Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts tagged 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)

    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.”

    Steve Perry on the first ascent of the Right-Hand Branch (VII,7) to Bottleneck Gully on the West Dace of Aonach Beag. The crux ice umbrella above his head was protected with an upside down ice screw. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Steve Perry on the first ascent of the Right-Hand Branch (VII,7) to Bottleneck Gully on the West Face of Aonach Beag. The crux ice umbrella above Steve’s head was protected with an upside down ice screw. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “February 7 was day three of seeking out unclimbed ice by moving south and higher as the warm air encroached, “ Andy Nisbet writes. “The lower west face of Aonach Beag was chosen, and in particular a line that Sandy Allan and I had spotted when we had only blunt gear and no ice screws, and for which I went back later with Jonathan Preston but the bottom had thawed away. Ice at that altitude was in great shape on the Ben (like The Curtain and Gemini), so why not here? A distant photo on the SAIS Lochaber blog didn’t show much ice, but then ice does hide away in deep grooves.

    As Steve Perry and I approached over the Bealach Cumhann, the first noticeable feature was a continuous white streak in the right branch of Bottleneck Gully. I had a feeling that it must be steep, as Simon Richardson and Roger Everett wouldn’t otherwise have missed the chance, but the ice was definitely complete up to a big chockstone at the top. Walking conditions were surprisingly good compared to the deep soft snow of previous days, so we took the regular route up the steep approach slopes, even needing to put crampons on. Despite the temporary inconvenience, this was of course a huge plus for conditions and showed the temperature was lower than expected.

    We arrived at the crag under the gully, which was our back-up plan. This is the gully I had assumed was Torquing Nonsense, but after Simon had retrieved a topo following the first ascent out of his attic, it seemed to be unclimbed. I’d told Steve it would be a short ice pitch and then easy, so it was a bit surprising to see it packed with ice both in the gully and a long continuation through the upper rocks. It was impossible to resist and gave a fine 120m Grade III, called Axiom because it wasn’t talking nonsense (and used axes).

    It was now convenient to head down the descent and see if our planned icefall was there. I don’t know how I could have doubted, as there were huge amounts of ice. This icefall is on steeper ground left of Prominent Chimney. Sandy Allan and I had previously climbed Prominent Chimney, thinking it a new route, with our Grade III being very different to the IV,6 in the guide. But chatting to Roger Webb, I found that conditions were lean on the first ascent and that the Tech 6 section was Grade I when banked out.

    We soloed up to a big spike at the base of an ice-filled chimney some 15m left of Prominent Chimney. Steve set off up the chimney and then a tight corner with ice in the back and fortunately some footholds on the right. Now he could go right to the main icefall and I was hoping he would belay. But there was no stopping him and he powered up the icefall with several ice screw runners (he had brought a lot) to an easier finish. I called it Santa (V,5) as a late Christmas present. It also fitted with an ice line well to the left on the same buttress which Sandy and I had climbed (Elf, Grade III), and a mixed line on the right edge, earlier climbed with Jonathan (Dasher, Grade III,4).

    Time was getting on but the light lasts longer now, so we headed down to the right branch of Bottleneck Gully. I got there first and my heart sank at the sight of a big ice overhang near the top, complete with its own ice umbrella. I estimated the roof at about 6ft horizontally out, but Steve saw it at a more optimistic scale and reckoned you could bridge it (so a 4ft roof). He was willing to give it a go and I was willing to hold his ropes.

    I managed to find a belay out of the firing line (there would be a lot of ice coming down from the umbrella) and he set off. It was clearly very steep as progress was slow and a lot of ice screw runners were placed; Steve’s stamina was impressive. The light was getting a little gloomy as he made the roof. I thought he’d be able to rest in the cave below it but it was too steep. A nut between two icicles and an ice placement in the back allowed him to lean out and start dismantling the umbrella. After a few whacks and a lot of debris, it was time for a go. With considerable contortion, an ice screw was placed in the roof and gave enough confidence to lean out. The first swing of the axe brought down a large chunk of ice and a painful shoulder. After a few retreats (I’ve never trusted to an ice screw placed vertically upwards in an ice roof either), he finally committed with a comment that there would be no coming back. Fortunately there was a foothold on the right wall but very little on the left, but a semi-chimneying position allowed him to lock off and reach for higher placements and a piece of turf on the right. A wild move gained a flake but no rest as a huge chockstone above pushed him out. After a moment’s contemplation about going up, he swung back on the turf and made a long move for turf on the other side of the gully. The upside-down runner was quite distant now so there was extra power for a final pull on to easier ground.

    I didn’t notice the glorious red sky as I climbed as fast as possible, pulling hard on everything and trusting on the rope above. I didn’t even contemplate how overhanging the top section was and fortunately everything held. An easy last pitch was led at high speed to complete Steve’s first ever Grade VII,7 lead. I hope the buzz will last for a while.”

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Cheops (V,5) on Pyramid Buttress on the south side of Liathach. This was the second route of an Andy Nisbet-inspired blitz seeking out unclimbed ice. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Cheops (V,5) on Pyramid Buttress on the south side of Liathach. This was the second route of an Andy Nisbet-inspired blitz seeking out unclimbed ice. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “The weather was changing as predicted so there was no time for a rest day,” Andy Nisbet writes. “On February 5, Jonathan Preston and I were heading for the Pyramid Buttress on Liathach. Thanks to the Internet and a pretty picture of Liathach a few days before, my eyes had focussed on a tiny ice strip on the buttress. Allowing for the picture having been taken from several miles away, the ice strip should be climbable, although I hadn’t realised there had been such heavy snowfall in the interim.

    We started a bit later than normal because Pyramid Buttress was fairly accessible, and weren’t worried when the engine in Jonathan’s van kept cutting out, therefore arriving at about 9am. It did seem radically warmer than the day before and with snow down to the road, but we were in no hurry and would just do 20 minutes trail breaking alternately. And we could just see the buttress through a gap in the mist, with plenty of ice. Actually it was the last time we saw it.

    A few 20 minutes later and we were making progress, although each 20 minutes gained less height as the snow got deeper and deeper. Fortunately I’d climbed the Right Edge a few times and the Right Icefall once, so I knew the way in thick mist. It was drizzling at times with no hint of freezing, so we did get rather wet. And by the time were making the scary traverse to the foot of our line (steep soft snow on the lip of a white drop of unknown length), it was after 1pm. Traversing under the various icefalls, I was gobsmacked by how much ice there was; much more than I’d ever seen before, and I’ve been to Liathach at least 100 times in 35 years. Our line, a separate line of ice some 30m left of the Left Icefall, looked good with some very (very) steep sections. Unfortunately all the icicles were dripping and the snow was sludge.

    We soloed up the first easier pitch to below the main line, which I volunteered to start. The placements were deep, too deep really but felt solid enough, although the feet had to be kicked in hard to be sure of holding. I wasn’t confident of ice screws as runners so I went straight up to a groove on the left edge of the ice and a pleasant surprise when the groove held a deep crack, very unusual on this rock. Nuts seemed to fall out the bottom but my largest one held (it later fell out). On the assumption it was good, I went for the top of the ice, with a slushy exit when the runner was really too low. Steep snow led to the next section of ice, which was plumb vertical for at least 15m. It would have made a brilliant Grade VI on a cold day but today I was happy to belay out from the drips and leave the problem to Jonathan.

    As I looked around while he climbed, there did seem to be a hidden groove to the left and which led to another groove left of the steepest ice. Jonathan had spotted it too, and even found some good rock runners on the way up. The pitch was longer and more technical than the previous one but three steep steps led to below another vertical icefall. It was a day when leaders belayed optimistically below steep sections, and the new leader found a way round them. I traversed 10m right, climbed an icy chimney and then angled back left on turf to the original line. Now we were on easier ground and a long pitch led to the top. I dare say we’d have graded it IV,5 on a freezing day but it felt V,5 on a wet day, so we’ve left it at that. Cheops is a pyramidal name, which sounded a bit like the conditions.

    We weren’t bothered about the summit, and I knew the way down, so we traversed above the crags until the bum sliding could begin. Deep wet snow may be tedious on the way up but brilliant on the way down. A series of long safe slides interspersed with short walks got us most of the way back to the van. Four hours up, 35 minutes down!”

    Dave McGimpsey pulling out of the top of the chimney during the first ascent of Jinky (V,5) on the West Face of Quinag. The cliffs on the west face of Quinag are a good choice in very snowy conditions as they have a relatively short approach. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Dave McGimpsey pulling out of the top of the chimney during the first ascent of Jinky (V,5) on Quinag. The cliffs on the West Face of Quinag are a good choice in very snowy conditions as they have a relatively short approach. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “Ice conditions were very good in many places, but it was still hard to make the best choice,” Andy Nisbet writes. “Local enquiries always talked of deep snow and tough walk-ins. Plus the weather was slowly warming up as high pressure pushed gradually into England. So the longer-term plan was to start north and low and work south and higher as warmer air pushed first into the north. So on February 4, Quinag it was.

    A couple of years ago, Jonathan Preston and I had climbed two lines on the sidewall of the biggest descent gully on the Western Cliffs. The advantage of the gully wall was that it didn’t get much sun so stayed in nick longer than the front faces, which were distinctly bare that day in 2013. But there was also a gully that we hadn’t climbed because there was no chance of it being frozen. This time it had been cold for a while and maybe it would even be iced.

    The walk-in was deep snow right from the road but I’d done that before and it wasn’t that far. That opinion had changed a couple of hours later despite having trail breaking Dave McGimpsey with us. Still, the gully looked good and white although the amount of ice was disappointing. I went first, partly because the wind was getting up and suddenly we were all cold, and soon discovered the ice wasn’t that great, so I moved out on to well frozen turf on the right wall.

    Jonathan had the next pitch, quite a chimney and which looked promisingly white. An extensive digging operation created only an overhang, and since I hadn’t taken hexes, not enough protection. Having just been to see Valley Uprising, Jonathan wedged the two largest nuts side by side and they might just have held. But the theory was never tested as the turf over the top was solid.

    Dave led the last pitch very quickly just as the mist cleared and we marvelled over the view to Suilven and Stac Pollaidh in the distance. And Rubha Hunish at the northern tip of Skye was just visible. The route was called Jinky (V,5), not after the famous footballer (although I’m sure he would have enjoyed it too) but after I said it jinked left and Dave was puzzled by that usage. Maybe he’s not a Celtic follower.”

    Canine Capers

    Brian Davison on the technical crux of 101 Dalmatians (VII,7) where precarious moves above the crack lead to an easing in the angle. [And yes, this is a current photo and not a throwback to the 1970s – Brain Davison does still wear a Whillans Harness!] (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Brian Davison on the technical crux of 101 Dalmatians (VII,7) where precarious moves above the crack lead to an easing in the angle. [And yes, this is a current photo and not a throwback to the 1970s – Brain Davison does still wear a Whillans Harness!] (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “After the routes done around New Year,” Andy Nisbet writes, “I began to realise Lurcher’s Crag wasn’t worked out after all, particularly when conditions became increasingly icy as the cold spell began to bite. I didn’t have much respect for the depressions between the ridges, largely because they had hard slabby starts and much easy ground higher up, but with a need for somewhere local and deep snow around, Sandy Allan and I thought we’d try one which didn’t look too hard. So on January 8 we waded down South Gully and along the terrace to the groove between Reindeer Ridge and St. Bernard’s Ridge. It turned out not to be too difficult and gave what turned out to be the common pattern for these grooves, two harder pitches, then easy ground to a final headwall. I wasn’t sure about political names but given the date, it was hard not to call it Je Suis Charlie (Grade III).

    After a following couple of weeks of stormy and snowy westerlies, many cliffs were swamped in soft snow and with Brian Davison up for a long weekend and insisting on all three days climbing, the venue had to be west facing and accessible to my weak legs. The next groove to the right seemed like a good option but this time we descended Central Gully (the top is easy) to reach it. Brian was well ahead of Sandy and me as usual and not having seen much of him since the car park, didn’t really know where we were going. He did stop below the first groove south of Central Gully and asked if this was it, because it looked good. I had it in my head that it was very smooth but when I caught up, it looked quite reasonable and much icier than I’d seen before. We weren’t expecting the ice so had blunt gear with us; a good excuse for pointing Brian at it. It was still quite thin and with not much protection but the usual two tricky pitches led to an easier finish. Topical names seemed to be theme so Beagle has Landed even added the doggy part and became the name (Grade V,4), although Sandy thought Grade IV was high enough.

    The next day we made a fruitless trip to Beinn Bhan in deep snow and bad spindrift so the following day need to be a short(ish) walk-in again. So it was back to Lurcher’s to the groove, which was the intention for the day before. This of course turned out to be the one with the smooth start but again it was iced, albeit steeper and thinner than the Beagle Has Landed. The ice didn’t reach the base but a steep crack in a smooth V-groove almost reached it. The crack was clearly going to be hard and looked like it might end in snow which might cover either smooth rock (to the pessimist) or continue to the ice. Brian was happy to give it a go and take what came, which turned out to be increasingly precarious moves as the angle eased. The next pitch appeared to be well iced but the ice was very thin and there was a difficult bulge again with a strenuous move with gear leading to a precarious one above it. After that was a heavily snowed slab with a decreasing thickness of ice interspersed with increasing blobs of turf. A lot of digging and faith was required but Brian came up with both, so the three of us reached easy ground. This time there was a chimney in a headwall and being forced to lead something, I did some dithering before commitment solved it quickly. The world news that day was dull so it was back to dog names. I called it 101 Dalmations, which the others reluctantly accepted, and we graded it (VII,7).

    As a postscript, the final two depressions have also been climbed recently. I climbed the one between Dog Day Afternoon and Summit Ridge on a wild day when stopping to belay would have been purgatory (Wallydraigle, III). And on January 27, Sandy and I climbed the depression between Ptarmigan Ridge and Sweep, finishing up its headwall to join Ptarmigan Ridge – conditions were slushy at best.”

    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).”