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    Pete Macpherson tip-toeing up thin ice during the fourth ascent of Diedre of the Sorrows on Lochnagar. This very sustained mixed route route was first climbed nearly 30 years ago, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it was thought to be the hardest winter route in Scotland. (Photo Martin Moran)

    Pete Macpherson tip-toeing up the fourth ascent of Diedre of the Sorrows (VIII,8) on Lochnagar. This very sustained mixed route route was first climbed nearly 30 years ago, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s was thought to be the hardest winter route in Scotland. (Photo Andy Inglis)

    Pete Macpherson and Martin Moran added to their long list of cutting edge ascents with an ascent of Diedre of the Sorrows (VIII,8) on Lochnagar’s Tough-Brown Face on January 11. This much-celebrated route was first climbed by Dougie Dinwoodie and Andy Nisbet in March 1986, and has only seen two other repeats. On the second ascent in January 2000, Dave Hesleden and Andy Cave added a direct finish that they thought was harder than anything on the original route.

    “I have real admiration for Dinwoodie and Nisbet doing this route way back in the mid-eighties and questing into the unknown’” Pete told me. “I’ve wanted to do Diedre of the Sorrows for over a decade now, but the Tough-Brown Face is so rarely in good condition that I’ve never had the chance.

    I’ve been on that face three times now, twice on Nevermore, and once when I took a whipper off another new line, so I was keen to actually get to the top of something. Diedre of the Sorrows has a huge reputation for hard bold climbing in a sort of tradition kind of way, rather than a modern steep hard pulling style. There was some nice quality super thin ice on the route, but every time the angle eased, or you reached a ledge, you were met with sugary tool-ripping snow on top of bald slabs, which made for some nerve-wracking moves way above gear.

    That’s the thing about this face compared to everywhere else I’ve climbed in Scotland – you dig out the back of grooves, and nine times out of ten you find nothing, no cracks no gear just an open groove. Martin made a smooth lead of the super thin and serious third pitch, and I got the direct pitch above, which Andy Cave and Dave Hesleden did on the second ascent. Six millimetre-thin ice with Peckers in an icy groove for pro focuses the mind somewhat! We did the last two pitches in the dark, which added to the adventure. All in all, a cracking day out which should keep me happy…until next time!”

    Roger Webb on the first ascent of Moonflower, a new Grade III in Coire nan Clach on Braeriach. Along with the mixed climbs high on Ben Nevis, the remote high corries of the Cairngorms are invariably the first areas to come into condition every season. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb on the first ascent of Moonflower, a new Grade III in Coire nan Clach on Braeriach. Along with the mixed climbs high on Ben Nevis, the remote high corries of the Cairngorms are invariably the first areas to come into condition every season. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Autumn is a great time to explore the high Cairngorms. The north-west facing Northern Corries rime up quickly with the first snows of the season, but it is the likes of Braeriach and Beinn a’Bhuird that truly hold the cold during early season temperature variations and thaw. The climate in the corries cutting deep into the Cairngorm plateau is different to the front line crags on the northern flanks of the massif.

    Aspect is important too. The west-facing Coire nan Clach on Braeriach yielded a couple of new lines to Roger Everett, Roger Webb and myself after the first blast of winter westerlies in early November. Moonflower (III) on Alaska Buttress, and RRS Rib (II) up the ridge to the right, were a good opportunity to blow away the summer cobwebs. The following weekend, all north and west-facing crags had been stripped bare by warm south-west winds, but a sharp freeze had transformed the vertical-stepped corner cutting through the buttress left of Powerpoint in the sheltered east-facing Coire Bhrochain. This gave Roger Everett and I Petzl Buttress, a good III,4 climbed on well-frozen turf, new squeaky ice and hard re-frozen snow.

    On the last Sunday in November, Roger Webb and I teamed up to visit the obscure East Meur Gorm Craig on Ben Avon. The Sheep, The Sheep (III,4) and Sheep of Destiny (III,4) are probably the best winter lines on a largely disappointing crag comprised of massive exfoliating granite, but nevertheless we had the dubious satisfaction of adding the first (recorded) winter routes to the mountain.

    Earlier in the month, The Stuic on Lochnagar – the most accessible high venue in the Eastern Cairngorms – gave a good four pitch V,5 to Roger Everett and myself up the series of steep corners to the left of Millennium Buttress.

    These routes will likely only be of interest to a small handful of climbers, and will be quickly lost in the back pages of the SMC Journal. They will almost certainly never merit full descriptions in upcoming guidebooks, but they do demonstrate the exploratory fun that can be had by looking around a new corner or two!

    Pete Benson climbing the challenging second pitch of Nevermore (X,10) during the fourth attempt in March 2013. Extreme cold and dwindling daylight forced retreat from two pitches above. The first ascent of this highly significant route fell to Nick Bullock and Guy Robertson several weeks later. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Pete Benson climbing the challenging second pitch of Nevermore (X,10) on Lochnagar during the fourth attempt in March 2013. On this occcasion, extreme cold and dwindling daylight forced retreat two pitches above. The first ascent of this highly significant route finally fell to Nick Bullock and Guy Robertson several weeks later. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    On April 8, Nick Bullock and Guy Robertson put to bed one of the last great problems on Lochnagar with the first winter ascent of Nevermore on the Tough-Brown Face. This rarely climbed summer E2 was first climbed by Dougie Dinwoodie and Bob Smith in August 1981 and takes a direct central route up the face between Post Mortem and Mort.

    Pete Benson and Guy Robertson were the inspiration behind this climb. They made three attempts with Pete Macpherson, but were repeatedly turned back by the extreme difficulty of the second pitch. When Pete Benson finally succeeded on climbing this clean during their third attempt in March 2012 (a pitch thought to be worth IX,10 in its own right), they were shut down by a rapid thaw on the fifth and final pitch.

    For their fourth attempt this March, Pete and Guy roped in Nick Bullock, but ferocious cold and dwindling daylight forced another retreat from high on the climb. Guy and Nick probed the fifth pitch, but both climbed back down unwilling to commit to the difficult initial roof.

    On their fifth attempt on April 8, Pete was unable to join the team, but Guy and Nick were highly focused. They both knew that this was their moment, and they would either climb the route that day or not at all. Nick led the challenging second pitch leaving Guy the crucial fifth pitch. After some hesitation, Guy pulled over the roof, but on the moves above, with still no protection in place except for below the roof, he fell. With the on-sight lost, he handed over the ropes to Nick who soon passed Guy’s highpoint and pushed on into the unknown.

    “The climbing difficulties above the second overlap increased,” Nick wrote later. “There was no more gear until the pitch and the angle eased. I took a long time as the technicalities were brain-ache inducing, stomach churning – the prospect of falling now slowed me – terror was the tang of battery terminals licked.” Incredibly Nick kept his cool together and a winter ascent of Nevermore was finally a reality.

    “I’m astounded to get the route finally in the bag, “ Guy told me. Although Nick and Guy share the honours as the first ascensionists, they have both been quick to acknowledge that Nevermore was very much a team effort with considerable input from the two Pete’s – Benson and Macpherson.

    The significance of this ascent goes far beyond Lochnagar and the Tough-Brown Face. Nevermore was graded X,10 – a significant step up from the dozen or so Grade IX first ascents that have been climbed on-sight. Of course, with the prior attempts, Nevermore was not the perfect on-sight, but although we have a handful of higher graded winter routes in Scotland, they have typically benefitted from pre-inspection, multiple attempts on the crux pitch or knowledge from summer ascents. For me, in a season that stands out for its superlatives, Nevermore is the ascent of the winter. Not only is it technically difficult, bold and committing, but it opens the door to the chilling prospect of on-sight Scottish winter Grade X.

     

    Greg Boswell pulling through the crux roof of Mort (IX,9) on Lochnagar during the second ascent. “After some huffing and puffing and some woeful whimpering… like “I don’t know if I can do this,” and “I’m all idea-ed out”, I eventually unlocked a crazy sequence that allowed me to cross over the huge prominent fin that defines this route.” (Photo Nick Bullock)

    Greg Boswell pulling through the crux roof of Mort (IX,9) on Lochnagar during the second ascent. “After some huffing and puffing and some woeful whimpering… ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ and ‘I’m all idea-ed out,’ I eventually unlocked a crazy sequence that allowed me to cross over the huge prominent fin that defines this route.” (Photo Nick Bullock)

    On February 22, Greg Boswell, Guy Robertson and Nick Bullock pulled off one of Scotland’s the most prized winter repeats with the second winter ascent of Mort (IX,9) on the Tough-Brown Face of Lochnagar. The 1995 SMC guidebook to the cliff described Mort as a challenge for the next generation, but it was the old guard in the shape of Brian Davison, Andy Nisbet and Dave McGimpsey who claimed one of the mountain’s greatest winter prizes in January 2000.

    Mort, which takes a prominent line through the centre of the damp and vegetated overlapping boiler-plate walls of the Tough-Brown Face, was first climbed by Mike Forbes and Mike Rennie in 1967. They used ten points of aid, but the route was free climbed by Dougie Dinwoodie and Bob Smith nine years later and graded E1. Nowadays it sees no more than one or two ascents each summer and is thought to be at the upper end of its grade. As the most prominent line through the Tough-Brown Face it was an obvious, if futuristic winter challenge, and was first tried by Colin MacLean, Nisbet and Davison in January 1985. The date is significant as the only route of comparable difficult at the time was Guerdon Grooves on Buachaille Etive Mor, which had been climbed, by Arthur Paul and Dave Cuthbertson the previous winter. MacLean led the first hard pitch, using two rest points above the big roof, which is the summer crux, and reached the belay ledge after five hours. Nisbet and Davison were too cold to lead through, so MacLean continued in the lead but he reached a blank section about 15m from easy ground and retreated. Although they had failed, the attempt was an eye-opener and Nisbet and MacLean were quick to capitalise on their experience. Over the following weeks they made the first winter ascents of Unicorn in Glen Coe and Winter Needle on the Shelter Stone.

    All three climbers returned to Mort during the following winters. Davison estimates that he visited Lochnagar 18 times with MacLean to try the route, but it was rarely in condition. In March 1992, Davison and Nisbet made an attempt which ended after Davison took a 20m fall over the crux roof, which he had just free climbed, landing at Nisbet’s feet. As the number of people climbing high standard mixed routes was increasing, it became clear that the route was not going to hold out forever. In December 1999, Alan Mullin made a spirited attempt with Guy Robertson. Climbing on sight in difficult powder conditions, Mullin regained almost regained MacLean’s 1985 highpoint on the third pitch, but was again stopped by the blank nature of the rock.

    Just after New Year 2000, Lochnagar came into superb condition. Most importantly for an ascent of Mort, there was a thin smear of ice above the blank section, which had stopped MacLean and Mullin on their previous attempts. Early on Saturday January 15, Nisbet climbed up to the first stance and Davison led through on the critical second pitch. Onlookers were highly impressed as Davison pulled swiftly through the roof, and stepped left around a rib into a vertical groove. The only protection on this section was a warthog and a poor tied-off blade peg and Davison reached the belay ledge after two hours in the lead. On the third pitch, Nisbet took a couple of 5m falls at the blank section, before handing the lead to Davison who managed to place a poor peg and reach a small turf placement and the ice smear above. The ice was thin and almost vertical, but after 15m Davison reached the belay ledge. Nisbet and McGimpsey came up in the dark, and it was then a formality for Nisbet to lead the final pitch to easy ground.

    Mort was graded IX,9 and was rated by Nisbet as the hardest route he had ever climbed, both from a technical and seriousness aspect. The ascent was met with delight through the Scottish climbing scene. It was felt to be entirely appropriate that Davison and Nisbet, who had been associated with the route for so long, should finally climb the route.

    The story of the second ascent last Friday is not mine to tell, so I recommend reading Greg’s graphic first-hand account on his blog. In summary, Guy led the first pitch, with Greg taking the honours with a superb lead of the crux pitch. Unfortunately Greg took a fall when a block came out below the roof, but he completed the pitch cleanly on his second attempt. Guy then completed the route with a smooth lead of the third pitch, which although still being solid Grade VIII, turned out to be more reasonable than its reputation may have suggested.

    It was brilliant to hear Guy confirm afterwards that Mort fully deserved both its Grade IX rating and its place as one of the landmarks in the history of Scottish winter climbing.

    Greg Boswell nearing the end of the main groove on the third pitch of Fancy Free (VII,9) on Lochnagar. This route joins Footloose (VII,8) and Mantichore (VII,7) as an easily accessible technical route with a choice of descents – abseil or a scramble down the easy lower section of Central Buttress. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Greg Boswell nearing the end of the main groove on the third pitch of Fancy Free (VII,9) on Lochnagar. This route forms a trio with Footloose (VII,8) and Mantichore (VII,7) as easily accessible technical routes with a choice of descents – either abseil or scramble down the easy lower section of Central Buttress. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Pete Benson, Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson succeeded on an excellent technical new route on Lochnagar yesterday before the thaw set in.

    “We climbed the obvious groove line parallel to and left of Footloose on Central Buttress to give Fancy Free (VII,9),” Guy told me. “We had intended on bigger things, but the state of the snowpack was such that we couldn’t proceed past the first aid box (there was a good metre of wet slab sitting on a further two layers below!).

    Pete took us up the first pitch of Mantichore, from where I led a short traverse left to climb a short and very technical corner to enter the main groove line.  Fortunately, the protection in the corner was fail-safe as the climbing was extremely precarious (we all fell off!).  Greg then took the reigns and swiftly dispatched the big groove, which provided an outstanding third pitch.

    I’ve had my eye on the line for long enough, so nice to get it done.  It’s an excellent little test piece, which will be in condition with a freeze, and dusting of snow, so it should get some attention I reckon. It’s useful to have good climbing that is accessible in the most treacherous of avalanche conditions.”

     

    Roger Webb moving up to the base of the cave pitch on the first ascent of Insurgent (VI,7) on Sinister Buttress, Lochnagar. This steep buttress is the least climbed feature in the Southern Sector. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb moving up to the base of the cave pitch on the first ascent of Insurgent (VI,7) on Sinister Buttress, Lochnagar. This steep buttress is the least climbed feature in the Southern Sector. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Lochnagar is my local crag, and over the years I have climbed almost all of its features, often by multiple routes. But there was one buttress that had eluded me – Sinister Buttress in the Southern Sector. Greg Strange wrote in his 1978 guidebook that it is “named for its associations and its rock which is lichenous and vegetated.” The term ‘associations’ refers to a bad accident in 1949 when Cairngorm pioneer Kenny Winram fell whilst attempting the first ascent of the buttress. The route was finally climbed in summer by the crack team of Bill Brooker and Tom Patey in 1955. Sinister Buttress is deceptively steep, and twenty years later, mixed master Norman Keir and D.Marden made a futuristic winter ascent approximating to their line.

    With a high freezing level forecast for Sunday December 16, Roger Webb was keen to visit Lochnagar and give Sinister Buttress a go. The result was Insurgent (VI,7), a new and exciting four-pitch line with an intricate second pitch that tested both leader and second alike. We started early, but even so we it was night time by the time we finished on the plateau, well satisfied after finding away up the least known of all Lochnagar’s buttresses.

    The Gravestone

    Craig Lamb on the first ascent of The Gravestone (VI,6) on Clais Rathadan on Lochnagar. This cliff is situated in a hidden gorge to the left of the approach track and is home to two existing routes – Easy Gully (II) and Nae Soup (III,4) – both climbed in March 2001. (Photo Findlay Cranston)

    Craig Lamb and Findlay Cranston made a good addition to Clais Rathadan on December 5, with the first ascent of The Gravestone (VI,6). This little cliff makes a good fall back option of the weather is too wild higher up in the main North-East Coire of Lochnagar.

    “I kicked off my season by plodding into Lochnagar and getting blown back half way up to the Meikle Pap,” Craig told me. “As a result we ended up heading to the wee gorge in the northern tributary of the Allt na Giubhsaich, just off of the land rover track. Been in once before, some good short routes, 30m high, and a good option if the weather is poor up on Lochnagar. We climbed a new route on the ‘stand out’ buttress come slab at the southern end of the gorge. It followed the series of crack lines up the centre of the buttress, steep but on good hooks, before traversing right to an awkward mantle onto a wobbly boulder ledge. From there you step up and traverse left to finish up the steep twin cracks before pulling through a boulder roof. Unfortunately I ran out of quickdraws so had to exit right and was unable to finish up the twin crack, however Findlay Cranston directly up the cracks on second, and they provided and brilliant finish up the plum line on the slab.

    Joel Paterson on the crux tower of Ghost Dance (V,6), on The Cathedral, Lochnagar. This route has enjoyed a fair degree of popularity recently, and together with Quick Dash Crack (IV,5) and Magic Pillar (IV,5), it is one of the most climbed mixed routes in the Southern Sector. (Photo Craig Lamb)

    On Wednesday April 4, Craig Lamb and Joel Paterson took advantage of the recent icy blast with a well-timed visit to the Southern Sector on Lochnagar. After the recent warm temperatures (the week before folk were rock climbing on Dubh Loch) conditions were highly uncertain, but as always in Scottish winter climbing it always pays to go and have a look.

    “It was slow going into the corrie with deep drifts to contend with,” Craig told me. “It took four hours from the car to start of climb, but we arrived at the Meikle Pap, thankful at the sight of well plastered cliffs. We elected for a shot at your route Ghost Dance, after speaking to you in Cotswold Aberdeen about the route being easier than it looked. The crux tower up top didn’t disappoint; good steep climbing, good situation and the promised good hooks with a fitting finish on top of the pinnacle. Perseverance was the name of the game on Wednesday, as the clouds which lingered all day eventually broke around 7pm, leaving us with a fantastic moonlight walk back down to Glen Muick.”

    The Mummy

    Pete Macpherson moving up towards the overlap and crux ramp of The Mummy (VIII,8), a winter version of Mullahmaloumouktou on Lochnagar. “Pete drew the short straw and was soon absorbed in some rather intricate, wobbly and quite pokey climbing to mantel into the right-trending ramp, which led past a token Pecker and shaky peg to a committing mantel onto a little pedestal at its top,” Guy wrote later on his blog. (Photo Guy Robertson)

    Some late news – on January 23 Guy Robertson and Pete Macpherson made the first ascent of The Mummy (VIII,8) on The Cathedral on the Southern Sector of Lochnagar.

    The Mummy is a winter version of Mullahmaloumouktou, a summer E2 first climbed by Dore Green and myself in July 1999. The route follows the zigzag ramps on the mummy-shaped tower at the left end of the crag, and when climbing it in summer I was aware that it would make a good winter climb. I returned the following February with Chris Cartwright (we were on good form and had made the first winter ascent of The Crack on Ben Nevis two weeks before) but after I had pulled over the overlap on the first pitch I was unable to make any further progress. The ramp was covered in a uniform layer of powder and I couldn’t find any placements or cracks for protection. Reversing the overlap was not an option, and teetering on tiny holds it was only a matter of time before I fell off.

    When I eventually fell I was surprised how long it took before the rope came tight, and I came to a stop just above the belay. Three runners had pulled and I was held by a Hex 9. Fortunately I was unhurt (although my back felt jarred for several days afterwards) and we scurried off right and climbed Sepulchre (V,6), an excellent Greg Strange-Brian Findlay addition from 1987.

    The fall made me reassess my approach to winter climbing as I’d taken a long fall the previous season from Red Guard on Carn Etchachan when an axe failed. Once again, several pieces of gear ripped and I fell a long way and was lucky to escape with just a few bruises. These are the only two (significant) winter falls I’ve ever taken and I’ve been particularly careful ever since. The disturbing lesson from my two experiences was that even apparently good protection can pull if the cracks are at all icy.

    Guy and Pete had no problem, of course, on their ascent of The Mummy, although I was a little relieved to hear Guy describe the ramp pitch that I fell off as the crux of the route and rather spicy!

    Iain Small moving up towards the crux section of a new VII,8 on Lochnagar’s West Buttress. Rather perversely, the snowstorm was welcome as it kept the cliff attractively wintry and shielded it from the sun, which typically strips this part of the cliff from mid January onwards. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    West Buttress on Lochnagar sports a number of excellent winter routes, but apart from Black Spout Buttress and West Gully, they are relatively unfrequented. The climbs are long and feel rather committing, but more importantly, this aspect of the corrie faces south-east, and the upper sections of the routes are liable to strip in the sun. Climbing here is always a balance between daylight, recent snowfall and cloud cover.

    West Buttress was attractively white on the morning of Sunday February 19, so Iain Small and I decided to take the gamble that the high cloud would shield the cliff from the sun. After climbing a line to the right of the upper section of Isis with visiting Swedish climber Magnus Stromhall during the Winter Meet, I was aware that there was another line cutting to the left. The problem was how to start it, but on the lower tier, to the right of the initial groove-line of Isis is a well-defined corner cutting into the right edge of the buttress overlooking the entry grooves of Western Slant. This looked good, but it was defended by a very steep and blank-looking corner.

    As always, Iain was up for the challenge, but it soon became clear that even reaching the corner was going to entail some tough climbing. An old wire suggested that someone had tried this way before, but after a little hesitation Iain stepped up into a blank slabby groove and deftly made his way to the foot of the corner. Protection was difficult to arrange, but eventually Iain launched up the crux. With nothing for his feet on the marble-smooth side walls he had to make two consecutive one arm pull ups to surmount the corner and enter the groove above.

    From below it looked like Iain had cracked it, but it soon became clear from his body position that the footholds in the groove were non-existent. Iain was forced to make a long and careful sequence of tenuous moves, moving further and further away from his poor collection of runners a long way below. One tiny crampon slip and he was on for a potentially leg-breaking fall. I couldn’t bear to watch, but eventually Iain reached the sanctuary of good turf and we both breathed again.

    The following four pitches were sustained Grade VI, with good climbing up the square-cut gully of Isis and continuing up the fault and left facing corner above to the top. We finished just as it was getting dark and reached the car at 8pm, some fourteen hours after leaving it. It had been a long, and rather trying day!