moved in the mountains. His ice technique was extremely good and his footwork was exceptional. He particularly enjoyed padding up blank slabs.
Andy and I corresponded frequently, checking details about routes and corroborating first ascent details. I would often come home to find three or four messages from Andy in my inbox. He was meticulous, patient and very polite with whoever contacted him, regardless of the route they had climbed. This friendliness extended to the hill where Andy was warm, humorous and always intensely interested in what others were up to.
He was an inspirational President of the SMC from 2010 to 2012 and was awarded the prestigious Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture in 2014. His quiet manner, bushy red beard, unbounded enthusiasm and unfailing optimism became synonymous with Scottish mountaineering. He had hundreds of social media friends, and many people felt they knew him without ever actually meeting. Andy’s influence was universally positive and far reaching.
The loss of Andy Nisbet leaves a gaping hole that will be impossible to fill. It is only in his passing that we realise how much we have lost. He invented the mixed climbing game that we play today and ensured it was accessible to all by accurately sharing information via the Journal and guidebooks. Andy was our leader, our inspiration, and our mentor. Scottish winter climbing will never be quite the same again.