15 09 2015

Rounding the crest of Quinag’s summit, the wind suddenly petered out, turning my buffeted swagger into a wonderful moment of calm contemplation.  The great “flower pot” peaks of Assynt were laid bare to my south, their stark forms carved out in succession; a troop of Torridonian Red sentinels.  To my north was that Land of the Lost – the vast and empty swathe of western Sutherland, not a sentinel in sight, just barren Gneiss and endless seascape.  There’s only about twenty or so miles of coast from here to Cape Wrath, but amongst the myriad of kinks, curves and swirls in the rocky coastline is surely at least one lifetime’s worth of exploring.

The view across to The Skull from the top of Barrell Buttress

The view across to The Skull from the top of Barrell Buttress

This was my first exploratory mission to what I’d affectionately dubbed ‘Skull Buttress’.  Adrian and I had spotted the crag when getting pictures for Great Mountain Crags a couple of years previously.  You wouldn’t notice it without climbing on Barrell Buttress, which is exactly what we’d been doing.  Predictably, Andy Nisbet had done a route somewhere nearby, but it was quite clear that with a grade of HVS his line didn’t tackle the cliff we had seen.  It had been almost too much to take in at the time – a tapered 20m lower wall led to some broken grassy ledges and then this almighty sweep of seemingly blank overhanging rock.  There’s no such thing as blank, of course, so I’d snapped a load of pictures knowing full well I’d return.

A closer view, with myself following and Adam Russell belaying on what was to become Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

A closer view, with myself following and Adam Russell belaying on what was to become Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

And return I did – half a dozen times over the course of the summer – first inspecting, cleaning, piecing together the most obvious lines, then eventually climbing a couple of them without incident.  With temperatures mostly in the low teens and rarely a dry spell of more than one or two days it was probably the worst year in recent memory to decide to try and climb some hard new lines on a high north facing cliff.  But hey, no reward without sacrifice.  To finally lead the first two lines on this awe-inspiring wall was well worth all the long hours driving, carrying the 100m static up over the summit, hoofing turf off the ledges and generally committing to the cause.

I was fortunate enough to have my good friend and photographer Colin Threlfall make the pilgrimage up north from the southern tip of Skye (about the same distance as travelling from Aberdeen!!) so here’s some pictures and impressions of the first routes on Skull Buttress.  If anyone fancies going up for a look give us a shout and I’ll give you the beta – I’ve cleaned another two lines (the obvious cracks left and right, which I’ve yet to find dry) and would appreciate getting a chance to try a climb them next season…

Jurassic Spark – E7 5c, 6b

I footered about at the top of the cliff, rigging the now-familiar anchors.  Then all of a sudden Jason pipes up “Hey man, I’m really not feeling too clever you know”.  “Aye, it’s a pretty spooky place eh?!” My response was, well, less-than-sympathetic.  “Have a shit Jas, you’ll be fine”.  Fortunately for the both of us, he did, and he was.

Adam below the difficulties on the first pitch of Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

Adam below the difficulties on the first pitch of Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

The first pitch went well, despite the steepness and the unfamiliar ground – maybe E3 or 4 or thereabouts.  A few pulls led up to a dwindling foot traverse out onto the left side of the lower wall, where twin cracks grabbed the eye and afforded a plentiful supply of protection.  Despite only being a few metres off the belay, the great slash of the gully opening out below the wall meant the exposure was already most breath taking.  Jason followed, very ‘focused’ not pausing much to savour the atmosphere.  Maybe my two previous visits had broken the ice, while he was still struggling with small talk.  Or maybe that booming flake I had been forced to pull on had given him a bit of a fright.

The second pitch, however, provided the real meat – a super-direct voyage through the very heart of The Skull.  Ten metres of poorly protected wall climbing led to the first break and the first respite, from where previous investigations had revealed the fight proper would likely commence.  On this occasion, I’d spent a good twenty minutes on the way down using a spare T-shirt to mop wetness from the handholds, but already as I craned my neck upwards I could see the deadly weeps were re-appearing.  No matter, these are the breaks, and another visit without a route to show for it wasn’t high on my agenda.  Tiny laybacks, a big span to a tiny edge with the right hand, match left hand and foot, swap feet and cross back through left onto micro crozzles and…hopefully….yes! Good flake.  It was more luck than strong fingers that saw me moving up to the second break.

Another view of Adam on the first pitch...

Another view of Adam on the first pitch…

More wetness there, and a lot more uncertainty, as I struggled to find recovery before the second and longest of the three hard sections.  I tried in vain to dry wet boots, wishing I’d taken more time to figure out the protection.  Could I climb up and place gear, then climb back down to rest? Or would that be self-defeating?  And what size of RP did that little crack take again??  Far too many questions this late in the day….But as the crack peters out there’s no room for questions anyway – stopping will surely mean falling, as forearms start to burn…

A rush of blood, a torrid hand swap and a huge lunge up and right to a sloper brings a decent Camelot and the sanctuary of the third and final break. Those ledges ten metres or so along the break to my left are looking appealing but it’s maybe only twenty feet or so to the top now, and a good line never goes sideways.  All that remains is this weird ‘sandstone tufa’ feature – like a little white egg timer – slightly hollow, but essentially sound.  Up this gingerly, little crimps on either side, to where more protection leads to a final technical kick in the teeth.  Forty metres of rope hangs heavy below. Cross through again, right toe tapping hopefully along the blank rock, searching for purchase.  Then “Slap!”.  There we go!  The reassuring sound and puff of white chalk as tight skin connects with rough flat sandstone.

Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

Land of the Lost and Found – E7 6a, 6b/c

I’d not been too optimistic after rapping the smooth right side of the wall.  First off, Phil had nabbed all the cleaning kit, so I was left looking and feeling but not really understanding the lie of the land.  One or two big flakes wedged into horizontal breaks would need to be excavated and provide protection if the line was to be made vaguely safe.  On that first day it was also barely above freezing, and the crag was wet – very wet.  But another visit on my own – complete with Powerstretch sallopettes and down jacket – yielded just enough gear and holds to make the Lost become Found.  The start would be dangerous, but then protection it seemed would gradually improve with height – fortuitously, as so did the difficulty!  What was clear was that the underlying rock and the climbing looked immaculate – crozzly crimps, micro edges, slots, layaways and wonderfully rough big flatties carved into the blankness.  This was ancient sandstone, but none of your typical rounded breaks, and not a single jam in sight.

A return visit with The Jack was again thwarted by a number of persistent seeps, particularly on the lower crag which had never really dried out all summer.  The occasion was put to good use, however, with a link on the shunt after chalking up the holds.  Hmmmm – maybe F7c-ish climbing, not as pumpy as the central line but with some harder moves high up.  Perfect!

Finally in early September the long-awaited ‘dry spell’ materialised.  All five days of it.  The temperature didn’t break twenty degrees but the lack of rain was enough to have me gunning for a midweek partner and make the long drive north again.  Adam Russell duly obliged.  I’d met Adam on a trip to Pabbay and Mingulay the previous summer, one of a talented but very down to earth tribe of climbing youth from in and around Dundee.  I was immediately drawn to their uncomplicated drive and enthusiasm and their ‘give it a go’ attitude. I figured if I fluffed it high on the second pitch (a possibility) Adam might at least give it a go.  I’d probably rather that than go home empty-handed. Anyway, there was also the not insignificant issue of the steep first pitch.

A close up of Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

A close up of Land of the Lost and Found (E7)

Nothing short of a gale blew us up over the summit, and it still managed to catch us as we abseiled down the line.  No 100m static this time, just two half ropes and a monster rack.  A quick sniff revealed that the bottom pitch was indeed dry – the first time I’d seen it so.  The rock felt cold and sharp, but also rough and sticky.  I watched Adam closely as he picked his way into and up the stepped overhanging groove, a short length of rope with his wire brush dangling out behind him showing the angle.  The gear looked good, but the noises he was making and the increasing rapidity of his movement suggested the holds maybe weren’t.  As I arrived at his belay below the headwall my fingers flushed through with burning hot aches.

So this was it.  Thirty five metres of climbing, all hard, but with the crux right at the top.  I knew I’d only get one chance, certainly this season.  But what do I do if I fall at the last hurdle?  I couldn’t afford to let that happen.  Pulling onto the tenuous opening moves and soon leaving a solitary Peenut behind, within a few carefully executed moments I’m onto the No Fall Zone.  Then two good pieces and everything’s a bit more relaxed.

At the first break, cheeks pressed against the cold, dry rock, I can feel the cold wind whipping up from the gully below.  I open my eyes and contrast the cold with the warm and golden sunshine caressing the mossy bog in the glen below.  It looks so beautiful and stress-free down there; soft, warm and comfortable  Pressing hard up right from a heel hook in a jug to a small damp gaston, knee on for balance, then up onto a side-pull and a tiny brass offset out right.  It feels solid, I think.  Then slow and steady edging on tiny crozzles and notches to a long stretch up and right to the next good holds and proper protection.  Those big flat holds, poor feet, long reaches – just brilliant, utterly brilliant climbing.

A birdseye view up the headwall

A birds eye view up the headwall

And there I am at the final break, kissing the rock again, dropping the weight onto my heels to squeeze the juice back into my forearms. Breathing, relaxing. There’s that soft, warm and welcoming view away down in the glen again, set starkly against the sharp reality of the moment.  But it’s a great feeling, worth waiting for, and worth savouring.

Coming down off the summit of Quinag - one of the best little mountains around

Coming down off the summit of Quinag – one of the best little mountains around


6 02 2015
Approaching the cliff

Approaching the cliff with the great roof-capped groove up left of the two climbers

It was in large part a wonderfully diverse, vibrant and inspiring rainbow of characters that really appealed to me when I started out winter climbing. Images of the ‘old man’ Marshall holding court over a simmering Dixie, amongst a gaggle of muscle-bound shipyard workers in some draughty cave in Arrochar; of the old fox MacInnes stumbling into the CIC Hut from a blizzard, his trousers all torn, brandishing some home-made ice weaponry for his next vertical battle; or of Dr Tom, replete with tricounis, tartain shirt and woolly jumper, fighting ice-clad granite rocks and hypothermia on Lochnagar. These guys were like Centurions or Gladiators to me, and their heroic tales, well polished by the passing of time, were a tremendous source of inspiration.

My own climbing partner during those formative years – Fred Brown – was himself a character very much of this gnarly howff-dwelling ilk. This was a man who laid caches of food, whisky and other nefarious substances in strategic locations across the length and breadth of the Cairngorms – all in the name of “geographical research”. And who famously climbed Douglas Gibson Gully in winter wearing a pair of floppy Hi-Tech trainers. I recall another particularly grisly episode – also on Lochnagar – where we climbed Parallel Gully B together on a wild winter’s day. Fred had decided to field-test a pair of leather, studded-knuckle Hummel Doddies believing they might provide greater protection for hands bashed repeatedly against the ice, whilst allowing greater dexterity when fiddling with gear. But alas, his concept was failed from the outset, and on returning to our rucksacks after our successful ascent we marvelled at the continuous streak of red snow running up the lower chimney.

Fred gave up climbing shortly after we both left University, and sadly I’ve seen him rarely since then, but there was an inherent wildness and sense of liberty about him that inspires me to this day.

Just as the tales, heroics and misdemeanours of the great characters are passed on down the years, so of course is the legacy of their climbs. Well, most of them at any rate. There are certain idiosyncratic qualities, for example, in any Smith route or Patey route or Fowler route one might care to repeat. I don’t believe it’s too far a stretch of the imagination to suggest that something of the characters themselves lives on in their greatest climbs. But occasionally, just occasionally, something and someone great gets missed, overlooked. Or maybe they were just too near or even beyond the fringe to become captive to the mainstream.

A few years ago, on hearing I’d been exploring new routes on the Giant’s Wall in the back of Beinn Bhan, Norrie Muir sent me a topo. I don’t know the man at all, but I sensed we had an affinity of spirit. I remember laughing at a photograph hanging on the walls of the bar in the Kingshouse Hotel – John Maclean I think it was, leading something up on Slime Wall in the 1950’s, with Norrie at the belay below, quite literally taking the piss. He was a young man on a hard climb in an old photograph, and here he was now an old man in real life, sending me pictures of routes I’d never known.

Traversing left to gain the great groove - easy but wild

Traversing left to gain the great groove – easy but wild

Interestingly enough, the topo he sent was of one of my most prized unclimbed lines – the great soaring roof-capped groove that dominates the view of the steepest section of Beinn Bhan’s Giant’s Wall. This was a genuine “line to die for” (though not literally I was quietly hoping) and here was I staring at an old photograph with a route marked straight up it. It has been climbed before by one of Norrie’s mates. Coming from anyone else I might have been dubious, but it was quite clear that this was no joke. And, in any case, whatever humour may have anointed our brief email exchange was for my part quickly eliminated when it dawned that not only had this line been climbed before – it had been climbed free and in summer. My jaw may well have hit the floor.

Anyone that knows this cliff will appreciate its tottering, Jenga-like qualities. Believe me this is not an affectionate colloquialism – it’s a statement of fact. For my part, this fact was borne out by a particularly terrifying experience whilst first attempting what was to become The God Delusion (IX,9) when both my axes, all my protection and half the cliff underneath me suddenly departed.

In fact the whole of the vast, triangular right hand side of Giant’s Wall is quite literally an assemblage of giant sandstone blocks, shards and monoliths, precariously held in place by moss, soil and various breeds of vegetation. In places one can peer down into great cavernous shafts behind gigantic loose flakes, seemingly leading onwards and downwards to the very bowels of the Earth. The Entrance to Hades perhaps? In winter, of course, a plentiful supply of water oozing from the abundant greenery soon freezes to provide glue in the form of ice. Not so in summer, however, when the crag must surely present nothing more to the approaching climber than an enormous and singularly repugnant fecalith.

And as if all this wasn’t off-putting enough, this part of the cliff is also arguably the steepest chunk of rock to be found anywhere on the British mainland. Drop a stone from its top and it may well miss the halfway terrace – if it does it won’t be stopping until it comes to rest on the coire floor two hundred odd metres below. This is no place for the faint of heart.

The originator of the line on Norrie’s topo – one George Shields of the infamous Creag Dubh Mountaineering Club – was clearly not faint of heart. Having now climbed said line in winter I can also confirm that neither was he faint of finger! On the contrary, in fact, I would go so far as to stick my neck out and suggest that this was perhaps a contender for the hardest rock climb in Britain at the time. (The word “hardest” in this context should of course be interpreted in its richest sense). We had been led to believe, prior to our winter ascent earlier this week, that the summer version of the climb – pioneered over 40 years ago, in 1972 – might provide climbing which would merit a modern grade of “anything up to E3”. There are only three words I can think of in response to this statement – AND THE REST!

Soon after gaining the great groove by a cunning horizontal traverse in from the right, we abandoned any ideas of following Norrie and George’s topo. Even with the added benefit of slim picks to slot in the occasional hair line cracks afforded by the smooth, overhanging rock, the line up the right wall of the groove was just too hard to even contemplate. It looked at least E4 in modern money. In any case, the back of the groove, despite containing a large and ominous roof ten metres up, was adorned with ice and turf. It was rich for the winter picking.

Greg commits himself to the lower roof - this pitch was the crux, as it was poorly protected above this point

Greg commits himself to the lower roof – this pitch was the overall crux, as it was poorly protected above this point

The intense battle that ensued stretched both Greg and I to our limits, in my case perhaps even a little beyond. In failing light, I struggled repeatedly to seat the tip of a blind pick away up right and over the lip of the great roof, only to have it suddenly rip twice when cutting loose and trying to pull over. On the belay below, Greg was totally spent. I was now rapidly following suit. I imagined the ghost of Mr Shields himself leaning over the edge of the roof above me and shouting something gallous and demeaning in a coarse Glasgow accent – “Come on ye wee Aberdonian shite, where’s yer mixed climbing skills now then!” Young Uisdean Hawthorn, the third man on our team who had “come along for the ride” must have wondered if this was what our adventures were always like; dynos and power screams from Greg, and now whooping great flyers from me. All very dramatic, but Uisdean did a great job of keeping a (mostly) straight face.

Myself following over the lower roof

Myself following over the lower roof

But we couldn’t leave this empty handed. I’d been into the cliff for a look so many times before. I’d never seen conditions like this. Long before The Legend of George Shields was born I’d been attracted to this wonderful feature – such steep and powerful lines are very few and far between. So with long sucks of oxygen (and a front lever to maintain enough torque) a rush of blood and adrenaline saw my feet up over the lip. A hurried nut stuffed into a mossy, parallel crack. A precarious pull on some stringy, frothy turf. My chin was now on a ledge some five metres or so above the lip. A smile erupted across my face as I let out a great yowl across the coire.

Engaging the great upper roof, where a hidden hanging groove provided the key

Engaging the great upper roof, where a hidden hanging groove provided the key

Big George wasn’t up there, of course, in ghostly form or otherwise, but through perhaps his greatest of routes – The Messiah – he had in some way been given a new breath of life.

The Icing on the Cake

28 01 2015

The great Northeast cliff of Lochnagar was famously hailed as “the crucible of modern mixed climbing” in Scotland. This accolade may still hold true, but there can be no doubt that the sprawling hulk of Creag an Dubh Loch is now giving the ‘Gar a serious run for its money.


The remoteness and magnificence of the Dubh Loch cliffs; the unparalleled grandeur and quality of the climbing; the pace of recent developments and the remaining scope for the future – it’s an intoxicating and addictive place for even the most seasoned of winter climbing palates. What’s most interesting to me, however, is the one feature that defines all the great Dubh Loch routes – ice.

Labyrinth Direct. Vertigo Wall. Goliath. The Giant. Vapouriser. King Rat. Culloden. Sword of Damocles. Range War – from grade VI to grade X, this truly is a role call of the very finest icy mixed climbs that Scotland has to offer. Yet the Dubh Loch certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on hard icy mixed – the “Ice Tool” style is rapidly becoming the favoured tipple of the thirsty Scottish winter climber. The very best of the hard routes on Beinn Eighe, for example, all sport substantial sections on ice. Recent additions to Mainreachan Buttress continue this trend. There seems little doubt that these climbs place Scotland on a par with any other country for high quality traditionally-protected, icy mixed climbing. With an emphasis on quality.

Pulling onto thick ice high on Range War, X,10

Pulling onto thick ice high on Range War, X,10

There’s a common misunderstanding amongst those that don’t actually do any winter climbing that modern mixed – its origins and its future – is about nothing more than tooling (some would say aiding?) up partially snow-covered or even just cold, dry rock. If you’re quietly nodding away to yourself while you’re reading this, then think again you fool! The future of traditional mixed climbing in Scotland looks decidedly icy. Indeed, it may almost be self-apparent that development of the ability to tool up sections of steep rock is merely a precursor to unlock the next generation of wickedly steep icy mixed routes! Who would honestly have thought that a route like Spray On would represent the next level, even as little as ten or fifteen years ago?

Pete Mac aiming for thin ice on the second pitch of One Step Beyond, IX,9

Pete Mac aiming for thin ice on the second pitch of One Step Beyond, IX,9

Winter climbers are just like any other species that inhabits the slippery verticals; they look for newer, better, harder and more interesting challenges. If we were just interested in climbing rock with ice axes then that is precisely what we would do. Why bother questing for hours through deep snow, sleeping in cold damp bivies and bothies, getting benighted, and generally strapping it on, if we could get the same satisfaction down at our local dry tool crag? Simple answer – we couldn’t.

I remember back in the day when mixed climbing legend Stevie Haston baulked at the site of the early dry tool routes (though in those days they may have conceded at least to a short stump of easy ice at the end of a long, dry pitch). “It’s fucking perverse!” he rightly ejaculated. I mean, what’s the point in waiting for winter to arrive if you’re going to intentionally climb solely on dry rock? And the subsequent blossoming of the “DT style” into a popular sub-genre of summer and indoor climbing may have suggested the hills would soon be bursting with first ‘winter ascents’ on steep dry rock. Climbers in the Lake District certainly seemed to have foreseen this future – a threat to all their great summer classics. Dave Macleod also dipped his toe into potentially hot waters with his ascent of “White Noise”. The waters, however, remained largely calm.

Uisdean Hawthorn enjoys legendary conditions on the first ascent of The Giant, VII,7

Uisdean Fraser enjoys legendary conditions on the first ascent of The Giant, VII,7

The majority of winter climbers just continue to go climbing – taking their knowledge of our great cliffs and their thirst for winter adventure to logical but evermore audacious extremes. In winter, logic means ice. I’m not saying that a route with no ice or no “logic” is necessarily bad; rather, that a really great mixed line which also has ice will nearly always be better. And ultimately better is surely what we’re after?

Now, I’ve never been one to shy away from climbing a route in winter simply because it’s a great route in summer. After all, a truly great line is a truly great line, irrespective of the season. Curved Ridge. Eagle Ridge. Centurion. Steeple. They’re all equally brilliant as either summer or winter routes. And for me, personally, when I look at the physical legacy left on these climbs by the repeated passage of climbers, I would argue that on balance it’s the intensity of so many summer ascents that leaves the greater impact (have you seen the amount of in-situ gear on the summer crux of Steeple these days? It’s a bloody disgrace…).

The Dubh Loch can get busy when the icing is on the cake!

The Dubh Loch can get busy when the icing is on the cake!

But all this is to digress. The point of this blog is to celebrate the undeniable greatness, beauty and quality in contemporary Scottish mixed climbing. And to fanfare the mighty Dubh Loch as proudly heading up the vanguard…



20 01 2015

Yesterday was for sure a genuine “one in a million day” on Cul Mor. Any day up in the far Northwest in winter is special. This one was unsurpassed. A combination of the necessary freedom from family and work, the right choice of venue, conditions, partner and psyche levels all combined to produce the perfect product. All complemented perfectly by that little sprinkle of magic so important to all the best ground-up multi-pitch adventures.


Everyone is pulling pretty hard on their axes these days, so it was obvious to me there had to be an at least technically-feasible way through that great roof. But having not studied the feature in any detail previously there was a huge air of uncertainty as we made our approach. You can’t see properly into Coire Gorm until you’re right inside it, but the sight that met us as the crag first came into view certainly bode well – a continuous curtain of ice hung all the way along the underside of the roof. Major uncertainties remained though; could we find the right line, and quickly? Would there be enough gear? And – equally important- would our chosen option through the roof lead us on up through the headwall? The crag is about 120m high and the same across, with no established routes in summer or winter; breaching the great roof itself would not guarantee our success.

As it turned out we hit the jackpot. Conditions were like nothing I’ve seen in the area before, with good snow on the approach and on the cliff, all the moss and turf like toffee, and lot’s….and lots….and lots of sticky ice.

The first pitch was straightforward enough. Steep but perfect ice (no screws was a mistake though) lead to a traverse left on good tufts to the base of an ice hose splurging temptingly from the underside of the roof. We were now positioned on a narrow ledge about 30m up, just right of the centre of the cliff, below a 10m overhang stretching as far as our eyes could see in both directions.


The second pitch was anything but straightforward. The ice hose lead delicately to a series of long and strenuous reaches – 60 degrees the wrong side of vertical – with no placement deeper than two or maybe three teeth of an axe pick. The ferocity of movement was only grudgingly compensated by the presence of the occasional ice smear for sketching feet.

I could maybe have coped with all of this had the gear been good. Fortuitously, however, I didn’t have to. I knew my young friend and partner had been doing nothing but training for this moment for some months, and I knew his chances of success were higher than mine. I’ve seen success and failure on a hard climb be defined by a play of egos; this was clearly a time to set mine to one side.

Up and down, up and down. Up and down, up and down. Each time he probed further, steady, static and determined, but still no fail-safe gear. I could tell his time was running out. I steeled myself for action. I reassured myself quietly that the belay was perfect, and that if need be I could jump off my little ledge in the event that he should fall. But he didn’t.

Get ready!

Get ready!

Pulling over the lip on a wafer hook in an icy seam it immediately became obvious that straight up wouldn’t work. Nothing but smooth, blank and unforgiving Torridonian sandstone. So a lightning decision was made to shift weight back under the lip of the steepness, inverting a tool in an undercut crack in a wild and powerful Stein-pull. It was at about this point that a sudden bizarre jet of spindrift appeared out of the otherwise empty blue sky above us, filling his face with icy shards, into his hood and down his back. I tried desperately to keep a straight face under my hood. Was this the little sprinkle of magic we so desperately now needed? It seemed to be so, as a final long stretch away right found the smallest licks of ice in the tiniest of tiny ramps. Everything stuck, and we were on our way over.



The rest, as they say, is history. A beautiful, natural winter line of dripping turf and ice unfolded above us, welcoming us steeply and directly, yet warmly straight into the heart of this vast blank canvas. Rarely had I savoured new-routing as much as this; although by no means easy, experience made it clear that our fate was now sealed, and with time to spare we could strap in and enjoy the ride. After three pitches of ‘desert island’ grade 6 mixed we were coiling the ropes as the sun’s smouldering embers died out.

We were safely home the right side of midnight, curled up in our warm nests. More still, the weather is set fair and good people and fair fortune will have us back out for another adventure before the week ends. The stars, it seems, haven’t just aligned – they intend to stay that way for a wee while yet. If that’s not magic then I don’t know what is.

Back to the Future

12 04 2013

IMG_0328 - Copy

Making the first ascent, on-sight, of a grade X climb has become something of a ‘Holy Grail’ for the current generation of Scottish winter climbers.  It’s a desprately tall order given the fickle and precarious nature of your typical Scottish route, but at the end of the day an on-sight is what our grading system is supposed to describe, and for most of us, at least, it is what we aspire to.  It makes sense, after all, when days are short, walk-ins lengthy, and conditions so variable, and it just seems to align with the ephemeral nature of so many winter routes.

More often than not , however, opportunities to explore new ground on-sight at our limits are extremely limited.  Limited by the ability to identify suitable routes – i.e. harder, but not so hard you’re going to fall repeatedly – and limited by the ability to strike effectively when the conditions, partners and life in general all align at the right moment.   When these opportunities do arise you only get the one chance – strike a match and it all burns down.

The long and runout main pitch of Crazy Sorrow on the Tough Brown Face  most definitely a 'genuine' grade IX!

The long and runout main pitch of Crazy Sorrow on the Tough Brown Face – for me, a rare opportunity to push my limits exploring on-sight in winter

When I found myself racking up beneath the fifth pitch of Nevermore on Lochnagar’s Tough Brown Face on Monday past, I knew it was just one such opportunity.  I’d previously spent something like 15+ hours belaying Pete Benson and others on the very difficult second pitch, but nonetheless I’d still only once had the chance (a few weeks previously) to explore this pitch – my pitch, as it were.  On that occasion it had been late, I had been borderline hyperthermic, and I had been unable to commit.  I had climbed down and offered Nick Bullock the reigns, but after a half-heatered probe he had also backed away.  This time though, things were different – I was fresh and with daylight to spare.  But the steep, rounded rock and lack of obvious protection had grade X written all over it.  If it didn’t happen then, it possibly never would.

Nick Bullock, after four and half taxing pitches, braces himself for the big runout on the first ascent of Nevermore.

Nick Bullock, after four and half taxing pitches, braces himself for the big runout on the first ascent of Nevermore.

After several ups and downs – none of them yielding much new hope – the roof was reluctantly turned leaving protection below, a most marginal hook pressed away down to knee height, the other tool desparately stretching, battering away at the large snow-ice mushroom topping the groove above. Then a stick, in almost nothing..elongate, reach up, then another – the only meaningful bodily contact now a single monopoint on a sloping match box.  Just one more step up though and there will surely be some gear; my opportunity thn extended. but then it strikes, a flame, and the opportunity burns out – I’m falling backwards, flipping upside down, one of my axes jettisoned out into white space, I’m squalking like the Ravens who’ve made this route their home.

And that’s it, for me at least – over you to you Nick, old man.  If I’m going to have anyone here with me to salvage an opportunity it might as well be your good self.  Internally, I questioned whether I had fallen simply because I fell, or was it in fact down to shaky concentration, a lack of gaurantees.  Of course this is precisely why we were there – to shun any degree of certainty, any knowledge of what lay ahead, either in terms of difficulty or indeed safety.  But at this level, for me personally, the white noise was becoming deafening.  I felt sure the climbing was within my physical capabilities, but the  risk?  I wasn’t sure.  This was new ground in every sense.

The next hour passed in slow motion, watching Nick slowly adsorb to the cliff.  No noises, no wobbles, indeed no external signs of the cranking hypertension searing through his every muscle.  Grade 10 to clear the roof, then sustained 9 for fully 15m.  One little clutch of protection at halfway.  Nothing else.  As the rope etched out an increasingly long, loose arc from this island of safety I traced his potential trajectory down for 10m, then the big swing sideways, rope castrating against a perfect knife edge of granite.  But still he moved on, feet popping occasionally from slight diagonal breaks, then at once tucked away up by his axes desparately trying to clear a final bulge.  I felt faint at the thought it could have been me.  Then, out of this harrowing silence came his strangely reluctant droll, “Raat then Robbow, I think we’ve got theess bastad now”.  Nevermore – five piches, solid X,10.

Strictly speaking, I can’t say that Nick’s ascent of both hard pitches on Nevermore was the first on-sight of a new grade X winter route, but I can say that in my view it was probably about as close as anyone’s got to it.  It isn’t a particularly ‘new wave’ line, and it certainly wouldn’t be  graded M-ridiculous if you stuck a load of bolts in it and climbed it without the snow and ice.  But it clearly demonstrates we’ve got a way to go in terms of questing new realms of difficulty in the psychological battleground of traditional winter climbing.

It also puts this most exquistive and beguiling of cliffs most firmly back on the cutting edge winter climbing map :-)


18 03 2013

Origin: Celtic

Sex: Female

Meaning: Dweller of the sea.

Soul Urge: People with the name Morgane have a deep inner desire to create and express themselves, often in public speaking, acting, writing or singing. They also yearn to have beauty around them in their home and work environment.

Expression: People with the name Morgane tend to initiate events, to be leaders rather than followers, with powerful personalities. They tend to be focused on specific goals, experience a wealth of creative new ideas, and have the ability to implement these ideas with efficiency and determination. They tend to be courageous and sometimes aggressive. As unique, creative individuals, they tend to resent authority, and are sometimes stubborn, proud, and impatient.

An interesting thing, going winter climbing with someone you’ve never met, only argued with voraciously.  All the more so when you’re bound for a new line on one of the most remote big cliffs in the UK.  But such is the grist of friendship’s mill.  I liked the way Roger didn’t ever seem to back down, how he was always seemingly pre-armed with some well constructed and rational reposte. I pictured him of short, squat and bullbog-like build and wondered if his actions on the hill would reflect his robust and thoughtful approach to ethical confrontation.  I had a strong hunch that it would (and it did) but my mental imagery was soon smashed by his huge frame.  I hoped he wasn’t dragging me off to dispose of the enemy.

A very big cliff in a very remote place - the impeccable Atlantic Wall

A very big cliff in a very remote place – the impeccable Atlantic Wall

As we skipped along the snow-laden ledge, dwarfed below 200m of exceedingly steep Torridonian sandstone, I wondered why he’d suddenly stopped.

“I think that first line we looked at back there’s probably our best bet Guy!”.

I wasn’t convinced.  With every step leftwards across the base of the great rampart, two important things were happening.  First, the rock above was getting steeper – which is of course always a great attraction.  And second, despite the rapidly increasing angle, the cliff was gradually becoming more wintry.  Left is best is what I was thinking.

“I don’t know Roger, I really want to take a look at the obvious corner mentioned in the guidebook – if you weren’t here that’s where I’d be headed!”.  In any case, I’ve just walked for four bloody hours to get here and I’ll be buggered if I’m walking out without clocking the full length of this wall.  It is, after all, rather broad as well as tall.

“Right. OK.” – I sensed the man had made a decision – “Let’s go and get the sacks and go across further down – there’s a tricky step here.  You know, Simon has always talked about trying this line – how well do you get on with him?”.  Pretty well I thought, staring up at 200m of continuous grooves and corners splitting the overhanging rock.  This was no time for questions.

Two long and sustained pitches of impeccable North West mixed lead to our probable crux of the day – a gently impending smooth corner with precious little turf save from the great beards overhanging its exit.  My lead.  It could have felt tricky but for the previous five outings back on the East Coast granite – day after day of virgin technical 9, zero foot holds and “marginal sticks”.  Protection a big question mark floating around, difficult to grasp.  No such quarry here tough – just perfect cracks, steep and deep, with ancient folds in the Grit-hard rock as poise for feet.  It was pure joy from start to finish. A vast sweep of deep blue Atlantic space spilled out behind us – the Torridon hills with Skye beyond, and Baosbheinn, A’Mhaigdean and An Teallach.  And to think I thought I’d climbed out all the best views in Scotland!

Roger heaving up the top section of the crux pitch

Roger heaving up the top section of the crux pitch

Some hours later, as we reached Tier No. 7, the wind went Schizo and our perfect scene was soon obliterated by thick snow.  Frigid blasts were delivered one upon the other.  It was time to skedaddle.  So Roger nips right then back left before I grab the rack and hop a few final walls to the flat top of Atlantic Wall.  Only 150 metres or so of grade II scrambling to the summit, a bonus Munro, then four hours of descent.  To ponder the latter was heavy baggage on tired shoulders in the face of what seemed to be gathering menace.

But then, coiling ropes, just as quick as the storm had gathered, she emerged from the steely grey waters  below; a strange ethereal ember finger at first, but soon pouring gently out across the broad floor of the glen and crawling up to blush and caress the lower slopes of all those great hills. I swear I heard her sigh just then, and felt the tinge of her warmth inside me, casting off the terrible drudgery that had lay ahead.  And then in the snap of a krab she vanished, leaving just cold calm night.

A few snowflakes and Roger’s very expensive gadget guided us along the ridge and on down through snow fields, great hanging corries, slippery burns and porridgy bogs, eventually winding back along the confusion of paths by the lochside and back to the car.  I’ve made a few good new friends the day I thought to myself smugly.  Roger himself, of course – the great lowping raconteur, and Slioch – Sliabhach – our mountain of spears.  And away off over the slopes behind us, settling back down under the waves, Morgane, our Dweller of the Sea.

Tough Times

13 03 2013

I haven’t felt this tired in quite a long while.  Not the strangely reassuring tired of worked fingers and pumped forearms – the kind that you know after a couple of days rest will make you bounce back feeling fitter and stronger.  Nope.  I’m talking about the deep, lasting, forehead-tightening combination of sustained mild exhaustion and severe mental stress.  Winter trad climbing is like that sometimes – kind of like the big ‘make or break’ day of a long Alpine route, but over and over again, week in, week out, as opposed to a few times a year.  When the conditions are good and partners are available I seem to be constantly questing in extremis into unchartered territory, moving precariously, not knowing what’s above, finding the climbing difficult and the easy option more and more tempting.  Just give up and go down.  Once you’re used to hanging on for hours the physical aspect isn’t too bad (let’s face it most Scottish winter routes would be quite easy with bolts and no winter coat) it’s more the on-going necessity to bury your demons with a sharp mental hatchet, and batten the hatches and pull on through when the outcome’s so uncertain.

Lochnagar - a great place for not knowing

Lochnagar – a great place for not knowing

It can be a stressful business, for sure, but this intense psychological challenge is really what ground-up leader-protected climbing is all about – how far are you willing to push it?  A little further, but just how much?  What exactly does it mean to you, and what on earth will you get out of it?

I’ve had two big failed attempts this year, and in so many ways rather than leaving me bitter these ‘failures’ have told me more about why I love this stupid activity and why I keep immersing myself in it so vehemently than the many more ‘successes’ either side of them.  For one, the richness of experience, inspiration and self-questioning a failed attempt on a great route provides is every bit as rewarding and significant as the warm satisfaction gained in getting to the top – much more so in fact.  Being inspired to go further and try harder, and challenging myself and those around me are some of the closest and dearest connections have between climbing and other areas of life.

And secondly, the climbs themselves (or at least the concepts of them) are still there – unclimbed, same as before.  I still don’t know if I’ll climb them.  I’ll try them again but the world will be different, I’ll be different, the conditions will be different. The only contstant will be the underlying rock and the reek of uncertainty.  I could go to the top, abseil down, brush away the snow and ice and get a quick answer, but to me, ultimately, this would shatter a very fragile and precious beauty.  The phrase “heart of beyond” seems fitting to describe this particular ethic.

Nick Bullock fighting impending darkness and dwindling supplies of brain juice

Nick Bullock fighting impending darkness and dwindling supplies of brain juice

But there’s a certain brain juice that’s needed in large quantities to go there with conviction, and for the time being my supplies appear to be dwindling.  Hopefully lots of sleep, whisky and a trip into the wilderness will re-charge the uncertainty gland before the season’s out.  It’s all relative, of course, so maybe the next trip out should just be a little less ambitious!


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