Scottish winter climbing news

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    Doug Hawthorn pulling through the final steep crack of Slanting Gully on the North Face of Sgurr a’Mhadaidh on Skye. (Photo Iain Small)

    Doug Hawthorn pulling through the final steep crack of Slanting Gully (VI,7) on the North Face of Sgurr a’Mhadaidh on Skye. (Photo Iain Small)

    On January 24, Iain Small visited Skye with Doug Hawthorn and made the first complete winter ascent of Slanting Gully on Sgurr a’Mhadaidh’s North Face. The route passes over Foxes Rake at half height and had previously been climbed to this point by Mike Lates and T.Hanly in December 2004.

    “We crossed the Rake and finished up the top half in three long pitches,” Iain told me. “It gave a good mixed, and even icy fault, with a steep crack for Doug on the final pitch. The summer description has the line weaving around the fault line but we tackled it direct – a better option in winter! On the day it seemed about VI,7 with some helpful consolidated snow. We were surprised to see plenty of footprints around the Coire, but what a great choice. Everyone must have felt charmed finding those conditions; it’s a wholly different experience to find such great conditions on Skye compared with the more established areas. Twice in one week [for me] was a privilege!”

    The line of the 380m-long Curtain Call (III) on the West Face of Window Buttress in Coire na Banachdaich. This cliff is easily approached from the Glen Brittle Hut and has considerable scope for more long winter routes. (Photo Brendan Croft)

    The line of the 380m-long Curtain Call (III) on the West Face of Window Buttress in Coire na Banachdaich on Skye. This cliff is easily approached from the Glen Brittle Hut and has considerable scope for more long winter routes. (Photo Brendan Croft)

    Skye guide and guidebook author Mike Lates organised a highly successful winter meet based at the BMC Hut in Glen Brittle from January 18-21. Conditions were close to perfect, and Mike’s highly informative blog covers the activity on the meet.

    Highlights included a new ice line on the southern face of Sgurr Dearg’s West Ridge – Away from the Crowd (IV), and a mass ascent of Hubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble, a 500m-long III,5 on the right edge of Waterpipe Gully. James Sutton and Ben Wear made the first winter ascent of Dyke Gully and Buttress (V,6) on Sgurr a’Mhadaidh’s North Face, and Steve Perry and Antoni Anderson added South End, an attractive looking IV,5 to Caisteal a’Garbh-Choire. On the final day, Mike Lates and partner visited the ‘daunting’ North face of Mhadaidh and made the first winter ascent of Vixen Groove (V,5).

    A couple of new routes were added to the West Face of Window Buttress in Coire na Banachdaich, which directly faces the Glen Brittle hut – Perspex Groove (IV,4) by  Andy Moles and Iain Murray and Curtain Call (III) by Brendan Croft and Paul Cunningham.

    “There is only one other winter line recorded on the face,” Brendan told me, “which seems incredible given its proximity to the hut. However, snow conditions low down were exceptional at the weekend so maybe we got lucky. Paul and I started at the foot of the descent route and expected to be at the top in around four pitches. However, the route just kept on going and we ended up doing it in eight rope lengths, the majority of which was grade II ground, with one steeper section on pitch three. With a short approach, acres of rock and a simple descent, the West Face seems like an ideal venue for anyone looking for long, easy-angled routes.”

    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.

    Dave Almond making an early repeat of Tuberculosis (VI,6) on Stob Coire nan Lochan. This rarely climbed two-pitch route takes the steep groove right of Crest Route and was first ascended by Dave Hollinger and Guy Willett in February 2004. (Photo Helen Rennard)

    Dave Almond making an early repeat of Tuberculosis (VI,6) on Stob Coire nan Lochan. This rarely climbed two-pitch route takes the steep groove right of Crest Route and was first ascended by Dave Hollinger and Guy Willett in February 2004. (Photo Helen Rennard)

    Last week (December 10-14) was undoubtedly the week of the winter so far. Heavy snowfall was consolidated by a mini-thaw the previous weekend followed by stable cold weather with no wind and blue skies.

    Several of the major events have already been reported on – Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell’s first ascent of the Vapouriser (VIII,9) on Creag an Dubh Loch, Martin Moran and Pete Macpherson’s third ascent of Steeple (IX,9) on the Shelter Stone and Andy Nisbet and Brain Davison’s good run of new routes in Glen Coe and An Teallach.

    The Cuillin Ridge came into good conditions and four teams made the winter traverse. Both Scott Kirkhope and Ken Applegate and John Orr and Ronnie made a traditional outing with a bivouac, whilst the Fort William-based team of Guy Steven, Donald King, Kenny Grant and Duncan made a lightning-quick traverse in only 12 hours. This is very respectable time for a summer ascent and the team was aided by King’s intimate knowledge of the route. All these ascents were widely reported on various blogs and Twitter, but more impressive perhaps was a solo traverse by Barry Smyth with one bivouac. The Cuillin Ridge has been traversed in winter solo before, but to do it mid-winter with precious little daylight and long nights takes a very special resolve.

    Dave Almond had a good run of routes with Helen Rennard. They started off with The Secret/Cornucopia Combination (VII,8) on Ben Nevis, followed by Tyrannosaur (VI,7) on Lost Valley Buttress in Glen Coe. On their third day they climbed Sidewinder (VII,8) on the Ben and finished off their four-day spell with an early repeat of Tuberculosis (VI,7) on Stob Coire an Lochan. Dave then teamed up with Guy Steven and Blair Fyffe to climb Sticil Face (V,6) on the Shelter Stone with the Direct Finish.

    Skye Sea-Cliffs & Outcrops, authored by Mark Hudson, has recently been published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Although this is primarily a rock climbing guide, it is the only guidebook to describe the recently developed winter climbing on The Storr and Coire Scamadal. The cover photo shows Mike Hutton’s photo of Man of Straw (VS 4c) on Neist Point. (Reproduced with permission of the Scottish Mountaineering Club)

    Hard on the heels of Skye The Cuillin, the SMC have recently published a new guidebook to the outcrops and sea cliffs of Skye. Authored by Mark Hudson, this is a carefully written and beautifully illustrated book that opens up a myriad of climbing opportunities on this fascinating island. Like many SMC guidebooks this is a labour of love and Mark’s enthusiasm for the island, and its huge variety of climbing, jumps off every page.

    Although mainly a rock climbing guide, a review of this book does have a place on this blog as it includes descriptions of the winter climbing in Coire Scamadal. This recently developed venue is considered by several well-travelled ice warriors to be the finest ice climbing venue in Scotland. The carefully researched History section explains that Vertigo Gully (VI,7) was the given its technical grade by the first ascensionists (Martin Welch and Stewart Anderson) because “it was harder than any Scottish [ice] route or any WI,6 on the continent that the team had climbed. It makes this the hardest pure ice in Britain but will clearly vary with conditions.” Is this route set to be the modern equivalent if West Central Gully on Beinn Eighe, long thought to be the hardest gully climb in the land?

    Naturally the guidebook details well-known rock venues such as Kilt Rock and Elgol, but also included are the excellent-looking mountain dolerite cliffs of Carn Liath in Trotternish, which have been developed over the years by Mark Hudson and Roger Brown. I was particularly struck by the number of superb looking climbs on the sea cliffs at Neist. Like many climbers I’d visited the area years ago, and climbed the classic Supercharger on Stallion’s head, but not realised that Colin Moody and friends had been busy opening up hundreds of excellent looking routes on peerless looking rock on the adjacent cliffs.

    Skye sports a complex and rugged coastline with several dozen sea stacks. This is the first book that gives these a comprehensive treatment, and will open up the challenges of these spectacular formations to a wider audience. Mark has even included a tick list of stacks at the back of the book, and I was tickled to see that Stac an Tuill, which Mark Robson and I reached with an epic 800m swim, is described as one of the most inaccessible stacks in Scotland and “it would be quite unsporting to use a boat.” Who needs winter when you can continue ‘mountaineering’ through the summer with objectives like these!

    John Higham approaching Am Basteir on the first day of a two-day traverse of the Cuillin Ridge in March 2010. Sgurr a’Fionn Choire is the rocky peak on the left. (Photo Iain Young)

    So, what were you doing in early March 2010?

    You may well have been climbing on the Ben – the Minus Face was superbly iced at the time – but another venue that was in prime winter condition was The Cuillin on Skye. Iain Young has recently compiled a fascinating video of a two-day traverse of the Cuillin Ridge he made with John Higham on 10-11th March 2010. Not only does this provide an insight into what it takes to complete one of the country’s most sought after mountaineering objectives, it also captures the full Scottish winter climbing experience – waking up in the car at 3am in the morning, incomparable sunrise views, tricky mixed climbing, persevering in poor visibility and a spindrift-filled bivouac. So, for some inspiration as the new winter season fast approaches, take a look at Iain’s words below and click on the link to watch the video.

    “The traverse itself wasn’t flawless – for example we missed out the Inaccessible Pinnacle as the weather was closing in fast and we were fast running out of time – but as a mountain experience it was close to perfect. For me at least, it was the end of a quest that had started more than 30 years ago. In that time, half of which was spent living overseas, I kept searching for that combination of fitness, free time from work and family, like-minded partner, weather and conditions, which is almost unattainable. When I was a student, this was compounded by the lack of a car.

    Previous attempts are almost as memorable as the eventual execution – dossing on the tarmac in darkness and drizzle in the Kyle car park waiting for a ferry, terrified we’d be squashed by a parking lorry; walking towards an Andean Cuillin, glimpsed between the clouds as an approaching warm front started to strip the ridge before our eyes; driving north in a blizzard that turned to torrential rain on Skye and then sliding the car off the road above Tyndrum in another snowstorm on the way home; reaching a plastered Ridge in perfect weather but unable to make any significant progress due to conditions of deep powder over bare rock…

    Eventually, sitting at work in Aberdeen one Monday in March 2010, with the weather fast improving and having been cold for days, I emailed John who I think had just spent the weekend climbing on Meagaidh. After some ‘will we/won’t we’ discussions, we cancelled everything for the next two days, I nipped off home at four to get gear, drove off over the Lecht and so to Sligachan. Taking my car at Glen Brittle beach we grabbed a few hours sleep in the back of John’s car back at Sligachan, before the all too familiar, all too early, alarm.

    The first day was simply sublime, the second was very, very Scottish. Much of the Ridge was new to us, and while that added to the experience, it for sure also added to the time. The continuity of the seriousness (the snow was very, very firm underfoot) was both surprising and impressive. The Ridge in winter is truly an Alpine undertaking, yet set in the middle of the Sea of the Hebrides, and while there is much in the mountains of the world that is harder, I’m not sure anything could be better.”


    Skye The Cuillin, authored by Mike Lates, has just been published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club. The cover photo shows Captain Planet (E4) on the Basteir Tooth. This prominent summit, and the neighbouring Am Basteir, come into winter condition quickly and are home to several modern test-pieces such as Hung, Drawn and Quartered (VIII,8) and Shadbolt’s Chimney (VI,7). (Reproduced with permission of the Scottish Mountaineering Club)

    I’ll start off by stating that I’m not particularly qualified to review this new guidebook. An infrequent visitor to Skye, I’ve only climbed a handful of routes in the Cuillin, and I only finally got around to traversing the Ridge in September last year. In winter my record is even more sparse, and I’ve only succeeded on a single route. My unfamiliarity is partly because I’ve always found the Cuillin rather confusing – the myriad of corries with access from different points requires a deep knowledge of the area, especially if winter climbing is in the agenda – so I was intrigued to see if this new guide to the Cuillin would improve my knowledge of the geography of the range.

    Authored by local mountain guide and enthusiastic Skye aficionado Mike Lates, the new SMC guidebook to the Cuillin is a complete re-write of the previous volume (published in 1996). Mike has done an outstanding job demystifying the Cuillin massif through the use of clear route descriptions, and close to a hundred detailed crag and (all-revealing) crag location photodiagrams. The book has been edited by Brian Davison, and has been beautifully laid out by Susan Jensen, all under the watchful eye of SMC production supremo Tom Prentice. At 320 pages, the book is slimmer and more compact than the last edition and fits comfortably in a rucksack or jacket pocket.

    Mike’s route descriptions are clear, and he goes out of his way to help the reader. For example, his description of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse is both helpful and informative, and unlike some other guidebooks, it does not make you feel inadequate if you’re unable to match Shadbolt and MacLaren’s first ascent time and complete the route under 12 hours. Mike makes a sensible analysis of what constitutes a successful traverse, recommends a multi-corrie reconnaissance campaign and suggests a more realistic time of 12 to 16 hours for the final attempt. He sets out a winter traverse strategy too, which is essential reading for those planning to attempt the ultimate mountaineering expedition in the British Isles.

    I was surprised at the number of winter routes included in the book. Alongside the well-publicised ascents by Mick Fowler, there have been 70 winter additions in recent years, mainly by Dave Ritchie and Mike Lates himself, who both clearly understand the interplay of winter conditions on these mountains. The number of deep clefts and gullies slicing through the Cuillin make it ideal mixed winter terrain when north-westerlies have filled these prominent features with snow or rimed the exposed crests with hoar.

    So after a couple of weeks of study, no longer do the Cuillin feel quite so terra incognita. I’ve heard enthusiastic and positive feedback from other climbers too, so I’m sure that this excellent guidebook will inspire countless summer and winter adventures for many years to come.

    Alasdair Fulton on the first ascent of The War Path (VI,6), Coire Scamadal, Trotternish, Skye. (Photo Ben Weir)

    The vertical basalt cliffs of Coire Scamadal on the north side of The Storr in Skye are dripping wet most of the year but have the potential to be a natural ice trap. Facing north-east, and easily visible from the main road north of Portree, they have attracted the attention of ice climbers over the years, but most have been thwarted by their relatively low altitude and proximity to the sea. They were eventually breached by Mike Lates who climbed an icy gully cutting through their left side in two instalments in the late 1990s. Scamtastic (V,5) saw a second ascent by Mick Fowler and Dave Turnbull last season.

    Well aware of the potential of the corrie, Mike was determined to return as soon as conditions became good. The cliff started to ice through December, and finally after New Year the ice was thick enough to climb. On the January 4, Mike enlisted Andy Huntington for the first ascent of Top Scam (V,6), the central ice line topped by an ice umbrella. Lates returned four days later with Martin Welch to add Scamadaladingdong (IV,6), the prominent icy recess to the right of Scamtastic.

    Other teams had been alerted to the potential, and on Saturday January 9, Robin Clothier and Doug Hawthorn picked The Fine Line (VI,6), the plum route on the cliff up the vertical ice sheet on the imposing right side of the cliff. Whilst Robin and Doug were engrossed on their route, Alasdair Fulton, James Sutton and Ben Weir attempted the 140m-high central ice line right of Top Scam. They were beaten back by a wet first pitch and saved the day with the third ascent of Scamtastic, determined to return early next morning.

    “The walk in was quicker this time,” Alasdair told me. “But we were not quick enough to beat Doug and Robin. They were making swift tracks towards our route until they doubled back and aimed for another unclimbed line – our previous tracks fooling them into thinking we had climbed it the previous day! This time I was going old school – Goretex instead of soft shell – and this time the first pitch was a success. It was pumpy, technical and steep. Still wet in the cave, but not enough to dampen the fire! Ben took over for pitch two, but James was still pumped from seconding with the pack, so I got the final pitch. It was harder than I anticipated, 85 degree ice and not as good for screws or feet. At one point both feet ripped…”

    Whilst Fulton, Sutton and Weir were engaged on The War Path (VI,6), Robin and Doug climbed The Shard (VI,6), the huge hanging cigar to the right of Scamadaladingdong. After a brief thaw, Martin Welch and Stewart Anderson returned three days later and climbed Vertigo Gully (VI,7), the prominent incised corner on the right of the cliff whilst Doug and Ben climbed the equally impressive Slilverpine (VI,7) up the hanging chimney to the right of The Fine Line. This concluded a remarkable ten days of development and the establishment of one of Scotland’s steepest ice climbing areas. No doubt these superb routes will attract considerable attention next time we have a major freeze.

    Iain Small on the second pitch of The Great Prow (VII,8) on Blaven, Skye. Exceptionally snowy conditions brought the route into unusual winter condition. (Photo Simon Richardson)

    Iain Small and I were very fortunate to visit Skye last Sunday January 10. The Cuillins looked magnificent in their winter garb, but travel looked difficult with feet of snow and plumes of spindrift on the Ridge. We ploughed up through thigh-deep snow on  Blaven looking for something icy to climb, but were drawn to The Great Prow that was draped in powder. It gave an absorbing winter climb that become increasingly icy as we reached the top. The crux was as per the summer route and overall we felt the route to be VII,8. We finished in the dark and gingerly down climbed Scuppers Gully, fearful that it would avalance, before starting the long slippery drive home.