Clockwork Orange

Stuart Macfarlane on the first pitch of Clockwork Orange (V,4) on Beinn an Lochain in the Southern Highlands. Last week’s ice blast brought a good variety of routes into condition right across the country. (Photo Brian Shackleton)

Stuart McFarlane on the first pitch of Clockwork Orange (V,4) on Beinn an Lochain in the Southern Highlands. Last week’s ice blast brought a good variety of routes into condition right across the country. (Photo Brian Shackleton)

Southern Highlands aficionado Stuart McFarlane is nearing the end of his quest to climb all the Grade V routes in the Southern Highlands.

“After the strong north-westerlies had been blowing hard for a few days, I arranged to go climbing with Brian Shackleton in Arrochar on January 13,” Stuart explained. “I had an inkling that the exposed Beinn an Lochain may be frozen and icy, and perhaps Bakerloo Line, one of my few remaining Grade Vs in the Southern Highlands would be in? This was confirmed as we battled against the wind, up the North-East Ridge, finding shelter beneath Kinglas Crag. But what’s that parallel line to the right…?”

The result of Stuart and Brian’s visit to Beinn an Lochain was the first ascent of Clockwork Orange (V,4). This takes a parallel line to Bakerloo line, following a right-sloping fault, with key passages on thin ice and ever-increasing exposure. Above the route steps left beneath a roof, before committing to a thinly iced wall above.

The number of Grade Vs on Stuart’s To Do list is unchanged, but there is now another excellent mixed climbing addition to the Southern Highlands!

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Creagan Cha-no Additions

Ivor McCourt pulling out from the niche and out over the blocks at the top of Asthma Finish (III,4) to Plasma Gully on Creagan Cha-no. Despite the lean conditions there are still new additions to be found even on well-known cliffs such as Cha-no. (Photo Jon Foden)

Ivor McCourt pulling out from the niche and out over the blocks at the top of Asthma Finish (III,4) to Plasma Gully on Creagan Cha-no. Despite the lean conditions there were still new additions to be found even on well-known cliffs such as Cha-no. (Photo Jon Foden)

“We had a cracking day out on Creagan Cha-no on Thursday (January 5),” Jon (Nettle) Foden writes. “Although conditions were thin on the trade routes, by sticking to the shady side of the buttresses Ivor McCourt and I managed to find a couple of routes in good condition, one of which may have been a new line. As well as doing Captain Fairweather we headed up Plasma Gully and took a 20m finish up the left wall. Although the line was short, it was really good fun and a great option in these conditions.”

Martin (Wilf) Holland and Euan Whitaker were also climbing on Cha-no that day and climbed Big Boy Made Me (II,3), the gully immediately left of Once We Were Alpinists. “The name is Euan’s based on the fact I had to encourage him to climb it rather than an existing line,” Wilf explained. Upon returning to the valley Euan and Wilf thought the route may have been climbed before, but further research showed that it hadn’t been recorded after all. As always, its worth checking the New Routes section of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal <http://www.smc.org.uk/new-routes> if you think you have climbed new ground.

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Topsy-Turvy

Roger Webb above the awkward squeeze-slot on a new III,5 in Coire an Lochain on Braeriach. Deep thaws and limited snowfall led to verglassed cracks on the steeper routes high in the Northern Corries, so the most enjoyable climbing was possibly on the lower-angled turfy mixed lines in the higher Cairngorms corries.

Roger Webb above the awkward squeeze-slot on a new III,5 in Coire an Lochain on Braeriach. Although a short thaw followed by a sudden freeze led to verglassed cracks on the steeper routes, there was enjoyable climbing on lower-angled turfy mixed lines in the high Cairngorms corries. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The topsy-turvy season continues. A brief thaw on January 3 followed by a dry cold snap was not the best recipe for good winter climbing. The Scottish mountains are unusually dry at the moment and the freeze thaws should be consolidating snow and ice instead of merely freezing bare ground. Mixed conditions in the Cairngorms were saved by a couple of hour’s snowfall on Wednesday morning that put a layer of white on the high north facing cliffs. The price for the sudden freeze was verglassed cracks, and those venturing onto the steeper rimed routes in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries had a testing time. Nevertheless, several teams battled up modern classics such as The Migrant, Savage Slit, Deep Throat and Overseer Direct, and Murdoch Jamieson and Guy Steven made an impressive ascent of The Vicar (VII,8), noting wryly that their cams were merely being used for ballast.

Further afield, Andy Nisbet found a new Grade II on Mullach Fraoch-choire in Kintail and the following day (January 5) Roger Webb and I visited Braeriach where we climbed a new III,5 in Coire an Lochain. It’s now back to thawing temperatures for the weekend but there are hints of colder weather towards the end of the month. The good news is that the ground is frozen in the high mountains, and snowed up rock and turfy mixed routes will be quick to come into condition once the cold weather returns. Fingers crossed!

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Cat and Mouse

Roger Webb pulling the ropes through on the easy upper section of Shark (V,7) on Braeriach. High north facing aspects in the Cairngorms were well rimed on 2 January as a result of snowfall on New Years Day and strong north-westerly winds (Photo Simon Richardson)

Roger Webb on the easy upper section of Shark (V,7) on Braeriach. High north facing aspects in the Cairngorms were frozen and well rimed on 2 January as a result of snowfall on New Years Day and strong north-westerly winds. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The cat and mouse game of finding good winter climbing conditions continues. The forecast icy blast on New Years Day promised much for January 2, but the snowfall was significantly less than predicted and mainly limited to the Cairngorms and the North-West. Following the previous days high temperatures, it really limited choice to mixed climbs in the Northern Cairngorms or easier classics high up on Ben Nevis.

In the Northern Corries, the more exposed Coire an Lochain proved the best option with ascents of The Hoarmaster, Deep Throat, Sidewinder, The Migrant, Hooker’s Corner and The Overseer Direct. Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell made an early repeat of Open Heart (VIII,9), a very strenuous route linking the first pitch of Ventricle with Ventriloquist on No. 1 Buttress. The turf was reported as ‘a bitty soggy’ on Mess of Pottage in the neighbouring Coire an t-Sneachda, although Droidless was climbed, and across on Creagan Cha-no, Anvil Corner and Anvil Gully also saw ascents.

On Ben Nevis, Tower, Number Two and Number Three gullies provided good sport in the exceptionally lean conditions and there was at least one ascent of Tower Ridge. The ever-reliable left flanking wall of Number Three Gully Buttress accumulated hoar frost and there were ascents of the classic line of Number Three Gully Buttress itself, as well as Hobgoblin and El Nino.

On the new route front, Andy Nisbet soloed a new Grade II on Lurcher’s Crag and Roger Webb and I made the long haul into Braeriach where we climbed Shark (V,7) and the delightful Stickleback Rib (II). Temperatures rose above the tops today (January 3), and the forecast of a brief colder spell followed by another thaw later in the week will keep us all guessing for a little while yet.

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Blink And You Miss It

The great North-East Corrie of Lochnagar on the morning of December 28. The eastern edge of the Cairngorms held on to cold air a little longer than the bulk of the Cairngorms before warm south-westerlies swept in later in the day. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The great North-East Corrie of Lochnagar on the morning of December 28. The eastern edge of the Cairngorms held on to cold air a little longer than the bulk of the Highlands before warm south-westerlies swept in later in the day. (Photo Simon Richardson)

“Blink and You Miss It!” Mark Chadwick exclaimed on Facebook after making a well timed ascent of an attractively rimed Auricle (VI,7) in Coire an Lochain with Duncan Hodgson. Following the Christmas Day thaw and Boxing Day storm, winter conditions made a welcome return on December 27 and several teams visited the Northern Corries climbing The Message, The Seam and The Migrant. Nearby, Andy Nisbet, Sandy Allan and Susan Jensen soloed a couple of new routes on Lurcher’s Crag, and further west ascents of Number Two Gully Buttress and Wedigo were reported on The Ben.

Unfortunately this was a very short weather window as warm weather rolled in to the Western Highlands that night and temperatures were soon above the tops. Lochnagar held onto the cold for a few more precious hours, and Ben Richardson and I nipped in early the following morning to climb the buttress between Resolution Gully and Lunar Eclipse on Perseverance Wall. A succession of turfy grooves provided a good little IV,4 before the temperatures rose in the afternoon. The weather gods have kept us guessing so far this season, but fingers crossed the icy blast forecast just after New Year results in some good winter climbing.

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Winter on The Sentinel

The view looking across the Southern Sector of Lochnagar from The Sentinel. There was a surprising amount of snow on the mountain on December 22. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The view looking across the Southern Sector of Lochnagar towards Cental Buttress from The Sentinel. There was a surprising amount of snow on the mountain on December 22. (Photo Simon Richardson)

This winter continues to be a frustrating one. A cold snap before Christmas saw Sophie Grace Chapell and I heading for the Southern Sector of Lochnagar. The buttresses on the left side corrie have a westerly aspect, which makes them a good choice early in the season when cooling winds are coming from the west. Given the popularity of mixed climbing, late December can hardly be considered early season nowadays, but after the warm dry December, the mountains were in autumn condition, and we needed something that would freeze fast.

The wind had blowing for two days and there was a healthy fall of snow the night before so Lochnagar was looking encouragingly white. Another team pushed on to climb Never Say Die (III,4) on the left side of Perseverance Wall, but the shapely buttress of The Sentinel (home of the popular Jacob’s Slabs) was looking in surprisingly good shape. This is the most accessible cliff on Lochnagar, but it can be awkward to find it in good condition. Cold dry North-West winds tend to strip it bare, whilst it can become swamped with snow following a stormy easterly. Thursday was just right with the turf frozen, snow on ledges and ramps, and the steeper rocks rimed.

We made the first winter ascent of Paladin (V,6), a summer Severe I climbed with Chris Hill several years ago. We started up a long ropelength of easy ground to gain the upper two pitches, which provided good technical climbing. The ‘steep slab with small holds’ provided more than enough interest in the gale force winds and we had to wait for the 80mph gusts to subside before making the next move. You pay your money and take your choice in situations like this – we deliberately selected a route exposed to the wind so it would be frozen, but of course we paid the price in terms of having to bear the brunt of the wind.

A large amount of snow fell during the climb and on the way down to the Meikle Col we were up to our waists in snow, and there were deep drifts all the way down the track back to the forest.

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Lean Times in Raeburn’s Gully

Gavin Mackenzie tip-toeing up thin ice on the first pitch of Raeburn’s Gully on Lochnagar in early December. (Photo Adam Archibald)

Gavin Mackenzie tip-toeing up thin ice on the first pitch of Raeburn’s Gully on Lochnagar in early December. (Photo Adam Archibald)

Before the high pressure properly set in at the beginning of December there were some fine days with cool nights. Winter climbing looked pretty hopeless, but the deep gullies high in the Cairngorms kept a little snow and ice. Several enterprising ascents were made during this period, and Adam Archibald sent me an account of an ascent of Raeburn’s Gully on Lochnagar with Gavin Mackenzie. It just shows that all is not lost, even when the hills appear completely stripped of snow and ice.

“We had a cracking day on Lochnagar yesterday (December 4). In general terms, the turf was frozen and there was more than I’d expected in the way of a cosmetic dusting of snow on some of the buttresses, especially the Tough Brown Face. The Cathedral, Sinister Buttress etc were as black as can be. Higher up and as the temperatures plummeted towards the end of the day there was some riming going on.

In terms of the route, it was great sport, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the beautifully scenic Grade II solo romp on neve and ice which I had in it two years ago – the wonder of winter routes! It kept us guessing right to the top, and there were signs of recent retreat at one or two points. We soloed up to the main ice pitch, mostly on decent ice plus some veg where the stream had washed things away. The ice on said pitch was thin but eminently climbable.

Above, it was mostly good ice underfoot plus some neve, excepting two further chockstone steps, the first of which was only partially iced – awkward – and the second – an almost holdless slab – not at all, giving a perplexing finish within 50m of the top. Gav, belaying directly below, was very glad that I found a solution that didn’t involve a crampon-led slump back to the belay nor the combined tactics which had initially looked necessary.

Topping out to the remains of the sunset above an inversion was utterly magical, perhaps all the sweeter for knowing that we’d managed to climb on a day when the rest of the populace was muddying their boots at Newtyle or freezing their hands on the sea cliffs!”

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Early Season Update

Uisdean Hawthorn leading the steep corner-chimney on the second pitch of Avenging Angel Direct (VIII,8) on Ben Nevis. This very steep route is steadily acquiring the reputation as one of the finest mixed climbs on the mountain. (Photo Adam Russell)

Uisdean Hawthorn leading the steep corner-chimney on the second pitch of Avenging Angel Direct (VIII,8) on Ben Nevis during the November cold snap. This very steep route is steadily acquiring the reputation as one of the finest mixed climbs on the mountain. (Photo Adam Russell)

By any measure it’s been a slow start to the season. During the cold snap in November many climbers enjoyed good climbing on the well known early season venues in the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis, but a major thaw followed by a sustained high pressure kept winter climbing at bay until the current series of storms on the run up to Christmas.

Together with the first ascents already reported on scottishwinter.com a handful of new routes have been added to the Southern Highlands, Lochnagar, the Loch Avon Basin, Creagan Cha-no and A’Chralaig in the North-West. For the most part these have been in the mid grades, and little high standard activity has taken place.

One of the most difficult routes climbed so far this season was the fourth complete ascent of Avenging Angel Direct (VIII,8) on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis by Adam Russell and Uisdean Hawthorn on November 23. This route was first climbed in its entirety by Jim Higgins and Neil Adams in February 2013 followed by Erick Bailot and Pete Macpherson on Novenber 24 2013. It was repeated with a Direct Start by Iain Small and Tony Stone the following winter. “We thought maybe four stars, certainly three,” Uisdean told me. “It’s the best route I have done up in the Number Three Gully area apart from Han Solo – but I think that is for more personal reasons!”

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Silver Fox

The line of Silver Fox (V,5) on the South Face of Sgurr Mhiccoinnich on Skye. This sustained five-pitch route follows a basalt dyke for most of its length. (Photo/Topo: Mike Lates)

The line of Silver Fox (V,5) on the South Face of Sgurr Mhiccoinnich on Skye. This sustained five-pitch route follows a basalt dyke for most of its length. (Photo/Topo: Mike Lates)

On November 19, Mike Lates and Sophie Grace Chappell made an excellent early season addition to Coire Lagan in the Cuillin with the first ascent of the 235m-long Silver Fox (V,5). “The long curving fault line from the corrie floor to the crest of Sgurr Mhiccoinnich has been on my radar for many years,” Mike explained. “It was a victory of venue theory put into practice. Cold and a good forecast equals definitely something to climb in the Cuillin. Very much along the lines of what I’ve read of your new book, but somewhat stuck in my own wonderful groove!”

Sophie Grace provided more details about the climb:

“It’s four or five pitches of superb climbing. The basalt is not always very helpful, and there was a whole lot of powder but there wasn’t a whole lot of ice. You repeatedly find yourself with your back or your right shoulder wedged into a bottomless left-facing corner, often undercut and overhanging, with plenty of right-hand hooks and placements in the depths of the corner (but careful – it’s loose in there), and bugger-all out on the sleek basalt powder-covered slabs to your left, which are only too solid. Footwork needs to be good, and tends to involve a single teetering crampon-point striking sparks out of some tiny rounded nubbin. As Mike said, it’s all about opposing forces. Bridging is your friend here. Foot-jams, knee-jams, elbow-jams, thigh-jams, pack-jams and full-body-jams were also deployed. So quite thought-provoking at times, and generally speaking much harder than it looks until the much more user-friendly gabbro kicks in on the final pitch, which is the steepest and most fearsome-looking bit of the whole route, and nowhere near the hardest bit.

The route provided a brilliant day’s climbing. Mike led it like a boss, and I got up it with the odd wobble and squeak, but without actually falling off anything. Standing on belay in the sunshine at 2500ft in knee-deep snow, looking out over Coire Lagain to Loch Brittle, over Canna and Rum and Muck, to Pabbay and Mingulay and the infinite ocean beyond is not something I will forget in a hurry. Mike’s seen these conditions hundreds of times before, of course, but this was my first winter day ever on Skye. We were talking animals – he told me how when he did the winter Cuillin traverse he was following a fox’s footprints all the way from Bruach na Frithe to Gars Bheinn.

There was only ever one possible name for the route. After plenty brainstorming from us both during the day – slightly held back for most of it by the fact that until well after sunset we didn’t know for sure we were going to finish it – Mike finally nailed the name at the top of the walk-off… It is of course The Silver Fox (V,5).”

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Theory of Relativity

Steve Perry on the crux section of Theory of Relativity (VII,9) during the first ascent. This fierce technical problem is one of two new routes added to Lurcher’s Crag in the Northern Cairngorms this season. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

Steve Perry on the crux section of Theory of Relativity (VII,9) during the first ascent. This fierce technical problem is one of two new routes added to Lurcher’s Crag in the Northern Cairngorms this season. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

“Last February I’d been soloing some new routes on the southern end of Lurcher’s Crag with Andy Nisbet,” Steve Perry writes, “when we came across a very steep looking corner-cum-groove line that Andy thought looked about Tech 9 (he’s usually right). On a day of soloing Grade III’s we certainly weren’t psyched for jumping on anything so hard, but we kept it in mind, although good late season ice stopped us from returning.

After a few early season warm up routes in the Northern Corries, we agreed to go and take another look at this corner along with Jonathan Preston (November 7). Conditions on the descent from the top of Lurcher’s Gully looked promising in the thick mist, and contouring in under the crag confirmed our hopes – the corner was in! I had made the most noise about the line, so found myself on the sharp end with Jonathan on belay and Andy taking photos.

The crux was definitely going to be an overhanging groove around 10m up, so I was quite surprised to find myself hanging backwards off my axes on the very start whilst trying to gain the ramp, though good placements in the corner crack and an half decent peg saw me on to it. This was even steeper than it looked! The ramp went fine and I was soon pulling onto a stance beneath the crux, where standing up was quite precarious. The pick-friendly corner crack on the ramp was shallow and unhelpful, so I pushed an axe up with my fingertips and hoped it would sink – no such luck. I did however find a bomber nut at head height, which threw out any excuses not to try. Both sides of the groove where smooth, but a crack high on the right wall saw the axe pick disappear and it was time to take a look.

I pulled up on the one axe with both arms, locked off and reached higher up that right wall with the other axe and found another great placement. My left front point now found a tiny edge and by bridging out, so did my right. The next axe placement was the left and blind but felt ok. I now hurried to get my left foot high on an obvious rail and take some weight off which I managed with a body swing, but even then no weight really came off. A last ditch effort saw me pull completely over the overhanging section into what was now only slightly overhanging and the nut now well below. A few frantic seconds of digging for higher axe placements never worked, though I found a great hex placement which I could only stare at as the forearm fuse finally burned out – I could do nothing but let go… boom… the nut held!

On the next attempt I went straight for the good hex and then dug out the higher placements – they were there after all. I now moved up to a plinth belay and climbed onto it like mounting a horse – the gracious art of winter climbing!

Andy, and then Jonathan joined me at the belay where we let Jonathan climb through onto the final cracked headwall, which had some great hooks and a tricky final move. The rest was easy ground. Grading wasn’t easy for a short route but the illusion of steepness suggested the name Theory of Relativity (VII,9).

November 23 saw us hiking back into Lurcher’s and trying a new line to the right which Jonathan had spotted. This time we were joined by my girlfriend Sarah Sigley. The conditions on descent seemed worse than before but we found this new groove line was quite deep and hidden from the sun. Andy took up the lead and immediately found himself in the middle of a steep boulder problem start, whilst at the same time trying to place a peg one handed – he managed. Scabby turf in the back had frozen well and helped him reach deep cracks up left where he gained ground ahead of some tricky moves as the groove snaked back right. The rope continued to pay out and then he was out of sight.

We heard the shout for safe and I went first, then Sarah. The groove opened out to Andy’s belay and above was a short wall with a hard looking hanging groove or a huge block chimney to the left. We decided on the chimney. Tricky moves and good gear helped me get stood on the huge block, where across the gap, deep hooks led to a difficult short wall mantel. The route now moved rightwards up easier ground to a short corner, which could be climbed direct or via a thin arête comprising upright blocks. I went for the arête and after passing over the top of the corner, found myself at the same belay as the top of Theory of Relativity. Safe!

The bottom pitch was quite sustained so we decided on the name Wolfpack (VI,7). The name derived from the fact that this was the last new line left on Lurcher’s (if you believe that) and thus became quite anticipated, with five people hoping to get on it the week before! Unfortunately everyone was turned back by strong winds that day.”

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