Scottish winter climbing news

    Glen Prosen Ice

    North Craig in Glen Prosen in the Southern Cairngorms with the new routes climbed by Henning Wackerhage and Arno Alpi marked. Red - White Plains Drifter (IV,5 45m); Yellow - Whitewash (IV,5 50m); Blue - White Sun of the Desert (III,4 45m). The central arête in the photo is taken by the summer HVS High Plains Drifter. (Photo Henning Wackerhage)

    On Saturday December 17, Henning Wackerhage and Arno Alpi took a chance, and visited North Craig on Mayar in Glen Prosen. This glen is rarely visited by climbers, and lies south of Glen Clova. Their optimism paid off, as the south-facing crag (which up until now was home to just a single rock route) was attractively icy, and they climbed three new single pitch ice routes.

    “We encountered thin and hollow sounding ice making the climbing interesting at times,” Henning explained on his blog. “But after a prolonged freeze on an icy day with sunshine most routes should be up to a grade easier, deserve more stars and the crag will be a mini Beinn Udlaidh (so we hope!). Presumably conditions will be good here if Look C Gully in Corrie Fee is in nick. We started with the most icy route. Unfortunately the ice was quite thin and hollow sounding in places. Nonetheless, it is a rare privilege to climb ice in the sunshine in December in Scotland!”

    CIC Hut Winds

    Robin Clothier (right) assesses the damage to the CIC Hut roof after the great storm earlier in December. Winds of 165mph were recorded that day on Cairngorm (a mere 20 minutes flying time away) and car windscreens were blown in down in Fort William. (Photo Will Sim)

    James Dunn, who was in the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis together with Greg Boswell and Will Sim on December 8, has put together a brief video of the wind that day, and the damage to the CIC Hut roof.

    After taking the video, the trio attempted to descend, but the wind was so strong and they had to retreat back to the hut. The next day the winds died and they made the second ascent of The Knuckleduster.

    The new roof, which is less than three years old, was torn off due to the failure of a fixing. The previous roof lasted over 80 years, which says a lot for the robustness of traditional materials. The CIC Hut has now been temporarily repaired due to the efforts of Hut Custodian Robin Clothier and other members of the SMC, but it is still uncertain whether the hut will remain open through the winter.

    Shelter Stone Crag in the Loch Avon Basin, Cairngorms. Citadel (VII,8) takes a line just left of the right edge. The V-corner alternative exit (useful when the upper exit cracks are rimed over) can be seen above a small diamond-shaped snow field just below the plateau and left of the crest. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The 250m-high Shelter Stone Crag in the Loch Avon Basin has been in superb mixed condition over the last couple of weeks. ‘The Stone’ is one of Scotlands’s greatest cliffs and is home to a series of winter routes that have all been at the forefront of the development of the sport – Sticil Face (V,6 1954), Citadel (VII,8 1980), The Needle (VIII,8, 1985) , The Steeple (IX,9 1999) and Stone Temple Pilots (X,9 2011).

    Sticil Face has had numerous ascents already this season, Stone Temple Pilots had its first repeat by Greg Boswell and Will Sim last week, and The Needle was climbed by Martin Moran and Murdoch Jamieson on Friday December 16. Although The Needle was one of the first ever Grade VIIIs climbed, Martin’s account on his blog makes it clear that despite over 25 years since the first ascent, this route is still a very demanding expedition.

    “Make no mistake The Needle is properly hard,” Martin wrote. “There are grade VIIIs and grade VIIIs; if you do a short test piece like The Secret on the Ben and imagine that you’ve mastered the grade, I respectfully urge you to think again.”

    On Saturday December 17, Jim Higgins and Neil Adams made an ascent of Citadel. This route is considered to be a touchstone Grade VII and a rite of passage for aspiring Scottish winter climbers. Again, their ascent proved to be a gruelling affair, and Jim has written a gripping account on his blog. Jim and Neil ground to a halt in sea of rime above the second crux unable to find the summer exit cracks. Several other teams have encountered the same problem (Robin Clothier and I struggled here too in December 1988 before the moon came out allowing us to top out), but the best option is to take the Moonlight Finish that leads up mixed ground up and left to a large ledge near the final chimney of Sticil Face and then finish by a steep V-corner on the right. This is not described in the guidebook, but has now become the established alternative exit.

    Nick Bullock on the third pitch of Ride of the Wild Bullhorn (VIII,10) on the East Flank of Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis. An unusual ‘press up position’ was required to enter the crux groove looming above. (Photo Dougal Tavener)

    On Friday December 16, Nick Bullock and Dougal Tavener climbed a new route on Ben Nevis to the left of The Pretender – a line added by Nick with Andy Turner and Bruce Poll to the East Flank of Tower Ridge, right of The Great Chimney, last season. The three-pitch 55m-long route starts as for the Pretender and then takes the impending corner to the left. Overall the route was graded VIII,10, and I suggested to Nick that the route sounded ‘very fierce’ (as Alan Mullin would have said):

    “Yeah, it was pretty fierce for sure,” Nick replied. “It was George Smith territory in winter – knee bars, hand jams and pretty savage pulling. I felt it was pretty committing as we didn’t have the correct peg sizes for the start of the overhanging madness, but a nut placed blind in a flake from a body trembling position gave me enough to go for it. The gear was great after that, although it was all put in hanging off hand jams and a knee bars, and all the time I had to keep swapping hands to de-pump… and then came the crux! This was a truly steep pull off a not so good hook/torque, but a double hook around an icicle saved the day as I was unbelievably pumped and thought I would throw up… I must be getting too old for this… or maybe not!”

    Greg Boswell (belaying) and Will Sim on the second ascent of Stone Temple Pilots on The Shelter Stone. This eight-pitch route is generally acknowledged to be the most sustained winter route climbed in Scotland to date. (Photo James Dunn Visuals)

    Yesterday (December 15), Greg Boswell and Will Sim notched up a highly significant ascent with the first repeat of Stone Temple Pilots (X,9) on the Shelter Stone. This route, which links the summer lines of Steeple, Haystack and Spire directly up the front face of the crag, was first climbed by the highly accomplished duo of Guy Robertson and Pete Macpherson, only last season.

    Greg and Will left their car at 3:30am, started climbing at 6:30am by head-torch and overall spent about spent 14 hours on the climb.

    “The route was the most physically challenging climb I’ve done in winter, due to how fiercely sustained it is and also its length,” Greg told me. “I was literally falling asleep on the penultimate belay as I was so tired, but knowing I had another hard pitch to do after that one made me fuel up on Haribo and fight the fatigue. We finished under an amazing starlit sky with an awesome view of Loch Avon under the bright moonlight.

    I managed to on sight the whole thing, but only by the skin of my teeth. The crux pitch would be worth hard IX,9 in its own right, let alone with seven more hard pitches, most of which are VIII or higher, to contend with as well.”

    Greg was full of praise for the first ascensionists:

    “It was an awesome effort by Guy and Pete on the first ascent, forging a direct line up the huge face and taking in all that hard climbing. It just shows how dedicated and inspiring these two are.”

    Once he heard the news, Guy Roberson immediately emailed me with his reaction.

    “I’m speechless, and so, so impressed. It took me twenty years to get to that route, Simon – it’s taken Greg two seasons! Brilliant – just absolutely brilliant.”

    One senses that Greg and Will are just getting into gear, and many more great ascents are just around the corner:

    “Wait and see what we have planned for next week!” Greg told me.

    Mark Francis (Beads) on the first ascent of the 280m-long White Lies (IV,5) on the South Face of Sgurr nan Gillean on Skye. Dave Ritchie and Neil Marshall's route White Dreams (IV,5, 2000) is the prominent central line in the background. (Photo Mike Lates)

    Cuillin mountain guide and guidebook author Mike Lates, together with Ben Wear and Mark Francis (Beads) visited the South Face of Gillean yesterday (December 15), and made the first ascent of White Lies (IV,5), a seven-pitch ice line about 50 metres to the right of Dave Ritchie and Neil Marshall’s route White Dreams (IV,5,) which was first climbed in the winter of 2000.

    “Things are looking very rosy over here after so many freeze-thaw cycles’” Mike told me. “The Ridge is in good condition for a Traverse. There is possibly small breakdown in the weather forecast for Monday, so folk need to jump to it, although temperatures look like staying cold enough just to add to the build-up.

    There’s been ice growing in abundance above about 650m, so still a need for patience and crossed fingers for something as huge as The Smear to be justifiable, but plenty of useful ice on the mixed lines.”

    Pete Macpherson high on the crux pitch during the first ascent of Siberian Tiger in Coire an Lochain on Cairngorm. This IX,10 is based on the summer E3 Siberia, which was first climbed by Ian Taylor and Chris Forrest in the summer of 1996. This superb ascent confirms last season's promise that many cracked mountain E3s are now within the reach of the top flight of today's winter climbers. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Monday December 12 was forecast to be a good day, so fresh from his successful Ben Nevis trip, Greg Boswell texted around to ask if anyone was keen for a day out in the Cairngorms. Guy Robertson and Pete Macpherson were already planning to go to the Northern Corries, so they suggested that Greg came along as well.

    Their objective was to climb a winter version of Siberia, the impressive arête between The Vicar and The Demon on No. 3 Buttress in Coire an Lochain. Guy led the first pitch trending right from The Vicar to the stance on the arête. “It was a nice warm up,” Guy told me, “and was a steady pitch of about VII,8.”

    Pete then tied into the lead ropes and set off up the main arête pitch. “Siberia was Pete’s idea so he had first crack at the crux,” Guy explained. Pete got as far as the crucial roof high on the pitch and then took a monster 11m-long fall coming to rest just a couple of feet above the belayers heads. “Once he got his head together, Pete tried again, ” Guy said. “He got a little bit higher, but his psyche was pretty drained by then, and he decided to lower off.”

    They pulled the ropes through, Greg tied into the sharp end, climbed up to the roof and made a series of bold and strenuous moves to reach a holdless foot ledge a long, long way above his last good protection. Greg has written an inspiring and gripping account of his lead on his blog, so I won’t attempt reproduce it here except for this quote, which for me, sums up the essence of on sighting new routes in winter.

    “I balanced my way across the terrifyingly technical and tenuous slab, where at points I had no hooks and both feet were on tiny rounded smears on the boldest section. It felt like the Hurting all over again, but unlike when I climbed the Hurting, we did not know if this line/route was even climbable, as no one had ever been on it (the joys of ground up/on sighting).”

    Greg eventually reached better protection and easier ground, and Siberian Tiger was born. Guy was clearly impressed. “Greg led the pitch quickly and made it look very convincing,” he told me, although Guy also stressed that Pete deserved considerable credit for laying the groundwork for the pitch.

    Siberian Tiger (IX,10) is one of the most difficult Scottish winter routes to receive an on sight first ascent and is comparable in difficulty to Guy Robertson and Pete Benson’s first winter ascent of Crazy Sorrow (IX,10) on Lochnagar last season. It highlights the quantum jump in winter standards we have seen over the last couple of years, and the outstanding new talent in the shape of the young Greg Boswell. We are only two weeks into the season and Greg has already notched up two hard new routes and two significant repeats. One can only guess at what the rest of the season holds!

    Roger Everett exiting the overhanging chimney on the first ascent of Goldilocks (VI,6) on Stacan Dubha in the Loch Avon Basin. The guide book description – “the crag has long approaches, which tends to deter most except for the hardiest of explorers and seekers of the esoteric” – means that the cliff sees few visits. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The great cliffs on the south side of the Loch Avon Basin have come into remarkably good condition for so early in the season. On the Shelter Stone, Sticil Face has had several ascents. Clach Dhian Chimney and Western Union have also been climbed, and Citadel saw a near success with a team retreating from above the upper crux.

    On Carn Etchachan, the classic Scorpion has seen numerous ascents together with Nom de Plume and Guillotine, and on Hell’s Lum, Deep Cut Chimney has been climbed in very powdery conditions.

    On Sunday December 11, Roger Everett and I visited Stacan Dubha, the rarely climbed cliff to the east of Carn Etchachan. We climbed the prominent line between Zigzag and Tangent, which after a couple of easier entry pitches gave three pitches of steep and sustained mixed climbing with an overhanging chimney providing the crux.

    Halfway up, I asked Roger how he was feeling and he replied “Just right. I’m neither too hot, nor too cold, just like Goldilocks!” (Inveterate scientist as he is, Roger was of course referring to the recent discoveries of potentially water-bearing ‘Goldilocks Planets’ in other solar systems, rather than the children’s story!) So we called our route Goldilocks (VI,6), and conditions were just right too – dry cracks and perfectly frozen turf.

    Greg Boswell on the crucial second pitch of The Knuckleduster (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis. First climbed in winter by Steve Ashworth and Blair Fyffe in February 2007, The Knuckleduster was the third in a series of Grade VIIIs on Number Three Gully Buttress (Arthur – 2004 and Sioux Wall – 2006) that heralded the arrival of a new generation of talented Scottish mixed climbers. (Photo Will Sim)

    After their matter-of-fact repeat of Defenders of the Faith (IX,9) last Tuesday, Greg Boswell and Will Sim spent several days at the CIC Hut with James Dunn. Their stay coincided with last week’s great storm, but they did manage an ascent of The Great Chimney (IV,5), in the relative shelter of the east side of Tower Ridge.

    Greg texted me at around lunchtime on Thursday,

    “Not sure who to get in touch with. We are in the CIC Hut. The plan was to wait out the storm and then go climbing. But we just went outside to find the roof has blown off the sleeping bunkroom. I know there isn’t much anyone can do now, but I thought it best to let someone know… We’re going to walk down now.”

    Whilst I phoned Robin Clothier (CIC Custodian) and Andy Nisbet (SMC President) to give them the bad news, Greg, Will and James attempted to descend, but had to retreat back to the hut. Their persistence paid off, because Friday December 9 dawned still and clear, and the trio made their way up deep snow to Number Three Gully Buttress. They climbed the complete summer line of The Knuckleduster, a summer HVS first climbed by Jimmy and Ronnie Marshall in summer 1966. The route was first climbed in winter by Steve Ashworth and Blair Fyffe in February 2007, who finished up Sioux Wall, but Boswell, Sim and Dunn stayed independent and climbed the steep final summer pitch.

    “It was totally mega,” Greg told me. “And home to loads of sustained climbing with a bold and hard crux. High in the grade for VIII,9!”

    For more details and pictures of the damaged CIC Hut take look at Greg and Will’s blogs.

    Pete Macpherson starting up the second pitch of The Blue Lamppost (VIII,8) on Meall Gorm during the first winter ascent on Wednesday. This pitch was compared to the main groove-line of Bow Direct, a VII,8 on the Fhidlheir first climbed by Macpherson and Moran with Guy Robertson two winters ago. (Photo Pete Macpherson)

    Pete Macpherson and Martin Moran visited Meall Gorm in Applecross on Wednesday December 7. They thought this easily accessible, and relatively low-lying crag was the only place to go without getting blown away, but even so, Martin’s van was rocked back and forth and blasted with hail as they arrived at the bottom of the glen. But they decided to head up and have a look as Pete explains:

    “There was tons of snow, and after leaving the road, the going was desperate on the short approach. We chose an HVS called The Blue Lamppost (first climbed by Gill and Andy Nisbet in September 1996) as it looked the most challenging option. Martin started with a 30m turfy groove (not great turf), which took us to the bottom of the main wall. I headed up, and climbed a cool groove to below the roof, which Martin led, taking a right-hand variation rather than the guidebook fist crack.

    I led the excellent top pitch, which was sustained at technical 8. It had a desperate start up an undercut groove leading steeply up into a block-filled chimney, which felt really outrageous, but positive. Poor Martin had to second in the dark. The turf on the last two pitches was good which will give everyone an indication of conditions in the surrounding area. Overall it was a great day with lovely weather, believe it or not!

    As always, the grade wasn’t easy to decide, but we settled on VIII,8.”