Point Blank Repeats

Looking up to Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis, with the sinuous line of Point Blank (VII,6) to the right. Uisdean Hawthorn can be seen leading the first pitch with Robin Clothier and Doug Hawthorn belaying below. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Looking up to Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis, with the sinuous line of Point Blank (VII,6) to the right. Uisdean Hawthorn can be seen leading the first pitch with Robin Clothier and Doug Hawthorn belaying below. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Saturday March 16 was a landmark day on Observatory Buttress with two repeats of the legendary Point Blank (VII,6) and two new routes on the buttress itself.

Point Blank, which takes the steep rib bounding the right side of Point Five Gully and was first climbed by Mal Duff and Rick Nowack in February 1988, has a colourful history. Mal first spotted the line from a picture in Cold Climbs, and attempted the route with Jon Tinker in March 1984. They almost succeeded except for a short section in Point Five Gully that avoided the crux groove. Although it was written up as a route in the SMC Journal, a comment by New Routes Editor Andy Nisbet that the ‘purity of their route had been spoiled by the traverse in and out Point Five’ pricked Duff’s ego, and he was determined to straighten out the line.

Duff and Tinker planned to return to the route in the winters of 1985 and 1986, but conditions were unfavourable. Conditions looked better during the 1987, but Duff injured his knee and was out of action for most of the season. Instead, Tinker conscripted the very strong Aberdeen-based climber Colin MacLean to straighten out the line. The climb was going well, but when MacLean was belayed from the hanging stance at the top of the second pitch, a peg pulled out as Tinker was climbing and they both fell. Fortunately they were held by a protection peg left from the 1984 attempt. The ever-competitive Duff admitted later that he was secretly delighted when he heard the news. Finally, the following season, Duff returned with Nowack and completed the line. Despite numerous attempts, the route went 22 years before it was eventually repeated by Iain Small and Owen Samuels in February 2010.

Robin Clothier had made various determined attempts over the years, so it was fitting that he should make the third ascent with long-term partner Doug Hawthorn and Doug’s son Uidean. The trio were only just in time however, because hot on their heels were Tim Neill and Donald King. Tim said afterwards that the second pitch was a big step up from any Ben experiences he’d had before – quite something for a man who has logged thousands and thousands of metres of high standard ice climbing on the mountain this year.

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The Wasp on Meagaidh

Michael Barnard on the second pitch of The Wasp (VI,5) on Creag Meagaidh during the first ascent. This 130m-long route is a natural continuation to The Blue Icicle, the prominent ice formation that regularly forms near the top of Raeburn’s Gully on Creag Meagaidh. (Photo Neil Redgrave)

Michael Barnard on the second pitch of The Wasp (VI,5) on Creag Meagaidh during the first ascent. This 130m-long route is a natural continuation to The Blue Icicle, the prominent ice feature that regularly forms near the top of Raeburn’s Gully on Creag Meagaidh. (Photo Neil Redgrave)

Michael Barnard and Neil Redgrave climbed a new line on the left side of Pinnacle Buttress on Creag Meagaidh on Saturday March 16.

“The route starts up the ice pillar of The Blue Icicle and then continues up the wall above via a turfy mixed pitch,” Michael explained. “We called it The Wasp and graded it VI,5.

Neil led the ice pillar (short but steep), and then went up and right to the belay ledge. He shouted down, ‘There’s not much here but once I’m finished it’ll be bomber!’ It was two tied-off screws and a half-buried axe which apparently was better than it looked, but getting a good peg in a crack on the left made me happier about setting off on the next pitch. As expected this was a rather bold affair (four worthwhile runners in 50m) but at least was fairly positive turfy climbing. There were good cracks for the next belay, from where Neil led a nice pitch of snow-ice up to, and through, the cornice.”

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Fast and Solo in The Fannaichs

The left side of Sgurr Mor in the Fannaichs showing the two new routes recently climbed by Martin Hind. Blue: Happy Ravens (III,4); Pink: Gelid Groove (III,4); Red: Blue Sky Thinking (III,4). (Archive Photo Martin Hind)

The left side of Sgurr Mor in the Fannaichs showing the two new routes recently climbed by Martin Hind. Blue: Happy Ravens (III,4); Pink: Gelid Groove (III,4); Red: Blue Sky Thinking (III,4). (Archive Photo Martin Hind)

Taking advantage of the recent icy conditions, Martin Hind has added a couple of new routes to Sgurr Mor in the Fannaichs.

“As I don’t like carrying heavy sacks I decided to travel light with no gear on these visits,” Martin explained. “Both trips involved cycling up to the track end above the pipeline and going up to the small dam above Loch Droma. On the first visit [February 24] when I did Blue Sky Thinking, the clag was in and down to the corrie floor, and I assumed the obvious ice line leading up on the left wall of Easter Gully was Gelid Groove. Only later did I find out that Gelid Groove was much further left. There was a good ice pitch to start up which I led up to a steepening. I wasn’t brave enough to solo this, so I came back down and went up an ice channel to the right. Another short pitch led onto snowfields above to the top. Blue Sky Thinking was about III,4.

Now that I knew where Gelid Groove was, it was obvious that there was potential for another line, Happy Ravens [climbed on March 1] had three ice pitches with increasing difficulty. It was most enjoyable and a similar grade to BST at about III,4. The round trip from the road was 4hrs 35mins, so the crag is not as remote as suggested in the guidebook!”

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Jamie’s Lum Direct

Stuart McFarlane on a rare repeat of Jamie’s Lum (IV,5) on Ben Cruachan. McFarlane continued directly at the top of the pitch resulting in a fine VII,7 Direct Finish. (Photo Andy Clark)

Stuart McFarlane on a rare repeat of Jamie’s Lum (IV,5) on Ben Cruachan. McFarlane continued directly at the top of the pitch resulting in a fine VII,7 Direct Finish. (Photo Andy Clark)

“On Sunday February 24, Andy Clark and I visited Drochaid Ghlas on Ben Cruachan,” Stuart McFarlane reports. “Our original intention was to repeat Tiger, Tiger, thinking the long, cold, dry conditions would allow ice to form in the crux corner. However, it was too sunny and the slabs were bare, so we looked for an alternative to salvage the day.

Jamie’s Lum (IV,5) looked promising, a recessed chimney holding some ice and neve, so Andy lead the first pitch. Pitch 2 had thin ice, hard, grey and well bonded, more akin to that found in the Alps. I climbed up, initially back and foot, until I had to commit onto the left wall. Now high above gear, my concern was for Andy (if I came off), but I soon became absorbed by the thin, enjoyable climbing. I pulled right onto a ledge. Above a steep, turfy wall, a bulging rock groove, with ice on its left hand corner seemed the obvious way to go. There was easier angled ice continuing down the left wall (which we assumed to be the original line), however above still seemed the logical way.

Good runners now placed beneath the bulge and a high tool placement in a shallow crack for my right, allowed me to pull out left and stick the ice. Some more precision placements in this seam of ice, a pull into the groove above, good rock gear and finally the belay! Pumped and relieved, this was awesome! Easier ground in the groove, led above to the top.”

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Twisted on Stob Coire nan Lochan

Malcolm Bass on the first ascent of Twisting (VII,7) in Glen Coe. This superb three-pitch addition, takes a central line up the broad buttress between Moonshadow and Chimney Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

Malcolm Bass on the first ascent of Twisted (VII,7) in Glen Coe. This superb three-pitch addition, takes a central line up the broad buttress between Moonshadow and Chimney Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

“We went to Stob Coire nan Lochan on Tuesday [March 12] to make the most of the excellent conditions in Glen Coe,” Simon Yearsley reports. “We were delighted to climb a new line on South Buttress. For us this route has a somewhat convoluted history, one reason for its name: Twisted.

In 2011 Malcolm and I climbed Chimney Route with visiting US climber and Scottish winter climbing fan, Pete Takeda. We became intrigued by the two tiered wall to left of Chimney Route and began to wonder whether a route could be forced up this to gain the very prominent unclimbed chimney between Inclination and Moonshadow. But it all looked quite implausible, the lower wall was steep and compact, and the wall above the terrace looked smooth and bulging.

Our first attempt, with Paul Figg, in 2012, ended in the corrie floor when I bent down to pick up a glove and collapsed in screams of agony with a slipped disc. Conditions were great so it was a bitter, twisted and hurting party that crawled back down the road.

In the ‘summer’ of 2012 I went for a run up into the corrie, accompanied by my dog (Bob). This was more useful than might have been predicted given the 5m visibility: I found a crack system running up the right wall of Twisting Gully, for 5m anyway.  Maybe the lower wall could be breached?

We were fairly sure that the bulging wall above the terrace would need ice, and we knew it formed there, so when we saw pictures posted on UKC (thanks ‘peebles boy’) showing Stob Corie to be both icy and rimed we thought we’d give it a go.

We made slow progress up to the corrie. Malcolm has put off a much-needed back operation till the Spring, and is recovering from a badly twisted ankle administered by the Ben.

The route started with a bang – a steep committing swing across the lower wall.  Unexpectedly, the wall then proved more amenable than we’d anticipated; hidden ledges, very turfy for Stob Coire, and good and dramatic with Twisting Gully’s bed dropping away below. The first barrier wall was breached. It was an excited pair, which gathered on the terrace to stare up at the second barrier; we could see ice at the top of the steep wall. But could we reach it?

An unhelpful flaring crack lead up to the ice, with a smooth wall to its left. I spent a long time trying at arrange protection on the wall – a cluster of a couple of poor wires, a tied-off blade peg and a Terrier.   It was time to commit. Tenuous moves up the steep wall, pulling right to gain baggy hooks in the top of the crack, then a satisfying ‘thwump’ as I stuck the ice. Another steep pull… and breathe… and relax! The rest of pitch followed the natural icy drainage line coming down from the upper chimney, with an excellent eyrie stance on the arête below a steepening in the chimney.

The final reason for the route name – during two long doomed attempts at winter alpinism in Canada, we had one particular song on repeat as the snow fell endlessly: ‘Twisted By The Pool’ by Fac 15. Humming this as Malcolm lead the final chimney pitch, we knew the route, and the name, were in the bag.

Topping out with the Aonach Eagach bathed in sunlight, we realised just how lucky we were to have climbed three superb new pitches on such a well-travelled cliff.”

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Shooting Star

The line of Shooting Star (VI,6) on Ben Nevis. This ten-pitch long expedition, which is one of the longest routes on the Orion Face, links together several existing routes and includes two pitches of new ground. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The line of Shooting Star (VI,6) on Ben Nevis. This ten-pitch long expedition, which is one of the longest routes on the Orion Face, links together several existing routes and includes two pitches of new ground. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The second magnificent addition to Ben Nevis fell to Robin Clothier and Richard Bentley who added Shooting Star (VI,6), a superb 500m-long rising line across the Astronomy and Orion faces. The route was climbed on February 23, the day after the first ascent of Deadly Presence.

“I’ve been climbing all over the Orion Face and its headwall for over 30 years,” Robin told me, “but I’ve never seen conditions as good as this before. Our objective was to try and find the longest line up the face, starting at the base of the buttress to the right of Minus One Gully with a finish overlooking Orion Direct at the very top of the mountain.”

“We started up Astronomy,” Richard explained, “and then continued up The Black Hole, Urban Spaceman, Smith-Holt Route, then two pitches of newish stuff to reach a point overlooking the Basin. This section included a super thin traverse with poor gear. We then climbed a chimney left of Epsilon Chimney, continued up Zybernaught, and followed pitch four of Space Invaders to join Journey into Space. A long snow slope then led all the way to the summit cairn of North-East Buttress… phew!”

I spent an evening discussing the climb with Robin in the CIC Hut the following weekend. “Sections of nine routes were used, together with two pitches of new ground,” he said. “The whole route was climbed on thin snow-ice. I’ve never seen it like that on the Ben before, but there was very little protection. We graded VI,6 but make no mistake, it is a very serious route! What really pleased me is that Shooting Star is such a natural line – the route finding was straightforward apart from the traverse section overlooking the Orion Basin to gain the groove-chimney left of Epsilon Chimney.

Both Robin and Richard are Nevis regulars of course, but Robin in particular has been winter climbing on Ben Nevis for nearly four decades. There is no question that the ascent of Shooting Star directly resulted from both his intimate knowledge of Nevis ice routes and a deep understanding of how to interpret climbing conditions on the mountain. I was thrilled when Robin contacted me with news of their success. For me, Shooting Star is one of the true highlights of the 2013 Scottish winter season.

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Deadly Presence

Iain Small on the crux pitch of Deadly Presence (VIII,7) on Ben Nevis. “It was pretty thin ice,” Iain said afterwards. “Gear was difficult, but the ice was mostly well attached, which gave me some confidence to push on up the wall. I reckon it’s a contender for the leanest ice pitch I've ever climbed.” (Photo Doug Hawthorn)

Iain Small on the crux pitch of Deadly Presence (VIII,7) on Ben Nevis. “It was pretty thin ice,” Iain said afterwards. “Gear was difficult, but the ice was mostly well attached, which gave me some confidence to push on up the wall. I reckon it’s a contender for the leanest ice pitch I’ve ever climbed.” (Photo Doug Hawthorn)

There were two truly magnificent routes added to Ben Nevis in February. First off was Iain Small and Doug Hawthorn who climbed the icy wall up and left of the ramp of Left Edge Route on Observatory Buttress on February 22. This route serves as a natural continuation to Appointment with Fear (which joins Left Edge Route for its third pitch), and joins the Direct Finish to Observatory Buttress at the Girdle Traverse ledge.

“I was really doubting whether the route would go when slogging up Observatory Gully,” Iain told me. “Astronomy was another option for the day, but luckily we gave the line a go and I got to do Astronomy with Fyffe junior a few days later! After a bit of anguish I gained the big girdling ledge, and then Doug tackled the next two steep walls directly with another long bold pitch. One crucial runner (of only four) on Doug’s pitch was a stubby screw hammered into an icy crack. Doug reckoned it was worth blowing the £50, but the screw emerged only slightly the worse for wear – maybe a bit like us!

After Doug’s long and serious lead up Appointment with Fear, which had us both climbing together for about 15m, we certainly savoured the easy finishing crest of Observatory Buttress. As to the grade, it’s harder and bolder than Point Blank, so VIII,7 seems fitting. Doug suggested Deadly Presence for the route name as that’s the other title that the film Appointment with Fear was released under. So the Appointment with Fear-Deadly Presence combo? One for the Film buffs!”

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A Day of Adventure

Sandy Allan approaching the large cornice on the first ascent of Adventure (V,5) in Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach. “It’s not the quality of the climbing that makes the day here - it’s the whole adventure”, said Sandy on the way down. “And we had had an adventurous day,” confirms Andy Nisbet. (Photo Sandy Allan)

Sandy Allan approaching the large cornice on the first ascent of Adventure (V,5) in Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach. “It’s not the quality of the climbing that makes the day here – it’s the whole adventure”, said Sandy on the way down. “And we had had an adventurous day,” confirms Andy Nisbet. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

Andy Nisbet, Sandy Allan and Dave McGimpsey added a new route on the far right side of Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach on March 4. “Braeriach for me is kind of a last resort, when everything else with new routes is bare, but it still needs good weather” explains Andy. “MWIS said winds southerly 15 to 20mph; the Met Office said Sgorr an Lochain Uaine would have southerly 20mph to start, then an unlikely calm by 9am, and later 20mph again, but those forecasts seemed good enough to make the trip. So it was an unpleasant surprise when the wind was at least 20mph even at the car park for the cycle up Gleann Einich and considerably more as Dave, Sandy and I arrived exhausted at the top of the glen. At least it was below freezing.

Despite the temptation not to bother, we did leave the bikes and set off into the wind cloud. The idea was a route on Corrie of the Chokestone Gully so we made the long rising traverse round the hillside in a whiteout. Sandy is good for comments – “We’d be telling clients to get the compass out and count paces, but we’re just blagging it”. He did get the compass out and count paces for a while but then we got distracted but still hit the col spot on. We almost hadn’t noticed that the wind had dropped, so one up for the Met Office. We took our sacks down to the crag and our lack of confidence that we would be returning was justified as our route was looking rather bare (and hard). So we carried on down into the Garbh Choire and headed up for Plan B, a groove line on the right edge of Garbh Choire Mor and left of a route called Jackpot which I’d climbed in January.

The name Jackpot was because of a lucky guess that the cornice would be small. This time Stephen Reid had sent me a lovely picture showing that White Nile was black (three folk in the next three days asked me if White Nile was in), and this just happened to show what I thought was a small cornice above our line (thanks Stephen!). And it was still a bit misty as we approached in blissful ignorance. It did clear as we roped up and the cornice certainly wasn’t small, but not quite the normal house-sized, and we just had enough momentum to start climbing.

The groove looked quite easy from below but was full of soggy moss and detached ice. Fortunately the right wall turned out to be a huge spike, which allowed me to swing up. With a nice sling runner for confidence, the ice disintegrated more slowly than I made progress upwards (just, but tough on the seconds) and I reached a good crack just as the rope ran out. Sandy led on towards the cornice, a curly affair, which seemed to increase in size as the rope ran out and the Sandy figure got smaller. By the time he belayed, he was quite small and it most certainly wasn’t.

There weren’t any volunteers for the next pitch but it had been my idea to come here. So I set off hopefully left over a rib with the idea that the cornice, which was out of sight, couldn’t be any worse than what was above. I admit I was disappointed but at least there seemed to be a chance. The snow started at 70 degrees and over ten metres reared up to vertical before the last two metres were overhanging to a considerable lip. Fortunately the sun hadn’t been on it so the snow was good enough to take your weight. By digging though about a foot I was able to get axe placements, which seemed to hold. By using the one move at a time method (like footballers, one match at a time) I ended up almost able to reach the top and with a lot of effort, chopped away the lip. I did think about digging out a slot but that would have taken at least an hour of effort I didn’t have, compared to a few seconds going for it. With the knowledge that the plateau had perfect neve, it was over in seconds but took another couple of minutes for my heart rate to slow down.

As I dug out a buried axe belay, I realised that the mist had settled down into the valleys and I now had a perfect vista of snow capped peaks rising from a sea of cloud, plus flat calm weather allowing me to chat to the others coming up. It was like a true reward for the effort. Adventure is hard to grade; it could be anything from III to V depending on conditions and more likely impossible with the bigger build-up, so we graded it V,5 on the day.”

 

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New Route on Ben Nevis

Dave Macleod setting off on the second pitch of a new VII,8 on the East Flank of Tower Ridge of Ben Nevis. “It was a really good varied route with interesting climbing, a pumpy crux pitch and great situations,” his partner Helen Rennard summarised afterwards. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Dave Macleod setting off on the second pitch of Angry Chair, a new VII,8 on the East Flank of Tower Ridge of Ben Nevis. “It was a really good varied route with interesting climbing, a pumpy crux pitch and great situations,” his partner Helen Rennard summarised afterwards. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Dave MacLeod and Helen Rennard added a good new icy mixed route on Ben Nevis on Tuesday February 26.

“We didn’t have a definite plan on Tuesday and took up a large mixed rack and ice screws so we had the option of either ice or mixed,” Helen explained. “Dave had been up on the Sunday and had seen that there were still mixed routes to be done up Observatory Gully, but as a temperature inversion was forecast we thought it might be too warm. We stopped for tea at the Hut and then decided to head up there and have a look anyway. Dave had seen some potential new lines on the wall right of Clefthanger and when we got there it looked to be in good condition.

I led the first pitch, which started up snowy steps and then went left up an open corner and series of steep ramps past a large booming flake at half height and onto snowy slabs above. The snow was cruddy and mostly unhelpful and there was lots of clearing. There was ice in the cracks too. The hooks in the corner crack were good and the flake provided a welcome rest, though I wasn’t entirely convinced how solid it was…

Dave led the second pitch, which was the crux and went up the snow-covered slabs and left into a steep icy corner. He was out of sight once he stepped round into this. There was a good bit of ice on this pitch, though not enough to front point on, which made it difficult. There were good hooks on the right wall near the top of the pitch, then a heave onto the belay ledge.

The third pitch went up past a large block on a ledge then slightly down before traversing across a five metre vertical wall to get to Grade IV ice. The protection at the start of this pitch was two Peckers and, whilst there was a decent handrail for your axes there was nothing much for your feet. I set off to lead this pitch, then promptly passed it over to Dave when I saw the traverse! Once on the ice we continued up this to easy ground, from where we traversed off to the left and into Tower Gully.

We walked back down under the stars with Iain Small, who’d just done Astronomy with Blair Fyffe and Nona Thomas. Then more tea at the Hut, kindly served to us by Rich Bentley. A good day all round!”

 

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Overstepping the Mark

This blog is a celebration of Scottish winter climbing. As per my statement of March 5, the original post was kept live for a number of days and has now been removed.

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