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Guy Robertson on steep ground - The God Delusion
© petebenson1002, Dec 2008 As the last few smears of Nevis ice vainly resist the spring warmth and all but the psychotically obsessed succumb to the lure of sunny rock it's time to reflect back on a memorable winter in Scottish climbing. I'm not going to try and list every notable route (it would be supremely dull and I'd miss lots out), but instead try and capture a few more general trends and a few of the many highlights of the season.
Talking of highlights, undisputed pride of place for the route of the winter is split between two world-class first ascents occurring at opposite ends of the winter. In December, the Aberdonian A-team of Pete Benson and Guy Robertson packed their torches and a load of spare psyche and tackled possibly the steepest winter cliff around- the giants wall of Beinn Bhan to give the God Delusion IX 9 (UKC News). In mid-March, Andy Turner's commitment to a work-free winter finally paid off when he teamed up with Tony Stone to make the much-eyed first winter ascent of the huge chimney of Sassenach on the Carn Dearg buttress of Ben Nevis, also weighing in at a hefty IX 9.
Read an interview with Andy and his full account of the ascent in this UKC Exclusive Article
Both these routes share several features that to my mind establish them as a new high-water mark of Scottish winter climbing. First, both are natural winter lines- a summer ascent of the tottering vegetation of Ben Bhan awaits someone mad enough (though evidence of an attempt in a bygone age exists), while Sassenach, a huge, loose and damp chimney is as a summer route definitely one for the connoisseur of 'traditional'. Secondly, both are long (250m +) and sustained with almost no 'easy' ground.
Lastly, winter ethics seem to have become increasingly stretched this winter (I'll return to this later), but both these routes, while each requiring a couple of attempts, stuck firmly to the traditional Scottish winter ethic being climbed ground-up, and in fully frozen and snowy nick.
Moving on to some of the other action of the winter, an exceptional number of hard first ascents and repeats were made, with well over a dozen grade VIII's and above climbed, loads of other first ascents- the irrepressible Andy Nisbet managed almost fifty new routes!, and routes climbed in some unlikely places such as the Corrieshalloch gorge and on Arran.
International Meet Photos
A sustained cold late autumn gave an exceptional early season (see UKC Article), with many routes climbed both at the traditional early season venues of the Norries and the high Ben crags, and at more adventurous venues. A long very cold snap over new year sadly coincided with a total lack of snow, before a huge dump brought in many cliffs, though the volume of snow made many hard and hazardous to reach, the tragic avalanche on Buchaille Etive Mor in late January a grim reminder of the dangers. Things were shaping up well for the biannual BMC international meet but a major thaw set in at just the wrong moment, making it a somewhat damp- though good spirited affair (see UKC News). Thankfully, the snowline descended just enough to allow a few routes to be grabbed on the Ben, with visiting superhero Ueli 'Eiger' Steck and entourage climbing the Secret VIII/IX (expect a DVD of damp bemused French and Swiss heros soon), and the frighteningly strong young Slovenian Luka Lindic demolishing the classic Sioux Wall VIII among others. The cold set in again in mid-March, bringing excellent conditions across the country, and some of the classic high Ben ice routes formed well enough to hold out well into the spring.
Staying with the Ben, as well as the traditional late-season ice, the mountain continued throughout the winter to provide high quality, high-standard mixed routes, now almost proving more popular for this type of climbing than the traditional snowed-up rock heartland of the Norries. Many of these routes follow existing summer lines, with a few more first winter ascents ticked this season. Sassenach aside, to my mind perhaps the finest of these were the FWA of the HVS Brass Monkey at VII 8, by Pete Davies and Tim Marsh, forsaking the popular coire na ciste to explore the potential of the sidewalls of observatory gully, and back in the ciste, the FWA of the superb winter line of the E2 Metamorphosis by Iain Small and Gareth Hughes at a hefty VIII 9.
Over in the Mamores, Macleod climbed an overhanging groove-line to produce Yo Bro, which given he considers it his hardest onsight must be very conservatively graded at VIII 9. Otherwise, it's been a quiet winter from Dave (think Echo Wall excuses you!), but there's some disturbing rumours of not so much overhanging as the wrong side of horizontal winter prospecting from him, so watch out for next winter. The Grey Corries and Glen Coe proved popular, as did the hills of Arrochar with excellent conditions seen in March. Over in the east, Creag Megaidh saw little action while the Cairngorms saw periods of good though often overly buried conditions, with a few ascents of the longer classics like Eagle Ridge and Red Guard and some good sounding new routes on the more remote crags.
All of which, somewhat tediously, brings back the old winter ethics chestnut. Ethically dubious 'winter' ascents are sadly not a new thing, but the explosion of blogs and forums has opened the floodgates on debate over the last few years. Personally, I think the ethics debate breaks down into two parts- first, the issue of 'frozenness', and secondly, the question of 'whiteness'. The first is pretty simple, any vegetation used on a route needs to be properly frozen. While climbing frozen turf still does some damage, unfrozen turf is very easily ripped out, permanently changing the character of the route. Additionally, with the growing popularity of winter climbing, climbers aren't the only ones starting to notice the damage caused and we need to remember that many of the cliffs are owned and managed by conservation organisations. This year, there's been a disturbing number of reports commenting along the lines of 'the turf was soggy low on the route but improved with height'- if it's not frozen leave alone.
Andy Turner on pitch 3 of Bruised Violet
© Ian Parnell / http://ianparnellphotography.blogspot.com/
The 'whiteness' question is more subjective. As climbers seek out steeper objectives, getting frozen and 'white' conditions becomes harder, but patience usually pays off. There's a curious myth that 'snow protects the rock from damage'- while in reality having to clear snow and verglas to reach the rock probably produces more scratches than if it was climbed bare. At the end of the day, whether a route is 'white' enough is a personal choice, but consider that the point in wearing crampons and using tools is they grip on slippy snow and verglas- if the rock is bare, boot soles and hands work just as well if not better, its a lot warmer in summer, and you don't need to lug lots of metal with you.
Ethics griping aside, the 2008/2009 winter season has produced two new world-class test-pieces, an excellent haul of ascents and most importantly of all loads of excitement, great views, good times and fun memories. Chuck the spiky toys in the back of the cupboard and enjoy the summer!
He is a regular contributor to UKClimbing.com in both gear reviews and winter articles.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Viv Scott: