Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts tagged Andy Nisbet

    Sandy Allan on the final arete of Zeus (III) on Beinn Liath Mhor. Fuar Tholl and Sgurr Ruadh complete the backdrop. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Sandy Allan on the final arete of Zeus (III) on Beinn Liath Mhor. Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh complete the backdrop. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Some of the best ever icy mixed lines have been climbed in the last few days,” Andy Nisbet writes. “But despite slight embarrassment about reporting much more modest ones, even they have a story.

    After a very tiring and fruitless wade through deep snow to Beinn Bhan, Sandy Allan and I looked for somewhere near the road and potentially blown clearer than Beinn Bhan. I climbed a ridge on the south face of Beinn Liath Mhor at a grassy Severe some 10 years ago (or was it 15?), and had been waiting ever since for it to freeze; finally there seemed to be a chance and the walk-in wasn’t too far in deep snow.

    A few days ago (January 21), we reached the base of Coire Lair and immediately lost the path under snow. A set of footsteps went up towards Beinn Liath Mhor by the walkers’ route, so we followed them before traversing under the cliff. Unfortunately my ridge was at the far end, and the going was very rough, so Sandy kept spotting nearer lines while my ridge stayed stubbornly out of sight. Eventually a fine looking gully wore down my resolve despite my worry that white streaks on the rocky steps might just be powder. Sandy told me not to be so negative and they turned out to be good ice, so we soloed the whole route, carrying both ropes and a rack of gear (Half Pipe Gully, 200m, II).

    I was still keen on my ridge and there was a diagonal descent back to the cliff base. I had to work on Sandy to go back down to the land of deep powder and I had to keep quiet that I couldn’t really remember where my ridge was. I had some memory that it was the ridge left of Artemis, the only recorded winter route on the cliff and climbed by Sonya Drummond and Diana Preston in 2009. I remember Sonya phoning me up from the top of the mountain at 10pm in even deeper snow and asking ‘How do we get off? It’s all cliffs and avalanche prone slopes.’ I was in my warm living room at the time.

    When Sandy and I finally made it round there, I think I recognised the ridge and aching legs declined the direct start for an easier groove round on the right. We soloed up to an ice step to put on the rope but it looked easy, so we soloed on, and on, and to the top over a lovely but optional arete (Zeus, 250m III). I don’t know where the Severe bit was, maybe the start or an easy slab with a strip of turf which could have been scary in summer.

    Back home in Strathspey almost in daylight and reading on t’Internet about all the amazing conditions, for tomorrow my legs couldn’t face anything other than a return up the nice footsteps of the day before. Jonathan Preston was keen to join us, and he was tired from several days working on the hill. But it was the last good day of the current spell. One of the lines Sandy had spotted the day before looked good in my summer pictures so we headed there with much more ease than the day before, rather helped by the gear split three ways. For some reason Sandy wasn’t so keen on the line this time, and I was, so Jonathan could laugh at the old guys bickering. The start was a narrow chimney which I refused to lead with a sack and Sandy refused to haul it, so we bickered some more and Sandy led it with his sack. The next pitch was a chimney too, which I led with my sack and Jonathan led a third pitch with some ice (Grey Vote, 180m, IV,5).

    It seemed a bit early for going home despite deteriorating weather, but funnily enough Sandy disagreed. I offered to go and solo another ridge but despite being accused of route bagging, the others soloed it too (McTwist, 200m, II). The weather was worse on top but I had refused to take a map or compass on such a simple hill. I soon had some sympathy for Sonya as I took a poor line but fortunately recognised the wrong valley below and sidestepped the embarrassment. Two great days with just a hint of FOMO (I had to Google that one) over all the big icy mixed lines.”


    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Twerk (V,5) in Coire nan Eun deep in the Fannaichs. This little known cliff on the north side of An Coileachan has probably been visited only half a dozen times. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Twerk (V,5) in Coire nan Eun deep in the Fannaichs. This little known cliff on the north side of An Coileachan has probably been visited only half a dozen times. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    The continuous run of stormy weather this winter has made choosing a venue and selecting an appropriate route particularly challenging. As ever, Andy Nisbet has consistently demonstrated the knack of being in the right place at the right time. Take this recent example from the Fannaichs:

    “The winter of 1994 was one of the great ice years that regularly happen every seven or eight years (1979, 1986, 1994, 2002, 2010, 2017),” Andy writes. “I climbed a lot in Coire Ghranda (Beinn Dearg) that year and returning to the car, I kept seeing white streaks on a distant cliff in the Fannaichs. On the last weekend before the weather turned mild, I decided to visit and approached along the route I had been watching, a long way from the Ullapool road. One reason for going that way is that I wasn’t really sure where the cliff was, so it seemed to make sense keeping it in view on the approach. For once the white streaks did turn out to be ice, and I had a great day (in retrospect) scaring myself on routes I shouldn’t really have soloed, the justification being that the ice was a once in a lifetime chance.

    I didn’t really expect anyone else to go there, but several parties did, culminating in what must have been a great day when Erik Brunskill and Dafydd Morris climbed the hard and serious Slam (VI,6) and followed it with Feral Buttress, one of the steepest Grade IIIs in Scotland. There is my speculation that they did it after Slam and were on such a high that they didn’t notice the hard bits. They also cycled in from Grudie, which did seem much more sensible.

    Twenty years after my first visit, the feeling that any day there would be an anti-climax had worn off, so I walked under the cliff on a Fannaichs Munro bagging trip. It’s not very big, but turfy, north facing and with a couple of possible lines all fitted the bill for a visit. Sandy Allan and I sat in the layby on a warmish day in February 2014, hummed and hawed for a while, then decided to go home. Much later in the year (December 28), Jonathan Preston and I were thinking of somewhere to go, and it seemed to fit the bill.

    The cycling road turned out to be quite icy and the weather turned out to be mistier than the forecast had said. It’s not the easiest cliff to approach, with a narrow terrace across a very steep hillside only being shown on the 1:25000 map and not on the 1:50000, and it was very white up there. I cursed not setting my altimeter when we ended up wading around in deep snow on a small ledge, which ended in nothing. Some backtracking and a second attempt higher up luckily turned out to be correct.

    The cliff was rather plastered in snow but we still decided to try the harder line on the far right. We soon found out that the snow had rather insulated the turf, and as I struggled up the first pitch, I began to remember that Erik had tried a line somewhere near and backed off due to lack of gear. I presume we were trying an easier line because I did reach a big ledge below some very steep and smooth ground. Jonathan was tempted to give it a go, but I persuaded him to climb a turfy ramp off to the right. It clearly wasn’t easy as he disappeared out of sight, but then reappeared directly above my head waving with enthusiasm; obviously he’d cracked it. The last pitch turned out to be much easier than it looked from below, helped by the turf being exposed and well frozen. We called it Twerk (V,5), nothing to do with Jonathan’s climbing style.

    A week later (January 4) it was warmer but the turf had been frozen on Lurcher’s Crag the day before. The temptation of a clear road was enough for a return to the easier line. This time Jonathan took his GPS to find the approach terrace and we reached the crag quickly. This line was on the left of the East Buttress and the ice on the first pitch was much thicker than on the first visit. It was still a bit smeary and ended in bottomless soggy sphagnum moss. Jonathan’s pitch was more technical and took a slightly twisting line up steep turfy ground. The weather was warming all the time so the descent was very boggy, but we even got home in daylight. The route was named Twist (III,4).”


    Jonathan Preston moving along the horizontal section at the top of El Dorado (III,5) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm during the first ascent. The great defile of the Larig Ghru and the cliffs of Sron na Lairige can be seen behind. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston moving along the horizontal section at the top of El Dorado (III,5) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm during the first ascent. The great defile of the Lairig Ghru and the cliffs of Sron na Lairige can be seen behind. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Shangri-La might be overstating it a bit, but an overlooked section of crag on a very accessible cliff is my idea of a revelation’” Andy Nisbet writes. “One wild and warm day in December (there were a few of those!), I was after some exercise and looked at a picture of Lurcher’s Crag. All the good lines had been done but I was only after some exercise, so what about the upper crag left of Central Gully? No routes, so why not go there?

    Arriving at the Cairn Gorm car park mid-morning, the weather was as unpleasant as I had thought. But there was only me, so I could just go as far as I wanted. The advantage of being late is that there was a trail through deep wet snow to ‘Lurcher’s Ridge’, and then it wasn’t far to the crag. The wind was a howling westerly but there was the usual shelter in the vortex on the summit. And there wasn’t any snow on the crag, or even in Central Gully. But once you’ve left the car, turning back is a waste of effort, so I put crampons on and descended into the maelstrom. The aim was to get back up as quickly as possible so I took the first ledge on to the crag and zigzagged my way up to reach the top with some relief. Back out of the gale, I actually thought the climbing was OK and it would make a reasonable winter route.

    Forwarding a month or so to January 3, the weather had just turned cold but had still to settle down (will it ever?) so I suggested the crag to Jonathan Preston as a handy place to go, and he agreed with surprising enthusiasm. Even as we descended into Central Gully with the usual upward gale, then traversed out to the start of the route, he still continued enthusiastically out to a crest beyond and told me there was loads of turfy crag below. This did rather puzzle me, but I was focussed on the line above, so I called him back and set off. Now with a rope, I took an overlap direct and on the second pitch, Jonathan climbed a direct groove to very much improve the line (it was Grade III,4).

    That was quick, so why not investigate the turfy ground below, and try to link up with the crest on the left. This time we had to descend further and bypass the crux pitch of Central Gully (which you can do on the left, looking down). Coming back under the pitch, it was surprisingly icy, certainly thick enough to climb and nicely soft with water trickling down, but I doubt wet ice screws would have held. Fortunately we didn’t have to decide, but needed to investigate a lot of rock beneath our first route. Our first excited impression of ice smeared crack-lines soon mellowed when reality kicked in and actually they were steep, smooth and blind.

    We moved on to an icy corner which looked more reasonable, and then a deep V-groove which was hidden until underneath and looked quite easy. It turned out to be much better and steeper than it looked. The back was well iced but squeezed in there with your axes in the ice, it turned out to be very hard to step up or even see your feet (not helped by snow blowing up your nostrils and me being long-sighted anyway). Pulling harder than permitted by good style seemed to work and led to easy ground with another slabby tier above, this time with blobs of turf and definitely no hard pulling. Jonathan soon reached his footsteps from the earlier recce and continued up the crest for a long pitch. The finish was easier but we decided on IV,4 overall. We called it Shangri-La, and the first route Beyul.

    We couldn’t leave when there was another line, this time right of our first route and overlooking the top of Central Gully. The first pitch was fairly easy but the second had two short overhanging sections, both on amazing hooks round chokestones, finishing on a horizontal crest (III,5). We called it the last on the theme, El Dorado.

    The nice thing about local climbing is that you get down in daylight, and without a rush.”

    Jonathan Preston making the first ascent of Gonzo (IV,4) on the East Face of Aonach Mor. The route lies on the Ribbed Walls in the area of grooves between Pernille and Aquafresh. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston making the first ascent of Gonzo (IV,4) in Coire an Lochain on the East Face of Aonach Mor. The route lies on the Ribbed Walls in the area of grooves between Pernille and Aquafresh. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Coire an Lochain of Aonach Mor usually ranks with the Northern Corries as the place with most popularity and publicity,” Andy Nisbet writes. “But in recent weeks it has been ominously quiet; the assumption that it would have been swamped with powder after lots of westerlies was probably right. But then there was a big thaw, rain and floods, and a freeze again, so where else to go? A nice picture of an icy Ben on the SAIS blog confirmed my thoughts.

    The big snag about December is that the Gondola often doesn’t run, and on December 23 it was scheduled for electrical maintenance, so we were psyched up for walking from the bottom. It was a big surprise when we arrived at 8.15am and it was running. Too late, we were told, it’s about to close and won’t open until 10am, or maybe later. It didn’t help that it was raining on and off, but Jonathan (Preston) had seen a forecast that said it would stop by 10, so we set off through the forest. Just before its top, at about 9.30, the rain came on heavier so we hid under a tree until it stopped, and sure enough the hill came out of the mist at 10am.

    Then we sheltered behind the Gondola station to eat, and there was still every reason to think conditions would be good. After a while we set off up the piste and the snow gradually firmed up. First we saw footprints (that must be Simon ahead of us!) then ski tracks, which were puzzling until Jonathan saw pole marks and realised someone, had skinned up. At the top of the lift, we met Davie the liftie and were invited into the hut to warm up and chat; apparently the tow would be opening. After a while we forced ourselves to leave; there was still no reason why conditions wouldn’t be good.

    Time was getting on but there really wasn’t a rush, as we geared up behind a hut at the top. The earlier rain had put down some fresh snow so were we concerned about windslab even though the plateau was bare ice. And of course cornices, as the intended line went up to some of the biggest on the cliff. Easy Gully was slightly worrying until we downclimbed into soft snow with not a hint of anything sliding under our feet. The East Face was so different, deep snow everywhere, like the depths of winter. We waded across to our line, in the snowy area about 100m left (looking down) of Easy Gully. Looking up, there was thick ice in every groove, probably the best conditions I’ve ever seen on that section of face, but still a cornice, which did look rather big.

    Despite the wading, and the worry about falling into a bergshrund, as soon as we hit the steeper ground on the cliff, every placement was bomber. I had taken my ice gear in optimistic anticipation, even a couple of ice screws, but I maybe should have been more openly enthusiastic, as Jonathan was expecting mixed and had the bluntest crampons known to mankind. At least the grade was a comfortable one for us and a couple of pitches of icy grooves led to the cornice. Once we got the scale right, it didn’t look too big, but the 20m of near vertical snow I had climbed on the nearby route The Muppet Show (named modestly by my clients on the day, who were actually good climbers), would stay as a nightmare memory for many years. So I tried to reach it direct and backed off, then headed towards a break well to the right where Hidden Pinnacle Gully finishes, before quickly realising that the cornice wasn’t that big and the snow here was better. After a couple of failed attempts, I got a good ice screw under the cornice and with a long reach, could just get my axe in the lip. It was as expected, as solid as the snow on the plateau, so a belly flop and it was all over.

    An hour later with some mechanical help and we were at the car, still in daylight. We hadn’t seen any other climbers, or walkers, and despite Davie’s efforts getting the tow open, not a single skier either. It was great. The route got called Gonzo, although the grumpy old men were pretty happy, and maybe it just scraped a IV,4 grade.”

    Flying Saucers

    Steve Perry on the first ascent of Flying Saucer (VI,7) on Stob Ban. The route follows the line of North Ridge Route that is incorrectly marked in the SMC Ben Nevis guidebook. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry on the first ascent of Flying Saucer (VI,7) on Stob Ban. The route follows the line of North Ridge Route that is incorrectly marked in the SMC Ben Nevis guidebook. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry added an excellent new route to Stob Ban in the Mamores on December 16.

    “It’s hard to know where to go at this time of year,” Andy writes. “Actually it’s easy if you have a free choice, but if you’re like me, then it has to be a new route, not too hard and suitably frozen. You could add to my requirements ‘not too long a walk’ also, so this makes it tricky compared to new Grade VIIs or VIIIs many miles from the road, of which there are many. So after a long contemplation and a lucky picture on someone’s blog, which looked like most of the soft snow had melted, I suggested Stob Ban to Steve Perry.

    We set off in the early morning gloom and it wasn’t long before I realised that unlike the Cairngorms, none of the powder high up had melted. So my bright idea turned into wading through soft snow and an expectation that the turf would be insulated. It took about three hours to get to the crag, shortened by Steve helping the old man and carrying both ropes. The best unclimbed line on the South Buttress is a big turfy trough which narrows down into a steepening groove before ending in a gently overhanging smooth wall which never seems to form solid ice. Fortunately the line is shown as being a route in the Ben Nevis guide, which maybe explains its lack of attention. Or maybe the climbing world is full of purists waiting for the magical day when the ice is complete.

    After an arduous wade (for Steve) up the approach slopes, without a hint of anything being frozen, I was really quite surprised to see lots of ice. I shouldn’t have been, since it’s been a wet autumn and cold for a few days, but I was in a pessimistic mood. That was until I dug through soft snow down to the cliff base and reached turf which seemed to take a pull on an axe, although fully frozen would have been an optimistic assessment. But the climb was on!

    The direct line was quite icy but a bit off being climbable (and a long way off being climbable by us), so we started up to the left side. This is the same start as a 2010 route called Tippy Toe, but we soon diverged and gained a turf ledge level with the top of the overhanging wall. It wasn’t a very wide ledge and piled high with soft snow that had a tendency to collapse, causing your heart to miss a beat until you landed on the turf underneath. After about 10m, rope drag and 50m out meant that it was time to belay, although the poorly cracked rock caused some anxiety until an unexpected nut relieved some of it.

    The next pitch would be the crux and really depended on the quality of the ice, which could have been anything from solid to mush. An easy traverse and a solid swing of the axe immediately indicated that this was worth a go. The ice was variable in depth, good enough to climb but it meant you wouldn’t be coming back down, other than as a flying saucer. Which does focus the mind on success. After a couple of steep moves, a step left gave a rest and search for a runner. It was the common dilemma of whether you chip away the ice hoping for a crack or leave it thicker for climbing. But just as I was getting concerned, I tried on the left and there was one. The next section looked like the crux, a balancy ramp with ice blobs followed by a small roof and white above, which could either be a blank slab or nice turf.

    I’m not actually sure what it was, but it took axes and was over quickly once you committed yourself. The continuation was a mixture of good placements and soft ones, but progress was made as long as you didn’t pull too hard, and finally the base of the trough was reached. The trough was better frozen and more enjoyable, followed by a long pitch up the summit crest and moving together to the cairn. Steve could tick this one on his third round, whereas I was in my usual hurry to carry on down ahead of imminent mist and darkness.

    South Gully gave a brilliant long bum slide back to the sacks, a bite to eat and then more sliding. The name had to be Flying Saucer and the grade felt like VI,5. It might drop a grade in better conditions, but actually the conditions were OK.”

    Andy Nisbet topping out on Just A Spot O’Sightseeing (IV,6) on the Mess of Pottage in the Northern Corries. This was the first recorded winter ascent of this summer Severe. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

    Andy Nisbet topping out on Just A Spot O’Sightseeing (IV,6) on the Mess of Pottage in the Northern Corries. (Photo Simon Yearsley)

    Andy Nisbet and Simon Yearsley succeeded on the first winter route of the season today (November 5). Simon takes up the story:

    “It’s been a pretty warm autumn, and although I’ve had a growing sense of excitement as I always do at this time of year, it’s been tinged with growing frustration that it just hasn’t got cold. So, it was good to see the winds turn to the north this week, and things start to get white! There was lots of fresh snow on the Ben and the higher Cairngorms from Monday, and a few rumours circulating about folk getting out, but for me, the weather didn’t really look like it was playing ball until Wednesday… and I’ll admit it, I was really tired after the drytooling competition at Ice Factor on Saturday. So, a few hurried texts with Andy on Tuesday and we had a plan – a very simple plan… head into the Norries and see what was white and climbable. Harry Holmes (far stronger than me and so not as tired after the comp) texted me saying he had the same idea, so it looked like it might be a sociable day too.

    It had snowed pretty hard overnight, and with a few squally snow showers on the way into Coire an t-Sneachda, all the cliffs in the coire were wonderfully white. We headed over to Mess of Pottage as I wanted to look at the summer route – Just A Spot O’ Sightseeing. This 90m Severe was done in 2006 by Olivarius and Hughes, and climbs Hidden Chimney Direct, before moving over easier ground, then slabs and cracks to a steeper finish in the buttress right of Hidden Chimney. This part of the Mess of Pottage is very well travelled, and local guides often take a variety of different lines in the upper section if Hidden Chimney is full of climbers… Andy thinks he’s done Hidden Chimney Direct at least 15 times! The summer route Just a Spot o’ Sightseeing takes a line well suited to early season conditions, being rockier than the easier lines to its right, which are grouped together as Jacob’s Edge. As such, it seems worth describing and naming as a winter route. Later in the season it can be as easy as Grade III, this grade depending on Hidden Chimney Direct Start banking up. Who did it first is lost in the snows of time.

    The line actually fits together really well as a winter route, especially in early season before things bank out: the first pitch is Hidden Chimney Direct which as it often is in lean verglassed conditions, felt about IV,6, then an easier section followed by some fun slabs and cracks; and the finish up the steeper buttress proving much easier than it looked, and in a great position. It’s also a bit longer than the summer 90m – the pitches were 50m, 45m and then 25m, giving 120m of nice climbing.

    Harry and his partner Rob Taylor also had a fun day with an ascent of Honeypot. We all finished just after lunchtime, and afterwards, the ever-keen Harry and Rob went down to Newtyle to put some hours getting even stronger on the drytooling route, Too Fast & Furious. Andy and I went to the cafe and ate cake…

    Also taking advantage of the short weather window were Simon Davidson and Kevin Hall.  Round the corner in Coire an Lochain, they had the corrie to themselves and climbed The Hoarmaster in, to quote Simon, ‘Good early season nick, rime and frozen blocks – always worth a punt this time of year before the cracks get choked.’

    Looks like the weather’s warming up again over the next few days, so it just goes to show, with early season stuff, you just got to grab it when you can!”

    Sandy Allan climbing through the cornice on the first ascent of Risk of Ice (V,4) in Coire na Feola on Ben Wyvis. Current mountain hazards include large cornices, avalanche-prone slopes, warmer than forecast temperatures, and huge amounts of snow. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Sandy Allan climbing through the cornice on the first ascent of Risk of Ice (V,4) in Coire na Feola on Ben Wyvis. Current mountain hazards include large cornices, avalanche-prone slopes, warmer than forecast temperatures, and huge amounts of snow. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “John Mackenzie used to talk with awe about the cornices above Coire na Feola of Ben Wyvis,” Andy Nisbet writes. “Also the great central icefall, which one day would form, and he hoped he would be there. But John Lyall saw it and climbed it in 2012. In prime conditions, this is one of Scotland’s great icy cliffs. So most of the attention had been on the ice lines and the buttress left of the central icefall was unclimbed.

    In February 2013 I was driving south from Ben Hope. It was very warm, 15 degrees in Inverness, but the ice had been great on Ben Hope so I just wondered if it had survived the thaw and that buttress might be iced. Wet ice is great to climb and cornices that year were small. When I got down to the corrie, the line was bare but Gael Force Grooves was fat ice top to bottom. It looked very steep for Grade IV but I had walked a long way and it was too tempting. So I scared myself and climbed what seemed on the day, one of the best Grade V’s I’d ever climbed (it gets one star).

    But the buttress was still waiting and I finally decided the walking conditions were good enough. Jonathan Preston didn’t need much persuasion and we headed in on Friday (February 28). The forecast was clear and cold so it was a bit disappointing when the mist began to form as we approached the top of An Cabar. The plateau was totally white but the mist thin and it was easy to follow the crest line. I had a picture of the map in my head so just legged it, waiting for a descent, after which we would traverse to the north and descend into the corrie. It did seem a long way, and then a cornice appeared on the right, so I knew we’d gone too far (this descent was totally in my imagination). But where actually were we?

    We backtracked a bit and then started to descend; by this time we hadn’t seen anything other than white for an hour. As it steepened we put crampons on. Jonathan was quicker and went ahead. Suddenly the ground ahead cracked open and slid off into space. I’ve never seen Jonathan run so fast back uphill. Despite us walking on neve, the vibration of his footsteps (he is a big lad) had set off a small slab avalanche that had given us warning of an imminent cornice edge. We jibbered for a bit but quickly decided to come back the following day (March 1) when it was supposed to be clear.

    Sandy Allan joined us and sure enough it was clear, but only just. This time we each had a map, and I had even printed out a very large-scale version of the plateau. The light was good enough for us to see where we were going, but not good enough to see if the convex slope suddenly dropped off. Also it had snowed overnight and the slope ahead was the worst aspect. So between Jonathan and I still being nervous about cornices, and Sandy being nervous about avalanches (working for SAIS does seem to do that to you), we dithered a lot before finding our way down the slope into a corrie filled with avalanche debris.

    It wasn’t freezing down in the corrie bottom so the walking suddenly became hard work and there were serious doubts about the turf being frozen. Which turned out to be true for the small bits, so the planned line didn’t work. Well, I was trying to pluck up courage when Jonathan walked in above me and pointed out that his way was easier. So we all walked in, and then I was trying to pluck up courage for the next bit when Sandy suggested that a ledge on the right might just lead somewhere useful. So I went that way and he was right, and the turf even began to improve.

    Jonathan led the next pitch on steeper but properly frozen turf, and then we alternated up towards the top. A huge cornice appeared at times out of the mist but we tried to ignore it and assume we’d find a solution; a part of which was me doing a ten metre pitch and sending Jonathan up. The cornice was huge but at its right end was a snow pinnacle and he just wondered if you could bridge up and reach over. Appearances are deceptive, especially to cornice pessimists like me, and a couple of things happened when he reached it. First of all the pinnacle fell off when he hit it, but more encouragingly it wasn’t as big at the right end as my imagination had thought. So he dug his way through in a few minutes and there was great relief, at least from my end.

    We agreed easily on technical 4 but the overall grade wasn’t easy. It was quite a scary route so perhaps V,4 was fair, although cover the route with neve and it would have been a doddle. Driving home, Sandy’s car came up with a warning on the dashboard, “Risk of Ice”. That will be the first we’ve seen today then, was the general thought, but it seemed an appropriate route name!”

    Craig Lamb leading the crux section of K9 (IV,4) on Lurcher’s Crag on Sunday February 16 – one of four teams to climb the route that day. Or is this route Window Gully? (Photo Simon Richardson)

    A leader on the crux section of K9 (IV,4) on Lurcher’s Crag on Sunday February 16 – one of four teams to climb the route that day. Or is this route Window Gully? (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Everett and I were rather confused when were climbing on Lurcher’s Crag on February 16. It was our first visit to the cliff, and the folks climbing the attractive icefall to our left had told us that they were climbing K9, yet the team we met on the top said they had just done Window Gully. We both suspected a case of mistaken identity, because the icefall crux, which involves cutting a window from behind the icefall and stepping on to the front face, reminded us of a famous John Cleare photo of Bill March making the first ascent of Window Gully in March 1972. It’s interesting that we both remember that photo, but we’re both of an age that when we started climbing front pointing was just being developed, and Bill March was one of the stars of the show.

    As if by chance, a couple of days later I received an email from John Lyall that Andy Nisbet forwarded onto me, which helped to explain our confusion:

    “I’ve been puzzled by the description of Window Gully and its position on the crag for a long time,” John wrote. “So when I was on the crag last week I took my camera to sort things out. I was climbing K9, and my photo shows the lower icefall going through the big roof, the rock features behind and the snowdrift all fitting with the first ascent photo of Window Gully.

    I think the confusion goes back to the Bill March 1973 guidebook, where only North Gully is described, but South Gully is mentioned. When Window Gully is described in the next guide (1985), it is described as being between North and South Gullies, but it should have said North and Central Gullies, as Central had now been climbed. The Window Gully icefall presently in the guide is not far enough up the crag, nor is there a position to get a photo like this.

    In 2010, the outside of this icefall was climbed by a few teams up the steepest right hand section, at V,6. Stuart Carter was one of the folk, but he had followed tracks.

    The Bill March guide also mentions summer ascents of what are now Drystane Ridge and Collies Ridge, both at Moderate in the current guidebook. He also names Southern Ridge, which is now called Deerhound Ridge, and grades it Mod. He also describes a route up the buttress to the left of North Gully, giving a grade of Mod and listing the first ascensionists. I feel a bit like Robin Campbell delving into the archives!”

    Allen Fyffe, who made the first ascent of K9 with his son Blair in March 1996, agrees with John’s assessment that the icefall is the same, but it’s not quite as simple as that because Allen and Blair linked in an impressive upper icefall during their ascent. This second icefall is up and left of the main line, so is not always climbed as a follow-on from the lower ‘window’ icefall, and for sure, it was not climbed by Bill March in 1972.

    So if this unravels the history behind K9, what about the route now known as Window Gully which lies a hundred metres further right? Andy Nisbet made an ascent in February 1984 – are there any earlier takers?

    Roger Everett on the crux pitch of Impulse Grooves, a new VI,7 on the Arctic Monkeys buttress on Lurchers Crag on Cairn Gorm. Snow conditions were so heavy that it was impossible to distinguish between blank slabs and turfy ground, making route finding challenging. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Everett on the crux pitch of Impulse Grooves, a new VI,7 on the Arctic Monkey buttress on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm. Snow conditions were so heavy that it was impossible to distinguish between blank slabs and turfy ground, making route finding both exciting and challenging. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Everett and I were wrong-footed by logistics, weather forecasts, blocked roads and avalanche-prone slopes throughout the previous weekend. We ended up visiting Lurcher’s Crag on Sunday February 16, which I think was our Plan D!

    The weather was good, but neither of us had been to the cliff before, and our guidebook only listed a handful of routes. The crag had a nice friendly feel with lots of people about, the scenery was magnificent and with our plans in disarray we didn’t really care what we did, as long as we climbed something. Roger fancied The Shepherd, but there were two teams ahead of us, so we went to look at K9. When we got there, we found we were fourth in line, so we thought we’d carry our ice screws up a mixed line on the (Arctic Monkey) buttress to the right. We ended up following a logical sequence of grooves straight up the front face to arrive on the apex of the lower buttress before finishing up the left flank of the easy ridge above. We had no intention of climbing a new route and fully expected it had all been climbed before.

    When I arrived home, I saw a Facebook post from Andy Nisbet saying that he had climbed the face right of K9 with Susan Jensen two days before, and a look at the SMC Journal revealed three more of Andy’s routes on the buttress. I’ve been (inadvertently) following Andy’s footsteps quite a lot this winter, so I put this down to another dose of fate, but I emailed Andy anyway, to find out the relationship of our climb to his recent route, and the other climbs on the buttress.

    About twenty emails and six topos later, we all finally unravelled the relationship between the routes on the buttress. Remarkably they are all independent, although a couple do cross each other. Starting from the left, Andy and Susan’s line from February 14 is called Tetradecaphobia (V,5). It takes the right end of the roof system down which the icicles of K9 form, before climbing the grooves and corners to gain the crest of the upper buttress.

    The route climbed by Roger and I two days later starts about 30m to the right of Tetradecaphobia, and climbs four pitches up corners and grooves to the top of the lower buttress before continuing easier mixed ground to the left of the crest to the top. Roger made a fine lead of the crux third pitch, a bold and technical overlap leading on to smooth slabs, and given the spur of the moment route choice, he suggested we call our climb Impulse Grooves (VI,7). The remaining three routes all start a long way away at the right end of the buttress, although Overdraft takes a natural rising left traverse line, crossing Impulse Grooves on its second pitch, before climbing near Tetradecaphobia and finishing up a set of grooves to the right.

    Overall, given the unusually heavy snow conditions, Lurchers was a good choice on February 16. We saw teams on Left Icefall, Right Icefall, The Shepherd, North Gully, K9, Arctic Monkey and Dotterel.

    Catherine Hendrie on the second pitch of The S Word (V,5), a new ice route on the West Face of Beinn Dearg. “We told each other to not mention the 'S' word, because it had been snowing during the morning, and every time Cat said 'spindrift' we got drenched in it!” (Photo Ian Bryant)

    Catherine Hendrie on the second pitch of The S Word (V,5), a new ice route on the West Face of Beinn Dearg. “We told each other to not mention the ‘S’ word, because it had been snowing during the morning, and every time Cat said ‘spindrift’ we got drenched in it!” (Photo Ian Bryant)

    On February 7, Ian Bryant and Catherine Hendrie added a good new route to Beinn Dearg in the Northern Highlands. “After backing off Penguin Gully as it was just horrible soft snow, we packed everything away and decided to just go for a walk towards the summit ridge, but we then spotted a good ice line,” Ian told me. “We climbed the ice in two 40m pitches (the first was about tech 5 the second about tech 4) and then continued on a meandering line to the summit ridge at around Grade III. Overall the route was about 250 metres long.”

    When Ian contacted me, I was unsure whether the line had been climbed before, so I passed on the details to Andy Nisbet, who confirmed that not only was it new, but he had had his eye on it as well.

    “We can’t believe little old us beat the legendary Andy Nisbet to a new route!” Ian exclaimed when he heard the news. Andy was quick with a tongue-in-cheek riposte – “Beating me to a new route isn’t that rare as I know them all!”

    And to prove the point (and before he knew of Ian and Catherine’s ascent), Andy added two new routes to the West Face of Beinn Dearg himself, on February 16. Climbing solo, Andy climbed Drumcree (IV,4) the steeper grooved section of buttress between Garvachy Road and White Settlers Gully, and Redskin (II), which starts as for Drumcree up an icy step, but then trends left to reach the left-hand of three grooves.