Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts tagged Jonathan Preston

    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.”

    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.”

    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!”

    Susan Jensen leading the steep groove up towards the ice column through the roof on the new Direct Start (V,5) to K9 on Lurcher’s Crag. This increasingly popular crag, situated in the Cairn Gorm side of the The Lairig Ghru, has been a good choice in the prevailing weather systems of strong westerly winds. ((Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Susan Jensen leading the steep groove up towards the ice column through the roof on the new Direct Start (V,5) to K9 on Lurcher’s Crag. This increasingly popular crag, situated in the Cairn Gorm side of the The Lairig Ghru, has been a good choice in the prevailing weather systems of strong westerly winds. ((Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “When it’s been raining cats and dogs, where else to go but Lurchers Crag,” Andy Nisbet suggests. “In fact the idea was born when Matt Griffin sent me a photo of the K9 area in order to ask if a line he and Adrian Dye had done by accident was in fact new. And it was, a line up the ribbed area left of the depression of K9 and now called Far from the Madding Crowd, was III,4.

    While happy to help him, I was more interested in various icefalls around where I thought K9 went, wrongly as it later turned out. Jonathan Preston and I went in on a horrible New Year’s Day, with the wind and spindrift howling down the Lairig Ghru. It was another day where both of us wanted to turn back at various points, but never simultaneously, and the weaker one always conceded. In fact the wind was east of south, and when we reached the base of an ice column left of the main K9 fault, it was relatively sheltered and both of us were happy to be there.

    I hadn’t climbed ice this season and my picks were blunt, so I was happy when Jonathan volunteered to lead. I found the vertical ice very strenuous but found the icy ramp above much more enjoyable, although the booming, obviously detached, crusty ice was clearly better when seconding. But I had recovered enough to lead a bigger but less steep icefall leading out left from the upper depression. The route was IV,5.

    A thaw delayed a return and Jonathan was working, but a forecast of freezing brought Susan Jensen into the fray on January 4; the icicle through the roof above K9 was the obvious temptation. Of course forecasts aren’t always right, and it did seem very warm when we left the car. The lightest of crusts on the snow tempted us on but even when we arrived below the route, the crust was still on the thin side. Susan was keen to lead the steep bit so I teetered up the mushy snow fortunately to a good belay below a steepening groove. This gave Susan a precarious lead with fortunately a more solid exit. Her suggestion that a fall would only have led to a slide down the snow, wouldn’t have given me much comfort if I’d been up there. But the ice improved a lot above the groove and good ice screw runners led up to a short column through the left end of the roof system. From there we finished straight up the main depression on lower angled ice with the occasional bulge to reach the now icy hillside above. V,5 seemed the right grade.

    I was about to write the route descriptions when Allen Fyffe (who did the first ascent of K9) got in touch about a rockfall in George, the classic Grade III in Coire Dubh Mor of Liathach. It now has an extra pitch and is a bit harder (see UKC), but I happened to mention about a direct on K9, which puzzled Allen. The original description mentioned a mixed traverse so I put two and two together and assumed it traversed back. But Allen soon confirmed that in fact it went left and climbed the icefall which Jonathan and I had finished up. So now I’ve two half routes to write up, and little idea what to say. Conditions were surprisingly good, not that it helps the route description, but the popular North and Central Gullies looked quite poor – too much water and not enough cold I assume.”

    Susan Jensen on the first ascent of Willow Ridge (IV,4) in Coire Garbhlach. This rarely visited corrie is approached from Glen Feshie. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Susan Jensen on the first ascent of Willow Ridge (IV,4) in Coire Garbhlach. This rarely visited corrie on the south-western edge of the Cairngorms massif, lies near the head of Glen Feshie. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    “The name Coire Garbhlach, meaning a rough place, is remarkably well suited,” Andy Nisbet writes. “There used to be a path of sorts but a big thunderstorm perhaps in the early 90s, washed it all away and just left a mixture of rubble and deep heather in the valley bottom. This might have been a bonus for keen local climbers, finding a place where almost no climbers go, yet offering new lines on distinct features (all done now!). The crags are mostly schist and thoroughly rotten in summer, hence the deeply eroded valley and vegetated cliffs (water from schist is much less acidic than from granite; both plants and therefore winter climbers like this).

    At the end of November, Jonathan Preston and I were looking for somewhere different from the Norries. Upper Coire Garbhlach is a bit lower but we were hoping it would be frozen, particularly as it was ahead of the recent big insulating dump of snow. I knew from an old picture that the best remaining line was the ridge left of a gully line called Deep Freeze. The gully was climbed by Steve Aisthorpe and John Lyall, as were a number of ice lines in the corrie, but due to a vague (but definitely exaggerated) report in the 1978 SMC Journal about six long ice routes having been climbed, John wrote it up but didn’t claim it. When Jonathan and I arrived, the turf was frozen but the intended ridge line was a bit too bare. The ridge to the right was snowier and much better defined than on my photo, so we Chilled Out and climbed it at Grade III. The nice thing about Coire Garbhlach is that the descent is much easier than the approach.

    A couple of days ago (December 29) was a rare good day in an awful spell of weather. Susan Jensen was up to climb, and walking conditions seemed grim, so we needed somewhere fairly accessible. Roping in Jonathan and going to the unclimbed ridge seemed to fit the conditions. Having been irritated once too often by the car park near Achlean being unreasonably far from the road end, we decided to cycle and take advantage of a new section of path. Whether it saved much time is doubtful but it was fun! The snow level was quite high so we made quick time to start but things slowed down as we approached the route, which looked good in its very snowy garb.

    Attempts to dig out a direct start only revealed unfrozen ground and a poised block higher up suggested we ought to sneak up the gully for a few metres before gaining the ridge. The ridge held a steep corner line, better frozen except for moves on to ledges piled with snow, which were worryingly delicate when the protection was well below. A nominal warthog could be pulled out by hand; is it worrying when it does push you on even when you know it’s psychological? At least a pinnacle belay was big enough to need tying on with the rope instead of a sling.

    That left Susan with a very fine sharp horizontal arête leading to easier ground; pity it wasn’t longer. When we reached the land rover track for the descent, the spindrift from the forthcoming storm was just starting. A mad rush for the Inchriach cafe, which shut at 4pm, failed by 3 days, as it had just closed for the winter. But overall, it was a fine day considering how few there have been. Willow Ridge was 120m IV,4.”

    Jonathan Preston contemplating the crux groove of Zee Zee Top (VI,6) on Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin during the first ascent. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston contemplating the crux groove of Zee Zee Top (VI,6) on Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin during the first ascent. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet has been quietly developing a couple of new winter cliffs this season. Andy wrote to me today with details of the first of these new crags – Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin:

    “The first I heard about this cliff was in 1990 when Helen Geddes told me that the late Mike Geddes had climbed a Grade III there. The information disappeared into the back of my mind until in the late 90’s when I was taking the train from Tulloch to Corrour to climb the lonely Munro Beinn na Lap, and looked out across Loch Treig to see the crag. I waited some more until I felt that conditions might make it worth a visit and in mid April 2000 after a good winter, the weather was warming up but it seemed a good option for a last route of the winter, plus I wanted to climb the two Easain Munros.

    It was a lovely day, warm and sunny but still frosty in the shade (I hoped). I remember descending from a shoulder near the top of Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin down into the corrie, crossing slushy sunny slopes until below the crag. Many of the walls were bare and there were grooves with forlorn icicles, but the most recessed gully was complete. I was caught out for the first time by the crag being steeper than it looked from below, and set off soloing up the gully. There was good snow-ice, first time placements but just a bit softer than ideal. It didn’t take long before I was committed and above was steeper than I expected. But I’d been climbing for several months so I went up near vertical ice to an easing. Above were tiers of overhangs but broken by grooves, which might just join. I had a half-hearted go but the ice petered out so I retreated to the easing to contemplate whether the long walk justified another go in the assumption that well frozen turf under the snow would allow success, or whether there was another way out of this tricky situation. It didn’t take long to decide to try going leftwards out of the gully system, and I soon met a large flake hidden under the snow, wrapping my arms around it and able to relax for the first time in a while. Traversing on and finishing up an easier rib now felt back in control, if disappointed that I hadn’t climbed the true line. But I bagged the Munros and mentally my winter was over. As I later found out, I had made the correct decision.

    Ben Nevis late season was so good the next couple of years that I never made it back, and then snow and ice conditions were never good enough for a number of years. I had looked at the crag again from the train and it persuaded me to make another effort. The weather in early March was great and Aonach Beag West Face had much more ice than I’d ever seen before (I’ve done 10 new ice lines there with Sandy Allan, Dave McGimpsey and Jonathan Preston), and with Jonathan having a couple of days off [March 10-11], it seemed worth a gamble that some icicles on the right wall of the gully might be connected, and that the direct finish was there as a back-up. We took a full rack and two ropes psyched up for something hard, so it was a bit of a surprise to find several iced grooves on a buttress to the right and actually be spoilt for choice. We set off up one, and the ice was so good that we kept on thinking about roping up until we’d carried the full rack and two ropes on out backs to the top (160m Grade III). Actually there were two grooves, then a big gully and three more shorter ones on the next buttress. It was my bright idea to descend the gully and one which turned out to be hard work on rock hard snow-ice, even before we met the steep pitch at the start. It was time to use the rope and abseil down.

    This time we left one of the ropes and some of the gear, and actually roped up at the start of the right-hand groove. It was a little harder at IV,4 (just) but this time we didn’t descend the gully. There was only time for one more route so we felt we should try the ‘icicle line’ which I’d spotted before. We started just right of the original gully (named Central Gully in the Ben Nevis guide but actually it’s the leftmost route so that name will have to be changed) and soloed up some fairly easy angled ice to an overlap with icicles. We could have reached the ice over the top but we could also see an inch gap between the ice and the rock, so the fierce pull didn’t seem like a good idea. So we continued up to a cave under the main overhanging band and roped up. There was a ledge squeezed under the overhang and it was just possible to wriggle onto it and crawl along to where the main overhang ended in an iced ramp. Again the ice was rather detached from the rock but at least attached top and bottom. A rather spooky pull on the booming ice gained the main ramp, which fortunately improved with height. Jonathan now had his moment of optimism and headed for an upper iced corner with total confidence. There was an obviously easier ice smear to the left but it looked hollow and unprotected, so he fought his way up the corner placing awkward runners in uncomfortable positions in true Jonathan style. It was definitely the crux and Zee Zee Top became 220m VI,6. We were tired now but in true Aberdonian style, the abseil sling had to be retrieved so we soloed up the big gully for an extra Grade II.

    Where to go the next day? There wasn’t really a choice apart from tired legs suggesting some reluctance. Whether we could do the three lines on the shorter buttress and the direct finish to the original route was always doubtful, and the three shorter lines proved enough, and steeper than they looked at IV,4; IV,5 and III,4.

    Jonathan was now working but Brian Davison was tempted up from Lancaster by talk of ice. We climbed a couple of routes on Aonach Beag and I just about had enough energy to go back to Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin the next day [March 14]. Brian is the fittest man in the world (but my standards are low) and with a light rack and one rope, we made it to the crag in two hours when the SMC Munro book gives the hill 3hrs 30mins. The slipstream helped me to the base of the “central” gully where this year’s snow had banked out much of the lower ice. This time we roped up for the steeper ice and it was obvious to both of us that in true Patey fashion, the inability to get down had been my original driving force and that technical 5 was probably right. And above was much steeper, so that was Brian’s pitch. I was hiding in a cave and did realise that as Brian moved unusually slowly, with icicles and various other icy lumps whirring past the outside, that it wasn’t easy. “Watch me here” was even more worrying, but at least it meant there were runners (not very many as it turned out). It was an impressive lead up stacked grooves each capped with an overhang. Fortunately each new groove started with neve over the overhang, then gradually deteriorated into crusty stuff below the next overhang. Finally there were a couple of good runners before exiting into the sunshine. We decided on VII,6 so I was pleased I had turned back 12 years previously!”