The much anticipated Scottish Winter has finally arrived and with it a slew of impressive ascents.
Top of the bunch has been a First Winter Ascent of the stunning and rarely formed The Giant, (VII,7) on the mighty Creag an Dubh Loch, a crag which has seen a lot of exciting activity so far this season. Other highlights include onsights of The Tempest (X,9) and the FWA of Scansor, (IX,9), in Stob Coire nan Lochan.
The first major route to be climbed was the First Winter Ascent of The Giant by Dubh Loch experts and father and son team Doug and Uisdean Hawthorn. This, steep and difficult route gets E3 in summer and due to the fickle nature of the ice on this cliff it requires very particular conditions to form.
Uisdean Hawthorn commented:
"My Dad and I visited Creag an Dubh Loch on several occasions to figure out conditions and see how things had been shaping up. It's a bit of a round trip to get in there as the cliff is a little more remote than most. The Giant was the main reason we were making these visits so it wasn’t just luck that that we came across the right conditions and were the first to do it."
Uisdean and Doug headed out on December 30th hoping to find the line's condition had developed suitably for a successful winter ascent. Unsure of what gear they would need they carried a large rack to cover all bases. The pair found a lot of useful ice and snow on the lower pitches rather than the expected technical, modern mixed climbing.
"We did the climb in 4 short pitches as per the summer description, including the short traverse at the start as one pitch to gain the great rock scar. After that it was a pitch up snow and ice on the great rock scar which turned out to be quite a serious lead due to the condition of the snow and ice, and then on up easier ground for the remainder of the pitch and one more of the same to the top.
Overall the climb was reasonably well protected so long as you knew when best to push on rather than hang around. We graded it VII,7. Descent was by going down central gully back to our other rucksack. The track along the side of Loch Muick was clear of snow, making for a shorter day all round. We had left the car park at 6am and got back there at 5.30pm...
Overall we were pleased to have climbed it together in good style alternating leads after Dad reminded me it was almost a year to the day since I had done my first ever winter lead, Joyful Chimneys on Ben Nevis. Dad did have prior knowledge of the climb, he climbed it in summer 30 years ago! The only thing he could remember was it was hail stoning at the time which didn't really help us much!"
A number of parties have subsequently been in to try and climb The Giant, but were as far as we know unsuccessful due to mild weather.
A few days after their stunning ascent of The Giant, the Hawthorn's made the 2nd ascent of Sword of Damocles (UKC Logbook), finding the amazing ice conditions more like VII,7 rather than the originally proposed VIII,9.
On January 11th after hearing of the Hawthorn's success on Dubh Loch, and encouraged by Doug Hawthorn himself, a large group consisting of the climbing teams of Will Sim and Nick Bullock, Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson, Doug Hawthorn, Uisdean Hawthorn and Callum Johnson, and Iain Small and Simon Richardson headed in to 'The Dubh Loch' in search of new routes.
First in were Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson, hoping to climb the summer line of Falkenhorst (E1), which resulted in a new route at the easier than expected grade of VII,7. The pair named the route Defense of the Realm, with Greg commenting on his Blog that "it was worthy of a 4 star rating... it was a real joy to be part of another FA at this amazing crag."
Simon Richardson and Iain Small climbed a line further right on the crag, just left of the existing route The Sting, naming it Hustle and grading it (VII,7).
Callum Johnson and Uisdean Hawthorn climbed the FA of Take the Throne, on Dubh Loch's Broad Terrace Wall, just to the left of Sword of Damocles. Doug Hawthorn spotted the line and pointed out to the pair, who, after some thought, graded it VII 6.
Arguably the biggest news of the day however, came from the last party to arrive at the crag, Nick Bullock and Will Sim, who climbed the FA of The Cure, which they graded VII/VIII,8. Upon arriving at the crag, they had no real plan to try a particular line, and so just picked the best looking one that had no other parties on it, which was between Boswell and Robertson's line and Simon Richardson and Iain Small's. It featured a technical and burly first mixed pitch, led by Will, and then two bold, thin ice pitches which Nick led.
Boswell and Sim were soon at it again, this time heading into Glen Coe on the 13th of January, to Stob Coire nan Lochan. After trying a very hard new line with little success, Will Sim made the second onsight ascent of Neil Gresham's hard and controversial route The Tempest, X,9.
The Tempest was first climbed by Neil Gresham in 2001 in a controversial style where he pre-practised the route on toprope before leading it with pre-placed protection. To convey the style which he had climbed the route, Neil gave the route a grade of M9. Then, in March 2010, the route was repeated by Andy Turner, who took a couple of attempts to climb the line cleanly owing to not having enough rack for the upper section. Dave MacLeod then made the first onsight ascent, having climbed into a similar position as Turner, finding himself with not enough gear and reversing to the deck, before returning and climbing the route to the top. (UKC News Report)
Will found the route in a very icy condition, and thus found the climbing more bold than technically difficult, with no real gear above half-height. Will abseiled off the top of the route and Greg then 'flashed' the route on Will's gear, agreeing with Will's experience of the route.
Duncan: Where are you based?
Will: At The moment I’m based in Aviemore as I have my Scottish Winter Guides Exam at the beginning of March and want to be out in the Scottish hills as much as possible between now and then. The idea being that I get to know the area as well as possible so that I have a load of experience of good places to take my clients during the test week. The test has absolutely nothing to do with climbing hard, but all mileage is good mileage!
Duncan: How has the season been so far? Seems to have been a bit of a slow starter?
Will: Yeah the weather has been really crap recently, in December there were many days where we couldn't even get in to the crags let alone climb on them, and conversely days where everywhere was totally black. It's been a bit of a nightmare to be honest!
Duncan: Then you headed to the Dubh Loch? Seemed to be a great sociable day at a crag in great nick?
Will: Yeah we all headed in on Saturday. Although Greg and I had also been in the week before to attempt another new, amazing looking line that when it gets done will be really hard. So, a few teams headed in, Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson, Nick Bullock and myself, Iain Small, Simon Richardson and Doug Hawthorn and Uisdean Hawthorn and Callum Johnson. We were basically following the Hawthorn's (Doug and Uisdean) as, in Simon Richardsons words “there’s only one Dubh Loch expert”. Doug has probably done more FA's and routes there than anyone else, and has his finger well and truely on the pulse with regards to conditions. Greg and Guy headed in really early as they wanted to try the best looking line on the crag, and figured somebody else would have the same plan! The climbing on their route looked and sounded amazing and they called it Defence of the Realm, grading it around VII,7.
When Nick and I walked in we just stood at the base of the crag, and looked up trying to visualise the most fun way up the wall, which basically means we wanted it to be hard enough so that it was interesting and not a total giveaway, but easy enough that its realistically do-able on a first attempt. We seemed to get it just right, and joined the dots on a line that was burly, technical and interesting but also a level of difficulty that allowed us to reach the top that day! This is something I love about climbing new routes, its an opportunity to be creative, looking up at a well featured piece of rock, and just joining the dots in an aesthetic way.
Our line ended up being about VII/VIII,8, although to be honest who ever knows what grade you’ve just climbed? The climbing, however, was amazing with the first pitch taking some brilliant mixed climbing leading to a curtain of ice. Nick then lead the next two pitches which were thin ice pitches, something that Nick excels at. Although the top pitches weren't that hard, it was awesome to watch Nick totally at home as he tip-toed his was upwards. We named it The Cure, for reasons that are clear if you read Nick's blog. It was a great route, the kind of stuff that makes you giggle as you climb because its so much fun.
Duncan: Then on Monday you went to Glen Coe, and pulled an onsight of The Tempest (X,9), out of the bag! How was that, it sounded terrifying!?!?
Will: Yeah, that was a bit of a surprise, I guess, Greg and I had gone in to try a new route but hadn't managed it due to a lack of protection, we then went round to check out the Tempest. In all honesty, due to the condition that we had the route in, it was more bold than technically super hard.
I didn’t actually know anything about the route, I could vaguely remember a picture of Cubby’s of Neil on the first ascent, and knew that either Dave or Andy had removed most of the in situ gear a few years previously, so it felt very on sight, I even made some hard moves in the wrong direction at one point!
I managed to get some pretty good kit just above half-height, but after that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to the top. I could have maybe bounced on the ground if I’d fallen from the very last moves. With a stubby screw the top would have felt a lot nicer! Greg lead the route on my gear afterwards, and Nick and Guy did an awesome looking route round the corner, so it was a group send! As to the grade, I'm not really sure, I’m not too experienced when it comes to the top Scottish grades.
Duncan: Now that the season is shaping up, have you got your eye on anything in particular?
Will: I definitely have a few routes that I’d like to do, but for me the best thing about Scottish winter climbing is that you can walk into almost any of the big Scottish crags, see an absolutely gobsmacking unclimbed line, and go and try it, you don’t need to know of them beforehand, they’re there for everyone to see! It’s like a playground and is such a fun style of climbing, and at the moment the options for new stuff seem fairly endless. This is the sort of thing you just don't get rock climbing in the UK, where everywhere you look, almost everything has been done, or is way too hard for you! Having said all that, my main aim for this winter is to pass my winter guides exam, that’s definitely the most important thing for me right now.
Hot on Will and Greg's heels were Nick Bullock and Guy Robertson, who also headed in to Stob Coire nan Lochan, and climbed the first ascent of Slenderhead/SlenderMan, VIII,8, taking a line of corners up the right wall of SC Gully. The line had been tried before but none of the teams had got past the first pitch.
Duncan: About The Cure, Will stated he thought it was the "Best style of climbing - looking up and trying to connect the dots on a line that would be hard enought to be interesting - but still with a reasonable chance of success" How was that day for you? You got the thin ice pitches right?
Nick: Yep, I did the top two pitches, bloody brilliant, like Will says, laughing all the way while gently tapping... E6 WI4+! I love coming to a crag and using imagination to weave a line while joining features that are impossible to know if they will connect and give good climbing. The Cure certainly did that, not Scottish at all in feel, the water ice being so thin and chewy, reminded me a bit of the New England stuff I did this time last year, really good fun as long as you don't look for the last piece of gear!!
Duncan: Was Slenderhead a similar situation of joining the dots up after arriving at the crag, or was it an objective you and Guy had previously thought about?
Nick: Slenderhead, which by the way Guy called SlenderMan, I got it wrong but I prefer Slenderhead, was purely walking to the crag with something else in mind that Guy wanted to look at but this line standing out more than anything. Totally an on the spot decision with absolutely no knowledge. It turns out that possibly Mark Millar and Si Yates may have done the initial groove in the 80's, but that's all I think, and I spoke to Si yearsley yesterday who said Stephan Siegrist and another also climbed the groove and abseiled back off from above... these things will happen I suppose when trying something so obvious and totally on-sight without any previous investigation. To my knowledge though, I think this is the first time anyone has joined all of the dots and got to the top in a continuous push. It helps as well that the 2nd pitch and especially the third pitch are such good quality. The third pitch was actually the most technically difficult but the first was the most committing given conditions!
To investigate a line to me is losing the adventure, not using what you are given on the day, that's why once a thing has been tried a few times I would rather not try it, it isn't delving into the unknown and having an adventure as much, it turns more into a game of strategy!!
In addition to this, on Friday 17th, Tony Stone and Iain Small made the FWA of the summer E2, Scansor, in Coire nan Lochan also. The route climbs up the pillar to Unicorn's right, and features technical climbing and difficult gear on its second, crux pitch. The pair had attempted the line last year but been unsuccessful, they graded a winter ascent of Scansor IX,9, putting it up there in the top levels of Scottish difficulty.
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