All Go on Black Buttress

Suzana El Massri climbing the first pitch of The Polish Variation (VI,7) on Mullach nan Coirean’s Black Buttress. After a hiatus of nearly 20 years, this attractive cliff in the Mamores has seen a flurry of new route activity. (Photo Nathan Adam)

Way back in October 1998 I was invited to attend the opening of the North Face Car Park At Torlundy, just north of Fort William. It seems ancient history now, but before the North Face Car Park, most climbers accessed Ben Nevis by walking across the golf course and fighting through the bogs of the lower Allt a’Mhuilinn, so the new car park was quite a thing. The event was over by lunchtime, so with a few hours to spare I drove around to Glen Nevis and up Mullach nan Coirean to have a look at the prominent dark-coloured buttress in Coire Riabhach. I had stared at it many times whilst climbing on the West Face of Aonach Beag.

The cliff was steep, but it was cut by a right to left rocky ramp that I decided to follow to the crest. The way ahead was barred by a steep step around a jammed block in a very exposed position, but above an easy scramble up a gully led to the top. Two months later, I went back with Chris Cartwright and John Ashbridge. It was the day after the SMC Dinner so a winter ascent of Ramp Route (II) was a good option for a short day. We planned to return and climb on the steeper flanks of the buttress, but there were so many other cliffs to explore, that the cliff never rose very far up the list of things to do.

So I was most intrigued, delighted even, when I heard that Will Rowland, Simon Teitjen and Fran Thompson had added a number of new routes to the cliff over the winters of 2016 and 2017. The descriptions for Boab’s Buttress (V,6), Boab’s Burnt Head Gasket (V,6), It’s Not A Jeep! (IV,5), A Roll and Hot Boaby (VI,7) and No! (IV,5) will appear this year’s SMC Journal.

This season, unaware of the recent activity, Nathan Adam took an interest in the cliff. Nathan repeated Ramp Route and the following day (January 15) he climbed a new line with Iain Howie, Could be Worse (V,4), on the right flank of the cliff. This had a serious second pitch, although it was not technically difficult. “It’s a grand wee crag and hoping to get back there before too long,” Nathan enthused. “Strangely enough I bumped into Will Rowland in the supermarket afterwards who was telling me he’d done a few new routes up there too so not as untouched as I initially thought from the Ben Nevis guide!”

Nathan returned with Suzana El Massri and Will Rowland during the recent lull in the stormy weather. “I’ve been back up to Black Buttress again the past few days whilst the freezing and snow level has been down low,” Nathan told me. “We climbed one new route and a variation on A Roll and Hot Boaby.

The Polish Variation (February 12) lies on the left side of the crag near the first pitch of Boab’s Burn Head Gasket (which looks like a great line in the upper corner), and climbs to where Ramp Route emerges onto the front face of the buttress and then follows the top 20m of a Roll and Hot Boaby. I found this to be quite hard and very steep with poor feet but excellent hooks, but it is only 12m or so before the angle eases off, so probably fair at VI,7. The name is a play on Suzana being half Polish and that she was meant to be in Poland climbing this week before the storms cancelled her flight.

The Shuffler (February 13) was also hard and very awkward but not quite as physical as The Polish Variation so we settled on VI,6. It’s very hard for me to grade things like this as I had never climbed harder than V,6 until yesterday! I can only go from the experience of Will and Suzana who are both good climbers and were happy with the grades as they are until someone says otherwise!”

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Icy on Wyvis

Steven Andrews climbing the steep first pitch of Sideshow (V,6) in Creag Coire na Feola on Ben Wyvis. The continuously stormy weather is bringing many venues into icy condition, which bodes, well for the rest of the season. (Photo Alex Reid)

Steven Andrews and Alex Reid made a possible first ascent yesterday (February 14) on Creag Coire na Feola on Ben Wyvis. Sideshow (V,6) takes the steep icefall and easier angled buttress immediately to the right of the main crag. There is a little uncertainty as to whether the first pitch is new, as Simon Tickle climbed a 35m-high ice pitch called Rapunzel in the same area in March 2018, but its exact location is unclear.

“I’ve been out on Ben Wyvis a bit lately and decided the ice in Coire na Feola may have been forming up quite nicely over the last few days so went to have a look,“ Steven told me.  “Unfortunately pretty challenging approach conditions got us to the crag a bit late to start up the longer established routes on the main crag but a nice icefall to the right looked like a good option for a quick climb. It starts up the steep central icefall on the short buttress immediately right of True Blue. This turned out to provide a really nice pitch of steep ice (30m) followed by a further 30m of easier mixed ground and then 100 or so metres up pleasurable snow slopes to the cornice, as the views opened up down the Cromarty Firth.

I wasn’t sure if this has been climbed/recorded before but afterwards thought it was well worthy of recording, the only downside being the rapid easing of pitch difficulty (V,6, III, I) although my shoulders didn’t see that as much of a downside after the steepness of the first pitch!”

Steven and Alex climbed the route on February 14, whilst the day before it had been unusually still. “I was travelling back from France when everyone else was enjoying the good weather,” Steven explained.  “It wasn’t actually too bad, except for the walk in, and it was pretty sheltered on the climb.”

Postscript: Simon Tickle has been in touch to explain that although Sideshow climbs the icefall left of Rapunzel, it is not a new route, as Simon climbed this feature in February 2019. He descended to the right and called the route Little Sister (V,5). Unfortunately, it never made it into the 2019 SMC Journal. So Sideshow is not an independent new line, but it is the first time the icefall and continuation buttress have been ascended to the corrie rim.

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Can Do on Nocando Crack!

Steve Holmes following the crux pitch of Nocando Crack (VII,8) in the Northern Corries. The route is notorious for icy cracks and this ascent took advantage of lean January conditions that left many Cairngorms routes unusually free of ice and verglas. (Photo Guy Steven)

I left out the Guy Steven and Steve Holmes’ ascent of Nocando Crack (VII,8) on January 29 in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries in my last post January Scottish Winter Diary because Nocando Crack is neither a new route or can be classified as ‘an early winter repeat’. Andy Nisbet and Jonathan Preston first climbed the route in December 1992. They used some aid on the third pitch so Andy returned with Brian Davison in February 1996 and made a free ascent.

Guy and Steve’s ascent has some immediate significance however, as it was probably the most technical winter route climbed in Scotland in January, and Guy and Steve took advantage of the lean Cairngorms conditions to ensure the cracks were not icy. This route has been on many winter climbers’ wishlists for years, but a good few (although not all) have been put off by verglas or a thin glaze of ice making it very difficult to protect. Together with it neighbour, The Vicar, it is considered high in the grade.

“Thanks to Guy Steven’s perseverance to go and check out conditions prior to our attempt we managed to climb Nocando Crack on the 29th Jan’” Steve told me. “Certainly not an early repeat but given the amount of very strong climbers awaiting to get it in good condition it was good to get on it. Escaping the ton of snow on the west, I was late arriving in the Gorms but we decided it was too good to miss the opportunity given the perfect climbing conditions. Guy pulled off a very steady lead up the crux pitch – great to watch. I got the tenuous groove, a contrasting pitch, but both were amazing!”

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January Scottish Winter Diary

Graeme Gatherer pulling through the overhanging groove at the top of Chocks Away (V,7) on Creagan Cha-no. Over 40 new routes have been added to the cliff since publication of the SMC’s Mini Guide last winter and work on a revised edition is underway. (Photo Steve Elliott)

It’s been a tough January in the Scottish mountains with almost non-stop winds and long periods of thaw. Conditions on the mountains have changed day by day and have often been completely different from east to west. Here is a brief summary of new route activity together with a notable early repeat:

January 9: First winter ascents of Nethy Crack (V,6) and Brain Melt (V,7), Cnap Coire na Spreidhe.

January 10: First ascent of Double OO (IV,4), Ben Cruachan.

January 12: Simon Richardson and Sophie Grace Chappell visit Braeriach and make the first ascent of Rum Doodle Rib (III,4), the next feature left of Rumbling Ridge.

January 15: Nathan Adam and Iain Howie climb Could Be Worse (V,4) on the right flank of Black Buttress, Mullach nan Coirean. The relationship of this innovative ascent with Will Rowland’s routes from the winters of 2016 and 2017 is currently uncertain, but will be resolved for the 2020 SMC Journal.

January 18: First ascent of The Arc of Profanity (VI,8) on Creagan Cha-no.

January 18: Malcolm Bass and Nick Clement make an early repeat of Archangel (VII,7) on Creag Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. They meet a pair on the summit plateau who have just climbed Point Five Gully (V,5), apparently in good condition! These two climbs are amongst the finest ascents of the month.

January 19: Mark Robson and Simon Richardson make the first ascent of Skeleton Creek (IV,5), the grooves left of Sinister Dredge on Braeriach, together with Pong (III) and Half Rations (II), the icy gullies flanking Rum Doodle Rib.

January 28: Roger Webb and Simon Richardson visit Creagan Cha-no and make first ascents of Snape (IV,6) on Blood Buttress, and Cub Corner (IV,6) on Grooved Pinnacle Buttress.

January 28: First winter ascent of Table Rib (III,4) on Cul Mor.

January 29: Steve Elliott and Graeme Gatherer make the first ascent of Chocks Away (V,7), a direct line 5m right of Auld Reekie, on Creagan Cha-no.

Congratulations to everyone who succeeded on a Scottish winter climb, old or new, in January. If I have missed something from the above list, please let me know. Fingers crossed for a better February in the Scottish Highlands!

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Scottish Winter Meet Update

Guy Robertson will be talking at the closing night of the International Scottish Winter Meet in Tisos Aviemore Outdoor Experience at 7.30pm on February 28. Guy is at the top of the Scottish winter game and is an outstanding speaker. His talk will focus on the multitude of opportunities for exploratory climbing across Scotland – both summer and winter – and is not to be missed. Everyone is welcome for what will be a superb evening celebrating Scottish climbing – see below. (Photo Simon Richardson)

There are less than four weeks to go before the Scottish Winter Meet. Mountaineering Scotland have issued the following press release:

“Climbers from around the globe will be gathering in Scotland next month for a special event revived by Mountaineering Scotland after a four-year absence to mark the beginning of their 50th anniversary year.

Streap Alba Geamhradh 2020, the International Scottish Winter Climbing Meet, from 22nd to 29th February, will see international guests teaming up with UK climbers to climb classic routes, technical test-pieces and possibly brand new first ascents, getting a taste of the unique delights of winter climbing in Scotland.

Nearly 30 guests from 22 different countries will be attending the week-long event, including veterans of Everest and the Greater Ranges, as well as leading Alpinists. All abilities are represented, with climbers from Israel and South Africa, who have little opportunity to climb snow and ice in their own countries, through to regular winter climbers from Europe, Scandinavia and North America.

Host climbers from the UK have been selected to match the abilities of the International guests. These include Paul Ramsden, one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers and three times winner of the Piolets d’Or – mountaineering’s highest award – and Tom Livingstone who won last year’s Piolets d’Or for the first ascent of the highly prized North Face of Latok 1 in the Karakoram mountains.

The Scottish Winter Climbing Meet is being run by Mountaineering Scotland in close partnership with the Alpine Club, the Scottish Mountaineering Club and the British Mountaineering Council, and is sponsored by Salewa, manufacturers of mountaineering clothing and equipment.

Stuart Younie, Chief Executive Officer of Mountaineering Scotland, said: “The delivery of the 2020 Winter meet has been very much a partnership approach and its fantastic to welcome Salewa on board. With their brand reputation and heritage, it’s a great fit for the event and we are very grateful for the support they are providing.”

Salewa’s UK Sales and Business Development Manager Mark McCarthy said: “Salewa is delighted to be supporting the 2020 International Winter Mountaineering Meet as a grass roots event targeting the core mountaineer, and to allow some of the participants to experience, first hand, our technical mountaineering product. As a technical alpine mountaineering brand, with a long and rich history rooted in the Dolomites, we are proud to have this opportunity to see our products tested to the limits in an environment they were designed for.”

The winter meet was started in 1997 and ran for 20 years. The last meet was held by the British Mountaineering Council in 2016, but this year’s revival, led by Mountaineering Scotland, recognises the key role that the meet has played on the world mountaineering stage, bringing climbers together to share ideas and form new plans. Partnerships formed on the meets have resulted in dozens of important new routes across the world such as Light Traveller on Denali, The Diamond Ridge on the Grandes Jorasses, and the North Face of Latok 1.

During the week climbers will stay in some of Scotland’s most famous winter climbing arenas, including the Cairngorms, Lochaber and Glen Coe, being accommodated in mountaineering huts such as the iconic CIC Hut beneath the massive cliffs on the north face of Ben Nevis.

John Fowler, President of the SMC, which owns three of the huts accommodating climbers, said: “The Scottish Mountaineering Club is delighted to contribute to this international event and welcomes the opportunity to showcase the impressive nature of Scottish winter climbing to some of the best mountaineers from home and abroad.”

Victor Saunders, President of the Alpine Club, said: “The Alpine Club is proud to be part of the Scottish International Meet and we are delighted that 12 of our members will be there to host the international guests. Bringing climbers together to try new routes and make new partnerships is a key aim of the club.”

The week will close with a social evening in Tiso Aviemore Outdoor Experience, where members of the climbing public will be able to meet and chat with the participants. There will be a talk by leading climber Guy Robertson and a chance to hear about the week’s climbing. Tickets for this event are available to members of the public at https://winterclimbingmeet2020.eventbrite.co.uk  “

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Table Rib

John Higham high up on Cul Mor’s Table Rib (III,4) during the first winter ascent. This 400m-long climb is the longest new winter route reported so far this season. (Photo Iain Young)

Iain Young and John Higham pulled off a superbly-timed piece of exploratory winter mountaineering yesterday (January 28) when they made the first winter ascent of Table Rib (III,4) on Cul Mor. Iain takes up the story:

“In the last few days, it’s been good to see winter back. Luckily John Higham and I had set aside a few days this week in which to try to get something done and yesterday we went back to Cul Mor for a winter ascent of Table Rib.

We had talked about this as a possible objective for a few years, but the southerly aspect and low start meant we needed a cold snap, snow to low levels in the west and an early season day so that the sun doesn’t get too high. We figured that we had the right ingredients yesterday and so it proved. A fairly arduous approach via the gorgeous little Loch an Doire Dubh led to the approach gully and the start of the “slimy slabs”.

While they were dribbling with (unusable) ice these gave John a few nerve-wracking moments on the way to the ridge line as the turf wasn’t always fully frozen and there were no runners (these turfy slabs catch all the morning sun going). Above, some short technical moves on much improved turf and the odd hook move led to the top of the Table in around 400m of pitched climbing and moving together.

The summer route seems to have been followed more or less in its entirety though the final sting in the tail was climbed via a steep turfy groove to the left. A superb expedition in a wild part of the country. As to the grade, III, 4 we thought. On the other hand, I’ve soloed Tower Ridge in winter but I would not have soloed this! “

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The Arc of Profanity

The line of The Arc of Profanity (VI,8) on the Left-Hand-Buttress of Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm. The route saw its first ascent by Dave Brookes and Jules Harris on Saturday. Two months earlier they made the second ascent of The Edge of Profanity (V,7) that takes the crack-line up the vertical wall to the left. (Archive Photo Dave Brookes)

While making the second ascent of The Edge of Profanity in November, Dave Brookes and Jules Harris noted that there was further new route potential on the Left-Hand Buttress of Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm. On January 18 they returned to the cliff and made the first ascent of an excellent technical test-piece called The Arc of Profanity (VI,8).

“To the right of Edge of Profanity there is a vertical curving crack that becomes overhanging,” Dave told me. “It leads right into a small roof and then out onto the buttress above.

Last Saturday conditions at Creagan Cha-No were at long last properly frozen again. Jules and I headed back to Left-Hand Buttress with the aim of climbing this line. It took three attempts before I worked out the moves to get through the roof clean – the first two attempts involved various whippers.

From the foot of the route the whole thing looks a bit unlikely but it’s a fantastic route and it’s all there. Initially the crack provides some good gear and solid hooks. The final moves through the roof and out onto the buttress above are hard and would be a tricky on-sight. I’m undecided on the grade although somewhere around VI,7 or VI,8. I propose naming the route The Arc of Profanity.”

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More on Cruachan

Robin Clothier and Stuart MacFarlane on the summit ridge of Ben Cruachan after the first ascent of One of Nine (IV,5) on Noe Buttress earlier this season. The active duo added another new route called Double OO (IV,4) to the buttress last week. (Photo Stuart MacFarlane)

It’s been a very lean January so far, but following their first ascent of One of Nine (IV,5) on Ben Cruachan in November, Southern Highlands pioneers Stuart MacFarlane and Robin Clothier added another new route to Noe Buttress on January 10. Stuart takes up the story:

“After studying forecasts and reading reports, where could we find some climbing before weather turned poor again last weekend? Unfortunately, my suggestion of Ben Cruachan, didn’t fill either of us with enthusiasm over that walk in!

Signs of winter started to appear below reservoir, more so between there and col, and fresh snow and hoar started to appear on the rocks leading up to summit. Even the descent down Easy Gully was neve, much more pleasant than usual frozen scree!

Robin lead Tainted Elixir (V,6), which was well frozen and lightly hoared by the cloud in lee of the prevailing wind. When we descended back down again, surprised to see another party, gearing up beneath it.

I’d climbed the original route on Noe Buttress twice previously, but there is a parallel corner just to the left. This resulted in Double OO (IV,4), 40m of new ground, crossing One of Nine before joining existing routes leading to easy ground above.

We still had time for another route, but with a strengthening Southerly gale, we opted to descend into the onset thaw …and then that walk out!”

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Timing Is Everything

Roger Webb making the first winter ascent of Nethy Crack (V,6) on Cnap Coire na Spreidhe on Cairn Gorm. The snow-filled fault in the foreground is taken by Dinner Date (V,5). (Photo Simon Richardson)

There is an attractive single pitch crag sitting under Cnap Coire na Spreidhe on Cairn Gorm. It was first explored in summer 2012 by Rik Higham, Raphael Bleakley and Gwilym Lynn who climbed the prominent line of Nethy Crack (VS 4c), the central crack line splitting the front face of the cliff.

With a base of 1100m Cnap Coire an Spreidhe is a promising-looking venue for lean winter conditions. It had been on the radar for years, and Roger Webb and I finally visited it last January. We climbed Dinner Date (V,5), the fault line left of Nethy Crack, followed by The Late Show (IV,6), a deep chimney cutting deep into the right flank of the cliff. The main prize however, was a winter ascent of Nethy Crack, but we knew we would have to wait patiently for the correct conditions. The crag is often covered in deep rime and we’d had a tough time on Dinner Date with difficult to protect icy cracks. Ideally, we needed the cliff draped in powder following a deep thaw.

On January 9, Nethy Crack was looking good. The post Christmas thaw had cleared the rime, and recent cold north-westerly winds had helpfully blown fresh snow over the plateau to settle on the east-facing Cnap. And, most crucially, the cracks were free of ice.

The route looked intimidating from below and it was difficult to judge how hard the climbing would actually be. Roger started up a turfy groove with an awkward move through an overlap, which provided a more direct start to the summer line that gains the crack from the left. Above, the route provided a magnificent surprise – it was considerably easier than it looked! Whenever a move appeared difficult, footholds would materialise and the deep crack willingly accepted tools and cams. We knew the pitch would eat up a single rack, and had doubled up on large cams – Roger placed the 3.5 four times although he did move it up twice.

The summer route finishes direct thorough a small overhang, but Roger took the natural winter line trending right to the arête and finishing up a steep vegetated wall. The winter version of Nethy Crack weighs in at V,6 and is a superb little route. With time to spare, I then led Brain Melt (V,7), the burly chimney to the left of The Late Show, which is guarded by a difficult smooth corner which provided the technical crux. The route was so named because after his superb performance on Nethy Crack, Roger lost concentration when climbing on the blunt end of the rope, and could not match his previous composure and finesse. The unheralded hero of the day however was Gary Kinsey, who manfully held the ropes and then glided up both routes with elegance and style.

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Spare Rib on An Teallach

The line of Spare Rib (II/III) in Toll an Lochain on An Teallach. It is flanked either side by Central Gully (I) and Chockstone Gully (I). (Photo Ian Stennett)

With the Scottish mountains still lean from the post-Christmas thaw, it is difficult to remember that the Highlands were covered in deep snow during the third week in December.

Ian Stennett climbed An Teallach from Toll an Lochain on December 18. To make the going easier in the deep drifts, Ian took a line up the broad rib that sits between Central and Chockstone gullies.

“Spare Rib (II/III) is a fairly straightforward climb in the bottom half with sections of little difficulty or interest,” Ian told me. “But, as height is gained, the rib narrows and the exposure increases to leave a climb that picks its way through rock and turf amid spectacular scenery, finishing on a very lofty perch on the bealach.

It was the highlight of what was a very long and tough day, the snow across the ridge was highly time consuming. I also took a small slip, tore my trousers and punctured my calf with a crampon as fatigue set in – so it is nice to have a new line in the corrie as some sort of reward!”

Postscript: It looks like the ubiquitous Andy Nisbet got there first and climbed the line in February 2012 with Jonathan Preston. They called the route Narrow Buttress and graded it II. See comments below and thanks to the eagle-eyed Ewan Lyons for pointing it out.

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