International Winter Meet Day 2

Tom Phillips from the Netherlands battling up Auricle (VI,7) in Coire an Lochain on Cairn Gorm. A continuous blizzard raged during the second day of the winter meet, but despite the tough conditions some excellent routes were climbed. (Photo Hamish Frost)

The weather forecast for February 24 predicted Scotland would be in the eye of a storm but the exact timing of the anticipated heavy snowfall varied from forecast to forecast. Unfortunately, after a calm start it soon started to snow and the blizzards persisted all day.

Four pairs visited Creag Meagaidh, but were turned back by dangerous avalanche conditions on the approach slopes and routes buried in snow. The weather was wild in the Northern Corries, but Murray Cutforth, Tom Phillips (Netherlands), Nicolas Dieu and Michael Poulsen (Denmark) succeeded on Auricle in Coire an Lochain – a good effort in the conditions as this route is no push over at VI,7. A couple of teams visited Ciste Crag (also known as Cranberry Rocks) and climbed a pair of routes apiece in relative shelter on this low-lying cliff.

Across in Glen Coe, two teams climbed North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor, and up in Stob Coire nan Lochan, Scabbard Chimney and Spectre saw ascents. Four teams made the long haul up to Church Door Buttress. Willis Morris and Steve Towne (USA) were particularly impressive making a possible second ascent of Greg Boswell and Uisdean Hawthorn’s 2016 route Hoargasm (VII,8), followed by Crypt Route (IV,6). Paul Ramsden and Wadim Jablonski (Poland) chose a lower level option and made a rare ascent of Antichrist (VI,7) on Creag an Socach above Bridge of Orchy.

News has yet to filter through from the CIC Hut, apart from Rich Bentley and Seokju Woo’s (South Korea) enchainment of Turf War (V,6) and East Ridge (IV,5) on The Douglas Boulder. Better weather is forecast for tomorrow – watch this space!

The 2020 International Winter Meet – Streap Alba Geamhradh – is hosted by Mountaineering Scotland and supported by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, The Alpine Club, British Mountaineering Council and Salewa.

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More Mullach nan Coirean

Suzana El Massri on the first ascent of New Kids on the Block (V,6) in Coire Dearg on Mullach nan Coirean – “A lovely wee crag that feels like a mix between Cha No, Mess of Pottage and Coire Chat.” (Photo Nathan Adam)

Nathan Adam and Suzana El Massri continued their exploration of Mullach nan Coirean yesterday with two new routes in Coire Dearg. New Kids on the Block (V,6) lies 10m left of Captain Caveman, and Turf Factory (VI,6) is on the crag left of Gendarme Ridge.

“I’d been meaning to get back up there since Garry Campbell and myself did the first ascent of Disco Corner a few years ago but it requires a cold freezing level and some freeze-thaw to glue the blocks in,” Nathan told me. “So with a poor avalanche forecast and lots of fresh wind blown snow we decided to take a punt and thankfully it paid off with useful snow and solid turf.

The two highlights of the day were the first pitch on New Kids up a difficult iced corner and the second pitch on Turf Factory which involved some big moves between good chockstones with very little for the feet. The first pitch on Turf Factory was quite scary with poor gear and very shallow turf placements and thin hooks, insecure and balancy granite ledge shuffling at its finest!”

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International Winter Meet Day 1

Luca Celano and Carl Nystedt from Sweden climbing Pot of Gold (V,6) in Coire an t-Sneachda. This route proved very popular on the first day of the meet with three ascents. (Photo Marc Langley)

After twelve months of planning, the 2020 International Winter Meet finally got underway last night when 55 climbers from 23 countries met at Aviemore Youth Hostel. After a slow start to the winter, the February storms have magically transformed the Scottish mountains into a veritable winter climbing playground with ice forming all over the Highlands. The psyche was high as teams dispersed to Mill Cottage, Lagangarbh, Raeburn and the CIC Hut early on Sunday morning (February 23) before hitting the cliffs.

The first pair down was Nicolas Dieu and Michael Poulsen from Denmark who climbed the classic Pot of Gold (V,6) in Coire an t-Sneachda. Other routes climbed in the corrie included Fingers Ridge, Fluted Ridge Direct, Doctor’s Choice, The Lamp, Vortex, Original Summer Route, Yukon Jack, The Slant Direct and Aladdin’s Mirror Direct. Jamie Skelton and Damian Granowski from Poland had an impressive day with No Blue Skies, The Message and Pot of Gold.

A couple of pairs ventured north to Torridon and found excellent conditions on Beinn Eighe. On the Far East Wall, Neil Adams and Peter Hoang (Canada) made an ascent of the modern classic Sundance (VIII,8) and on the Eastern Ramparts, Callum Johnson and Lukas Klingora (Czech Republic) came away with the fourth ascent of Boggle (VIII,8). In Glen Coe, Paul Ramsden and Wadim Jablonski (Poland) climbed the superlative Central Grooves (VII,7) on Stob Coire nan Lochan.

On Ben Nevis, the thaw on Friday saturated the snowpack, which has now frozen hard bringing many routes into condition. Ascents were made of Waterfall Gully, The Curtain, 1931 Route, Italian Climb, Route 2/Route 1 Combination and Orion Direct. Dave Almond and Trym Saeland (Norway) climbed Darth Vader (VII,7) and Rich Bentley and Seokju Woo (South Korea) made an ascent of Tower Face of The Comb (VI,6)

The 2020 International Winter Meet – Streap Alba Geamhradh – is hosted by Mountaineering Scotland and supported by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, The Alpine Club, British Mountaineering Council and Salewa.

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Butterknife First Winter Ascent

Jamie Skelton on the first winter ascent of Butterknife (VI,6) on the South Wall of Garbh Bheinn. Butterknife is only the second time this impressive wall has been climbed in winter. It saw its first winter route in January 2009 when Neil Adams and Alasdair Futon climbed Sgian Dubh (V,6). (Photo Tim Miller)

After their inspirational first ascent of Sapiens on Lost Valley Buttress on Tuesday, Tim Miller and Jamie Skelton are on a roll. On Thursday (February 20) they took the ferry across to Ardgour and made the first winter ascent of Butterknife (VI,6) on the South Wall of Garbh Bheinn. This classic VS was first climbed by Jimmy Marshall and party in September 1956.

“Jamie and I decided to take a look at Garbh Bheinn, somewhere rarely visited in winter,” Tim told me. “We knew Butterknife followed a corner-crack which could lend itself to a winter ascent. The lower two pitches didn’t disappoint with steep pulls on positive hooks. And the upper pitches had less of a defined line and climbed turfy steps to the summit. We thought it was around a high VI,6 and gave it 2 stars. The crag can be tricky to find in winter condition due to its low elevation and south facing aspect.”

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Crack of Dawn Second Ascent

Andy MacKinnon following the first pitch of Crack Of Dawn (VII,8) on Sgurr Mhic Choinnichin the Cuillin during the second ascent. This summer HVS was first climbed in winter by James and Doug Sutton in January 2016. (Photo Callum Johnson)

Callum Johnson and Andy MacKinnon pulled off a major repeat on February 13 when they made the second ascent of Crack of Dawn (VII,8) on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich on Skye. Callum, who has had a very productive February with a quick trip to Chamonix and an ascent of Beyond The Good And The Evil, takes up the story:

“I had planned to climb with Andy on Wednesday and Thursday, but we hadn’t committed to a destination and were both willing to travel wherever the conditions and weather were best. It all lined up well that Skye was a good option as Andy has just moved there. Deciding to have a late start on the Wednesday as the wind was forecast to drop through the day. We had a great afternoon enjoying a solo of Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr Nan Gilliean, which was in superb condition, we continued along the ridge to Am Bastier enjoying the alpine feeling weather and conditions. Talking about plans for the next day- so many options – I took a full zoom photo of the North East Face of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich with my camera. Studying the photos that evening, we had to go and have a look.

We went with a few ideas but an open mind to climb what looked best. We started up Crack of Dawn, with the initial plan of climbing Dawn Grooves (they share the same first two pitches). I lead first, a good technical and well-protected pitch up the rising diagonal crack line. Andy lead the steep and positive pull out of the niche on the second pitch, pulling onto the ramp with ‘hero’ neve, fun climbing. The chimney line above looked too inviting not to be climbed; Dawn Grooves will have to wait for another time. The chimney pitch was well protected with a tricky pull near the top. The next few pitches had some short steep moves and helpful neve, a joy to climb.

We topped out onto the ridge as the evening sun was painting the clouds shades orange and pink. A great end to a superb day of good weather and climbing in a wild remote place.”

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Outstanding New Route in Glen Coe

Tim Miller on the first ascent of Sapiens (VIII,7) on Lost Valley Buttress. This bold and technical route is based on the direct finish to Neanderthal, and is one of the highlights of the season so far. (Photo Jamie Skelton)

In the late 1980s Rab Anderson was the driving force behind a group of mainly Edinburgh based climbers that popularised mixed climbing on the Northern Corries and Glen Coe. Routes like Deep Throat and Hoarmaster in Coire an Lochain were climbed during this period, and in Glen Coe, Neanderthal on Lost Valley Buttress was one of the stand out routes. Rab was Scottish correspondent for Mountain magazine at the time and I can still remember the impact of his outstanding full-page photo of Grahame Nicol on the first ascent. Today, Neanderthal is one of the most prized winter routes in the Coe, and no push over at VII,7.

Neanderthal is based on the soaring corner-line in the centre of the buttress, but it cleverly steps out left to avoid the finish up the continuation corner. The direct finish had been noted as a potential objective for many years, and in 2011 Andy Nelson made couple of determined attempts but was repulsed by poorly protected technical climbing.

Tim Miller and Jamie Skelton decided to make the line a key objective for this winter season. They made two attempts with Dave Almond and Jack Morris, and were eventually successful on February 18. The full story of their ascent which involved deliberately using a third tool as a crucial runner is described on Tim’s blog. Not only did Tim and Jamie succeed on climbing the crucial corner, which involved a long run out with insecure crampon placements, they added two new independent pitches lower down. The result is Sapiens that comes with a heart stopping VIII,7 grade. (You don’t want to fall off these sort of routes).

Sapiens and Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson’s Local Hero on An Teallach are the outstanding ascents of the winter so far. With snow all across the Highlands and ice building everywhere, I have no doubt there will be more to come!

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Hairy Maclarey

Alan Halewood on the first ascent of Hairy Maclarey (III) on the west side of Stob Coire Sgriodain. This is the first route to be climbed on the 200m-high Creag Mholach. (Photo Dave Anderson)

Alan Halewood and Dave Anderson had a good exploratory day on February 13 when they added the first ever route to Creag Mholach (NN 35168 74631) on the west side of Stob Coire Sgriodain above Loch Treig in the Central Highlands.

“The buttress lies directly above the West Highland line and catches my eye every time I take the train to Glasgow so it was nice to finally get a chance to get there,” Alan told me. “It’s also well seen from the Laggan Road. The base is quite low so it needs a good dump of snow and cold, which ironically means that the approach for vehicles to Fersit may not be possible (we had an extra 20 minutes walk each way owing to icy roads and a previous attempt a few years ago stalled at the A83).

A long heathery approach took us the base of the crag, which is quite like something from the Arrochar hills composed of numerous short steep schist craglets with heather ramps, ledges and bays. There was a surprising amount of ice (thin) on schist slabs above us on the approach and one steep icefall on the far left side of the buttress. The rock had been stripped by the sun so we kept to vegetated snowy ramp lines and icy steps and took a line starting just right of the lowest rocks.

There was Grade III climbing on the first and third pitches. The second was easier but poorly protected. The climbing was only ‘ok’ in quality but the steep drop to an inky black Loch Treig added to the situations.

I suggest the name Hairy Maclarey (a scruffy terrier who is a character from a series children’s books) as the heavy heather tufts on the route had a habit of rebounding axe swings and one translation of ‘Molach’ is ‘hairy’.”

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Book Review – Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse

Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse by Adrian Trendall is a detailed topo guidebook describing both summer and winter traverses. The book will be published by Cicerone in March and is priced at £19.95.

Thirty-five years ago I failed to traverse the Cuillin Ridge. I had never climbed on Skye before, and naively thought that a 9am start from Slichagan would give me enough time to complete the route and meet my new girlfriend at the other end in Glen Brittle at 5pm. It soon became clear that traversing the 12km-long Cuillin Ridge required far more than a mixture of blind optimism tinged with youthful fitness. Needless to say after innumerable route finding errors I was an hour late for my rendezvous, and had missed out the last two Munros. This failure has niggled me ever since, and it was another 25 years before I finally made a complete traverse. There is no question that if I had read Adrian Trendall’s superb guidebook Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse, I would have been far better prepared first time around.

There is now a choice of excellent guidebooks to climbing and scrambling on the Cuillin. The SMC’s Skye Scrambles by Noel Williams is the definitive scrambling guidebook, and Skye The Cuillin by Mike Lates demystifies the technical climbing in the range. Last year, Tom Prentice published the magnificent The Cuillin and Other Skye Mountains which takes a wider look at the mountaineering challenges on the island. Back in 2002 Rockfax published Skye Ridge, a very useful mini guide in pdf format by Andy Hyslop describing the runner’s approach to the traverse. Whilst all these publications have route descriptions of the Ridge, Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse is the first print guidebook to purely focus on the traverse.

I’ve never met author Adrian Trendall, but clearly he is an accomplished climber as well as being a mountain guide and photographer. Based in Skye and living at the foot of the Cuillin, Adrian is ideally placed to write this guidebook.

Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse is a cleverly designed publication that consists of two volumes held together in a plastic sleeve. The first volume describes the strategy and tactics for a successful traverse together with ten classic scrambles that can be used for reconnaissance and preparation. The second is a topo booklet describing the traverse itself. Both volumes are illustrated with Harvey Maps, which is undoubtedly the clearest mapping of the Cuillin published to date. The idea is that you leave the first volume in the valley, and take the second with you on the traverse. This slim volume weighs a mere 100 grams (20 grams more than the Harvey map) and contains all the information you need while climbing the route.

Unlike Andy Hyslop’s mini guide that focuses on completing the ridge as fast as possible, Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse is written for the more general mountaineer. Adrian explains that although the Cuillin Ridge is “a huge challenge, it is achievable by many climbers, and here lies much of its appeal.” His approach is deliberately sets out to be helpful and puts great emphasis on making everything work in your favour through maximising information up front together with careful preparation. Adrian suggests that the Cuillin Ridge attempts can be divided into CREST (Cuillin Ridge Expedition Style Traverse) or TRIAD (The Ridge In A Day). Both strategies have the pros and cons, and Adrian carefully outlines the recipes for success.

The first volume also includes a description of a winter traverse. This is normally done North to South (the opposite direction to summer) to allow the major difficulties to be abseiled. In recent years, winter traverses of the Cuillin Ridge have become more common. This is due to a number of factors such as better weather forecasts, and real time information on conditions posted on social media by Adrian and other Skye-based mountain guides such as Mike Lates. Another factor is the perception of what constitutes appropriate conditions for a winter traverse has changed.

When the Cuillin Ridge was first traversed in winter by Tom Patey, Hamish MacInnes, Dave Crabb and Brian Robertson in March 1965 it was considered to be an ice climb that required exceptional, once-in-twenty-year, conditions. But nowadays, more alpine conditions of hard neve and (and inevitably a little exposed rock) are often chosen to make an attempt. This provides considerably more opportunities for finding the crucial combination of appropriate conditions and settled weather. Adrian recognises this and advises “take lightweight waterproofs: if you need heavyweight shells then perhaps conditions aren’t right.” Conversely, I was fortunate to make the traverse during the once-in-twenty-year conditions of winter 2016. The whole ridge was untracked and cased in ice. My picks only touched rock a couple of times, but I paid for these pristine conditions with poor visibility and storm force winds. With lightweight waterproofs I would have been forced to turn back on the summit of Gillean. Like everything in mountaineering, there are trade offs, and ultimately you have to make a choice. The choice Adrian advocates is to attempt the winter traverse when the underfoot conditions and weather are benign, and for maximising your chances of success, this makes absolute sense.

All great guidebooks are labours of love, and clearly a huge amount of local knowledge, experience, thought and care have gone into this production. It contains a myriad of detail and information that will greatly assist the completion of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse in both summer and winter. Adrian Trendall and Cicerone should be congratulated for an outstanding publication.

 

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All Go on Black Buttress

Suzana El Massri climbing the first pitch of The Polish Variation (VI,7) on Mullach nan Coirean’s Black Buttress. After a hiatus of nearly 20 years, this attractive cliff in the Mamores has seen a flurry of new route activity. (Photo Nathan Adam)

Way back in October 1998 I was invited to attend the opening of the North Face Car Park At Torlundy, just north of Fort William. It seems ancient history now, but before the North Face Car Park, most climbers accessed Ben Nevis by walking across the golf course and fighting through the bogs of the lower Allt a’Mhuilinn, so the new car park was quite a thing. The event was over by lunchtime, so with a few hours to spare I drove around to Glen Nevis and up Mullach nan Coirean to have a look at the prominent dark-coloured buttress in Coire Riabhach. I had stared at it many times whilst climbing on the West Face of Aonach Beag.

The cliff was steep, but it was cut by a right to left rocky ramp that I decided to follow to the crest. The way ahead was barred by a steep step around a jammed block in a very exposed position, but above an easy scramble up a gully led to the top. Two months later, I went back with Chris Cartwright and John Ashbridge. It was the day after the SMC Dinner so a winter ascent of Ramp Route (II) was a good option for a short day. We planned to return and climb on the steeper flanks of the buttress, but there were so many other cliffs to explore, that the cliff never rose very far up the list of things to do.

So I was most intrigued, delighted even, when I heard that Will Rowland, Simon Teitjen and Fran Thompson had added a number of new routes to the cliff over the winters of 2016 and 2017. The descriptions for Boab’s Buttress (V,6), Boab’s Burnt Head Gasket (V,6), It’s Not A Jeep! (IV,5), A Roll and Hot Boaby (VI,7) and No! (IV,5) will appear this year’s SMC Journal.

This season, unaware of the recent activity, Nathan Adam took an interest in the cliff. Nathan repeated Ramp Route and the following day (January 15) he climbed a new line with Iain Howie, Could be Worse (V,4), on the right flank of the cliff. This had a serious second pitch, although it was not technically difficult. “It’s a grand wee crag and hoping to get back there before too long,” Nathan enthused. “Strangely enough I bumped into Will Rowland in the supermarket afterwards who was telling me he’d done a few new routes up there too so not as untouched as I initially thought from the Ben Nevis guide!”

Nathan returned with Suzana El Massri and Will Rowland during the recent lull in the stormy weather. “I’ve been back up to Black Buttress again the past few days whilst the freezing and snow level has been down low,” Nathan told me. “We climbed one new route and a variation on A Roll and Hot Boaby.

The Polish Variation (February 12) lies on the left side of the crag near the first pitch of Boab’s Burn Head Gasket (which looks like a great line in the upper corner), and climbs to where Ramp Route emerges onto the front face of the buttress and then follows the top 20m of a Roll and Hot Boaby. I found this to be quite hard and very steep with poor feet but excellent hooks, but it is only 12m or so before the angle eases off, so probably fair at VI,7. The name is a play on Suzana being half Polish and that she was meant to be in Poland climbing this week before the storms cancelled her flight.

The Shuffler (February 13) was also hard and very awkward but not quite as physical as The Polish Variation so we settled on VI,6. It’s very hard for me to grade things like this as I had never climbed harder than V,6 until yesterday! I can only go from the experience of Will and Suzana who are both good climbers and were happy with the grades as they are until someone says otherwise!”

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Icy on Wyvis

Steven Andrews climbing the steep first pitch of Sideshow (V,6) in Creag Coire na Feola on Ben Wyvis. The continuously stormy weather is bringing many venues into icy condition, which bodes, well for the rest of the season. (Photo Alex Reid)

Steven Andrews and Alex Reid made a possible first ascent yesterday (February 14) on Creag Coire na Feola on Ben Wyvis. Sideshow (V,6) takes the steep icefall and easier angled buttress immediately to the right of the main crag. There is a little uncertainty as to whether the first pitch is new, as Simon Tickle climbed a 35m-high ice pitch called Rapunzel in the same area in March 2018, but its exact location is unclear.

“I’ve been out on Ben Wyvis a bit lately and decided the ice in Coire na Feola may have been forming up quite nicely over the last few days so went to have a look,“ Steven told me.  “Unfortunately pretty challenging approach conditions got us to the crag a bit late to start up the longer established routes on the main crag but a nice icefall to the right looked like a good option for a quick climb. It starts up the steep central icefall on the short buttress immediately right of True Blue. This turned out to provide a really nice pitch of steep ice (30m) followed by a further 30m of easier mixed ground and then 100 or so metres up pleasurable snow slopes to the cornice, as the views opened up down the Cromarty Firth.

I wasn’t sure if this has been climbed/recorded before but afterwards thought it was well worthy of recording, the only downside being the rapid easing of pitch difficulty (V,6, III, I) although my shoulders didn’t see that as much of a downside after the steepness of the first pitch!”

Steven and Alex climbed the route on February 14, whilst the day before it had been unusually still. “I was travelling back from France when everyone else was enjoying the good weather,” Steven explained.  “It wasn’t actually too bad, except for the walk in, and it was pretty sheltered on the climb.”

Postscript: Simon Tickle has been in touch to explain that although Sideshow climbs the icefall left of Rapunzel, it is not a new route, as Simon climbed this feature in February 2019. He descended to the right and called the route Little Sister (V,5). Unfortunately, it never made it into the 2019 SMC Journal. So Sideshow is not an independent new line, but it is the first time the icefall and continuation buttress have been ascended to the corrie rim.

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