Interview Exclusive: Sassenach (IX, 9) - The First Winter Ascent

© Jack Geldard - Editor - UKC
Andy Turner is one of a group of UK winter climbers pushing the boundaries in Scotland. In this UKC interview we get to know him a little better and he also gives us a full account of his recent first winter ascent of Sassenach (IX,9) on Ben Nevis with the young Scottish climber Tony Stone.

Andy's exploits are also detailed in our new Scottish Winter Round-Up article by Viv Scott.


Ben Nevis new-routers - Andy Turner and Iain Small  © Jack Geldard
Ben Nevis new-routers - Andy Turner and Iain Small
© Jack Geldard, May 2009
Jack: So... who is Andy Turner?

Andy: I came to climbing quite late at the age of 25. Previously I'd been a road cyclist. I'd taken this up at 13 and competed in local races until around the age of 20 when I was given the chance to go and race abroad. I spent the next few years living and racing in Europe. Living in places like France, Belgium and Holland where cycling is up there as one of their national sports is amazing. Living with local families and winning enough pennies to survive I managed to get a few good results as well as spending lots of time picking myself up off the floor having crashed. It was a brilliant lifestyle which taught me a lot of good lessons. Nowadays its trying to find the right balance between work and play which is the hard thing. Having a summer contract at Plas y Brenin certainly helps, this gives me time to play in the winters. 

Jack: So you work as an instructor. Have you been doing that for a while?

Andy: Yes, for the past 11 years I've been an Outdoor Instructor working around the country from Scotland in the winter to presently Wales in the summer. I'm currently working for Plas y Brenin, in Capel Curig.

Jack: You've been climbing for a few years now then. What would you say was a turning point in your climbing if you had one?

Andy: A big turning point for me with my climbing was moving to Scotland in early 2000. I got a job working for Outward Bound on the shores of Loch Eil just outside Fort William. Although it didn't give you a massive amount of time off to climb it introduced me to lots of local talented climbers. Sessions down at the Lochaber leisure centre after work watching folk like Dave 'cubby' Cuthbertson cruise across the boards were pretty inspiring. Until moving North of the border I'd done most of my climbing with friends I'd introduced to the sport so I'd always be doing the leading which was pretty hard when it came to pushing your grade.

After a couple of years living an institutional centre life I moved to the big smoke of Fort William. I moved into a house which was known as the 'beige palace' which it was far from being, more like a student doss. The full time resident was one Jonny Baird, who was working his way through the British Guides scheme. As a big part of the scheme revolves around Scottish winter climbing, the floors were always full with roving aspirant guides. With the likes of Rich Cross and Al Powell hanging around you can't fail to be inspired. 

Andy Turner - Top 5 Routes

    Neanderthal, Glen Coe.

    Sioux Wall, Ben Nevis.

    Central Grooves, Glen Coe.

    Centurion, Ben Nevis.

    The Secret, Ben Nevis. 

Jack: Sounds like you've done a few winter routes... So what is the best route in Scotland?

Andy: Big question! So many good climbs out there it would be hard to pin point but probably have to be one out of my top five list.

Jack: New routing in Scotland - it isn't everyone's cup of tea is it?

Andy: Climbing new routes in summer or winter is a funny game. People are reluctant to give anything away and choose to keep projects under their hat until the moment is right to get involved. Even then you can give the game away to your mate, only to arrive at your chosen objective to find out it's out of condition. Then you swear your partner to secrecy under pain of death should it slip out into public knowledge!

Jack: If you could climb one route – what would it be?  

Andy: Right Wall in winter? ...only joking!

Tim Neill  © Jack Geldard
Tim Neill
© Jack Geldard
Jack: Who in British climbing inspires you the most?

Andy: Tim Neill who I work with. The man is so keen and motivated he always makes me feel guilty for not getting out. 

Jack: What ascent this year has made you go 'wow'?

Andy: Although we've had a really good winter this year as far as snow levels go it has not been an amazing one for hard climbing. Either the routes have been buried or you've been up to your eyeballs walking in.

The God Delusion on Beinn Bhan has to stand out as well as Bruised Violet on Beinn Eighe that I followed Ian Parnell up, these are both routes that are now pushing the grades on remote and so far relatively untouched walls. Both walls have got hard classic routes on them like The Godfather (still unrepeated) and Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears but these walls hold so much for the future.

Another route that's definitely got the wow factor is Dave Macleod's route on the Ben, Anubis. He gave this E8 6c when he did it a few years ago in summer but right at the end of this winter he lashed himself to it with his tools and although didn't get up it now sees it as a possibility... and we all know what that means. 

Jack: Wow, that does sound futuristic. Dave Macleod eh, what will he get up to next. What does the future hold for you then? And for Scottish climbing?  

Andy: The last few years in Scotland have been amazing. There's been a resurgence of new activity across the country. People thought there was no new climbing to be had on the Ben but now it's become a Mecca for hard mixed climbing. It's become an early season haunt even before the first ice starts to form. The scene is growing in strength year on year with people pushing each other to harder and better climbs. It was so good to be partnered with Tony Stone on Sassenach and Centurion, he's one of the new young talents coming on the scene and at only 24 years of age he'll still be going strong when all us old boys are sat in our wingbacks reminiscing of days gone by.

For me, although I've been heading north for almost 15 years I'm still as keen as ever. There's still amazing new lines out there to be climbed and winter only ones at that. They're all destined to be pretty hard but that motivates me to get out and climb in summer as well to get even stronger for the following winter.

Jack Geldard was talking to Andy Turner

Andy Turner is supported by Petzl , Beal and La Sportiva

Click here to learn more about the La Sportiva Batura

Sassenach - The first winter ascent

by Andy Turner

You can't help noticing the striking line of Sassenach as you wander your way up the Allt I muillin.

The route was first climbed in summer by Joe Brown and Don Whillians in 19xxx and stolen from under the eyes of the scots, hence the name.

This time around amends were made in the form of young Scottish prodigy Tony Stone. At the tender age of 24, Tony already has many hard ascents to his name in both summer and winter.

I'd tried the route the previous winter with Steve Ashworth. Looking out of the window at heavy snow, wondering what we could do the following day without wading up to our eyeballs, we had fallen upon the description for Sassenach and the seed was sown.

A quick drive over to Fort William saw us sitting in the CIC hut later that evening. The forecast had been wild on the west coast and was due to get worse. This was perfect as the Carn Dearg buttress is the last place in Scotland to get a covering of snow and rime. The winds were so strong they blew down the hut wind turbine and fractured the gas pipe. Running repairs using snow balls were needed.

The next morning the alarm went off at 5am and, finally summoning up the courage to head outside, we stumbled blindly in the maelstrom in the rough direction of Carn Dearg. At the base of the route it was difficult to look up because of the fury of the storm, but we geared up and set off. Steve made light work of the 1st pitch, with me following blindly behind. On reaching the belay what lay ahead was now clearly visible, a huge curving roof.

Quickly swapping the rack I started off up the slab under the roof. It soon became apparent it wasn't going to be easy, the gear was ok but footholds and axe placements were all pretty blind. Up above I could see the remnants of an old sling, the old aid point? It spurred me on, thinking it would be the next piece of gear. I reached out to it with a tool and it disintegrated in to the whirling storm.

Andy Turner on the crux of Sassenach (yes it is that way round!)  © Tony Stone / Andy Turner
Andy Turner on the crux of Sassenach (yes it is that way round!)
© Tony Stone / Andy Turner
Bridged precariously above the belay, I managed to half weld a bulldog into a crack. By now my calves were starting to burn more than my forearms. The way ahead looked awkward with a big flake standing in the way of easier ground. Several attempts at trying to overcome it saw me slump on to the rope.

I rested, then, almost horizontal, I was trying to get my whole body around the thing. Pulling in behind it I managed to get a knee bar and a much needed rest. With arms fading fast and the last piece of gear way below my feet, my head started to wain in the gathering storm.

Struggling once again to get some gear into icy cracks, the realisation of not succeeding was starting to weigh me down. I could see easy ground off to the side but several aborted attempts later trying to use unhelpful cracks saw me again slump on the rope. Eventually pulling into the bottom of the chimney at the end of the pitch was a relief not only to get through the hard climbing but to escape the ferocious winds that had been battering us for the last few hours. I hammered a couple of hexes into the cracks and shouted safe. The pain and suffering was now passed over to Steve.

Steve set off, but then the rope came tight. Knowing at that point the climbing was pretty tenuous I wasn't concerned, but five minutes later when the tension was still on the rope things weren't looking good. Shouting in to 100mph winds was fruitless, even trying to call Steve on his mobile didn't work, mainly because he never turns it on. On peering over the edge, Steve's battered face could be seen staring back... Walking down from the hut that afternoon gave me time to reflect on what might have been, and I vowed to return.

A year later and I found myself and Tony Stone gearing up at the base of the route. Getting blasted with snow and ice was painful but a good sign of things to come. Though I had climbed with Tony for the first time only a few days earlier, I knew we had a fair chance of success.

Quickly knocking out the first pitch, Tony brought me up to the stance. Looking up at the curving roof brought all the memories of last year flooding back, but this time I knew what to expect. The difference it makes going for the redpoint instead of the onsight is amazing. I knew where the good hooks were and the resting places.

Tony Stone enjoying the steep chimney on Sassenach  © Tony Stone / Andy Turner
Tony Stone enjoying the steep chimney on Sassenach
© Tony Stone / Andy Turner
Placing the first few pieces of gear gave me the confidence to climb quickly up under the roof, aiming for the runners I'd had to leave last year. Blasting round the flake with fading arms, both my feet popped and left me hanging from my tools - I screamed for all my worth. Missing out the knee-bar rest I used last time, I managed to throw in a wire before forging on through the upper cracks and sketching across the slabs into the bottom of the chimney. Slumped completely exhausted, I clipped into last year's belay and shouted the magic word 'Safe'.

The next pitch is the first of the chimney pitches and if the route is climbed in the original style, with aid points at the roof, this chimney pitch gives the summer crux. At only 15 metres, it is one of the shortest pitches, but a veglassed chimney is bound to give a good fight.

"I hate chimneys..." admitted Tony while racking up on the belay. He repeated similar words a short while later, when all that could be seen was his crampons poking out of the fissure behind him. A fine effort!

Fully engrossed inside the chimney now, all we knew of the outside world was the odd wave of spin-drift pouring down from above. Getting through the next pitch was going to be the key to our success. Graded 5b in the guide, this could mean hard climbing but luckily the chockstones at the back of the chimney gave good hooks and in no time at all the top of the chimney was in sight. Standing on the small snowy ledge, looking down at the allt I muillin and hoping all the difficulties were behind us, the feeling was amazing. Tiny people could be seen returning from their days activities, some stopped and stared up at us. We climbed quickly up icy grooves and corners to top out at the big boulder at the top of Carn Dearg just as darkness fell. Having done the descent a couple of days earlier in the daylight - crossing spooky slopes, doing it in the dark proved to be the scariest moment of the day.

Walking out all alone, the realisation of what a little perseverance can achieve slowly sunk in.


Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKC Supporter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

7 May, 2009
Good article. I've done the route in summer (with the sling) and didn't think it would ever be climbed in winter.
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest