Scottish winter climbing news

    High on Bidean

    Brian Davison on the first ascent of The Pash (VI,6) – a new route on the West Top of Bidean nam Bian in Glen Coe climbed with Andy Nisbet. The same pair also added Incision (VI,7) to the crag the same day. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “In 2001, Brian Davison made the first ascent of St. Peter’s Well on the West Top of Bidean nam Bian with Steve Kennedy and Dave Wilkinson.’” Andy Nisbet writes. “He did say there was more scope, but I didn’t remember until the preparation of the Scottish Winter Climbs guidebook when Steve sent me a picture of the crag. A steep unclimbed rib right of the chimney called The Gash caught my eye, although I didn’t realise how steep it was. A few summers ago, Brian was up [in Scotland] to rock climb but it had been raining for a few days and mountain routes would be wet, so we went for a walk up Bidean and just happened to look at the crag. In November 2010 the freezing level was high, and high new routes are rare, so I hoped Brian would forgive me going up there with John Lyall and Jonathan Preston. Despite the plan to look at the rib, it was very steep and deeply plastered, and we had a hard enough time climbing an easier line to the right (Stramash IV,4).

    So time to call back Brian. There had been a thaw, actually a much bigger one than expected. “Where’s all the snow” said Brian when he arrived at Lagangarbh, admittedly in the dark. “There’s plenty up high”, said I optimistically, but at least we were going to the highest cliff in Glen Coe. It was a bit worrying when the steep walls on Church Door Buttress were black, but we were going even higher, and sure enough it was fine.

    [On December 12] we soloed up to the base of The Gash’s chimney and thought we ought to try the wall on its left. It was distinctly less steep than the rib, so I volunteered, Brian conceded that he would lead the rib and I set off. Ten metres up and with only one poor runner, I wasn’t sure my deal was working out. There was a wide shallow verglassed crack below what was obviously the crux. So I put in a Friend runner and went up to look at the crux. I didn’t like it so came back down and put in another dubious runner. This procedure went on for about an hour until there were four dubious runners and I still didn’t like it. But I knew deep down I’d just have to get on with it. A strenuous pull over a bulge followed by a struggle to stay in balance with placements too low, did finally work. Then it was easier but still not enough protection to reach a big flake, which I knew, would be the end of the difficulties. I called it The Pash (VI,6) although there was more fear than love involved.

    Now it was Brian’s turn. It was obviously steep and the crack went through two clearly overhanging sections, but at least it was a crack and we’d taken an excessively large rack. Brian’s claim it was very early season was ignored by me since he’d just been involved with Paddy Cave and a route with a high grade called 1984 [a new IX,9 on Flat Crags in Langdale]. I think Brian took less time on the whole route than I had on one move on The Pash, but it was still pretty strenuous so speed probably helped. Brian was using old axes with leashes and had the last laugh when my curly modern ones had the wrong curve to reach a chockstone deep in the crack; with failing strength I pulled on a runner. The route Incision has been graded VI,7 and despite my protests, I couldn’t think of another grade which worked. Technical 7 was just about right, by that I mean it wasn’t really 8, and it was too short and well protected for anything else. At least no-one will ever say it’s a soft touch.”

    Martin Moran on the third winter ascent of Steeple (IX,9) on the Shelter Stone. This landmark route was first climbed in a 24-hour push by Alan Mullin and Steve Paget in November 1999. It set a new standard for Scottish routes of such sustained difficulty, and by deliberately climbing through the night, they redefined the approach to climbing long Scottish winter routes. (Photo Pete Macpherson)

    The Shelter Stone has been in good conditions over the past few days with ascents of the classic mixed routes Sticil Face (V,6) and Postern (VI,6). Big news however is the third winter ascent of the summer E2 Steeple on December 12 by Pete Macpherson and Martin Moran. This pair are no strangers to high standard routes on the Shelter Stone. Two seasons ago Pete made the first ascent of Stone Temple Pilots (X,9) with Guy Robertson, and last December Martin made a winter ascent of The Needle (VIII,8).

    “Martin and I had an incredible day yesterday on The Steeple’” Pete told me yesterday. “Rather than begin up Postern we started via the summer line, and apart from missing the 5c crux which was black (we did The Needle crux instead) we followed the true line throughout. Really sustained route from beginning to end. Martin led the corner in style, which was nails to say the least. I was so knackered seconding it with a sack that I only just managed to lead the final pitch in the dark, which was super strenuous before my hands arms and legs started to cramp up. Absolutely shattered today. I’m in college now studying to become a nurse. I think my fellow students thought a zombie had walked into the classroom this morning!

    Greg Boswell on the second pitch of Vapouriser (VIII,8) on Creag an Dubh Loch. The line can be clearly seen cutting up directly through Vertigo Wall and finishing up and left through the obvious right-trending slot above the headwall. “Brilliant climbing,” Robertson wrote afterwards. “It’s steeper, icier and more sustained than the original Vertigo Wall.” (Photo Guy Robertson)

    When Guy Robertson texted me earlier this week asking for Henning Wackerhage’s contact details, I knew it could be to ask about only one thing. The heavy snowfall last week, followed by the weekend’s mini thaw, had set up Creag an Dubh Loch beautifully for winter climbing, and two seasons ago Henning had uncovered a potential spectacular finish to the ultra-classic Vertigo Wall.

    Guy visited the cliff with Greg Boswell on December 11, and the result was Vapouriser (VIII,8), a stunning five-pitch icy mixed line cutting up directly through Vertigo Wall, taking part of Henning’s More Vertigo Finish, before finishing up the obvious right-trending slot above the headwall.

    “We had slept in and we were late,” Guy explains on his blog.” On snouting the mouth of the Dubh Loch’s Central Gully we saw a team of three climbers ensconsed directly below our target.  One of them was racked up and already setting to work. But closer inspection revealed they were not for exploring the scintillating trail of overhanging ice vapours swirling upwards behind them. And at that very moment our hearts skipped, the air around us crackled with anticipation and the wheels of fate ground slowly into motion.

    Eight hours later, perched high on a little diving board platform, 100m of perfectly still dark vapour space sat silent below me.  As Greg cleared away deep snow for the final belay, putting the finishing touches to one of Scotland’s great routes, my torch light illuminated a steady plume of sparkling spindrift diamonds falling away out into the night behind me.”

    Make no mistake – first ascents of Scottish ice routes of this quality and difficulty are extremely rare. “Suffice to say that I’d put this up there with routes like Minus One Direct and Extasy for sheer quality,” Guy told me. “It is undoubtedly one of the best icy mixed routes in Scotland. The climbing was an exquisite combination of thin ice and steep rock, with a distinctly cerebral element throughout – there simply are not enough adjectives to describe how good this route is – the exposure on the top pitch was quite ludicrous!

    Broadcaster extraordinaire, Chris Sleight, recording an interview on the summit ridge of Ben Cruachan. A keen winter climber, Chris is responsible for the @ScotWinter Twitter feed, which is an excellent tool for staying bang up to date with the latest posts from Scottish winter climbing blogs – including – together with on the spot mountain reports from other Twitter users. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    On Friday December 7, Chris Sleight from the BBC and I climbed a new 150m-long III,4 buttress route on Ben Cruachan as part of a programme for Radio Scotland. With heavy snow at the end of last week making approaches difficult, it was a tough call to find an appropriate venue, but with a cliff base at 650m, the north-facing cliffs on Sron na Isean had just the right altitude and aspect.

    The Out of Doors Scottish Winter Special goes out on BBC Radio Scotland on Saturday December 22 from 6.30 to 8.00am and will also feature Andy Nisbet, Heather Morning, Di Gilbert and Geoff Monk. It will be repeated on Sunday December 23 at 11am and will be in the iPlayer for a week after broadcast. The programme’s web page is

    Dave Hollinger climbing Sidewinder (VII,8) on Ben Nevis. This modern classic on South Trident Buttress has seen a number of ascents already this season. (Photo Richard Bentley)

    Richard Bentley has sent me details of the inaugural Scottish Winter Meet that will be held in Fort William from 2-3 February 2013.

    “This weekend meet is being organised by local guides and instructors with the support of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland which is helping to promote the event,” Richard explained.

    “It is a celebration weekend of Scottish Winter climbing and gives climbers a chance to meet, chat and climb together on an informal basis. It is hoped that this will become an annual event being held at different locations each year throughout Scotland. Some of the leading lights in Scottish winter climbing will be around for the weekend and there will be a social evening on the Saturday, which will include a talk by one of Scotland’s top winter climbers.

    The weekend is open to all, whether you climb Grade ‘wee’ or Grade ‘ridiculous’.”

    Judging by the interaction amongst British winter climbers during the biannual BMC Winter Meets, I’m sure this will be a cracking event. Further details are available on the website at :

    Stuart McFarlane making the first winter ascent of Echo Crack (VI,7) on the North Peak of The Cobbler. This 40m-long summer Hard Severe is situated halfway up North Peak, and similar to other winter routes on this south-facing cliff, it needs to be climbed when conditions are cloudy or before the sun starts to strip the cliff completely of snow. (Photo John Williams)

    Conditions on Friday December 7 were challenging across the Scottish Highlands with deep snow making approaches to many cliffs difficult and potentially dangerous. Stuart McFarlane and John Williams seized the opportunity of the snowy conditions however, to make a brilliantly timed first winter ascent of Echo Crack on The Cobbler.

    “We started up pitch one of Incubator (via the winter variation) and belayed on a large ledge at the base of the second pitch of Incubator and Echo Crack,” Stuart told me.

    “We started climbing at 8am when the sun was low in the sky and behind a band of clouds. I knew that the pitch above would strip fast, as soon as the sun hit it, so speed was the essence. I started up Echo Crack as the sun was starting to strip Whether Wall.  The last wide crack provided the crux of the route complete with hand jams, arm bars, can-opener torques, pulling out onto frozen turf and a thank god deep crack! We stood on top the North Peak, in a biting wind at 12pm.

    I had tried this route previously with Ian Dempter (about 5 years ago), on an overcast and lightly snowing day. The route was completely hoared in a strong SE Wind, but I gained the base of the wide crack, with no suitably sized gear. After much searching, I [reluctantly] finished out and left up Ramshead Gully. Not to mention, I had to pick my boys up from child-minder in Saltcoats at 4pm!”

    The Gravestone

    Craig Lamb on the first ascent of The Gravestone (VI,6) on Clais Rathadan on Lochnagar. This cliff is situated in a hidden gorge to the left of the approach track and is home to two existing routes – Easy Gully (II) and Nae Soup (III,4) – both climbed in March 2001. (Photo Findlay Cranston)

    Craig Lamb and Findlay Cranston made a good addition to Clais Rathadan on December 5, with the first ascent of The Gravestone (VI,6). This little cliff makes a good fall back option of the weather is too wild higher up in the main North-East Coire of Lochnagar.

    “I kicked off my season by plodding into Lochnagar and getting blown back half way up to the Meikle Pap,” Craig told me. “As a result we ended up heading to the wee gorge in the northern tributary of the Allt na Giubhsaich, just off of the land rover track. Been in once before, some good short routes, 30m high, and a good option if the weather is poor up on Lochnagar. We climbed a new route on the ‘stand out’ buttress come slab at the southern end of the gorge. It followed the series of crack lines up the centre of the buttress, steep but on good hooks, before traversing right to an awkward mantle onto a wobbly boulder ledge. From there you step up and traverse left to finish up the steep twin cracks before pulling through a boulder roof. Unfortunately I ran out of quickdraws so had to exit right and was unable to finish up the twin crack, however Findlay Cranston directly up the cracks on second, and they provided and brilliant finish up the plum line on the slab.

    Duncan Tunstall on the first ascent of Redbreast Gully (III) on Am Bodach in the Mamores. Note the deep snow conditions on both the approach and the route with Na Gruagaichean and Binnein Mor looking magnificent in the background! (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet climbed a couple of new routes on Am Bodach on December 2 – South Buttress (II/III) and Old Man’s Ridge (III). He returned on December 5 with Duncan Tunstall to add another route to the crag. Here is his story:

    “The Old Man’s Crag – Not me, but the Old Man called Am Bodach. Who says there aren’t any unclimbed easy gullies, or that they’re all remote or low level? Duncan Tunstall and I found one in the accessible Mamores yesterday. The walk is short but didn’t feel it, as fresh snow on Monday had doubled the approach time from Sunday when I had last been there. Not that even Sunday was easy but I was going light after the SMC dinner.

    Two years ago I had visited the cliff just as a short day before the SMC AGM and been pleasantly surprised as to how big it was considering the small write-up in the Ben Nevis guide. I guessed that being loose and vegetated, also in west coast territory, was the reason why the buttresses hadn’t been climbed but the one I did seemed to me like a good natural line to an east coaster. As I walked down, I spotted a separate buttress to the left of the main cliff, and this seemed worth a return on a day without partners. Hence the visit on Sunday although I’d seen the buttress from the best angle and what looked like a well defined ridge was only so on the side I was viewing. Still, a deep groove on its right side gave a nice start although the ice was closer to slush and retreating would have been harder than carrying on. Still, I could imagine it full of neve and a grade easier than the III gave it. I couldn’t think of a good name so South Buttress will have to do.

    But a ridge just across an easy gully to the right and at the left end of the main crag, looked and proved much better. So I descended the easy gully and started up a steep wall of turf followed by a lovely sharp ridge. Then to my surprise it petered out into slopes and I realised I wasn’t on the ridge at all. So I walked across to the true start and things began to pick up. It would have been a real classic if all the pinnacles on the crest were inescapable but again there was easier ground on the left. But I took in most of them, and a short hard wall, which was inescapable, halfway up. Old Man’s Ridge (Grade III) was definitely worth doing.

    I couldn’t help noticing that the ridge dropped away into a well-defined gully, but I was tired and it wasn’t gully-climbing conditions that day. Duncan phoned on the Tuesday. I had just been up north, wading around in deep sticky sludge without even setting foot on the intended route, so when he was in the south where one could hope for better conditions, and an easier route seemed to fit my tired legs, that gully came to mind much earlier than I’d expected. It must have snowed a lot on the Monday because the walk-in took over 3 hours and it isn’t even that far. We weren’t encouraged by thigh deep snow on the approach to the gully but once we got into it via a tricky bulge of thin ice, the snow was only knee deep. And fortunately safe as it had fallen sticky and the temperature then dropped. Not that you didn’t sink right in, but it all seemed very stable. There was an overhang of icicles halfway up but my assumption that you could bypass it on the right proved correct, although the turf was quite steep. It finished on the south ridge of Am Bodach at about 950m but the ridge crest hadn’t blown clear as we’d hoped. Duncan was still keen enough to bag the Munro but I broke trail down the way. It seemed fair enough when he done most of the work upwards. The hungry robin at Mamore Lodge was waiting for us, so we rewarded his patience with some biscuits while in return, he suggested a route name – Redbreast Gully, 180m Grade III.”


    Postscript December 10: Soon after I posted the above I received an email from Al Halewood.

    “Hi Simon. Saw your post on this crag. My wife Jane and I did a route here when we lived in Kinlochleven back in 2006. We did a ridge that appeared quite distinct from the floor of the main bowl and was to the left of main crag. I noted it as Grade II/III and about 100m (the last is a bit of a scribble in my diary). We were going to call it The Dark Toon (after Kinlochleven). Don’t know how that fits with what Andy did… so many crags to go back to!”

    It turns out that Al and Jane did indeed make the first ascent of Andy’s ‘South Buttress’ which has now been renamed ‘The Dark Toon’.

    Stuart McFarlane on the first ascent of Gangnam Style (V,7) on the East Face of Beinn Ime in the Southern Highlands. (Photo Stuart Burns)

    On Sunday December 2, Stuart McFarlane and Stuart Burns added a good five-pitch new route to Fan Gully Buttress on Beinn Ime. Gangnam Style (V,7) climbs the obvious hanging right-facing corner system to the left of Ben’s Fault.

    “I tried this line a few seasons ago with Stewart Anderson, only to discover we had left our pegs and turf gear in the car,” Stuart told me! “Under the heavy snow conditions encountered, after climbing the first 25m of the corner, decided it was too bold a proposition to continue, we escaped left onto Ma Fault. Pegs and hooks packed in our sacks, Burnsie and I returned on Sunday [and the deed was done].”

    The Cobbler has seen several ascents this past week. North Wall Groove has been climbed a couple of times and North Wall Traverse was climbed by Gary Gray and Gordon Gray. Current consensus is that the latter route will be upgraded to IV,6 in the next edition of the SMC Sourthern Highlsands guide as it shares the difficult second pitch of North Wall Groove

    PS: For those who may be wondering, ‘Gangnam Style’ is a pop single by South Korean musician PSY released last year. According to Wikepedia, the song’s “signature dance moves were performed by many business and political leaders including Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who hailed the song as a ‘force for world peace.’”

    Titan Cracks

    Helen Rennard on the second pitch of Titan Cracks, a new V,6 on South Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis. Steep mixed routes high on the Ben were in good condition last weekend with the cliffs coated in a layer of aerated hoar frost. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    There was a clutch of good mixed routes climbed on Ben Nevis last week, and I expected the mountain to be busy on Saturday December 1. Helen Rennard and I were attending the SMC dinner that evening in Fort William, so we decided to head up to the Upper Tier of South Trident Buttress which has a series of good three-pitch long mixed routes.

    We climbed the steep cracked pillar between Poseidon Grooves and Triton Corners finishing up the continuation spur above. The climbing was a little intimidating at first, with a deep layer of hoar frost burying the cliff, but I soon realised that it brushed off easily revealing some good hooks in the initial chimney-crack. Helen made a fine lead of the corner above, and the continuation spur made a fine finish.

    We topped out on the plateau in good time, but somehow we dawdled on the way down, and it was the usual last minute rush to put on our glad rags ready for the dinner!