Marmalade – First Winter Ascent

Michael Barnard on the first pitch of Marmalade (VI,6) on Buachaille Etive Mor during the first winter ascent. This two-pitch mixed route lies on D Gully Buttress. (Photo John MacLeod)

On January 7, Michael Barnard and John MacLeod had a fine day making the first winter ascent of Marmalade (VI,6) on D Gully Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor.

“With the cold weather and snow down to lower levels, it seemed a good time to try a line I’d seen a few years ago,” Michael explained. “When I checked the guide it turned out to be Marmalade, a summer Severe crack and groove-line [first climbed by Bugs McKeith and Jim Brumfitt in March 1964] which cuts fairly directly through Alpen. I found the lower section could thankfully be climbed with the use of both the crack and various bits of frozen turf, though not always with a great deal for the feet. Above, due to the south-east aspect, I enjoyed the rare pleasure of belaying in the sun on a winter route!

The upper groove pitch would be really nice with neve, but under the current snow conditions was still fairly tricky (tech 5-ish), though with a decent bit of gear for each step.

The route turned out to be two pitches long and we graded it VI,6.”

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New Routes on Am Bodach

Andy Hogarth on the first ascent of Bodach Buttress (III,4) on Am Bodach in Glen Coe. This excellent discovery was combined with a second new route, Òganach Chimney (III,4), that was climbed later that day. (Photo Andy Nelson)

Andy Nelson and Andy Hogarth had a superb day on December 30 climbing two new routes on the north side of Am Bodach above Glen Coe

“At NN169580 there are two buttresses,” Andy explains. “They can be accessed easily by approaching up Coire an Ruigh, then turning left (south-west) at the Bealach at 816m, and walking for five minutes to their base. The entire approach takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

The obvious 100m-long ridge is called Bodach Buttress (III, 4), which we climbed in four pitches with good stances. It’s possible to include trickier steps, but overall, it’s a great wee route for a blustery day as the approach and descent are straightforward.

Alternatively it can be combined with our second route that takes the obvious deep cleft on the buttress nearer the Bealach. Òganach Chimney (III,4) climbs the deep 60m-high chimney, with a tricky move under an enormous chockstone, that leads into a bomb bay. We belayed here before stepping right to gain an easy groove that exits onto the other side of the buttress. From here it’s possible to walk off or continue up scrambling terrain to the top.

Both climbs are great fun and quite different from the trade routes at this grade elsewhere in the Glen.”

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Book Review – Sanctuary in the Extreme

John Proctor climbing the Rostrum (5.11c) in Yosemite. Sanctauary in the Extreme was published privately in July 2015 and is avaliable on Amazon.

I was sent an interesting book to review recently. John Proctor’s Sanctuary in the Extreme is a very personal account of transformation from a tough inner city existence through to finding fulfillment in a life of climbing.

This book is as much a reflection on British social history as it is climbing. The first half describes living in the cities on northern England on a diet of poverty, violence and drugs. Proctor is clearly an intelligent man, but he is unaware of his potential and finds it impossible to break out of this downward spiral. The scenes described are sometimes very violent and told with a disturbing degree of candour and authenticity.

A year in the army provides a possibly way out, and gives Proctor his first window to the outdoors, but ultimately but this doesn’t work, and once again and he tumbles down the spiral. Then an outdoor education opportunity provides a chance to sample the hills again and soon Proctor has grasped the climbing world with both hands. Gritstone becomes his playground and he quickly finds his feet climbing in the Scotland and the Alps. The tone changes from resignation and despair through to excitement and a celebration of the world’s beautiful places. Former aggression is channeled into climbing mountains and difficult routes.

The latter part of the book is taken up with blog posts of Johns’s most memorable ascents – The Rostrum in Yosemite, the American Direct on the Dru and Orion Direct on the Ben. Scottish winter interest is maintained with accounts of Cutlass and Gemini.

This is a pugnacious work. The writing is raw and up front. The grammar and spelling are unconventional which adds to the grittiness of the read. But overall the book conveys a message of hope – that there is a way out of even the most desperate of situations – and for some, climbing and mountaineering can provide that means of escape.

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Eighties Rules

Mark Robson relieved and happy after completing the crux section of Eighties Rules (V,7) on Creag Meagaidh. Mark’s lead was particularly impressive as he said he had not done a pull up for over a year. (Photo Roger Webb)

“The problem with writing a book like Chasing the Ephemeral,” I reflected, “is that everyone expects you to to make optimum route choices all of the time.” I was half way up the first pitch of a new line on the Aisre-Chaim buttress in Coire Choille-rais on January 4, and was having a tough time. The route was in good condition except for one thing. It was covered in two to three feet of dense powder snow that had blanketed absolutely everything. It was impossible to distinguish rock from frozen turf, and finding protection was close to impossible. Climbing conditions were very unhelpful and I was not a happy man.

It took two hours for me to scrape, dig, grumble and curse my way up the first pitch and when I belayed under the crux corner – which looked far steeper than I’d hoped – I thought it was game over. But Mark Robson was not going to give up easily, and he racked up in a determined mood. Fortunately the crux section was overhanging which meant that only minimal digging was required, but even so it was a forceful lead by Mark fully deserving of high end tech 7.

Roger Webb led the third pitch that sported an ominius-looking bulging chimney-slot at its top, but Mark and I were not unduly worried as Roger is good at this sort of thing. A flounder up the final snow slopes led us to the plateau and a quick descent down the adjacent gully saw us back at the lochain in double quick time.

We had snatched success from the jaws of defeat, but I suspect that my venue choice could have been bettered even though I had carefully chosen a mid-altitude venue that was sufficiently high to be frozen, and not (theoretically) too blutered by snow. Conditions over much of the Highlands are tricky at the moment. There is a lot of unhelpful snow, but on the plus side it is lying in useful places – we just need a short thaw followed by freeze to consolidate it all. Here’s hoping!

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Arran’s Capuil Ridge

The upper section of Capuil Ridge (I) on Bheinn Bharrain in Arran. This remote ridge in the Western Hills may not have seen a winter ascent before this December. (Photo Kris Lennox)

Kris Lennox sent me details of an enterprising outing on Arran on December 9 when he made a winter ascent of the South-East Ridge of Bheinn Bharrain in the Pirnmill Hills. Kris doesn’t think this very remote feature has been ascended in winter before and proposes the name Capuil Ridge and rates it ‘mild Grade I’.

Kris who describes himself as a ‘runner first and climber a very distant second’ approached from the north up Glen Catacoul – a 12km-long run with half the distance over rough trackless terrain. He carried a sack with ice tools and changed from running kit into winter climbing mode below the route.

“The real fun of the ridge is tackling all outcrops on the rocky lower section,” Kris explained. “The central section is little more than a walk. And near the top there’s a nice little exit gully, finishing directly on the summit. Views, as can be expected, are spectacular!“

Kris has documented his ascent on his blog, which is devoted to long distance running in the Ayrshire and Arran hills. After his brief foray with winter climbing, Kris is now fully back into his running again:

“It’s been a busy month of hard training and fast runs, from setting a new course record of 4hrs 27min 21sec on the Three Lochs Way to running a tough trail marathon on Arran a few days later (one I had planned for a long time, tying together all the northern glens), to the Capuil ridge (relatively tame and short day by comparison), to exploration of Arran’s remotest regions over some of the island’s roughest terrain. Weekly running mileage is c.100-140 miles, with around 50 of those in the mountains. I have a very committing solo winter mountain ultra planned that I need to be at my peak for – if it goes wrong, It’ll likely be the end of me. Hence doing everything in my power to (hopefully) make it a success!”

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Hot Ice

Andy Nisbet making the opportunistic first ascent of Hot Dog (IV,4) on Lurcher’s Crag on the west side of Cairn Gorm. The thaw held off to snatch a route in the East on Monday morning, but you had to be quick! (Photo Sandy Allan)

“What a great spell of weather, for winter climbers anyway,” Andy Nisbet writes. “ And frozen turf on crags near the road, crags suitable for the ‘older climber’. But now on Monday December 18, the cold spell was ending, with temperatures forecast to go up to plus 7 on top of Cairn Gorm. Ah well, time for a rest.

But not for Sandy Allan. He wouldn’t let it go. ‘It’s only going above freezing at 8am, so if we get up early…’ That was forgetting it had already thawed on the 17th. But it had been cold for nearly three weeks, so slowly I came round to the idea that some ice might have survived. And there were a couple of potential ice lines on Lurcher’s Crag (my days of getting up at midnight and reaching some remote crag at first light are long gone). So in the afternoon, I drove up to the Cairngorm car park to see what snow was left, and to choose between the approaches via Chalamain Gap or South Gully. The Northern Corries were still snowy and so were the boulders in the Chalamain Gap, so South Gully it was.

At 7.30am it was still dark and very quiet in the car park. It actually turned out that several keen teams had already left, and we did see head torches high up on the hill. Walking conditions were lumpy on the path from yesterday’s footprints but at least the snow was frozen and we reached South Gully with little stress. The descent was fine too, but then the traverse along the cliff base to the far end was tedious. Would Chalamain have been quicker?

At least traversing the base showed us that there was lots of ice. Diamond Gully (wrongly described as Window Gully in the last guide) was in particularly fine nick, complete with misleading window. So we were in with a chance. Central Gully looked great but we were going further to a potential ice line spotted last year between Ultramontane and Akita (the SMC will produce an app sometime soon). Both of these routes were climbed in deep snow, and we were dreaming that the smears between them could make a good route. As we continued down the crag, the amount of ice was decreasing and I was looking ahead to easier ice at the end of the crag (climbed many times before). Then Sandy said, “What’s that ice up there? I looked up and realised that I’d walked past our potential line. The ice looked thin but the line was complete.

I took the first pitch, up a smear on a slab leading to an iced bulge. The bulge was only about head height and took a solid ice screw. But reaching above it and swinging the axe detached about a metre of ice, which slid off and revealed a blank slab. The only option was to come in from the side, and here was a stroke of luck, an excellent placement in normally unhelpful rock allowed a delicate move over the bulge. A rock barrier above was easily bypassed and the pitch was completed under an icy chimney.

Sandy took this on with another good ice screw runner (thank goodness we took the ice screw, a close decision), and soon we reached the easier upper section. Soloing from here eventually gained the finishes of the other routes, all which finish up a ridge climbed in the 1950s but never named. It was still a long way to the top of Creag a’ Leth-choin and by now it was so warm we didn’t even need gloves.

With the dog theme of the crag, Sandy suggested the name Hot Dog. I thought IV,4 but there’s no doubt it would be III if thickly iced. Whether that happens during this predicted cold winter, we’ll see.”

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Red Rag Repeated

Erick Baillot setting off up the first pitch of Red Rag (VII,7) on Beinn Dearg in the Torridon Mountains. This intriguing route on one of the area’s least visited cliffs waited 17 years for its second ascent. (Photo Karl Atherton)

Dave Kerr, Erick Baillot and Karl Atherton notched up a significant ascent in the Torridon area on December 16 when they made the second ascent of Red Rag (VII,7) on Beinn Dearg. This route was first climbed by Roger Webb and Neil Wilson in December 2000, takes the steep icy groove that descends from the apex of the triangular cliff at the head of Choire Mhoir.

“We thought thinking it was going to be a fairly short outing,” Erick explained. “From the 1:50000 map, it looks like the crag lies just over 5km from the car park near Torridon House. Red Rag has been on our radar for a number of years, and low lying snow, a good freeze and wanting a mellow day (work has been a bit busy) ticked all my boxes.

We rolled up on Friday night with the van (I bivvied outside as the van only sleeps two comfortably) and set off around 6am. Not knowing the place particularly well, we decided that approaching from the southern slope in a rising traverse east to the dip in the ridge was the way forward… and it was the wrong call. Thigh deep to waist deep floundering, via dodgy snow slopes and worrying steps led us in 3 hrs 30 min to the crag. No official climbing had happened yet, but we were donning helmets, crampons and using two axes by the time the forced lined had brought us to within 50m of the summit of Beinn Dearg. None of us fancied crossing those gullies and slopes with such deep snow.

The climbing was short, but good, with one 25m pitch of Tech 7 leading to a ledge (gear high for the belay). The crag was very iced up and all the cracks were choked with ice making protection difficult and time consuming to arrange, so I will take the Grade VII tick. If the cracks were dry, the grade could go down to VI,7. Dave led the second pitch that had a 5m step of Tech 5 climbed using ice before 20m of easy ground and a last steeper step of 5m.

The way out was long as we decided to follow the ridge to the bealach west of Carn na Feola and drop into the glen of Coire Mhic Nobuil near Lochan a’Chaorainn and the long trudge back to the car park. Thankfully we had brought our secret weapon for the day ‘Dave The Plough Kerr’ who fresh from a summer of running, forged ahead regardless of snow depth.

Regardless, it gave a great new perspective to Torridon Mountains and the views north towards Beinn an Eoin were fabulous when it wasn’t snowing. We never saw anybody else other than the head torches of people walking the long way into Beinn Eighe and the rescue helicopter seemingly exercising and going around all the local corries. It was a great long day with plenty of solitude.”

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New Grade VIII for The Cobbler

The spectacular South Peak of the Cobbler with the line of Punter’s Crack (VIII,9) shown in red. The dashed line shows the section that is shared with the modern classic Deadman’s Groove (VII,7). (Photo Martin McKenna)

Tim Miller and Martin McKenna created a new Southern Highlands test-piece on December 15 when they climbed Punter’s Crack (VIII,9) on the South Peak. This was a winter ascent of their 2016 summer addition ‘Davie Taenails’, but the route has been renamed because it is a far better winter climb than a summer one.

“It’s the first new winter route for both of us, so we are rather pleased,” Martin told me. “I’d spotted the line in 2016 while climbing North Wall Traverse, and then later that February, Tim and I climbed Deadman’s Groove, a route which Punters Crack rejoins in it’s upper half. Three months later in May, we were up on The Cobbler with a friend. Between us we had done a lot of the routes, so in a moment of idiocy, we decided to climb the line in summer, which was a moss induced nightmare.

We’d seen the weather was going to be good on Friday, and decided to go and have a look in winter, which it tuned out was a good call. The line is obvious from below. It climbs the initial turfy corner shared with North Wall Groove before continuing up on turf to below a horizontal roof. Tim managed to fiddle in some gear under this before committing to feet-off moves through the roof and then up the wall above. We belayed on a small ledge at the junction with Deadman’s Groove, and then I finished up the traverse and corner of Deadman’s groove to the top.

We’ve not done much around this grade so don’t have much to draw on, but we both reckoned around VIII,9.”

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The Orphan – First Winter Ascent

Steve Holmes leading The Orphan (VII,8) on Buachaille Etive Mor in Glen Coe. Heavy snow conditions meant that accessing the route via Curved Ridge was a mini expedition in itself. (Photo Duncan Curry)

On December 14, Steve Holmes, Duncan Curry and Hannah Evans made the first winter ascent of The Orphan (VII,8) on the North-East Face of Crowberry Ridge on The Buachaille. This summer VS, which was first climbed by Messrs. Read, Jones and Swainbank in September 2000, lies on the steep wall cut by cracks and corners to the right of Engineer’s Crack and Crowberry Ridge, Direct Route.

“It was a proper full-on wade to gain the foot of the chimney that accesses the platform under the main pitch,” Steve told me. “But we battled on accepting it was going to be a long day. Hannah dug her way up Curved Ridge, Duncan got us up the awkward chimney and I got the main pitch.

It’s super sustained, steep and really good climbing and easily worth VII,8. The gear is excellent but all kinds of hand jams, knee bars along with flat hooks were needed to gain upward movement. I took a small fall on the crux which I am really disappointed with, but I managed to get straight back on finding a better sequence second time round.”

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Tried and Tested Repeated in Glen Coe

Steve Holmes enjoying the exposure on Tried and Tested (VII,7) on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe. This steep and sustained route is thought to be at the upper end of its grade. (Photo Duncan Curry)

Duncan Curry and Steve Holmes repeated Tried and Tested (VII,7) on Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe on December 12. Their ascent is most probably the second ascent of this steep line that takes the chimney-corner formed by the spur of Central Buttress and the wall of Satyr.

Tried and Tested was first climbed by Andy Nelson, Kenny Grant and Keith Ball in December 2014 and was described it as being ‘at the sporty end of its grade.’

“It’s an excellent route, each pitch physical yet really well protected,” Steve told me. “It deserves more attention and is certainly worth two stars!”

Stob Coire nan Lochan has proved popular in recent days with ascents of the classic lines of Tilt (VI,7), Intruder (VI,7), Evening Citizen (V,7), Crest Route (V,6), Scabbard Chimney (V,6) and Raeburn’s Route (IV,4) together with the test-piece Unicorn (VIII,8) by Dave Almond and Helen Rennard.

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