Scottish winter climbing news

    Skye Sea-Cliffs & Outcrops, authored by Mark Hudson, has recently been published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Although this is primarily a rock climbing guide, it is the only guidebook to describe the recently developed winter climbing on The Storr and Coire Scamadal. The cover photo shows Mike Hutton’s photo of Man of Straw (VS 4c) on Neist Point. (Reproduced with permission of the Scottish Mountaineering Club)

    Hard on the heels of Skye The Cuillin, the SMC have recently published a new guidebook to the outcrops and sea cliffs of Skye. Authored by Mark Hudson, this is a carefully written and beautifully illustrated book that opens up a myriad of climbing opportunities on this fascinating island. Like many SMC guidebooks this is a labour of love and Mark’s enthusiasm for the island, and its huge variety of climbing, jumps off every page.

    Although mainly a rock climbing guide, a review of this book does have a place on this blog as it includes descriptions of the winter climbing in Coire Scamadal. This recently developed venue is considered by several well-travelled ice warriors to be the finest ice climbing venue in Scotland. The carefully researched History section explains that Vertigo Gully (VI,7) was the given its technical grade by the first ascensionists (Martin Welch and Stewart Anderson) because “it was harder than any Scottish [ice] route or any WI,6 on the continent that the team had climbed. It makes this the hardest pure ice in Britain but will clearly vary with conditions.” Is this route set to be the modern equivalent if West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe, long thought to be the hardest gully climb in the land?

    Naturally the guidebook details well-known rock venues such as Kilt Rock and Elgol, but also included are the excellent-looking mountain dolerite cliffs of Carn Liath in Trotternish, which have been developed over the years by Mark Hudson and Roger Brown. I was particularly struck by the number of superb looking climbs on the sea cliffs at Neist. Like many climbers I’d visited the area years ago, and climbed the classic Supercharger on Stallion’s head, but not realised that Colin Moody and friends had been busy opening up hundreds of excellent looking routes on peerless looking rock on the adjacent cliffs.

    Skye sports a complex and rugged coastline with several dozen sea stacks. This is the first book that gives these a comprehensive treatment, and will open up the challenges of these spectacular formations to a wider audience. Mark has even included a tick list of stacks at the back of the book, and I was tickled to see that Stac an Tuill, which Mark Robson and I reached with an epic 800m swim, is described as one of the most inaccessible stacks in Scotland and “it would be quite unsporting to use a boat.” Who needs winter when you can continue ‘mountaineering’ through the summer with objectives like these!

    Andy Huntington leading the second (crux) pitch of The Curse of the Hobgoblin (V,7) on Sgurr Thearlaich on Skye. The route starts just right of E Gully and climbs the obvious steep groove before stepping right to a steep blind crack. (Photo Mike Lates)

    Andy Huntington, Mike Lates and Robin Clothier snatched a good new route in the Cuillin on Sunday (March 4). Andy takes up the story:

    “I was over at Elgol with Robin on Saturday and we did a route before the tide came in and the rollers threatened take Robin off the belay. We were generally bemoaning the end of winter and trying to not get too depressed. As usual Robin was talking about the Ben and ‘how we could be climbing Hobgoblin [on Number Three Gully Buttress] today’.

    Early next morning Mike pokes his head out the door and sniffs the air. It’s coldish and there’s a dusting on the tops. A flurry of activity and we’re chucking the tools into the car and heading for Glen Brittle, Sgurr Thearlaich and the Great Stone Shoot – Mike’s current favourite crag.

    The day and night before was squally rain showers and then a snap-freeze overnight down to 550m.  That’s all this crag needs to come into nick, and on Sunday it was fantastic! It’s dolerite with very little turf to freeze and the rock gives great fun mixed climbing.

    Unfortunately Robin was snoozing under the route and got hit on the leg by the only unfrozen block that fell from the crag -  The Curse of the Hobgoblin.”

    The Pineapple Cliff on Beinn Eighe (in summer conditions) with the line of Jammy Dodger (III,5) marked. The gully is much deeper than it appears from below and the grade could be lower with a good build-up. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet had an exciting adventure in Torridon today (March 5):

    “You just never know how jammy you might be until the last moment. Things weren’t looking good. I’d postponed my client’s visit because of the lack of snow, then my replacement partner Dave had decided to buy a house on the best day of the week. So I’d been racking my brains for a good solo venue and with the rainfall radar suggesting there had been a fair bit of snow in the north-west, I decided to go to the Pineapple Cliff on Beinn Eighe to try a gully line I spotted a few years ago. The guidebook photo showed some short steep chimneys so I thought I ought to take 25m of rope and a half rack.

    But arrival in Torridon was worrying; there really didn’t seem to be much snow. I was asked by some folk in the car park whether the big Grade I gullies on Liathach were complete and I had to admit they weren’t. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by snow conditions on Beinn Eighe before, even when the hillside facing the car has been completely black as it was today. And I was rather committed. So I set off in warm sunshine just to have a look.

    It was better in Coire Mhic Fhearchair but not fully winter and as I set off down towards the Pineapple Cliff, still in warm sunshine, even the rock was dry. Still, at least I could make a summer ascent of the gully. At least the cliff was out of the sun but the rock walls were bare. It was a bit of a surprise to find a large patch of neve under my gully, probably the largest patch on the whole of Beinn Eighe and still frozen in the shade. So crampons on and up into the gully. I was really amazed how deep it was, and as it snaked into the steep cliff the deeper it got, always with a base of neve. As I climbed up, I remembered an old report about the last unclimbed easy gully in Scotland and thought smugly how wrong it had been (this was it, maybe?). But then I felt a bit disappointed that it was long way to come for a Grade I, especially bringing a rope.

    But you just never know, and at the last turn the gully suddenly ended in a deep cave enclosed by smooth walls and topped by a big roof with icicle stalactites. It suddenly made sense. I remember abseiling into a deep gully with Brian Davison after we’d been avalanched many years ago after making the first winter ascent of Sidestep. Fortunately we didn’t like the snow conditions and had kept the rope on while Brian set off up from the top of the cliff towards the summit above. Soon the slope avalanched and Brian was swept back over the cliff. I took some force too but my single nut belay held, at least partly because the rope caught in a crack. About three metres of rope sheath was torn off and Brian sprained his ankle. It was also dark by this time and the weather was deteriorating. The slope above was several hundred metres of high angle windslab, so we took the only option of abseiling back down the cliff to a very long walk out. One abseil into a hopeful gully saved us, before Brian had to limp for several hours and I had to carry both rucksacks up over the ridge of Beinn Eighe and back to the car. There was so much snow by this time that we couldn’t even find the path and ended up a few hundred metres down the valley from the car park.

    It had puzzled me for years where this gully was, and as time went on, I just assumed the excitement had exaggerated its depth. Now I’d found it again and it looked like it was having the last laugh. I really had no idea how I was going to finish and a retreat with the long walk loomed. But there had to be a way; I did have a rope and some gear, even a couple of pegs, which are good for back-rope belays as they take an upward pull. There was a hopeful groove on the left of the cave, but when I climbed into the cave, it took an unfortunate resemblance to the crux groove of Sassenach. A ledge on the right wall did look more hopeful but I wasn’t sure how I would get on to it, whether I could stand in balance on it and what there was to pull out on to a bigger ledge above. The rock in the cave was rotten but after about ten minutes I did manage to get a reasonable peg where its wall met the roof and a slightly hollow nut below.

    I admit I was thinking more of aiding out but I did realise that my belay was actually higher than the ledge and wondered if I could tension on to it. As I planned this manoeuvre, I found out that I could just bridge the gully enough to get a leg on to the ledge. But I was still uncomfortably stretched across the gully and a hopeful crack was just out of reach. After an enforced retreat to give my legs a rest, I found a better position and could just reach the good crack. Two nuts in this meant I now had a rope above me in two directions, so there was no excuse for not making a simple step despite the commitment. As soon as I made the step, everything fell into place. The turf-topped crack had an embedded chockstone so a big pull was possible and the turf above was semi-frozen, just enough to take my axes.

    I don’t think it was that hard, more my nerves, and it would probably bank out to Grade II. So Grade III,5 and I think I was a jammy dodger today. After that hour for 10ft, it was a stroll back up into the sun and the thought that actually I’d had a good day and bagged a rather good “Internet Route” – by definition a route which is too obscure and far from the road to ever make it into overcrowded future guidebooks, but would sit on the pages of the Internet in case anyone was ever inspired.”

    The Mummy

    Pete Macpherson moving up towards the overlap and crux ramp of The Mummy (VIII,8), a winter version of Mullahmaloumouktou on Lochnagar. “Pete drew the short straw and was soon absorbed in some rather intricate, wobbly and quite pokey climbing to mantel into the right-trending ramp, which led past a token Pecker and shaky peg to a committing mantel onto a little pedestal at its top,” Guy wrote later on his blog. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Some late news – on January 23 Guy Robertson and Pete Macpherson made the first ascent of The Mummy (VIII,8) on The Cathedral on the Southern Sector of Lochnagar.

    The Mummy is a winter version of Mullahmaloumouktou, a summer E2 first climbed by Dore Green and myself in July 1999. The route follows the zigzag ramps on the mummy-shaped tower at the left end of the crag, and when climbing it in summer I was aware that it would make a good winter climb. I returned the following February with Chris Cartwright (we were on good form and had made the first winter ascent of The Crack on Ben Nevis two weeks before) but after I had pulled over the overlap on the first pitch I was unable to make any further progress. The ramp was covered in a uniform layer of powder and I couldn’t find any placements or cracks for protection. Reversing the overlap was not an option, and teetering on tiny holds it was only a matter of time before I fell off.

    When I eventually fell I was surprised how long it took before the rope came tight, and I came to a stop just above the belay. Three runners had pulled and I was held by a Hex 9. Fortunately I was unhurt (although my back felt jarred for several days afterwards) and we scurried off right and climbed Sepulchre (V,6), an excellent Greg Strange-Brian Findlay addition from 1987.

    The fall made me reassess my approach to winter climbing as I’d taken a long fall the previous season from Red Guard on Carn Etchachan when an axe failed. Once again, several pieces of gear ripped and I fell a long way and was lucky to escape with just a few bruises. These are the only two (significant) winter falls I’ve ever taken and I’ve been particularly careful ever since. The disturbing lesson from my two experiences was that even apparently good protection can pull if the cracks are at all icy.

    Guy and Pete had no problem, of course, on their ascent of The Mummy, although I was a little relieved to hear Guy describe the ramp pitch that I fell off as the crux of the route and rather spicy!

    Iain Small moving up towards the crux section of a new VII,8 on Lochnagar’s West Buttress. Rather perversely, the snowstorm was welcome as it kept the cliff attractively wintry and shielded it from the sun, which typically strips this part of the cliff from mid January onwards. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    West Buttress on Lochnagar sports a number of excellent winter routes, but apart from Black Spout Buttress and West Gully, they are relatively unfrequented. The climbs are long and feel rather committing, but more importantly, this aspect of the corrie faces south-east, and the upper sections of the routes are liable to strip in the sun. Climbing here is always a balance between daylight, recent snowfall and cloud cover.

    West Buttress was attractively white on the morning of Sunday February 19, so Iain Small and I decided to take the gamble that the high cloud would shield the cliff from the sun. After climbing a line to the right of the upper section of Isis with visiting Swedish climber Magnus Stromhall during the Winter Meet, I was aware that there was another line cutting to the left. The problem was how to start it, but on the lower tier, to the right of the initial groove-line of Isis is a well-defined corner cutting into the right edge of the buttress overlooking the entry grooves of Western Slant. This looked good, but it was defended by a very steep and blank-looking corner.

    As always, Iain was up for the challenge, but it soon became clear that even reaching the corner was going to entail some tough climbing. An old wire suggested that someone had tried this way before, but after a little hesitation Iain stepped up into a blank slabby groove and deftly made his way to the foot of the corner. Protection was difficult to arrange, but eventually Iain launched up the crux. With nothing for his feet on the marble-smooth side walls he had to make two consecutive one arm pull ups to surmount the corner and enter the groove above.

    From below it looked like Iain had cracked it, but it soon became clear from his body position that the footholds in the groove were non-existent. Iain was forced to make a long and careful sequence of tenuous moves, moving further and further away from his poor collection of runners a long way below. One tiny crampon slip and he was on for a potentially leg-breaking fall. I couldn’t bear to watch, but eventually Iain reached the sanctuary of good turf and we both breathed again.

    The following four pitches were sustained Grade VI, with good climbing up the square-cut gully of Isis and continuing up the fault and left facing corner above to the top. We finished just as it was getting dark and reached the car at 8pm, some fourteen hours after leaving it. It had been a long, and rather trying day!

    Bjorn-Ovin Bjornstad on the first ascent of Haste Not (VI,6) on Creag Meagaidh’s Post Face. Looking for a quick route to finish the day, the party initially thought they were climbing Post Haste (IV,4). (Photo Ben Tibbetts)

    On February 13, Ben Tibbetts was climbing on Meagaidh with Norwegian climber Bjorn-Ovin Bjornstad.

    “After a couple of good routes we wandered back down Easy Gully and fancied something easy to finish the day,” Ben told me. “The ice lines high up the gully looked great, and fairly amenable. I checked the guidebook and figured the prominent line must be Post Haste without looking or thinking too hard. It looks in the end that we did a line about 40m to the right of Post Haste, which was truly excellent, climbing, but much harder than expected. It was about 120m in all, with the first pitch 40m of stiff 5. The second pitch was 30m, and I turned the steepest section on the right as it was bulging, but was still a very sustained pitch. The last pitch eased a little and Bjornovin was forced to exit right under an overhanging rock prow to avoid a vertical snow exit. All in all really superb climbing and very sustained…. I have no doubt it has been climbed before as it is so obvious, but do you have an record of it?”

    I thought at first that Ben and Bjorn had climbed The Lost Post (VI,5), a route first climbed by Kev Neal and Ian Rudkin in February 2003, but although it looks like they finished at a similar point, Ben and Bjorn started further right and took in steeper climbing lower down. Feel free to email me if you have an alternative idea!

    All go in Coire an Lochain during the BMC Winter Meet in January. Will Sim leads Nocando Crack (VII,8) and Urban Novak from Slovenia styles up The Vicar (VII,8). (Photo Dave Almond)

    Simon Gee and Justin Tracey from Reeltime Adventure have made an excellent video of last month’s BMC International Winter Meet.

    “Hopefully catches a bit of the spirit of the event without getting bogged down on any one route or party,” Simon told me.

    I think they have one an excellent job in capturing the nature of the meet. I have been fortunate enough to attend many of the winter meets and I felt this year’s was the best one ever. The friendly atmosphere created by Nick Colton and Becky McGovern from the BMC is very inclusive, and although some very impressive climbs were done, all standards were catered for the event was not at all elitist.

    The winter meets run every two years or so, and if you are an enthusiastic winter climber and know your way around the Scottish mountains, I would recommend participating. It is a great opportunity to meet other climbers, both from abroad and the UK, and to showcase our unique style of climbing.

    The Summit Buttress of Beinn Fhada in Glen Coe showing the lines of The Rhyme (red) and Last Orders (blue). James Roddie made first ascents of these two well defined Grade II/III mixed routes on February 19. (Photo James Roddie)

    Over the last month James Roddie has made a few solo trips to the unfrequented West face of Beinn Fhada in Glen Coe.

    “On February 3 I explored the North-East top of the West face, and found an unrecorded rib about the same length as Micro Rib in Coire nan Lochan,” James told me. “Continuing the insect-based theme of route names on the North-East top, The Gnat (III) seemed appropriate. After downclimbing a snow-gully I moved over to the Summit Buttress, and the crest that forms the Western flank of The Ramp gave a pleasant turfy Grade II that I called The Rampart.

    Far more fruitful however was my trip to the Summit Buttress on February 19. A few weeks back on Bidean nam Bian I’d seen through my binoculars a pair of narrow buttresses on the right hand side of the Summit Buttress. They definitely weren’t recorded but I decided to go and see if they were worthwhile.

    Identifying features from below is quite a challenge on West face, and it was definitely the case with these two buttresses. But after some exploring I managed to find them, and from below they revealed their true nature – far more distinct and more worthy of attention than they appeared from neighbouring summits.

    I chose the right hand buttress first. The route started with a short, steep wall and an awkward narrow corner. After this easier turfy ledges moved up to a second wall that I climbed via a small chimney on the right hand side, though the entire wall looked inviting and of similar difficulty at Grade III. Easier ground led to the ridge crest. I called this right-hand buttress The Rhyme (II/III).

    After descending a gully I climbed the steeper left-hand buttress. Similar to The Rhyme, an initial steep wall was followed by turfy ledges – though on the first wall on this route I had a bit of a fright when my left axe ripped out from behind a small chockstone during an awkward move. The crux on this second route was very enjoyable – I climbed a slanting crack up a steep rock wall with quality hooks, and this delivered me to the easier ground above. This steeper route was of slightly higher quality to the first, and I called it Last Orders (II/III).”

    Andy Nisbet making the crucial traverse on blobs of turf during the first ascent of Haggis Raclette (IV,3) on An Tealleach. “Sandy must have been hungry as he had already planned a haggis raclette for the evening,” Andy explained. “Although he never did make it, the idea survived in the route name!” (Photo Sandy Allan)

    “The warmer weather had arrived, though not as warm as at present,” Andy Nisbet writes. “I was trying to think of somewhere to go when a post appeared on UKC asking about conditions on An Teallach. Sure enough, someone posted a picture taken the previous day and I couldn’t help noticing ice on a line on Gobhlach Buttress, which I’d tried to solo in 2010. Then I’d backed off when the ice thinned and I reached the point of no return. In fact, I escaped into and climbed Gobhlach Ramp instead. But the new line was still iced despite the thaw and a couple of partners should tip the scales.

    When Sandy Allan, John Lyall and I arrived at what is one of An Teallach’s lowest buttresses on February 6, the snow level had risen above its base but we didn’t think there would be complaints when the route was on ice. An icy ramp led up to the base of the crucial ice pitch. Again the ice thinned, but I think this is normal because the water source drips on to the slab rather than flowing from its top. This time, however, I could risk a traverse right on to some blobs of turf. One of these provided a hopeful bulldog (hopeless would be more accurate) but other than that, the ice was too thin for screws but fine for climbing on a slab. Beyond this Sandy and John led a turfy pitch each before we soloed easily up to the top to give the 300m-long Haggis Raclette (IV,3).

    Descending the nearby Central Gully, the buttress between it and our route looked attractive and about Grade III, although no one had the energy to try it. A couple of week’s later Jonathan Preston and I were about to start a week’s work on Monday. The forecast was great for the Sunday (February 19) but awful after that. So we persuaded ourselves that we wouldn’t be too tired if we did an easy route, and the buttress came to mind. Driving past the Fannaichs, everything was very white and we were worried about deep snow on the walk-in and on the descent. Despite snow down to sea level, it was never deep and even on the crag it looked good. A wade up to the start in knee deep graupel was slightly worrying but once on the buttress, all went well and the steepest tier even had a turfy chimney which made the route only Grade II. It would have been nice if it had been slightly harder to justify carrying in a rope and rack, but it was a lovely day.”

    The line of Feathered Friend (V,5), a new two-pitch direct start to Crow Road on Bellevue Buttress on Creag Meagaidh. Recent remains (blood included) of a bird on the first pitch was the reason for the route name! (Photo Ken Applegate)

    On February 3, Ken Applegate was working for Abacus Mountain Guides and had a good day out with Vic Wallace on Creag Meagaidh.

    “Our initial plan was to climb Eastern Corner (III) and then traverse rightwards to continue up Ritchie’s Gully (IV,4),” Ken told me. “However on reaching the base of Eastern Corner we came across a team of three who were just about to start up it. Not wanting to follow a team up a corner due to the high likelihood of falling ice, never mind the ever pressing issue of time, I decided to head round to the left of Bellevue Buttress, to the base of an icy groove that I had spied on the walk-in. From a distance, it was clear that the line was complete, and looked to be at about upper-end Grade IV/Grade V, so perfect for our day’s objectives.

    On arriving at the base of the route, the compelling line looked to be in good condition, so I set off up the first pitch, up steep snow-ice. The snow-ice was generally good, taking a few screws in reasonable ice, and soon I found myself wedged in a small cave, 30m up at the first belay, a convenient wind scoop, capped by a huge block. Good water ice in the back of the cave allowed for a solid, if slightly cramped, ice belay.  From this point, a couple of steep moves left (crux) on good axe placements above the steepening, enabled steady progress out of the cave and with plumb vertical ice dropping away beneath, a healthy dose of exposure was ever present (good screws in solid blue ice protect the moves out left). Moments later, I gained easier angled snow-ice above, before a further 15m of climbing gained belay number two, a good rock belay, 20m left of a huge rock pinnacle.

    Pitch three continued directly up a further 50m of sustained Grade IV snow-ice, before reaching another ice belay on the right, in the back of an open cave, again formed by a wind scoop, capped by a couple of large blocks. A steeper section, again of about Grade IV led up and left initially, before gaining the easier angled snow slope above, after which a further 60m gained the plateau.”

    It turned out that Ken and Vic had climbed a two-pitch direct start to Crow Road (V,5), an icy mixed route that Ian Parnell and I ascended in November 2004. It is probably better as a pure ice route, and as Ken explained it was “all in all, an adventurous day out, with some great climbing (possibly two stars) up quite a striking line.”