2020 has not been a good year for winter climbing conditions, particularly here on Skye. December was tropical and January’s storms rolled wildly from hot to cold and back again, right on through into February without taking a breath. At last, word on the frustrated ice-warrior grapevine was that Thursday might, just might, be windless, cold and still snowy. Surely there must be some amazing ice left after so much precipitation, wind and fluctuating temperatures…..
Lucy is quite possibly the keenest Cuillin climber in the world, even though she lives in Fife. Last minute plans need this level of commitment and my part of the bargain was to head out and check conditions on the ground. By Wednesday lunchtime Storm Ciara was in her death-throws.
There was heaps of snow visible but steep rocks looked brown and dry, right to the tops. Beautiful though it was, I was feeling pretty pessimistic about finding us a big new route.
Lucy was on her way and my head was exploding with a mix of optimism and terror. The terror at this stage was more about making the right shout and finding a good option; physical fear could wait until we find a line. At the same time I was like a kid in a candy shop with so many amazing existing climbs that we could go for if my lines turned out to be blank; but that’s not the new-routing “game”.
Top of my list was a route first climbed in 1911. I went for a look back in December with Steve Worth but the blanket of wet snow wasn’t even remotely frozen.
Excitedly we kitted up with the pressure of a big route and many hours of work if we were going to succeed; and then disaster. I’d left my crampons behind. Chucking everything on the snow in a fit of frustration a set of micro-spikes miraculously appeared but they weren’t going to be much good with no front-points. Lucy didn’t skip a beat as she whipped off the crampons and pointed me at the sharp end; she wasn’t going to let a wee problem like this stop our fun!I didn’t share her optimism and set up a belay immediately above the initial ice so I could pass down the crampons but she insisted on giving the micro-spikes a go first. I kept the rope tight but smooth and steadily Lucy joined me with the usual big grin and the route ahead opening up.
The ice was definitely not going to be taking screws and the sheathed rock bands looked very compact. I played out some major head games before committing to this pitch but the ease with which Lucy climbed had removed my main excuse to run away. I finally got into the zone and was rewarded with a juicy big cam placement from beneath the continuous white canvas 5 metres higher.
The climbing was superb; never too technical or sustained but a thoroughly absorbing mental game of delicate footwork and imaginative axe-work, wonderfully interspersed with regular dollops of bomber ice. Lucy cruised steadily upward and I was able to admire some super-imaginative foot, knee and Dachstein work as she got closer-
The amphitheatre above didn’t have an obvious line but logic said follow the fattest ice for the easiest way. A footless pull-up to knee-jam was probably the technical crux and the angle began to fall back as the rope ran out. A final pitch where the ice was finally fat enough for a screw and then the end was in sight.
We fed, watered and drank in the views before a bum-slide and comparatively short walk out then home for tea, biscuits and whisky 🙂
High Crag Sgurr nan Gillean. Christmas Comes but Once a Year, IV,4 165m *** ML and Lucy Spark, 13/02/20
This year’s festival has started in great style.
Leaving Skye Basecamp this morning; snow arrived right on cue and right to sea-level.
It soon became too thin so I took to the blunt rib on the left, and just in time! The heavens opened and I watched a waterfall of snow pummel down the groove on my right. Some really good moves (with enough gear to be fun) led to the ledge at 40m and Pok followed with style.
Pok led on and coped well with the terrain and fierce stinging hail and gusting wind to find a semi-hanging stance below a final steep wall.
The joys continued on the walk-out with amazing light and the mists rolled away.
And Sgurr a’ Bhasteir had transformed into Snow White. Our line is marked in red and is called Formali Known As. 90m IV,4
An extra bit of motivation is always handy in winter so a new climbing partner, and Cuillin winter virgin at that, was very welcome.
Bla Bheinn on Thursday had shown that the snow was very powdery. As we headed into Coire Lagan I was looking for something to climb that would still have some of that rain from earlier in the week holding the snow together.
Old favourites on Thearlaich BC Buttress were tempting but the long slog up a powdery Stone Shoot was anything but.
I’ve had a long curving fault line from the corrie floor to the crest of Sgurr Mhiccoinnich on my radar for many years. It has a steep and intimidating finish that had put me off so far but my new partner has climbed with some auspicious partners and I didn’t want to disappoint.
Taking in the views from the easy lower slopes.
We soloed up some pretty rough and rocky ground for the first 60m until a short corner suggested a rope may be wise. Things got surprisingly steep soon afterwards so the 2nd rope and full concentration were the order of the day. This flip into action sadly means there aren’t many photos but here is Sophie topping out at the end of what turned out to be the crux pitch.
Another long and absorbing pitch followed with just the right combination of protection, hard won hidden hooks, turf, gymnastic manouvres and even some quality snow and ice.
Entering the bowl below the intimidating exit grooves things were getting distinctly gloomy as the light faded and wet snow drove into the face. Studying the possibilities as I took in the rope I reckoned a crack in the rock face above looked like my best hope of reaching the top and still making the evening dinner dance appointment. If it proved too hard or slow it would just have to be defeat and a multiple abseil descent.
Fortunately the rock was wonderfully solid gabbro and everything came together even better than I could have hoped. High fiving on the crest was followed by a rapid pack and scary traverse along the deeply powdered summer line. Bum sliding the An Stac screes was a brief respite but I managed to lose us on the exit from the corrie as snow drove into the face (poor excuse!).
We bid farewell, I made the main meal thank goodness and its only been through today that I’ve fully appreciated quite what a quality climb we had done.
Sgurr Mhiccoinnich- South Face
Silver Fox, V,5 235m **
Mike Lates & Sophie Grace. 19 Nov 2016.
Sophie’s own account gives a more eloquent description and more technical details for the climber. Personally I found the route “thought-provoking” the whole time!
Mike Lates and I went up Coire Lagain to have a look at an unclimbed basalt dyke line on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.
It’s four or five pitches of superb climbing. The basalt is not always very helpful, and there was a whole lot of powder but there wasn’t a whole lot of ice. You repeatedly find yourself with your back or your right shoulder wedged into a bottomless left-facing corner, often undercut and overhanging, with plenty of right-hand hooks and placements in the depths of the corner (but careful–it’s loose in there), and bugger-all out on the sleek basalt powder-covered slabs to your left, which are only too solid. Footwork needs to be good, and tends to involve a single teetering crampon-point striking sparks out of some tiny rounded nubbin. As Mike said, it’s all about opposing forces. Bridging is your friend here. Foot-jams, knee-jams, elbow-jams, thigh-jams, pack-jams and full-body-jams were also deployed. So quite thought-provoking at times, and generally speaking much harder than it looks– till the much more user-friendly gabbro kicks in on the final pitch, which is the steepest and most fearsome-looking bit of the whole route, and nowhere near the hardest bit.
Pitch lengths were- Solo- 60m, P1-50m, P2-40m, P3-50m, P4-35m
The conditions were excellent. Not everything was frozen at the bottom, but it most certainly was at the top. There was heaps of snow already when we left the car park at dawn (8am), and plenty more had fallen by the time we got back there (7pm–so a short day in the Cuillin). While we were climbing we had two clear spells and two snow-showers.The second clear spell had actual sunshine–great for me as belayer, less good for Mike as leader. Standing on belay in the sunshine at 2500ft in knee-deep snow, looking out over Coire Lagain to Loch Brittle, over Canna and Rum and Muck, to Pabbay and Mingulay and the infinite ocean beyond: this is not something I will forget in a hurry.
Mike’s seen these conditions hundreds of times before, of course, but this is my first winter day ever in Skye. We were talking animals–he told me how when he did the Cuillin traverse in winter he was following a fox’s footprints all the way from Gars-Bheinn to Gillean. (Bruach na Frithe to Gars bheinn ML)
So it turned out the route was actually a completely brilliant day’s climbing. Not optimal conditions, sure, but way above the minimum acceptable. Mike led it like a boss, and I got up it with the odd wobble and squeak, but without actually falling off anything. And then on the walk-out we had a nice little botanical ramble in the dark. As you do 🙂
After all the pessimistic and sceptical meteorological banter on Facebook the other day about slush-covered rubble and unfrozen turf, and how there was nae chance of a decent climb anywhere this Saturday, let alone in a south-facing corrie in Skye, there was only ever one possible name for the route. After plenty brainstorming from us both during the day–slightly held back for most of it by the fact that until well after sunset we didn’t know for sure we were going to finish it–Mike finally nailed the name at the top of the walk-off… It is of course The Silver Fox**, 235m, V, 5.
The first week of the Skye Winter Climbing Festival was very productive with keeness, weather and conditions allowing great climbing every day. The weather for the second week wasn’t the best but Skye still produced its magic for everyone who ventured out.
The small selection of the pictures here may make a few of you jealous but there were some stupid early starts, wild weather to battle, grit, determination and incredibly hard work needed to achieve this and we didn’t enjoy it one bit so don’t feel too bad 😉
The meet started with a huge bang from Skye boys James & Doug Sutton making the first winter ascent of Crack of Dawn. Grade VIII is as hard and serious as any route on the island and well untruly keeps the Cuillin on the hard man’s radar.
Weipeng, Maymay & I had a more gentile day taking in a feast of light & colour on an ascent of Bla Bheinn. Their Sony camera produced some of the best quality shots of the week.
On Friday Pat Ingram and I looked at a new crag low in the Cuillin to avoid the deep powder higher up. Park Lane V,4 wasn’t as frozen as hoped for but gave good some very good climbing.
Beads & Dave Bowdler got a beaut of a route following North Rib of Banachdaich Gully at grade IV,5 with steep well protected climbing.
Saturday the good forecast was slightly out but just added more snow & ice to the fun. Lucy & Nathan must have had 1.5 hours on the belay waiting for me to top out on Owl Chimney IV,5; thanks guys.
The route was technical right to the top but well protected. A bonus for all of us was seeing the Owl Pinnacle which is as elusive as the real bird from almost all angles in the corrie. Beads & Dave added a direct start to South Buttress just to our right at IV,4.
Meanwhile Michael Barnard & Pat were climbing Tres Difficile V,6 a steep line immediately left of the TD Gap summer route. They then moved onto the south face of Alasdair and a line immediately right of Michael’s route from last year Skye High. They abseiled off after a pitch with Michael keen to come back and add anothe pitch to complete the route.
A 5am start on Sunday allowed Michael and me to get 2 new routes climbed on the Stone Shoot face of Thearlaich. Both were very technical and I was very glad to be following. The Bogeyman, VI,7 was a serious and sustained route that looked as promising as the route next door (Curse of the Hobgoblin V,6) but was very sparse on gear and had more than it’s share of loose rock.
Far more solid but desperately steep the line closest to the top of the Stone Shoot gave Mr Charlie VI,7 which I finished off by squeezing under the summit cairn itself.
On Monday Michael, Julian Goddard and Mark Pratt had a long day climbing Fox’s Rake III,4 in not quite ideal conditions with more snow than ice but all good fun and a headtorch descent.
Tuesday had me kicked out of bed at 5 again as Michael had a mission to finish his route on Alasdair. Pat had promised me that the first pitch was very good and he wasn’t lying; a beautiful line with positive hooks and good gear all the way.
Temperatures were rising rapidly as Michael explored the options above before finally returning to the belay soaked through. I took the obvious easiest line of weakness up a tapering ramp above the steep initial wall. It looked blank and smooth to start with but a bit of courage was rewarded with a cluster of bomb-proof gear before running it out on a series of positive edges and small hooks. Michael’s sling was still there at the top of Skye High from last year and I was able to see the quality of that route as we abseiled straight down the line; inspiring stuff.
With the thaw setting in we intended to lower the bar for Wednesday’s ambitions; it seemed likely that the In Pinn would be stripped bare and make a suitable outing for what seemed likely to be the last day of winter climbing. It was very obvious we were wrong about the thaw from quite an early stage but this was embraced with glee by the others; I’ve been pretty scared on the Pinn in full winter garb so was reserving judgement.
The climb was pretty epic with Michael leading the route in 2 halves and then me,Mark and Johnny following. All captured nicely on a Go-pro on Johnny’s helmet you can enjoy it here- Inaccessible Pinnacle
Outings later in the week were more sedate but any efforts were rewarded hansomely as ever with drama and scenery like only Skye can do properly-
The annual dinner was a highlight as ever. Iain addressed the Haggis in stunning style that matched his dry-tooling earlier in the day; in fact that’s how he learnt to cut the haggis with the ice axe so accurately. Beads gave the after dinner speech, the before dinner speech and the during dinner speech. Slainte Mha!
Click on the images below, once for the thumb-nail and again to view full size.
A warm week followed by another cold weekend but Monday’s forecast was better so we waited ’til today for our adventures. With low snow once more I was sure we’d get last week’s low lying ambition done but, yet again, conditions just weren’t playing ball. Even the high cliffs on Bla Bheinn looked dry and powdery so Beads and I agreed on a wander across to a buttress on the South Ridge that neither of us had visited before. Deep powder gave us a good work out but we were rewarded with a huge sweep of hillside dripping in good ice.
Too good to miss we soloed a bit then took the precaution of a rope for another 3 pitches or so, delightful movement in bright sunshine and a pretty good backdrop….
All this indulgence took us high on the South Ridge where the we met the weather; not a sign of Glen Sligachan, let alone the Main Ridge. It was time to run away but not until we got a good look at the buttress we’d originally been aiming for. Plunging down the nearest gully the powder was now our friend as we dropped a long way down, me mainly on my butt. Now there had been no intention of doing another climb but when a recessed gully suddenly appeared complete with a long ribbon of ice it was time to kick ass and accept a headlit descent.
Beads volunteered for the first pitch, very gallant given the thin, hollow ice and obvious lack of protection. He climbed it well, a relief to us both but particurly him with a bank of deep powder as the only consolation available. My pitch proved very similar in style but yielded a wire placement close to half height. Very hard to grade but, in the conditions we had today, probably IV,4. In perfect conditions it could be as low as grade II but any less frozen and it wouldn’t be possible.
It was then a long, very hard flog through the powder to the top of the gully
but rewarded with a view to the Main Ridge
Light was fading and the full sacks weighed heavily but the last light out over Rum gave one final special view
The first winter climbing day of the season is always daunting; so much extra kit to remember, fit, fix and, worst of all, carry. Yesterday though, I had a cunning plan; walking up Blaven on Saturday I’d spotted a couple of ideal new lines all icy and snow covered nice and low on the hill. Now I do remember clocking how warm it was on the walk back from the Broadford football dance too late on Saturday night but Sunday dawned stunningly and the car was coated in frost. Beads and Murdo were right on time and I felt smug remembering to pack the hot flask despite my thick head. Torrin was stunning with the eastern Cuillin as a backdrop but most obvious was that the snow-line had jumped half-way up the mountain or more; on the back of 3 fast days on the tops my body ached just at the thought of having to go right up again.
At the carpark Murdo let out an expletive as he located his boots as being back in Portree and my relief came in the most comical/painful/more comical manner. Smug we were not as Beads and I know it will be our turn to screw up soon enough but we did enjoy an extra cuppa with the time we knew Murdo needed to make the next rendezvous at Sligachan. So the crack team was finally in action before 10-30am.
Beads tried to tempt us to the flesh pots of his own personal face on Sgurr a’ Bhasteir but it was black as the ace of spades and obvious we needed to go high; either the Bhasteir face of Gillean or Am Basteir itself. Way back in 2009 I’d spotted an open-book corner directly above where The Deadline(III) turns hard right. Another attraction was that it seemed likely to be short enough that we might top out before dark 🙂
My pitch gave a sharp wake-up call for the new season with a wide range of tactics and plenty of fight needed to make upward progress. A couple of good ice placements early on were but a tease and above here I used everything from full body wedging to tiny finger edges. The protection was all a bit testing to construct and somewhat reliant on the rock holding together but luckily wasn’t put to the test.
A pull over the capping stone to finish saw both Murdo and I flop like seals onto the snow-covered scree bed but Mr Beads managed the whole pitch in some style.
The continuation pitch gave Beads more quality climbing and a stunning top-out on the back of Am Basteir.
Shining out from below our cloud cover was a dazzling aray of autumn colours out over the mainland to the south; here looking across to Loch Nevis with Mallaig to the right and Knoydart to the left-
The route was short (70m) but gave sustained and quality climbing. Wordmeister Beads had christened it The Breadline tied into the parent route The Deadline long before we had completed. Grading a route with so much thrutching is always hard but I’m going to settle on V,5 for now and see what future ascentionists think. It’s a good line that will be in nick frequently so shouldn’t be long….
Heavy sacks gave squealing quads on the initial steep downhill but I found myself back in a serene mindset once more as the moon lit the moorland path back to the car; a hair of the dog, a bath and a long lie-in…….
Lucy’s half term visit gave a chance far sooner than I expected to have a closer look. Stakes in the heather above were essential for a belay and I was respectful enough to use them to pre-inspect the route; apologies to the more purist amongst you.
First note was not to finish too directly with 10ft of vertical peat and dead heather above the central line. Apart from this I only remember wishing I’d got half a dozen half sized cams for the numerous uniform horizontal breaks. I got to the foot of the climb without much more of an idea of what to expect than I’d had from looking from afar.
A bizarre conversation ensued; a mix of positivity about the lack of steepness and more negative “maybe there’s a reason it hasn’t been climbed before”.
I lived; an intense hour or so of delicacy, cleaning, clever gear placing, funky moves, disco-leg, crimp after crimp, recalculation, long run-outs and a wee bit of finger crossing finally found me with some attached heather in hand pulling over the top.
Retrospectively a really intense cleaning/gardening session would probably have made things a bit easier but I’m pretty sure Arch Buttress will remain quite an adventure for any suiters. E1 5a and definitely worth a star for those who enjoy their nerve being tested.
The wonderful artistic shots are credit to Lucy Spark while she waited for me to prussic back up for the rope; all good practice for this weekend’s adventure to Stac Lee……
I did get comments after my last post that I mentioned the poor summer but the photos didn’t reflect it so here’s a couple of shots from the start of September showiing folk having fun despite the damp.A cold looking team at the foot of the Pinn.
Sunday 6th was pretty grim with cold wind and heavy showers but we got our timing just right to catch an hour of less heavy precipitation. It poured down again shortly after we left the In Pinn but this day typified what we’ve been doing all summer, close scrutiny of forecasts allowing us to get ambitions achieved.
Karen & Mo were up for a week of shadowing and had been briefed to bring sunshine with them from Plas y Brenin which they promised but it couldn’t keep up with Mo’s driving 🙂
The sun finally arrived on Monday with a stunning cloud inversion that I sadly missed but our guides and clients all raved about.
Karen watching the mists burn off Lochan a’ Ghrunnda
I had a great day at Neist on Tuesday with regular Jane Parfitt. A particular highlight was climbing Man of Straw, the cover shot of Jane’s coveted Seacliffs guidebook.
With the exception of Cioch and In Pinn ascents, in various degrees of poor weather, this season has been just too wet and cold for Cuillin rock climbing.
On Wednesday 9th I finally managed my first major Cuillin rock climb of the year and even managed to combine it with a glorious days work. We opted for Pinnacle Ridge as Robert (76) had never climbed it in his previous 8 rounds of Munros. Incidentally he has now completed the 9th round and is back on Skye starting his 10th which should be done before he reaches 80! Meanwhile modest old Brett (21) was happy to take the scenic route to Am Basteir on such a lovely day; for the record he has only Ben More on Mull to climb to compleat his 1st round of Munros.
I particularly like this shot of us on the exciting Traverse on Knight’s Peak where Robert appears to be levitating along a light-beam from Mo; perhaps that’s how he does it!
Mo and I left the others to descend to Sligachan while we headed for a line on the Bhasteir Face of Gillean. Some debris littered the ledges but 3 pitches of good climbing gave us Indian Buttress, HVS 5a.
Well enough of the tales; please enjoy some sunny pictures as much as we enjoyed being out there. The rest of September was largely warmer & sunnier than any point in the past 10 months.
Wow; what a fortnight. A huge thanks to everyone who came along to support the event, to Angus and all of the staff at the Old Inn for making us so welcome, to Annmarie for keeping us all domesticated and, perhaps most of all, to the weather gods for turning on the winter weather spectacularly. The only day when nothing was climbed was 25th January but it did mean that nobody was late for their Burn’s supper!
Over 40 people all appeared to be having a good time whatever the weather threw at them and reaped the benefits of some spectacular conditions for both mixed and pure ice climbing. More than 20 new routes were added between grades I and VII. Over half of the participants lost their Cuillin winter virginity and now can’t decide if they are nymphomaniacs or just perverts 🙂
Mentions in dispatches, in no particular order, go out to most folk and apologies if you’re not listed-
Craig, Rory & Dylan who embraced the spirit of the festival brilliantly despite their first day being more like a tropical typhoon than Scottish winter; they went on to add at least 4 new routes over the coming days.
Michael Barnard and partners for showing everyone quite how much Cuillin potential there is for the accomplished winter climber in the higher grades. He came up 3 weekends on the trot.
Antoni for keeping the standards of single malt incredibly high despite less cultured alcoholic interference.
Jonny for his modest “I’m not a climber” achievements through the week including the In Pinn; every team should have a Jonny to break trail!
Lucy for services to the team including top-roping 5 folk on the icefalls in a blizzard then missing out herself and being first to balance up the In Pinn with only a nut key to clear cracks.
James found Deep gash had little usable ice in it but his consolation route was the third ascent of Doug Scott’s The Smear!
And Romain, what can I say? For taking gaelic flare and passion for Skye & winter further than anyone thought possible, for winding me up to the great entertainment of everyone else and for surviving a diarrhoea filled car journey through drifts & blizzards.
I loved all of my days out but there were a few particularly good highlights-
A team effort with good friends Beads, Antoni & David in the wild blizzards of Friday 30th to finally tackle the twin icefalls (they’ve teased for 20 years) high on Sgurr a’ Bhasteir. We aimed for the pair but the weather dictated that teamwork was the best idea.
Twicicle was a superb grade IV with Beads & I sharing the gear & the craic on lead. Another highlight that day was the huge relief at the whole festival team reappearing back in the corrie cave out of the maelstrom; phew.
On the Sunday I got a complete beasting at the hands of James on Con’s Cleft (VII,7). He’d run out of daylight 2 days earlier and I was more than happy to come and help him get the project finished. It was a fantastic effort from him, poor style on my part but a long term ambition put to bed and great to climb with James again for the first time in over a decade.
James on the crux of Cons Cleft
Next day Ally & I were the only ones left and were rewarded with the first properly settled day of the meet. Onceicle had grown to suitable thickness, gave 45m of great steep fun and moonlight lit our walkout.
Wednesday dawned stunningly and I took a gamble to return to a mixed venue that had defeated me twice previously; the day turned out to be the highpoint of my festival. Lying on the north side of the West Ridge of Garbh-bheinn is a 100m high cliff of gabbro unusually adorned with loads of vegetation. Conditions were just right with frozen turf and oodles of ice smears. Mo, Stuart and I grabbed the first good looking line leading to a tight chimney with a crucial chockstone.
Mo’s pitch started by poking herself through a tiny squeeze before some great moves to top out. Full of character we decided Chockolates was a 2 star V,6. With some daylight left we shot down again and Mo led off up Yat for the Doh, II- a Hong Kong phrase meaning “one for the road”.
For more images and tales see the festival Facebook page. For those who were there please put links to your own accounts and look closely at your privacy settings so that as many folk as possible can see anything you have shared with the Skye Winter Festival page. Any photos gratefully received.
A great few days of rock climbing recently with my good friend Lucy back again to add any keenness I may be lacking!
Thursday started with a sunny walk up into Coire Lagan with the students of Landmark College.
After cooling the feet back in Loch Brittle we set back off up and one of the hottest walk-ins that I can ever remember. The target was a direct finish to Techno Snob– that Malcy & I climbed in 2012.
All the effort was worthwhile as we were rewarded with an evening of climbing on glorious clean hot rock. The Oldest Raver on Skye finish was even good enough to be considerably easier (E1 5b) than the parent route with the crux being the stiff rockover move off the ground. A word of warning to aspirants is that the best gear on this move is very high, too high for me, so Lucy stood on my shoulders to place it!
On Friday three Mikes and a Lucy headed to Kilt rock and a race to climb as much as possible before the rain arrived. Clandestine (VS) and Secret Service (HVS) were topped off with ascents of the uber classic Grey Panther. With a full ropelength of superb climbing on a plumb vertical fault this is a strong contender for the best E1 in the UK.
Saturday was as wet as predicted but Sunday was forecast as wall to wall sunshine. The 2 Mikes had been reading up on the Girdle Traverse of Sron na Ciche in the guidebook and Lucy and I agreed it would make a great team climb. 3 years ago we’d taken 5 hours in perfect conditions but JEB Wright, a guide back in the 1920’s recorded climbing it with parties of 4, 5 and 6 in all sorts of conditions and never in more than 6 hours.
The clear tops sank back into the mist as we arrived and a cold wind nipped at the fingers as we geared up. 2nd time around and with a quality team we made good progress to the Serpentine Chimney. Lucy & I felt we had cheated last time by abseiling the downclimbs but our attempt to mirror them failed at the first hurdle with a long damp move at the foot of the climb.
Things warmed up after Eastern Gully as we sped past a continuous series of old classic routes; the Cioch, down to the Terrace and Doom Walls, another abseil, over the Hexagon Block and across Amphitheatre Arete. Gaining entry to Trap Face Route once again proved awkward and needed a few runners to keep us safe before following the trap right out to overlook Western Gully and some welcome sunshine and lunch.
We’d made it in under 4 hours this time and Mr JEB Wright now seems a little less superhuman. His first effort took only 2.5 hours though so we’ve a way to go to still!
Dry rock and a warm breeze is too good to ignore so Paul & I dropped work plans and headed off to An Stac in search of some adventure.
A steep curving fault line just below the summit had attracted my eye for a few years but it was hard to tell what angle the climbing would actually be. Perhaps just an exposed scramble or just plain impossible?
80m of great exposed scrambling, easy in our rock shoes, led us up to the start of the overlap and a wee struggle to find much of an anchor. Paul led up the next 20m and the theme of delicacy and carefully choosing which rock to place protection in continued. Above this slabby ledge the corner itself looked crumbling and hard, out right looked more solid but definitely avoiding the line of the challenge so I choose a faint groove heading straight up.
A cam buried deeply into hollow sounding rock was soon matched on the other rope with an RP2 – times are a bit tough when I resort to placing micro-nuts in gabbro! Time to climb…. Avoiding some obvious lose flakes I found most of the holds solid enough as I tiptoed upward on the wonderful sticky gabbro. 5m up a large offset cam fitted nicely into a hole where the basalt had separated from the face. It seemed solid to touch but you can never be too sure and I was grateful to be able to “strengthen” this by using a screamer; clever type of extender that absorbs 4kN if it’s shock-loaded. Doesn’t sound much but that’s the equivilant to removing the effect of a 400kg weight hanging from it!
All good preparation for what was clearly, even for an optimist like me, going to be quite a run-out. The climbing that followed was beautiful, all in the feet but just the right number of positive and solid holds and the loose sections weren’t too hard to avoid. I discovered I was now climbing the surface of a basalt layer and surmounting this gave a good footstep rest.
I got tempted into the corner next in an attempt to find protection, regretted it pretty instantly and escaped up and back right to the basalt ladder. Pulling hard on your arms on this stuff always begs the question of how good the glue is, 60 million years after these layers were stuck together. Fortunately I’ve always (touch wood) found it to be good enough for my bodyweight.
Another reasonable large cam kept things under control before flowing moves led to the top and a predictably difficult search for a solid belay. Paul romped up stylishly then ran the ropes out to the sunny summit of An Stac itself. Good endorphine rush! Quite a serious proposition but technically not too hard The Hanging Slab is about E1 5a.
The In Pinn stood gleaming in the evening sunshine and it would have been rude not to climb it. Paul led the 4 star Hard V Diff South Crack on delightful warm rock.
Francis popped up behind us with brothers Steve & Piers on their Traverse; hot work but all of them were “steadying away”.
After an overnight bivvy near An Dorus the guys finished on Sgurr nan Gillean at about 2pm today; congratulations are deserved all around!
The Hanging Slab-
South Crack & Pinn-
Desperate times make for desperate measures; with no serious climbing having been done since new year’s day a photo of fat ice at the Dubh Loch was enough to entice me into the huge drive to Ballater, 5am start, cycle and deep soft snow approach. It is a very beautiful part of the Highlands and the rewards soon started as the sun rose.
Sadly the lower half of the crag had lost a lot of ice in the past week but Robin came up with a plan.
A scary snowy approach over steep vegetation took us to the foot of The Last Oasis.
I took the first pitch with instructions to break right to block belays below the thinly iced rib.
Robin then took the helm, had a few words with himself on the initial thin steep slabs and finally sounded happier once the 3rd screw was placed without going down to rock. Classically I found the climbing far steeper than it had looked from below!
A drippy ice grotto after 35m gave a good screw belay but an intimidating step round the corner to reach the start of the Sword of Damocles final pitch.
The excitement continued with a cornice to finish-
and then a huge great avalanche down the face 100m to the right of where we’d been climbing; gulp. This was the final straw in deciding not to stash our kit for a return battle next day but, in a winter where any climbing has been hard to come by the day was a great result. A waist deep battle through soggy drifts confirmed we’d made the right decision & we were both completely ****ered by the time we reached the bikes.
If anyone is particularly taken by the colour and design of Robin’s climbing sack he would love to hear from you; I’ve certainly never seen such a magnificent hue of blue……. 😉
The weather finally settled down a wee bit in the middle of last week, enough for Ally and I to get out and see what all this wild weather has produced. Very impressive indeed!
We opted for a broad open gully line that finishes near the sumit of Sgurr na Banachdaich. The line traverses out almost horizontally for 100m from just below the Bealach Thormaid on the Coruisk side. A short, 30m, steeper section leads up into a broad finishing bowl and the summit above. It was short and sweet giving 4 pitches and grade II for the steep section in the conditions we found.
I scrambled up the same line a couple of years ago in snow-free conditions. In summer it is often taken by mistake by climbers heading north along the Ridge so we’ve called it False Gully. Hopefully, in time, this will raise awareness of its presence as a false trail for future parties.
Richard Hines of St Andrews Uni MC saw reports of our new years day route on Scottishwinter.com and contacted Simon Richardson to say his team had climbed the same gully back in 2012. This isn’t a surprise given how accessible and obvious the line is and doesn’t remove any of the enjoyment Jim and I had climbing it.
Picture from the actual first ascent in January 2012.
The incident highlights 2 sides of the guide-book writer’s job.
Non-recording of routes is something I was, and many others are, guilty of. Some people choose deliberately not to record but the majority, like St AUMC, just assume that such obvious lines have been climbed before. This may well be the case but recording your ascent (unless you know it has been climbed before) gives a description and hopefully inspiration to others in the future. Particularly useful for winter routes where conditions can vary enormously. If it has been recorded before it should come out in the process of writing and editing the next guidebook.
Digital photography and websites have the potential to make the guidebook writer’s job far easier. This is a perfect example where Richard recognised the gully from my photo and I can confirm this from his shot (above). All cleared up in a week. Trying to decipher descriptions of routes climbed in the past involved analysing descriptions, interpreting scribbled diagrams and a fair amount of intuition/guesswork. The lesson and request is PLEASE do take a picture of where your climb is located. Any more detailed photos may also be useful.
Congratulations to StAUMC; any thoughts on a name?
See post on 8 Jan for update on this.
New year’s day was the only one with easterly winds forecast so Jim and I decided to head for a section of the Ridge and hopefully a view of the Pinn.
Avoiding the wind in Coire na Banachdaich a nice wee gully leading directly up winked at me. I convinced myself (and Jim) it would be a brief bit of added excitement and our limited kit would suffice with a bit of improvisation. I was right but only just-
Whillans would have been proud of my pebble-wedging that made prussic loops into runners before the final vertical wall of powder. Our 480cm sling was used and recycled for all 3 belays and Jim only had to do one of the cruxes just on gloves & feet to reach the axes dangling above ;-).
Ignoring all the improvisation the climbing was excellent with a mix of hooks, bridging and ice placements. The final 10m section will always be steep and a bit bold. Overall I’d say 100m of one star grade IV,5 with no name yet.
Above we found superb neve running right to the top of Sgurr Dearg. The Pinn looked fearsome and the views were magnificent throughout all 360 degrees.
The top of the West Ridge gave a final 20 mins of concentrated footwork then a gentle stroll back down before nightfall. It is really amazing to already have over an extra hour of evening light to play with already compared to pre-xmas outings.
Great day exploring Window Buttress with Simon yesterday. Cool but dry and midge free we started with 4 pitches on the original route. Simon was keen for more so the beautiful soaring corner of Widow’s Eye on the middle tier was next; it really is a quality pitch, thoroughly deserving its 2 stars.
Above again I’d never climbed “Upper Window Buttress” and the description was ambiguous. We took the most obvious line of weakness in 3 pitches. Can’t recommend anyone follows us as “Broken Windows” (VS 4b) had a bit too much on the worrying rock front. Caution got us up safely and with plenty of adrenalin dished out.
Lucy made her first VS lead and her first new route with the delightful Jacobite, VS 4c.
We then headed over to the Garbh Casteil where Diamondhead gave an improbably superb outing. Definite 3 star recommendation but I’m finding it hard to grade. A 40m vertical wall covered in huge holds but requiring caution and a steady head for the final 30ft run-out to the top. V Diff or VS? Severe 4a is probably the right result but can’t wait to hear other opinions.
Guy came up to join us next morning. Too Hard for the Old Man (E2 5b) takes a very steep line up the south side of Sgumain’s Final Tower- the Old Man’s face can be seen in the gallery below but you can guess about the cheeky whippersnapper’s naming process…..
After lunch we headed to the Stone Shoot for a return battle with Deliverance that Guy had led this winter. My lead this time & the climb proved just as steep in summer conditions and also E2 5b.
Time for a pint of Cuillin Beast 🙂
Enjoy the gallery-
A groove & slab of thin ice right of Sailaway has enticed me for years. As well as waiting for enough ice I’ve been intimidated because I know the whole buttress is very compact and unlikely to yeild much protection; and so it proved. The climbing wasn’t too hard but all a bit thin & run out.
The first pitch eventually yeilded a good wire at 15m and a bomber belay at 25m. A detour for a good nut left a bit of good but delicate hooking to regain the ice groove. A column of stacked blocks was frozen together enough to justify a sling and the ice above finally began to thicken up nicely. The final steep ice was even well protected by 2 bomb-proof screws.
A bit of a steep learning curve but Simon took up the challenge well and also enjoyed the (nearly as hard) challenge of naming the route. Something related to Escape from Colditz and Birthday Breakout made sense and I’d heard about the escape glider they built but never got to use. We had to look up the name on-line but, 19 years after I first saw this line, it felt like the Colditz Cock had finally taken off!
The ship was sinking (in alcohol?) and the rats abondoning fast but Andy & Iain went off to enjoy one final Cuillin winter romp up the Spur of Sgurr an Fheadain while Spike & I decided it was time to tackle the daunting North face of Mhadaidh.
Descent off Foxes Rake was thought provoking but the deep snow now seems well bonded and we enjoyed a romp back below the impresive sight of the Smear. This grade V still hasn’t seen a second ascent since it was first climbed in 1979!
Image Gallery Below-
Considerably fewer pics as the carefully organised photo collecting of the first 2 days faltered somewhat. Hopefully shots will emerge of-
Spike, Nathan & Kim headed into Coir’ a’ Ghreadaidh to practice some skills; Spike practising for his MIC assessment and the others getting yet another instructors opinions!
Paul & Brendan headed to Window Buttress and climbed Curtain Call-
“New route on the West Face of Window Buttress.
side of the gully to an open area with a choice of exits. Climb the steep groove on the left (crux) for 35m before escaping right. Follow easy-angled grooves for 200m before joining the final pitches of Deep Cut Gully.“
The freeze thaw cycles have left great conditions in the Cuillin with a thin but complete cover from below 2000ft. The combination of conditions and forecast are the best I’ve seen for a winter traverse for a couple of years. Still some small drifts that will be hard work for the first party along but I hope to hear of a few successes soon.
Ally took his “fast-tracking” into climbing a stage further today with a crash course in mixed climbing on the first winter ascent of An Stac Chimney in Coire Lagan. Graded moderate in summer I wrongly reasoned that it shouldn’t be too challenging for a winter ascent 😉
The initial squeeze pitch must have taken me half an hour to work out how to ditch my rucsack. Taking to the right wall just meant an exciting section above the jaws of the rift before finally getting back into the clutches and a good thread runner. More relaxed the final chockstonebefore the belay seemed easy with good frozen turf and hooks.
The next chimney was clearly too narrow to get into but bridging up worked well to start with. As the walls steepened I was forced out right on good footholds & tiny hooks to thankfully reach a bomber large nut. The steep sequence above was superb (or was that relief?) with great placements to pull onto a pedestal. Stepping back into the gully I was able to make good speed to the final narrows. Gorgeous colours on the snow in the corrie below suggested it was getting late so I stepped out right to join the crest of An Stac Direct above the drop into Coruisk.
Ally didn’t come off once all the way up despite it being his first time with axes & crampons; fine effort. Grade-wise I would say IV, 5 and worthy of at least one star. Similar to last December’s routes this was particularly pleasing because the route faces south so would be stripped very quickly by any sun; the depths of winter do have benefit for some of us.
We moved together for the final 100m to reach my favourite view of the In Pinn. Sadly it was too late to add that to Ally’s list of achievements for the day. Enjoy the gallery.
Todays new route gave us some great quality climbing up a beautiful corner-line. Every time I went down the Great Stone Shoot this summer I studied the line and concluded that it was very, very steep.
Having never tried anything similar it was clearly beyond my leading abilities. Guy provided the perfect solution; strong, skilled, (a little bit loony?) and with masses of enthusiasm. My conclusion about the steepness wasn’t wrong but the corner crack just kept giving him positive holds and good protection. A superb clean, ground-up first ascent.
I only started using leashless axes last year but I was glad I had with all the hand swapping needed through the firece laybacking. Reaching the top of the first bulge upward movement still seems to be happening, placements keep appearing and, miraculously, my hands are still gripping the axes. Took a long rest to get the arms back before the 2nd bulge; although it was shorter, Guy wasn’t kidding when he’d warned me about it being fierce. Things didn’t give up right to the belay. While Guy squeezed his way out above my head I studied the anchors & realised it had been constructed to haul me up if neccesary.
Winter climbing in the Cuillin gave everything he expected & more for Guy; Deliverance is a great addition for the future; thanks Guy!
I’m going to write a seperate post on quite how much snow had come down since yesterday with views etc.
Malcom & I made the most of our day off by visiting one of my virgin crags to try a the obvious central line.
We were treated to the full range of emotions; ecstacy with conditions being perfect with a warm breeze keeping midgies off, dry rock then a real stiff starting move that put us off so long it started raining. We were on the verge of running away but decided to take a look from above to see if the route was worth coming back for. What we saw didn’t encourage us hugely looking very steep & finishing in greasy loose stuff!
The rain stopped and the rock dried in front of our eyes. The move off the ground was now seeming a lot more positive so Malc tied on & went for it. A wee bit of gardening was needed to find gear but the holds were all just superb. Near the top Malc made a couple of warning noises about the steepness & blankness so I ducked out of photography mode & into attentive belayer 😉
As the next shot shows I also found a need to really focus on the superb crux sequence at the top of the route. Fantastic effort Malcom on a beautiful route. 40m of very high quality climbing at about E2 5c. Techno Snob was the name we chose after much wracking of brains.
The fine spell is breaking down at last so I’m very glad to have managed another long standing project yesterday.
Dawn reflections in Coire Lagan
The best ice appears to have all formed on south facing slopes so we headed into Coire Lagan where I knew of a few possibilities. Things were thinner than I expected but then a glimpse of grey ice appeared high above South Buttress and reminded me of a line I’d seen back in 1999. We carried on far enough to confirm that the bounding gully did indeed hold continuous ice before heading up.
The first 2 main pitches; we approached slightly from the right. The crux was at top of the xmas-tree shaped piece of ice half-way up what is visible.
1st Main ice pitch
There aren’t any photos of the crux steep step because I was focussed a bit too much on not falling off. Things relaxed a bit more above with a superb hidden pitch appearing 50m above.
The hidden bonus pitch.
We even had a screw belay above here.
After 5 long pitches we reached the fine narrow ridge that links up to the summit of Sgurr Dearg still 250m above us. This slowed us & entertained us considerably but finally we topped out just 100m from the In Pinn.
Views appear for the top of our new route.
Matthew Au Cheval on the finishing ridge
Looking out to the Ruadh.
Pinn rimed up.
I’ve opted for Southern Comfort as a name to honour the unusual conditions where south faces are offering better climbing than the norht faces.
Firstly I should let anyone interested in doing a Winter Traverse “the holy grail of Scottish Winter routes” know that it is pretty damn good condition and the forecast ahead is good.
Looking at the back of Am Basteir today
I’m not offering but just letting folk know. I’ve got lots of projects to go for in conditions like these and today was a good start-
I followed my own advice from Monday’s Blog and went to climb the amazing looking ice on the south face of Gillean today. We did a new route that takes a line of ice right of the existing route and have called it White Lies; grade IV,5. It was 280m long so the descent was largely done in the dark.
My Skye mates Beads & Ben were great cpompany; we all shared the task of breaking trail, were all blown away with the views & all of us got plenty of time on the sharp end.
It’s great when a plan comes together!
Coir’ a’ Bhasteir at its best
Basteir Tooth looking awesome.
Ben studying possibilities; we took the main line of ice visible here but…
….this is the ice arena that greeted us when we could see the whole south face of Gillean
Ben belays Beads on pitch one; our line lies up right. The main line is White Dreams, 275 m IV,5 (2000)
Beads on the steep top step high on pitch one.
Ben’s Corner, pitch 3. This was a lot steeper than it looked with the ice fairly rubbish. Beads & I had to climb the vertical thicker ice to Ben’s left because of a big hole that appeared.
A happy Ben as Beads leads pitch 4; first time placements all the way.
Final pitch looking down the steep finish
Ben on the finishing swings
I was out on the hill with Beads again today. We had some great weather and managed to climb a new route on the North face of Sgurr a Bhasteir-250 metres of grade II climbing. It made a lovely approach to the North-East ridge of Sgurr a Bhasteir which gave us another 350 metres of good ridge climbing. It was a great day out with some phenomenal views to the Outer Hebrides and the mainland, both of which were full of snow covered hills as far as the eye could see.
Dawn light on the Northern end of Skye
Beads leading on the new route
Glamaig and the mainland
The North-East ridge of Sgurr a Bhasteir (grade I)
The Third Pinnacle, Knights Peak and Sgurr nan Gillean
Heading towards the main ridge
After a week of heavy snowfall and strong winds it was time for Matt and me to find out what had been given to us by the gods of winter climbing. Deep drifts were a feature but we stuck to our guns and aimed for the first winter ascent of Gully E on Sgurr Thearlaich near the top of the Great Stone Shoot. This is thought to be the line taken by Charles Pilkington’s party on the first ascent in 1887.
A Dachstein Mitt day
Matt with the In Pinn behind.
On finally reaching the climb the weather gods decided that another hour or so of blizzarding would give us more of a challenge. While I froze slowly Matt excavated good protection and dived out of the spindift avalanches to belay on the left edge. I continued by the buttress and avoided returning to the gully for as long as possible but was finally forced back in. Swimming up steep powder snow for the next 20m was more like climbing on Ben Nevis than the usual Cuillin experience but I finally reached the crest of the Ridge as the sun came out once more. Overall the route we followed was probably grade III,4.
The blizzard kicks in as Matt reaches the crux.
And now enjoying his belay jacket to the full!
Deep powder at the top of Gully E
Mike rigging the abseil with the sun coming back onto Loch Brittle way below
We didn’t follow in Pilkington’s steps to the summit, opting instead for a long abseil back to the Stone Shoot and our real reward- a thousand foot bumslide back to the corrie below where hot afternoon sun reflected off the snow and the vistas out to the Hebrides were of the usual astounding high quality.
From L-R Sgurr Mhicchoinnich, Thearlaich and moon above Sgurr Alasdair. Our bumslide tracks can be seen in the Stone Shoot.
Sublime lighting over Loch Lagan looking out to the Outer Hebrides
Friday was stormy
Saturday was mild low down but good on top.
West Ridge of Gillean for some,
Bruach na Frithe for others,
BC Buttress of Thearliach, IV,5 in mega nick.
Andy’s first ever outdoor route; good eyes!
And an exciting descent.
Gillian on Gillean
Grade II my butt!
Today Mike and myself explored Ruadh Stac, a mountain which rises a mighty 493 metres (1617 feet) above sea level. This is not the most popular mountain on Skye but it is certainly worth visiting on a clear day for its spectacular views of the main ridge, Clach Glas, Bla Bheinn and the Small Isles. However we were not visiting primarily for the views but to investigate the Allt Teanga Bratlan and the gullies on the South East face of Ruadh Stac for any climbable ice.
Looking towards the North end of the ridge
From the lay-by at the head of Loch Ainort we admired the style of Neil from Torridon as he scampered up the prominent waterfall above the road. This left us feeling suitably inspired to find some ice of our own, so stopping only to take photos and investigate cunningly disguised patches of bog we made our way to the Allt Teanga Bratlan. Dropping down to 130 metres above sea-level we were pleasantly surprised to see reasonable amounts of ice, unfortunately we were unpleasantly surprised to see a plunge pool or two barring our way. After a short debate over who weighed more we managed to overcome these obstacles. Arriving in a bay we discovered a slabby line of ice on the right and a much steeper climb on the left. We ventured onto the right hand option and enjoyed the delights of ice climbing at an amenable grade II/III in the sunshine on Skye in December!
Mike leading the second pitch
After this little adventure we headed off onto the side of Ruadh Stac to investigate the most prominent gully line on the South East face of the mountain. We found a continuous line of snow and ice from bottom to top, going at about Grade I, with a short 40 foot step that looked to be about Grade V. Given the thin state of the ice we summoned up various excuses and traversed round this part.
Underneath the Grade V section
We gained some bonus entertainment in the rest of the gully grappling with holes in the snow, a mini bergschrund and the unexpected discovery of some small pools. Finally the climbing came to an end and we topped out on Ruadh Stac to be greeted by the most spectacular panorama of the entire ridge in winter glory.
It was a perfect end to a spectacular Skye day: exploration, adventure, ice, sunshine and some of the best views imaginable…..