The last Grade V ice climb of the winter? Crag Jones and Andy Bunnage made an ascent of a very thin looking Smith’s Route high on Ben Nevis on April 12. (Photo Crag Jones)
Hopes for good late season conditions were thwarted by another major thaw in March. By way of compensation, a heavy snowfall in the Cairngorms followed by a helpful thaw-freeze cycle brought the easier north-facing gullies into condition and several teams enjoyed romping up the easier classics in the Northern Corries.
Across on the West conditions were leaner. The most popular technical route on the Ben was Gardyloo Gully, which provided a sporting Grade III. In many ways, extremely lean conditions are the best time to climb this classic route as it is often blocked by a monstrous cornice. Ascents were also made of Glover’s Chimney, Central Gully Right-Hand and Tower Scoop. A strong French team backed off the third pitch of Point Five Gully.
The most eye-catching climb was a very thin looking Smith’s Route by Crag Jones on April 12. “The brave second was Andy Bunnage,” Crag explained. “He was lashed under the roof, in case the whole caboodle came down. It was that thin – the icicle was very hollow!”
To maintain the winter psyche until next season (just six months away), Robert Taylor has put together a set of podcasts interviewing current activists about their Scottish winter and mountaineering exploits. So far Robert has interviewed Simon Yearsley, Helen Rennard, Robbie Phillips and myself. Paul Diffley of Hot Aches Productions has also very kindly made available the full audio of his interview with Jimmy Marshall.
Robert has a good flowing style and the topics range from Robbie talking about seconding Greg Boswell on Anubis to Helen revealing Andy Nisbet’s caramel shortbread habit. Robert has plans for many more interviews, so listen in to Vertical Voice – Stories from the Steep at:
Andy Inglis climbing the first pitch of The Chancel (VIII,8) on Beinn a’Bhuird. This technically challenging route is the second summer Extreme to be climbed in winter on the mountain. (Photo Guy Robertson)
Guy Robertson and Andy Inglis pulled off one of the finest climbs of the season on March 18 when they made a first winter ascent based on The Chancel on Beinn a’Bhuird. This five pitch E1 on the West Face of Mitre Ridge was first climbed by Dave Nichols and Greg Strange in May 1978. It was originally graded HVS 5b, but an early repeat upped the grade to E1 5b.
“Great day on Beinn a’Bhuird yesterday,” Guy told me. “Andy Inglis and I climbed The Chancel – first three pitches as for summer (second pitch the definite crux), then the obvious turfy winter line on the wall above the ledge (right of the summer line), then a finish up West Side Story to gain the top of the First Tower. Five superb pitches, and pretty good value at VIII,8. The climbing on the second pitch was comparable in style and difficulty to that found on the harder routes on Lochnagar’s Tough Brown Face, but with generally good protection.
It really is such a joy to climb on this great cliff in winter – there are very few places like it for quality, scale, remoteness and commitment. We did quite well – with some quite challenging snow conditions out across the open moor – leaving the car just before first light and topping out on the route as the sun went down (and the moon came out). Nonetheless it was still an 18-hour day car-to-car – 22 if you include the driving and faffing! I was certainly glad of my double helping of pudding the night before, and I’ll be having puddings with my dinner for the remainder of this week!
On a historical note, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first Beinn a’Bhuird Extreme to be climbed in winter conditions. [Not quite correct – another Extreme was climbed on Beinn a’Bhuird in 2012 – The Primate (VIII,8) by Pete Davies and Donie O’Sullivan]. This is unsurprising to me, having climbed two grade IXs there previously, the hardest of which was 5a in summer. The Northern Corries this is not…”
As Guy implies, winter climbing in Garbh Choire on Beinn a’Bhuird is a major undertaking. The corrie is ten miles from the road and one of the most remote in Scotland. A reconnaissance was made a week before, and the eventual ascent required many hours of trail breaking through deep snow. All round Scottish winter climbing adventures don’t come much bigger than this!
Matt Glenn on the second ascent of Feast of the East (VIII,9) on the Eastern Ramparts of Beinn Eighe. The demanding and technical route was first climbed in winter by Martin Moran, Murdoch Jamieson and Francis Blunt in December 20111. (Photo Jamie Skelton)
On March 16, Jamie Skelton and Matt Glenn made the second winter ascent of Feast of the East (VIII,9) on the Eastern Ramparts on Beinn Eighe. The route was first climbed by Andy Nisbet and Gill Ollerhead in May 1992, and the first winter ascent fell to Martin Moran, Murdoch Jamieson and Francis Blunt in December 2011.
“Myself and my friend Matt Glenn got pretty excited after reading about Heavy Flak and Shiva getting done recently and started scanning for other routes in the same area,” Jamie told me. “We decided to have a go at Feast of the East which is a four-pitch route on the Eastern Ramparts. We found some really steep but positive climbing through well-defined cracks and corners.
I lost the game of rock-paper-scissors so Matt went first. Initially the first half of the first pitch went well with gear and big hooks. After that there was a delicate section to negotiate, to get around a small projecting roof as for the summer route, first to the right, and then back left on flat ledges. This then led onto the big ledge below the main event – the pitch off the ledge is a summer 5c – it’s short and packs a punch. It follows a right-facing corner, which passes two large roofs on small positive hooks and good gear, however it is void of any really footholds making for an extremely strenuous series of footless pulls (possibly soft tech 9) to gain the small ledge.
Above lay another pitch the summer 5b that proved tricky being iced. It follows the same crack line with some rests in some pods to belay on the next big ledge. The last pitch involved a wild step straight off the belay. Moving around the right arête away from the belay and onto a big hanging slab led to bomber placements with much exposure up to easier ground. Overall, it is a superb route, one of the most enjoyable I’ve done”
Jamie and Matt have had a very successful season with ascents of Ventricle (VII,8), Darth Vader (VII,7), Sioux Wall (VIII,8) and the second ascent of Shapeshifter (VIII,8). In addition, Jamie has made ascents of Daddy Longlegs (VIII,9) with Jack Morris, and the hard test pieces of The Needle (VIII,8) and Centurion (VIII,8) with Tim Miller. Given the difficult season we have had this is a remarkable collection of routes!
Graham Wyllie at the base of the chimney during the first ascent of Moonpig (IV,5) on Aonach Mor. This route climbs the left flank of the buttress containing Foosyerneeps. (Photo Cam Bevan)
Strong winds and frequent snowfall have resulted some very dangerous snow conditions recently, especially on the West. On March 8, Graham Wyllie and Cam Bevan visited Coire an Lochain on Aonach Mor. Conditions were tricky, but careful route choice meant they came away with a good two-pitch new route called Moonpig (IV,5) on the right side of the corrie.
“We approached via the climbers col to have a look at Grooved Arête,” Graham told me. “But avalanche conditions meant that traversing the apron below the crag was a no-go. The buttress that holds Foosyerneeps looked like a safe option in the conditions so we headed up there. We had not taken a guidebook and only had descriptions of the routes we couldn’t reach so we decided to wing it and see what we found. We climbed an interesting and varied route on the left of the buttress that included a narrow chimney. Checking the guidebook later the route we climbed didn’t resemble Foosyerneeps at all, which stays on the right.”
The prominent line of Neverthought Arête (III,4) on Stag Rocks on Cairn Gorm is marked in red. It was climbed back in November and rather surprisingly does not appear to have been recorded before. The classic Afterthought Arête (III) follows the blue line. (Photo Graham Wyllie)
Without question, it has been a dismal Scottish winter season. The warm weather through most of the peak winter climbing period in February upset many people’s dreams, and the tragic loss of Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry coupled with the recent fatalities in Glen Coe and Ben Nevis has only made things worse. The wind has been taken out of many people’s sails, and the current stormy weather giving rise to dangerous avalanche conditions is just adding to the gloom.
I received an email the other day from Graham Wyllie about a possible new start to Afterthought Arête on Stag Rocks that helped to lift my spirits.
“Ryan Alexander and I went in for a look at Stag Rocks on November 18 and decided to go down the Y-shaped gully and onto Afterthought Arête,” Graham told me. “Without looking at the guidebook we headed up the first arête from the gully’s lower reaches. I realised this was a different line a couple of weeks ago while belaying on the Shelter Stone and seeing parties on an ascent of Afterthought Arête well to the right of where we climbed. I led the route, but it was only Ryan’s second winter climb, so it was a good effort from him.”
The route is such an obvious line that it is surprising it has not been recorded before. New ascents in plain sight such as this make me smile, as it seems incredible that nobody has been there before. John Lyall, who knows the crag well, agrees that there is no record of an ascent, but wonders whether it was not noted before because it is escapable into the gully on the left. This is a real possibility, but there again, folk are climbing routes in leaner conditions nowadays which tends to make lines more distinct. So if anyone has climbed the line before, please get in touch (email or add a comment) so we can set the record straight.
Graham and Ryan have provisionally called their new addition Neverthought Arête and graded it III,4.
Alex Runciman on the exposed final pitch of Number Three Gully Buttress (III) on Ben Nevis. Alex was a keen attendee of the Scottish Mountaineering Club CIC Meets and had climbed many of the classic winter climbs on the mountain. (Photo Grahame Nicoll)
Grahame Nicoll’s atmospheric photograph of Alex Runciman perched above the misty void on Number Three Gully Buttress (III) on Ben Nevis is one of my favourite winter climbing images. It is no coincidence that it was published in both the 1994 SMC Ben Nevis guidebook and Chasing the Ephemeral.
Unfortunately after a short illness, Alex died earlier this month, and Scottish winter climbing lost one of its most enthusiastic devotees. Alex was a joiner by profession, but his lifelong love of the outdoors led him to found a series of outdoor shops in Scotland. The first was the iconic Mountain Man Supplies in his hometown of Perth, which led to further shops in Ullapool, Aviemore and Braemar. The early success of the business was attributed to Alex’s unbounded enthusiasm – it was said that you would go into his shop to buy a pair of socks but inspired by Alex’s passion for the mountains you would leave with a full set of kit!
Alex was a Scottish mountaineer through and through. He completed three rounds of the Munros and climbed many of Scotland’s winter classics. He was particularly fond of climbing on Ben Nevis where his joinery skills were used to fit new windows in the CIC Hut – a major job. Alex also developed a liking for climbing in the Southern Cairngorms and particularly on Beinn a’Bhuird. He added several new routes to Coire an Dubh Lochain and Dividing Buttress, but the only one that is recorded is the first winter ascent of Tearaway (IV,3). For Alex it was all about being in the mountains rather than personal glory.
Grahame Nicoll climbed often with Alex in the 1990s and recalls many great days together. “I remember seeing Alex in the shop one Christmas Eve, conditions were good and he was itching to get out, however being very much a family man with three young daughters we had to wait until Boxing Day. We went to Meagaidh, had the corrie to ourselves, and did North Post. We topped out to see a fantastic sunset and a full moon rising. Alex was ecstatic and there was much whooping as we glissaded off the hill.”
Alex was a generous man and took great interest in the routes Chris Cartwright and I were climbing in the early 2000s. He kitted us out for a remote expedition to Canada, and on another occasion Chris turned up below Ben Cruachan with a cardboard box with a set of brand new ice tools for us each. Alex said he liked what we were doing and wanted to contribute, if only in a small way. But my abiding memories of Alex are his broad smile, bright eyes, and infectious enthusiasm. The Scottish hills are all the less for his passing.
Murdoch Jamieson climbing the third pitch of Heavy Flak (VIII,8) on Beinn Eighe’s Eastern Ramparts during the first winter ascent. This spectacular route is one of the most difficult new additions this season. (Photo Uisdean Hawthorn)
Murdoch Jamieson and Uisdean Hawthorn pulled of a notable first winter ascent when they climbed Heavy Flak on Beinn Eighe on February 2. This summer E1 on the Eastern Ramparts was first climbed by Geoff Cohen and Murray Hamilton in July 1978.
“We climbed it in three pitches,” Murdoch told me. “I took the first pitch which ascends the right side of the roof to a little ledge. I think the summer description says traverse in from the right, which would make sense. Under the roof it was icy and dirty, and in summer I suspect it would be rather loose. It was a bit committing to leave this little ledge and gain the crack but I was fine once established. It was just pumpy.
Uisdean took us up the summer 5b pitch. It looked mental from below but this pitch was made for modern hooking with sinker hooks and good thin cracks for mono points. All that said, it was still very pumpy. The top pitch however was probably the crux. An icy wall with some very steep strenuous moves led to a groove. I’m glad I’m tall as it was a long reach to the ice, but once in the groove the ice was fairly good. It was runout so maybe it felt harder than it should have done given the quality of the ice. Overall, we think the route was harder than Boggle, but probably still in the VIII,8 Grade.
Iain Small approaching the South-East Face of Buachaille Etive Mor above Glen Etive. The prominent right-trending traverse line of The Chasm to Crowberry Traverse can be seen rising from the deep cleft of The Chasm on the left. The new VII,7 addition on North Blackmount Buttress is situated on the furthest right buttress above the traverse line, in a line below and left of the summit. (Photo Simon Richardson)
The heavy snowfall at the end of January fell without any wind and coated the Scottish mountains with a uniform layer of powder snow. This was a boon for skiers, but for classic winter climbing it needed to consolidate a little. Fortunately, the cold was intense, and soon permeated the fluffy light snow and rapidly froze the turf below. This combination of deep snow and frozen conditions created a brief window of opportunity on southerly aspects before the February sun started stripping it all.
On February 1, Iain Small and I were in Glen Coe and attracted to the idea of a winter route on the South-East Face of Buachaille Etive Mor. This myriad of buttresses and gullies is rarely visited in summer, and hardly ever in winter.
We hummed and hawed about exactly what to do and where to climb on the face, but after looking through binoculars Iain spotted a hint of a line of white on the north-east flank of North Blackmount Buttress. Fortunately Iain knew the face well (although rather modestly he claimed he didn’t) as he had added a handful of new E4s and E5s on the face in recent summers. Most importantly, Iain knew that The Chasm to Crowberry Traverse, which was first climbed by Glover and Collinson in April 1898 and takes a rising traverse across the face, was the key to reaching our buttress.
Glover and Collinson’s route was one of the first climbs to be recorded on the Buachaille, and following its well-defined line up short gullies and terraces interspersed with short walls was a fulfilling outing in itself. Iain’s hunch that there was a good line on North Blackmount Buttress was correct, and we climbed three excellent sustained pitches with a bold crux through a difficult to protect roof at half-height. The route was sheltered from the sun, and the upper pitch following well-cracked grooves in an exposed position on the upper crest of the buttress was a delight. The party climbing Curved Ridge above and to our right must have wondered what route we were doing.
We coiled our ropes on the flat top of the buttress and then traversed across a snow slope before plunging down through deep powder on the upper part of The Chasm to Crowberry Traverse to regain our steps and the conclusion of a satisfying day.
Murdoch Jamieson on the first ascent of Shiva on the Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe. This sustained icy mixed route takes the prominent groove to the right of Vishnu. There is no confirmed grade at present but the route is thought to be in the VII,8 to VIII,8 range. (Photo Guy Robertson)
On January 30, Murdoch Jamieson and Guy Robertson added an excellent winter-only line on the Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe. Shiva takes the obvious left-facing corner right of Vishnu.
“Guy had tried it many years ago with Pete Macpherson but they bailed due to bad weather,” Murdoch told me. “We climbed it in two big pitches – 40m and 50m. Guy’s first pitch follows some ledges, aiming for an obvious V-groove. This provided some cool climbing with thin feet in places and finishes with an awkward move right at a pinnacle.
My pitch follows the obvious corner above. It was very turfy and icy with several steep bulges and a little run out in places. But it had good turf, hooks and ice with a finish up a squeeze chimney. Maybe we are both biased, but we think this is a great addition to the Far East Wall as it will regularly come into condition. The climbing is proper filthy icy mixed!
I must admit, I feel a bit empty writing this. Andy was straight on my case the minute I was off the hill after a new route wanting all the info. Its saddens me that I did my usual and let him stew for a bit before I submitted the information. I always enjoyed our chats, and Andy’s knowledge of Beinn Eighe will probably never be matched.
Although Andy was always in contact straight away, Steve invariably made the first contact after I uploaded my photos to ‘Flickr’. We chatted on a regular basis, and I talked with him moments before Guy arrived at my house in Dingwall before our Shiva ascent. I voiced my concerns that I was scared. Guy has a strong reputation for opening up very hard new lines, but I had never climbed with him in winter before so felt some anxiety. After all, I am not Greg Boswell. However, Steve being positive and psyched for everyone, pointed out I was strong and nothing to worry about. I replied that I am p*** weak, but Steve’s response was that he wished he was as p*** weak as me and to get on with it. Inevitably when I got home that night he was immediately in touch and psyched for me. That was Steve, through and through.”
Andy Nisbet making the first ascent of Pension Plan (V,7) on Beinn Eighe in March 2007. Andy Nisbet was the most prolific Scottish winter climber in the history of the sport, and his achievements rank with the world’s best. But above all, he will be remembered for touching many people’s lives through the development of mixed climbing and an unfailing commitment to share his deep knowledge of the Scottish mountains. (Photo Dave McGimpsey)
The British climbing community is reeling from news of the deaths of Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry on Ben Hope on February 5. All climbing accidents are tragic, but this one cuts deep to the core of who we are and what we do. Andy Nisbet was the undisputed figurehead for Scottish winter climbing and his sudden passing is almost impossible to comprehend.
This is a difficult piece for me to write. My mind is a mixture of whirling thoughts and emotions and I’m still coming to terms with the immense contribution that Andy made to our sport. He impacted us all, as a pioneer, documenter and faithful friend. It is no exaggeration to say, that without Andy Nisbet, Scottish winter climbing would not have the breadth, vibrance, variety and energy that it has today.
Let me start with my own personal journey. Despite being based in the South of England I became captivated by Scottish winter climbing when I was a student. Our university Club booked the CIC Hut for a week each Easter holiday and I’d been fortunate enough to climb a few of the Grade V classics on the Ben. Rather kindly, the SMC sent us a copy of their Journal, and I can remember very clearly the excitement of pulling the distinctive sky blue-covered volume from its brown envelope one sunny day in the autumn of 1980.
The lead article was by Andy about the first winter ascent of The Link on The Black Pinnacle on Lochnagar with John Anderson. Andy’s writing captivated me – I thought I knew a little bit about Scottish winter climbing, but the intricacies of difficult mixed climbing on one the most challenging cliffs in the Cairngorms was like entering a different world. The technical difficulties were clear (The Link was one of Scotland’s first Grade VIIs), but above all, it was the adventure and pioneering spirit that shone through. I read and re-read that article, and resolved that one day I would climb The Link.
A succession of aborted trips made me realise that to learn the Scottish winter craft, I needed to live closer to the Highlands. This led to a deliberate choice of career that I knew would eventually lead me to Scotland. Ten years after reading Andy’s article, I moved to Aberdeen. Lochnagar was now my local cliff and six years later I climbed The Link with Chris Cartwright. It was the one of my happiest ever climbing days, but more significantly, Andy had set me on a course that was to define my life.
When a complete history of Scottish mountaineering is written, several names will stand head and shoulders above the rest. The great legendary figures of the past such as Raeburn, Marshall, Smith and Patey will be linked with one contemporary climber – Andy Nisbet. Andy’s winter record is without comparison – by the mid 1990s he had made first ascents of over a quarter of the 600 or so routes graded V or over, with a distinct bias towards the higher grades. In total, Andy is thought to have climbed over one thousand new Scottish winter routes. One has to look to the records of Fred Beckey in North America, or Patrick Gabarrou in the Alps to find climbers whose influence has been as long-lasting and profound.
Andy was born in 1953 in Aberdeen. His parents had a keen interest in the hills and took him hillwalking from an early age. In his teenage years he started to collect Munros, and he was given a rope for his eighteenth birthday in order to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A year later he completed his last Munro in the company of fellow school friends Alfie Robertson and Kenny McLean.
In 1971 Andy started studying biochemistry at Aberdeen University. He joined The Lairig Club (AUMC) and began regular rock climbing on the local sea cliffs. The following summer he attended a Glenmore Lodge rock climbing course with Alfie Robertson. The pair were so enthused that they signed up for a winter course in the New Year. Keen to gain some experience before their course, they visited Lochnagar on Christmas Eve and climbed Raeburn’s Gully – their first winter route. The seed had been sown and that winter they climbed on Lochnagar every weekend and by the end of the season they were climbing Grade IV.
The 1974/75 winter was poor, but Andy continued to work his way through the Lochnagar classics including Douglas-Gibson Gully, his first Grade V. He also recorded his first new route, Yoo Hoo Buttress on Broad Cairn Bluffs, a short Grade III buttress climb. The following season Andy and Alfie got really stuck into the winter game making ascents of several Grade Vs such as South Post Direct on Meagaidh and Gargoyle Direct on Lochnagar. The harder routes however, only succumbed after long campaigns, experience that was to stand Andy in good stead later in his career. Eagle Ridge (VI,6) for example, the Lochnagar test-piece of the day, was only climbed during a 12-hour push on their third attempt. Andy told me that they wore their woollen breeches over their waterproofs to get extra adhesion on the icy rock.
In 1977 Andy came of age as a winter climber with the first winter ascent of Dagger on Creagan a’Choire Etchachan, his first Grade V new route. Andy’s breakthrough into the big time came the following December when he made the first winter ascent of Vertigo Wall (VII,7) on Creag an Dubh Loch with Alfie. This intimidating and very steep Patey VS, high on Central Gully Wall, was heralded as one of the last great problems of the time. They only climbed two pitches the first day and spent a miserable 18-hour bivouac on a small ledge at the end of the traverse. They continued next day using several aid points, and finished after midnight just as their torches ran out, and arrived back at the car at 6am next morning.
Vertigo Wall was the hardest mixed route in Scotland at the time,” comments Cairngorms climber and historian Greg Strange. “I doubt if anyone else could have done it in any better style. Andy was already recognised as a very determined and bold winter climber.” Greg’s comments ring true. The big serious Ben Nevis Thin Face routes such as Albatross VII,6 and Pointless VII,6 were not climbed until later that winter, and The Shield Direct VII,7, which in many ways is similar in style and difficulty to Vertigo Wall, was not climbed until 1979.
The winter of 1980 saw a race between rival Edinburgh and Aberdeen teams to pick the major Cairngorm plums. In January, conditions on Creag an Dubh Loch were exceptionally icy. The Edinburgh team of Rab Anderson and Rob Milne were there first, and climbed the long-sought after White Elephant (VII,6) on the Central Slabs. They were later overheard in a pub talking about the exceptional amount of ice on Goliath. Word got back to Andy who climbed the route four days later with Neil Morrison. It didn’t go all Andy’s way that winter however, as later in the season he was beaten to the prestigious first ascent of The Citadel (VII,8) on the Shelter Stone by Murray Hamilton and Kenny Spence, when he crashed his car leaving Aberdeen.
Hard mixed climbing in the early 1980s was a rather different game to now. The crux pitches on the big Shelter Stone routes for example, were originally ascended on powder-covered rock wearing thin gloves. In 1981, Andy began to experiment with mixed climbing techniques on Carn Etchachan above Loch Avon. It was a poor winter with little snow and ice, but the deep cracks of the Northern Cairngorm granite proved ideal for jamming ice axe picks. It was another three years however, before the term ‘torquing’ was coined for this technique. “Colin MacLean made a winter attempt on The Outlands on the Tough-Brown Face with Arthur Paul”, Andy explained, “and he came back raving about laybacking up cracks by torquing their axes. People had used axes in cracks before, but this was the first time it had been done move after move. Colin was so excited that he persuaded me to go up and try Nymph (VII,8) the next weekend.” The route turned out to be an eye-opener, with MacLean leading the crux pitch a 30m vertical corner entirely on torques. The technique had been proven and a whole new spectrum of difficulty was now open.
Nisbet and MacLean formed a formidable partnership during the winter of 1985. In January they visited Glen Coe to try one of the great problems of the day – Unicorn (VIII,8), the classic summer E1 corner-line in Stob Coire nan Lochan. “Climbing in Glen Coe felt like going into bandit country,” Andy told me. “There was a strong rivalry between the Creag Dubh and Etchachan clubs at the time, and when we arrived at the Kings House, Ian Nicolson guessed which route we were going for and said there was no snow on it. We went up anyway, found it covered in hoar frost, and climbed it on our first attempt. On the way home we dived into the Kings House, told Nicolson, and then ran out of the bar before we were lynched!”
Whilst the West Coast climbers gnashed their teeth that one of their best winter lines had been poached by Aberdonians, Nisbet and MacLean were already working at their next project – a winter ascent of The Needle (VIII,8) on the Shelter Stone. “It took two weeks of continuous effort,” Andy recalled. “We worked out the best winter line, waited on weather then climbed the first two pitches as a recce to the winter start. We then sat out more bad weather before climbing the route with a bivouac in mid February.” Even though it was climbed nearly twenty-five years ago, The Needle is still one of the most sought after high standard winter routes in Scotland and has only seen a dozen or so repeats. Back in the mid-1980s it was probably the most difficult mixed climb in the world. No Siesta on the Grandes Jorasses (a similar breakthrough for the Alps at the time) was not climbed until 1986.
Later that year, Andy started working at Glenmore Lodge where he met Andy Cunningham. Although Cunningham was new to high standard mixed climbing, he was quick to learn, and the two Andys formed one of the most effective partnerships in the history of Scottish mountaineering. Over the next three winters they added over 25 outstanding Grade V routes all over the Cairngorms and Northern Highlands. These included Salmon Leap (V,5) on Liathach, the bold Vishnu (VII,6) on the East Wall of Coire Mhic Fhearchair and the demanding Postern Direct (VII,8) on the Shelter Stone.
It was their routes in the Northern Corries however, which were to have a profound influence on the shape of Scottish mixed climbing. Fallout Corner (VI,7) and The Migrant (VI,7) in Coire an Lochain are now both recognised as modern classics, and receive many ascents each winter. Greg Strange doesn’t mince his words in talking about the significance of these routes. “Above all else, Andy should be remembered for his continued pushing for the recognition of technical mixed climbing. In 1981 when he did his first Carn Etchachan routes, people were concerned that they weren’t really winter ascents at all, as they just had a dusting of snow and were climbed on frozen turf. Now of course, it is recognised that these are the ideal conditions to do this type of climbing, and the routes are at their best. Through the development of modern mixed, Andy opened up a new form of climbing.”
Andy’s knowledge of the Scottish mountains became unparalleled, and for 35 years he was New Routes Editor of the Scottish Mountaineering Journal. Along with Allen Fyffe, he authored three editions of the Cairngorms guide, two volumes for the Northern Highlands, compiled the very successful Scottish Rock Climbs and Scottish Winter Climbs volumes, and wrote major sections in several other Scottish guidebooks. “You can always tell an Andy Nisbet contribution,” says Roger Everett, a previous general editor of SMC guides, “because the descriptions are full of cross-references to other routes. This can only stem from a deep knowledge of where the routes go.”
Over the past 25 years, Andy became the most prolific explorer of the Northern and Western Highlands. Working with Martin Moran taking winter climbing courses from a base in Loch Carron in the 1990s provided a superb opportunity for investigating some of the less well-known corners of the Highlands. The transition from chasing the hardest ascents to pure exploration was a natural progression and resulted in hundreds of brilliant new routes with strong partners such as Jonathan Preston, Dave McGimpsey, Sandy Allan and latterly Steve Perry. We climbed together occasionally – I was always struck at how efficiently Andy moved in the mountains. His ice technique was extremely good and his footwork was exceptional. He particularly enjoyed padding up blank slabs.
Andy and I corresponded frequently, checking details about routes and corroborating first ascent details. I would often come home to find three or four messages from Andy in my inbox. He was meticulous, patient and very polite with whoever contacted him, regardless of the route they had climbed. This friendliness extended to the hill where Andy was warm, humorous and always intensely interested in what others were up to.
He was an inspirational President of the SMC from 2010 to 2012 and was awarded the prestigious Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture in 2014. His quiet manner, bushy red beard, unbounded enthusiasm and unfailing optimism became synonymous with Scottish mountaineering. He had hundreds of social media friends, and many people felt they knew him without ever actually meeting. Andy’s influence was universally positive and far reaching.
The loss of Andy Nisbet leaves a gaping hole that will be impossible to fill. It is only in his passing that we realise how much we have lost. He invented the mixed climbing game that we play today and ensured it was accessible to all by accurately sharing information via the Journal and guidebooks. Andy was our leader, our inspiration, and our mentor. Scottish winter climbing will never be quite the same again.