S Gully on Marsco

Linda Gentlemen and Lorn Smith on the Left-Hand Finish to S Gully (III) in Coire nan Laogh on Marsco in Skye. (Photo Martin Holland)

Linda Gentlemen and Lorn Smith on the Left-Hand Finish to S Gully (III) in Coire nan Laogh on Marsco in Skye. The corrie can be glimpsed when driving around Loch Ainort on the A87 between Broadford and Sligachan. (Photo Martin Holland)

On February 28, John Jackson, Linda Gentlemen, Lorn Smith, Martin Holland, Gareth Robinson and Joanne McCandless decided to take a look at Wooly Gully (II,4) on Marsco.

“This was the only route in the guidebook in Coire nan Laogh and the description sounded intriguing,” Martin explained.  (The guidebook description states that ‘frozen turf, rock and wool (!) under thin snow’ were used on the first ascent). “When we got in to the corrie, Wooly Gully looked banked out and I’m guessing it was first climbed in leaner conditions, so we decided on climbing the big central S-shaped gully.

We soloed through great scenery on the first easy bends of the S and put ropes on before the final bend of the S. This gave a good pitch of ice, steeper on the right and easier on the left. Above the gully the face could be climbed almost anywhere at about grade II bringing you out about 100m east of the summit. The upper face, although easy angled, had serious feel and ice screws and warthogs were useful for runners and belays. It’s worthy of a star for its scenery and where it brings you out on the hill.

We climbed in parallel as two teams with John, Linda and Lorn taking the left-hand more rocky line on the upper face and me a right hand more icy line largely as I had more ice gear with me. Conditions and weather were excellent.  S Gully (III) is a very obvious line, so slightly surprising that it had not been recorded before!”

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Big Weekend on the Ben

Rob Patchett leading The Shround (VII,6) on the North Face of Carn Dearg on Ben Nevis. This may have been the first ascent of the season for this outstanding ice feature which is one of the steepest ice routes in Scotland. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Rob Patchett leading The Shroud (VI,6) on the North Face of Carn Dearg on Ben Nevis. This may have been the first ascent of the season. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Helen Rennard had an outstanding weekend climbing on Ben Nevis last weekend. On Saturday March 5 Helen climbed The Shroud (VI,6) on Carn Dearg Buttress with Rob Patchett and Dougie Russell, and on March 6 she partnered Dave MacLeod on a new route called Night Fury (IX,9), which lies just left of The Urchin in the East Face of Tower Ridge. Here is Helen’s account:

“I was climbing with Rob and Dougie on the Ben on Saturday. It was my first time out with either of them and it was good fun. We were planning to climb The Shroud but changed this to ‘whatever is free’ when we found the North Face car park already full at 6am. Six of us piled into Dougie’s van for a lift up the track, the extra weight almost bringing it to a standstill on one snowy incline. Walking in we could see that The Shroud was free and there was only one party heading in that way, so we stuck to Plan A.

I led the first easy pitch and then Rob had the crux. The right icicle was a metre or so from touching but the left one was fully formed. The ice up to here was sugary and Rob did a great job keeping calm a long way above a rubbish ice screw, until he reached the relative sanctuary of some in situ gear. Once onto the pillar the quality of the ice improved massively and it was brilliant fun to climb. I tend to avoid ice in favour of mixed so was happy to have a rope above me on this. We think this was the first ascent of The Shroud this season, though we may be wrong. On our way down we found two ice screws and one nut – not a bad haul! Adrian Crofton and Al Robertson, who were staying at mine for the weekend, had had a good day on Waterfall Gully Direct, and on Sunday they climbed The Promised Land on Beinn Dorain.

The next day I was out with Dave MacLeod, again on the Ben. After a quick stop at the CIC for tea and a spot of autograph-signing (by Dave – the lady looked a little perplexed when I said that she could also have mine…) we set off up Observatory Gully to try another new line near Red Dragon (on the East Flank of Tower Ridge). This was a line a few metres left of and parallel to Urchin which Dave Garry and Simon Frost had looked at two years ago. Dave MacLeod and I had been to try it back in January but it was heavily verglassed and Dave downclimbed the bottom of the first pitch on verglassed crimps. He kindly offered me a go at leading it but I declined, thinking that if he wasn’t getting up it then there was no chance I was.

On Sunday the route was again verglassed, though not as bad. After the initial difficulties on the first pitch Dave went out of sight. Though I couldn’t see him I could hear that things weren’t great – the gear he had got was poor, and he had then climbed a protectionless verglassed groove a long way above this. The hex he had eventually got in above this took a while to hammer out! Dave had brought his Go Pro rather than camera and when I realised he could record audio on this I regretted the amount of swearing I’d been doing trying to untangle my fankled lanyards on second… The obvious line for the top pitch was straight up overhanging IX,9 ground. There was an easier route to the top, traversing off to the left, but this seemed a bit of a cop out. Again Dave led. He wasn’t happy to commit to the crux moves until he had got some gear in. Once he’d hammered in a terrier he pulled through on thin hooks and no feet, locking off to reach up for more thin hooks. Desperate stuff. Seconding this I managed to knock the terrier out with my hand – it was useless!

We abbed down back down to our bags, chatted with Dougie and Adam Russell who had backed off Brass Monkey because of the amount of verglas (which shows just how well Dave had done), called in at the hut for more tea (but no food for Dave, as someone had thrown away what he had left on the table!) and then a wander down as it started to snow.”

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Deep, Deep, Deep

: Looking up the lower half of Double Salchow (IV,4) on the West Face of Beinn Dearg with crux ice pitch visible high up. The 350m-long route follows a continuous line of ice (and snow) which forms just right of the crest right of Silken Ladder and left of Peace Process, (Photo Andy Nisbet)

Looking up the lower half of Double Salchow (IV,4) on the West Face of Beinn Dearg with crux ice pitch visible high up. This 350m-long route follows a continuous line of ice (and snow) just right of the crest right of Silken Ladder and left of Peace Process. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

Andy Nisbet and Dave McGimpsey visited Beinn Dearg in the Northern Highlands on March 3 and found rather more white stuff than they anticipated. Andy takes up the story:

“’Is it just me, or does our route look like a snow slope?’ So said Dave McGimpsey after two hours of wading through deep sludge towards the West Buttress of Beinn Dearg. And it did, so much so that we talked about abandoning it and climbing something nearer on the Glensquaib cliffs. But they looked pretty plastered too, and I only knew of a couple of poor quality new lines.

We need to offer thanks to Mark Chadwick for a useful blog picture, intended to show the Ice Hose but also showing another line with more ice than I’d ever seen before. But on the day, the cliff showed little resemblance to the picture, plastered pure white and hard to even pick out the ice lines. After some recent thaws, we had chosen a higher option than Skye and were just beginning to regret it.

But we decided to bash on and see what it was like. As we approached the cliff, the snow began to firm up and we were able to walk on its top on the slope below the line, which we could now pick out. Things were looking up. It had snowed a fair bit overnight but the wind must have been blowing up, as some recessed areas were packed with soft snow but most of the crag was blown clear.

The line was a shallow gully just right of the steep edge of the famous part of the West Buttress (with Ice Hose and Silken Ladder). Above halfway was much more general snow and ice but I knew from Mark’s picture that there was a good line of ice, just it was now part buried. The route was going to be long (it’s a big cliff) and with limited protection apart from ice screws, so we’d gone light and hoped to solo up as far as possible. Initial ground was easy to the first significant ice pitch which after discussion, we soloed too. Dave seemed happy and the ice was solid, but to me it didn’t seem as predictable as the steeper ice on Skye, so above this I was keen to put the rope on for what was likely to be the crux.

There were a couple of steep pulls above a good ice screw, then a longer groove which still kept the mind focussed, after which the ground slowly got easier to reach a halfway terrace. Above was white and extensively icy but we knew there was a line of thicker ice under the snow. Some of the ice was good, some brittle and some under deep snow. It was Grade III at most so we just kept going in three extended pitches to reach the top.

There was so much snow that the wall at the top of the cliff was buried, only the top rocks showing through, but the snow was still largely wind blown and it was easy walking down to the descent gully between the west and Glensquaib Buttresses. Despite our steps, it was hard going walking out, partly because the day had warmed slightly. My legs were protesting but the thought of a high speed free wheel out on the bikes kept me going.

We discussed the grade. We could have gone for III,4 but it felt a big route so I was allowed to grade it IV,4. Irish names were becoming a little boring so it’s provisionally called Double Salchow, an icy name for a route with two sections and two climbers but admittedly no leaps into the air.”

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Successful Outcome on Beinn Damh

Neil Wilson on the first ascent of A Good Outcome (IV,4) on Beinn Damh in Torridon. The route climbs the broad buttress to the left of Traveller’s Trail on the right side of the cliff. (Photo James Edwards)

Neil Wilson on the first ascent of A Good Outcome (IV,4) on Beinn Damh in Torridon. The route climbs the broad buttress to the left of Traveller’s Trail on the right side of the cliff. (Photo James Edwards)

James Edward and Neil Wilson had a very successful day climbing on Creagan Dubh Toll nam Biast on Beinn Damh on February 28. “I’ve been putting off going there for around ten years,” James told me. “The cliffs are close to the sea, their altitude is that little bit lower, and there were rumours of stringy turf that was reluctant to freeze. These were just some of my favourite excuses for not going to have a look!

Having dislocated my thumb at the start of December whilst out with the Mountain Rescue team (I slipped on wet grass 500m from the road!) I thought that if the conditions didn’t play fair we would just enjoy a good hill walk around a new hill.

The turf was a little stringy on the first pitch, but became better very quickly. We climbed eight full-length pitches, each getting slightly easier with height until the last one surprised us with a delicate move (Neil) or a belly flop (me) to get through the last sandstone tier. There was still 200m of Grade I left until we came out directly on the North Summit but, as is the tradition on this cliff, we aren’t including it in the description as it would then be the longest vertical climb in Scotland!

So all in all, our 420m-long climb was A Good Outcome (IV,4).”

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Skye Raiders – Part 2

Andy Nisbet on the crux pitch of Skyefall (IV,5) on the south-east face of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh on Skye. This is the first route to be climbed on this difficult to access cliff. (Photo Dave McGimpsey)

Andy Nisbet on the crux pitch of Skyefall (IV,5) on the south-east face of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh on Skye. This is the first route to be climbed on the cliff. (Photo Dave McGimpsey)

“If you look at the picture in Part 1, you might just see a thin stripe of ice leading into a gully high on the left side of the Coruisg face of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh,” Andy Nisbet notes. “We certainly did, so that was the target for the next day and enough to persuade me to stay in Skye.

I searched the Cuillin guidebook to see what routes already existed on the face, and the winter answer was none. Now it was a case of how to get there. The guide said to climb Sgurr na Banachdich, go down to the col before Sgurr Thormaid and descend easily. I was well impressed by such detail for an obscure crag previously reached from Loch Coruisg, but not at all impressed by the approach time of two hours. I’ve got a thing about guidebook authors and ridiculously fast times, and when the Munros guide has 2hrs 40mins for Banachdich alone in summer with a light pack, this really wound me up. OK, I was tired from the day before, but it took us three hours just to get up Banachdich. Actually snow conditions on the Ridge were fantastic, the scenery descending into the corrie was amazing and we were at the crag soon after.

The summer routes are mostly on a lower tier, which was below the snow line, but we were able to gain a halfway terrace easily on good snow. The short night, early start and long approach were catching up with us, plus time was getting on, so when we looked up at the steep and possibly thin ice line, neither of us fancied leading it. Not helped by the option of an easier line, still on ice, heading off left to gain the main ridge lower down.

We chose this and zigzagged around on banked up snow ledges and up a big groove to a cul-de-sac where we got the rope out. The right wall was iced, thick enough for an ice screw, and gave a short steep pitch into a huge enclosed amphitheatre. Ice leading out of its top was tempting but I was on ‘survival mode’ so we carried on left to the main ridge. The route was called Griffin (200m III,4), for no particular reason other than it was a nice name.

Now the question was how to get down. I knew from summer that neither left nor right was simple, and unable to make up my mind, Sandy said, ‘why don’t we just go straight down?’ I protested that guidebooks warned of all kind of trouble doing that, but I wasn’t thinking about good conditions in winter and we didn’t have any great trouble descending a gully which I later discovered was Diagonal Gully (Grade II). Further down, we came across a fine looking gully on a nearby crag, wondered if it had been done before and when we could come back up to do it. It turned out to be White Wedding and in unusually good nick, it had already been done twice that week. It shows how little we knew about the Cuillin. Despite my worries about time, I was back in Inverness before it got dark.

Of course the steeper ice line was still there, and with a good forecast for a few days, a line on the north face of Ghreadaidh wasn’t going anywhere. Sandy was working so I roped in Steve Perry for a Skye trip on Sunday (February 28), the last good day before the weather broke. On the Friday, Dave McGimpsey phoned to say he was back from working down south and was there any climbing on the go? I told him the venue and he was definitely interested, not having winter climbed in Skye before. Later he phoned again and asked how we saw the north face of Ghreadaidh from the In Pinn, and was it perhaps the south face, and might the sun not cause us some problem. Actually it was the south-east face, which was even worse.

So plans rapidly changed and we drove to Skye that evening, reluctantly deciding to get up at 3am and walk in the dark. Just as well we did, although some early morning mist made the approach very atmospheric and dulled the effect of the sun. Steve led the first pitch, 50m of ice with a couple of steepish sections. We had loads of ice screws but he found a rock belay off to the left of the stripe of ice. I claimed the lead on this, and my apprehension immediately disappeared when I hit my axe in first time; the ice was thick and chewy despite the sun getting stronger and chunks of ice starting to fall down. An easing allowed the placement of a couple of ice screws before the steepest section but the ice was so good that after it, I just kept going to the top. There were still some icy steps before the angle really eased, so I kept going until the 60m ropes ran out.

The sun was hot now but the others climbed quickly as bigger lumps started to fall. The upper gully was part hidden from the sun and turned out to be only steep snow. They set off on a single rope each, leading together and ready to stop at any difficulty. But conditions were so good that they didn’t stop until the top. The descent was the same and we even discussed a quick ascent of White Wedding before common sense kicked in. The name Skyefall was suggested as highly appropriate, if it hadn’t been used before, and we were delighted when it hadn’t. I decided on a grade of IV,5 and although I know it’s high in the grade, there was only one section of 5 and Grade Vs on the Ben had more. I thought it was similar in climbing to Pumpkin (Meagaidh) and most folk think that is more like Grade IV.

It was one of those special days, which justifies all the scrabbling around in bad weather, and one which would make you content even if the winter ended tomorrow. Which it won’t. Now what’s the forecast?”

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Coigach Weekend

John Higham on the first winter ascent of Western Buttress Edge Route (VI,7) on Stac Pollaidh. This summer Severe was first climbed in 1991. (Photo Iain Young)

John Higham on the first winter ascent of Western Buttress Edge Route (VI,7) on Stac Pollaidh. This summer Severe was first climbed in 1991, but its westerly aspect means it is rarely in winter condition. (Photo Iain Young)

“On February 25, John Higham and I headed for Coigach,” Iain Young writes. “The forecast and a dump of snow on the Wednesday that had closed the road according to friends we have in Achnahaird made it an obvious choice (to us at least). A late arrival in Achiltibuie on Thursday night meant Friday was to be not too strenuous, so we headed for Stac Pollaidh. We were intrigued by the fact that a Diff climbed by Walker and Inglis Clark in 1906 on the West Buttress had apparently never had a winter ascent – so we headed there on a very fine morning indeed.

Starting from the lowest rocks below Baird’s Pinnacle (and Scotland’s answer to Digital Crack!) we climbed moderate ground to a belay in the breche between pinnacle and mountain. From there we moved a bit right then back left via an awkward step around a prow to gain slabs and the midway snow slopes. Upwards, we followed the logical and most aesthetic looking route on the junction between the West and South Faces. This led via more slabs, grooves and cracks to a move right and a final pull onto the summit ridge. None of this looked remotely like ‘Diff’ country from below, nor felt like it whilst climbing. The last pitch – a great lead by John – involved a couple of very tenuous moves on tools lay backing off a rounded edge before the sanctuary of well frozen turf was reached. So tenuous that I fell off seconding. Returning to read the guidebook it turns out we were on Western Buttress Edge Route for at least the top two thirds of our route. We debated the grade, VI,7 in the end, though with more ice in places, or perhaps summer knowledge, it might well be easier.

There was so much snow around that our original plans for Saturday went on hold, and instead we headed to Garbh Coireachan on Beinn Mor Coigach for a straightforward winter ascent of West Ridge Direct as described in Highland Scrambles North. Amazingly for such a sunny spot we found lots of deepish powder, dry rock and the odd spot of frozen turf. The climbing was undistinguished (apart from a couple of very delicate moves up a steep slab) but the setting was incomparable. The crag and hillside below dropping straight into the ocean, snow capped hills of Harris on the horizon, sunshine, no clouds and not a breath of wind. Back down for cold beers sitting out in the afternoon sun! III,4 or 5 on the day but it can’t be snow-covered very often.

Another friend had planned to join us Sunday and we had another winter route in mind, but when he texted to say he couldn’t make it, we decided that some seaside cragging in the sunshine would be a more mellow end to the weekend – and so it proved!”

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All Go on The Godfather

Helen Rennard leading pitch 2 of The Godfather (VIII,8) on Beinn Bhan. This touchstone route was first climbed by Martin Moran and Paul Tattersall in March 2002 and has become one of the most sought after high standard mixed routes in the Northern Highlands. (Photo Dave Almond)

Helen Rennard leading pitch 2 of The Godfather (VIII,8) on Beinn Bhan. This touchstone route was first climbed by Martin Moran and Paul Tattersall in March 2002 and has become one of the most sought after high standard mixed routes in the Northern Highlands. (Photo Dave Almond)

In a similar vein to the two ascents of The Needle in a weekend in January, The Godfather (VIII,8) on Beinn Bhan in Applecross had three ascents in the space of five days last week. Helen Rennard takes up the story:

“Dave Almond and I had plans to climb last weekend and had various ideas about what to do and where to go. We decided on the North-West in the end as Dave was up there already: he’d climbed Rampart Wall on Beinn Eighe with Simon Frost and Gully of the Gods with Blair Fyffe through the week. Dave was keen for The Godfather and we knew that Uisdean Hawthorn and Ben Silvestre had climbed it on Wednesday. I was a bit less keen, worried that it was a serious undertaking and maybe a bit out of my league. I was a bit put off by Martin Moran’s account of the first ascent, but in the end I thought what the hell, and we agreed on that.

We pulled up at the parking spot at 4.20am on Saturday February 27 only to find two others about to start walking in. It turned out to be Tim Neill, who Dave and I both know, and Keith Ball, and they too were heading for The Godfather. Dave and I were happy for them to go ahead; they could do the route finding (though they actually had Uisdean and Ben’s tracks to follow) and we’d stay a pitch behind. It worked well, was sociable and made the whole day feel a bit less serious having them on the same route. Our friend Misha was also out on Great Overhanging Gully with his partner Mark. He’d driven up from Birmingham the night before, climbed on Sunday too, and then drove back!!

Two hours later we were at the foot of the route, still in the dark. It felt very Alpine-like with the still clear conditions and the sunrise behind us was amazing. After a bit of discussion about where the route actually started, Tim and Keith set off, then an hour later me and Dave. The route was fantastic: really nice climbing, steep but positive, good gear overall, something interesting on every pitch, a definite crux and a top out onto the summit under the stars (I’m not fast on these climbs… ) Dave did a great job leading the crux pitch. A walk out under a sky full of stars and we were back at the car just after 10pm. A comparatively short day for me…

Dave is extremely keen, gets by on a lot less sleep than me and was due back home on Monday, so it took a bit to persuade him to not climb the next day, especially with the fantastic forecast. We probably could have done something short but I was happy to have a pint at the Lochcarron Hotel, crash out in the car and wake up whenever. We had breakfast and cake at the new Bealach Café and sat about in the sun, which was very relaxing. A good weekend all round!”

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The Ayatollah – Second Ascent

The South-East Cliff of Fuar Tholl with the line of The Ayatollah (VII,7) marked. The route was first climbed by Martin Moran in Ian Dring in February 1989 and was one of the most difficult routes in the Northern Highlands at the time. Ten days later, Moran added another landmark route to the mountain with Reach for the Sky (VII,6) on Mainreachan Butttress. (Photo/Topo Dave Kerr/Erick Baillot)

The South-East Cliff of Fuar Tholl with the line of The Ayatollah (VII,7) marked. The route was first climbed by Martin Moran in Ian Dring in February 1989 and was one of the most difficult ascents in the Northern Highlands at the time. Ten days later, Moran added another landmark climb to the mountain with Reach for the Sky (VII,6) on Mainreachan Butttress. (Photo/Topo Dave Kerr/Erick Baillot)

On February 28, and in less than perfect conditions, Rob Bryniarski, Dave Kerr and Erick Baillot made the long-awaited second ascent of The Ayotollah (VII,7) on the South-East Cliff of Fuar Tholl.

“Last year on a fool’s errand to see if Snoopy was in (a couple of days after the first winter ascent of Private Eye), Andy Sharpe, Dave Kerr and I decided to have a look at the main cliff seeing as though we were up there,” Erick told me. “A bit of mountaineering descent saw us at the bottom of the cliff and at 10am we were surprised to find the lines of Pipped at the Post, Cold Hole and Tholl gate formed. Temperatures were not in our favour (+4degC) so we decided to quickly go up the easiest/safest option of Pipped at the Post (V,5). This put the crag on our radar – it is probably in condition most winters at some point!

After careful monitoring of temperatures fluctuations Dave and I thought last weekend was it. On the approach, the crag looked in amazing nick. We had decided that Ayatollah should be attempted if possible. The Ice smear looked complete was all the way down the corner! It flattered to deceive and it was less than an inch of cruddy white ice that went down. Pitch one was quickly dispatched by Dave with spaced but very good rock gear (the ice would not take much). I went up the corner for one of the spiciest leads of my career… heart in mouth Type 2 fun! I probably had to climb much further up the roofed corner to be able to step left on minimalistic ice, about 10m. The ‘radical’ moves were very radical and my gear was not abundant and it’s nature did not inspire that much confidence, 1 terrier, 1 bulldog , and rubbish red BD cam and a red rockcentric (I was assured that the rockcentric was “bomber” afterwards). Once on the ice it was 20ish meter on cruddy easy Tech 5 (at most) ice but unprotected. I had one joke stubby screw in! The traverse under the icicle was done in a pure exhausted state and belay was a sanctuary with a monster thread!

The fun was not over. Rob continued up an awkward rocky groove before crossing back left above the icicle and the main icefall. The ice only began to be good and take screws towards the end. Dave led an excellent 45m pitch starting with a steep 10m ice step (which I found desperate but he tells me it was standard Tech 5 ice). Rob finished up the easy looking but not so easy exit past the cornice. I have used my quota of ‘out-there’ moments for the year and will happily hung my tools due to a house move… secretly my head is now fried!

By the way, grades? It easily felt the hardest thing technically I have done this year at hard Tech 7. I have no idea what a VIII,7 is but that is what I thought it would feel like! So full on old school VII,7 and probably my best lead to date!”

Postscript 3 March: The great thing about writing this blog is folk get back to me pretty quick when I make a mistake. It looks like Rob, Dave and Erick did not make the second ascent of The Ayatollah as I first thought. Muir Morton wrote me a helpful email this evening to say: “I climbed The Ayatollah with Dave Hollinger in February 2000. We did Tholl Gate on the same day. I did the rad moves pitch and remember the exciting step out left and thin but perfect ice. The same weekend we did Test Department (conditions were great) and stuck an axe into the bottom of Foobarbundee [both on Liathach], which looked worth an attack from below but we chickened out as the ice was a bit peely.”

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Andy Nisbet leading the straightforward first pitch of Akita (VI,7) on Lurcher’s Crag. The crux overlaps lie above. (Photo Steve Perry)

Andy Nisbet leading the straightforward first pitch of Akita (VI,7) on Lurcher’s Crag. The crux overlaps lie above. (Photo Steve Perry)

“The Akita is an independent and dominant breed (of dog), commonly aloof with strangers, so it’s ideal for a route name on Lurchers’ Crag where Steve and I don’t encourage strangers,” Andy Nisbet explained with tongue firmly in cheek. “Except for Central Gully, which has been in brilliant nick the past week, and everyone is encouraged to enjoy it. On February 22, we of course had another line in mind.

Earlier in the winter four of us climbed a line called Ultramontane (IV,5), barely frozen low down. We did look at a steeper line to the right but thank goodness we didn’t try it and waited for proper cold weather to freeze the turf. We approached as usual from the ski car park via South Gully and at the crag base met teams who had come through the Chalamain Gap. The times we’d taken seemed to be roughly equal but who knows. We could direct them to Central Gully, the gullies not showing up well from below, as we’d just walked past its base.

Our line had an icy start, which looked fairly easy, so I was happy to lead it and leave the overlaps above for Steve. Conned as usual by the Lurchers’ illusion and seeing plenty of turf, he was happy. I led the first pitch quickly and the second pitch still didn’t look hard. But what we hadn’t realised is that most of the apparent turf was straggly heather on top of smooth rock. Even when Steve slowed down at the very first groove and struggled up it with feet slipping, I was wondering if he wasn’t on good form. Until I got on it myself that is. It was very thin with only one good turf placement and a direct fall on to the belay (which was good enough). He managed to place a hook in a blind crack and this was enough to persuade him up to what was quickly looking like an unlikely overlap. The hook wasn’t going to hold a fall from there but he dug around and found a horizontal crack and good peg where the slab joined the overlap (Thank Goodness!)

The only turf which would take an axe above the overlap was too far right, and there was nothing for the feet over there, so it was a case of keeping the body in an out of balance position while gaining height. This got increasingly strenuous until he had to commit to the axe and pull through. This worked but it was far from over, as the next piece of usable turf was a long reach and hidden under snow and detached heather. Again there needed to be commitment to a single piece of turf of unknown attachment to the rock, and further standing around on one leg searching for something solid. The next ten feet were pretty committing until he finally got a runner. The pitch slowly eased in angle and he kindly stopped shortly before easier ground.

I led a pitch with only a short tricky start and then we decided to solo for a while and gain some time. We wanted a line between the existing routes either side, but not needing a rope, and were happy that a natural one followed, only joining Ultramontane for its final slab. Steve took a direct line up this and got his foot stuck in a wide crack. After a long struggle, which would have been amusing if we hadn’t been several hundred feet up without a rope, he had to step out of his crampon and finish the pitch with only one.

The weather was nice on top so it was a leisurely walk back to the car park. We graded it VI,7 without being sure whether it was Tech 6 or 7. Certainly the turf being at its best was essential. Anyone trying it unfrozen will soon fall off and the route might become impossible.”

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Under the Western Sea

The upper section of the 400m-high Spider Buttress on Ladhar Bheinn in the Western Highlands. The much sought after Tir na Og (V,5) takes the central line of ice streaks and Face Route (IV,4) follows the line of grooves just left of the sunlit West Pillar. Tir na h-aoise (VI,6) climbs the barrel-shaped wall right of Tir na Og, starting up the tapering right-slanting gully. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The upper section of Spider Buttress on Ladhar Bheinn in the Western Highlands. Tir na Og (V,5) takes the central line of ice streaks and Face Route (IV,4) follows the crescent-shaped line of grooves just left of the sunlit West Pillar. Tir na h-aoise (VI,6) climbs the barrel-shaped wall between these two routes, starting up the tapering right-slanting gully that begins just right of the icefall of Tir na Og. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Without doubt, the 400m-high Spider Buttress on Ladhar Beinn in Knoydart is one of Scotland’s greatest winter cliffs. It’s central snowfield bears an uncanny resemblance to the Spider on the north face of The Eiger, and the cliff is sometimes described as Scotland’s Eigerwand. It’s remote situation, deep in the heart of Knoydart only adds to its aura.

The buttress was first explored in the late 1970s. Andy Nisbet and Paul Tipton added the superb looking Face Route (IV,4) in February 1978, which takes the most obvious line of weakness up grooves on the right side. Two weeks later, Con Higgins and A.Foster met the full challenge of the wall by climbing the line of ice straight up its centre. Tir na Og (V,5) takes a superlative line and is one of the most coveted winter routes in the North-West Highlands. Unfortunately its remote situation and proximity to the sea means it is rarely in condition and has seen only a handful of repeats.

Roger Everett and I were lucky enough to make an ascent of Tir na Og in February 1986, and ever since, I have dreamed of returning to the face. I was particularly attracted by the challenge of the steep barrel-shaped wall between Tir na Og and Face Route which has been described (rather enthusiastically perhaps) as ‘a last great problem’.

Roger Webb and I were planning a route in the North-West Higlands last week but deep powder snow on the approaches made us rethink. Ladhar Beinn lies further south, and is remote and difficult to get to, but at least most of the approach is at sea level. We left the car at 7pm on February 24 and returned at 3am two days later after a 32-hour return trip (which included a four hour kip in Barrisdale bothy).

Starting a big route when you’re more than seven hours away from the road feels committing, and in this case we weren’t helped by less than ideal conditions. The snow was not as consolidated as we’d hoped, the turf was aerated, and the attractive ice streaks running down the barrel-shaped wall turned out to be loose snow lying on rock. We did have a trump card though in the form of a photograph I had taken one autumn from the western side of the corrie that showed the wall was cut by a hidden diagonal slot. We were confident that once we reached that, the route would go.

The crunch came on the fourth pitch where a narrow sinuous chimney led up from the Spider. Logic dictated the chimney was the way but the side walls were blank and instinct told us that we’d be better off linking the blobs of turf on its right wall. A bold and absorbing 60m pitch led to the foot of the diagonal slot which was helpfully iced, and we knew then that the route was in the bag. Three pitches later, we arrived on the summit ridge just as it was getting dark.

I’d love to be able to report that Tir na Og was in good condition, but whilst it looked attractively icy from below, the ice was thin and unattached. I’d also forgotten about the rather unhelpful Ladhar Beinn mica schist. In seven pitches we just placed one nut and one cam for protection. All the other gear was bulldogs in frozen turf.

Unfortunately a visit to the mythical land of Tir na Og is far too late for Roger and I to preserve our youth, so Roger suggested we name our route its antithesis  – Tir na h-aoise (VI,6) – The Land of Age Sunken Beneath the Western Sea

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