The Vice Squad

Andrew Fraser in the grips of the Vice during the first ascent of The vice Squad (V,5) in the Galloway Hills. The crucial offwidth can be seen above. (Photo Stephen Reid)

Stephen Reid and Andrew Fraser made an opportunistic ascent in the Galloway Hills on February 9. Stephen Reid takes up the story:

“Andrew Fraser and myself took an optimistic view of the weather last Friday (it was raining in Castle Douglas) and headed in to the rarely visited, but high crag of the Cauldron of the Dungeon on Dungeon Hill, where Fraser had previously climbed two winter routes with Ian Magill.

We climbed the obvious central groove to give The Vice Squad (V,5) named after the thrutchy chimney-flake on pitch 2, though the crux proved to be the final offwidth moves of the third (and last) pitch.”

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Silver Surfing in Corrie Farchal

Icy times on Corrie Farchal in Glen Clova. Euan Whittaker at the top of ice shield to below the right-facing corner on pitch 3 of Silver Surfers (IV,5) during the first ascent. (Photo Martin Holland)

Euan Whittaker, Paul Warnock and Martin Holland climbed a new route – Silver Surfers (IV,5) – between Coffin Dodger and Over the Hill in Corrie Farchal in Glen Clova on February 7.

“We’d gone in to climb Silver Threads Among the Gold,” Martin explained. “But the bottom buttress had caught the sun, so we climbed this icy line to the right. Hence the name, which hopefully fits the theme of the crag. It links steep ice sections with easier ground and relaxed belay stances and gave some very nice climbing. The crux pitch climbs steeply up an ice shield to gain the right-facing corner, which is left of the ‘slot’ of Over the Hill. Easier ground leads to another cave belay under a large block.

Additionally, on February 6 we climbed Sun Rock Blues in Winter Corrie. We varied the third pitch by traversing right from the small cave above the line of Stalingrad. The traverse right was easy except for one memorably, awkward and precarious step transferring from the first upwards traversing ledge to the second.”

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Cruachan’s Century Repeated

Amy Goodill following the final pitch of Century (V,5) on Drochaid Ghlas on Ben Cruachan. The exciting perspective of this shot was achieved by using a drone. (Photo Erik Lang)

Southern Highlands aficionado Stuart MacFarlane, together with Amy Goodill made the second ascent of Century (V,5) on Ben Cruachan on February 4. This three-pitch route is situated high up on the east face of Drochaid Ghlas. Being east facing it does not come as quickly into condition as the popular north-facing routes in Coire Chat but it does benefit from a slightly shorter walk.

What sets Stuart and Amy’s ascent apart however, is that a drone flown by Erik Lang filmed their climb. The edited video of the climb can be seen on

<https://www.dropbox.com/s/wy8i951aik540jo/ScottishWinterM.mp4>

Drone footage provides a unique perspective and conveys the atmosphere of a place as well as giving a feeling as to what climbing on a high Scottish cliff is all about. So congratulations to Erik for creating such an interesting piece of footage and for Stuart and Amy for acting as willing models.

Ben Cruachan has a special place in my heart and I have fond memories of exploring the cliffs of Drochaid Ghlas with Roger Everett and Chris Cartwright many years ago. I climbed Century with Chris in February 2000 and it was so named as it was my hundredth new winter route. I’ve done a few more since of course, and it is always a delight when someone comes along and repeats one, even when the wait is 18 years!

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Dark Angel on the Church Door

Matt Helliker leading the crux second pitch of Dark Angel (VII,8) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe during the first ascent. (Photo Nick Bullock)

The clean-cut features and deep cracks of Bidean nan Bian’s Church Door Buttress have been a happy hunting ground for Scottish mixed climbers over the last couple of seasons. Un Poco Loco (VII,7), which finds its way through the great arch on the front face of the buttress (which gives the crag its name), has become something of a classic this winter, and following Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson’s ascent of Lost Arrow Winter Variation (X,10) in December, Matt Helliker and Pete Whittaker (of Wideboyz fame) made the second ascent of the spectacular Church Door Angels (VIII,9) in January.

During this ascent, Matt and Pete noted an unclimbed crack-line to the left so they returned with Nick Bullock on February 4 to attempt the line. The result was the three-pitch Dark Angel (VII,8), with Pete, Matt and Nick leading pitches one, two and three respectively. The route was very sustained, but the highlight was the thin crack up the vertical wall just right of the church door.

Matt described it as a ‘beautiful route’ and it is easy to see why! Full details can be found on Matt’s blog.

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Lurching Towards One Hundred Routes

Kacper Tekieli on the first ascent of Wolf Whistle (VII,7) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm. This is one of three challenging new routes added to the amphitheatre area at the southern end of the crag in February. The groove just to the right is Jaws (VII,8), as is the short wide crack on the skyline. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

“OK, you need to count variations to make that true, but the three figures for Lurcher’s Crag has come a lot closer this week during snowy conditions when all the steep walls have been rimed,” Andy Nisbet writes.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, only the main gullies were of interest. Surprising really when climbers had done Moderate routes in summer way back. But I guess it was a remote crag until the ski road was built. Then John Lyall started exploring in the 1990s and discovered the amphitheatre at the southern end of the crag. He climbed routes at each end but failed to get up the main wall. I started exploring Lurcher’s in 2007 and climbed many of the long mountaineering style ridges. In 2009, John took me to the central gully in the amphitheatre, and finding unusually icy conditions, we managed to struggle up it (Wolfstone Gully – VI,7).

There were so many easier lines to do, and the amphitheatre had an intimidating atmosphere, so I didn’t return until this winter. With Steve Perry and Jonathan Preston in mid November, we climbed an easier line which didn’t touch the main wall but gave us a good look at the potential – Pegleg (III,4).

I’m just getting back to reasonable fitness, so Jonathan Preston and I waited until last week to try something steeper. John Lyall’s Collie’s Route (IV,5) was an old attempt on Wolfstone Gully but they had been forced to traverse away across the face on the right to find an easier way up. I was a bit surprised he hadn’t gone back to do a direct start, but I guess there was lots to do.

Steve had decided his peg leg should be rested for the winter, so Jonathan and I decided to try the direct start with the hope that we could continue up the headwall. Also there are loose blocks on the wall so we had to wait for properly cold conditions. But we did climb Collie’s Ridge, the right bounding ridge of the amphitheatre, so we could have a good look at the potential route, and we decided on a good line for the start. It looked like steep slabby ground with occasional turf.

On February 2 we were back and delighted that the wall was pure white, but not deeply buried. Jonathan volunteered to lead the start, leaving me to find a line up the headwall. The pitch was sustained after an introductory squeeze chimney, which took as much effort as the rest of the pitch. He had to work for runners but the effort produced reasonably good protection. He belayed on the big traverse ledge of Collie’s Route under a cracked groove.

There didn’t seem to be any footholds in the groove, so I nipped round the corner to a much friendlier ramp, which led up right to a pinnacle. Standing on the pinnacle was very precarious and distinctly committing but the smooth vertical wall above it had a brilliant crack, which had no right to exist. Having filled it with more runners than were really necessary, a wild move gained a ledge complete with a knob of rock, a unique feature which even took a sling runner and which allowed a swing left to the foot of a ramp. The ramp led more easily up the headwall to a chimney, which broke its capping bulge. This left Jonathan to finish up a short technical groove to reach upper Collie’s Ridge.

We were both delighted with this spectacularly exposed and improbable pitch up the headwall. Jonathan compared it to the crack on The Migrant (Coire an Lochain), so that made the decision to similarly grade it VI,7 ***. I have a feeling it might be quite a soft touch but folk don’t usually complain. It was called Rottweiler, along with the dog theme but requiring an aggressive touch (and Jonathan said he used to be nicknamed The Rottweiler).

Sandy Allan had a Polish visitor, Kacper Tekieli, staying for a few days and had suggested that we could point him at something new, which we wouldn’t try ourselves. He had turned down an invite to the Polish winter K2 expedition so he might cope with the Lurcher’s headwall. The plan was a rib at the left end of the headwall. I had sussed out a line of least resistance (i.e. one that Sandy and I would enjoy), so we pointed Kacper at a slabby corner, which formed its left side. This was rather lacking in footholds but had just enough turf and protection for Kacper to climb it steadily. The next and much easier pitch took the right side of the rib, with the final pitch again on the left side. It was nice to walk in and out from the crag in daylight, the advantage of accessible Lurcher’s. We called it Wolf Whistle, but the grade wasn’t so easy, Sandy and I not having climbed as hard as that for a while and Kacper not knowing Scottish grades. Apparently it was Tatra 7, so Scottish VII,7 seemed to fit.

I was having my necessary rest day, but the Broad Peak team was back two days later to climb a direct line up the rib. This used the same belays but climbed a fierce crack and groove on each pitch. The protection was better but the climbing harder, although in a boulder problem style, so it was graded VII,8 (Tatra 7+) and named Jaws after a couple of particularly snappy grooves. They were even back at my house in daylight to report the success. Kacper has now had to return to Poland, which is a shame as we could think of some more lines for him…”

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Church Door Angels – Second Ascent

Matt Helliker on the second ascent of Church Door Angels (VIII,9) on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe. This eye-catching line was first climbed by Donald King and Mike Pescod in January 2014. (Photo Pete Whittaker)

On February 2, Matt Helliker and Pete Whittaker pulled off the second ascent of the sensational Church Door Angels (VIII,9) that is situated high on Bidean nam Bian in Glen Coe.

“I was inspired by the line of after seeing the photo on scottishwinter.com of Donald King making the first ascent,” Matt told me. “So last Friday, Pete Whitaker (on his third ever winter route) and I decided to give it a go. Conditions were perfect, without a breath of wind. The cliff was nicely rimed, and we had Church Door Buttress to ourselves.

On the first ascent Donald climbed one long mega pitch through the difficulties, but I decide to split our climb into two pitches by belaying on a big ledge above the first wall, that’s taken direct up the front face of the tower. This seemed logical, and also allowed me to retrieve a bunch of small wires that I’d placed lower down – looking up they would become useful.

The second crux pitch had no ice in the cracks compared to the first ascent. Speaking with Donald later, we agreed that this made for better protected and technically more difficult climbing, but overall the route deserved the same grade. A five-metre section at the top of the right-hand facing corner proved to be the crux… flared crack, zero feet and no chockstones meant for three or four deep lock offs with feet smearing in the corner and leaning out on the axes, before pulling out left onto a ledge. We then followed Donald’s route description to then top of the arch. A great line…”

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More Scouring Please

Sophie Grace Chappell finishing the steep wall pitch of Holdfast (IV,6) on Lochnagar. This three-pitch route on the gable end of Perseverance Wall had been more exposed to North-Westeries and was not buried by deep snow. (Photo Simon Richardson)

There is a lot of snow lying in useful places all over the Highlands and this winter is shaping up to be an excellent season for classic Scottish winter climbing. The snow banks are nicely oozing ice, but it needs one or two more freeze thaw cycles to create ‘Top Nick’ conditions. The challenge during this transition period is where to go when there is lots of snow and routes are not fully formed.

I’ve been a little constrained with other commitments recently, so have not had free reign on where and when to go, but on January 26 Sophie Grace Chappell and I visited Beinn Heasgairnich in the Southern Highlands. Earlier in the season Roger Webb and I had climbed Androcles, and this time the plan was to find a direct line straight up the centre of the cliff. Unfortunately, the crag had suffered from strong southerly winds blowing snow over the summit the day before. We were successful, but the VI,5 grade we gave King of The Jungle reflects long run outs, difficult to find protection and buried belays.

Four days later on January 30, a partial lull in the windy weather, tempted us onto Lochnagar. This time we were more savvy and chose to climb on a wind-scoured part of the corrie – the gable end of Pereseverance Wall that faces north-west. The plan paid off, and Holdfast (IV,6) provided an enjoyable three-pitch mixed route up the rib to the right of Windfall followed by the steep vertical wall to its left.

We played the same trick on South Craig in Glen Prosen on February 2. Once again, it was the section of cliff that had been most exposed to the wind that provided the best climbing and the result was Tequila Sunrise (IV,4), which takes the diagonal gully, steep wall and ramp left of Spanish Dinner.

Cold settled conditions this week bode well for more ice formation. Here’s hoping for a classic Scottish winter climbing February!

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Northern Highlands Three-Pack

David Keogh leading the bold first pitch of Cul Head (VII,6) on Cul Mor. This route lies in the vicinity of Cul Moon, but its exact relationship to other routes on the face is currently unknown. (Photo Robin Clothier)

David Keogh, Tim Oliver and Robin Clothier had an excellent three days in the Far North-West earlier in January. They visited Coire Gorm on Cul Mor on January 18 with the intention of climbing the modern classic The Cul. Visibility was poor so they climbed a route up the section of cliff immediately west of The Cul. They started up a steep right-facing corner, which provided a bold lead for David, before continuing through a technical 7 roof (Tim) and easier rock steps above (Robin). Unfortunately it has not been possible to describe the line in relation to other routes on the face, in particular Cul Moon, but no doubt all will become clear in due course.

The following day they visited Cul Beag and made the likely second ascent of Cul of The Wild (V,6). And then finally on January 19 they climbed the area’s uber classic – The Nose Direct on Sgurr and Fhidhleir. This was a real tour de force as the approach through deep snow took over four hours and their round trip car to car took well over twenty.

Overall, it was an impressive three days – very rarely are three challenging routes climbed on consecutive days on the Coigach mountains.

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Book Review – Snow

Snow by Robert Bolognesi is aimed at climbers and skiers who want to understand snow and its properties and how it can lead to avalanches. The book was first published in English by Cicerone in 2007.

After January’s heavy snowfalls, and with more cold weather on the way, it is an appropriate time to review this useful little booklet written by Robert Bolognesi, an avalanche specialist working in Switzerland. The book was first published in France in 2002 and later translated by Blyth Wright and re-issued by Cicerone five years later.

The book sets out to answer a series of simple questions. What is snow? How is it formed? How does it change? Where and when is it dangerous? Bolognesi explains how snow crystals form in the atmosphere, and how they change over time once they are on the ground. He then goes on to describe how these changes affect the snow and determine its physical properties, particularly cohesion. As snow pack is made up layers, the stability of the complete structure is explained. This fundamental understanding can then be combined with weather forecasts, snow profiles and stability tests to assess avalanche risk.

There will be little new here for the seasoned avalanche expert, but Bolognsei presents his subject in a simple and structured way which will enhance the understanding for all who venture into Scotland’s winter mountains. He also makes the point that the properties of snow alone are not the only components that cause avalanches, and topography makes a huge difference too.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service do a magnificent job in highlighting avalanche danger across the Scottish mountains however they can only accurately predict the six main areas they cover (North Cairngorms, South Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Lochaber, Creag Meagaidh and Torridon). This book will help climbers and skiers fill in the gaps.

Snow is part of a series published by Cicerone that incudes the sister book Avalanche! (Robert Bolognesi, 2007) and First Aid and Wilderness information (Jim Duff and Ross Anderson, 2017).

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Pobble – Second Winter Ascent

Ben Silvestre climbing the second pitch of Pobble (VII,7) on Foinaven during the second winter ascent. Remote and difficult to find in condition, Pobble’s first winter ascent by Malcolm Bass and Simon Yearsley on their second attempt in 2006 was something of a tour de force. (Photo Helen Rennard)

Helen Rennard and Ben Silvestre made the second winter ascent of Pobble (VII,7) on Foinaven on January 20. This 160m-long summer VS is located on Lord Reay’s Seat, a cliff that does not hold winter conditions well and can be difficult to reach when the roads are covered in snow. Malcolm Bass and Simon Yearsley first attempted a winter ascent in November 2004, but found mounds of graupel below the crag, with a totally black buttress above.

This time, even with heavy snow across the Highlands, there was concern about conditions on the cliff. Helen takes up the story:

“As more and more snow fell, our plans for the weekend of January 19-20 changed from the Ben to the Far North, where we hoped there would be less wading, but enough snow to climb some rarely-in-condition routes. Ben drove up from North Wales on the Thursday (January 18). Poor road conditions north of Ullapool, blizzards and my confusing directions to the Naismith Hut in Elphin (‘If you pass the sign for the Elphin Community Hall on the way out of the village you’ve gone too far’, not realising that there are, in fact, three signs for the Elphin Community Hall) meant that Ben didn’t reach the hut until nearly 1am. Our plans for a big day on the Friday were therefore changed to a shorter outing on Quinag.

On Saturday we took a gamble and headed into Foinaven. Earlier in the week I had messaged Malcolm Bass (who, together with Simon Yearsley, made the first winter ascent of Pobble (VII,7) in March 2006 and the first ascent of The Long March (VII,8) in 2010) for his thoughts on whether Lord Reay’s Seat would be white. In short, Malcolm didn’t know, and there was always a risk that we would spend the whole day getting in and out to not climb anything.

We were woken at 2.58am, two minutes before my alarm was due to go off, by graupel hammering on the windows of the hut. A slow drive north in the dark with fresh snow on the roads was followed by a five-hour walk in through snow and snow-covered bog and heather. There was a glorious pink sunset behind us. It was light long before Lord Reay’s Seat came into view, and when it did, we were delighted and relieved to find it white (Malcolm and Simon had found the crag black on their first visit – a lot of effort to not climb anything!)

We climbed Pobble, which has five great pitches of varied climbing: technical moves on pitch one (which was different to the pitch Simon and Malcolm had climbed as they had traversed in on ledges from the right whereas we climbed a more direct line closer to the summer route) – steep and burly on pitch two; a squeeze chimney and chockstone on pitch three – slabs and arête on pitch four – and a technical wall followed by more slabs to the top (all of the slabs were under powder). There were a few scary moments with the odd loose rock, including a large flake which detached itself with me on it below the arête (Ben had pulled on this with both axes, and then with both hands, but thankfully it remained in place for him… ) but otherwise it was good quality rock with lots of deep quartzite hooks and axe placements. Ben and I both thought VII,7 was spot on for the grade.

There was a bit of a navigation mishap on the top due to tiredness then back to the bags and the long march back out. Or more a long stumble/shuffle, which is what I was reduced to doing half way along the Landover track. An amazing starry sky more than made up for this though. A slow snowy drive back in the small hours (at least there was no other traffic about for me to crash into while I struggled to stay awake) got us to the hut about 1.30am, not long after Robin Clothier, Tim Oliver and Dave Keogh had arrived back after climbing The Nose Direct on Sgurr an Fhidhleir. Someone joked that we could swap routes now that there were tracks into both cliffs – we could finish eating our tea and get going for another day. Realistically though, not a chance!”

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