Scottish winter season summary. Late January 2005. The last vestiges of a pathetic wet snowfall are swept from the hills by yet another howling, warm, maritime wind. Temperatures on the sodden summits rise to 6°C. Only a handful of interesting routes have been snatched in the brief cold spells, and the first summary of Scottish winter climbing for the AAJ is not looking very exciting.
Six weeks later. Mid March, and the picture could not be more different. A cold Northerly air stream becomes established in mid February bringing snow and low freezing levels. Brief thaws keep the water moving for ice formation. The cold spell continues until early March as psyched climbers from all over the world arrive in Scotland for the International Winter Climbing Meet. World-class talent, local knowledge, great conditions. The scene is set for one of the most magnificent weeks of winter climbing in Scottish history.
Simon Richardson’s article earlier in this Journal has set Scottish winter climbing in the world context. This, the first annual summary, will provide a quick overview of some of the most significant routes climbed this winter. These annual summaries won’t seek to be anything like definitive: over 135 new winter routes were recorded in 2003–2004. For comprehensive coverage and route descriptions the reader is referred to the annual Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal.
Winter climbing in Scotland is very varied, and becoming more so. Until recently most recorded routes ranged in length between 50m and 400m. Over recent winters some highly technical, shorter routes have been climbed and recorded. A couple of these (Logical Progression and The Tempest) have been sport or M style (pre-placed gear and top roping), but in the last two winters ground up ascents have been made of some short (less than 40m) but very hard lines. (E.g. The Cathedral on the Cobbler: X, 11, climbed by Dave MacLeod in January 2004). These summaries will have an overt bias to reporting longer routes on the bigger cliffs. This is not because the shorter routes are in any sense less significant (they will be among the most influential climbs done), but because this is the American ALPINE Journal, and the longer climbs have a more alpine character.
Ben Nevis is the most famous Scottish winter venue. Three kilometers of cliffs reaching 500m in height provide the setting for the greatest concentration of winter climbs in Scotland. The Ben (there are actually a great many Bens in Scotland—it means hill) is best known worldwide for its magnificent ice climbs, such as Point Five and Zero Gullies, Orion Face, and Galactic Hitchhiker. But the last decade has seen an explosion in mixed climbing on the steep and overhanging snow plastered grooves, chimneys, and corners. The charge was led by Simon Richardson and Chris Cartwright with the first ascent in 1996 of Cornucopia (VII, 9) a puzzling smooth corner on the right wall of Number Three Gully. This test piece received its 4th and 5th ascents during the Winter Meet courtesy of Bruno Sourzac (France) and Dave Hesleden (UK) then Stanislav Havanec (Czech) and Ian Parnell (UK). A few meters to the right and before the Winter Meet Cartwright and Richardson added Archangel, a bold, sustained, and strenuous VIII,7 that they had been watching since 1996—it’s so steep that it rarely catches much snow.
Predicting good conditions is a key skill in Scottish winter climbing, and it was this ability that enabled Erik Brunskill and Gareth Hughes to make the first winter ascent of the summer rock climb Strident Edge high up on the Ben’s South Trident Buttress. Winter ascents of Summer climbs depend on them being adequately “white”—that is plastered with enough snow to make conventional rock climbing impossible. Brunskill and Hughes needed to wait till the day after a huge Westerly storm had wrought havoc across the UK and dumped masses of powder snow over the Ben. This did the trick and they enjoyed a well plastered VI,7. Another new route that required snowy conditions was Godspell (VII,8) an overhanging chimney cutting through the headwall of The Castle (Kelly Cordes, USA, and Simon Richardson). This was just one of many fine first ascents made during the Winter Meet.
Creag Meagaidh lies 35 km North East of Ben Nevis. Being further from the sea it depends more on water ice from drainage and snowmelt to form its classic ice lines. Its usual attraction lies in long moderate ice climbs like The Pumpkin (300m, V,4) and Centre Post (400m, III). When in condition it’s a busy place to climb, which is probably a good thing as trail breaking through deep snow up the long gradual walk in is especially tiresome. Two major icy lines were added to the mountain during the Winter Meet. Eye Candy (200m, VII,7, Primoz Hostnik/Slovenia, and Es Tressider and Guy Robertson/UK) takes hanging ramps to the right of Smiths Gully. On the same wall, but slightly to the right another international creation, Extasy (245m, VIII,8) appears to be an extremely serious line. Five pitches feature technical 8 climbing. The gear is nonexistent. It may well be undergraded. If so it could be the first Grade IX climbed onsight in Scotland. (Other routes as hard or harder have required multiple attempts or abseil inspection). A major tour de force for the thin ice master Dave Hesleden and guest Bruno Sourzac.
The North-West Highlands of Scotland fill three climbing guidebooks. The term is used to refer to all the hills and corries north and west of the Great Glen, a watery line (including Loch Ness) slanting across the country from the foot of Ben Nevis to the east coast at Inverness, just north of the Cairngorms. The North-West is a superb area for exploratory climbing. It is rare to see another party, and on many cliffs you are guaranteed solitude. Rock types vary, but sandstone and quartzite predominate giving a different feel from the climbing further south. The sandstone cliffs are very vegetated, giving great mixed climbing possibilities, and small springs cause great bosses and flows of ice to spring forth from improbably steep blank rock sections. Guy Robertson is a North-West aficionado and in January he and Alastair Robertson made the long tramp into the remote Coire Ghranda of Beinn Dearg. They set to work up a much fancied line to the left of Mick Fowler’s 1988 route Ice Bomb (VII,7). A tuft (a small patch of frozen moss or turf—vital for progress on many mixed climbs) ripped and sent Alastair into a 15m fall. The pair persevered and Final Destination (VIII, 7) was the result. The International Winter Meet also made an impression on the North-West with second (Hesleden and Sourzac) and third (Sam Chinnery/UK and Steve House/USA) ascents of Snoopy (VII,7) on Fuar Tholl’s magnificent sandstone tombstone Mainreachan Buttress. Snoopy was first climbed in winter by Chris Dale and Andy Nisbet in 1998, and features bold thin ice climbing and a vital spring fed ice column.
The Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm have long been a forcing ground for technical standards. A ski road runs high up Cairn Gorm making for a short walk in. Good paths and popularity make the crags feel friendly. The whole of the day’s physical and mental energy can be applied to the route. The cliff bases here are high, and most routes require only powder or rime, so wintry conditions can often be found. The routes are short, and many are hard. In February Dave MacLeod, Scotland’s most talented all round climber with hard trad., boulder, winter and sport routes to his name, raised the Northern Corries bar again. The Hurting is a 35m Summer E4 6a. Having inspected the route twice on abseil MacLeod attempted the line ground up in full winter conditions. The lower section is very poorly protected—a ground fall is clearly possible. The route continues on baggy torques, tenuous hooks, and tiny tufts. Crampons try to settle on the rounded granite edges. Every move is at least technical 9. Sadly, MacLeod fell from near the top on his first attempt, the fall held by a small cam, not the most reliable protection in icy conditions. A couple of weeks later he was back, and, in a howling wind that kept blowing his feet from the smeary edges, he fought his way cleanly to the top. The grade of XI,11 reflects the sustained technical difficulty and groundfall potential.
At first sight The Hurting and Extasy are very different types of Scottish winter route. One abseil inspected, the other climbed onsight. One very short, the other quite long. One requires cutting edge technical skills, the other unparalleled boldness. But there is much in common too between these climbs. Both are bold, both technical. Both required their ascentionists to wait until conditions were right. Both required the vision to see a potential winter line where others hadn’t, and the belief to get on the line and push it out to the top. The diversity of winter climbing in Scotland is part of its compelling appeal. Climbing a steep ice line on the Ben in April feels a million miles away from a powder-choked groove on Lochnagar in December. The diversity of the developments this year shows the robust good health of Scottish winter climbing, and how much more there is to do.
And we always get long periods of great conditions in which to do it!
Malcolm Bass, The Alpine Club