The BMC winter meet and winter climbing in the
Scottish Highlands trip report
JW approaching Extacy. The route goes up just right of the dangling icicles. Photo Nick Bullock
I’m just back from what will likely be my biggest adventure of the 2013 / 2014 winter season – a visit to the Scottish Highlands to sample their unique flavor of mixed climbing. Scotland had been calling In Scotland, the traditional approach to climbing is strongly maintained and the history of the climbs is well remembered. Modern ice climbing was in fact developed here, and early prototypes by Chouinard and others were tested on the walls of Ben Nevis and surrounding area.
I was fortunate enough to attend the 2014 BMC Winter Meet this year, with my girlfriend Michelle Kadatz, where 47 foreign climbers from 25 countries got together at the Glenmore Lodge in Aviemore during the last week of January. Every day, each visitor gets paired up with a host climber from the UK, familiar with the Scottish winter climbing scene, and together they head out on an adventure. At the end of the day, everybody has dinner and drinks together, and has the option to watch slideshows and presentations at the lodge’s lecture theater. Halfway through the week, a partner switch is made so the visitor gets a total of two different hosts to climb with.
Conditions throughout the week were tricky with an unusual amount of snow, a high avalanche hazard and generally bad weather. This however seemed to force people to dig a little deeper, and as a result, there were a lot of early starts made and an impressive list of climbs got done.
Extacy pitch 1
My first partner was Nick Bullock, a veteran of the Scottish winter scene, who had been putting up cutting edge first ascents and generally raising the bar for well over a decade, both in Scotland and in the greater ranges. Like me, he really liked to get after it. But in order to do just that, it seemed prudent to use our first day, a bad weather day even by Scottish standards, to put a track into Craeg Meagaidh and try to find the start of a route called Extasy, put up during the 2005 winter meet by Bruno Sourzac and Dave Hesleden. It had been one Nick was stoked for since a friend of his made the only repeat and spoke highly of its quality. That day we couldn’t see more than halfway up the 250m face, but with the boot track in and the start of the route located, the cards seemed nicely stacked in our favor. The hike was also a good way to shake off my jetlag. We made the routes 3rd ascent the next day in a 17-hour car-to-car effort, and it didn’t disappoint. The entire cliff was coated in thin ice and rime – prime Scottish conditions, and the climbing was fiercely sustained! Following the thickest, most supportive ice or neve, usually just a couple of centimeters thick and often too thin to hold body weight, we battled upwards for 5 long pitches. It never felt like we had the route in the bag until the very top. Protection was scarce, and head-spinning run-outs were the norm. A perfect intro!
Nick stated on his blog:
“Its difficult to imaging that I will have a more compelling, engaging day of the winter than this one. We climbed the route totally on ice but the ice was less than perfect and the ground at times was steep. The gear to protect the climb was minimal and the descent ‘interesting’… All in all, a pretty full-on day.”
Extacy - Nick climbing pitch 2. The route snaked it's way around and through many steep bits
Nick leading off on pitch 4, hoping to find a groove jst a little more left. It was now storming.
JW leading the start of pitch 5. Headlamp ready, just in case! Fortunately I completed this 62 m pitch before turning it on. photo: Nick Bullock
The next day, the weather was the usual slashing rain in the valley bottoms and winds up to 90 mph up high. This made it easier to take a much needed rest day, as Extasy had taxed our bodies both mentally and physically. The event organizers initiated a partner switch that night, and I got paired with Greg Boswell. Greg is as bad-ass as they come and has been turning heads both at home, and abroad, with lots of difficult and serious new routes and repeats under his belt. We immediately started making plans to climb a new line he had scoped on the beautiful quartzite walls of Beinn Eighe. But Nick’s new partner needed a rest day so he insisted on making joining us too.
Greg Boswell and I on the summit of Beinn Eighe, before rappelling into the West-central gully. This was by far the best weather day of the trip. photo: Nick Bullock
After a couple hours of approaching, we reached the base of the route. Greg won the first rock paper scissors and fired a series of roofs above a snow ledge near the top of the West-central Gully. Much to Nick’s dismay I won the second rock paper scissors and scored the second pitch - a long slightly overhanging off-width with a thin coating of verglas. Fortunately the rock had just enough other features, and it turned out to be one of the best pitches I climbed during the trip. Nick fired the final crack / corner system and we were soon treated to amazing sunset over a stunning view of the north-western highlands. “Lochs” dotted the green valleys everywhere and the snowline at mid height gave the mountains a bigger feel, despite their low altitudes.
Nick wrote on his blog: “The perfect day. Stunning settled weather, a magnificent situation and a line both Greg and I had spotted a few years back. I lost Scissor, paper, stone all-day and climbed the third pitch, which was still good but not as spectacular as the second pitch or as sustained as the first pitch. We called it Making the Cut after talking to Simon Richardson about the amount of entries he has on his blog Scottish Winter climbs.”
Greg hooking his way out some sweet quartzite roofs and pitch 1
Another angle of Greg on pitch 1.
Working my way up the sustained chimney, off-width, corner - pitch 2 of Making the Cut. photo: Greg Boswell
Two days later, we were hoping to do another route on the same face, but after an hour of sitting in the car hoping for the winds and rain to calm down, we opted for plan b. This time it was Nick and I (Greg’s knee strain was acting up, and he was getting off treatment) and Michelle and her partner Ian Parnell. Two days earlier they had a big success on a 9-pitch Ben Nevis route called the Centurion one of the longest in the area. Another nearby peak called Mael Gorm offered “the shortest approach in Scotland” which by the time we got there made sense, especially with the gale force wind gusts. Although not quite as spectacular as the first two climbs, it was a popular spot that day and many routes saw climbers on them, and certainly way better than festering at the lodge.
Back at the Meet that night, wine flowed freely as everyone celebrated an amazing week. The energy had been incredible and it had a been a long time since I’d seen so many really passionate mixed climbers getting after it like that. For both myself and Michelle (who had amassed a route list most locals were jealous of), there couldn’t have been a better introduction to winter climbing in Scotland, and we’re deeply thankful to the BMC for organizing it, our UK hosts – especially Nick, Greg, Will and Ian, and from the support we received from the Alpine Club of Canada and Arcteryx for helping making it all happen.
Mega Route X. Looks almost like a pure ice route, but it had some intesting mixed sections on the second pitch.
Now it was time to get after it on our own, and our photographer friend Paul Bride had just flown over from Squamish B.C. to join us. Scotland had been on his bucket list for a long time, and he was psyched to tag along to shoot some climbing. However, the weather wasn’t panning out very well, and we got shut down a two days in a row, and not for lack of trying. At least we managed to tour the countryside a bit and sample some of the finer local vintages. The folks that live in the hills were incredibly hospitable and easy to get along with. Finally we got some weather decent enough for climbing, and we headed up the Number 3 gully on Ben Nevis, home to some famous test-pieces I was hoping to try. A thick fog on its upper reaches forced us to stay on lower cliffs, and we climbed some obvious thin ice lines called Mega Route X, which is classic, and a wild overhanging dagger line called Feeding Frenzy. Late in the afternoon it cleared enough to see the crazy looking rime plastered to some of the higher walls.
Mega Route X, a thin classic. Mega Fun! Photo: Paul Bride
We descended to the town of Fort Williams, hoping to get another chance. Two more horrendously bad weather days passed, although on the second, we hiked through the slashing rain to the deluxe CIC hut at the base of the Ben’s North Face. The forecast called for “a rare benign day” on Friday, which didn’t exactly pan out, as the fog level again was much too low to climb at the higher routes with the thick rime. Maybe it was just as well as the avalanche hazard was still high and we observed a number of fresh fracture lines a few days earlier.
Tea time, with the Ben Nevis bible. Michelle enjoying life in the CIC hut
Eventually we settled on trying a route that seemed to be unclimbed, just left of Mick Fowler’s 7-pitch classic – The Shield Direct. After two-and-a-half pitches of sustained overhanging dihedral action, laced with thin ice and neve, we merged back with the shield and continued up it to the top of pitch-4. The benign weather was abruptly ended with strong winds, which turned the route into a river of spindrift, making upward progress virtually impossible. But the pitches had been wild ones and the beast within was fed.
The start of the variation. Photo Paul Bride
And a little higher up. Photo: Paul Bride
Scottish winter climbing is intense. Every pitch was a memorable battle that had me focused on nothing but the present. The Highlands truly are the quintessential real deal venue for mixed adventure. Rich with history and virtually devoid of any in-situ gear, proper mixed climbing in its purest form was a refreshing experience! The addictiveness of it grew on me throughout the trip, and I know it won’t be long before I’m back again.
The North Pillar
There are less than a handful of people I know who have expressed interest in climbing the Twins Tower. The ones that live within a day's drive were unavailable. Not wanting to miss what I suspected were nothing less than exceptional conditions on the the North Pillar, thanks to a low snow year / hot summer, I went out on a limb and asked Josh Wharton if he had time and interest to give it a go with me. I have to admit I was surprised when he said yes and immediately bought a Denver - Calgary plane ticket. The alpine stars continued to align themselves as a perfect high pressure system settled into place as he stepped off the plane. The next morning, we headed up the Icefield Parkway, and hiked over the Woolley Shoulder with light packs, expecting to have a food / fuel cache waiting for us when we got to the Lloyd McKay hut that Josh had left there in 2011. A friend had confirmed it was looking good two weeks prior, and had even donated a few items to it. Tragically, the latest entry in the hut logbook dated September the 1st said "thanks for the grub, Josh", and only slim pickings were left of it. As Josh's note in his bag had said he'd be back in 2012, we could hardly blame anybody but ourselves that most of the bars and freeze dried dinners were missing, and accepted the fact that light and fast just got lighter and faster!
The next morning we left the hut with 8 bars and 8 gels each, and a couple of recovery and electrolyte drink mixes as personal food. For shared food, we had 6 packs of instant oats and couple hundred grams of granola + a small bag of trail mix that would be our breakfasts. For dinners, we two Knorr soups packets (unfortunately onion flavoured), one pack of Threshold Provision Salmon jerky, and one 100g chocolate bar. We also had 8 packets of Starbucks "Via" instant coffee! It was about 5000 calories each, and we knew we'd be spending at least the next two nights out (it turned out to be 3.5 days)! Hiking back to the car for more supplies didn't make a lot of sense, so we just accepted the fact that we'd be getting pretty hungry, and enjoyed carrying the lighter packs.
On the second pitch Josh wasn't sure if he was psyched anymore, but accepted the fact that I didn't want to slog back out the way we came. A lot of the climbing was chossy, and a lot of the gear was marginal, but there was just enough of it was good enough to continue pushing upwards. We cursed the first ascentionists, both for not cleaning it better and for talking the route up so much! It was mind boggling to us, that the only three parties to have climbed the face previously had done so in 1974, 1985, and in the winter of 2004. All parties had been pushed to their mental and physical limits, including ourselves. It seemed like we were right on the edge of our risk tolerance levels the entire time, and perhaps even crossed the line. Staying on that edge for such an extended time was exhausting!
The headwall turned out to be impressively steep and we began to haul the packs more than climb with them. It was so steep in fact, that they often hauled cleanly without even touching the rock. Fortunately the rock quality improved. 1985 5.10d - which many of the pitches were rated, seemed sandbagged to say the least. Continuous crack systems, often connected by gymnastic face moves, led through vertical to overhanging terrain for 13 pitches, to a wild climax at the top. With only about 15 meters left before hitting lower angled summit ridge, a few meters of straightforward aid climbing up a knifeblade seam had to done above a ledge, to gain a series of big, run-out jugs that traversed the lip of a big overhang! It was the only aid on the entire route for us, and it would probably go free at 5.12-, however dangerous fall potential put risking the free ascent out of our reach (despite being both quite comfortable at that grade). It was no place to be taking chances as retreat would be practically impossible at that point, especially with the state our ropes were in.
The rest of the route was fairly straight forward, but worked out, despite making a couple minor route-finding decision. One was thinking we'd save time and energy taking a short cut across the north face of Twins Tower right below the summit, in order to avoid some cornices, and the second was opting for the standard descent off of Mt. Cromwell to reach the valley, rather than hike across the Columbia Icefileds.
Climbing the Twin's Tower was in hindsight, a great and satisfying experience for both of us, despite not always being fun in the moment. It would be hard to recommend it to anyone, although if you're really psyched for a huge physical and mental adventure, it could be as good a place as any!
Our conditions were absolutely perfect. I don't think we saw a single cloud for the three days on the face, and maybe only a couple small ones on the fifth day. Visibility was unlimited - On the summit we could see from Mt. Robson to the Bugaboos. Temperatures were perfect too, with reported freezing levels over 3500m the entire time, and there was virtually no natural rockfall, except in a couple of expected places like gullies below ice ledges. Even there it was quite small, and mostly on the lower part of the route. The rock was generally very dry.
Hardest route in the Rockies??? maybe…
The itinerary we followed went like this:
Monday, Sept. 9th: Leave car at 1 pm, arrive at the Alberta hut at 6
Sept. 10: Leave hut at 5 a.m., approach N. Twin. By 10:30 we are finally belaying on the first pitch. Arrive at bivi site on "ice ledge", just below headwall at about 9 as it's getting dark.
Sept. 11: Climb 12 pitches of headwall and bivi one pitch below the top of it.
Sept. 12: Climb last pitch of headwall, and the summit ridge above it. Traverse a few meters below the double corniced summit ridge of the Twin's tower, and traverse the summit ridge of the North Twin (3731m). Stand on the summit around 4ish. Cross the Columbia Icefield toward to the Crommell / Stutfield col, and bivi slightly below it as it got dark.
Sept.13: Rappel and down-climb cliffs / hike out to the road which takes 6 hours. Arrive at car at 3:30.
Summary: Second ascent of the Twins Tower via the North Pillar - Josh Wharton, Jon Walsh Sept 10-12, 2013 (F.A.: Barry Blanchard / David Cheesmond 1985, 5.10d A2, 1500+meters from bergshrund to summit). 2013 grade: 5.11b r/x, A1 (about 4 meters of aid climbing) on the last pitch of the headwall. I suppose the r/x grade is irrelevant, as what else would you expect getting on an alpine limestone face of this size?
Sunrise on the Twins Tower and the line of our ascent. photo Josh Wharton
JW on the headwall. photo Josh Wharton
JW getting into mixed climbing onthe upper ridge. photo Josh Wharton
On the summit of the North Twin. photo Josh Wharton
Some of my B-roll:
Josh on pitch 2
Packing after the first bivi
Looking up at the headwall
Josh's 1st block, pitch 4 of the headwall
the end of Pitch 10 on the Headwall
The morning after the second bivi. Coffee time! Yes we"slept" here!
Morning light on Mt. Alberta
Finally above the headwall! Only a few of hours of lower angled terrain to the top