Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Norman Collie is a bit of a legend by all accounts. Not only was he a professor of Chemistry at UCL specialising in mixing up gases to make them illuminate and explode, but he was also one of the most revered UK mountaineers of the late 1800s / early 1900s. Apparently he even inspired some characteristic traits of Connan Doyle’s famous private investigator Sherlock Holmes! However, its his climbing he's most famous for and as a mountaineer, his adventurous spirit was unfaultable, with iconic first ascents in the Lakes and on the Isle of Skye. Perhaps the most notable trait running throughout his climbing career lies in his unfailing ability to pluck first ascents from right under the noses of the Scots, which considering he was Cheshire born and bred (a land as flat as a St George’s Day celebration in Sauchiehall Street) added considerable insult to injury. In fact his winter ascent of a virgin Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis was as good as putting two fingers up to the Highland climbing contingent and one that etched his place in the climbing annals of history. Stealing such a ripe plum demanded retaliation and it wasn’t long before Scottish Mountaineering Club co-founder William ‘Willie’ Naismith stepped up the mark, making the first inaugural winter ascent of Ben Nevis’s North East Buttress. Although not perhaps as famed, the North East Buttress is a considerable step up in difficulty both in terms of the more sustained nature of the ground and also exposure to the elements being more pronounced and less set back than Tower Ridge.

Having ticked Tower Ridge earlier in the season, I was keen to find out for myself just how these two famous bastions of the Ben compare and it was with great excitement I arranged with Connor to go and see what all the fuss was about.

North East Buttress is described by the SMC as being one of the greatest traditional mountaineering routes in Scotland and is graded IV and (depending on which guidebook you look at) is given a technical grade of 4 or 5 (although some have suggested 6!). Our original plan had been to make a more sustained ascent of the ridge by taking a direct line up Slingby’s Chimney (II) through Raeburn’s Buttress to get to the start, which negates the requirement for a long walk round into Coire Leis and traversing across the steep icefields, however whilst chatting to people staying at CIC Hut when gearing up, it quickly became apparent that Slingby’s had a reputation for being a serious sand bag, with one local guide suggesting it would probably be more like V today. Considering the length of the ridge and our start time being less than alpine, we decided to go for the traditional approach...

Once at the bottom of the Buttress it wasn’t entirely clear how far up and round into Coire Leis we needed to go. Not wanting to go too far off route we decided to solo up some icy mixed ground closer to the buttress edge, however this quickly turned steep so we decided to slow things down and rope up, all the while the blistering sun was illuminating the upper buttress sending a cascade of ice fragments down across the entire mountainside. Time was clearly of the essence. After a final steep pitch we made it up onto the approach icefield, joining the correct approach line and by the time we made it to the ‘first platform’ we were back into the more stable icy shadow of the ridge. The first few pitches came and went at a reasonable pace, with one pitch in particular off the ‘second platform’ being particularly steep and quite memorable. It seemed that other parties had traversed a long way off to the right, but not want to go too far off the ridge proper we blasted straight up a steep wall and into a groove before reaching more amenable ground above (that pitch probably ended up being the hardest of the day too!). Several more pitches and some moving together came and went and just as the sun started to set behind Tower Ridge we reached the notorious Man Trap. The infamous crux of North East Buttress is only a few meters high but is considered a serious show stopper and has over the years has apparently repelled many a worthy applicant. The short wall is well protected and was thankfully well endowed with some helpful ice for our ascent so it didn’t take long to conquer. The final obstacle of the day, the equally notorious 40 foot corner, was now the only thing that stood between us and success and in contrast to the man trap, is not too technical, but is very bold. Thankfully helpful ice lined the corner too, so with bomber axe placements the lack of gear was no issue (I did actually get a single nut half way so perhaps it really was in perfect condition).

With the sun now long down below the horizon and clouds filling the valley we headed around and down back into Coire Leis before heading back to the cars.

Compared to Tower Ridge, North East Buttress feels a good bit tougher and is perhaps a bit more committing with its longer approach. It also has the most difficult bits right at the top. For me, climbing those top two pitches bathed in the evening sunlight streaming through tower gap at the end of a blue bird day, it doesn't get much better than that. A mighty ridge on a mighty mountain. Winter at its best.  

Which is better? You’ll just have to go and find that out for yourself.         

A bluebird Ben. North East Buttress (IV,4) takes the obvious skyline around the Minus and Orion Faces

Connor on the first icefield nearing where we joined the usual approach

Connor moving up the left slanting gully just above the first platform

Steep ground just below the second platform

Looking across the Orion Face with the sun setting behind tower ridge. Taken from the Man Trap

The final well iced 40 foot corner. Great end to a great day

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Back up to Udlaidh last week and ticked Peter Pan Direct (V,5) which is my first grade V,5 and a pure ice route to boot. This is my first winter climbing season having also done my first grade IV earlier in Jan and have now climbed ten more routes at that grade! Fingers crossed this season carries on being as good as it has been so far. The sky is the limit.

The steep icy start of the first pitch of Peter Pan Direct (V,5). Photo credit Phil Warcup

Phil following the first icy pitch of Peter Pan Direct (V,5)

A team behind us climbing Peter Pan Direct (V,5)

Wednesday, 7 March 2018


In the last few weeks winter weather seems to have started dominating news feeds more than it’s been dominating my blog! The so called ‘beast from the east’ has been making waves along the length of the UK. Tales of deep and havoc-wreaking snow in London only topped by mountains of drifting snow in Falmouth. Ironically the only place that didn’t see any significant snowfall was the West Highlands, which has been wind blasted but in no way freshly snow plastered.

With stable slopes and rumours of icy walls abound we headed up to the Ben. Dan’s first visit to the north face too. After a late start we climbed Harold Reaburn’s pioneering classic Green Gully (IV,3). A slow party in-front of us in the narrows slowed us enough to banish ideas of a second route so down we went stopping only a MacDonalds for a belly full of chicken nuggets.

Dan seconding the lower icy runnel of  Green Gully IV,3

Typically Scottish conditions just below the top of Green Gully. Dan waiting on one of the many ice screw belays. Solid! 

The next day the beast sailed off and in its wake exhaled a final warm breath, marking the end of the continental style ice climbing we’d all come to enjoy. In slightly damp conditions we climbed South Gully of the Black Wall (IV,4) up at Beinn Udlaidh, which was a great route, aside from the slightly harrowing sugar soft cornice.  

Ice ice ice ice. Beinn Udlaidh looking like a dream

Looking up the first pitch of a banked out South Gully of the Black Wall IV,4

The crux icefall on South Gully of the Back Wall IV,4

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Considering the frustration I faced last winter season with what felt like a continuous conveyer of warm weather systems washing over the mountains, this year seems to have been both loads colder and loads whiter, with an (almost) continuous blanket of snow enveloping the hills since mid-December! Don’t get me wrong, there have definitely been ups and downs with the odd day of warm weather here or there, but that’s just exactly what I mean, warm days with temperatures greater than 8 degrees are really few and far between, even in Stirling. The other way of looking at it is that now I’m based up here, escaping into the hills is perhaps a lot easier, even if it’s just for the day, so technically I can be picky with exactly which days I go out. Only problem with that is that since I’m out most of the time, I’m hardly just picking the only good weather days! I mean its Scottish Winter after all, good days sometimes don’t happen! Either way my run of luck with ‘acceptable’ conditions has continued into February with a few great days in Glen Coe and also over in the Cairngorms.
Climbing North Buttress (IV,4) in the shadow of the Buccal

Phil moving up towards one of North Butress's many chimneys
To be honest February didn’t exactly get off to the best of starts, with a climbing-wall-hatched-plan to go and check out the classic ice/snow route that’s Crowberry Gully on the Buccal thawted by one of these rare ‘warm spells’. Although the forecast was for cold weather and snow, it became apparent as we were driving across Rannoch Moor with rain and sleet splattering against the windscreen that a change of plan might be required. Although the path to the hut was slushy mess, by the time we we got up to the base of the Buccal’s North Buttress (IV,4), the sleet had stopped and the snow was firm. In fact by the time we got to the top of the route, the snow had turned back to powder and was drifting heavily. The wind had also picked up and it was snowing again making for an interesting final ascent up the final ridge section to the summit. North Buttress was a great and varied route, and considering its exposed imposing position seemed to comprise mostly of chimneys and grooves (the former of which I have absolutely no objection too!).

Following a week of continued snowfall and south westerly winds many of the most desirable crags in the area were strictly out of bounds on account of being buried by widespread wind slab  and giant cornices. Since the boys had come all the way up from Devon (heuristic trap I know..) I felt we had to give something a go, so after some research ended up paying a visit to a crag I’d already been to in similar conditions earlier this season. Thankfully the west facing nature of Coire an Dothaidh was about as good as it gets in the southern Highlands in such conditions and over two consecutive days we climbed Centigrade (III) as well as the mega classic that’s Fahrenheit 451 (IV,4) (the former of which was Richards first outdoor ice climb too!). Bad weather combined with a lack of any real visibility meant I took a slightly steeper line on Centigrade’s second pitch, which culminated in a short overhanging wall that definitely added to the entertainment value and probably ended up being the single hardest move we came across the next few days! Fahrenheit 451 also lived up to the hype, following a line of icy slabs and corners right up the middle of the buttress. The lower crux pitch was on super thin ice, only a cm or so in thickness and was a bit rotten to boot. Since I also missed the in-situ pegs under the sprawling icefalls it made for quite a spicy affair but was probably all the more rewarding. The upper crux through the steep ice falls is fantastic and was a super enjoyable piece of climbing. Looking forward to a relaxed evening after a few big days out, we were quite surprised when we got back to the bunk house to discover a cehlidh was happening that evening in the pub. As you can imagine, all prospects of a quiet evening then went immediately out the window!
Looking up into a very white Coire an Dothaidh

Other climbers on Centigrade (III) and Fahrenheit 451 (IV,4)

Richard and Rob at the top of Centigrade (III) in typically Scottish climbing conditions
The thinly iced lower section of Fahrenheit 451 (IV,4)
After a hasty retreat from the Glen Coe area we then headed over to an even snowier Cairngorms. As reports were stating that much of the Norries and other crags in the area were buried under powder and loaded wind slab, we opted to spend a bluebird day on the Fiacaill Ridge before walking back over Cairngorm Summit. The day was finished with grub in the Cairngorm Hotel and our second Cehlidh of the trip!
A bluebird day in the northern Coires

Atmospheric conditions moving along the Fiacaill Ridge (II)

Richard moving through the steep chimney

Moving together on the upper Fiacaill Ridge

With the big drive back south looming over Rob and Rich, we opted for an early start and shorter route for the last day of the trip. Having heard reports that apart from around the exits slopes and on NE aspects much of the snow in the Norries was consolidating well, we decided to go and check out Aladdin’s Buttress, thinking if the approach slope was okay we could do something and just abseil off. After some quite extensive digging it was apparent there was a thick layer of really hard wind slab, sat on top of some softer, older snow deeper down which after a lot of consideration we decided was okay as the temperatures weren’t forecast to change and we’d only be on an exposed section for maybe 20m or so (TBH I’m no expert and those conditions may indeed be conducive to a slide, but the only way we could get the layers to actually fail was through pulling with all of our bodyweight or jumping up and down on a fully isolated block. The tap test didn’t even make the snow crack. Even on the edges of our excavations, we couldn’t get it to fail.. What conditions may have been like at the top of the crag is a different matter entirely I’m sure but since I knew we wouldn't be topping out, what I saw was acceptable to me). The climb we opted for in the end was Aladdin’s Mirror Direct (IV,4), which was a real cracker. Super steep and super sweet. A great route to finish a great trip.    
Looking up at Aladdin's Buttress

The steep ice pitch of Aladdin's Mirror Direct (IV,4)

Rob at the top. Smiles all round! 

Monday, 5 February 2018

Had a great couple of days with Phil out exploring some classic winter lines in the Western Highlands last weekend. By a stroke of luck a high pressure system loitering off the north west coast brought amazingly cold and stable conditions with virtually no wind. After an early start on Friday we headed up into to Stob Coire nan Lochan arriving at the crag at the same time as the first rays of sunshine. We climbed Ordinary Route (AKA Raeburn’s Route) (IV,4) which climbs a steep icey chimney before moving to more open ground, climbing the edge of the buttress in 4 pitches. After that with the weather still great, we climbed Twisting Gully (III,4) which was also in good condition apart from the odd section of quite deep powder snow.

The following day the forecast suggested there would be a temporary deterioration in weather in the afternoon with low cloud and light snow. On that basis we opted for something a bit lower and ended up climbing the short but sweet South West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder (IV,5) on the north face of Ben Nevis. I say short but the routes is actually 180m in length, but as its positioned in front of the north face of Ben Nevis, I guess it’s a matter of perspective!

The final day saw the best weather and probably the best route. With improving snow conditions and a bit of knowledge afforded from the day before from the top of the Douglas Boulder, we settled on the classic Tower Ridge (IV,3). Even with a really early start we weren’t the only ones on the route nor even the first, however I guess solidarity isn’t something you should expect on a route as famous as Tower Ridge. The climb was in pretty good condition, with much of the powder snow better consolidated than previous days and even some stretches of water ice. We climbed the route mostly moving together with great views of the rest of the face. We saw teams on Point 5 Gully (V,5), Orion Direct (V,5), Hadrian’s Wall (V,5) and North East Buttress (IV,5) to name a few. Tower gap came and went and before we knew it we were sat on the summit bathing in the crisp winter sunshine. Not wanting to waste such a beautiful day, we decided to descend via the CMD arĂȘte (I) - also great condition - before dropping back into the shadow of the north face heading for the CIC hut. Walking out of the Coire watching the sun set was a pretty poignant moment. 

Approaching Reaburn's Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan

The steep and icey chimney on the first pitch of Raeburn's Route (IV,4)

Phil starting the second pitch of Raeburn's Route in brilliant conditions

The first pitch of Twisting Gully (III,4). Lots of snow in the lower gully but the main ice pitch was in good condition.

The Douglas Boulder looming through the gloom. Doesn't look much like any boulder I've ever seen..

A steep mixed section on the South West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder (IV,5)

Ascending Douglas Gap East Gully (I) on our way up to Tower Ridge. A week of north westerly winds meant this was a steeper but more stable approach to the start of the route.

The north face of the Ben in all its glory. Some climbers on Hadrian's Wall (V,5) are pictured on the bottom right.

A party behind us finishing up the final section of Tower Ridge (IV,3) in beautifully still conditions


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Before the start of this year it'd been a while since I had been out in winter just for the sake of enjoyment alone. In 2016 and 2017 walking in the hills was about collecting days for the log book, the worse the weather the better the experience. Now that’s done I really want to focus on being in the mountains both for walking but also for the aspirant winter ML’s forbidden fruit – winter climbing. Whilst on training we were given the impression that a day climbing in winter couldn’t really be counted as a log-able ‘QMD’. A great example of this was when one of my instructors recited when I asked if winter climbing could be combined with a walk to get a QMD.. “if you really want to do your winter ML, a climb in the northern corries walking back over Cairngorm won’t count. You’ll basically need to sell your axes, sell your ice screws and stay away from the buttresses on the north face of the Ben until your certified”. Funnily enough he went on to say he’d give me a fair price when I sell them.. not sure how much it would have cost me to buy them back though! 

Anyway the assessment is behind me now and I’ve been waiting all summer for the season to start. Thankfully the winter this year has already been pretty fruitful, with a cold snap and massive dump of snow happening as early as mid-December. Since then there have been a few thaws but these were mostly minor, with snow staying on the higher crags almost entirely so there has been plenty of fun to be had.

The season started well with a few single day solo missions over to Glen Coe ticking Dorsal Arete (II,3) and Curved Ridge (II/III,3). This was followed by a more serious cold snap allowing the first of a few trips to Beinn Udlaidh in the Southern Highlands. On a perfectly calm and crisp day we managed ascents of Sunshine Gully (III) and Ramshead Gully (III) before racing down for a session in the sauna at the Peak leisure center before it shut!

Further cold weather over Christmas meant that the Lakes just about came in for a few days and I managed another quick solo mission but this time up to Gable Crag ticking Central Gully (III).

Winter conditions returned to the Highlands again in early Jan with lots of snow over the summits and hard frosts freezing everything down to the valley bottoms. We had some amazing winter day scrambling in Glen Coe up Sron na Lairig (II), which was followed by a more ‘atmospheric’ weekend in the northern Corries battling up Fingers Ridge (IV,5) in high winds.

With the onset of further cold weather and yet more snow, another return to Beinn Udlaidh was organised where we managed a quick ascent of Quatzvein Scoop (IV,4) before the weather turned  and the wind picked up. Walking out back to the car felt a bit like being inside a milk bottle being rolled down a staircase! 

Contray to typical Scottish conditions, this year seems to be a season of fairness, with our suffering that day on Beinn Udlaidh rewarded with low winds and cold temperatures the next time out. With a week of drifting snow and westerly winds the east facing crags were a no go zone, so with a need for west facing crags combined with good icey conditions prevailing at Beinn Udlaidh, we chanced a walk into Creag Coire an Dotaidh to see how Fahrenheit 451 (IV,4) was forming.. Ribbons of blue water ice streaming between deep powder at first glance gave the promise of a good fortune, however after an hour of winter sunshine the route started to fall apart around us so we opted for a hasty abseil back to the base. Our consolation prize was a quick ascent of Second Coming (III,4) on the adjacent and shady Beinn Dorain which was in good nick and provided one of the best summit sunsets I’ve seen in a long while.

So far so good.     

Sron na Lairig (II) on a perfect winters day

Moving between the 'fingers' of Fingers Ridge (IV,5) on a rather atmospheric day in Coire an t-Sneachda

Winter wonderland. 

Dan moving up the the exposed rampline below the top of the 1st pitch on Beinn Dorain's Second Coming (III,4). The second pitch ice was a bit thin but still manageable. The traverse at the bottom of the first pitch is amazingly exposed for a III but surprisingly easy once you commit
Sunshine Gully (III) completely choked with ice. Stellar conditions! 

Classic Scottish water ice. Just below the steepening on Beinn Udlaidh's Quatzvein Scoop (IV,4). A really great route in reasonable condition