Ben Stone Cowboys

July 13, 2010

The North Face of Ben Nevis is justifiably famous for it’s winter climbing. Being Britain’s highest mountain, and being situated on the West Coast , it gets battered by the full force of the Atlantic depressions.  High precipitation and strong winds plaster the cliffs in snow, and rapid freeze-thaw cycles can transform soft unconsolidated snow into beautiful and ephemeral lines of snow ice. It is unsurprising then that these crags prove a popular climbing destination during the winter months.

In the spring however – when the snow and ice finally disappear – so do all the people. After the normal hubbub of the winter, the north face feels eerily quiet and desolate, especially higher up in Coire na Ciste. The few climbers who do venture up on the Ben in summer usually head for either one of the classic long ridges or the famous classics on Carn Dearg. and who can blame them, for both offer some of the finest mountain routes of there type in Britain.  However there’s plenty of steep clean rock beyond Carn Dearg, up in Coire na Ciste and on the flanks of the great ridges.  In recent years Dave McLeod has been exploring some of the the possibilities here – picking some of the steepest and most intimidating lines – but there is also lots of potential at a more reasonable grade to be climbed.

It was with this in mind that last week myself and Tony Stone headed up to have a wee peek at a feature I had often noticed in winter; a hanging groove on the left arête of the front face of the Comb. Arriving at the base of the crag, we saw there to be a lot of solid clean rock, with various possible good looking lines. Unfortunately the West coast drizzle had been at work, and crag was quite damp, limiting our options for the day.

We started up the most obvious dry line, which gave a good long pitch of about E2 5b, slightly bold in places, but on solid rock. This led to the ledge of Don’t Die of Ignorance just before this route gets hard. Above, the original line I had planned was mossy and wet, but another option became apparent. An exposed wall above the crack of Don’t Die gave the crux of the route, and led up to the arête. Sustained and exposed cracks and grooves in the arête eventually led to lovely little perch, another great pitch. This marked the end of the hard climbing, but it was decided that to truly claim the route, we would have to continue to the top. Another 70m to loose V Diff and some scrambling led to the top.

 Descending No 3Gully to collect the rucsacs is not an appealing option in summer, so it was deciding to abseil down the front face of the Comb. One abseil, some unpleasant down climbing and a lot of bickering later we ended up back at the belay at the end of the hard climbing. Another abseil led up the large ledge of Tower Face of the Comb, and a short scramble took us down to the bags.

 With two fine pitches on good rock, and an easy descent from an insitu abseil anchor, maybe this nice as yet un-named E3 will see a few ascents from those who fancy exploring the rock climbing opportunities beyond Carn Dearg. Equally maybe not.

Cheers, Blair


Big Stones, New Routes

June 24, 2010

Creagan Dubh Loch – crag of the black lake – a kilometre long and 300m high, surely the ultimate mecca of Scottish adventure climbing?  If “what have you done on grit?” is the calling card of the modern day Headpointer, then “what have you done on the Dubh Loch” should be likewise to the modern trad climber.  Many of the harder routes here have received very few if any clean, ground-up ascents.  And there are plenty of them; plenty.  And they’re nails.  The Shetlander.  Origin of the Species.  Fer de Lance. Devolution.  The Improbability Drive.  All merely E6, yet only one on-sight between the lot of them.  Did someone say that trad climbing was holding us back?  Or that sport climbing was moving us forward?  Well times change, for sure, and fingers seem to get stronger, but heads?  Some of these routes have been around for quite a while, and some of their creators are old enough to be your grandpa.

One of the factors underpinning the Big Stone Country project was a feeling that the mountains are becoming out of vogue.  So what you might say.  Move with the times boys, get focused on training, sport climbing and bouldering.  On physical difficulty rather than long days in the hills.  It’s the only way to get better, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?  And maybe you’d  be right, to a point.  But I wonder if all the obvious, radical talent now blooming in the Scottish climbing scene will one day be turned and applied to the great cliffs, and to devastating effect.  Will the tone of the blogs eventually shift from the current introspective of rehearsal, red points, nutrition and injury management back to embracing the stunning unclimbed challenges waiting high on the great mountain crags? Isn’t that ultimately what it’s all about?  It seems to be happening in sport climbing – moving from short and desparately hard, to long and desperately hard – so maybe it’s the next step to leave in the tiny holds and nasty angles but stop the clinical extraction of uncertainty and leave it all bare, vulnerable and…real?  I heard recently that Steve McLure had been out on the Islands.  Gulp.

Imagine a young climber – a genetic infusion of Malcom Smith’s arms, Jules Lines’ gonads, Andy Nisbet’s knowledge and Simon Richardson’s clinical organisational abilities – let loose on, say, the crags over the back of the Skye Ridge!  (Or maybe even the sea cliffs of Orkney?).  All the physical toil, sacrifice and mental stress of raising the bar to Olympian fitness levels, but with commitment to raw adventure and the tattered grit of uncertainty.  I’m talking about big new lines in the mountains, summer and winter – desperately hard, long, high, scary and committing routes, the ascents of which through their personal detail live long and proud as the very essence and flavour of our mountaineering history.  If we can capture just a wee smidgeon of this mountaineering spirit in the Big Stone Country book I’ll die a happy man. 

Anyway, for those of you that might be interested, the mighty Dubh Loch is bone dry….and we just had us a very tasty little treat.  A nice warm-up on a classic E3, a quick extended sideways shimmy, an abseil, a scrubbing brush, a face full of Haribo (and lichen), a bit of soul-searching and the Black Diamond was born.  A superb E5, up a strikingly obvious crack line on impeccable rock on one of Britain’s finest cliffs.  I can’t help feeling that we’re about to be found out; we’ll have to give all the lovely sweeties back (maybe I should keep my mouth shut!).  But somehow I doubt it.  Sales in Liquid Chalk are on the up.  Bothies are unfrequented.  And the buffeting shock waves of intimidation waiting high on the  slabs and overlaps of the Dubh Loch remain largely unchallenged….

Skye Magic

June 9, 2010

It’s not at all surprising the new book will include a variety of Big Stones on Skye.  It’s arguably the most impressively precipitous of all the inhabited Scottish Islands, with more than its fair share of great crags, classic hard routes and epic tales etched in the history books.  Perhaps centre stage amongst the crags on Skye that will be featured is The Great Prow on Bla Bheinn.  The name means something like blue / warm / sunny mountain and that certainly bears out my personal experiences climbing there. 

The weekend just past was no exception, when Tim “Snack Boy” Rankin and I went up and repeated the 1997 route Finger in the Dyke (E5) up the right edge of the Prow’s frontal face.  Blue skies and windless, parched rock, the only sound breaking our precious silence was the faint echo of a cuckoo’s call somewhere in the glen below.  Pure Skye magic. 

The route itself matched the quiet grandeur of the setting – never pumpy or desperate but very sustained and precarious, and often extremely runout.  Brushing dry lichen from the holds the pair of us pondered whether the route’s authors – Messrs Thorburn, Farquar and Latter – had entered their pioneering arena in the same swaggering fashion as Mick Fowler on his 1977 ground-up on-sight of the mighty Stairway To Heaven (E5) further left.  The mind boggles at the thought.

Perhaps the only dissappointment about this enormous, sheer (100m+) gabbro wall is that there are no ‘modern’ routes – i.e. of E6 and above.  It was only this winter past that the place saw its first hard winter addition with an ascent of the classic HVS (The Great Prow) up the right bounding edge.  The sheer scale, baldness and dizzying atmosphere of the place seems to warrant something special – it deserves more attention.  If that’s not a gauntlett thrown then I don’t know what is…

For some local info see –

The Big Stones of Arran

May 20, 2010

We’ve been thinking of ways to keep the blog ‘alive’, but without giving too much away in terms of photos and material.  The book will try to ‘make the crag the star’ so what better way to blog about it than to focus on the crags.  So, each blog post for the next while will be themed around the regions and crags upon which the book is focused, with stories, history and pictures about the climbing to be had.  It would be great if you’re reading the blog and you’ve had a memorable experience on the crag in question if you can throw your hat in the ring and tell us some more! 

First off it’s Arran, and the choice words of a couple of our most stalwart of forefathers…

‘…we left our sacks and started off in rubbers for the climb, aiming at the foot of a prominent S-shaped crack, which is the main feature of the lower tier of the cliff. It is a formidable crack, soon approaching the vertical… the final upward move on onto the slab on the right was very awkward and exposed. We were now about the centre of the steep lower cliff, in a comfortable and agreeable situtation, with a splendid view over the nearer hills across the Firth of Clyde, but with no answer to the urgent question: where next? Just above George (Collie) was a steep slab, split by a crack and ending under a slightly overhanging wall, about eight to ten feet high. The crack narrowed and split the wall, forking like a letter Y below the top. It was not a very high wall, but the crack was too narrow for anything but sideways wedging of the toes and there was no guarantee of postive holds above the Y…’

J H B Bell on a May 1945 attempt on Cir Mhor’s South Ridge

‘I felt released in a world lively and free, which awakened in me the illusion of watching the spin of the earth and its flight through interstellar space… from the lofty pass I watched the sweep of the earth through a chartless universe with the added sense of a majestic rhythm of movement, which may be best likened to the greatness of rhythm in a Beethoven symphony. The illusion lasted half a minute and disappeared with the arrival of Mackinnon.’

W.H. Murray on a 1939 ascent of B2C Rib on Cir Mhor’s North Face

1892 was an interesting year in Scotland: weather was reported as inclement, influenza was spreading fast and ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody had set up his wild west circus in Glasgow. On the 2nd January, he lost one of his Lakota Indian workers (‘Charging Thunder’) to Barlinnie prison on an assault charge aggravated by spiked lemonade in a Glasgow pub. The Calcutta Cup (made from melted down colonial rupees), was the big sporting occasion of the year, with England humping Scotland 5-0. Rock climbing was also a new oddity.

Archibald Geikie had just published his updated geology map of Scotland, nestling neatly into the tweed hip pockets of a nascent but vigorous Scottish Mountaineering Club, who visited the island of Arran in January 1892 to attempt the A’Chir ridge several months after William Wilson Naismith scratched his nails up the formidable North Face of Cir Mor. The granite of Arran, and its unfair rumours of rotten rock and vegetation, was attracting mountaineers before even the great Tower Ridge of Ben Nevis existed as the best ridge-climb in Scotland. This particular January was tumultuous; heavy gales had lashed the Firth of Clyde the week before the Arran meet and it was reported as a ‘somewhat boisterous voyage to Brodick’. So began the development of Arran rock climbing.

 Once the ridges were linked in the great horseshoe surrounding Goatfell, the chimneys and gullies began to attract attention, with the vegetated North East face of Cir Mhor oddly drawing the attention of technical climbers like Bell and Green who climbed the under-rated but exceptional (for the time) B2C Rib (V Diff) in 1895. The sparkling slabs were obviously ignored as impossible by the hobnailed feet of the day and the blank armour of the south face of Cir Mhor (our modern clean slabs of Insertion etc.) was seen as terra incognita.

In 1936 Arran regained its pride when the distinctive South Ridge was conquered, with the now-classic direct line resolved five years later by J.F. Hamilton to give Scotland one of its most attractive long climbs. In 1938 the East Face of the Rosa Pinnacle saw the significant first HVS ascent on the island, with K. Barber and A.S.Pigott climbing Easter Route, which tackles the intimidating steep chimney lines of this high face. This was originally given Severe, mainly because limits were still fuzzy on the grading scale, but it is very close to the 1957 HVS of The Sickle by Ashford and Burke, when Extreme grades were about to become a necessity.

The 1940’s was obviously a decade of privation and priorities, but nevertheless, a local Admiralty party of climbers led mainly by Curtis, Moneypenny and Townend (not lawyers!), developed the other big faces such as Meadow Face and the South Face of Cir Mhor (including Sou’wester Slabs) when not busy chasing submarines from an engineering base on the Clyde. They also discovered the other classic ridges on the island such as Pagoda Ridge in Coire Daingean.

In 1958 the first climbing guide to Arran was published as a slim 84 paged illustrated booklet by J.M. Johnstone, which signalled the end of the classic period on Arran, when all things vegetated and thrutchy would be forgotten. From here on in, the blankness of granite would be explored with longer ropes, rubber-soled PA’s and more technical protection equipment.

The first E1 was actually a mistaken ascent, with McKelvie and Sim climbing Minotaur on the East Face of the Rosa Pinnacle, somehow thinking it was the easier route Labyrinth. Probably the most significant route of the 60’s was the ascent of the Meadow Face’s alpine-like sweep when Bill Skidmore and Bob Richardson succeeded on The Rake, a long and complex E2 in modern terms. The Meadow Face also saw ascents of Brachistochone E1 and Bogle E2 in the 60’s. Andrew Maxfield was active at this time, climbing E2’s such as Klepht on the The Bastion at Cioch na h’Oighe. 1969 saw the first ascent of the esoteric Voodoo Chile on the Full Meed Tower by young hardcore climber Graham Little. 1969 also saw the team of Rab Carrington and Ian Fulton rip up the grades with a first ascent of The Curver and the desperate friction problem of Insertion on the lower slabs of Cir Mhor, given E3 and the first serious slab climb on the island.

The 1970’s started from a new base-line in terms of standards on Arran, with Bill Wallace updating the Arran Guide to include the new technical routes, but still no sign of the extreme grade despite a few notable anachronisms! The 70’s and 80’s and the 90’s were essentially a grade chase, with the most extreme and steepest lines being sought often at the expense of the concept of a ‘route’, with big pitches such as Insertion Direct E5 and West Point E4 (1975, Howett & Charlton), Abraxas free (1985), Vanishing Point E4 (1985 Craig MacAdam), Token Gesture E5 by Cuthbertson & Howett (1985) and so on past the Millenium into the new ‘headpoint’ era, with the most significant route being John Dunne’s 2001 three pitch The Great Escape E8 on Cioch na h’Oighe, unwittingly repeated by Dave MacLeod a few days later.

Climbing hard for its own sake in these decades generally overtook the idea of simply conquering a face from bottom to top via ‘the easiest line’ and hard single pitches were being sought on the steep island faces of the unpronounceable Cuithe Mheadhonach, or on The Bastion, such as the siege of Abraxas E4 by Graham Little in 1980. However, some stuck to the older themes and completed some big multi-pitch extremes, most significantly the gigantic Brobdingnag E2 on the Meadow Face by Ian Duckworth and party in 1975. The most significant classic modern route was the 1981 three-pitch exposure of Skydiver on the Rosa Pinnacle (an aptly named E3 with a hard second groove pitch seeing frequent falls) aided by Graham Little and Colin Ritchie, which was freed shortly after in 1984 by Andy Nisbet and Colin MacLean. This route stands as one of the most testing extreme multi-pitches on Arran and testament to the steep technical secrets of Arran granite.

Book Blog Launched!

April 2, 2010

“We clattered up the gully, humbled by the mute power of the tilting walls, the boulders, the heat; it was idyllic…we had the crag to ourselves..”

Julian Lines (excerpt from Central Gully Wall, Creagan Dubh Loch)

From the moment climbing entered my radar, I’ve always been inspired by other climbers writing about their adventures.  Not so much the cutting edge – just gripping tales about gripping routes on big, gripping cliffs.  Fighting death on the slippery verticals.  Almost before I set foot on a mountain, my head was full to brimming with nerve-jangling accounts of historic epics played out years before; the hallowed walls, the infamous routes and of course the great pioneers themselves, brought to larger-than-life by the power of the pen. 
It’s a fine art, and arguably a dying one.  When was the last time you read a really engaging and inspiring contemporary tale about hard climbing in Scotland?  There’s certainly been plenty of action out on the crags, but who’s putting it down on paper? And I’m not talking about the here-today-gone-tomorrow uncensored diatribe of the Internet Forums, I’m talking crafted, passionate and evocative literature. Maybe it’s the onset of old age, nothing more than nostalgia, but it seems to me and the others involved in this project that climbers don’t write much about climbing these days.  Even in the magazines (where there’s a financial incentive) there appears to be a dearth of material containing much of what one might loosely term ‘human interest’; a sense of connection with the people and places, with the rock and the ice.  The focus seems steadfastly on grades, and rather tiresome comparisons of alleged objective difficulty – “who is the best climber”. 

Who cares!  Well, I suppose we do, but we’re equally interested in who’s got the best tale to tell, and where the best crags are.  Surely mountain climbing, more than most sporting activity, is subject to such a plethora of subjective circumstance and extraneous influence, such spontaneous beauty and indescribable grandeur, as to make the exploration of these aspects the most worthy cause?  The equipment malfunction that left you both exposed.  The storm raging in causing mayhem at the last ropelength.  Looking down on birds of prey, your second’s jangling echoes beneath you.  The smell of sparks from falling rocks.   That wonderful sense of intimacy and belonging that comes from exploring the same crag, by different routes, with different people  in all weathers.  The things that bring climbers together rather than set them apart – that’s what we want this book to be about.

And the great crags in particular, our celebrated theatres of risk – a vast, towering family of monoliths.  It’s hard to imagine any other facet of life where so many of us become so actively engaged and associated through time with such singular geological expressions.  And in such wonderfully exciting and character-defining ways.  These are worthy subjects for our collective creative juices, and in this book they’ll take centre stage.  Carn Dearg, Central Gully Wall, Mainreachan Buttress, West Central Wall and Sron Ulladale to name a few – approaching forty of them in total.  Each one lavishly pictured, described from the heart, and embroidered with first hand tales from climbers who’s fingers and crampons have left their mark.
With BIG STONE COUNTRY we want to celebrate wildness, and put scale and beauty back alongside difficulty.  We want to bring recent Scottish mountaineering history alive by getting the pioneers and younger climbers to tell their many tales. We want to explore the wider dimensions that climbing on big remote cliffs can offer the modern climber, which seem either muddied by the rippled waters of a controversy-hungry media or, worse still, ebbing out of vogue. In so doing we hope to create a big, colourful and inspiring collection of pictures, impressions and first hand tales of adventure from across Scotland’s great crags.  Will you be inspired?  We hope so! 

The ball is well and truly rolling, and over twenty contributors have already put pen to paper.  Myself, Adrian Crofton, Blair Fyffe and John Watson will all be doing our bit to try and pull it all together on the inevitably long journey to the printers.  Over the coming months (maybe years) we’ll post updates and routes lists and issue calls for route photos and more, so stay tuned if you want to keep up to speed and help us make this thing work…

Cheers and happy climbing, Guy