Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts tagged Andy Nisbet

    Andy Nisbet on the first ascent of Strictly Come Swimming (V,6) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm. This sustained three-pitch outing shows there are still new early season routes to be found in the well-travelled Northern Cairngorms. (Photo Steve Perry)

    Andy Nisbet on the first ascent of Strictly Come Swimming (V,6) on Lurcher’s Crag on Cairn Gorm. This sustained three-pitch outing shows there are still good new early season routes to be found even in the well-travelled Northern Cairngorms. (Photo Steve Perry)

    “Early season new routes are hard work,” Andy Nisbet writes. “For a start, not many places are in nick, and you did those routes last year. High in the Cairngorms is obvious, but there aren’t many new routes left. Actually I thought there were none, but sitting at home watching the snow fall outside my window made me think harder and just wonder if there was a possibility near the hopelessly smooth slabs we’d seen ice glazed from last year’s ascent of Beagle Has Landed, on Lurcher’s Crag. So out with the photos, zoom in on the computer screen, and there did seem to be a gap between the slabs and the ridge to its left (Dotterel).

    We have it easy these days. Robin Campbell mentioned on Facebook that he’d climbed a gully there with Fred Harper in the 1960s – it turned out to be the first ascent of North Gully, a classic Grade III. No doubt they cut good steps, but I doubt they dreamed of picking out new lines on a computer screen.

    Step One achieved, but was the route in nick? Friday (November 20) was an afternoon walk in to Sneachda just to see if there was any snow. Turned out everything was white and walking boots weren’t ideal footwear. I thought I must be alone on a wild day but friends were climbing The Seam out in the mist. Saturday was improving weather but was the turf frozen? We didn’t arrive in the Car Park until after 10.30am because the road had been closed for unusual ice, so there was only time for a quick Opening Break, but the turf was frozen and Steve Perry and I were really after the line on Lurcher’s.

    Sunday November 22 had a good forecast and we left home a little earlier. There had been a little snow overnight so we expected the road clearing to delay things, but it seemed to take forever and it was approaching 10am before we got to the Car Park. And there was a lot more fresh snow than we expected, so it was a great relief to find plenty of footprints leading out towards Coire an Lochain. Alas, the days when I was keen enough to walk from the bottom are gone, or maybe the earliest team just dossed up there.

    It was really a surprise just how much fresh snow there was; the forecast had said less than the previous front, and it hadn’t snowed much low down. It just proves that winter climbing rarely goes to plan. But we had the man who broke trail over all the Munros in winter, although we still didn’t reach the crag until noon (must take a map next time).

    We ploughed our way down Central Gully and traversed to the start of the line, which actually looked quite easy; I soon found out that it wasn’t. Lurcher’s is a mixture of very helpful cracked blocks and compact slabs, a bit like a turfy Hell’s Lum.

    An initial large flake proved that slabby ground is usually steeper than it looks from below, and the groove above was most certainly steep. I was glad I’d added the pegs to the rack at the last minute, as a bombproof runner let me concentrate on the moves. There wasn’t much for the feet so it was better to move quickly than hesitate and let feet slip. The placements were good except one, and turf was soon reached. A fierce pull led to an easy section and a big overlap. This seemed to have good cracks but I didn’t have enough strength to pull over the lip and in the end, a foot slipped and I was back to square one. It would have been worth a more dynamic attempt but there was another option, just dependent on whether the snow slope on the right was a smooth slab or not. Clearing with my feet revealed a wave at its top, probably just enough for feet to stick and a reach into a groove.

    This groove did have some turf, although a bit soft under the snow, and it led into another deeply buried groove. By now the runners under the overlap felt rather distant and all the visible cracks were blind. Mind you, not much was visible, so some digging was required and soon a pod with a 50:50 nut was uncovered. Enough to start me into the groove. More clearing revealed a peg, which went a third of the way in (I’d used my thinner one below). Working on the idea that any fall would be gentler on to soft snow, it was another case of concentrating only on the moves. In fact there was good turf over the top and belays were reached just as Steve’s calls from below were getting more urgent.

    Time was getting on so I was becoming anxious about daylight when he joined me. Above looked steep and smooth, so another snow slope hiding a smooth slab seemed the best option. It felt a bit like friction climbing in crampons but with some good cracks in a central groove tempting him on, he managed to ignore a long potential slide and gained the groove with its runners. Everything now steepened up but runners and turf speeded him up.

    I love through routes and there was one under a huge block in the final tier. But in the end it wasn’t worth taking off harness and helmet, so I climbed over the top and easier blocky ground led to the final ridge of Dotterel. It was a pleasant surprise to get an independent third pitch, even more so to be in daylight, and we reached the sacks in the final gloom.

    The walk back was over snow-covered boulders with lots of falling and some laughter, but eventually we reached the main Coire an Lochain path and an easy walk back with torches to the Car Park. Back at the car at 5.30pm, we’d easily make the results show for Strictly Come Dancing. This and the dog theme on the crag suggested the name Strictly Come Dogging to Steve. But being the guardian of the SMC rule for non-sexual names, I felt obliged to call it the more boring Strictly Come Swimming (V,6).”

    Tim Chappell enjoying excellent icy conditions on the first ascent of Anzac Day (IV,4) in Coire Ruadh on Braeriach. The route was climbed on April 25 and is one of a number of high-altitude Cairngorms new routes climbed this spring. Tim’s retro headgear was put to good use battling the punishing spindrift! (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Sophie Grace Chappell enjoying excellent icy conditions on the first ascent of Anzac Day (IV,4) in Coire Ruadh on Braeriach. The route was climbed on April 25 and is one of a number of high-altitude Cairngorms new routes climbed this spring. Sophie’s retro headgear was put to good use battling the punishing spindrift! (Photo Simon Richardson)

    It’s been such a busy season that I didn’t have time in March to acknowledge the 500th post on

    The blog has been running five years and has attempted to record the majority of significant winter climbing activity in the Scottish mountains during that time. It’s been a remarkable period, and winter climbing has grown in popularity and gone from strength to strength. Standards have soared and climbers are considerably more adept at choosing venues and catching routes in condition during slender weather windows.

    Five years ago, a new Grade VIII was headline news, but now ascents of this standard are commonplace and new Grade IXs are climbed every season. And this year has seen the first on sight Grade X’s courtesy of Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson, which have opened a new chapter in the history of Scottish winter climbing.

    I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to the site. Without you, could not exist, and I have been struck by everyone’s generosity in sharing their Scottish winter experiences. Andy Nisbet’s insatiable appetite for exploring new ground makes him my most regular correspondent, but the success of is due the enthusiasm and commitment of the hundreds of people who have sent me photos and first hand accounts.

    I try to use all the material that is sent to me, and endeavour to follow up significant ascents, but I’m aware that sometimes events do pass me by. I prefer to communicate directly with the climbers involved, rather than report events second hand, so please continue to get in touch with your latest adventures.

    April was a good month for late season winter climbing with ice hanging in on the Ben and high north-facing corries in the Cairngorms. Despite a cold start to May, the 2015 winter is finally drawing to a close, and the new season will be with us in six months’ time!

    Steve Perry climbing the second pitch of Eclipse (IV,5) on Clach Leathad. Given the cliff’s proximity to Glen Coe it is likely that winter climbers have visited the crag befote, but no details have been recorded. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry climbing the second pitch of Eclipse (IV,5) on Clach Leathad. Given the cliff’s proximity to Glen Coe it is likely that winter climbers have visited the crag before, but no details have been recorded. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Such a neglected hill; Clach Leathad in proper Gaelic. My Dad used to talk about about it affectionately as one of his favourites (also easily reached when no-one had cars), but then it was demoted as a Munro. And there are strong rumours of folk ice climbing on it but no-one has recorded anything. So despite being at the top of Glen Coe, it has remained as a backwater for climbers. But pictures frequently appear in the Glen Coe avalanche blog, with such a great view from the top of Meall a’ Bhuiridh.

    Come the second half of March, Steve Perry and I were looking for somewhere high and icy, since the buttresses were now too bare and Ben Nevis was too long a walk. I’ve been meaning to go there for years, but never quite got round to it, and the pictures showed grooves with narrow white stripes that could be ice.

    We caught the chairlift. £10 for a few hundred feet seemed a lot, but then we did pay so market forces say it’s justified. It was a gorgeous day (March 22) and the snow was rock hard out of the sun. But most of the walk up Meall a’ Bhuiridh was in the sun, with long johns and warm trousers feeling very inappropriate. By the time we got to the summit, I was already feeling dehydrated and realised that Clachlet was still a long way off. We spent a few minutes taking photos and then pushed on.

    The choice was a long traverse on steep snow or going up on to Creise and then descending. The latter allowed us to leave rucksacks so we chose it. The disadvantage turned out to be that the descent was some of the steepest snow I’ve ever descended, and with only one rope, abseiling wasn’t really an option. So we scared ourselves perched at the top of 1000ft of concrete hard neve but eventually made it down to the cliff.

    The most obvious line was a thin white stripe up a big corner system on the left, so we headed for that and were delighted when it turned out to be ice, although much steeper than I’d thought. Including the descent, this turned out to be the theme for the day. I was keen to get going so set off with plans where to place our only ice screw. The ice narrowed to a foot wide in a slot but being forced into the slot from above had caused it to bulge slightly. The freeze had only been overnight so some water was still dripping down the slot and the ice was softer than ideal. A couple of finger crossing moves gained perfect ice above the slot and easier ice to a big block out of the firing line on the right, and with a great view of the next pitch.

    This was Steve’s, a longer section of steep ice but without the bulge. I had the perfect viewpoint as he made steady progress, even with nuts in a crack on the right. The ice was thin in places, even with axes touching the rock, but every placement was first time and he seemed in his element. Then he ran out the rope on the upper slopes and called for me to climb. It was a brilliant pitch; we reckoned the route was at least as good as The Curtain, similar length, slightly harder but still IV,5, and in a lovely place. I ran out the rope in an extended pitch to the top and more photography from the summit cairn. The view was just staggering; white peaks in every direction; Ben Cruachan, Beinn Lui, Ben More and Stobinian, Schihallion, Ben Nevis, and an unidentified solitary peak a long way north.

    There was time for another route and we were just about psyched for the descent again. It didn’t seem quite as bad this time although the consequences were the same. We chose an easier line of icy turf which soon fitted the theme of being much steeper than it looked but keeping with perfect first time placements. So again the ice screw didn’t get placed and my enthusiasm kept me going for at least 60m with our 50m rope. Above there was an ice filled groove in an isolated buttress, then Steve kept going for another 60m pitch.

    All that neve was quite tiring on the legs and the return was either back over Meall a’ Bhuiridh or by traversing round it. We tried the latter but I doubt it was easier and we’d certainly missed the chairlift. But a brilliant day nevertheless. We gave the first one a topical name Eclipse, and the second Holme Moss (IV,4), being steeper moss than it looked. Of course, if anyone else wishes to record them, we’ll back down.

    Far North

    Steve Perry below the Tower during the first winter ascent of the 470m-long Tower Ridge (V,6) on the North-West Face of Ben Hope. The face was first explored by Jim Bell in 1933. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry below the Tower during the first winter ascent of the 470m-long Tower Ridge (V,6) on the North-West Face of Ben Hope. The face was first explored by Jim Bell in 1933. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “All the options were too snowy, and I’m too old and wise for wading,” Andy Nisbet writes. “Steve Perry and I had a couple of scores to settle from earlier in the winter but neither looked promising. So the old adage is that if the snow is too deep, drive to the opposite end of the country to find less. So on March 4, Ben Hope it was. Steve used to live up there and knew the mountain so he was keen.

    Grass growing in the middle of the road; I love it; it means you’re somewhere properly remote. It’s a childhood memory; we used to go camping in the Highlands, and not many families had cars in the 1950s. So I used to watch out for grass in the middle of the road, and then you had arrived, as had we at Ben Hope.

    The target was Tower Ridge, the upper part of which Steve had climbed with wife Katie in 2014, but conditions hadn’t been full winter and there was a lot more climbing on the lower part. Plus Steve was keen on climbing the Tower itself, something he’d tried on the day but there wasn’t enough snow.

    Conditions did look good, with the west side white but blown clear of the deep snow deposited on the east side. The ridge starts low down, so it was a nice short walk and soon we were trying to decide where to start. The route would be long so we were hoping to solo up quite a way. Despite this, we fortunately resisted some easier heathery ground to the left and headed for the harder looking true crest. But it turned out to be OK and we zigzagged through a couple of tiers to a steep section and the need for the rope.

    It’s unusual to regret putting on the rope, and this was no exception, as a turfy corner was steep enough to need some serious arm power. Next tier was Steve’s lead and a corner looked hard, although well enough protected. As he got stuck in, it was obvious that the slabby right wall was totally smooth whereas the left with the crack was slightly bulging. This forced a foot on to the right wall but only for balance and not to take any weight off his arms. A helpful chockstone meant he made good progress except we had no big cams and so the chockstone needed to be threaded. The gloves were off and after a tiring age, it was threaded and clipped. A reach up and a quick placement of the axes brought immediate movement and a pull on to a ledge which seemed more comfy than it looked, as his head disappeared into a hole leaving only his legs sticking out. But once he threaded another chockstone, he moved quickly up to a bigger ledge left of the top of the corner. Above was a groove hidden to me, but he soon told me it was an unprotected wide crack. But an unexpected  ledge led left to an easier but very exposed grassy fault and soon a belay ledge.

    ‘We must be up to the halfway rake,’ Steve suggested, but actually it was two more pitches until we could reach the upper section with the Tower itself. Making a decision to get my opinion in first, I pointed out that the Tower looked like The Hurting, and by implication I didn’t want to go there. This comparison seemed to work, possibly helped by recent pictures on Ines Papert on the route, and Steve set off up a corner on the right and formed by the Tower. We were moving together but a difficult move off an undercut ledge slowed him down enough to belay, fortunately above it. I then regained the crest and kept going with the assumption that Steve was climbing too, until I ran out of steam. A final extended pitch led to the top, with the upper section somewhere around III,5. Overall we graded it V,6 but the crux was no soft touch.

    The top was high on the north ridge of the mountain. I rather regret not bagging the Munro, but it saved two miles of road walking if we descended the north ridge, and this was sealed by meeting two local guys who were coming up and had marked the trail with nice footsteps in the deep snow. The length of the descent showed just how long the route had been; we estimated it as 470m. And the big thaw forecast for the evening hadn’t arrived, although the grass in the middle of the road was much more visible.”

    Steve Perry on the crux of Waive Wall (V,7) in Coire Garbhlach. This secluded corrie on the south-west side of the Cairngorms massif is seldom visited by winter climbers. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry on the crux of Waive Wall (V,7) in Coire Garbhlach. This secluded corrie on the south-west side of the Cairngorms massif is seldom visited by winter climbers. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Coire Garbhlach is a useful place when the Cairngorm ski road is shut, although it does mean I’ve usually climbed there in bad weather,” Andy Nisbet writes. But on March 2, the weather didn’t seem too bad, although there was obviously a lot of snow high up. The corrie has never really caught on for climbers, and I always wonder why until I have to approach through deep heather and then struggle up the rough and bouldery valley base. The rough part (garbh) refers to the water, and any sections of path were washed away during a thunderstorm in the 1990s. But if you can put up with two and a half hours of approach to the upper corrie, then you’ll get seclusion and for Steve Perry and me, that means a new route.

    This was the last of the lines I knew (isn’t it always!), on the left side of the lowest buttress, left of the Grade I called Curving Gully. But as seems to happen there, it turned out to be steeper and therefore better than I’d expected. The only snag was that the approach up the valley must have been sheltered because the route most certainly wasn’t and even gearing up took ages.

    But conditions were great, with the turf well frozen and even some ice at the base. We soloed up towards a steep band with the hope that there was a way through it, and despite going one step beyond Steve’s comfort zone (he had the rope), I belayed below an overhanging flake-crack. It looked well beyond my comfort zone, but despite various suggestions for possible alternative lines, he was happy to give it a go.

    Steve’s ability to progress cautiously and place gear on very steep ground is impressive, and was true here too. Clearing snow in the back of the crack produced several wedged blocks with brilliant placements (assuming they stayed in) and some commitment gained a final capping chockstone. I think he was about to pull over happily when I suggested he threaded it, but he did so and kept the belayer happy. Round about this time, someone appeared on the plateau above and watched us for a short while. I presumed it was just chance he had spotted us, but later we found footsteps which seemed to have come up Curving Gully (no one else ever comes here!), and I guess he’d heard us.

    I persuaded Steve to stop, largely so he could hear if I needed a tight rope, plus we were climbing on a half rope with plenty of potential stretch. But in the end I managed it OK, and even got a fine final crest to the top. The weather wasn’t too bad on top and the descent is easy down the track which leads up to the Munro Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair. There was even a team coming up rather late in the day. The route was called Waive Wall, Grade V,7.”

    Andy Nisbet below the chockstone on the first pitch of Barbie, a new V,6 on Beinn Liath Mhor in the Northern Highlands. This south-facing cliff has proved to be a good venue for middle grade mixed routes this season. (Photo Sandy Allan)

    Andy Nisbet below the chockstone on the first pitch of Barbie, a new V,6 on Beinn Liath Mhor in the Northern Highlands. This south-facing cliff has proved to be a good venue for middle grade mixed routes this season. (Photo Sandy Allan)

    “Beinn Liath Mhor has been a happy hunting ground for Sandy Allan and I this year,” Andy Nisbet writes. “We were joined by Steve Perry this time (February 25). It is a good accessible place when snow is deep but cold enough for the south-facing cliff to be frozen. So with similar conditions anticipated, where else is there to go?

    The best remaining line was going to be harder than the previous ones but now later in the season, we ought to be climbing well. Looking at my picture of the crag, I could see the summer route Doll Restoration, a slabby V Diff up a rib. It was too clean to be a good winter line, but it had a chimney to its right and leading into a turfy crack-line. This led to overhangs but assuming we could traverse left across the rib, there looked to be white corners (it was a winter picture), and this was always a better sign than bare rock.

    The walking conditions weren’t as bad as last time, although we still lost the path, but at least we knew where we were trying to go and the photo kept us right. The initial chimney looked easy on the photo and capped by a chockstone, but I did wonder why we’d walked past it last time and not noted it as a possibility. But I didn’t think it looked too bad when we got there, although the others were happy with my offer to lead it. I think they were more concerned with the chockstone being loose, which would have been bad news, whereas I was happy that it was big enough to be solid. Although I did have slight worries when the pitch turned out to be only partially frozen, quite steep and runners hard to find. Digging out a peg placement helped the latter and a thin move meant total commitment to the chockstone. Getting on top of it meant a lot of struggling, partly not wanting to pull too much on it but mostly due to the usual tangle with leashes. Once on top, I felt it move but then I realised that there was a small loose block sitting on top of it and the main chockstone was solid. The others both went through the same worry when seconding.

    Crossing the rib turned out to be easy and I belayed on it. Sandy then led up into the white corner on the left, announcing that it was full of turf but again turning out to be quite steep and a little insecure. The route was turning out to be much more sustained than expected, as Steve led a pitch up the crest to below a steep tier. He suggested I tried a well-defined corner on the left, and it turned out to be fully frozen with helpful cracks and we agreed, the best pitch on the route. But still it wasn’t over, leaving Sandy with a steep crack-line to finish, short but perhaps the technical crux.

    That left a lot of increasingly easy ground, turning into walking up to the summit crest. The weather was deteriorating as predicted but the descent was easy on now damp snow and we were down in the corrie before the rain started. The summer route by Steve Kennedy and Cynthia Grindley was called Doll Restoration, but I don’t know whether this was some sinister Voodoo name or that Cynthia hadn’t climbed for a while. We called our route Barbie, not a reference to Cynthia, and grade V,6.”

    Bolero on Ice

    Dave McGimpsey on the first ascent of Bolero (V,5) in Coire nan Eun in the Fannaichs. This mid-height north-facing crag has been proved to be a good location for middle grade ice routes this season. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Dave McGimpsey on the first ascent of Bolero (V,5) in Coire nan Eun in the Fannaichs. This mid-height north-facing crag has been proved to be a good location for middle grade ice routes this season. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “After such good conditions on Mullach nan Rathain but the rest of the north-west with little snow, and reports of bare rock in the Cairngorms, somewhere kind of middling was needed,” writes Andy Nisbet. “Coire nan Eun in the Fannaichs might just do the job, so Dave McGimpsey and I gave it a go on Sunday February 15. The forecast was for increasing wind so an early start (by our standards) was made. The plan was that the wind would blow our bikes up the road and get us to the crag, then we’d be sheltered on the north facing cliff and once we’d done a route, it didn’t matter what hit us for the way home.

    The only snag (but one we could handle) is that it seemed a nice day and there wasn’t much wind to blow us up. Garbh Choire Mor seemed a bit bare but it gets the sun, so our crag would be fine. Which it was until we walked along the approach terrace and couldn’t see any snow or ice. Plans A and B were completely bare, so improvised plan C of climbing some easy ice at the right end of the crag would have to do. But when we got there and looked at the route descriptions, there was a tempting but very steep corner that held a strip of ice. Then we realised that the existing route Bunny Boiler climbed the second ice line from the left and the steep corner was the first. So why not give it a go? At least I’d had early morning thoughts and added an ice screw to the rack at the last minute.

    There was an easy introductory pitch leading to the corner; maybe we should solo it. But we decided to put the rope on and it turned out to be much steeper than it looked. Which of course made the corner even steeper and rather intimidating. But there was a fine horizontal crack in the perfect place for a belay, so no excuses really.

    I set off up the corner with the odd position of climbing pure ice but with bare rock either side. The right side was completely smooth but the left side soon gave a bridge and a good runner. Back up the ice and a spiral bulge called for the ice screw. Some strenuous moves up from this led to another bridging ledge on the left. It turned out I could actually step left and just rest on a strange perch with a nice crack for runners. Back on to the ice, now a little hollow, but a couple of moves not kicking too hard soon solved this. The finish was up a hidden gully on to the windy plateau.

    One of the nicest features of this crag is the easy descent, although a southerly wind didn’t allow us the normal free wheel on the bikes back to the car. The recent routes here have dance names, but since this had been an ice dance, the name Bolero (V,5) seemed appropriate.”

    Steve Perry finishing up the ridge crest after the first ascent of Batman (VI,7) on the Northern Pinnacles face of Mullach nan Rathain on Liathach. The main summit of Liathach (Spidean a’Choire Leith) is behind. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry finishing up the ridge crest after the first ascent of Batman (VI,7) on the Northern Pinnacles face of Mullach nan Rathain on Liathach. The main summit of Liathach (Spidean a’Choire Leith) is behind. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Ice conditions have been great,” writes Andy Nisbet. “But the long mild spell in the North-West went on and on. Finally a colder day was forecast for February 13, but with rain and gales. A couple of days ago the forecast changed slightly and the low pressure was due to track further south, with the wind switching into the south-east. It took some faith and ignoring cautious mountain forecasts to realise that the north-west was actually going to have good weather. But would there be any ice left?

    Driving into Torridon with Steve Perry, you would have thought not. There were some incomplete streaks on the Pyramid [on the south side of Liathach] but otherwise just patches. What a change from snow down to the road and wading up just eight days ago. Still, we’d driven over so might as well go as high as possible and at least see if the turf was still frozen; it was a lovely day after all. It’s lucky we even took climbing gear. The first sign of hope was when we had to put crampons on at about 850m, but then we reached the ridge and looked across at the Northern Pinnacles face of Mullach nan Rathain, and wow!

    Every ledge was white with the tell-tale grey fringe of ice at its base. Every groove was filled with ice; it had obviously been the right altitude for thaw and freeze. While the rest of the corrie was bare apart from a few ice streaks, this face just looked as good as you can get. We descended into the corrie on neve and headed for the right face of a ridge called Holy Ghost. I climbed Holy Ghost with clients in 1996, but although the finish was great, I was aware that the start was avoiding the main difficulties. Now it was time to bite the bullet.

    We geared up in a big wind scoop at the base and I set off up the supposedly easy first pitch. I was soon surprised by a tricky move but there was enough momentum to keep going. It probably would have been sensible to belay on a terrace but I kept going through a big turn right and climbed a shallow chimney to a ledge above Trinity Gully Right-Hand, which looked in great nick apart from a substantial chockstone which was iced but looked about Tech 5. It must need a big build-up to be Grade III,3.

    Steve joined me below a wide crack with a smear of ice down its right wall. We didn’t have the sharpest gear (again) but I don’t mind thin ice (as long as it’s not too steep), so I kept the lead up excellent quality ice until the groove above turned very steep. With the advantage of having studied photos, I knew to move right and pull up an awkward wall to reach a very unlikely position on a ledge with overhangs above and below. The rock on this ledge looked awful, but with everything frozen hard, my three belay points felt adequate.

    It was Steve’s turn to pull over a bulge on to an inset ledge and gain a reassuring crack we could see from below. When I first arrived at the stance, the next step right looked wild. But after I’d been there for a while, I became convinced that it was all in balance. It was somewhere in between of course, but it took Steve a while to convince himself that it could work. A peg runner of middling quality did help a lot but the ice placements were all to the right and footholds all to the left (there being mid air for the feet to the right). A final commitment looked hopeful but an axe popped out of the thin ice and he tested the peg. It rotated in the crack but held (just I presume). Some more wellying of the peg and time for another go. This time it worked and he was onto better ice overlaying turf, an ideal combination. The rope speeded up the best ice he’d ever climbed (but he wasn’t on Ben Nevis in April 2002) and he reached the crest of the ridge.

    That left me a lovely pitch up the crest of the ridge, common to Holy Ghost, and the crest of the Northern Pinnacle ridge above its difficulties. We strolled up to Mullach nan Rathain for food and brilliant views. It was just one of those special days. Grading was hard, and with sharp tools VI,6 might have been right. But conditions were a bit special and less ice would have made it technically harder probably with better gear. So we settled for VI,7 and the name Batman, which I seem to remember is why the ridge was called Holy Smoke.”

    The line of Navigator (VI,6) on Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin. This very secluded cliff can only be seen from the West Highland Railway or from the summit ridge of Meall Garbh (another rarely visited winter venue). (Archive Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet, Steve Perry and Dan Bailey added an excellent new route to Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin in the Central Highlands on February 11. Andy takes up the story:

    “Is it cheating to climb with three axes? So Steve Perry asked in the middle of the crux section. The jury of Dan Bailey and myself on the ledge below decided it wasn’t. It could only be a question from the leashless era, as Steve had fallen some 10m when a large block pulled and he ended up with no axes. Fortunately one of them landed up beside us but the other was well up the pitch. Having lowered a loop of rope for the lower one, and then again to borrow mine, the third was retrieved and the pitch successfully climbed, sustained turfy grooves that could only be linked with a bit of guile.

    Actually we’d done well to be there at all, having rather missed the inversion weather and replacing it with whiteout. We were on Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin at a crag you can only see from the railway, hence its neglect until Mike Geddes soloed an unknown route there in an unknown year, and I heard about it posthumously. I had climbed there in 2000 and several times in 2013 but have never heard of anyone else visiting the cliff. The approach to the cliff is from above at a break in the cornice where the ridge to its summit changes direction. Fortunately I realised that we had changed direction and must have passed the break, which is about 50m long.

    Next challenge was to find the cliff, and then the route – the descent was diagonal across steep snow. Now it was completely white and we edged our way down, feeling for each step in case of losing balance; it would have been a terminal slide on hard snow. After a while, Dan thought he spotted some a dark shape ahead; was it the cliff? It turned out it was, but where on a big cliff. Again fortunately, the snow conditions were very similar to those in a photo I’d brought with me, so we soon picked out that we were at three rocks shown in my photo. And it wasn’t difficult to find the start of the route, an iced groove.

    After a suggestion to solo it was turned down by the others, I felt very happy with that decision as I led it, reaching the second pitch of my projected line. Unfortunately the small gap in the ice on my photo turned out to be a 6 foot roof but there was a good looking line to its left, albeit with a bulging start. Steve took over and despite a commentary of suggestions from the belayers as to how to climb it, managed to work out a sequence, which the seconders didn’t use. Higher up, it was much steeper than it looked (when isn’t it), but he cracked it despite the airtime.

    The third pitch turned out to be much easier and very icy (I’m good at planning these things) and left Steve with an innocent looking chimney-crack. It very much wasn’t easy but Steve led it with some precarious bridging and occasional watch me comments while I seconded it using a more old fashioned method. As on previous routes, our line felt pretty substantial and we gave it 150m VI,6, provisionally named Navigator. The return to the car even includes the Munro and the excellent walking conditions saved some torch battery life.”

    Steve Perry setting off up the crux pitch of Blood Hound (VI,6) on Lurcher’s Crag on the first ascent. The route name fits in with the canine nomenclature on the crag and Steve’s technique of leading bare-handed on difficult pitches and leaving a bloody knuckled trail. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry setting off up the crux pitch of Blood Hound (VI,6) on Lurcher’s Crag on the first ascent. The route name fits in with the canine nomenclature on the crag and Steve’s technique of leading bare-handed on difficult pitches and leaving a bloody-knuckled trail. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “With the choice between warm and cloudy in the west against too little snow in the east, Steve Perry and I went for the east to save a long drive,” Andy Nisbet writes. “It turned out there was a temperature inversion in the west and the tops were clear but we had a good day anyway (February 9). Sandy Allan had to give a talk in the evening but was delighted to join us on a shorter day. I had seen a picture of a pure white Lurcher’s Crag, so white I had to look twice at the date, so we decided to go there.

    After several dry days, there was a good track towards Lurcher’s even if everyone seemed to take a different line at the end. We were heading to the summit buttress to climb a groove line that I’d chickened out of soloing a couple of weeks ago. The bright sun had stripped the front face of the buttress during yesterday but the groove fortunately faced away from the sun and had enough ice to justify winter. The grade was IV,4 as expected, and Steve led a second long pitch to the summit cairn. It was a bit of a dash (we called it Daschund) so there was loads of time to do something else, even if it was quite hot.

    When Sandy and I had been climbing with Brian Davison a couple of weeks previously, we had looked at a smooth left-facing corner formed in the left side of Summit Ridge. I had persuaded the others that it looked too hard and we had gone for a line to its left (now 101 Dalmatians). But it was a great line and Sandy wouldn’t forget. In fact he reminded me about it every time Lurcher’s was mentioned. Today was no exception and the presence of Steve seemed a further encouragement. I was still highly doubtful but we decided to go down for a look.

    The northerly gales and snow had nicely filled the top of Central Gully so the descent was easy. Plus the initial ramp, which had previously put me off the line, was a bit shorter with the build-up. I still wouldn’t have been bold enough but Steve was keen to give the corner a go. He quickly gained the corner and got a couple of good runners in; things were looking hopeful. The main corner would give about 15m of climbing, and there were occasional blobs of turf visible, but would it have a crack for gear and holds between the blobs? Steve made good progress until the runners were distinctly below his feet. There didn’t seem to be much of a crack and soon he announced that the next move was make or break; he made it. After a while placing a peg which he said was poor (it very much was) and a few scrapes with the feet, which speeded up our heartbeats (presumably his too), he continued to edge up the corner. Another peg was apparently better (it was a lot better) and progress speeded up. There was a final thin move to reach good turf, then he ran the rope out to near the crest of Summit Ridge. The corner was very smooth with only one foothold in the 15 metres apart from the turf, but yet the feet seemed to grip quite well, at least when seconding. So what looked exceptionally hard turned out to be VI,6, although pretty bold for the grade. Steve called the route Blood Hound; he likes climbing without gloves and the resultant knuckle would have made the job easy for a searching hound.

    We finished up short walls and corners left of the crest of Summit Buttress but only to be different, and soon reached the summit cairn for a late lunch sitting in the sun. It was a gorgeous day and so nice to be able to walk out without hat and gloves. And Sandy was in good time for his talk.”