Table Rib

John Higham high up on Cul Mor’s Table Rib (III,4) during the first winter ascent. This 400m-long climb is the longest new winter route reported so far this season. (Photo Iain Young)

Iain Young and John Higham pulled off a superbly-timed piece of exploratory winter mountaineering yesterday (January 28) when they made the first winter ascent of Table Rib (III,4) on Cul Mor. Iain takes up the story:

“In the last few days, it’s been good to see winter back. Luckily John Higham and I had set aside a few days this week in which to try to get something done and yesterday we went back to Cul Mor for a winter ascent of Table Rib.

We had talked about this as a possible objective for a few years, but the southerly aspect and low start meant we needed a cold snap, snow to low levels in the west and an early season day so that the sun doesn’t get too high. We figured that we had the right ingredients yesterday and so it proved. A fairly arduous approach via the gorgeous little Loch an Doire Dubh led to the approach gully and the start of the “slimy slabs”.

While they were dribbling with (unusable) ice these gave John a few nerve-wracking moments on the way to the ridge line as the turf wasn’t always fully frozen and there were no runners (these turfy slabs catch all the morning sun going). Above, some short technical moves on much improved turf and the odd hook move led to the top of the Table in around 400m of pitched climbing and moving together.

The summer route seems to have been followed more or less in its entirety though the final sting in the tail was climbed via a steep turfy groove to the left. A superb expedition in a wild part of the country. As to the grade, III, 4 we thought. On the other hand, I’ve soloed Tower Ridge in winter but I would not have soloed this! “

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The Arc of Profanity

The line of The Arc of Profanity (VI,8) on the Left-Hand-Buttress of Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm. The route saw its first ascent by Dave Brookes and Jules Harris on Saturday. Two months earlier they made the second ascent of The Edge of Profanity (V,7) that takes the crack-line up the vertical wall to the left. (Archive Photo Dave Brookes)

While making the second ascent of The Edge of Profanity in November, Dave Brookes and Jules Harris noted that there was further new route potential on the Left-Hand Buttress of Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm. On January 18 they returned to the cliff and made the first ascent of an excellent technical test-piece called The Arc of Profanity (VI,8).

“To the right of Edge of Profanity there is a vertical curving crack that becomes overhanging,” Dave told me. “It leads right into a small roof and then out onto the buttress above.

Last Saturday conditions at Creagan Cha-No were at long last properly frozen again. Jules and I headed back to Left-Hand Buttress with the aim of climbing this line. It took three attempts before I worked out the moves to get through the roof clean – the first two attempts involved various whippers.

From the foot of the route the whole thing looks a bit unlikely but it’s a fantastic route and it’s all there. Initially the crack provides some good gear and solid hooks. The final moves through the roof and out onto the buttress above are hard and would be a tricky on-sight. I’m undecided on the grade although somewhere around VI,7 or VI,8. I propose naming the route The Arc of Profanity.”

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More on Cruachan

Robin Clothier and Stuart MacFarlane on the summit ridge of Ben Cruachan after the first ascent of One of Nine (IV,5) on Noe Buttress earlier this season. The active duo added another new route called Double OO (IV,4) to the buttress last week. (Photo Stuart MacFarlane)

It’s been a very lean January so far, but following their first ascent of One of Nine (IV,5) on Ben Cruachan in November, Southern Highlands pioneers Stuart MacFarlane and Robin Clothier added another new route to Noe Buttress on January 10. Stuart takes up the story:

“After studying forecasts and reading reports, where could we find some climbing before weather turned poor again last weekend? Unfortunately, my suggestion of Ben Cruachan, didn’t fill either of us with enthusiasm over that walk in!

Signs of winter started to appear below reservoir, more so between there and col, and fresh snow and hoar started to appear on the rocks leading up to summit. Even the descent down Easy Gully was neve, much more pleasant than usual frozen scree!

Robin lead Tainted Elixir (V,6), which was well frozen and lightly hoared by the cloud in lee of the prevailing wind. When we descended back down again, surprised to see another party, gearing up beneath it.

I’d climbed the original route on Noe Buttress twice previously, but there is a parallel corner just to the left. This resulted in Double OO (IV,4), 40m of new ground, crossing One of Nine before joining existing routes leading to easy ground above.

We still had time for another route, but with a strengthening Southerly gale, we opted to descend into the onset thaw …and then that walk out!”

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Timing Is Everything

Roger Webb making the first winter ascent of Nethy Crack (V,6) on Cnap Coire na Spreidhe on Cairn Gorm. The snow-filled fault in the foreground is taken by Dinner Date (V,5). (Photo Simon Richardson)

There is an attractive single pitch crag sitting under Cnap Coire na Spreidhe on Cairn Gorm. It was first explored in summer 2012 by Rik Higham, Raphael Bleakley and Gwilym Lynn who climbed the prominent line of Nethy Crack (VS 4c), the central crack line splitting the front face of the cliff.

With a base of 1100m Cnap Coire an Spreidhe is a promising-looking venue for lean winter conditions. It had been on the radar for years, and Roger Webb and I finally visited it last January. We climbed Dinner Date (V,5), the fault line left of Nethy Crack, followed by The Late Show (IV,6), a deep chimney cutting deep into the right flank of the cliff. The main prize however, was a winter ascent of Nethy Crack, but we knew we would have to wait patiently for the correct conditions. The crag is often covered in deep rime and we’d had a tough time on Dinner Date with difficult to protect icy cracks. Ideally, we needed the cliff draped in powder following a deep thaw.

On January 9, Nethy Crack was looking good. The post Christmas thaw had cleared the rime, and recent cold north-westerly winds had helpfully blown fresh snow over the plateau to settle on the east-facing Cnap. And, most crucially, the cracks were free of ice.

The route looked intimidating from below and it was difficult to judge how hard the climbing would actually be. Roger started up a turfy groove with an awkward move through an overlap, which provided a more direct start to the summer line that gains the crack from the left. Above, the route provided a magnificent surprise – it was considerably easier than it looked! Whenever a move appeared difficult, footholds would materialise and the deep crack willingly accepted tools and cams. We knew the pitch would eat up a single rack, and had doubled up on large cams – Roger placed the 3.5 four times although he did move it up twice.

The summer route finishes direct thorough a small overhang, but Roger took the natural winter line trending right to the arête and finishing up a steep vegetated wall. The winter version of Nethy Crack weighs in at V,6 and is a superb little route. With time to spare, I then led Brain Melt (V,7), the burly chimney to the left of The Late Show, which is guarded by a difficult smooth corner which provided the technical crux. The route was so named because after his superb performance on Nethy Crack, Roger lost concentration when climbing on the blunt end of the rope, and could not match his previous composure and finesse. The unheralded hero of the day however was Gary Kinsey, who manfully held the ropes and then glided up both routes with elegance and style.

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Spare Rib on An Teallach

The line of Spare Rib (II/III) in Toll an Lochain on An Teallach. It is flanked either side by Central Gully (I) and Chockstone Gully (I). (Photo Ian Stennett)

With the Scottish mountains still lean from the post-Christmas thaw, it is difficult to remember that the Highlands were covered in deep snow during the third week in December.

Ian Stennett climbed An Teallach from Toll an Lochain on December 18. To make the going easier in the deep drifts, Ian took a line up the broad rib that sits between Central and Chockstone gullies.

“Spare Rib (II/III) is a fairly straightforward climb in the bottom half with sections of little difficulty or interest,” Ian told me. “But, as height is gained, the rib narrows and the exposure increases to leave a climb that picks its way through rock and turf amid spectacular scenery, finishing on a very lofty perch on the bealach.

It was the highlight of what was a very long and tough day, the snow across the ridge was highly time consuming. I also took a small slip, tore my trousers and punctured my calf with a crampon as fatigue set in – so it is nice to have a new line in the corrie as some sort of reward!”

Postscript: It looks like the ubiquitous Andy Nisbet got there first and climbed the line in February 2012 with Jonathan Preston. They called the route Narrow Buttress and graded it II. See comments below and thanks to the eagle-eyed Ewan Lyons for pointing it out.

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Trial by Satyr

Dave Almond on the bold first pitch of Satyr (IX,9). This sustained IX,9 was first climbed in winter by Donald King and Andy Nelson in December 2010. A recalcitrant mantelshelf move on the top pitch means it may not have had a complete second ascent. (Photo Jamie Skelton)

Dave Almond and Jamie Skelton had an excellent run of routes earlier in December that included the second ascent of Dark Angel (VII,8) in Glen Coe, a near miss on Satyr (IX,9), and a very early repeat of Brass Monkey (VII,8) on Ben Nevis. Dave takes up the story:

“I’d hoped to be climbing in the North-West but conditions were reported as not being very good so I ended up staying around Ben Nevis and Glencoe. Jamie Skelton was foolish enough to accept my proposal to climb and we kicked off with a possible second ascent of Dark Angel (VII,8) on Church Door Buttress on the December 12. It has a spectacular second pitch with well-protected, balancy, technical moves the type of which I really enjoy.

The following day (December 13) we headed in to have a play on Satyr (IX,9) in Stob Coire nan Lochan. Jamie had a go at the first pitch, which I had always thought was the crux, and kept his cool on the highly verglassed first half whilst I was totally uncool belaying him as the ground fall potential is serious for the first eight metres. Fortunately he managed to find a few decent bits of gear above that before he swung onto the head wall before popping off and taking a scary but safe 10m fall.

After lowering him down I pulled the ropes and set off, immediately regretting being so ethical as I entered the verglassed ground fall zone. Despite my worry I made it to the upper headwall, and with Jamie’s fall in my mind, I swung across a series of small hooks to the big ledge to make some very technical knee grovelling moves along the ledge and pulled on to the belay.

Jamie followed without too much effort and quickly raced up pitch two as it became dark. The third pitch goes up a big offwidth crack on the side of a huge pinnacle. I don’t particularly enjoy offwidths and was quite surprised to find some interesting stein pulls and features that meant the second half could be climbed out of the crack.

The top of the pinnacle put me at the base of a three-metre vertical wall leading to a slab with a mantelshelf move onto a small ledge. I pulled up to find the snow had insulated the turf patch and I could only get placements on the front edge of the ledge and despite several valiant efforts, the first of which a tiny crystal pinged off, which first ascensionist  Don King informed me could have been crucial, I couldn’t get established. As time was getting on I detoured left into the last 15m of Central Grooves. After about 3m there was an opportunity to break right onto the slabs and finish up Satyr’s top pitch, but I thought it contrived, as the mantelshelf move is obviously the crux in those conditions.

Even finishing up Central Grooves the route is excellent and we had a great day of climbing. Could this route be undergraded as it has repelled several strong teams now? Hopefully one day I will be back for another go to complete the route as per Don King’s premier ascent.

After a couple of rest days Jamie and myself headed into Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis to have a go at Brass Monkey (VII,8). This time it was me that took the tumble as I took the wrong line on the crux. I offered it to Jamie who powered his way up the same line allowing me to find the correct line offering very pleasant moves that make the route quite amenable. I then continued in the dark, up the nasty off width, on to Tower Ridge with Jamie following who emerged utterly exhausted, as he had forgotten his torch. I was very impressed with his tenacity on completing the route.

Many thanks to Jamie for a good few days and to Don King for making me feel better about not getting the top pitch of Satyr.”

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All Go on Shapeshifter Wall

Ross Cowie on the steep crux of Berseker (VI,8) on Lurcher’s Crag during the second ascent. The route was first climbed by Jamie Skelton and Dave Almond in November and lies just left of Shapeshifter (VIII,8) which has had three repeats this season. (Photo Steve Elliot)

It’s been busy on Shapeshifter Wall on Lurcher’s Crag in the Cairngorms. The steep three-pitch Shapeshifter (VIII,8) was the brainchild of Steve Perry who made the first ascent with Andy Nisbet and Helen Rennard last January. The route was repeated nine days later by Jamie Skelton and Matt Glenn, and this season it has had at least three more repeats and is on its way to becoming the most popular Grade VIII in Scotland

Craig Holden and Harry Newmark climbed the Shapeshifter on December 18 and added an alternative finish.

“We climbed the initial turfy pitch and the steep crux as described, then avoided the techy final pitch to escape before the dark and high winds forecast,” Craig told me. “The final pitch avoids the torquing crack and takes a leftward trending line to meet the final crack of Shapeshifter. Interesting climbing around V,6 that served to speed things up and give me a break after the crux!”

The same day, Ross Cowie and Steve Elliot made the second ascent of Berserker (VI,8), which was first climbed by Jamie Skelton and Dave Almond in November, and lies just left of Shapeshifter. “It’s a brilliant route, “ Steve told me. “Steep, positive and well protected.”

Elsewhere in the Northern Cairngorms the Northern Corries have been as popular as ever, although icy cracks have resulted in testing conditions on the harder mixed routes. Finally on December 14, Mark Robson and I had another productive day on Creagan Cha-no with first ascents of the two V,6 crack-lines either side of White Walker, and the two chimneys (IV,4 and IV,5) flanking each side of Continental Chimney.

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No Jive Turkeys on Ben Nevis

The line of Jive Turkey (V,6) on the right side of Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. The upper scoop of North Gully is on the left and Number Four Gully is the broad snow couloir bounding the right side of the buttress. (Topo Jonathan Livesey)

Jonathan Livesey and Connor Henley added a good new route to Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis on December 14. Jive Turkey (V,6) starts up a small corner groove 10m downhill from the prominent chocked chimney in the climbers left wall of Number Four Gully. It climbs the corner-groove for 5m to a good runner then takes a leftward rising traverse on thin hooks to a horizontal turfy break.  This leads around the arête into a chimney-groove, which finishes in a snow bay. Two easier pitches leads to the top.

“We had no intention of climbing anything new,” Jonny told me. “We were walking into Number Three Gully Buttress but got a bit lost in the dark and driving snow at 6am, and ended up at the bottom of Number Four Gully. We elected to climb a likely looking line assuming it was an established route, and only realised later it might not have been done before. Once we figured it wasn’t in the guide we thought we’d report it – an accidental new route by a couple of jive turkeys!”

Jonny and Connor are certainly not jive turkeys. The front face of the buttress between North and Number Fur Gully has four recorded routes – The Gift (III,4), Forearm (IV,5), Four Play (IV,4), and Fore ‘n Daft (IV,4) – but no routes have ever been recorded before on the steep left wall of Number Four Gully. Harvey Mullen and Robin Clothier climbed the groove and capping roof starting from the right toe of the buttress in December 2002, but I’m not aware of any other ascents in this area.

I’m particularly intrigued because work on a new Ben Nevis guidebook is well underway. Thousands of climbers have passed this wall descending Number Four Gully, so if you know of any more ascents in this area, then please get in touch.

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Icy on Cruachan

Robin Clothier making the first ascent of One of Nine (IV,5) on the front face of Noe Buttress on Ben Cruachan. The route starts up rarely iced granite slabs and the name is play on a team age of 109. (Photo Stuart McFarlane)

Stuart McFarlane and Robin Clothier added a good new route to Coire Chat on Ben Cruachan on November 13. One of Nine starts up the icy slabs of Hats Off on the front face of Noe Buttress and continues up and left where that route trends right on the first pitch.

“Robin and I headed back up Cruachan, hoping things had remained frozen before the snow arrived,” Stuart told me. “More snow than expected greeted us above the dam so a longer approach ensued! But the sky was blue and it was calm, and after we had geared up and descended, we found crag to be very icy. From base of Noe Buttress, ice smears continued down slabs above, something I’d never witnessed before.”

Iain Small and Jason Walker climbed these icy slabs when the made the first ascent of Hats Off (V,6) in December 2004, but Stuart is correct that these slabs are rarely iced. When Chris Cartwright was developing the cliff during the winter of 2003/4 we often went to have a look, but we never saw ice thick enough to climb.

It has been a very wet autumn, so as long as it stays cold, we are well set up for an icy winter. Fingers crossed!

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The Edge of Profanity – Second Ascent

Dave Brookes making his first attempt on The Edge of Profanity (V,7) Creagan Cha-no in mid November. He returned two weeks later to make the second overall and first clean ascent. (Photo Mark McGinnes)

On November 30, Dave Brookes and Jules Harris put to bed a well-known problem on Creagan Cha-no when they made the first free ascent of The Edge of Profanity. This short, but deceptively steep route, was first climbed early last season.

“A couple of weeks ago, Jules and I were at the southern end of Creagan Cha-no,” Dave told me. “I saw a fine natural line going up the face of a buttress with what appeared to be a wide crack in the top half – I hadn’t got a clue what it was but it did look great, so I had a go at climbing it. Everything went well until the last tricky moves at the top at which point I fell off.  After a few more falls I gave up, but back in the van some quick research revealed it to be The Edge of Profanity, which was still awaiting a clean winter ascent.

Last Saturday Jules and I returned. I managed to climb it clean, ground up, first time – there’s nothing like a good rest between attempts! It was an awesome day to be out in the mountains and the route was a proper workout!”

Saturday was a busy day across the Northern Cairngorms with many teams climbing the classic routes in the Northern Corries. Cha-no was well frequented too, and Roger Webb and I added a new IV,4 on the right flank of Blood Buttress. A Special Sort of Idiot (Roger was referring to me as I made him come down and reclimb the top pitch when he strayed onto an existing route) takes the grooves, wall and arête between Captain Fairweather and the depression of Flood Warning.

Steve Elliot and Graeme Gatherer took good advantage of the perfect day when they made an early repeat of Cherokee Chimney (V,6) on Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach. They were not the only team to take advantage of the excellent mountain travel conditions that day and arrived at the abseil point at the top of Great Gully just before another team of three. Queuing on Braeriach – now that must be a first!

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