60 years of Andy Nisbetby Gary Latter May/2013
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He has more nicknames than, well someone with lots of nicknames – 'The Winter Lemming' (to do with an early attempt on Eagle Ridge (VI 6, Lochnagar) in a blizzard, wearing overtrousers under breeches to get wind protection and grippy knees, and which failed when he fell off the Tower and broke a crampon), 'The Honey Monster', 'The Droid' (a reference to his ungainly rock climbing style), 'The Goat of Barten' (he lives in the village of Boat of Garten, near Aviemore) and 'Tank Commander'. This last one came from fellow instructors working for Martin Moran in the Winter; whilst they would spend time defrosting their windscreens early in the morning, Andy would merely clear a narrow slot... I'm sure there are a few more!
Born in 1953, he started hillwalking with parents whilst at primary school in Aberdeen. Remembers Bennachie (pronounced ben-a-hee) a popular small (528m) hill west of Aberdeen as the first time he really enjoyed hillwalking. He got more into hillwalking when he went to Aberdeen Grammar (secondary school) in the mid-sixties, starting Munro-bagging (Scottish hills over 3000'/914m). Ten of the first 130 compleatists of all 282 Munros were either teachers or pupils at the school. Andy completed his first round at 19, about six months before his fellow schoolmate Alfie Robertson, as he had climbed a few with his parents. At the time it was thought he was the youngest compleatist, but he later discovered that Mick Geddes had compleated them aged just 17. He is now on his fifth round, with about a hundred to go, though he only does this in the Autumn, as training for Winter climbing, and at present as training for a trip to India.
His first actual climbing was on Andy & Alf's ascent of the East Ridge of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, (Moderate) one of his final Munros. Andy recalls asking his dad beforehand how to climb, and being described how to tie on round the waist and do a shoulder belay, but no instructions about tying on to the rock. Nisbet senior had never climbed, just read a book! Andy recalls the pair climbing the In Pin in this fashion, with someone stopping to observe their rudimentary climbing/belaying skills, then walking away just shaking their head!
In August 1973, the pair booked on a rock climbing course at Glenmore Lodge, run by the legendary Bill March. This cost £2 for the week, heavily subsidized by Aberdeen University, as there had been a bad accident involving students on the local sea cliffs a few years before. They climbed on the local crags at Kingussie, remembers doing a very early ascent of Pushover, HVS 5a on Stac an Fharaidh overlooking Loch Avon, and on the superb roadside crags at Polldubh in Glen Nevis. March had planned to do The Bullroar, a sustained and increasingly exposed HVS rising traverse on Carn Dearg Buttress on Ben Nevis, but it rained overnight, much to Andy and Alf's relief. Instead, March took them aid climbing in the rain at Polldubh, but after one route, the pair asked "can we not just go to the pub?" which had never been asked before on a course!
Five months later the pair went on a Winter course at the Lodge, (costing £3 this time!), though with a different instructor each day, this wasn't nearly as inspiring. Climbing with a long wooden-handled axe and short hammer, this was just before the dropped-pick revolution.
After graduating (in biochemistry) at Aberdeen University, Andy went on to do a PHD, then spent 3 years in a hospital doing a post-doctorate "It wasn't the best career for me." He took a year out in 1982 just to climb, and never got back in. He later took short-term work just to earn enough money for Winter. Worked in autumn – in oil industry, in lab, working very long hours for couple months. He continued like this until 1985, when he went on Mal Duff's Everest expedition. There, he met Allen Fyffe and Bob Barton, who managed to get him a temporary contract at Glenmore Lodge on his return. He worked there in the Summers of 1985 and 1986.
"They asked me to work in the winter of 1986 and fortunately I declined, as 1986 was a great winter, but by winter 1987 I was enjoying the work enough to say yes. The chief instructor said to me one day:" "There's a space on an MIC course, somebody's dropped out" Andy tried to get out of this by responding "I don't have my Summer or Winter Mountain Leader though." "You've been wandering about the hills for years – you have now." and he was on the course. Although he got deferred on the self-rescue & teaching children days, he re-sat and passed these elements shortly afterwards.
"I wasn't really at all talented as a rock climber, and took a long time to get up the grades. Centurion (HVS 5a, Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis) was the best from the early days (1977), along with Gob (HVS 5a) on Carnmore Crag. The best routes often have a story. It was so windy on Centurion (but not on the route) that we watched our tent blow away but managed to blag a night in the CIC Hut. Gob was climbed in mid-November in t-shirt weather on a day from Sheneval bothy. West Flank Route (E1 5b, Cir Mhor, Arran) I particularly liked. I always liked the Etive Slabs – I remember doing The Big Ride (E3 5c) when it was Scottish VS, when I was only climbing about HVS on steeper things. The failure to get back down was the main reason for success."
"In August 1976 a friend from Aberdeen and I decided to go to Shelter Stone Crag to climb The Needle (E1 5b). He walked through from Braemar and I from Cairngorm - meeting at the Shelter Stone at 10am. There were already two climbers about 200ft up the route. They were going quite well, so we decided they wouldn't hold us back. However the higher we got we realised they were taking it in turns at the crux, to no avail. When we reached the stance, they told us they were going to abseil off. We carried on up as they descended. Some time later, I found out they were two Aberdeen climbers, Alf Robertson and Andy Nisbet. The lad has come a long way since then, hasn't he?" - Clive Rowland
"Vertigo Wall (a classic Patey VS on the steep and imposing Central Gully Wall on Creag an Dubh-loch in the Cairngorms) was a real breakthrough for me and my mate Alfie (Robertson). OK, the style was pretty poor (8 points aid and a bivi), but basically we did it because we didn't know how to abseil off, not knowing about prusiks at the time." (1977). Andy returned in 1986 with Andy Cunningham to make the first free ascent, raising the grade to VII 7.
"For me, Andy is one the greatest Scottish winter climbers of all time and ranks alongside legendary figures such as Raeburn, Marshall and Patey. Several years ago I wrote a profile of Andy and concluded that Andy had made first ascents of over a quarter of the 600 or so routes graded V or over, with a distinct bias towards the higher grades. Of the dozen routes that merited the magic VIII grade at the time, six of them were Nisbet routes. "Nobody has so influenced Scottish winter climbing since Tom Patey in the 1950s," I wrote. "Nisbet's domination of the sport is almost without parallel in British climbing. One has to look to the records of Fred Beckey in North America, or Patrick Gabarrou in the Alps to find climbers whose influence has been as long-lasting and profound." Fifteen years on, this assessment still holds true, and despite the passage of time, Andy still climbs more new routes than anyone else each season.
Andy has not just made a massive contribution due to the number of new routes he has climbed, but also in how we play the Scottish winter game. Up until the early 1980s, mixed climbing was a very different activity to now. The crux pitches of Postern and The Citadel on the Shelter Stone for example, were originally ascended on powder-covered rock wearing thin gloves. In 1981, Andy began to experiment with mixed climbing techniques on Carn Etchachan above Loch Avon. It was a poor winter with little snow and ice, but the deep cracks of the Northern Cairngorms granite proved ideal for jamming ice axe picks. These experiments led to the development of torquing techniques, and the routes climbed by Andy led to an explosion of standards that define Scottish mixed climbing as we know it today. Many climbers now focus on the first half of the season, when Cairngorms mixed climbing is at its best, rather than wait for the classic snow and ice routes to form." - Simon Richardson
"I had been climbing cracks with axes for a while but Nymph VII 8 on Lochnagar in 1984 (since fallen down in huge rockfall in 2000) was a bit of an eye opener, torqueing up a big HVS layback crack. Apart from being the first time I'd heard the name torqueing. Colin MacLean suggested the route, after he and Arthur Paul had climbed the nearby Psyche VI 7 a couple of months earlier. Colin and Arthur had been climbing together a bit. At the time people in Scotland didn't really climb with climbers from other cities – Arthur and Colin (both from Glasgow) were the first to climb with the Aberdeen climbers."
The real breakthrough that year, and probably the one route Andy is most proud of, is his ascent with Colin MacLean of the 'last great problem' at the time of The Needle VIII 8, on Shelter Stone Crag, with a planned bivi. Andy used trampons – home made plates with tricouni nails; Colin walking crampons with no front points.
"Make no mistake The Needle is properly hard. There are grade VIIIs and grade VIIIs; if you do a short test piece like The Secret on the Ben and imagine that you've mastered the grade, I respectfully urge you to think again." - Martin Moran
"Colin and I had already tried Mort at the time, almost finishing it – if weather had been better, he might have finished it." Mort, IX 9, was finally climbed after many attempts over the intervening years, by Brian Davison, Andy & Dave McGimpsey in January 2000. Both from a technical and seriousness aspect Andy rates this as the hardest route he has ever climbed.
Another classic Summer E1, Unicorn VIII 8 in Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glen Coe, was also climbed with Colin the same winter. "The evening before, we met Ian Nicolson in the Kingshouse (Inn) and he asked us what we were planning. When we mentioned Unicorn, "It's not in nick" was the typically defensive response."
The Winter after climbing with Colin MacLean, Andy teamed up with fellow Lodge instructor, Andy Cunningham, a much better rock climber, but who had done very little in Winter. They did many new winter mixed routes including Trail of Tears VII 7 on Lochnagar, along with many routes in the accessible Northern Corries, including Fall-Out Corner VI 7 and Magic Crack VII 7. "Torqueing things – nobody else seemed interested in torqueing things. Then Rab (Anderson) got keen, but we still reckoned we'd done the best routes by then, though we missed out on Hoarmaster VI 6 which is really good, though we did The Overseer V 6. There were no other rivals at the time. Andy and I used Charlet Moser axes, which were a bit better for torqueing. Colin just gave up – he never got his enthusiasm back." Andy got a contract at the Lodge starting in the Winter of '87 "I've never worked more than 6 months a year."
No single person has dominated the development of a major cliff in Scotland (or indeed elsewhere in the UK for that matter) than Andy's contribution both in Summer and Winter to the sandstone and quartzite buttresses and walls of Torridon's finest venue. With something around 120 new routes or First Winter Ascents, with a variety of partners, throughout the full spectrum of grades, from the best and most popular line up the centre of the classic Central Buttress - Nisbet's Route, VS 4c through to a collection of superb extremes including Moonshine, E4 6a, Angel Face, E2 5c, Seeds of Destruction, E3 5c, Sumo, E3 5c and Ling Dynasty, E5 6b amongst a host of others.
"There were large areas of unclimbed rock but they all looked desperate. I abseiled down a blank-looking face, soon realized there were holds and protection and it could be climbed at a reasonable grade. This soon became Angel Face, then I got mad keen on the place."
In winter, the list of stunning modern-day classics is also impressive: with mainly mixed lines such as Vishnu, VII 6, Shang-High, VII 7, Mistral, VII 7, Jenga, VI 7, and Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears, VIII 8 just a small representative sample.
Andy has edited Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal's new routes section since mid eighties. "I stopped for a year or two (1989 & 1990) - Bill Murray persuaded an AGM to stop recording routes of less than 150 feet. Not that it happened but I did resign" There would be an awful lot less routes recorded now if that was still the case, and a lot less of the popular (and profitable!) SMC outcrops guides.
"The big thing with the guidebooks is that they stop me spending money on other things" He is far and away the most prolific Scottish climbing guidebook writer, with involvement, as either author or contributing editor, in six of the current titles – Scottish Winter Climbs (co-authored with Rab Anderson), The Cairngorms (co-authored with Allen Fyffe), 3 volumes of the Northern Highlands series (North, Central & South), Scottish Rock Climbs selective guide, and the latest Scottish Sport Climbs offering. Asked if he was going complete the gamut and write a Scottish Bouldering guide met with an unequivocal: "No, I don't like bouldering."
Asked about his reputation as a fast driver "I do have trouble keeping below 12 points." An oft-quoted phrase of another legendary Aberdonian climber, the late Tom Patey spring to mind, with his description (in his classic book One Man's Mountains) of the "power-crazy charioteers" who drove like demons along icy roads on the approach to the crags, but refused to do any leading, as they were "responsible family men". There are many tales of Andy's 'immoderate' driving; including that of two well-known mountain guides, who fought with each other for the back seat, as neither was prepared to sit in the front after a days winter climbing.
"As for anecdotes about his driving, as you know he's got a bit of a reputation for that. Last year we were coming back from Golspie, after a day checking out crags for the new sports climbs guide. I was in the back seat and looked up to see another heart-in-your-mouth overtaking manouvre and Andy shaking his head at the driver he was passing. "He was making an obscene gesture at me". Pause. "That happens quite a lot". – Dave McGimpsey
"Andy worked for ten years in my guiding business. His appetite for exploration was insatiable and his students were treated to many memorable outings, in the course of which Andy developed nearly every half-decent crag in Kintail plus numerous ascents in Applecross and Torridon. As boss I was delighted to see such enthusiasm but became increasingly concerned when Introductory courses were turned into pioneering trips. Andy finished one Intro week by taking three students up a new grade V, 5 icefall on the south side of Liathach – The Sneak. On another, two new routes were accomplished on day one! I inserted clauses into his contract in a vain attempt to curb such excesses – for example "no new routes until the students have been taught ice axe arrest". The other worrying aspect of Andy's working style was his driving. While Andy was meticulous in safe execution of new routes he would drive at immoderate speed in his beaten up VW Golf, especially at the end of the day when there was a mad rush back to base to see Heather the Weather on BBC Scotland. On one week the electrical controls on his windows packed up in the open position. Undeterred he instructed the students to wear full mountain kit for marathon drives to the Fannaichs and Beinn Dearg. I enjoyed several great pioneering days with Andy, most notably on Blood, Sweat and Frozen Tears (VIII 8, March 1993) on Beinn Eighe's West Central Wall. I was privileged to be allowed in on the secret of this great line, which has since become a true classic with several dozen ascents. Andy didn't discriminate on standard or quality of routes. So long as it was new he was happy to do it. I remember returning from the ascent of an awful heathery grade IV on Sgorr Ruadh with him and deciding that I hadn't enjoyed myself at all, but there was no point appealing to Andy's discretion. His enthusiasm would outlast the most ardent of his partners but the wonderful thing about climbing with Andy is that he is a true gentleman and a delightful companion." - Martin Moran
"On reflection, I did take what is now classed as "chances" but there's a lot to be said for instruction being like real climbing rather than the sanitized version with lawyers looking over your shoulder. I'm not claiming I was right but a lot of clients had great days."
"My favourite Andy story - which I can not confirm as true - is when he allegedly forgot his boots when working for Martin Moran and arrived at the parking venue with clients only to strap his crampons onto his trainers and carry on as if nothing were out of place!" - Steve Spalding
Here are some stories about Andy from those that know him very well:
"Always the optimist: having just fallen 80ft off Poacher's Fall on Liathach, snapping the hangers off his Russian titanium ice screws and with a badly broken femur, he turns to his clients and says "I'm OK. I'll get going again in a minute".
"He was guiding two of my clients that day and it was 14 hours before he was rescued, packaged and put in a helicopter, 12 of them spent standing on one leg at the top of the third pitch with his other femur well and truly shattered. A heroic effort of survival. I remember him shouting that "I'm really struggling" as we abseiled in to get him at 1am – I was seriously alarmed, I knew he must be at the end of his tether if he could say that." – Martin Moran
"A couple of weeks ago Andy phoned me and we start having a chat about the great conditions and all the impressive routes that people are doing. This seems to remind him why he phoned me "I've lost my new routes list, I've searched the car and it isn't there so it must be in either your car or Jonathan's, could you have a look?" I'm puzzled, "What list? Is it the list of routes people have been doing this winter?" (knowing it's the time of year where he has to start chasing up people for descriptions of new climbs so he can compile them into the new routes section in the journal. "No...no, it's much worse than that, it's the list that has every unclimbed line I know of in Scotland". ..Hmmm! That would have been a moral/ethical dilemma if it had been in my car (it wasn't though or in Jonathan's; much to his relief he found it soon mixed up in a pile of other papers." - Dave McGimpsey, one of Andy's most frequent partners.
"Behind the somewhat disheveled appearance and gentle demeanour there lies a steely determination and absolute obsession with Scottish winter climbing. His encyclopaedic knowledge of Scotland's mountains is second to none, gained from decades of experience. Using this and web based info he has an uncanny ability to home in on where the optimum conditions and weather for new route activities might be - though he doesn't always get it right...." - Jonathan Preston
Written by Gary Latter (with thanks to Sandy Allan, Rab Anderson, Martin Moran, Dave McGimpsey, Jonathan Preston, Simon Richardson, Steve Spalding, Smiler Cuthbertson & Neil Morrison for contributions and/or photographs).
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