2016/17 - the season that was...Rebecca Coles sums up a tough season for Scottish winter.
The winter of 2016/17 is not going to go down in history as a vintage year for Scottish winter climbing. The hills were lean and the thaws were severe, stripping back the meagre snow and ice to bony buttresses. Despite such conditions, hard mixed routes were climbed and first ascents made. This article summarises those new routes and hard ascents and, for the mortals amongst us, the lower grade routes which were in condition during this more unusual, and hopefully rare, winter. It is not a comprehensive list, more an overview, so feel free to comment on your routes of the winter in the forums.
The winter started promisingly when a cold snap over the first weekend of November brought wintry conditions to the Highlands. During this period, Dave Almond and Helen Rennard grabbed the second ascent of Sake (VIII, 9), on Ben Nevis. Whilst, Steve Perry, Jonathan Preston and Andy Nisbet headed to Lurcher’s Crag and made a first ascent of Theory of Relativity (VII, 9). Steve Perry and Andy Nisbet returned a few weeks later and added Wolfpack (VI,7) to the crag with Sarah Sigley and on Ben Nevis on the same day Adam Russell and Uisdean Hawthorn climbed Avenging Angel Direct (VIII,8) on Creag Coire na Ciste. The early cold conditions, combined with the publication of Simon Richardson’s Chasing the Ephemeral, meant that enthusiasm for the forthcoming season was high. As the winter wore on one chapter became increasingly thumbed; Lean Times.
In between the thaws, when the crags were unstable, I enjoyed some of the Cairngorm classics. Climbing classics such as Finger’s Ridge (IV, 4) in Coire an t’Schneada and Fallout Corner (VI,7) in Coire an Lochain, I began to find my feet on mixed climbing and embraced the mono-point. Whilst trying not to fall out of Fallout Corner, across the coire, a team were hanging off tools on a much steeper route. Guy Steven and Murdoch Jamieson were climbing the impressive Open Heart (VIII,9) a route which was also climbed by Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell this winter. A few weeks later Greg visited the Coire to put up one of the hardest new route of the winter when he and Scott Grosdanoff climbed a new line which they named Intravenous Fly Trap (X, 10).
The day after climbing Fallout Corner I headed into Coire an t’Schneada and climbed The Seam (IV, 5). My new-found enjoyment of mixed climbing was nearly destroyed when, battling off Fiacaill Ridge in increasingly violent winds, I was picked up and flung to the ground, making me sob into my goggles. Over two months later the lump on my shin is a reminder of that day. However, it did prevent me from using the alpine knee manoeuvre with my right knee for the rest of the winter, vastly improving my technique.
Other routes which were regularly climbed in the Cairngorms this season include Invernookie (III,4), Hidden Chimney (II/III), Hidden Chimney Direct (IV,5), Pot of Gold (V,6) and The Message (IV, 6) in Coire an t’Sneachda and Savage Slit (V,6), The Hoarmaster (VI, 6), Deep Throat (V, 6), Sidewinder (III, 4) and Ewen Buttress (III) in Coire an Lochain, sometimes with dubious Scottish winter climbing ethics. On Creagan Cha-no the Anvil routes were climbed early in the season and Martin Holland and Euan Whitaker added Big Boy Made Me (II,3) to the crag.
I’d hoped to climb in the Loch A’an basin this winter, and in particular, Cold Climbs’ Deep Cut Chimney (IV, 5). Climbing partners and conditions didn’t align for me in the end, but many others did make it to Hell’s Lum to climb Deep Cut Chimney and were rewarded for their efforts. Python (V, 6) was climbed on Carn Etchachan and Steve Elliot and Ross Cowie climbed Postern (VII, 7) on the Shelterstone. Several ascents of Mitre Ridge (V, 6) on Garbh Choire of Beinn a’Bhuird were also made over the winter.
In Strathfarrar, John Mackenzie and Andrew James climbed Globetrotter (IV,4), on the North-East Face of Sgurr na Muice, of note because this new route was 280m long. Throughout the winter there were little was climbed in Lochnagar and the Southern highlands, but Stuart Mcfarlane and Brian Shackleton did manage a new route on Beinn an Lochain which they called Clockwork Orange (V,4). The reliance on ice on Creag Meagaidh meant virtually nothing was climbed there all winter.
On the West Coast the early part of the season was characterised by usually dry weather, leaving an alarming amount of tittering choss exposed above Number 2 Gully (II) on Ben Nevis as well as many routes too loose to climb. When the snow did fall, it covered ledges in useless fluff. Subsequent thaws were prolonged and severe and, in the latter part of the season, combined with heavy rain, which stripped the snow in hours, leaving the buttresses black, the burns swollen and winter climbers retreating into hiding. Despite this I remained positive about the winter, that was until someone reminded me that I’d not gone outside for 6 days straight at one point. Other, hardier, climbers were persistent in their quest for routes.
Some new routes were climbed in the Cuillin. Mike Lates and Sophie Grace Chappell put up Silver Fox (V,5) a 235m-long route in Coire Lagan early in the season and the seventh Skye Winter Festival bore five additional routes. Several weeks after the festival Michael Barnard and John MacLeod made the first winter ascent of Canopy (VI,6), a Severe chimney-line on Blaven.
In Glen Coe, the highest buttresses received the most attention which meant that crags such as Church Door Buttress on Bidean nam Bian were more popular than usual. I’d heard that the routes were climbable and walked in for a poke around. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised that it had been put on UKC. After an inadvisable casual start and, being a weekend, was confronted by a pile of bags and walking poles at the base of the routes. Flake Route (IV, 6), Flake Route Right Hand (V, 7), Crypt Route (V, 6) and Poco Loco (VII, 7) were all being climbed. We eventually got on Flake Route, not realising that many of the routes converge to all climb Raeburn’s Chimney, delaying us further. We topped out in the dark.
In January, Iain Small and Helen Rennard, stalwarts of this Scottish winter season, added an excellent new line to the buttress, The Prentice (VII, 8). Iain returned in March with Simon Richardson and made a new routing excursion to this crag, Simon reporting Iain’s phenomenal lead to put up The Ninety-Five Theses (IX,9) adding to Iain’s impressive haul of the season. The new topo of church Door Buttress, put together by Malcolm Bass, Iain Small and Simon Yearsley, now aids climbers heading to this crag.
Elsewhere in Glen Coe, routes on the Buachaille Etive Mor were regularly climbed including Curved Ridge (II/III), (often in summer condition), as well as North Buttress (IV) and Shelf Route (V,6) when the mountain was more wintry. Dave Evans and Tim Neil gave up with winter at one point in February and climbed Agag’s Groove as a rock climb in big boots, reporting that it was harder in the wet than in winter condition.
Other hard climbing in Stob Coire nan Lochan was made by Ian Parnell and Tim Emmett who were close to climbing the prized Satyr (IX,9) but were unable to climb the final pitch due to lack of conditions. The quality mixed climbing in the coire meant that, when it was frozen, it gave good climbing. Central Grooves (VII, 7), Tilt (VI, 7), Innuendo (V, 6), Evening Citizen (V,7), Intruder (VI, 7), Scabbard Chimney (V, 6) and the superb Crest Route (V, 6) were climbed regularly throughout the winter. Lower graded routes providing reliable climbing included the ever popular Dorsal Arete (III, 3) and Reaburn’s Original route (IV,3), especially if the first pitch omitted when the turf wasn’t frozen. For me Crest Route was the route of the season, both technical and strenuous on the second pitch and wonderfully exposed on the fourth pitch, a thoroughly worthwhile route.
Routes on the East Face of Aonach Mor remained elusive throughout the winter, little ice, large dumps of avalanche prone snow mid to late season followed by severe thaws kept people away from many of the routes. Buttress routes, easily accessible via abseil, were climbed on occasions, such as Morwind (III, 4), although this route remained lean throughout the winter and was general thought to be a grade harder, and Grooved Arete (V,6) and the Web (II/III) were also climbed. Routes on the West Face, being of more amenable grades, got ascents in viable conditions throughout the winter including Golden Oldy (II), Western Rib (III) and Daim Buttress (III).
Ben Nevis, the refuge of winter climbs long after other crags are no longer in condition, even struggled on occasions this winter. Optimistic freezing level forecasts left soggy and demoralised climbers on even the highest routes. Climbing Number 3 Gully Buttress (III) high in Coire na Ciste, the excitement of placing the first ice screw of the season was soon quashed when the freezing level shot passed us on the first pitch and the dripping buttresses soaked us before the rain soaked us again. By the time we’d finished the route, we were drenched and the thigh deep wade across the swollen Allt a’Mhuilinn was inconsequential.
Throughout the winter the main ridges of Tower Ridge (IV, 3), Castle Ridge (III), North-East Buttress (IV, 4) and Observatory Ridge (V, 4) were regularly climbed as well as Ledge Route (II) and the SW Ridge (IV, 4) and East Ridge (V, 4) of the Douglas Boulder. Periodically routes such as The Clanger (IV, 5), Cutlass (VI, 7), Wendigo (IV, 4), Faulty Towers (III) and Gargoyle Wall (VI, 6) were climbed, as well as routes on the Little Brenva Face and around Raeburn’s Easy Route (II) which came into condition. Harder routes such as Sioux Wall (VIII, 8), Darth Vader (VII, 8) and The Knuckleduster (VIII,9) received several ascents. It wasn’t until later in the season that routes such as Comb Gully (IV, 4) and Green Gully (IV, 3), and Glover’s Chimney (III, 4) were climbable, although they didn’t always taking screws.
Alan Kimber had promised to buy everyone a drink if Point Five Gully wasn’t climbed by the end of the season. It was looking like it was going to be quite a party at one stage. However, he was saved from an expensive bar bill, when in late March the route was climbed on a number of occasions, Mike Pescod reporting climbing the route in great nick.
Some new routes on Ben Nevis were put up in the middle of the season including the direct finish to Babylon made by Greg Boswell, Stuart Lade and Jon Frederick which they called Hanging Garden (VII, 8) giving a very aesthetic line. With the colder weather set in from the middle of March a run of new hard mixed and thin ice routes fell in rapid succession. Iain Small continued his unstoppable run of hard first ascents by climbing The Shape Of Things To Come (IX,9) with Simon Richardson on the North Wall of Carn Dearg. They followed this feat a few days later with another new grade IX, The Ninety-Five Theses, on Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe. Then returned to Ben Nevis to climb a previously unclimbed right-hand groove to the right of From the Jaws of Defeat which they called the route Failure Is Not An Option (VIII,9) and later Tick Tock Direct (VII,7) and a yet to be named (VII,7) route. Also on Ben Nevis during this cold period, Dave MacLeod and Helen Rennard made a first ascent of CloudJumper (VIII, 9) and Greg Boswell, Adam Russell and Guy Robertson, climbed a new linkup which they called Frosty’s Vigil (VIII,8).
Without a doubt this season was more challenging than most. Scottish winter is prone to frustrate, abuse and disappoint, and this winter it tested even her most faithful followers. Yet, no matter how cruel she is, like a captive sickened with Stockholm Syndrome, I look forward to the next time we meet.
What was your best route of the winter? Let us know!