NPC Newsletter (2nd New Series) No. 50 - Feb. 2000

Winter Climbing 1998-1999

Malcolm Bass

Mid February. A warm Southerly is rattling the windows and stripping the hills. 13 degrees in Aviemore. Can the 1999-2000 season pull itself back to the top of the table in the last month? I've now written the introduction to this note for the Newsletter three times, but never got the rest finished. The other two intros were much better than this one. I'll report on the 1999-2000 season in the next Newsletter, so would be interested to hear from anyone whose had good days out on the wintry hills this season.

Last winter was the best Scottish season this decade. Despite a brief cold snap in October (routes were done the weekend of the Brocks' wedding) it was a late starter, but when things really got going in January conditions lasted well until early April. Ice and mixed routes were on offer, and NPC members took advantage of both.

Routes ticked were: Central Buttress, Lochnagar (II) on a bitter, blustery December day (Bass, James and the newlywed Brock making his debut): Route 1 Direct (VI,6) on the Ben (Bass and Paul Figg from Swaledale Outdoor Club): West Chimney Route (V,6) on the Bidean (Yearsley and Bass), which sports a flat out squeeze over an ice floor necessitating chipping out to get through (like the flowstone squeeze in Flinter Gill but with ice tools instead of air chisels): and Tower Ridge (III) - Kat Hawkins plus partner bumping into Texan oil tycoon Paul Atkinson on the Ben Nevis classic. NPC members also put up a new IV,4 up an icy groove on Lochanagar's Shadow Buttress A.

Donna James and Malcolm Bass also paid a flying visit to New Hampshire in February, climbing Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington (much hyped by the US authorities as a serious Alpine experience, but in reality a 2½ hour walk in and four excellent ice pitches), and ice cragging on Frankenstein Cliff. The classic Standard Route gave beautiful bluey green water ice and the bizarre experience of leaving an ice cave belay feet first through a little round porthole, and then finding oneself spread-eagled on an ice wall. Most of the climbing is very close to the road, like Borrowdale on ice.

Personal highlights last winter were the first ascent of The Howling on the Buachaille with Simon Yearsley and two splendidly sociable stormy days on Cairngorm.

The Buachaille top of Stob Coire Altruim lies on the main ridge between Stob na Doire and Stob na Broige. Its North Face boasts a fine barrel shaped crag, well seen from the Glencoe Road. Perched at over 840m, steep, and well endowed with tufts of vegetation, it makes an excellent mixed climbing venue away from the crowds and with superlative views over the Central Highlands. The crag has received only sporadic attention since the obvious Central Couloir was climbed in 1950. Exploration by Bass, Clamp and Yearsley in 1996 produced Cerberus (V, 7), a corner, chimney, and groove system cutting through the right hand end of the crag, and another line had been spotted just to its right. Returning in January last year to have a go at this, the crag was found to be much better iced than in '96 and a compelling natural line up the centre of the crag was begging for attention. A line of ice columns and stals led steeply up to a huge free hanging icicle; above this slabs coated in a thin veneer of something vaguely climbable appeared to lead to a hanging gully cleaving the upper section of the crag. The first pitch gave steep but positive hooking moves to gain the first ice column: shimmying up this led to strenuous "straight arm, arse out" ice climbing to a belay behind the big icicle. The next pitch traversed out onto the icy slabs, then delicately upwards on thin ice through an awful grungy section up the slabs to a ledge. Some gross incompetence followed as your Scottish correspondent hurled both his axes from the first belay whilst preparing to follow the second pitch. Not content with landing at the foot of the crag these then cartwheeeled some thousands of metres down the approach slopes to the accompaniment of howls of despair from their owner. Unwilling to forsake the route it was necessary to lower off, tramp wearily down to collect the axes, then attempt to re-climb the first two pitches in one go. Some hours later the pair was reunited on belay ledge 2, and were relieved to find a pleasant grade III gully leading through the upper half of the crag to the summit and the last glow of the sun sinking in Loch Etive. Over Clachaig whisky the Howling was given VI,6 for the steepness of the first pitch and the insecurity of the second.

February saw a good number of NPC members in the Cairngorms for a long weekend based in chalets at Boat of Garten. Storm force winds lashed the plateau, so the Northern Corries were chosen to provide some sport. On Friday Monico, Bass and Yearsley enjoyed the Seam (IV,5), a great short route following a six inch wide ribbon of ice up a chimney corner with some of the best sort of mixed moves, one tool and one crampon well sunk in ice in the corner, a gloved hand clawing frantically at the snowy arête, and the other crampon skating about looking for an edge. On the Saturday a large party (the above plus Kat and Dewi, Donna James, Rob Murgatroyd, and Fi Teague) made a Korean style assault on Fiacaill Couloir (II/III). After a rapid ascent the large (and overly democratic) party bumbled across the plateau in a full Cairngorm whiteout looking for leadership and the way down. A schismatic descent saw the corrie floor regained by three separate groups following two different routes.

When his beard is iced up its amazing how similar the little known climber Chris Bonnington looks to the well known cave diver and hero of Alum Pot Rob Murgatroyd. A splendidly sociable walk out rounded of an excellent mountain day and we regaled each other with tales of our heroism long into a Grouse hazed night.

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