The SMC Guide to the Outer Hebrides
There are few places more special in this world than the Outer Hebrides, but can the SMC's latest guidebook do the area justice? Rob Greenwood takes a look...
Released in time for the current Scottish winter season, Chasing the Ephemeral by winter new route guru Simon Richardson is a guidebook with a difference. We think it's an instant classic, and quite unlike any previous guide. Others seem to agree, and two site users have sent us excellent reviews of the book in recent weeks. Rather than publish only one, we've combined them both here.
We’ve all done it: excited at the prospect of a winter weekend away, booked well in advance and financially committed, you make the long trek north only to have a weekend of anything but ideal conditions. Dripping ice, thigh deep powder or soggy turf have led to much flailing (and failing) on routes and ultimately a washout weekend. Then you get back home, log onto the Internet and find that elsewhere in the country, winter routes were getting done in style and in condition. Just in time to help you avoid such a scenario this winter season comes Chasing the Ephemeral by Simon Richardson.
Simon has been at the forefront the Scottish winter scene for decades, and as he himself notes in his book, with the responsibilities of a high-powered job and family, he has been limited to only climbing on Sundays. Despite this, he has had a remarkable winter career with a new routing success rate pretty much second only to Andy Nisbet's. This he attributes to careful analysis of the weather forecasts and conditions, and cunning planning. If you have ever had the privilege of tapping into Simon’s encyclopaedic brain on an iffy winter’s morning he will give you advice in spades about where to go and what to climb.
This book lays out his strategies, how to select your route and then go and climb it, with 50 routes given as illustrative examples. More than a selected guide, this is a distillation of that Encyclopaedia Scotia tucked in his head. As winter climbers we are very fortunate that he has committed it to print.
The introduction starts with the reasons for writing this book, a brief word on mountain conditions and styles of winter route, a section on how to use the book including a route suitability table categorising the route’s style and whether it’s likely to be in condition. It also talks about the five types of mountain conditions that are the headings for the subsequent chapters:
1. Early Bird
2. Cold Snaps
3. Lean Times
4. Top Nick
5. Late Season
Unsurprisingly, there is a long section in the introduction on strategy regarding choosing a route and weather forecasts. There is also a clear explanation of the difference between rime ice, hoar frost and verglas, a confusing topic for many people. The pros and cons of using the Internet are spelled out - I liked the slightly tongue-in-cheek comment on the websites of guides and mountaineering instructors that are “refreshingly upbeat, and typically provide an enthusiastic view on the current conditions in the local area.” Simon makes some very good points about learning from other people’s experiences on the Internet. Even if you can’t get out that weekend, go through the process as if you were going to then compare your decision-making with the reports that are posted at the end of the weekend to see whether your choice of area or route was actually climbed by other people and what they reported they found.
Again, due to the emphasis of this book, there is generic advice around things such as ropes, gear, rucksack packing, avalanche etc. But as it modestly says in the introduction, for more detailed instruction there are plenty of other books written by far more suitably qualified people than Simon. Where this book is particularly strong is in the tips and tricks to help speed things up, make things more slick and generally get the best out of the day.
The introduction also includes a long section on the layout, approaches and descents for Ben Nevis, paying particular attention to navigational hazards.
The rest of the book is split into the aforementioned five chapters, each focusing on a particular winter condition and outlining 10 or so routes that are suitable for that condition. Each chapter starts with an introduction which gives an overview of the sort of routes that will come into nick in the prevailing conditions for that stage in the season - a great help with understanding Simon’s approach. Then onto each route in the section: starting with grade, location, altitude, aspect, rock type and first ascent details. There is also half a page of scene setting, either some history or personal anecdote that gives a bit of context to each climb. The featured route then continues with a description of the approach, descent, conditions, top tips, and route description. There is also a pull-out box listing alternative routes and the relevant comprehensive guidebooks. Each route section also has graphics with the obligatory map, photo topo and inspirational photographs.
Some of the routes selected aren’t obvious choices. For example, Wobbly Block Chimney is not in the same class as Orion Direct but the point is that Simon has climbed and enjoyed each of them. They may be the best possible route climbable on the day taking account of the prevailing conditions. By being more flexible, Simon calls it “taking a more opportunistic approach”, you will have a far more productive Scottish winter climbing season than waiting for the perfect condition days.
Unsurprisingly, the 50 chosen routes are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. However, certain areas are missing. Most notably, the mountains of Skye, the An Teallach massif and also the Torridon area. As Simon puts it himself, “although other authors may have included a quartzite route on Ben Eighe in the Early Season Routes chapter, for example, I don’t feel I know the mountains there well enough to make an informed choice.” The climbs vary from grade III to grade VI with a couple of low-in-the-grade VIIs to which to aspire.
Overall, the book is an inspiring read. The collection of photographs from many different contributors, both the usual suspects and less well-known, make for an excellent showcase for the Scottish Highlands - and the full range winter conditions. It’s not just all blue skies and sunny days. The layout is logical and it’s easy to dip into.
Chasing the Ephemeral is suitable for all Scottish winter climbers, not just those who already have some seasons under their belt. Even people in their first winter season will learn masses and improve their success rate for future years.
There is hardly anything negative to say about this book. It has been well thought through, well executed and is, consequently, well laid out. It contains nearly four decades worth of knowledge based on Simon’s extensive new routing winter climbing career and lessons learned from other winter activists. The only real downside to this book is the price: £25 seems a bit steep given the size of the book (256 pages). However, put into context, if that saves even just one weekend’s wasted trip or failure on an out-of-condition route when you could have been enjoying excellent nick elsewhere, then the price seems very reasonable for a lifetime’s experience. This book is an excellent addition to any winter climber’s library and I, for one, will read it from cover to cover more than once.
Ephemeral - lasting for a very short time. Expert, diehard or novice, if you love winter climbing and want to up your game, then Chasing the Ephemeral by Simon Richardson will make a difference.
Packed with expertise gained through Simon's decades of climbing, this is not simply a guidebook! You are tapping into almost forty years of Simon’s life. The strategy and tactics chapter offer no guarantees however; to fulfil your objectives take a leaf out of Simon’s book. At age eighteen Simon walked the Allt a' Mhuilinn path en route to Ben Nevis. As the north face appeared a love affair was born, the beginnings of a special relationship of which Chasing the Ephemeral is just the latest chapter.
I was fortunate to attend Simon's lecture at Outside in Hathersage this December. My overriding thought as I drove home was “when was the last time I came across someone who had such extensive knowledge of his subject?” which in Simon’s case is Scottish Winter Climbing. The man’s achievements are simply mind blowing, with over six hundred Scottish winter new routes. Add to that twenty new Alpine routes and the prestigious achievement of climbing well over fifty winter lines of at least grade VII. If you thought Simon’s talent ends there then you are wrong! Simon writes beautifully too. Once Scottish winter correspondent for High and subsequently Climb magazine, his journalistic career spans a quarter century. Simon’s blog Scottishwinter.com must be the number one source of Scottish winter wisdom on the planet. Simon is also author of the 2002 Ben Nevis guide of which he said “I am very proud” - and so he should be.
With his encyclopaedic knowledge and attention to detail, Chasing the Ephemeral is a book which at worst is quite special but more probably unique.
As with the book, from start to finish Simon's talk was an explosion of outstanding images, a multitude of facts, and commonsense tactics that will make a difference. With an objective achieved ratio of 9/10 Chasing the Ephemeral is generously packed with words of wisdom from Simon's glittering career. Chapters cover everything from choosing a route, weather and equipment, to cycling. Yes cycling, an efficient way to approach a mountain on short winter days! It’s of no surprise that Simon's career in the oil industry culminated in senior management with multinational BP. Oil exploration is a high risk business in which tactics and strategy play a major part, the difference between finding the black stuff or not. I have no doubt that when faced with just one day a week to climb Simon adopted a similar mindset to that used at work.
With so many guidebooks in print, originality is hard to achieve. With its unique mix of routes and advice, Chasing the Ephemeral achieves that in spades. It is less of a guide and more a way of thinking! It strikes me that planning is as big a factor in winter success as the more tangible skills employed on any big day out. Yes fitness and climbing ability count but the way you approach your objective is as important. I know that all too well, having rocked up at the Charles Inglis Clark (C.I.C.) Memorial Hut on two occasions. Over two visits of four days I climbed only one route, the magnificent Tower Ridge. Had I read this book no doubt the outcome would have been different.
Routes are categorised into five sections corresponding to the different conditions to be found at various stages in a season. With grades from II to VII the emphasis is to climb at the right place at the right time. That may be an obvious statement, but the way you think will no doubt be influenced by the book, increasing your enjoyment by several factors. From the Cobbler in the south to Cul Beag in the north and a central band of objectives from Ben Cruachan in the west to Glen Clova to the east, twenty two locations and a total of fifty routes are described in fine detail. There is no doubt that Simon’s pick all have outstanding qualities on their day. Route descriptions are original and more comprehensive than in the standard guide. Tower Ridge for example includes background information, conditions, top tips, alternative routes and of course the route description and map. A topo and three inspirational photographs collectively give a comprehensive feel for the climb.
The book looks stunning, with work from dozens of photographers. In terms of inspiration it scores ten out of ten. My pick of the images include p162 Kevin Avery on Darth Vader by Bob Wightman, and p178 looking down the upper reaches of South Post Direct by Ewan Lyons. The depth and breath of images confirm that the best available have been used throughout. Turning to page 142 my heart sank: Joe Smith leading the final pitch of Green Gully on Ben Nevis. A great image of an outstanding young man! Joe tragically died in a winter climbing accident along with Simon Davidson last winter in Glen Coe. There is no doubt that Joe would be proud and flattered by his inclusion.
Over a season winter devotees will not solely rely on Chasing the Ephemeral - the comprehensive area guides are still going to be needed. But then this is far more than just another guidebook - it is a way of thinking, and an inspiration. Simon’s attention to detail and devotion to his obsession are likely to save you years of failures. This is the most interesting guidebook published in years.
Being in the right place at the right time is critical when Scottish Winter Climbing. This guide will help you make the right choices – do you go high or low, head east, west or north, or attempt snowed-up rock, mixed or ice climbs? With more than 600 new Scottish Winter Climbs to his credit, Simon Richardson reveals his simple strategy for success and selects 50 climbs to put on your hit-list.
Simon Richardson has been climbing in the Scottish mountains in winter for the past 35 years. As well as developing classic climbing areas such as Aonach Mòr, Simon was instrumental in introducing the Scottish two-tier winter grading system, pioneered modern mixed climbing on Ben Nevis and is author of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s climbers’ guide to Ben Nevis. During the winter he reports on the Scottish Winter Climbing scene in his popular blog scottishwinter.com
A detailed analysis of the strategy and tactics Scottish winter climbers need to be in the right place at the right time, taking into account Scotland’s sometimes fickle conditions and unpredictable weather. Sections include on using weather forecasts, using the Internet, avoiding avalanches, clothing and equipment, protection, navigation, timing, partners and psychology.
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