Fives Wall

Iain Small climbing the first pitch of Fives Wall (VII,7) on Ben Nevis during the first winter ascent. This rarely climbed summer route climbs the left side of Number Five Gully Buttress. (Photo Simon Richardson)

When Iain Small suggested we pay a visit to Number Five Gully Buttress on the Ben, I was intrigued. This steep diamond-shaped wall nestled between Number Five Gully and Ledge Route has a south-easterly aspect and rarely holds winter conditions for long, but Iain reasoned with the cold, snowy weather it was worth a look.

The buttress has been largely ignored in winter until recently when Malcolm Bass – Simon Yearsley team (ably assisted by Jim Higgins and Helen Rennard) have made ascents of Free Range and Turkish. Both routes are based on summer lines and look pretty meaty Grade VIIs. The other winter route on the wall is Slanting Slit (VI,6), based on the summer VS line of The Slant. It was first climbed by Mal Duff and S.Greenhaugh in 1994, and like many of Mal’s Nevis routes it looks an inspiring climb and well ahead of its time.

Ben Nevis was very beautiful on January 31, but conditions were far from optimal with deep powdery snow and no underlying base. We waded up to the buttress from the left over Moonlight Gully Buttress and set off up Fives Wall a – Jimmy Marshall summer route from 1953. Intriguingly, this was the first ever route that Marshall (who celebrated his 90th birthday last week) climbed on Nevis.

The first pitch was harder than it looked, and featured a lonely 15m-high unprotected wall that Iain climbed on blobs of centimeter-thick ice. The second pitch was equally testing, with blind cracks, awkward traverses and steep corners leading to the big platform on Ledge Route. We scampered down this as night fell with the splendour of an almost totally white Ben glowing above us in the starlight.

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Skye Twin Pack for Sakano and Bishop

Tom Bishop following the new Direct Start (VI,6) to Frankland’s Gully (V) on Sgurr Sgumain in the Cuillin of Skye. The original start to this rarely climbed route (first ascent by Clive Rowland and party in March 1981) came in from the right. (Photo Masa Sakano)

Masa Sakano and Tom Bishop had two excellent days climbing on Skye at the end of last week, which resulted in the ascent of an unclimbed gully in Coire Scamadal and a new Direct Start to the rarely climbed Franklands’s Gully on Sgurr Sgumain.

Masa takes up the story:

“On Friday February 1, we headed to Coire Scamadal near Old Man of Storr in Isle of Skye,
which hosts many top quality ice and some mixed routes though they rarely come in condition. After four days of deep freeze (which followed three days of big thaw), we thought we might have a chance.

No, we were wrong. Even Scamtastic wasn’t in a leadable state, Grade VI ice routes were definitely out, and the buttress was mostly black, despite eyeball-hammering blizzard in the morning. Instead we climbed the next major gully of Vertigo Gully, 100 metres or so to the right (facing in), and named it Tom’s Gully (III). Though there were plenty of icicles hanging here and there in the gully, the conditions were sub-optimum with loose rock and mostly soft turf except those covered with ice. Basically, turf looked too dry, which is not the word I often use to relate to Skye… If everything was frozen solid, it would be a decent and sustained Grade III snowy mixed route (a bit like Twisting Gully in Stob Coire nan Lochan), with four short vertical sections in two long pitches (roughly 90m in length). Freeze-thaw cycles are needed!

The following day (February 2), we aimed higher to North Buttress of Sgurr Sgumain, wading powdery snow, and did Frankland’s Gully with a new Direct Start, roughly following the P1 (5a) of the summer route Grannie Clark’s Wynd.

I was mightily impressed with the quality of the pitch! 45m of very sustained mixed climbing with two cruxes: an overhanging bulge in the first 15m cracked corner and the 10m-long flake-crack in the upper part. At one stage in the upper crux, I relied on a single side-point of a crampon on a tiny rounded 2mm-edge (though perhaps I just missed to spot an easier move). I guess the Grade is VI,6.

I think Frankland’s Gully is one of those underrated routes (maybe not many repeats?) I found it (combined with Direct Start) is one of the best Scottish mountain mixed routes I have ever done! Any of the following three long pitches after P1 merits Grade V individually with different characters. The meat of P3 is several metres of a burly offwidth crack, where a series of stein pulling works best apparently, as Tom found in seconding (I hadn’t in my lead and had to fight hard). The icing on the cake was the last part of this 300m long route: a narrow gully with through route to suddenly pop out to the ridge, where a rucksack must be taken off at the exit!”

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Boswell Makes Third Ascent of Anubis

Greg Boswell making the coveted third ascent of Anubis (XII,12) on Ben Nevis. First climbed by Dave MacLeod in February 2010, this is only one of two winter routes in Scotland to be graded XII. The moves are thought to be M11 in difficulty. (Photo Hamish Frost)

Big news from the weekend was the third ascent of Anubis (XII,12) on Ben Nevis by Greg Boswell. The first winter ascent of this overhanging summer E8 on The Comb was made by Dave MacLeod in February 2010. It is widely regarded as the most difficult winter route on Ben Nevis, and along with Greg’s route Banana Wall in the Northern Corries, it is the only route in Scotland that merits a Grade XII rating.

The heavy snowfall at the beginning of the week turned Ben Nevis as white as a Christmas cake, and Greg was quick to take the rare opportunity to attempt this severely overhanging line when it was completely frosted. Greg tried the route with Helen Rennard on January 30 and then returned three days later to make his successful ascent with Robbie Phillips on February 2.

“I had gone for the on sight earlier in the week on Wednesday,” Greg told me. “But after taking my time to figure out the hard moves leaving the ground, I fell off mid-way up the steep corner-crack over the bulge. The terrain above me looked super hard and intimidating, so even though I had another go that day, my head and arms weren’t up to the task. I fell just above me previous high point and decided to take my gear out and vowed not to let it get the better of me. A big thanks to Helen Rennard for the belay and support.

Returning on Saturday with Robbie Phillips, I was ready for a fight! I swiftly got to the point I reached on my first attempt, but I nearly blew it when a thin axe placement ripped on the steep ground, shock loading me into one arm. I composed myself again and managed to make some upward progress. After the bulge, the steepness died off a little, but the placements got so bad! I found myself way above my gear, hooking a tiny sloping edge with very poor and unbalanced footholds. This is when I had to have a stern word with myself!

‘If you’re going to get yourself into this situation, you’ll have to deal the f**king consequences!’

I struggled to make any upward moves as there were no ‘usable’ placements to be found. I dropped a sling over a dodgy looking spike of rock and managed to get a couple of other very suspect looking backups placed, all whilst trying not to move my axe pick a mm to either side, through fear of it blowing off.

I now had no choice but to continue. After what felt like an age, I committed to a series of moves that were on some of the poorest holds I’ve ever used, knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to reverse any of them. As one axe ripped, the other happened to stick on a round sloper and I was able to do a ‘big heart in mouth’ cross through to an awkward torque in the baggy crack.

‘Breathe… just breathe,’ I thought.

It wasn’t long before I was below the overhanging corner, but now I was happy. There was another big roof above and still some very technical and hard climbing to do, but eventually I managed to mantle onto the snowy ledge at the top of the pitch and feel the overwhelming sensation of achievement hit me like a train.

Robbie seconded the pitch and then I led the remaining 230m of Grade V and III ground to the plateau, where we sat and watched the most beautiful sunset before descending Number Three Gully.

All in all, it was a perfect day on an outstanding route. I’m psyched to make the third ascent of Anubis and hats off to Dave and Dani for doing it previously.”

Anubis is a route that attracts superlatives. There is no doubt that Dave Macleod’s first winter ascent in February 2010 was visionary in concept and years ahead of its time. The route was repeated by Swiss climber Dani Arnold on his second visit to attempt the climb in March 2016. Although no stranger to Scottish mixed, Arnold is best known for setting speed records on the north faces of the Eiger and the Matterhorn, and his repeat of Anubis is undoubtedly the most difficult Scottish ascent ever achieved by an overseas visitor. Greg’s ascent of Anubis makes him the only climber to have climbed two Scottish Grade XIIs. And finally, Robbie Phillips only started serious winter climbing this season, so seconding such a climb is an achievement in itself. One can only wonder what the next chapter will hold for this extraordinary route.

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A Little Line on Nevis

Simon Watchman leading The Cherry on Top Finish (III,5) to MVG on Number Three Gully Buttress. This two-pitch route was climbed at the beginning of January and offers a useful option when conditions on the mountain are very thin. (Photo Toby Archer)

The title of this post comes from an email that Toby Archer sent to me last week regarding a possible new line on the left wall of Number Three Gully climbed on January 4 when conditions all over the Highlands were extremely lean. “I was climbing on the Ben with my friend Simon Watchman,” Toby wrote. “Our Plan A (following Chasing the Ephemeral of course!) was Number Three Gully Buttress, but conditions were very bare at the base of the buttress and visibility really poor, so we couldn’t see an obvious way to get up the steep rock to the platform where the route starts traversing up and rightwards.

Instead we carried on up Number Three Gully towards the plateau. We went past Gargoyle Wall and Winter Chimney, but not too far beyond them noticed a chimney/thin gully line also on the left. Having dragged all the climbing kit up there, this seemed like a quick target to do some ‘proper climbing’, rather than just continuing to plod up Number Three. I led the chimney-groove in about 50 metres of III,4 to more open slopes not far below the plateau. It would have been possible from there to just climb easy snow onto the top, but Simon climbed a short but fine corner-line in small buttress above. That pitch was about another 15 metres, with the corner itself being fun and well protected climbing at about III,5 although, as I said, completely avoidable!

The only thing in the guidebook around there is El Nino, but that description didn’t fit what we climbed at all. In ‘average conditions’ I’m sure the upper buttress that Simon led may well be hidden by the cornice, and the main pitch that I led is likely to disappear below the snow build up as well, plus I’m sure it has been climbed before so this isn’t a new route claim. But for early season, or after a very big thaw, the line might be worth mentioning as a possible route for those of us who think Gargoyle Wall and its neighbours are rather too intimidating looking! If you or any readers of scottishwinter.com have any idea of what we climbed I’d be very interested!”

Subsequent correspondence with Toby revealed that the first pitch of their line was the same as MVG (III) that was first recorded by Robin Clothier and Andy Forsyth in October 2012. The second pitch may well be new however, and if so, Toby and Simon would like to call it the Cherry on Top Finish (III,5). “The route was the cherry on top of a great day out,” Toby explained. “We had the wonderful cloud inversion on the summit – it was a sweet little route on top of the frosted cake of Number Three Gully Buttress!”

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Three Excellent Early Repeats

Dave Almond leading the second pitch of Omerta (VIII,9) in Coire an t-Sneachda. This fierce test piece was first climbed by Martin Moran and Pete Macpherson in 2010 and takes the left wall of the Belhaven corner on Fiacaill Buttress. (Photo Tim Neill)

“Having waited for what seemed forever for winter to turn up Simon Frost and myself drove up from Liverpool on January 20,” Dave Almond writes. “After a 4.30am start to walk over to Shelterstone to find it looking black we ended up in Coire an  Lochain to have a play on Mick Fowler’s route Procrastination (VII,6). I had been told it may not have had a repeat winter ascent and had repelled some talented teams. It certainly wasn’t like the more heavily travelled Northern Corries routes where the placements are dug out. We had a great time on it – the grade is perfect and I would recommend.

The following day (January 21) Helen Rennard joined us for a blast up Omerta (VIII,9) Coire an t Sneachda. Helen led the first pitch giving me plenty of opportunity to take in the slightly overhanging, thin crack lines of the second pitch. It’s fantastic climbing with powerful moves from the often hard to place protection above a big ledge that encourages you to hang on tight to your axes. I was going really well until the last pull into the niche at the top of the wall when my axe ripped. My randomly placed cam held and I quickly jumped back on and finished the pitch.

Si Frost had a go on the last pitch but after getting half way up he handed the reins over to me to finish. Despite us reading that it was a grade easier we thought it was the similar in difficulty to the crux pitch. We were all really impressed with how sustained the route was and the skills of Martin and Pete in finding and making the first ascent.

After taking a day off climbing due to food poisoning, which wasn’t a pleasant experience, Helen, Richard Kendrick and myself headed up to climb The Duel in Stob Coire nan Lochan on January 24. Again Helen led the first pitch and I led the second. The Duel crux offers more technical climbing as opposed to the thuggery of Omerta. Richard opted to turn the route into the third ascent of En Garde IX,9 and we all had great fun in the big exit chimney still finding a use of that No 6 cam we had dragged along for the top pitch of The Duel.

Helen said she found The Duel much harder than Omerta which totally contrasted with my judgements on the two routes. Thanks to Helen, Si and Rich for their company and belays.”

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Hare Restorer in Corrie Fee

Pamela Miller on the first ascent of Hare Restorer (IIII,4) in Glen Clova’s Corrie Fee. The route follows the rib between The Comb and the unnamed Grade I gully to its right. (Photo Martin Holland)

“Pamela Millar and I were out in Coire Fee yesterday (January 24)” Martin Holland writes. “We ended up high in the corrie and climbed a line starting below and right of The Comb and finishing to it’s right. There was quite a lot of easy/escapable ground, but it’s probably worth recording for the first and last pitches, which were good turfy mixed climbing. The route was named Hare Restorer because I scared a hare when throwing a sling over a belay boulder and it’s next to The Comb.

The easy gully immediately west of The Comb doesn’t seem to have a name. It’s technically F Gully I guess, and is well defined in its upper reaches where it forks. I’ve climbed the left fork before, which was one of the reasons we were up in this area.”

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Rudge and Wood’s Route

Doug Bartholomew climbing the third pitch of Rudge and Wood’s Route (V,6) on Sgurr nan Gillean in the Cuillin of Skye during the first winter ascent. Superb weather on January 19 combined with cold and snowy conditions created the perfect set up for snowed up rock climbs. (Photo Michael Barnard)

On January 19 Doug Bartholomew and Michael Barnard made the probable first winter ascent of ‘Rudge and Wood’s Route’ on Sgurr nan Gillean. This narrow dyke on the West Face of the Second Pinnacle on Pinnacle Ridge was first climbed in September 1944 by W.Wood and E.Rudge and has likely been ignored ever since.

“The route went at V,6 and featured a steep well protected crux but also a bit of bolder slabby climbing’” Michael told me. “It was another reminder that a snowy Skye is hard to beat, particularly given good weather. Unfortunately after a sublime Saturday we weren’t sufficiently inspired to get out of the car on Sunday morning in +4 degrees and peeing rain!”

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First Grade VIII for Lurcher’s

Steve Perry climbing the overhanging crack on the crux second pitch of Shapeshifter (VIII,8) during the first ascent. This technical mixed climb is the hardest winter route climbed on Lurcher’s Crag to date. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

On January 20 Steve Perry, Helen Rennard and Andy Nisbet put up the first Grade VIII on Lurcher’s Crag with their ascent of Shapeshifter. This route was a long-term project for Steve who had attempted this prominent line last season.

“I failed on the line last winter after trying to lead both pitches myself too soon after breaking my leg and ankle,” Steve explained. “Since then I’d been pretty desperate to get back, as I wasn’t the only person who knew about the line.

Andy knew about my attempt and suggested breaking the top pitch into a more realistic two pitches. We asked Helen to come along as she is attempting 40 Grade VII or above routes this winter to celebrate her fortieth birthday and we were keen to help out. This was Helen’s fourth day out on the bounce after climbing Himalayan Shuffle (VII,8) and Kindergarten Corner (VII,8) at Mullach nan Coirean, then Piranha (VII,8) on Aonach Mor, phew!

Andy wasn’t feeling too great in the morning as he was recovering from flu, but we talked him into walking to the crag and seeing how he felt. The weather was pretty dire whilst gearing up, so a little more encouragement for Andy was needed but once down South Gully things started to improve and so did he.

The route is on an overhanging buttress nestled in the amphitheatre between Drystane Ridge and Deerhound Ridge. The buttress is gained via a bold, turfy rake which Helen quickly opted to lead as Andy still wasn’t a hundred per cent. The pitch is much trickier than first appears but Helen made good use of her recent winter mileage and climbed it in no time.

I led the second pitch that begins with a vicious overhanging crack (crux) leading into a groove and then finishing with a thin technical mantle traverse to a large flake belay. I continued to lead on pitch three where the crack-line continues up an overhanging wall into some tenuous torque moves leading into a wide crack-cum-chimney which climaxes with an awkward bellyflop mantle onto the top.

The route was excellent and Andy was well happy he’d carted on. We knew he would for a new route. Myself and Andy were slightly unsure of the grade of this new line but Helen confirmed it was harder and better than her last three routes.

We agreed on the name Shapeshifter (VIII,8) and three stars after a fantastic hike back to the car under the rare Blood Red Wolf Moon!”

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Sunset Buttress Revisited

Forrest Templeton climbing the second pitch of New Dawn (V,5) on Sunset Buttress on Lochnagar during the first ascent. Excellent mixed climbing conditions more than compensated for a distinct lack of protection. (Photo Simon Richardson)

I’d been meaning to return to Sunset Buttress on Lochnagar for years. I first climbed it in 1994 when winter climbing in the Southern Sector was not very fashionable. Rick Allen and I made an ascent of the original summer line that March, and the following December, Brian Findlay and I climbed the offwidth crack slicing the left side of the buttress. These routes were originally called Quick Dash Buttress (now Sunset Buttress) and Quick Dash Crack because they were climbed on ‘write off’ days when warm fronts were racing across Scotland decimating winter climbing conditions in their wake.

But Lochnagar’s situation on the eastern side of the country can allow you a couple of hour’s grace before the ravages of a forecast thaw if you are really quick. I remember on both occasions we made very early starts and were coiling the ropes at 10am on the plateau at the top of the climbs with our backs to the gale as wet snow turned to rain.

On January 18, Forrest Templeton and I had no forecast thaw to worry about. In fact it was quite the reverse because a fierce frost the night before meant the process of gearing up in the cold was rather a slow affair, but the upside was perfectly frozen turf, beautifully hoared white from the snowfall two days before.

I knew there was a line of turf running straight up the left wall of the buttress (overlooking the gully of Iffy). New Dawn (V,5) gave two absorbing pitches (read long run outs) before finishing up the final upper ridge shared with the other routes. After bumping into James Richardson and Andy Munro fresh from their ascent of Goldilocks in main corrie, we climbed the rib between the unnamed Grade I/II gully to the right of Sunset Boulevard and the impressive slot of The Pod situated on the right side of the buttress. Twilight Hour (IV,6) involved an unlikely sharp arête with hidden positive holds at half-height before easier ground on the upper crest led to the top.

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The Goldilocks Zone

Andy Munro on the first ascent of Goldilocks (IV,5) in the North-East Corrie of Lochnagar. This steep mixed route is spectacularly positioned above the upper reaches of West Gully. (Photo James Richardson)

The Southern Cairngorms have been consistently colder than the northern part of the massif this winter, so the cliffs of Lochnagar quickly came into good mixed climbing condition after the welcome snowfall late last week. On January 18, James Richardson and Andy Munro visited the corrie to attempt Prince of Darkness, a three star VI,7 situated high on West Buttress. This was their third visit to attempt the route, but initially luck was not on their side.

“Andy and I had our third (and final) visit to Prince of Darkness on Friday,” James told me. “Previous attempts have failed due to combinations of poor conditions and incompetence. You could argue these are linked!” Unfortunately, James and Andy were unable to climb the first pitch because it was unfrozen. “We were definitely in the right place'” James explained. “The wet bit on this attempt and the previous visit is on the first pitch – this time it was so minging we didn’t even get to the hard move! The moss was saturated and running with water and really deep. Last year’s visit it had been cold for ages so there is something funny going on. Perhaps there’s a spring, or it’s so sheltered in the gully that it takes a long time to freeze? We also managed to have a fantastic jammed rope abseil adventure on a previous visit, where there was rope friction on the flat edge of the plateau. On that occasion we ended up climbing one of the chimneys opposite to exit!

So this time, we quickly decided on Plan B, which was to climb the line of cracks and corners in the arête to the right of Prince of Darkness. We started level with the ledge at the top of PoD pitch 1 and climbed the arête directly via an obvious groove, stepping left at a small overhang and up the face to a large ledge. Above this we went directly up and followed the buttress crest to the plateau. We called the route Goldilocks and graded it IV,5. It’s in a good situation and the climbing is more amenable than it looks.”

Not only did James and Andy save the day with their ascent of Goldilocks, they also had time for an an early repeat of Quick Dash Crack (IV,5) on Sunset Buttress on their way back down.

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