Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Climbing Am Buachaille

Sea stacks are funny old things. These distinct and dramatic features often provide a focal point for our coastal scenery with people traveling from far and wide to stare at their majesty and mystery, yet are nothing more than a creation of coincidence, where more competent rock was subject to slightly less erosive force than everything around it. None the less, seas stacks have captivated the imagination of onlookers for centuries past, usually being at the centre of myths and legends, whether through being personified as a result of their shape or form or even being fantasied, perhaps representing the action of a god or deity, each one is unique and has its own story to tell.  

Putting aside their rich mythical history, sea stacks are also a window into the past, being the only trace of a lost landscape devoured by the relentless force of the ocean. Perhaps its this temporal intermittency, knowing they are just a brief blip in a never ending destructive process, notwithstanding their typically inaccessible demine, which makes them such an alluring challenge for the rock climber.

For me it all started back on the Island of Lundy in 2014. My first stack, the Devils Chimney, was definitely a great introduction to the delights of this esoteric sub-sport with both a remote situation and equally complex approach, requiring a 100m abseil onto the wild western facing and cliff rimmed Jenny’s Cove. Loose rock, puking sea birds and an ever-shortening tide window were the order of the day and all added to the adventure. I’m not sure whether it was the incoming sea or perhaps our soon to depart ferry which ensured rapid ascension back up the cliff after our ascent!
The Devil's Chimney, which is the biggest stack on Lundy, is a ~40m stack situated on the islands west coast in the Bristol Channel and was my first ever sea stack climb. (Source)

The main route (HVS 5b) is the most popular route up the stack and comprises some quite steep and in places, loose rock.  
Last weekend was another milestone for me having now ticked the much famed Am Buachille (meaning ‘the Shepherd’) sea stack, completing my trio of ‘classic’ Scottish Sea Stacks (with the others being The Old Man of Hoy and Stoer). I’ve often read that the former, Am Bucahille, is the most committing of the three on account of its inaccessibility. I guess this is because it requires a long walk in and also a sea swim to access the base of the stack, whereas the others can be accessed in any tidal state with Hoy being completely non-tidal. Having ticked the stack, i'd agree it’s the most committing, but the climbing (assuming you don’t mind a bit of loose rock) is actually very straight forward, taking a wondering line up the stepped landward face and out-flanking most of the difficulties posed by any overhanging sections. That said, the route is very enjoyable but is indeed in a very very remote location, being a 5 mile walk from one of the most isolated communities in the UK, so having a balls up is really not an option! In reality this day is all about the adventure, having a great time with some great company. 

Am Buachialle is a 50m high sandstone sea stack situated a few miles south of Sandwood Bay near Cape Wrath. The stack is one of the 'classic 3' Scottish stacks and is often considered the most serious on account of its approach and its isolation.

The approach to the stack requires a long walk across the moors south of Sandwood Bay before descending a large broken cliff and finally scrambling along the rocky shoreline.

To get to the base of the stack you also have to negotiate a permanent sea channel which must be swum (as there are no suitable anchors for a tyrolean). We took a small blow up boat and a spare rope to ferry our gear across to the base of the stack. (Photo credit Iain).

The climbing on the stack is steep to start and a bit loose, but has okay gear and gets more interesting the higher you get up. We opted to climb the Landward Face route (VS/HVS) which comprised of three pitches, the first two of which were the technical pitches. (Photo credit Iain) 
Abseiling from the top can be done in one go with 60m ropes, although 50m ropes may also be fine with a bit of stretch. The tat at the top was in okay condition and looked like some of it had been recently replaced. 

Iain coming down the final section on a perfect spring day.

The team (from left to right) comprising of Iain, Berny, Gregor and the author (Photo credit Iain)

Beautiful Scotland. (Photo credit Iain)
In terms of beta, everything you need to know already exists in guidebooks and the various blogs you'll find on the internet, plus its nice to have a few things to discover for yourself. The only thing I would add is that for us the tide constraint isn't actually at the base of the stack and was in fact a short section of the approach along the cliff base just before you reach the stack. It would be worth making sure when you're moving off the stack that the tide hasn't engulfed this short stretch as you'd be pretty stuck for options if that was the case! The again, if you've got a blow up boat you can all just hop aboard and set sail for Sandwood!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The thaw is finally here and what a hell of a winter season its been. It all started a bit avalanchey but that soon settled down, leaving the mountains plastered in firm snow and ribbons of ice. Living in Scotland has certainly been the key to getting out and enjoying such great conditions as much as I have this year. The fact the Highlands are now only an hour away compared to 10 hours when I was in Devon massively reducing the journey time is the most obvious change, but for me I think it’s actually being able to choose when to go and not trudging out in bad conditions ‘just because I’ve driven a long way’.

As I’ve mentioned before, because of my winter ML I haven’t really done all that much winter climbing before, mainly as I was so focused on getting quality mountain days rather than going to the crags. Getting the right amount of days in out walking and mountaineering was really crucial to my success in that instance, but now it’s done, I really wanted to enjoy the mountains and choose what I want to do for me and for no other reason.

One of the most challenging obstacles this year was actually finding partners. All of my trips before have either involved ‘mountain days’ where the terrain couldn’t be too technical otherwise a rope would be needed thus becoming out of the remit of the qualification, or I’d be going with somebody to spilt the driving up. Luckily for me there is a really good network of people both on social media and also down at the climbing wall, which meant I could usually always throw some kind of plan together at the last minute.

I’ve posted below pictures from some of my favorite routes this year. Enjoy!

Crowberry Gully (IV,4) - we got up at 3pm for this one, beating the crowds and were treated to a sunrise across Rannoch Moor. A great day, even if it was over by 10! 

A mountain that needs no introduction. This year so of the best snow and ice conditions I've ever experienced with many of the mountains snow capped from December to April!

Emma and Phil on Sron na lairig (II). Another belter of day. No wind, no clouds, just pefect cool crisp and clear air with stunning views. What more can you ask for?

Loch Lomond's winter coat. It really has been a white winter this year, with snow right down to the valleys (and even the cities!). Later on in the day when this was taken I got stuck in a tunnel in Glasgow as they had to shut it temporarily to allow for the removal of giant icicles above the carriageway!  

Topping out on Tower Ridge (IV,3) in perfect conditions.

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