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December 2020, winter so far...

Over the past month I have had the pleasure of climbing a few new routes and thought I would collect them altogether in one place. So should anyone wish to climb them, or read about them out of interest, all the information is available in one place.

Two days at the start of the season with an on-form Callum Johnson kicked things off to a good start. He was keen to head to An Teallach a magnificent mountain in the wild North West of Scotland that I had never visited, but had heard much about. Hayfork Gully Wall was the cliff of choice and the scene of a couple of hard routes climbed by the Robertson/Boswell duo a few years before.

The entrance into Hayfork Gully is small and unlikely, but soon opens out and the huge walls loom above the left side. Unfortunately, things were looking a little more bare than we had hoped and we were forced to climb the whitest looking line, high up the gully. Callum set off up the first pitch of the Silver Fox, a Moran and MacPherson VII 8. This turned into a harrowing lead by Callum, who, unable to find any gear on the initial 7m, teetered his way up on thin placements and made a move to what we assumed would be a thank-god turfy ledge. However, his axe ripped through and he came crashing back into the gully landing with a thump in the snow. Amazingly, unharmed and eager to put the deamons to rest, he jumped back on and reclimbed the bold start in a heroic effort. Spying an inviting steep corner up to the right he branched off The Silver Fox and belayed at the bottom. This turned out to be quite the contrast to the previous pitch, pumpy climbing on good hooks and thin feet with plenty of gear. I made my way up the corner and the technical slaby wall above. Callum then lead one last pitch to the top.

We were joined on the day by photographer Marc Langley who positioned himself a little further up and captured these magnificent snaps of Callum.

Callum Johnson, The Flying Fox, Hayfork Gully Wall, An Teallach
Callum approaching the turfy ledge moments before disaster struck. Photographer Marc Langley
Callum Johnson, The Flying Fox, Hayfork Gully Wall, An Teallach
Glad to have got some gear a little higher on the successful attempt. Photographer Marc Langley

When discussing the grade, we agreed that the individual pitches broke down as VIII 7, VII 8 and VI 6. So we found it suprising that The Silver Fox, which shares the same bold start was graded VII 8. Maybe the fact that we had tested the fall, had heightened the sense of risk that we felt and we may have not have thought much of it had we not experienced a potentially harmful ground fall? Or maybe later in the season the gully would bank out with an extra few meters of snow, making the fall much shorter? Or maybe The Silver Fox is just a snadbag? Either way we thought the route that we climbed on the day was VIII 8.

The Flying Fox VIII 8 ** 90m

Callum Johnson & Tim Miller, 03/12/20

1. 30m. Start as for The Silver Fox (very bold/serious) continue up the steepening groove until it is possible to balance right on ledges to gain the groove leading to the obvious left facing corner. Belay at the base of the corner.

2. 30m. Climb the superb vertical corner, move right 2m and climb a shallow groove straight up to an easing in angle, belay in a bay below a series of roofs.

3. 30m. Climb straight up a wide steepening groove to below a roof, step right on ledges to climb a shallow groove for 4m then step right again and climb another easier angled groove to the top.

Tim Miller, Never Never Land, Eastern Ramparts, Beinn Eighe
Myself seconding pitch 2 of Never Never Land. Photographer Callum Johnson

That evening we drove round to Beinn Eighe with the van heaters on full blast in an attempt to dry the kit as best as possible. We walked in the next morning with an open mind to find The Far East wall out the question, but the Eastern Ramparts looking snowy. This wall is riddled with many cracks, grooves and corners, making route finding tricky, but potential for new lines high. We found a blank section in the guide book and off we went. Once again I got a fairly straightforward pitch, taking in a typical Beinn Eight corner with positive hooks and gear, before Callum was landed with the awkward second pitch. A few committing moves lead to a hard reach up and round a flake. I shouted up to him that a stein pull might do the trick and sure enough it allowed him get established on the flake before making a tenuous mantle off the stein and accessing more conventional and enjoyable cracks to the top. I finished up an easy pitch onto East Buttress.

Callum Leading pitch 2, the awkward flake looming above. Photographer Tim Miller

Never Never Land VIII 8 ** 100m

Callum Johnson & Tim Miller 04/Dec/2020

Start roughly 8m right of Fairytale Groove, just left of a tricky step on the lower girdle ledge.

1. VI 7 45m. Climb up corners and ledges, taking in a superb 8m left facing corner. Trend slightly left onto the upper girdle ledge to belay below the centre of the white wall.

2. VIII 8 35m. Move right 4m to make committing moves into the base of a groove (at the right edge of the white wall) which leads up to a small roof with a prominent wide crack splitting its left hand side. Climb the crack strenuously around the roof. Continue up the wide crack then shallow groove, taking a line of twin cracks up a wall to a good ledge.

3. 20m. Climb the open book corner, and pull slightly right onto the crest of East Buttress.

The line of Never Never Land is marked in light blue and belay stances as dark blue crosses.

The next winter climbing operation involved teaming up with Jamie Skelton on another one of our siege missions. The objective was the summer E2 Metamorphosis, on Central Trident Buttress on Ben Nevis. From our research we thought that it hadn't received a winter ascent. By chance we bumped into Iain Small and Dave Macleoad on the approach, who were aiming for a brilliant looking corner on No.5 Gully Buttress. We found out Iain had climbed Metamorphosis via the Cranium start in 2009 with Gareth Hughs and had given it VIII 9. Not too disheartened we thought we would try the original summer line.

This turned into a bigger affair than we had bargained for: we only added one new pitch, but required 3 visits over the course of 4 days and seamed to totally consume us for that time.

Tim Miller, Metamorphosis, Central trident buttress, Ben Nevis
Myself doing battle with the first pitch of Metamorphosis. Photographer Jamie Skelton

A steep start, which involved some painful hand jams, lead to a good rest, then a few positive hooks in an overhanging corner. After this the route breaks out onto a blank slab void of any positive edges on which our axes might gain some purchase. I remember constantly thinking, surly its going to let up soon, there must be a good crack somewhere. But the route continues in this fashion into the corner above where the gear disappears and the hooks are at their worst. Never too pumpy, but very tenuous. A few easy corners lead to a big belay ledge. At this point we joined the route climbed by Small and Hughs. A particularly awkward traverse right, mantle and move back left lead to the bottom of the impending flake. This provided the pumpy fun and a hidden rest was welcomed by swinging a leg onto the flake and lying across the top facing back down the route. Some trickier moves pull you out and over the steep wall above and into the relief of the horizontal world. A short easy pitch leads to the top.

The first two days we took turns inching a little higher up the first pitch before pinging off and swapping leads. The picks of our axes being ground down each day from the constant scratching down the rock till something caught, then we very cautiously pulled and repeated until we pinged off. Eventually Jamie managed to get us to the top of the pitch with a few falls. At this point it was dark so we decided to take a rest day and come back to hopefully climb it cleanly.

After both of us popping off on a few attempts it was my go again, but by this point we had almost given up out of frustration. I pulled back on and after more scratching and teetering found myself at the bottom of the corner, somehow still attached to the rock. I arranged a cluster of small gear, something would hold. I readied myself, then launched upwards, axes scraping away, they caught on something and I worked my feet up. I inched a few more moves higher and the gear passed by my feet. My crampons skittered about on the sloping edges, then popped off and my whole weight shot onto my axes, I was certain I was about to feel the sensation of falling through air, but I didn't. I reached higher with my axes and they caught on a small lip of ice stuck to the rim of a sloping edge, miraculously it held. I pulled and managed to bridge my feet out into a more stable stance. I looked down and saw the ropes trickle down between my feet and under a small roof at the bottom of the corner. I couldn't see my last gear. I shouted down to Jamie "where was that bulldog you placed?" "Still a bit higher" he replied to my dismay. I gulped and moved up again, loath to leave the relative safety of my position. This time my axe found a shallow crack in the right wall. I grabbed the bulldog and smashed it in as hard as I could. I could now relax a little. A few more moves spat me out at the top of the corner and onto a good ledge.

Jamie Skelton, Metamorphosis, central trident buttress, Ben Nevis
Jamie getting stuck into the steep start with a hand jam. Photographer Tim Miller

Remarkably, I managed to climb the pitch clean to the top. Jamie then made an impressive on-sight of the 2nd flake pitch with fading arms. I climbed the last easy pitch in the dark before we found a fortuitously placed abseil off to our left that landed us back at the bags. Despite having limited experience at grade IX between us, we found it considerably harder than any other winter routes we have tried and with the amount of effort it took us to climb it we thought it justified the grade IX 9.

Metamorphosis (winter) IX 9 ** 105m

Tim Miller & Jamie Skelton 10/12/20

Follows the summer route.

45m. Start at an overhanging crack in a steep wall to the right of the Cranium crack.

The short corner above leads to a slab, climb this direct initially, pass an overlap, make balancy moves right and up to the base of a corner. Climb this, then follow easier short corners to a big ledge belay as for the top of the 2nd pitch of the Cranium start.

Follow this route to the top.

Some warmer weather blew through the next week and Christmas came and went. Before long, Jamie and myself were eager to get out again and try a few projects we had our eyes on. This summer I climbed Menghini on the South Face of Garbh Bheinn, a crag where we climbed Butterknife and Scimitar last winter. I couldn’t help but think how fun it would be as a winter route, with all its positive cracks and chalkstones. Turns out it was every bit as good as we thought. However, fate had different plans. On the walk in I was telling Jamie about how in summer I had forgotten my rock shoes and had to run back down to the van. This triggered my brain and I realised that I had forgotten my harness, what a punter! Jamie made a good lead of the sustained pitch and I found myself seconding with the rope wrapped a few times round my waist and legs.

Tim Miller, Menghini, Garbh Bheinn
Myself, eager not to fall off and test my harness contraption while seconding Menghini. Photographer Jamie Skelton

Menghini (winter) VII 8 *** 45m

Jamie Skelton & Tim Miller 27/12/20

As for the summer route.

Start at the shallow left facing corner at the far left end of the top tier.

Climb the corner to a big ledge. Climb the crack line directly above in one sustained pitch to the top of the crag.

Tim Miller, groovin'high, Far East wall, Beinn eighe
Myself leading pitch 1 of Groovin' High. Photographer Jamie Skelton

Making use of the relatively short day, that is a welcome part of climbing on Garbh Bhein, we made the drive up to Beinn Eighe. We had long talked about Groovin' High as a potential winter route. Every time we walked underneath it we looked longingly up at the cracked corner, but that part of the buttress is often bare due to its steepness. Because it is a classic summer rock route, we knew it could be a controversial decision to climb it at the best of times and we would have to wait for it to look pretty white before considering it. Today was the day, it looked as white as ever, so we thought we'd give it a go. The first pitch involved some awkward steps, that could be avoided by traversing in from the right. Some steeper moves brought you out at a comfy belay ledge below the corner. Jamie made short work of this. I then continued up the extension above. Just as I was setting off, I fumbled the large nuts and they fell to the base of the cliff, 2 pitches below. Another punter move, two days in a row! I would now, not only have to climb the pitch without them, but also have to run round, hope I found them and walk back up again at the end of the day. Thankfully, gear was plentiful and I was able to run it out on the remaining rack over the pitch. We topped out to an amazing sun set over Liathach and, as I walked back up from successfully finding the nuts, the full moon and stars came out to light my way. Walking back to the car without the need for head torches made it all worth it.

We felt a little sheepish climbing Groovin' High given its classic status as a summer route. However it made an excellent winter route too and who’s to say it can be one, but not the other?

Tim Miller, grooving' high, Far East wall, Beinn eighe
Myself seconding pitch 2. Photographer Jamie Skelton

Groovin' High (winter) VII 8 *** 90m

Tim Miller & Jamie Skelton 28/12/20

As for the summer route.

Start 6m to the right of the obvious chimney of Ling Dynasty at a series of corners.

1. VII 7 35m. Climb these via awkward steps to a big ledge where one could traverse in from the right. Climb the 2 tiered steep wall above to another big ledge at the base of an inviting corner.

2. VII 8 20m. Climb the corner via brilliant cracks to a belay below a roof.

3. VII 8 35m. Make an awkward step to the right into another corner system and enjoy more positive hooks to the top.

Once the new year had passed, I met up with Callum again. This time heading for Mainreachan Buttress on Fuar Tholl. An incredible winter cliff: big, deceptively steep in the lower half and a remote and adventurous feel to it. The first time I visited this crag was several years ago with Ian Parnell and Richard Kendrick. We walked-in in the dark, through rhododendrons and along the railway line for a while. We then broke trail for hours in a white out to the base of the crag. We tried the Small/Jamieson route Private Eye, but time consuming verglas and the long wade in meant it was getting late, so we bailed and climbed an unknown consolation route further up the right side of the buttress.

Tim Miller, sherlock, mainreachan buttress, fuar tholl
Myself on the steep moves of pitch 3, Sherlock. Photographer Callum Johnson

This time, it was a pleasant discovery to find good tracks all the way and I was able to get a sense of where I was due to the bright moon lighting the way. We set our sights on Sherlock. This route saw many attempts by Malcome Bass, Simon Yearsley, Paul Figg, Guy Robertson and Dave Heselden before Robertson and Small eventually made a successful ascent. It is a fantastic and sustained route that runs up the nose of the buttress. Callum was landed with some hard overhanging moves with poor feet and the pitch after I was faced with a rounded, featureless slab of sandstone. Once I had placed all the small gear I could find from the comfort of a small ledge, I shuffled up and thankfully the wall opened up to reveal some hidden cracks that allowed it to be climbed. Darkness arrived as Callum set off up the 4th pitch and we quested into the night on the remaining 2 pitches. Time no longer mattered as we turned our head torches off to belay and let the darkness swallow us. Only feeling the gentle breeze and the extreme sense of remoteness.

Topping out, we were abruptly reminded of the outside world as Callum's phone started buzzing and we read messages that Scotland had tightened its restrictions further. It looked like that may be the last winter route I climb for a while. Very glad to have made the most of it and climbed what we think is the 2nd ascent of a brilliant route to finish it off. I just hope there will still be winter climbing to do by the time restrictions easy again...

Callum Johnson, Sherlock, Mainreachan buttress, fuar tholl
Callum walking in as an incredible sunrise unfolds behind him. Photographer Tim Miller


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