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    Iain Small climbing through the storm on the crux pitch of The Wolves Are Running (VII,7) on Ben Nevis. This bold icy mixed route takes the vertical headwall between Rubicon Wall and Atlantis. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Iain Small climbing through the storm on the crux pitch of The Wolves Are Running (VII,7) on Ben Nevis. This bold icy mixed route takes the vertical headwall between Rubicon Wall and Atlantis. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    A direct line up the Observatory Buttress headwall had been on my mind for several years. I’d probed it a couple of times before with Never-Never Land and Atlantis, but it was clear that the true challenge ran straight up the centre of the wall. From afar the headwall looks ominously steep and blank, but I was fairly certain from the earlier forays that there would be a hidden weakness. The only way to find out for sure was to go and have a look.

    As usual, Iain Small was not perturbed by a healthy dose of uncertainty, (although he was a little circumspect about the conditions), so we decided to give it a go on Saturday March 16. Whist the mid level ice routes on the Ben were in exceptional shape, and Observatory Buttress itself looked particularly icy, Iain was not sure about the quality of the thinly plated ice. The minor thaw a couple of weeks before had improved the major lines, but it had lifted the more ephemeral ice just a little from the underlying rock.

    Iain’s hunch was correct of course, for although the first pitch went smoothly enough on well iced slabs, by the time we reached mid-height the going had become rather tenuous with the thin ice easily shattering and leaving blank Nevis rock underneath. This was just about acceptable when the angle was not too great, but as we belayed under the imposing headwall, it was clear that the climbing was now going to step up a notch.

    The crux pitch linked a series of discontinuous grooves, stepping down and left, from corner to corner until a longer groove led up to the final undercut vertical icefall. Iain climbed with absolute precision, and in all my years winter climbing I have never come across anyone else who could have led such a steep, delicate, technical and poorly protected pitch. The ice allowed only a singe hit before it shattered, and sometimes Iain mantled on his lower axe to reach through and avoid the most delicate sections. When he gained the long groove, Iain announced the ice was good, yet when I reached that point I found that the ‘good ice’ was indeed attached to the rock, but it was less than five millimetres thick. The final icefall was also worringly thin, and we reached the Girdle Traverse Ledge in the building storm that swept across the mountain that day, unknowingly bumping into the Point Blank and Night of the White Russians teams.

    After a long discussion we graded the climb ‘bold VII,7’ rather than anything harder, because better ice on the headwall may turn it into a less fragile experience. Nevertheless, The Wolves are Running seemed an appropriate name for a particularly frightening route.

    Iain Small arranging protection below the crux overhang on the first ascent of No Success Like Failure (IX,8) on Ben Nevis. The route continues up the vertical wall above the double roof to exit just right of the overhang on the skyline. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Iain Small arranging protection below the crux overhang on the first ascent of No Success Like Failure (IX,8) on Ben Nevis. The route continues up the vertical wall above the double roof to exit just right of the overhang on the skyline. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    When Iain Small and I climbed Rogue’s Rib on Ben Nevis in March 2011 we were struck by the unclimbed shallow groove to our left. It ran the full height of the buttress and was defended at its base by a large roof and punctuated with several more significant overhangs along its length. Continuous features with such a purity of line are rare on Ben Nevis, and it was immediately clear that this was an outstanding, albeit very difficult, winter objective.

    For me the route was pretty much in fantasy territory, but not so for Iain, who attempted the groove earlier this season with Blair Fyffe. On December 27 they climbed three difficult and sustained pitches before a developing blizzard and impending darkness forced then to make a difficult traverse right to reach Rogue’s Rib and finish up that.

    For most climbers, three new pitches of VIII,8 joining an existing climb near its top would constitute a significant new route, but Iain and Blair were unsure – particularly so, because it was clear that a complete ascent of the groove to its top would result in a route of extraordinary beauty and difficulty.

    Wind forward to the morning of February 2, and Iain and I were discussing route possibilites low down in Coire na Ciste. We were unsure of conditions after the recent wild weather, and had decided to head up into the corrie to assess options with an open mind. After some discussion my proposed line was dismissed as being too easy, and Iain’s too hard, so almost by default we agreed to return to the groove that Iain had tried with Blair a few weeks before.

    We climbed a different first pitch, but otherwise, familiarity with the line meant rapid progress, and by early afternoon Iain was halfway up the third pitch, contemplating the unclimbed crux sequence through a double roof. Below him were 20 metres of scantly protected Tech 8 climbing, but this was a mere taster for what lay ahead. As the groove reared up into the first overhang, the rock blanked out. There were no obvious cracks and Iain spent nearly an hour stood on one foot fighting to place a poor Pecker, a knifeblade and finally a small sideways wire under an overlap.

    The crux sequence involved committing to an upside down dance on poor sloping placements with precision front pointing on millimetre-thick edges. Discovery of a small hidden upside down hook proved to be the key, but even so it was a virtuoso performance by Iain, and with another pitch of Tech 8 to follow, the route was from over.

    Once we were safely down we discussed a name. Iain suggested we use the title of Blair’s blog post describing their previous attempt. No Success Like Failure was the perfect name, and went a little way to acknowledging Blair’s contribution to a truly magnificent winter route.

    The impressive Flake Buttress on Beinn Dearg Mor. The winter line weaves its way up the front face of the buttress at VI,6 via a series of hidden grooves and chimneys. Above is a long connecting ridge with a final two pitches up the buttress in the top left of the photo. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The impressive Flake Buttress on Beinn Dearg Mor. The winter line weaves its way up the front face of the buttress at VI,6 via a series of hidden grooves and chimneys. Above is a long connecting ridge with a final two pitches up the buttress in the top left of the photo. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb and I were keen to make best use of last week’s high pressure, so arranged a visit to Beinn Dearg Mor on Thursday January 24. This remote Corbett hidden behind An Teallach has an attractive north-facing corrie, but the long approach has deterred the majority of visitors. Apart from Roger that is. Inveterate North-West explorer, Roger already had two new winter routes to his name on the mountain.

    The plan was to make a winter ascent of Flake Buttress, a summer Severe first climbed by A.Parker, J.Derris and I.Richards in 1952. Roger has been intrigued by Parker’s exploits in the Northern Highlands for a number of years, and with routes like the improbable Main Buttress on Slioch (climbed solo), they deserve greater recognition. Parker himself stands out as one of the great Scottish mountain explorers of his era.

    For my part, I had wanted to visit the corrie ever since my great friend Chris Cartwright made a the first winter ascent of the impressive Central Buttress (V,5) with Iain Stevens in February 1995.

    As advertised the approach was long, and even though it felt we had made rapid progress, it took five hours before we were standing underneath Flake Buttress. Rearing up like a skyscraper, it was without doubt the finest feature in the corrie. The problem was that we couldn’t see how to climb it, and knowing the pedigree of Parker, his Severe could be anything up to HVS. With pressure mounting we spent an hour of precious daylight climbing the gullies either side of the buttress to scout out a line.

    Roger was confident that once we started it would slot into place, and of course he was right. We used an overhung turfy fault to gain the buttress from the right, and then followed cracks and grooves, more or less up the font face of the buttress, to where the angle eased. Our line had coincided with the guidebook description in part, but we were in for a shock when an unsdescribed narrow ridge led across a neck and onto a big upper buttress.

    Eventually at 6pm we arrived on the summit ridge with nine pitches and nearly 300m of new winter ground below us. Lean conditions in the side gullies meant that our descent option now led over the summit. We were six hours from the car and ten hours from home, and both had work commitments next morning. It was going to be a long day’s night!

    Iain Small pulling out of the constricting chimney at the top of the third pitch of Jib (VIII,8) on Blaven during the first winter ascent. This summer E1 was first climbed by Messers Boysen, Alcock, Clough and MacInnes in May 1969. The imposing wall of Stairway to Heaven (E5) is in the background. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Iain Small pulling out of the constricting chimney at the top of the third pitch of Jib (VIII,8) on Blaven during the first winter ascent. This summer E1 was first climbed by Messers Boysen, Alcock, Clough and MacInnes in May 1969. The imposing wall of Stairway to Heaven (E5) is in the background. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind, and chase your dream. When Iain Small and I climbed on Blaven three years ago we were struck by the soaring corner-line of Jib on the north side of The Great Prow, and vowed to return. Severely undercut at its start, it seemed an unlikely winter prospect, but Iain reminded me of it when we decided to escape the south-easterlies and head to Skye for the weekend. I reckoned that we had a 50% chance of the route being in condition, and then a 50% chance of actually being able to climb it, so it felt as though the odds were well and truly stacked against us.

    Walking up in the dark on Saturday January 19 we were surprised that the scree slope below the face was covered in good neve, rather than loose powder, and we made rapid progress to the base of the route. In the pre-dawn gloom The Great Prow looked black, steep and forbidding, but as it became light we could see that, incredibly, the Jib corner was filled with snow. Our route was on!

    Rather than take the original summer start, which traverses in from the right, we started up the overhanging crack of Stairway to Heaven. This led to the infamous Jib traverse, but a helpful banking of semi-consolidated snow led into the corner. Iain then made an impressive lead up the overhanging crack and fierce offwidth above. We had brought a double set of large Camalots, but even so these were not big enough to protect the technical crux. By using a sling to retract the trigger, Iain managed to place a cam at full stretch in a tenuous placement at the back of the crack before launching up a series of desperate unprotected moves to the belay.

    Above loomed a constricting overhanging chimney-slot. I fought, cursed and cried my way up this, ripping my jacket as I popped out, like cork from a bottle, below an overhanging wide crack. A steep layback move and I flopped onto snow leading up to a small shoulder and a welcome flat ledge. The summer route steps back right from here into a groove, but it was logical to continue up the right-slanting corner line above. We made the top just as it was becoming dark, but there was still time to scamper down Scuppers Gully before we needed our head torches.

    To wind down next day (January 20) we visited a crag that Iain had spotted a couple of years before low on the south-east side of Beinn Sgritheall. We climbed the obvious line up its centre, a good three-pitch V,5 chockstoned gully. Our bodies were tired after the full body pump the day before, and other times we may have rushed down for a second route, but we were content to call it a day, and make a leisurely descent (in daylight for a change) to the car and the long drive home.

    Roger Webb pulling through the roof on the crux roof of Tempting Fate (V,6) in Coire Ruadh on Braeriach. The climbing potential of this rarely visited corrie on the north side of the mountain has been largely ignored until recently. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb pulling through the crux roof on the first ascent of Tempting Fate (V,6) in Coire Ruadh on Braeriach. The climbing potential of this rarely visited corrie on the north side of the mountain has been largely ignored until recently. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    We had big plans for a route in one of the great east facing corries of Braeriach, but despite a good forecast, the weather had other ideas. When Roger Webb and I started cycling up Glen Einich early on Sunday morning (January 13) it was already starting to snow and by the time we left the shelter of the forest we had to put on goggles to see into the full frontal blizzard.

    On the long walk towards the plateau we reassessed our options. Plan A rapidly became a less committing Plan B, and when that too seemed overly optimistic in the blowing storm, we opted for an even easier Plan C. Even so, it took over five hours to reach our crag in Coire Ruadh on the north side of the mountain. We were cold and tired after being knocked about by the wind, so we rapidly set about climbing a straightforward-looking mixed groove to salvage the day and start the descent as soon as possible. As I started leading the first pitch, Roger wryly commented we were a ‘hostage to fortune’ given the inclement weather.

    But as we started climbing, our luck began to change. Our mixed groove was great fun, and although it was steeper than it looked, it was blessed with so many hooks, spikes and little pinnacles that we only needed slings for protection. We finished our new III,4 as the sky began to clear, so ‘tempting fate’ I suggested to Roger that we try another route.

    This time, the climbing was even better, but technically harder, and we both had to think hard during our leads of the second and third pitches. The protection was so good (Friends this time rather than slings) that we couldn’t grade it more than V,6, but when we reached the top it was almost dark. Fortunately we had taken a GPS reading of the top of the descent gully leading down to Glen Einich, and as we descended the hard frozen snow, the wind dropped and the stars came out. “You know, we wouldn’t have felt fulfilled if we’d gone down after that first route,” Roger observed as we reached the car at the end of our 14-hour day. And of course, he was right.

    Henning Wackerhage on the first ascent of The Art of Growing Old Gracefully, a new Grade III,4 gully in Corrie Farchal, Glen Clova. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Henning Wackerhage on the first ascent of The Art of Growing Old Gracefully, a new Grade III,4 gully in Corrie Farchal, Glen Clova. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    January 1 was forecast to be a good day in the East, so Henning Wackerhage and I arranged to meet up in Glen Clova. We both had (party) commitments the night before which we meant we couldn’t meet up before 10am, but if we were quick and efficient we thought, we may get a route in before it became dark.

    I had a hunch that Corrie Farchal may have survived the brief thaw the day before, and sure enough once we rounded the corrie lip it was frozen hard and white with new snow from earlier in the morning. I’d visited the corrie last season with Roger Everett, and knew that there were three prominent unclimbed lines – a gully, a corner and a buttress – so with conditions close to perfect, we set about the challenge of climbing all three.

    The first two Grade III’s took an hour apiece which left a couple of hours to climb the buttress which weighed in at a more sustained IV,5. We arrived back at the car a little over seven hours after we’d set off, with nine pitches and over 400 metres of new ground in the bag. It just goes to show that good weather and amenable conditions can be everything when it comes to the Scottish winter game!

    Roger Webb on the final section (common with The Blood is Strong) on a new Grade III on Cregan Cha-no on Cairngorm on December 30. This photo was taken during a slight lull in the wind – storm conditions persisted throughout the day and the route was ironically named Captain Fairweather. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Roger Webb on the final section (common with The Blood is Strong) on a new Grade III on Creagan Cha-no on Cairngorm on December 30. This photo was taken during a slight lull in the wind – storm conditions persisted throughout the day and the route was ironically named Captain Fairweather. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    The weather over the Christmas –New Year holiday period was very challenging with high winds putting the hills out of bounds for much of the time (for sensible folk at least). Rather frustratingly, the fluctuating temperatures were on the cool side and conditions at mid-height across many of the ranges were very good, with well-frozen turf, neve and ice.

    December 27 was the best day and several teams were busy on Ben Bevis. Iain Small and Blair Fyffe added a difficult new pitch to the left of Rogue’s Rib and Michael Barnard and Ron Dempster added a good new finish to Jacknife on The Douglas Boulder. The Off Road Finish (IV,4) steps down and left from the belay at the end of pitch two, climbs the corner at the back of the ledge and continue up through the obvious square-cut chimney above.

    I ventured into the hills on December 30 with Roger Webb, rather hoping that the forecast 80mph winds with 100mph gusts were an exaggeration. We decided to play it safe and make a visit to Creagan Cha-no on Cairn Gorm, which is probably the crag with the shortest approach in Scotland. But even a few hundred metres from the car park we were being blown off our feet. Rather stubbornly (and stupidly perhaps) we continued, reasoning that the east-facing cliff would be sheltered from the westerly winds. Unfortunately this was not the case, and the cliff was a maelstrom of blowing spindrift – the day quickly became a matter of climb something quick and get down as soon as possible.

    We climbed the prominent rib to the right of the groove of The Blood is Strong which takes in several technical and steep steps. “This is not a day to break a leg,” Roger reminded me as I struggled on the steep initial wall, and we emerged on to the plateau after two pitches in a whiteout facing into the gale. Roger had wisely put on his goggles below, but as soon as I dug mine out of my sack they immediately filled with snow and ice.

    The navigation back to the car was technically easy – we knew we had to travel due west for about a kilometre until we hit a ski fence and then turn south, but walking straight into the wind was almost impossible, and made doubly worse for me as I could barely see through my now useless goggles. For a few minutes I thought that we were going to have to crawl, and the situation reminded me of descending Cerro Torre in a storm ten years ago. But soon enough we found the ski fence, dropped a little height and if it wasn’t for our stinging cheeks and eyes, we would have wondered what all the fuss had been about.

    For all those brave and determined enough to succeed on a winter route, whatever the grade, over the holiday period, I salute you. The Scottish hills really bared their teeth, and the weather conditions at times were as challenging as you are likely to meet anywhere else in the world.

    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.

    Broadcaster extraordinaire, Chris Sleight, recording an interview on the summit ridge of Ben Cruachan. A keen winter climber, Chris is responsible for the @ScotWinter Twitter feed, which is an excellent tool for staying bang up to date with the latest posts from Scottish winter climbing blogs – including scottishwinter.com – together with on the spot mountain reports from other Twitter users. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    On Friday December 7, Chris Sleight from the BBC and I climbed a new 150m-long III,4 buttress route on Ben Cruachan as part of a programme for Radio Scotland. With heavy snow at the end of last week making approaches difficult, it was a tough call to find an appropriate venue, but with a cliff base at 650m, the north-facing cliffs on Sron na Isean had just the right altitude and aspect.

    The Out of Doors Scottish Winter Special goes out on BBC Radio Scotland on Saturday December 22 from 6.30 to 8.00am and will also feature Andy Nisbet, Heather Morning, Di Gilbert and Geoff Monk. It will be repeated on Sunday December 23 at 11am and will be in the iPlayer for a week after broadcast. The programme’s web page is http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0074hjr

    Titan Cracks

    Helen Rennard on the second pitch of Titan Cracks, a new V,6 on South Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis. Steep mixed routes high on the Ben were in good condition last weekend with the cliffs coated in a layer of aerated hoar frost. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    There was a clutch of good mixed routes climbed on Ben Nevis last week, and I expected the mountain to be busy on Saturday December 1. Helen Rennard and I were attending the SMC dinner that evening in Fort William, so we decided to head up to the Upper Tier of South Trident Buttress which has a series of good three-pitch long mixed routes.

    We climbed the steep cracked pillar between Poseidon Grooves and Triton Corners finishing up the continuation spur above. The climbing was a little intimidating at first, with a deep layer of hoar frost burying the cliff, but I soon realised that it brushed off easily revealing some good hooks in the initial chimney-crack. Helen made a fine lead of the corner above, and the continuation spur made a fine finish.

    We topped out on the plateau in good time, but somehow we dawdled on the way down, and it was the usual last minute rush to put on our glad rags ready for the dinner!