The lines of Berserker (VI,8) – left, and Shapeshifter (VIII,8) – right, on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm. These two excellent mixed routes lie on the buttress to the left of Deerhound Ridge. (Photo Jamie Skelton)

Jamie Skelton and Dave Almond had an excellent two days climbing in Northern Cairngorms last week that resulted in an early repeat of The Snowpimp (VIII,9) in Coire and Lochain and a new route on Lurcher’s Crag. Berserker (VI,8) takes a parallel line to the left of Shapeshifter (VIII,8), last winter’s fine addition to the crag by Steve Perry, Andy Nisbet and Helen Rennard last winter. Jamie takes up the story:

“Back in January I contacted Steve Perry about doing the second ascent of his route Shapeshifter when he told me of a possible line to the left of that route. I had this in mind when I arranged to climb with Dave Almond for a couple days this week. On November 20 we post holed our way in towards Lurcher’s against a Southeasterly blowing into our faces suspecting the cliffs were going to be stripped bare. Visibility was down to 30m so we decided to head into Lochain and leave Lurcher’s for another day. Eventually we were surprised with the sight of a very heavily hoar frost-covered cliff. The Snowpimp was chosen and after a lot of clearing and a bit of huffing and puffing was duly dispatched.

The following day [November 21] we returned to Lurcher’s with better visibility but worse conditions underfoot. After toiling to the base of the route we geared up and Dave took the first pitch up an awkward V-groove. I lead off up the next pitch involving a short slightly overhanging wall followed by corners and cracks. Half way up I decided the rucksack was making it a bit more of a challenge than I had suspected so we changed to big wall tactics establishing a hanging belay between the very spacious ledge systems and threw in a bit of bag hauling for good measure. Dave accepted the challenge of the crack system to the left of the final arête and enjoyed a bit of a fight before joining the final few moves of Shapeshifter. The route offers hard moves with good rests in-between and has good protection throughout.”

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Early Bird

Oonagh Thin on the first ascent Early Bird (III) on The Saddle in Gen Shiel. The very wet autumn has led to unusual amounts of ice for so early in the season across many parts of the Highlands. (Photo James Milton)

James Milton and Oonagh Thin made an exploratory visit to The Saddle in Kintail on November 16. Their enterprise paid off with the first ascent of Early Bird (III), a two-pitch ice route on the North-West Face. James takes up the story:

“Oonagh and I were in the area for EUMC bothy meet. Having driven up in the dark, a vague outline of snow was enough to convince us to brave a long walk in to attempt to find some in condition climbing. We were fairly certain the Forcan Ridge would be climbable and therefore decided to climb it and try find something on the North-West face of The Saddle. The idea to climb on the face came from looking around the area on FATMAP and OS maps whilst procrastinating. A few vague pictures were enough to justify the approach.

The climb up the Forcan Ridge was brilliant and in great condition. Having summited The Saddle at 11am we descended to under the North-West Face to realise it was significantly less steep or featured than we had thought, although there were a few enticing lines. The most obvious was Big Gully (we were unsure whether this has been climbed in winter), but on reaching the base it seemed its high sides had sheltered it from the snow leaving it very bare. [Big Gully had its first winter ascent courtesy of Andy Nisbet and party in February 1994]. Looking around for another line, we came across a large area of ice, most of it discontinuous, but one clear line looked complete and climbable.

I set off on the first pitch following a series of ice steps, each slightly harder than the last, until I reached a much lower angle section. I followed this up to a large ledge below a steeper and more sustained section of ice, and found a much appreciated rock belay. Oonagh set off up the pitch, easily climbing the sustained ice to top out after 15m. It was a fun little route that was definitely worth the approach in conjunction with the Forcan Ridge.”

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Local Hero

Guy Robertson on the first ascent of Local Hero (VIII,9) on Hayfork Wall on An Teallach. The route was named in memory of the great North-West pioneer and activist Martin Moran. (Photo Greg Boswell)

November 18 was a cold and settled day across the Highlands and Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson made best use of the opportunity with an excellent new route on the Hayfork Wall on An Teallach. Local Hero (VIII,9) takes the left-hand corner system on the main wall to the left to the Wailing Wall area. This 90m-high wall is situated at an altitude of 900m, collects snow readily and is often in condition, and is the home of The Forge (X,10), Greg and Guys’ superb addition from last season.

The wall was first breached by Haystack (VI,7 Andy Nisbet and Dave McGimpsey January 2000), but it was Martin Moran who fully recognised the mixed climbing opportunities when he climbed several new routes including the outstanding line of The Wailing Wall (IX,9) with Murdoch Jamieson in December 2010. Tragically Martin was lost in an expedition in the Indian Himalaya last summer.

“The three-pitch route itself was pretty special, but the weather made it even better!” Greg told me. “The line was enjoyable throughout and had good gear on both hard pitches, but despite first impressions, it was very pumpy with lots of sustained climbing up the overhanging groove system, culminating with some funky out there moves through the steep bulge on the third pitch. All this made for the perfect way to start the season and get the juices flowing.

We settled on the pumpy grade of VIII 9 and called the route Local Hero In memory of Martin, as he had brought this magnificent area to our attention and he was in both of our thoughts throughout the day. It felt only right to name the route in his honour.”

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White Walkers

Mark Robson making the first ascent of White Walker (V,6) on Creagan Cha-no. Good riming and helpful ice-free cracks made last Sunday a perfect opportunity to try this attractively featured granite wall . (Photo Simon Richardson)

Mark Robson and I took the easy option on Sunday November 17 and arrived late at the Cairn Gorm Ciste car park in the full knowledge that others would be ahead of us and making a trail to Creagan Cha-no. The cold snowy weather has provided a good start to the season, but the Cairngorms now have almost too much snow. Teams failed to make it into the Northern Corries on Thursday due to deep drifts. Cha-no is a good alternative in these conditions as its approach slopes are often more scoured by northerly winds, but even so, Mark and I were grateful for the well-beaten track to the top of Recovery Gully.

Teams were already at work on Anvil Corner and Chimney Rib when we arrived, but we headed south to Blood Buttress where we climbed the series of square-cut corners between Half Blood and The Blood is Strong. I’d been wanting to climb this line for some time so it was satisfying to find it was worth the wait and provided a worthwhile IV,5.

We then visited Grooved Pinnacle Wall area and climbed the cracked arête between Fox Gully and Ghost. Mark couldn’t resist trundling a huge flake when he was seconding so it had to be called Vandal’s Arête (IV,5). Mark then redeemed himself by leading the superbly featured wall of flakes and cracks to the right of Ghoul. The ice-free cracks swallowed up cams as Mark moved swiftly upwards towards a menacing final offwidth. I thought this would be real stopper, but an unlikely hidden hold kept the grade of White Walker to a reasonable V,6.

To finish off we climbed the groove and corner to the left of Broomstick Buttress. I’d failed on this last season, and thought that with more snow banking it would be a straightforward Grade II. This would certainly be true if the snow was consolidated , but much wallowing below the final corner meant this was probably the most strenuous Grade II that I have ever climbed.

By the time we arrived it was dark so we were grateful for the trail back to the car park. Last on the crag and last to finish – it had been a good day.

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All Go on The Stooee

Dave Kerr approaching the through route on the second known ascent of The Stooee Chimney (IV,7) on Lochnagar. The original climb climbed the outside of the chokestone at IV,7, but taking the more logical through route was thought to be worth a more amenable IV,6. (Photo Erick Baillot)

I was intrigued to find out that Erick Bailot and Dave Kerr climbed The Stooee Chimney on The Stuic on Lochnagar on Sunday November 10. The Stooee Chimney is the obvious central line and was the first route ever attempted on the North-West Face way back in November 1995. Stymied by a huge chokestone, I returned two months later and climbed it with Gordon Scott. I can’t remember if the through route was blocked or not that day, but we found a strenuous way around the outside of the chokestone and graded the route IV,7. I suspect this rating has put off subsequent ascents and I’m pretty sure that Erick and Dave’s ascent is the first repeat.

“We had a grand old day in Coire an Eun,” Erick told me. “Neither of us had ever been before. Being back to the car by 16:00 felt luxurious and I managed to make it back home to eat dinner with my kids after two routes! We started with Morning Has Broken (V,6) and then did The Stooee Chimney which we both found really fun. We went into the through route probably at an easier grade (IV,6?) then on the outside and right as per description. It was too inviting to ignore.

So this season’s count officially opened with two routes we’re happy to give two stars each. We weren’t the only team there – Stuart MacFarlane and Robin Clothier on Saturday [they climbed First Light (IV,5) and Stegosaurus Rib (II)] and an Aberdonian team doing two easier lines further east.”

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Winter Starts

Mark Robson emerging from the cloud during the first ascent of Mixed Blessings (III,5) in Coire nan Clach on Braeriach. The highest Cairngorms cliffs have long approaches but typically provide good early season mixed. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Winter in the Scottish Highlands started in late October when a cold north-westerly deposited a layer of snow on the West. Conditions were typically early season, with the turf not fully frozen, and the best climbing conditions were found in the colder and less snowy Cairngorms with routes climbed in the Northern Corries, Creagan Cha-no and Braeriach.

An unhelpful thaw over the first weekend in November curtailed activity, but there was more snow last week, this time mainly in the East. Teams climbing mid-week in the West reported well frozen turf but little snow, whilst those climbing in the Northern Corries found fresh powder overlying terrain that was not always completely frozen.

Mark Robson and I decided to head into Coire nan Clach on Braeriach on November 8. I’d been in there the previous week and was confident the corrie was high enough to provide good climbing conditions. An unexpected early morning blizzard deposited a couple of inches of low lying snow that nearly put us off committing to the long approach, but fortunately we persevered. Knowing that the weather was forecast to improve through the day we purposely made a late start, and found helpful conditions of frozen turf and powder covered rock whilst making the first ascent of Mixed Blessings (III,5) on the buttress to the left of Schoolmaster’s Gully. As Mark led the steep crux pitch, the cloud base slowly lowered beneath us and we were treated to a spectacular inversion with the cliff bathed in the late afternoon light. Scotland at its best!

We finished by climbing Luxembourg Rib (II) by torchlight, an excellent outing under powder, and then descended by the light of the waxing moon.

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Scottish Winter Climbing Meet – Call For Hosts

Takaaki Nagato from Japan making the first ascent of Sake (VIII,9) on Number Three Gully Buttress on Ben Nevis. This difficult three-pitch route, which takes the left side of the wall between Babylon and Winter Chimney, was one of the highlights of the 2012 Scottish Winter Meet. (Photo Simon Frost)

The Scottish Winter Climbing Meet has been a highlight on the international climbing calendar for 20 years and has attracted climbers from across the world eager to experience the unique Scottish winter experience. The meet has been running since 1997 and was last held by the British Mountaineering Council in 2016. Overseas guests will be paired up with experienced UK-based hosts – an excellent formula that has proved to be very successful in the past. In return for sharing their local knowledge and expertise, UK climbers gain a wider perspective by climbing with their (often very accomplished) international visitors. In previous years many hosts and guests have formed strong partnerships that have gone on to make major ascents further afield and in the Greater Ranges.

Invitations to overseas federations for guests to attend the 2020 Scottish Winter Climbing Meet have just been sent out, and applications for hosts are now open:

Host Experience

  • You must be 18 years old or over.
  • You need to be a competent climber with experience of winter climbing in Scotland.
  • Your technical lead grade is less important than the need to be an experienced and competent winter climber with sound navigation skills and the ability to cope safely with all that Scotland can throw at you.
  • You need to be skilled at winter navigation, especially in whiteout conditions.
  • Some guests may have done little or no winter climbing, so it is essential that you feel confident climbing with such partners.
  • You need to be a MS / BMC / MI / AC/ SMC member.

Your Role

  • You will be teamed up with an international guest climber. Your role is to climb together and show them what winter climbing in Scotland is all about.
  • If possible, partnerships will be changed during the week so that you can climb with different people.

Venue & Dates

  • Venue: Start and finish at Aviemore Youth Hostel.
  • Intervening five days will be based at SMC Huts. Every climber will spend at least one night in the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis.
  • Dates: Saturday 22 to Saturday 29 February 2020.
  • Arrival evening: Saturday 22 February (no climbing on this day).
  • Host briefing (it is important that all hosts attend): Saturday 22 February at 8pm.
  • Climbing for six days – Sunday to Friday.
  • Evening celebration event – Aviemore, Friday 28 February.
  • Departure day: Saturday 29 February (no climbing on this day).
  • The event is heavily subsidised by Mountaineering Scotland, BMC, Alpine Club and the SMC.

How To Apply

  • Please read the Host Information Sheet on the Mountaineering Scotland website, complete the Host Application Form and submit by Friday 22 November 2019. 
  • Mountaineering Scotland will contact all applicants by 6 December to let them know the outcome of their application.
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Book Review – Crazy Sorrow

Crazy Sorrow edited by Grant Farquhar describes the life of Alan and Mullin, one of the most influential Scottish winter climbers of all time. The cover shows a Heinz Zak photo showing Alan Mullin climbing at Rudolfshutte in Austria. The book was published by Atlantis Publishing in August and is available from Amazon.

Crazy Sorrow is a significant book. It documents the life of Alan Mullin who stands alongside Raeburn, Patey, Smith and Nisbet as one of great innovators of Scottish winter climbing. Grant Farquhar should be congratulated for not only describing the life story of this important pioneer, but also for capturing the spirit of a key period in Scottish climbing history.

Alan Mullin made an unconventional entry into the world of climbing. He joined the army at the age of 16, and spent eight years in active service before he retired due to an injured back. Without the constraint of a full time job, he was able to turn his considerable energy to Scottish winter climbing. After experimenting with some of the easier routes in the Northern Corries, he was leading difficult Grade VI within 12 months. He formed a strong partnership with Steve Paget, and in October 1998 (Alan’s third season), they made the second winter ascent of The Needle (VIII,8) on the Shelter Stone.

The following year Mullin and Paget upped their game a notch further and returned to the Shelter Stone to make the first winter ascent of The Steeple (IX,9) with the Dusk till Dawn Variation. The route was climbed in a single 24-hour push by climbing continuously through the night. Two weeks later, Mullin was in the headlines again with the first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder, an E1 rock climb on the Tough-Brown Face of Lochnagar. This was the first (and only) time a new Grade VIII had ever been soloed. It stunned the climbing world, not least because no other party made it into the corrie that day as the weather was so bad. Niall Ritchie’s long distance shot of Alan climbing the route with avalanches crashing down either side (reproduced in the book), remains one of the most iconic winter climbing photos ever taken.

The impact of these routes on the Scottish winter climbing scene was electric. It normally takes years of experience to acquire the spectrum of skills necessary to climb high standard winter routes, so how could a relative newcomer operate at the highest standards of the day? The answer partly lay in Alan’s rigorous training regime, but mainly in the total focus and unswerving determination he applied to his routes. As someone new to the Scottish winter game, Alan was unencumbered by the weight of history, and almost unknowingly smashed his way through psychological barriers. Many other climbers realised that they could also increase their performance, and over a couple of seasons in the late 1990s, average standards rose a full grade. No longer were Grade VIIs the province of the elite, but they were accessible by weekend climbers too.

Despite the inspiration Alan provided, he had an uneasy relationship with the climbing community. He claimed to respect no other climber’s achievements, but in effect, he deeply craved recognition by his peers. At first this was forthcoming, but eventually it became increasingly withheld as it was realised that the majority of his ascents were flawed. Several of his routes were climbed when not fully in condition, and others used a point or two of aid. Whilst Alan was always honest about the manner of his climbs, his enthusiasm to describe the intensity of his experience meant that he sometimes forgot to immediately relate all the details.

Alan was on a quest to find a Scottish climb that was comparable in technical difficulty to the hardest bolt protected climbs elsewhere. In November 2002 he fulfilled his dream when he made the first winter ascent of Crazy Sorrow, a difficult E3 6a on the Tough-Brown Face of Lochnagar with Steve Lynch. The route goes through a huge roof on the second pitch with scant protection. Alan graded it X,11 and suggested it was a contender for the hardest traditional mixed climb in the world. Unfortunately the gloss was taken off this remarkable lead by allegations that he had inspected the route beforehand, and climbed it when it was out of condition. Once the photos were published it was clear that the route was in bona fide winter condition, but once again Alan’s impatience had got the better of him and he had abseiled off after the crux pitch and failed to complete the route.

Frozen Sorrow was the last of Alan’s great climbs, and he announced his retirement soon after. He was clearly disenchanted with the climbing world for not recognising his achievements on his terms, but his body was also taking the toll from his intense training regime, and he was living with a series of chronic injuries. Alan found it impossible to control the demons that had driven him so hard during his short but remarkable climbing career, and tragically, he took his own life in March 2007.

Grant Farquhar has made an important contribution to Scottish mountain history by pulling together this account of Alan Mullin’s all too short and turbulent life. Crazy Sorrow is based on Alan’s writings, contemporary accounts by other climbers and more recent interviews. Grant skilfully adds colour to the climbing narrative with accounts of Alan’s tough upbringing and brutal time in the army that sets the context for Alan’s later climbing career. Grant is a professional psychologist and is well placed to explain the internal conflicts that Alan faced at the end of his life.

Crazy Sorrow is not a comfortable read, but it documents a vibrant and important phase of Scottish climbing. The tragedy of the Alan Mullin story is that Alan never recognised his profound influence on the climbing world. If he had, his life may not have been so troubled, and perhaps he would still be with us today.

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Book Review – The Big Rounds

The Big Rounds by David Lintern describes running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. The book was published by Cicerone in August and retails at £18.95.

There is a strong cross over between mountain running and winter mountaineering. Both are endurance sports that demand a high level of fitness and no small amount of focus and determination. Many winter climbers run to keep fit and enjoy the exhilaration of moving fast and light over mountain terrain. Indeed, Wendy Dodds, the first person to complete the Paddy Buckley Round and one of the runners profiled in the book, describes herself ‘more than a mountaineer than a runner’.

David Lintern’s innovative book about running and walking the Big Rounds – the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay – will appeal to many hill goers. All three rounds involve just over 8000m ascent. The Bob Graham is the most well known and traverses much of the high ground in the Lake District over 61 miles. The Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay rounds are located in Snowdonia and the Western Highlands and are 62 and 57 miles long. The rounds are described in increasing difficulty with the Bob Graham first, followed by the Buckley and finally the Ramsay. Even though it five miles shorter and less technically challenging, the Ramsay edges the Buckley as the most difficult because it is more remote, has poorer weather and is harder to reconnoitre.

What particularly attracted me to this book is that it puts as much emphasis on walking these great rounds as running them. Sure they may involve two or three overnight camps, but they set significant challenges for hill walkers. After a detailed introduction, David describes each round in turn with a detailed route guide, followed by a section on practicalities, history and then a personal runner’s story.

This strong emphasis on people is followed up by nine interviews with ‘People of the Rounds’ from Nicky Spinks to Charlie Ramsay himself. The interviews include quotes such a ‘Big fun hill days – it’s as simple as that’ and ‘You don’t need to be super-human’ that will no doubt provide inspiration for us mere mortals to get off the couch and attempt one of these great expeditions, whether wearing walking boots or running shoes.

I enjoyed studying The Big Rounds. The 192-page book is beautifully produced in A5 format and illustrated with inspiring photos and the all-important maps showing each round are especially clear. Unfortunately my hill running days are well behind me, but walking one of these rounds is now firmly on the To Do List!

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Scottish International Winter Meet 2020

Canadian climber Jon Walsh making the first ascent of Making the Cut (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe’s Central Buttress during the 2014 Scottish International Winter Meet. This sensational climb takes the soaring crack-line left of West Central Gully. (Photo Greg Boswell)

Fantastic news – the winter meet is back!

Today, Mountaineering Scotland announced that they will be hosting the 2020 International Scottish Winter Meet.

The meet has been running since 1997 and was last held by the British Mountaineering Council in 2016. The event has attracted climbers from all over the world eager to experience the unique Scottish winter experience. Overseas guests will paired up with experienced UK-based hosts – an excellent tried and tested formula that has proved to be very successful. In return for sharing their local knowledge and expertise, UK climbers gain a wider perspective by climbing with their (sometimes very accomplished) international visitors. In previous years several hosts and guests have formed strong partnerships that have gone on to make major ascents further afield and in the Greater Ranges. This is not an elitist event however, and will be open to a cross-section of climbers and abilities.

Starting in Aviemore on Saturday February 22, the week-long event is a result of close partnership with the British Mountaineering Council, the Alpine Club and the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and will be part of a programme of events and activities in 2020 to celebrate 50 years of Mountaineering Scotland.

The format will be different to previous years. Instead of being based in a single location, climbers will rotate between huts, and all participants will spend at least one night in the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis. The event will finish with a celebration event in Aviemore on Friday February 29 that will be open to the wider Scottish winter climbing community.

How to become involved, either as a host or by offering support, will be communicated by Mountaineering Scotland in October.

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