Sunset Buttress Revisited

Forrest Templeton climbing the second pitch of New Dawn (V,5) on Sunset Buttress on Lochnagar during the first ascent. Excellent mixed climbing conditions more than compensated for a distinct lack of protection. (Photo Simon Richardson)

I’d been meaning to return to Sunset Buttress on Lochnagar for years. I first climbed it in 1994 when winter climbing in the Southern Sector was not very fashionable. Rick Allen and I made an ascent of the original summer line that March, and the following December, Brian Findlay and I climbed the offwidth crack slicing the left side of the buttress. These routes were originally called Quick Dash Buttress (now Sunset Buttress) and Quick Dash Crack because they were climbed on ‘write off’ days when warm fronts were racing across Scotland decimating winter climbing conditions in their wake.

But Lochnagar’s situation on the eastern side of the country can allow you a couple of hour’s grace before the ravages of a forecast thaw if you are really quick. I remember on both occasions we made very early starts and were coiling the ropes at 10am on the plateau at the top of the climbs with our backs to the gale as wet snow turned to rain.

On January 18, Forrest Templeton and I had no forecast thaw to worry about. In fact it was quite the reverse because a fierce frost the night before meant the process of gearing up in the cold was rather a slow affair, but the upside was perfectly frozen turf, beautifully hoared white from the snowfall two days before.

I knew there was a line of turf running straight up the left wall of the buttress (overlooking the gully of Iffy). New Dawn (V,5) gave two absorbing pitches (read long run outs) before finishing up the final upper ridge shared with the other routes. After bumping into James Richardson and Andy Munro fresh from their ascent of Goldilocks in main corrie, we climbed the rib between the unnamed Grade I/II gully to the right of Sunset Boulevard and the impressive slot of The Pod situated on the right side of the buttress. Twilight Hour (IV,6) involved an unlikely sharp arête with hidden positive holds at half-height before easier ground on the upper crest led to the top.

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The Goldilocks Zone

Andy Munro on the first ascent of Goldilocks (IV,5) in the North-East Corrie of Lochnagar. This steep mixed route is spectacularly positioned above the upper reaches of West Gully. (Photo James Richardson)

The Southern Cairngorms have been consistently colder than the northern part of the massif this winter, so the cliffs of Lochnagar quickly came into good mixed climbing condition after the welcome snowfall late last week. On January 18, James Richardson and Andy Munro visited the corrie to attempt Prince of Darkness, a three star VI,7 situated high on West Buttress. This was their third visit to attempt the route, but initially luck was not on their side.

“Andy and I had our third (and final) visit to Prince of Darkness on Friday,” James told me. “Previous attempts have failed due to combinations of poor conditions and incompetence. You could argue these are linked!” Unfortunately, James and Andy were unable to climb the first pitch because it was unfrozen. “We were definitely in the right place'” James explained. “The wet bit on this attempt and the previous visit is on the first pitch – this time it was so minging we didn’t even get to the hard move! The moss was saturated and running with water and really deep. Last year’s visit it had been cold for ages so there is something funny going on. Perhaps there’s a spring, or it’s so sheltered in the gully that it takes a long time to freeze? We also managed to have a fantastic jammed rope abseil adventure on a previous visit, where there was rope friction on the flat edge of the plateau. On that occasion we ended up climbing one of the chimneys opposite to exit!

So this time, we quickly decided on Plan B, which was to climb the line of cracks and corners in the arête to the right of Prince of Darkness. We started level with the ledge at the top of PoD pitch 1 and climbed the arête directly via an obvious groove, stepping left at a small overhang and up the face to a large ledge. Above this we went directly up and followed the buttress crest to the plateau. We called the route Goldilocks and graded it IV,5. It’s in a good situation and the climbing is more amenable than it looks.”

Not only did James and Andy save the day with their ascent of Goldilocks, they also had time for an an early repeat of Quick Dash Crack (IV,5) on Sunset Buttress on their way back down.

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Winter Restarts At Last!

Willis Morris on the first ascent of The Lonely Angel (VI,7) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe. After a long dry spell, this is the first significant new route climbed in the Scottish mountains for over a month, and heralds a welcome return to winter. (Photo Nicholas Wylie)

This blog has been unusually quiet for the last few weeks, because quite simply, there has been nothing to report. The warm weather over the Christmas period was followed by a stable high pressure system that resulted in almost no precipitation over the Scottish hills. The lack of snow meant that winter climbing was restricted to easy snow gullies in the highest corries. Although a little exploration has taken place, I am not aware of any new routes harder than Grade II, and many of these climbs would bank out, or even completely disappear, in full winter conditions.

So it was something of a relief when the high pressure system finally broke down this week and we have seen some welcome snowfall combined with cold temperatures. All of a sudden, Scottish winter climbing is back on the cards.

I was delighted to receive an email from Willis Morris on January 17, the day the first snows arrived. “Nicholas Wylie and I climbed a possible new route up on Church Door Buttress on Bidean today,” Willis wrote. “It’s on the small needle that rises up out of the centre of Central Gully. We struggled with the first pitches of the routes on the main crag being black, so instead of bailing, we decided to have a wander further up to where the hoar line was. Once we got there, we were pleasantly surprised!

Our route climbs a corner on the right side of the needle, and even though it’s just one pitch, it provided great fun, steep, safe and techy climbing. It’s a great route if like us, you find the lower part of the crags to be black, as it’s much higher. It would also be a good shout if the weather is bad and you fancy some shelter within the gully.”

Willis and Nicholas called their 35m-long new addition The Lonely Angel and graded it VI,7. The weather has remained cold and settled through the weekend, so after the long drought in winter activity, I expect to be have a more to report early next week!

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Mid December Update

John Higham climbing an unnamed Grade III on Creagan Cha-no. This is one of 20 new routes added to this popular small cliff on the east side of Cairn Gorm this season. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The first half of December was wild and windy, which rather limited activity. The Northern Corries were popular, and on Creagan Cha-no, the new mini guidebook prompted a flurry of activity filling in the remaining lines, which are mostly in the lower grades.

One of the most interesting ascents of the month took place on Ben Nevis on December 9 when Michael Barnard and Katy Bowen added a new finish to Blockhead (V,6) on Creag Coire na Ciste. The route was first climbed by Chris Cartwright and I in 1998 and is described in the SMC guidebook as ‘a good introduction to modern Nevis mixed climbing’. The contemporary mixed climbs of the day such as Cornucopia and Darth Vader were quite testing, so I remember it felt rather refreshing to find an easier mixed route amongst the harder climbing. In the lean conditions that have characterised this season so far, Michael mistook the final corner for a Godefroy Perroux route called Trop Belle Pour Toi (which lies further left), and ended up climbing a steeper right-hand corner to finish.

“The pitch went at the bold end of VI,7,” Michael told me, “and certainly would not be a good introduction to mixed climbing! I must have sounded like a broken record at times, with comments alternating between ‘No way is this a Grade V’ and ‘Just give me a placement!’ At one point while eyeing the gear below and worrying about the next move I ended up clipping into one of my axes; this allowed me to place a peg. Katie was generous enough to remove this on second, allowing someone else to improve on the style.”

On December 11, Martin Holland and Euan Whittaker made an enterprising visit to Coire Brochain on Braeriach. “We knew we’d need to head high for crags to be properly white with freezing levels going above the summits during the day,” Martin told me. “We decided to aim for Domed Ridge as we figured we’d be able to find it in the misty conditions. In the mist we started right down at the toe of the buttress and poorly consolidated snow conditions on the lower slabs forced us leftwards for two pitches until the ground steepened and we moved leftwards in to the gully line, which bounds the lower part of the ridge. The gully surprisingly doesn’t seem to be recorded as a route or a variation. We then followed this gully until it rejoined the normal route at the flattening in the ridge. Given time and conditions we then decided to abseil in to Campion Gully and descend.”

Martin and Euan felt their four-pitch outing was worth IV,4, but since they did not finish at the top of the cliff, they are reluctant to record their climb as a new route.

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Happy Tyroleans Repeated Again

Dave Almond leading Happy Tyroleans (VIII,9) in Coire an Lochain on Cairn Gorm. This fiece test-piece was first climbed by Austrians Florian Schranz, Heinz Zak and Egon Netzer in 2001. Eighteen years on, it remains one of the most difficult Scottish winter first ascents ever climbed by an overseas team. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Dave Almond made a successful start to his season with two big routes, notably a repeat of Happy Tyroleans (VIII,9) in the Northern Corries with Helen Rennard. Dave takes up the story:

“Despite being ready to blast up the 360 miles if winter made an appearance for a three day stretch, I ended up having to roll the dice on both trips I made this year, and winter cheated me by only hanging around for a day or two each time. On my first trip on November 24, with Helen Rennard, we began our season with a successful ascent of Hanging Garden (VII,8) on Ben Nevis that offers some lovely relaxed climbing up the arête above the Gargoyle Wall Cracks.

High on success we tried Demon Direct (IX,9) in the Northern Corries on which I did 40m of climbing and down climbing to get to 10m, then my axe ripped whilst placing gear. Tired and pumped I walked out. Whilst on Demon I had looked across at Happy Tyroleans and decided it was more viable than Demon.

Back again with Helen on the December 10 we found a totally white cliff, blue skies and no wind. Having fought my way up to the base of the crux headwall I was hanging out recovering before the big moves when my left foot slid off the wall and I barn doored off. Fortunately my gear held me and I opted to lower off and pull the ropes. Round two and up, to get a not so slick ascent. The moves are powerful due to it being fairly substantially overhanging but I was assisted with usable ice. The top pitch should not be forgotten and comes highly recommended. Unfortunately the weatherman decided enough was enough and sent me packing for home.

Many thanks to Helen for the perfect catch.”

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Boswell and Robertson Continue To Forge Ahead

Greg Boswell setting off up the 45m-long crux pitch of The Forge (X,10) on An Teallach during the first ascent. This sensational line climbs one of the most impressive mixed walls in Scotland. (Photo Guy Robertson)

Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson kicked the winter season into higher gear with their ascent of The Forge on An Teallach on December 4. This astounding route, which takes a tenuous discontinuous crack-line up the middle of the awe-inspiring vertical wall above Hayfork Gully, was one of the most sought after winter objectives in the country.

In recent years, the Boswell-Robertson team has dominated the Scottish winter scene with a series of outstanding and futuristic routes. Routes such as The Greatest Show on Earth (X,10) on Cul Mor, Range War (X,10) on Creag an Dubh Loch and The Holy Grail (IX,10) on Buachaille Etive Mor (to name just a few) take improbable lines up the some of the most impressive mountain features in Scotland. The Forge, which weighs in at a weighty X,10, is no exception.

The north-facing aspect and high elevation of the Hayfork Wall, means that it is a natural mixed climbing venue, but even so, it was an inspired choice for so early in the season. “Yeah it was an unbelievable route, especially as I’ve never been in the area before,” Greg told me. “When we eventually made it to the top of the gully and saw the beautiful silver hanging wall above, I knew we had to try it! Despite it being the first route of the season and the wall looking so imposing, I was pretty relaxed about trying the line.”

The route was climbed in two pitches with Greg leading the long first pitch that proved to be the crux. Greg described the climbing as ‘very technical, super physical with multiple boulder problem style cruxy sections along the way’. Often there were only ‘minuscule hooks and no foot placements’. The pitch was likened in style to the The Hurting (XI,11) in Coire an t- Sneachda. Guy led the second pitch through a huge roof and technical wall above before reaching easy ground after 40m.

“The route was full on from the word go,” Greg explained. “The climbing was so intricate and enjoyable, that I just kept plodding on and working it out. Looking up after already climbing two-thirds of the crux first pitch, I did wonder if it was ever going to end! I still had a long way to go and it was getting harder as I gained height. But standing on the belay ledge after the four-hour lead, I remembered why I live for this game. That feeling is euphoric! What an awesome line and start to the season – with such a strong route behind us, Guy and I are aching for more!”

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November Cold Snap

Mark Robson celebrating at the top of The Guardian (V,6) in Coire an Lochain on Braeriach after making the second ascent. The lochain below is renowned for its beautiful blue colour and is thought to be the highest loch of comparable size in the country. (Photo Simon Richardson)

After a very warm first half of November, the cold easterlies that set up in the middle of the month were good news for winter climbers. The big decision was whether to go east or west. Going west meant better weather but limited snow, whilst heading east meant the opposite. East was a safer option for snow, but the winds were stronger and visibility poorer.

In the event, most climbers opted to go east and climb in the Northern Cairngorms. In Coire an t-Sneachda the popular early season favourites such as The Message, Fingers Ridge, Hidden Chimney and Pygmy Ridge all saw ascents. Harder routes climbed included Belhaven, Pot of Gold, Smokestack Lightnin’, Watch Out and Wachacha. Across in in Coire an Lochain the ever popular Savage Slit, The Hoarmaster, Hookers Corner and Western Route were all climbed as well as the more testing line of The Vagrant.

Creagan Cha-no proved popular too, with climbers taking advantage of the new SMC mini-guidebook to the cliff. The classic lines of Jenga Buttress, Chimney Rib and Anvil Corner saw ascents, and the awkward looking Mac’s Crack saw an early repeat.

Mark Robson and I headed into Coire an Lochain on Braeriach on November 25 where we repeated The Guardian with a new Alternative Start (IV,4). This avoids the technical and poorly protected crux wall led by Roger Webb on the first ascent, and reduces the grade to an enjoyable V,6.

Across in the West, Tainted Elixir and Dr Noe on Ben Cruachan were climbed, and on Ben Nevis, Dave Almond and Helen Rennard made an early repeat of Hanging Garden (VII,8). This direct finish to Babylon takes the soaring arête directly above the Gargoyle Cracks and was first climbed by Greg Boswell, Jon Frederick and Stuart Lade in February 2017.

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New Mini Guidebook to Creagan Cha-no

Roger Webb on the first ascent of Ghost (IV,7) on the newly named sector Grooved Pinnacle Buttress that lies to the right of Blood Buttress on Creagan Cha-no. This route was one of four new routes added to this part of the cliff during the October cold snap. (Photo Simon Richardson)

Today, the Scottish Mountaineering Club published a mini-guide to the popular and easily accessible Creagan Cha-no on the east side of Cairn Gorm. This is the first guidebook published for the cliff and includes all routes climbed until the start of the current season. Over 65 routes are described with grades ranging from II to VII and illustrated with eleven topos and a map.

The mini-guide can be downloaded as a pdf from the SMC website

<https://www.smc.org.uk/publications/downloads/creaganchano>

The cost is £2.99 and all profits go to the Scottish Mountaineering Trust.

The guide has been has been selling like hot cakes, and within minutes of it coming on sale Alex Riley pointed out a small omission. On January 8 this year he climbed a Left-Hand Finish to Once Were Alpinists (III,6) with Caelan Barnes and Sam Palmer. “Rather than moving right at the overhang I moved left over the rib making a few hard mantelshelf moves up on breaks,” Alex told me. “Obviously the route gets a bit of comedy grade, but it felt much harder and bolder than expected, and moving left as I did it probably weighs in at V,7. It’s not a huge variation, but worth logging due to the quality of the climbing and the exposure… It’s a great finish, I was pretty gripped leading it!”

No doubt there will be a few other routes that have escaped inclusion, and many other new climbs will be climbed this season. So as usual, if you have any news about climbing on the cliff please get in touch so we can maintain the definitive record.

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The Edge of Profanity

Martin Hind following the The Edge of Profanity (V,7) on Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm during the first ascent. Martin has given up with axe torques at this point, and is hand jamming the flared offwidth – note the dangling ice tool by his feet. (Photo Roger Webb)

Finding good early season winter climbing conditions can be a tricky business. The winter weather that started on the night of October 26 came in on strong north-westerlies depositing deep snow on eastern aspects and insulating the turf. The well-known early season cliffs in the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm have a helpful north-west facing aspect, and on October 28 the Mess of Pottage saw ascents of Sharks Fin Soup, Honeypot and The Message. Over in Coire an Lochain, the ever popular Savage Slit and Western Route also saw ascents.

Roger Webb, Martin Hind and I visited Creagan Cha-no on the eastern side of Cairn Gorm on October 28. We soon realized that this east-facing crag was a poor choice. Not only was the turf buried under windblown snow and largely unfrozen, but the cliff was catching the full force of the late autumn sun.

Fortunately I knew of an ‘unclimbed’ line of grooves and cracks on the north-facing right flank of Left Buttress, and sure enough this was in the shade and nicely hoared up too. I say ‘unclimbed’ because below the crux section on the final impending wall we found a wire nut and screwgate karabiner, which we presume had been used for retreat. The climbing was awkward and sustained up to this point, but above, the crack opened up into a flared offwidth. It was only after repeated falls that I managed to stack a couple of large hexes which gave me the confidence to squirm upwards to a tiny patch of exposed frozen turf that enabled a scary top out onto a blank slab. Martin, who is far more naturally gifted climber than I, followed with style and elegance. The falls and ensuing rest point mean that a clean ascent awaits, but The Edge of Profanity (V,7) certainly packed a punch for its short length.

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New Winter Season Kicks Off In Style

Stephan Wrede on the first ascent of Tour de Force (VI,6) on Sgurr Thearlaich on Skye. Unusually heavy October snowfalls brought high snowed-up rock routes into winter condition at several venues across the Highlands. Stephan is from Canada and this was his first experience of mixed climbing. (Photo Mike Lates @skyeguides)

Mike Lates and Stephan Wrede gave the new winter season a flying start on October 28 with a new route on The Cuillin. Tour de Force (VI,6) is situated on the Great Stone Shoot Face on Sgurr Thearlaich. The three-pitch route starts 10m right of BC Buttress and follows a series of corners and grooves guarded by brutal roof on the first pitch. The late October snows have brought several high and exposed cliffs into good winter climbing condition. The trick, as always in very early season, is to choose snowed-up rock routes rather than those that rely on frozen turf.

“It feels like Christmas has come early,” Mike told me. “The first two pitches had very steep cruxes that luckily yielded sinker placements (eventually). A total bonus was climbing in the sun on some properly good ice on the easier-angled third pitch. It was a busy day on the hill and some bold souls even appear to have been going for a fast Traverse wearing microspikes rather than crampons!”

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