Scottish winter climbing news

    Browsing Posts tagged Jonathan Preston

    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!”

    Free Tibet!

    Jonathan Preston moving through the barrier rock band on the second ascent of Potala Buttress on An Teallach. This is probably the pint where a sling for aid was used on the first ascent by Dave Broadhead and Des Rubens in January 1987. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston moving through the barrier rock band on the second ascent of Potala Buttress on An Teallach. This is probably the point where a sling for aid was used on the first ascent by Dave Broadhead and Des Rubens in January 1987. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston and Andy Nisbet made a repeat (and first free ascent) of Potala Buttress, in Toll an Lochain of An Teallach, on December 27.

    “It was a route that had always interested me, in that it was the only true face route on An Teallach when I offered to write the next Northern Highlands guidebooks in the late 90s,” Andy told me. “OK, there was 1978 Face route, but it was a route following obvious features on a huge face (named as a piss-take on 1959 Face Route on Creag Meagaidh, which itself was named after the 1938 route on The Eiger, although hardly in the same class). I asked Dave Broadhead, who with Des Rubens made the first ascent in 1987, if it was really old Grade IV because it looked somewhat steep and intimidating, and he said yes. I still had my doubts, since it used an aid point, and these lads didn’t resort easily to such things, but I had to take their word for it and graded it IV,5 in the guide.

    Knowing conditions were so good on An Teallach, Jonathan and I decided that they would have survived the pre-Xmas thaw and might be even better on this high route. We were wrong in fact, but instead of there being too little snow, there was too much, and the face was well plastered with fresh crusty stuff. Not that it put us off, but by then we were committed after the long approach up the lower slopes and gullies which were actually in better nick. Their description was brief and factual, forcing us to basically ignore it and find our own way, although in retrospect we probably followed the same line. It did start as for our recent route Rongbuk but soon broke off right to give a harder but similarly scary first pitch. Jonathan then led up to a barrier rock band where we presumed the aid point was used. There were several breaks in this, with things looking harder the further right you went, but all being plastered in snow so you couldn’t really tell. He decided on the furthest left, quite close to Rongbuk in fact, and it turned out to have good cracks, a real bonus after the unprotected ground below, but still the technical crux.

    With all the clearing of snow, the climbing was slow and we were still less than halfway up the route with only two hours of daylight left. Plus the description said “continue without difficulty” and the ground above was still steep. But it was clearly necessary to add some speed so the cautious approach was put to one side and we finished up a fine icy groove still in daylight. Not that it’s all over on An Teallach, since were halfway along the Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles in fading light. Last time we’d reversed them and descended Constabulary Couloir; this time we decided to head to Lord Berkley’s Seat and over Sgurr Fiona. This change of plan nearly misfired when we decided that snow conditions were sufficiently good on the south side that we could traverse round Sgurr Fiona. Suddenly the mist came in and we lost touch with each other in the rush. I didn’t have a map, as I thought I knew An Teallach well enough, but was heading down towards a col when I suddenly remembered it led to an outlying top on the Shenavall side. Feeling a little fortunate, I went back up and met Jonathan. I did remember the descent gully and we got most of the way down to the sacks without torches, although a full moon did delay darkness. By the time we got back to the car, it felt a long day. As for the grade, old IVs were often hard and we thought this one deserved V,5.”

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of a new III,4 on Stacan Dubha in the Loch Avon Basin on Christmas Eve. Conditions after the weekend thaw were excellent with good neve and freshly formed ice. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of a new III,4 on Stacan Dubha in the Loch Avon Basin on Christmas Eve. Conditions after the weekend thaw were excellent with good neve and freshly formed ice. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet is on a roll at the moment and has made a series of good ascents during this unsettled period of weather. Scottish winter climbing has always been about being in the right place at the right time, and Andy’s recent run of routes is a textbook example of how to play the game. Here is his latest story from December 24:

    “A thread on UKC told everyone how dangerous it might be and how awful the conditions were, but conditions were great and walking conditions brilliant, with a total cover of neve in the northern Cairngorms. The avalanche forecast said considerable, but you’d have needed dynamite to move any snow. The “monk of doom” said freezing level at 1200m, but it had been freezing on Cairn Gorm most of the previous day plus overnight and the weather pattern was to get colder. And there was no-one on the hill. Was I missing something? Or was this a dream.

    So Jonathan Preston and I ignored it all and went anyway, over to Loch Avon and Stacan Dubha, where we’d spotted a line this time last year. Between that route and The Shuttle was a big bay capped by a smooth overhanging wall. From low down we saw a potential Grade VIII but not of interest to us. But then higher up we looked across and saw a bizarre deep fault, a hidden turf-filled chimney that cut through the wall and seemed like a miracle. So that’s what we went for. Conditions were bare on the steep walls but the easier ground and especially this chimney were full of ice and the turf was well frozen. Some lower walls, which just made tech 4, led to an easy diagonal ramp, which led left to the chimney. Even when approaching, it seemed impossible that it could exist and I admit to thinking we were in the wrong place. But it was there, and Jonathan led up to uncertain ground. But it was our lucky day, so an easy groove led up towards the top. OK, the line isn’t continuous, but for a Grade III,4 it does cover some unusual ground. And we were alone on Christmas Eve in the Loch Avon Basin!”

    Jonathan Preston about to enter the big V-Groove during the first ascent of World’s End (III,4). “This photo isn't as good compared to the great potential one looking down,” Andy Nisbet told me. “If only Jonathan or Dave carried a camera!” (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Jonathan Preston about to enter the big V-Groove during the first ascent of World’s End (III,4). “This photo isn’t as good compared to the great potential one looking down,” Andy Nisbet told me. “If only Jonathan or Dave carried a camera!” (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    The wild weather, high winds and deep snow has shut down almost all winter climbing over the past few days, but yesterday the indomitable Andy Nisbet added a couple of new routes to Beinn Fhada with Jonathan Preston and Dave McGimpsey.

    “The forecast was poor with wind and rain or snow clearing from the south during the day,’ Andy explains. “Judging by UKClimbing posts saying how unfrozen the turf was in Arrochar, but our (Dave McGimpsey, Jonathan Preston and I) recent experience on An Teallach of turf being frozen at sea-level, conditions seemed better but the weather worse the further north you went. So we compromised in the middle and with a south-east wind, also went as far west as possible. Beinn Fhada was the plan and a big groove, which I’d spied a couple of years ago but chickened out of soloing in deep soft snow. We arrived in rain and wind and set off in the expectation that it would soon stop. As we got wetter higher up and the rain turned to driving sleet, it was one of those days you wonder about your sanity. But almost miraculously the wind dropped the moment we stepped into the upper corrie and suddenly the turf was frozen.

    The big groove in the leftmost buttress of the corrie needed ice, and there was certainly ice around, so suddenly our faith seemed justified. We soloed up to the first step and roped up. It all seemed steeper than expected but even this awkward step had enough ice. Then there was plenty of icy turf up the groove and a good warthog runner. I could see ice flowing out from the base of the main V-shape but there was no more rope. The groove is clean-cut with a 10m left wall and at least a 20m-high right wall. With a ribbon of perfect ice in the back, it could have been a total classic if only it were a bit longer than 20m before reaching easier turf and a final bulging exit. A final optional mixed pitch led to the top and a decision as to whether two hours was time for a second route and back to the car in daylight. Of course it was! After all, the world was due to end that day so we’d better get some more climbing in. The route was named World’s End, Grade III,4.

    The gully bounding the buttress had looked like an easy descent but again turned out to be steeper than expected, though with continuous snow even over a couple of steeper steps. It actually made a good Grade I at least 150m long and seemed worth recording (Mayan Gully). I had climbed the next buttress to the right so we chose the next one right again. We had the ropes but the plan was to solo. Again it turned out to be steep and with me struggling on the first icy bulge, Jonathan chose to solo the gully to the left (The End is Nigh – Grade II/III). Higher up, there was an awkward move left over a bulge with only one good placement. If that one had come out, the Mayan prediction for Doomsday (Grade III,4) would have been right, but fortunately we’re not superstitious. And we nearly made it back to the car in daylight.”

    Dave McGimpsey climbing pitch 3 during the first ascent of Rongbuk (IV,4) on Toll an Lochain on An Teallach. This 500m-long route makes a fine companion to Potala Buttress (IV,4), first climbed by Des Rubens and Dave Broadhead in January 1987. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Dave McGimpsey climbing pitch 3 during the first ascent of Rongbuk (IV,4) on Toll an Lochain on An Teallach. This 500m-long route makes a fine companion to Potala Buttress (IV,4), first climbed by Des Rubens and Dave Broadhead in January 1987. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet returned to An Teallach on December 18 with Jonathan Preston and Dave McGimpsey to make a fine addition to one of Scotland’s largest cliffs. Here is Andy’s story:

    “There was so much snow on An Teallach a week ago that a good thaw could only improve conditions, and not the opposite as a rather negative thread about NW conditions on UKClimbing had concluded. Toll an Lochain is arguably the second biggest cliff in Scotland, although there are steeper contenders, and I love climbing there. There was an obvious gap on Potala Buttress, and Jonathan and I had previously looked at it, but conditions had been deeply plastered snow and it was a surprisingly intimidating face. This time we expected conditions to be icy and perhaps the smooth slabs would be climbable.

    With Dave roped in, we left the car at first light (none of this walking in the dark for us). Again the turf was frozen down to the road and we hoped it wasn’t just valley frost. But as we gained height it stayed frozen, so surely the snow would have to follow suit. Despite the nagging doubt that a temperature inversion would warm things up, it didn’t and conditions looked very promising. No big build-up and the lower buttresses had definitely thawed, but an ice fringe on every turf ledge high up.

    We geared up in the corrie bottom and made the big mistake of wearing all the clothes (well it is winter). Of course forgetting that it’s 1000ft of Grade II to reach the start, and sure enough we were roasting on a cloudless, windless day. The snow was crusty in places but very solid where water had dripped down. But we got to the toe of the buttress and its smooth slabs, so felt a bit guilty starting round to the right (later relieved to find Potala Buttress starts there also). I volunteered to go first and was even allowed to, but then I did have a fair idea how to avoid the line of Potala Buttress.

    The climbing was well turfy, even as I trended left away from the other route. I did have a warthog and a hook, but thinking I should save them for a hard move, I only placed the hook with 40m of rope out. Jonathan’s next pitch had some steeper icy moves but 8 runners. After Dave’s next pitch, it looked like the ground was easing but the route still had to offer a fine ice-filled short gully and a perfect crack just over the initial bulge when the rope had just run out. Dave and Jonathan then led simultaneously (so we led two pitches each!) to the summit ridge. What great views there were of the Beinn Dearg range.

    With a choice of descents, we decided to reverse the bad step (which isn’t bad if you know how to avoid it) and then descend the endless Constabulary Couloir. Not endless if you’re climbing up full of enthusiasm, but at the end of the day when the light is fading. The route was called Rongbuk after another Tibetan monastery nearer the mountains. We debated over the grade and agreed on IV,4. It must be at least 500m if you count the long approach.”

    A distant shot of Maol Chean-dearg in the Northern Highlands showing the summit crag on the top left skyline. (Archive Photo Andy Nisbet)

    With attention primarily focused on Ben Nevis and the Northern Cairngorms at the moment, it is refreshing to have news of a new route in the Northern Highlands by Andy Nisbet, Jonathan Preston and Pat Ingram on November 28. Andy takes up the story:

    “After a day wading up The Message with insulated semi-frozen turf, I thought we ought to try somewhere with less snow but still high and exposed to the cold wind. The summit buttress of Maol Chean-dearg came to mind. You can approach from either Torridon or Glen Carron but we chose the latter as being more familiar. Pat Ingram, Jonathan Preston and I drove over to find a breeze and showers instead of the perfect day we hoped. We took 3.5 hours to reach the summit and then descended Hidden Gully to reach the crag. I soloed up a new Severe on the lower quartzite cliff a couple of summers ago and finished up the Moderate rib right of Hidden Gully so I could look at the cliff. I spotted a line of weakness, which I thought would freeze quickly, with the easier rib as an alternative if conditions were poor. I also knew that Hidden Gully was more like an easy Grade I than a II so would be fine as a descent.

    Leaving my cag at home did rather throw me on a cold windy day so I also left my camera on the top, hence the lack of action shots. Once below the line, it did look rather steep, well plastered and the turf was only frozen where exposed (fortunately that was the hard bits), but we set off anyway and it turned out to be easier than I expected. Pat led the hard bit on the third pitch and we called it Bald Eagle (IV,4) – the hill being bald head shaped in the Gaelic. Jonathan and I nipped down at the end to climb the rib, which gave a pleasant Grade II.”

    Tsar Wars

    Jonathan Preston on the first ascent of Tsar Wars (IV,5) on Sron na Lairige on Braeriach. The guillotine slab can be seen poised above. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

    Andy Nisbet has had a busy start to his winter season with a number of well-known classics in Coire an t-Sneachda, but on Monday November 5 he visited Sron na Lairige with Jonathan Preston and Pat Ingram.

    “I was getting bored of Sneachda,” Andy told me, “so I persuaded Pat and Jonathan to take the turf gamble on Sron na Lairige in the Lairig Ghru. I’d often looked at the slabby left face of the buttress with the route Polar Bear up its crest. This always looked rather smooth and unhelpful so had been left as the last of the list of unclimbed lines. The start up lower grooves would have been easy but the turf was hopelessly soggy. Now it was double or quits, roping up to move into the middle of the face in the hope that crucial turf would be frozen. Still unsure, I searched around for as many runners as possible just in case. And of course it was, becoming increasingly frozen the steeper the ground became and just as it was needed.

    The crux was a small overlap with remarkable flakes over its top and suddenly the mood became confident. Jonathan led the next pitch over a guillotine slab perched above us. Both he and Pat were very careful but as last man I could pull up on it and stand on it. A final steep flakey section ended with Jonathan clutching a large flake and us telling him that whatever he did, not to let go of it. So he managed to put it back and that was all the difficulties over. Scrambling type ground then led to the plateau and an early finish. Grade IV,5 was a grade easier than we’d expected and the 7.30 start did seem a bit keen (so Pat pointed out; he had driven from Inverness for 7.30). It’s only a provisional name but Tsar Wars sounded funny.”