One Last Hit Before Christmas

As Christmas is fast approaching, people are travelling all over the world to be home with their families. Ally Swinton (a good friend of mine) is one of these people, and last week he flew home from Chamonix in the French Alps to surprise his parents and to be home for the festive period.

As I had not seen him for nearly six months, the first thing I did when I heard he was back in the country for a week, was to call him and make plans to get out in the hills before he headed back to Cham.

Ally on the first pitch with Sioux Wall above him

So on Tuesday night we drove across the country to the Ben Nevis NF car park and kipped in my car, ready for some awesome weather and an awesome route the following day. When we awoke, the moon was still flooding the night sky with light and as we walked up onto the mountain we didn’t need to use our head torches, even on the forest section of the approach.

We walked up to No.3 Gully Buttress and as we approached, we could see the that routes were in awesome condition. We did the route “Sioux Wall”, which is another mega classic on the Ben. As it was only Ally’s second route of the season and his hardest Scottish mixed route to date, I offered to lead all the crux pitches, although his main pitch packed a fair punch!

Me on the 2nd pitch

We soloed halfway up the first/access pitch then Ally lead the section to below the 2nd pitch. I then went on to lead the very enjoyable wall pitch to the top of the first crack section (below the obvious corner groove) where there is an in-situ belay. We where following the summer route description in the Ben guide book, but a friend of mine who had done the route previously, said that the winter route splits the second pitch into two pitches.

Ally seconding the 2nd pitch

So that is what we did, and once I had brought Ally up to the belay, he sorted the rack and set off up the corner pitch. After a good battle with the technical groove and icy cracks he eventually made it to the belay below the steep crack (crux) pitch, and brought me up.

Ally heading into battle

I then ran the crux crack pitch and the continuation crack pitch together, the first crack section was a little strenuous to start but it soon eased off, although it remained technical and hard enough to stay interesting. Once I had pulled over the last tricky section I arrived on the large platform of “Number Three Gull Buttress”. I brought Ally up to here and he swiftly ran up the exit pitch of NO.3 buttress in the dark to reach the top!

Me on the crux pitch

It was good to get out in winter with Ally and now I’m super psyched to go to the Alps in January to get on some steep ice and Alpine routes with him.

The One Horned Pony!

Yesterday Mike Tweedley and I headed up to Stob Coire an Lochain to have a pop at the mega classic line “Unicorn”. We had talked about climbing this route together two years ago but had never actually got round to getting on it.

We arrived at the bottom of the route just as the sun was turning the Aonach Eagach Ridge a beautiful pinky/red colour in the light of dawn. After another technical game of rock, paper, scissors it was decided that I would lead the first pitch and that we would alternate leads after that.

Me starting up the awkward first pitch of Unicorn

I set off up the huge looking corner line hoping that there wasn’t going to be as much verglass in the cracks as there was on the Ben on Saturday. As I progressed up the pitch it was obvious that there was some verglass around, that made finding good protection more difficult than usual. Especially in the crux niche where the thin crack at the back had filled with rock hard ice which made it very strenuous to protect, as I had to clear the ice away before I could place any wires. So I opted for the bold option of placing one nut at the bottom of the niche and charging to the good hooks higher on the pitch. 
Me high up on the first pitch of Unicorn

That was a decision I soon came to regret, and as my left foot was standing on tiny rock crystals and my right foot was just jammed precariously in the V-niche, (which kept popping out and making me over grip my axes which sapped more of my energy), I prayed that my axe picks wouldn’t rip out of the very thin hooks I was yarding on. Always in the back of my mind was the fact that I was high above that one little nut in the icy crack (WHAT A STUPID DECISION!).

Thankfully they didn’t rip and after another 20 meters of climbing, I arrived at the first belay fairly unscaved, apart from being a little mentally drained from the crux section. I quickly set up a belay on the hanging stance and started to bring Mike up the pitch.

Once he was at the belay and we had sorted the gear, he set off up the steep second pitch and swiftly got into the motions of technical egyptians, big lock offs and raging calf bump/burn. This pitch was home to some amazing moves and very technical climbing. Not bad for Mikes second route of the season.

Mike starting up the second pitch of Unicorn
Mike nearing the top of the technical second pitch of Unicorn

After my next pitch which also had some hard moves at the top, Mike lead the last short section under the light of an almost full moon, and once at the top of the route the whole of Glen Coe was lit up in the clear nights sky. This was the icing on the cake for me, I could have sat up there on those snow covered rocks in the still nights air for hours. But we quickly sorted our kit and headed down the easy gully (glissading) back to our bags.

Unicorn was an awesome line and it was good to get it done with Mr Tweedley after having talked about doing it in the past. What an awesome day!

Tired but content at the top

The Art of Survival!

Yesterday Tony and I headed up for some winter action on the freshly rhimed up buttresses of the North Face of Ben Nevis. We both had our own projects in mind and we agreed that a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors at the hut would decide on which of our two routes we would do.

We did this and the lucky Mr Stone won the game, so off we trotted up the hill towards the buttresses. When we were half way up, the wind and spindrift was starting to get very strong and it soon became apparent that the forecast weather of little winds and a high percentage of clear sky’s was not going to arrive and that it wasn’t a day for trying hard project routes in the mountains.

Tony just before retreating from a Verglass nightmare

We agreed on another route,but as Tony started up this, I noticed that he was 20m up without a good/any piece of protection. He soon shouted down that the verglass was making it impossible to protect this hard route and that he wasn’t comfortable to press on without any good gear. I agreed and Tony then down climbed back to the base of the route.

We then decided to go and try a route that I had wanted to do for a while and Tony had done previously called “Cornucopia”. As it was getting late by this point we agreed that I would do the whole route in one big pitch and then rap off and strip the route, hopefully before it got too dark!

A quick photo of me on Cornucopia before another spindrift cloud hit!
(the ropes show the wind)

I stared up the route, and after fighting my foot free due to getting it well and truly stuck (mid crux), getting my eyes frozen shut numerous times, not being able to look at my feet without getting blinded because the epic spindrift and running out of good gear placements from the amount of bullet proof verglass on the route (more like trying to survive than actually climbing). I finely pulled onto the top and the proceeded to quickly rap back down and strip the route to a very festive/frosty looking Tony.

We pulled the ropes and retreated through the gale force winds and blizzards back down to the hut as quick as the deep snow would let us, while trying to avoid the unstable avalanche prone slopes on the way.

On the walk back to the car and once we were out of the wind, it turned out to be a lovely decent due to the almost full moon beaming down on us and lighting up the path and forest trail, meaning we didn’t need to use our head torches on the entire decent.

It was then back home for the Christmas party on Sunday and back out climbing again on Monday!

Bring it on!!

A good way to end a trip

After an amazing, but tiring, previous day on The Brack I was up again at 3:30am yesterday morning to drive to yet another winter climbing venue. I was an hour into my journey when my intended climbing partner texted me to say that his car had broken down and he wasn’t going to be able to make it. This turned out to be not too bad, as I knew some friends of mine where heading over from Edinburgh to go climbing on the west anyway. I swiftly rang James (the Stig) who was about to set off to drive west and told him about my lack of partner situation and he said it was ok as they were in a three and I could join them to make two teams of two.
The Route Topo
We arranged to meet at Tyndrum and as I arrived well before we had decided to meet (as I was already on my way) I was keen to catch up on some well needed sleep. I jumped into the self made bed in the back of my car and snuggled into my cosy Vaude sleeping bag. When I awoke it was light outside and there was not a cloud in the sky. I knew that even though I was tired from Tuesday’s antics it was still going to be a good day and I was keen to get out even if it just meant seconding some easier routes due to my fatigue.
approaching the route
We ended up going to Beinn Udlaidh which I was keen for as fat Ice climbing doesn’t involve too much energy. We walked up the snowy forest trail and in to the base of the Coire. I was planning to climb with Neil Carnegie; a good friend of mine who is keen for easy or hard routes (which is always a bonus). As we gained sight of the ice falls only one route stuck out in my eyes, this was a big ice fan hanging down from the lip of a very steep looking wall. Suddenly all my thoughts about being tired and taking it easy went out the window and I was super psyched to get on this hard looking thin ice line.
Starting up the first bulge
Gaining the Ice
I set off up the first steep mixed section and it soon became clear that there wasn’t much gear to be had, and when I committed to the technical traverse I was quite far away from a very poor nut. I then reached an icy blob on a small ledge which I used to hang around on to find some gear before I committed to the crux moves onto the ice fan.
Getting established on the fan
The only kit I could find was a half hammered in pecker, but it was pretty good (so I hoped). I got psyched and charged for the thin ice, which turned out to be pretty good and it didn’t take long to get established on the fat ice pillar, Ahhhhhhhhhhh…… thats better!!! Apart from the start of the second pitch which was a bit thin and teetery, the rest of the route was fairly straightforward but great fun. 
I gave the route VII/7*** (with a bold start) and called it “The Crooked Smile”.
Home free on the fat ice
All in all it was a good day, apart from leaving a rack of nuts at the top of the route which I had to run back for from the bottom of coire (fairly tiring after a week of back to back climbing). But I can’t complain because it was been an awesome week’s climbing and I’m looking forward to next Monday when I’ll hopefully be out doing it all again.

Thanks to Sean Bell for all the amazing photos.

There will be blood, but it will be worth it!

Feeling pretty psyched from my previous three days in the mountains (earlier blog posts) I was yet again ready and eager to get out climbing again. So early on Tuesday morning I met up with Guy at the forestry commission car park as for The Brack.
We had a quick cup of coffee and discussed our intended options for the day. We knew it was going to be a hard one but we were both keen to have a go.
We were planning on trying to get the FWA of an E3 called Mammoth, which is a route that has a lot of history and is described in the guide book as dirty and green (ideal for a winter ascent).
We began the steep walk up to the buttress and after some wading through waist deep snow we arrived at the base of the route. We dug out a ledge and dumped our bags, as we geared up we both where a little quiet due to the uncertainty of the up and coming days difficulties! 
Once we were both ready to go we trotted to the base of the route and I tied into the sharp end. The moves off the ground seemed to be absolutely nails and after a few good attempts on my behalf which resulted in bleeding hands and many down climbs back to the base, Guy offered to have a look. After a sterling fight through the first section he had soon dispatched the first pitch and we were one step closer to our goal. But we knew we couldn’t relax yet as there were still three hard pitches above us and the second pitch was the crux of the summer route.
Even though I had given a good fight on the first pitch I still felt fairly fresh (apart from the sore hands) and was psyched to give the second pitch a go. As I reached the base of the steep crack an anxious lump arrived in my throat, I had never climbed anything that looked this hard in winter before and I knew it was going to be a battle. But If you don’t try, you don’t get. So off I went and as I suspected the climbing was super strenuous and pumpy with a very hard/awkward cruxy move in the hanging pod half way up the pitch. My biceps were cramping up at this point from all the deep locks and as I pulled into the pod and tried to get a rest from a knee jam in the steep crack opening I realised I still had yet another steep roof section to go before I got to the belay. Another lump arrived in my throat, I had just fought as hard as I ever have on a winter route, and I still had to pull through that gnarly looking roof crack. My biceps were not pleased with this! But yet again I thought I might as well give it a try. I got some gear and set my sights on the snowy/turfy ledge that could be seen on the lip of the last steep section. Another series of deep powerful locks and I had reached the good turf. All I had to do now was conjure up some energy to get onto the ledge, which involved what I like to call a manly power shout but Guy said it sounded more like I was in pain! But either way I was on the ledge and could see the belay just above me at the base of another big crack.
Guy starting up the third pitch
Me at the lip after the steep wall (hidden below me) of the third pitch
As I was bringing Guy up the second pitch I had a good look up at the third pitch and as I did this I was very happy that I didn’t have to lead what looked like another very sustained crack that overhung a fair bit at the top. Soon enough Guy had gained the second belay and after the obligatory well done/good lead/that was hard conversation he was off up what we thought would be the slightly easier third pitch (oh how wrong we were). It turned out to be just as sustained as the previous pitch and as Guy was cranking his way up the last super steep section of the pitch, all the muscles in my arms and back decided to started cramping up (which is never ideal). After one last huge explosive yard for the lip Guy had reached the belay and It was my turn to second. 
Me pulling onto the belay at the top of the third pitch
As the sun was starting to go down, I tried to climb the pitch as fast as my tired muscles would let me and as I got moving again my muscles loosened up and I was feeling ready for the steep section. I too made a huge hall ass move for the lip and after two more moves I slumped onto the belay ledge at Guys feet with him telling me that the next pitch looked easier than the last three (thank f*** for that I thought). 
Me leading the last pitch
The last pitch was not as strenuous as the previous ones, but it was definitely not a walk in the park. It was hard to protect in the first half and there was more steep climbing after the tenuous traverse. By this point my whole body was tired and I was eager to get to the top, so I just pushed on and eventually found myself pulling onto the easy angled turfy ground that lead to the summit.
As I was bringing Guy up the last pitch my body started to cool off as the night air pulled closer. This cold breeze brought back the muscle cramps in my biceps, but this time I didn’t care as I had just climbed my hardest winter route to date and we had successfully achieved our intended objective. Better yet we had climbed the two very sustained crux pitches onsight and still managed to climb the rest of the route clean, what more could you ask for.

What an awesome weekend.

 On Friday night I met up with Paul Prentice and Lindsay Yule at the Ben Nevis north face car park, we headed up to the CIC hut that night for an early start on Saturday. We arrived at the hut at around 12 midnight and after a quick cuppa and a look at the guide book we got into our bags and dosed off.
After a quick bite to eat on Saturday morning we commenced our journey up to No.3 gully buttress through some deep but fairly stable snow. As we grew closer to No.3 we could see that the buttresses where in perfect mixed condition and all the lines looked ready for the ticking.
Paul and Lindsay kitting up
Paul on the first pitch of Babylon
We ditched our bags and kitted up at the bottom of “Winter Chimney”, then Paul started up the first pitch of “Babylon” which was our intended route for the day. After a quick lead Paul had reached the first belay and was ready to bring Lindsay and myself up the pitch. After we had seconded, Lindsey then went on to lead the next two shorter pitches which involved the crux cracks of a route called “Gargoyle Wall” and a very tenuous traverse pitch which finished on a very small ledge below the last pitch of “Babylon”. Once the three of us where secure and cramped up on the small stance, we swapped the ropes and kit and I set off up the last (crux) pitch. It had a tricky start, which involved pulling over a small roof directly above the belay ledge then into a short off-width chimney which leads to a larger easier chimney and to the top. 
Lindsay on the Gargoyle cracks pitch
Lindsay on the tenuous traverse
I quickly got safe, then Lindsay and Paul had fun seconding the tricky/awkward pitch and the beaming smiles that emerged from the top chimney showed that everyone had had a good day. 
Me pulling through the crux overlap on Babylon 
Throughout the day we had been watching two other climbers opposite on the mega classic hanging chimney line of “Darth Vader”. It looked like an amazing line and watching the other two climbers have so much fun on it made me mega psyched to get on it.
We grabbed our bags and descended down the mountain back to the car. After organising kit we parted ways and got stuck into our separate journeys.
I headed to some good friends of mine, Ken and Buffy Lacey who stay on the Isle of Seil just down the road from my old house where I lived before I moved east to Fife. This was good as it was not that far from the Ben and I was planning on climbing with Ken on the Sunday anyway.
The obvious chimney of Darth Vader
After four hours sleep Ken and I were up at 2:30am and on our way back up to the Ben. I must have dosed off in the car, as when I woke we were in Fort William and soon to be approaching the north face car park. We leisurely walked up to the hut and followed the tracks I had made the previous day up to No.3 area. The buttresses looked even better than the previous day and the weather was about as good as it gets in winter in Scotland, there was not a cloud to be seen and the sun was brightening up the sky.
Ken leading the first pitch of Darth Vader
Me on the second pitch of Darth Vader
All the way up from the hut we could see the prominent chimney line of “Darth Vader” sticking out from Creag Coire na Ciste. This is the route

Deep inside the Black Cleft

On Wednesday I braved the deep snowy roads in Fife and headed up north to Inverness where I met up with Guy Robertson. He dumped all his kit in my car and we set off towards Skye.
Thankfully the roads on the west weren’t as bad as they where on the east and we made good time, arriving at our intended sleeping spot on the VERY cold Isle of Skye by 9pm. We sorted our climbing kit for the next day and swiftly settled down to sleep in the back of my car. Temperatures supposedly reached -20 that night but thankfully it didn’t have much affect on me as I had my snugly down Vaude sleeping bag to hide away in (hope you like the product placement I did there).
Sun rising on the Cuillins
When the alarm rang at 3am the stars where still out in full force and there seemed to be very little wind. I could tell it was going to be a good day, as we ate some food the thought of the up and coming days antics was giving me butterflies in my stomach. Once we were kitted up and ready to go we started walking along the path towards the Cuillin Ridge, while all the time the big looming buttresses in the surrounding area where just visible in the pitch dark and seamed to be looming down on us from above.
As we reached the top of the ridge the sun was just starting to rise above the hills and this gave us the opportunity to scope out our decent and observe what routes where in winter condition. Unfortunately our intended routes weren’t in nic, but one of our back up lines was! 
We did a route called “Black Cleft” which hadn’t had a winter ascent before. Even though it was a last hope option the route was totally awesome and gave a good variety of wall climbing and winter chimneying. The route was sustained but never super difficult so we decided to give it VI/7 *** and we both agreed that it was one of the most enjoyable routes we had done in a while.
Guy approaching the route

Above; Me pulling over the last roof exiting the chimney

Once we were back on the ridge we sorted our kit in the beaming sun with a spectacular view of the Scottish islands and the Cuillin ridge with its surrounding mountains. We took some pictures and then set off on a leisurely decent back to the car whilst the sun set behind the Isle of Rhum.
We arrived back to the car as night was just setting in and we were both pleased to be back before it was dark and to get going swiftly so it wasn’t to late on the drive home. Unfortunately my car battery wasn’t playing ball and my car was struggling to start. After a lot of swearing and persistent turning of the key we realised that nothing was happening. We where literately in the middle of nowhere and there was only one house within 5 miles of us……. so off we walked. Thankfully there was someone home and the local farmer was very friendly. After asking us all about our days climbing and telling us stories of his current adventures he gave us a jump start and the car was ready to rock.

The roads where still free of snow and we got back to Inverness in very little time, I dropped Guy back at his car and headed to my friends (James Dunn) house in Aviemore. I slept there last night and I’m about to head west again to Fort William to climb on the Ben tomorrow. Hopefully it will be as good as our day on Skye.