Stuart McFarlane, Di Gilbert and Robin Clothier had a productive few days in the North-West last week.
On February 16, they walked into Beinn Dearg, hoping to escape Storm Dudley. The plan worked and they made the first ascent of the Dudley Direct Start (IV,6) to The Tower of Babel. This climbs the lower tier below original, giving an additional 50m climbing at same grade. The full force of Storm Dudley hit them at the top of the route however, and the walk out with over 30cm of fresh snow made for hard going.
On Friday 18 February, after poor weather the day before, they enjoyed the scenic walk up to Bucket Buttress on Quinag “After getting a feel for this excellent steep crag, Robin and I climbed Di Time (IV,6),” Stuart explained. “This starts to the left of Beer Time and joins its chimney, before moving back right up a steep wall. Due to Jenga blocks visible from below, Di wisely decided that two seconds on this pitch was unwise and stepped aside for this route.
Saturday February 19 dawned a spectacular, cold and clear morning. The prize of winter climbing on Stac Pollaidh, could not be missed! Robin had climbed December Grooves with Euan Fowler the month previously, and I fancied Positive Vegetation (IV,5). I led crux pitch onto the big ledge, belayed beneath upper wall. We traversed left for 45m to beneath two parallel corners. Three Day Grooves takes the bigger left-hand corner, but Robin climbed the steeper right-hand one that finished with a pull onto a massive blob of turf. We graded our new finish III,4.
Climbing on Stac Pollaidh is right up there with Beinn Nuis on Arran – mountain, snow and sea!”
Greg Boswell has just returned to Scotland after two months of high standard ice and mixed climbing in the Alps. He put his fitness to great effect on February 21 when he climbed a winter version of The Last Crusade on Church Door Buttress on Bidean Nam Bian with Guy Robertson. Without doubt, this new IX,9 is the route of the winter so far.
“The main attraction on Monday was the big hanging ice fang that was looming over the top of the crag,” Greg told me. “We opted for the two corner systems than ran up to the ice directly. We didn’t have a guidebook with us, but on the second pitch I was forced left slightly to eventually gain the big corner running parallel to the ice feature. I climbed this for a bit then blasted right to gain the ice. It was such a fun pitch to lead with some tricky climbing and hard-won gear, as the whole crag was glazed in a layer of bullet hard verglas. Looking at the guide when we got back, it turned out that we’d done most of The Last Crusade apart from the last corner where I moved right halfway up this to reach the beautiful ice cascade.”
The Last Crusade is rated E3 in summer and was first climbed by Rab Anderson and J.May in 1992. Iain Small was first to recognise the winter potential of the right-hand side of Church Door Buttress with first ascents of Gates of Paradise (VIII,8) and The Ninety Five Theses (IX,9). Iain had noticed that in summer there seems to be a constant spring-fed weep down that section of the cliff that forms a set of hanging icicles in winter. This ice grows quickly when the temperature rapidly fluctuates as we’ve seen recently.
Greg rated Last Crusade Winter Variation a ‘very stiff’ IX,9. “It wasn’t as hard as Lost Arrow, but the crux was nippy, and my gear fell out mid crux due to the verglassed cracks. But it might feel safer in different conditions.”
It has been a challenging season so far with limited snow during the first part of the winter and a continuous run of storms through January and February. High standard climbing and new route activity has been (literally) thin on the ground. Determination, enthusiasm, and talent can take you a long way in Scottish winter however, and Tom Livingstone has just returned to Chamonix after a two-week trip that yielded a very impressive run of routes:
6 Feb – Central Grooves (VII,7), Stob Coire nan Lochan, with Tim Exley, Callum Johnson
8 Feb – Hobgoblin (VI,7), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson
8 Feb – Hanging Garden (VII,8), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson
8 Feb – Winter Chimney (IV,5), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson
8 Feb – Lost the Place (V,5), Ben Nevis with Callum Johnson
9 Feb – Point Five Gully (V,5), Ben Nevis with Tom Seccombe, Tim Exley
9 Feb – Indicator Wall (V,4), Ben Nevis (solo)
9 Feb – Smith’s Route (V,5), Ben Nevis with Tom Seccombe, Tim Exley
10 Feb –Tomahawk Crack (VIII,9), Ben Nevis with Tom Seccombe
11 Feb – Bavarinthia (IX,9), Coire an Lochain with Tom Seccombe
13 Feb – Happy Tyroleans (IX,10), Coire an Lochain with Tom Seccombe
15 Feb – Bandit (VII,8), Beinn Eighe with Ella Wright
18 Feb – Immortal Memory (IX,9), Beinn Eighe with Matt Glenn, Callum Johnson
19 Feb – Local Hero (VIII,9), An Teallach with Matt Glenn, Callum Johnson
Tom’s trip included the Young Alpinist Group meet and a week welcoming some Slovenian friends to the delights of Scotland.
“I’m back home now but I kind of wish I could stay another month in Scotland” Tom told me. “I really enjoyed the two weeks I spent there, and although Scotland is tricky it’s flipping amazing! I guess we were lucky with the weather and conditions and fingers crossed it stays good for you all! There were so many routes I remembered I’d wanted to do for ages, and unfortunately the list is only getting longer! I was focussed on the Young Alpinist Group and climbed with them and we climbed some tricky routes that I’d wanted to do for a while. We also hosted some Slovenian friends (strong but new to Scottish winter). I’ll try to make the next trip a more personal one!”
Postscript 23 Feb: Greg Boswell made the following comment on Instagram regarding the grade of Happy Tyroleans – “I personally think this route needs the same treatment as when The Secret got given X,10. It’s majorly over-graded and this factor is probably stopping people from trying it. Happy Tyroleans is VIII,9 at the most, maybe even Tech 8. Not bringing this up as anything to do with Tom’s ascent, I just really enjoyed the route and think many others would too if the word got out that it’s not what the guidebook suggests. Just thought I’d comment this as @simon_scottishwinter is prob the best way to get the word out there before any new guidebooks etc.”
Thank you Greg for the very helpful feedback. For consistency, I always use the published grade in my reports unless there is a strong consensus otherwise, but hopefully your comment will encourage more folk to try the route.
On Sunday February 6, Forrest Templeton and I visited Glen Clova. It had been warm during the week, but we had a hunch that it was just cold enough to freeze the turf above 700m or so, and Corrie Farchal would be white with new snow blown over the plateau. The gamble paid off and the cliff was in good condition. We were not the only people with the same idea – a pair from Edinburgh was also in the corrie climbing Silver Threads Among the Gold.
Our plan was to attempt the two-tiered buttress left of Seven Ages of Man on the left side of the cliff. The first tier provided fun climbing up a curling chimney cutting deep into the mountain, but the second tier is a vertical wall capped by a long overlap. This was always going to provide the main challenge of the route and Forrest takes up the story:
“Although the line through the second tier was inviting, we could not tell if there was a way out at the top. Potentially an exit looked possible at the top of the initial groove, but the alternative was a long rightwards rising traverse towards a break in the overlap on the right.
I started climbing the initial groove which had a long reach for a boss of turf. Fortunately, there was a good runner because my axes ripped, and I was able to test it effectively! Progress to the top of the groove was okay but there was a distinct lack of runners due to the slabby nature of the rock. The top exit was impractical given that my last last runner was a sling round a wee icicle, and it looked hard very hard above, so I moved rightwards eventually reaching what we thought would be the crux – pulling through the overlap onto a frozen turfy ledge.
Fortunately, there were a couple of good gear placements on the lip, but fear turned to terror when I surmounted the overlap and my hammer bounced straight back off a steep slab instead of turf! There was over a foot of snow stuck to the slab and I desperately cleared it left and right looking for that elusive placement. I felt as if I was on the roof of the Duomo in Florence but amazingly a vague crack appeared which allowed me to progress using side pulls with my axes. The crack petered out at a small, rounded convex ledge and then without warning, gravity took over and my hammer skelped off. Before I knew it, I was heading for the streets of Florence.
I’m still getting used to leashless axes and their stretchy lanyards and I know they aren’t designed to shock load. Fortunately, I was able to disprove this theory and ended up dangling with my legs back over the overlap. It turned out that the hammer had hooked itself on the axe which had amazingly stayed in place!
I went back up and passed my high point. Although the slab was now not quite as steep, it was still holdless and I was conscious I was getting further and further away from my runners on the lip. The slab ended at an overlap with a big, jammed flake that was just out of reach. I popped a hex on the end of my hammer and reached up to slot it in the crack. Now I knew any fall would be less impressive, and after a couple of steep steps and a short section of snow, I reached a belay at full stretch of the rope.
At the top of the pitch, I discovered the trigger had slid right down my hammer shaft so I couldn’t get hold the handle properly. I figured this unexpected movement had caused the hammer to pop off the rounded convex ledge!”
It had been a brave and forceful lead by Forrest and was at least VII,7 on the day. In keeping with the Shakespeare theme, we called the route All the World’s A Stage, and assuming that in better conditions ice would form on the crux slab, we settled on a grade of VI,6.
Huw Scott, Tom Fullen and Nathan Adam added a couple of good new mixed routes to Raw Egg Buttress on Aonach Beag on February 9.
Old Yoker (VI,7) starts at the base of Ruadh Eigg Chimney and takes the obvious slim turfy left facing corner in the wall right of Blackbeard, and Youthful Enthusiasm (V,6) climbs the crack and offwidth corner right of Old Yoker.
These are the first new routes added to the buttress for over 14 years. Interest in the crag has revived recently, partly due to the inclusion of Top Gun (V,6) in Chasing the Ephemeral, and it is good to see the other routes gaining attention too. Nathan and Huw have visited the crag several times over the last couple of winters and have made early repeats of Top Gun (V,6), Aonach Wall (V,6) and Ruadh Eigg Chimney (IV,5).
“I’d walked up to Raw Egg Buttress twice the week before with the hope of trying Salmonella but both times it turned out to be black,” Nathan told me. “So when it became light on the walk through Coire Giubhsachan and revealed a black crag I was feeling pretty disheartened. The wind had been up to no good and between that and the thaw a few days before it had been stripped clear.
Huw still seemed keener than Tom and me – we’d spied a few lines round the side of the crag on our walk up the week before and he was full of enthusiasm that they’d be in. I was less certain but had nothing else to lose other than take a look. It turned out that the slight change in aspect led to the cliff being lightly rimed and well frozen, perfect for mixed climbing and we managed two new lines. Both gave excellent steep and technical climbing, typical of the style on the buttress. They are about as high as you can go on the cliff so may save the day if the front face turns out to be black!”
Scottish new routes are recorded in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal which is published annually. In addition, new route descriptions are stored in a database which forms the basis for SMC guidebooks. The database aims to be comprehensive and currently contains c.40,000 routes on 7,000 crags across Scotland. The route count increases daily as climbers discover and record new climbs.
To submit a new route follow this link from the SMC website. This takes you to the SMC New Routes page where you can input a route description directly into the holding area of the database. The route is then checked and verified, and you will receive a personal email confirming receipt of the description and whether it covers new ground. Topos and action photos can also be submitted, and new topos can be created from scratch using a simple tool.
The New Routes page contains useful information such as the New Routes sections from previous journals, a running list of route comments, and links to scanned SMC Journals and mini guides.
January has been disappointing month for Scottish winter climbers. The weather has been dominated by warm high pressure systems and any snowfall has quickly disappeared with sudden thaws. The dry air and associated wet bulb effect has allowed the remaining snowpack to freeze but opportunities have been limited. The snow gullies in the Northern Corries on Ben Nevis have been popular, and there have been one or two other interesting ascents. Steve Holmes and Ali Rose repeated Grand Central at the head of Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis. Encountering icy conditions they found it a grade easier than the first ascent and rated it a bold V,5.
The finest climbing day of the month was Sunday January 9 when an east-west split resulted in a wonderful winter day on the Cairngorms, with the hills frozen and white with fresh snow. Contrary to the weather forecast, this band of cold clear air also extended across to the far North-West where three teams were in action on An Teallach.
Doug Bartholomew and Graham Wyllie made an early repeat of Lord Berkeley’s Seat (VI,6). According to Andy Nisbet and Simon Jenkins, who made the first ascent in 1991,” this spectacular route up the vertical front face of the Seat is not as hard as it looks, and is possibly V,5 with well frozen turf and not too much snow.” Looking at the photos of Graham and Doug’s ascent this is hard to believe, but the route clearly deserves more ascents. Erick Baillot, Andy Sharpe also had their eye on Lord Berkeley’s Seat that day, and as consolation, made the third ascent of Monumental Chimney (V,7).
The big news from An Teallach however, was Guy Robertson and Adam Russell’s second ascent of TheWailing Wall (IX,9). This outstanding line up the left side of the upper Hayfork Wall was first climbed by Martin Moran and Murdoch Jamieson in December 2010. Guy is working on a new book about Scottish winter climbing and told me he was going to attempt the route a couple of weeks before. Hats off to Guy for predicting good conditions so far in advance, and being in position in the right place at the right time with two photographers, especially given the weather forecast! Their ascent is reported on UKC with a couple of outstanding images by Hamish Frost.
On the same day, on other side of the country, four parties visited The Stuic on Lochnagar. Stuart Macfarlane and Di Gilbert made an early repeat of The Stoee Chimney – when conditions are lean, going under the chockstone seems to be the way to go at IV,6. Ascents were made of First Light and Daybreak Corners, and Forrest Templeton and I made the first ascent of True Grit (V,7). This takes a line up the centre of the depression between Bonanza and Twilight Groove and features a stenuous second pitch up an overhanging niche and groove that was superbly led by Forrest.
Unreported from December 28 was the first ascent of Polished Up (VI/VII,6), the line of cracks on the wall between Slaterless and Seam-stress on Fiacaill Buttress in Coire an t-Sneachda by Wojciech Polkowski, Sebastian Gidelski. Surprisingly, this short but good-looking addition, had not been recorded before.
Finally, a cold north-westerly blast brought the northern corries of Braeriach briefly into condition on January 20. Mark Robson and I added Against All Odds (IV,6) on Elation Buttress in Coire an Lochain and Wolf Moon (IV,6) to the right of Hostage to Fortune in the neighbouring Coire Ruadh. Conditions were good for mixed climbing that day with frozen turf and well rimed up rock, but needless to say, the situation was only temporary, and warm air soon moved in stripping the cliffs.
On January 9, Dave Almond and Dave Keogh made an early repeat of Mistral on the West Central Wall on Beinn Eighe. First climbed in winter by Andy Nisbet and Brian Davison it has a fearsome reputation and is certainly more testing than the VII,7 grade given by the first ascensionists. Dave Almond takes up the story:
“With all the festivities over and the weather cooling I arranged to meet Dave Keogh for some fun on Beinn Eighe. Mistral was chosen as Dave has only recently started to test his abilities on Grade VIIIs. Mistral is graded VII,7 with the caveat that recent previous teams suggest it is more like Grade VIII.
My master plan was to split my journey up from Liverpool by stopping overnight at Roybridge to ease the mileage. Thursday evening after dining at Roybridge I set off as a snowstorm was coming in, arriving at Beinn Eighe at 10pm. Relaxing after the drive I realised I’d left my boots, crampons, hard shells and axes in the accommodation in Roybridge. So I threw the master plan out of the window and spent the next 6 hours driving to Roybridge and back through a hideous snow storm.
One hour’s sleep later we walked in and managed to miss the turn to cross the river and squandered an hour. We then had the worst conditions under foot I’ve ever had with no base and knee-deep snow all the way up the south side. We eventually found and dug the abseil out and dropped down to the base of the cliff with guidebook in hand. “Climb the obvious deep V -groove”. So we did that and I realised we were on Bruised Violet VIII,8 which Dave wasn’t too thrilled about. We traversed the ledge and found Mistral but it was now 1pm so we abseiled off down West Central Gully and had the joy of a chest deep wade up Fuselage Gully. We topped out and arrived back at the car absolutely destroyed.
Two days later we were back after a leisurely drive without the snowstorm. After a good six hours sleep, we had an easy walk in, kicking steps into good névé. We abseiled in and were straight on the route for a 10am start. The first pitch was almost Euro style ice climbing followed by a pitch up an awkward chimney with a potential nasty fall. The crux pitch starts with a bulging wall followed by a substantial overhang onto another bulging wall followed by some tenuous steep climbing – a 30m-long series of sustained cruxes on marginal hooks.
The finale is a traditional deep, Grade VI Scottish chimney which we climbed in the dark emerging to the surreal cloudless, windless, moon and starlit vista of the snow-capped mountains of Beinn Eighe.
Beinn Eighe is my favourite cliff and despite the epic fail on our previous outing, it only seemed to amplify the joy of our successful ascent. Scottish winter climbing at its best even if hard won. And as a footnote, I think Andy Nisbet and Brian Davidson slightly under graded their efforts in 1991!”
Nathan Adam has had a busy winter so far, notching up some excellent ascents in the West and East. Here he describes a couple of early repeats on Lurcher’s Crag:
“Yesterday (January 9) we had a grand day on Rottweiler which I think may have been the fourth ascent according to UKC. It is a brilliant route that finds a smart way up the right side of the Amphitheatre Wall, the first pitch is enjoyable and sustained and the second has a quite ridiculous move off the big pinnacle. We thought VI,6 overall was a fair grade as there was some tricky moves but generally good protection throughout. Surprisingly there was no one else there at all but the Northern Corries had a steady stream in and out.
Today, Louis and I went back up in the hope of trying Berserker (VI,8) which had caught our eye the day before. It would’ve been our first go at tech 8 but unfortunately there was already a team established on it. I had brought some photos of other routes and liked the look of Wolf Whistle which we managed to convince ourselves was realistic at VII,7 seen as we had been intent on VI,8!
I started up the corner as per the description and was soon at a standstill as the cracks blanked out above a good block. It seemed like the corner above was totally devoid of any decent hooks so looking over to my right I spied an overhanging groove that had a crack in it. From the good block I managed to teeter rightwards onto a sloping slab and gain the base of the groove. From here a serious of strenuous moves with decent hooks and very small footholds led to an awkward exit onto another blank, sloping ledge. With a grunt and udge I managed to make the ledge thankfully, with another deeper groove now above me. This was super thin with a blank section in the middle but finished with a glorious chockstone and great turf to a spacious belay.
Louis soon joined me and finished up the next short pitch up a deep crack before I took us on a final pitch to the top. Checking the description whilst back at the bags revealed I had stepped right into the double groove system of Jaws without realising. Thankfully it turned out to have decent gear and some excellent hooks! I’m assuming this is probably the second ascent of Wolf Whisper/Jaws after Kacper, Sandy and Andy did the first ascents in 2018 but would be keen to hear if anyone has repeated it already.
So, it turned out a bit of a hybrid and not entirely sure of the grade, but it felt harder than any of the other VI’s I climbed this week. It has some great climbing on it although it’s a bit escapable in a few spots, but I’d say it’s worth a star or two.”
Neil Adams, Nathan Adam and Garry Campbell made an excellent addition to Sgurr Ghiubhsachain’s Jacobite Buttress above Loch Shiel on Friday January 7. This newly developed cliff is described in Neil’s highly anticipated Winter Climbs West guidebook that will shortly be published by the SMC. In the meantime, Neil describes the history of climbing on Jacobite Buttress and his recent ascent:
“I went in to Sgurr Ghiubhsachain (south of Glenfinnan) twice last winter, with Kev Hall and Helen Rennard. Helen and I attempted to find the one existing route on the mountain, Bestial Devotion (III,4, first climbed by Steve Kennedy and Andy MacDonald, which had been described as overlooking Loch Shiel. However, our explorations of the Loch Shiel side of the hill resulted in an unremarkable Grade II/III gully which we called Chasing Wild Geese.
On the same day, we climbed the obvious fault on the NE-facing crag left of the top of the NNE Ridge (a classic summer scramble and winter Grade I), which we christened Jacobite Buttress in honour of the Glenfinnan memorial at the head of the loch. It turns out this was the line that Steve and Andy had climbed – it was just about recognisable in hindsight, and very entertaining! Kev and I had more luck, climbing a good line on the left side of the crag and a steep chimney branching left off Bestial Devotion (The Uprising and The Young Pretender, both good Grade IVs). Ali Rose also added a couple of lines to the right-hand side of the crag – White Rose (III,4) and Flora (II). However, the steep wall between the routes I did with Kev remained unclimbed and had been in my mind ever since.
I’d arranged to climb with Nathan on Friday, and fortunately he’s keen on speculative punts on esoteric crags! His mate Garry joined us, which lightened the load and boosted morale as we set off from Glenfinnan in the rain. Fortunately, the weather soon cleared and after a pleasant approach up the NNE ridge, the crag was white, and the turf was frozen. I had no excuses – the pressure was on to climb the route.
Nathan led a good introductory pitch up a turfy groove with a pokey start. From there, I stepped right and climbed a series of grooves which cut through the steep wall. These were surprisingly accommodating, with positive hooks and plentiful gear, though the climbing was steep and sustained with slopy footholds. Eventually the angle eased, and I reached a perfect block belay. Garry led a relatively straight-forward pitch up a turfy groove to the top.
We had a bit of debate about the grade, and eventually settled on V,7 – it’s too well-protected to be a VI, but a bit trickier than most V,6s. Whatever the grade, it’s a cracking route and deserves some repeats, as do the other routes on this crag. Sticking with the Jacobite theme, we called it Raising the Standard.
There are a few other lines still to be climbed, and a few other crags in the area which (as far as I know) have not been explored, at least in winter. It is also a beautiful, wild setting with a gorgeous outlook over the hills of Glenfinnan, northern Ardgour and Moidart. Considering that the approach starts 20min drive from Fort William, it’s amazing that this area hasn’t had more attention.”