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16 October 2014

The Great Climb


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Old Climbers & Bold Climbers: A brief history of northern Cairngorm climbing

“There are old climbers and bold climbers, but not many old, bold climbers”
Ancient climbing proverb

Harold Raeburn
Harold Raeburn
Photograph courtesy
of Colin Wells

Although rock climbing has been undertaken in the northern Cairngorms almost as long as the activity has existed, the range remained relatively unexplored until after the Second World War, due its remote nature and an unjustified reputation for unsound and vegetated rock. Despite these imagined deterrents, the famous Edinburgh mountaineer Harold Raeburn, one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, ventured forth to pioneer some of the first climbs at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was the first to explore the great cliff of Shelter Stone Crag in 1907 when he climbed his eponymous route, the Severe Raeburn’s Buttress which follows the cliff’s left flank. The route, still described in modern climbers’ guides as, ‘vegetated and dangerous’, was regarded by the pioneers as dodgy even by Edwardian standards, involving as it did ‘a long stride onto disintegrating shelflets of grass.’ Nevertheless, you couldn’t fault the energy and enthusiasm of Raeburn and his companion Frank Goggs. They started the day by cycling from Kingussie, before walking to the cliff, descending another difficult route - Castle Wall – before climbing their severe buttress  – and were still finished in time for lunch. Their efforts would put most modern climbers to shame…

Tom Patey
Tom Patey
Photograph courtesy
of Colin Wells

Despite this flying start, the cliffs of the Loch A’an Basin remained mostly unloved and unvisited by technical rock and ice climbers until the 1950s. But in that decade a great explosion of creative climbing talent came pouring out of Aberdeenshire to begin the exploration of Cairngorm mountaineering in earnest. Inspired by the rallying cry of the doyen of inter-war Scottish mountaineers, JHB Bell: ‘Any fool can climb good rock, but it takes craft and cunning to get up vegetatious schist and granite’, legendary north-east climbers such as Bill Brooker, Ken Grassick, Graeme Nicol, Ronnie Sellars and Tom Patey formed a new post-war generation untroubled by preconceptions of their elders. Instead they recognised the excellent exploratory climbing to be had in their nearest major mountain range – and set about re-writing the guidebooks. The range became their veritable climbing fiefdom as they produced some of the hardest and most technically advanced climbs in the country. The remote upper Loch A’an basin was probed in both summer and winter beginning in 1952 with climbs like Deep Cut Chimney (Grade IV) and Hell’s Lum (III), before harder climbs such as the notorious winter route Scorpion on Carn Etchachan (one of the very first Grade V climbs) succumbed to the powerful Aberdonians. One of the first ascentionists on this 1952 route was the legendary Tom Patey, who would go on to become one of the best known and admired of Scottish mountaineers. He wrote a classic account of the climb which marked the beginning of a stellar climbing and writing career, sadly prematurely terminated after his death descending from a Scottish sea-stack in 1970.

The open, south-facing granite slabs of Hell’s Lum proved inviting to the post-war rock-climbing pioneers and further routes, such as the diabolical trilogy of Brimstone Grooves (S), Hellfire Corner (VS) and Devil’s Delight (HS) had been added by 1958, but it was not until that year that the first major rock route to breach the imposing main cliff of Shelterstone Crag was made: The Citadel (VS). Around the same time the Aberdeen ‘hard men’ were braving the ferocious arctic conditions of deep winter to climb on the cliff, producing challenging routes such as the exceptional Sticil Face – one of the first Grade VI winter climbs. These achievements were all the more remarkable for being climbed with equipment –single straight-picked ice axes and nailed boots – which had scarcely changed since the dawn of climbing in the Victorian period. Even today, with unimaginably more sophisticated ‘weaponry’ and clothing the routes are significant undertakings with the success a far from foregone conclusion.

But one of the biggest impacts on the development of northern Cairngorm climbing proved not to be the technology of climbing, but the technology of transport. In 1960 the Coire Cas ski road opened, allowing motor-borne climbers to reach 700m altitude before having to don heavy rucksacks and climbing equipment. Although it didn’t annihilate the remoteness or seriousness of the mountains, it certainly made them considerably more accessible, promoting a gold rush of mountaineering exploration by climbers from all over the country.

Robin Smith
Robin Smith
Photograph courtesy
of Colin Wells

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that some of the greatest classic rock climbs appeared in the summer following the appearance of this novel infrastructure. In 1961, Robin Smith a young Edinburgh student who would die tragically early on an expedition to the Pamirs, was reaching his apogee as one of the best climbers Britain would ever produce. In that year he climbed The Clean Sweep (VS), not only one of the very best routes on Hell’s Lum but one of the finest in the country. But Campbell’s masterpiece was painted over the other side of the corrie on Shelter Stone Crag. The Needle (E1) was the first rock climb in the Cairngorms to be graded ‘Extreme’ and years ahead of its time. It is now regarded as a ‘must have’ ascent on any keen climbers’ tick list. Campbell’s example showed what was available to the ambitious climber on these beautiful, wild cliffs and began a wave of extreme climbing on the crags around the Loch A’an basin. As a result standards of difficulty began to be pushed further by successive generations: in the late 1960s Rab Carrington climbed the sustained and futuristic route The Pin (E2) and Kenny Spence, The Steeple (E2).

Bill March
Bill March
Photograph courtesy
of Colin Wells

The development of what is now Sport Scotland’s flagship outdoor pursuits training centre at Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore during the 1960s provided another impetus to exploration in the remote heart of the Cairngorms. Here, the instructing staff provided a constantly refreshing reservoir of tough, experienced mountaineers with a hunger to climb hard even after working all day in the hills. As a result, in the late ‘60s an early ‘70s not only did the likes of such Glenmore staffers as John Cunningham and Bill March, together with the Aviemore cobbler George Shields, establish over 30 new routes, but they actively helped change the nature of climbing itself. In the late 1960s Cunningham began independently developing a new way of climbing steep ice using ice daggers for direct traction, rather than the time-consuming method of cutting steps in the ice. Although it was an incredibly strenuous innovation, in Cunningham’s experienced hands it proved to be a quick and efficient way to climb steep ice. He demonstrated this by an ascent of the free-standing icicle The Chancer on Hell’s Lum in 1969; an act which is widely recognised as the first genuine ‘front-point’ ice ascent in the UK. Coinicidentally the American climber and equipment designer Yvonne Chouinard had been working on similar lines across The Pond, but using modified ice axes, rather than ‘daggers’. In 1970, he brought his new tools over; Cunningham and March adopted them with alacrity and standards of winter climbing surged ahead as a result. The ice routes Salamander (IV) and Devil’s Delight (V) on Hell’s Lum were two of the earliest products of this revolution in technique.

Rock climbing standards also rose dramatically in the mid- to late- 1970s and early 80s. Serious and demanding routes like The Missing Link (E4) by Scots climber Dave ‘Cubby’ Cuthbertson (who will also be participating in The Great Climb) and The Run of the Arrow (E5) by raiding Cumbrian climber Pete Whillance pushed Shelter Stone Crag into a modern era of extreme routes, achievable only by exceptionally talented and highly trained semi-professionals.  Nevertheless much of the especially blank and forbidding central section of Shelter Stone Crag remained a challenge too far for even the best climbers until the Edinburgh joiner Rick Campbell climbed stunning routes such as Thor (E5) in 1989 followed by Aphrodite, the first Cairngorms route to reach the heady grade of E7, in 1990. The trend has continued, albeit a much slower pace in recent years, with leading climbers such as Aviemore resident Julian Lines (‘recently cited by The Scotsman newspaper as one of the 50 most eligible bachelors in Scotland’) moving slab climbing standards forward in Scotland by linking the fearsomely blank gap between the Rick Campbell routes Realm of the Senses and L'Eliser (E7) on Shelter Stone Crag, and his new route Firestone (E7) on Hells Lum.

Andy Nisbet
Andy Nisbet
Photograph courtesy
of Colin Wells

During the same period winter climbing also made a quantum leap in standards, thanks to the evolution of ice tools and a new approach to their use. Climbers such as Speyside resident Andy Nisbet pioneered the technique of torqueing ice picks and crampons into cracks in the snowed-up rock, enabling them to climb ever harder technical pitches and overhangs, albeit strenuously. It resulted in another revolution as to what constituted a winter climb and suddenly very steep, frost-hoared rock became ‘fair game’ to the technical maestros. As a result extreme summer rock climbs such as The Citadel and The Steeple have now received winter ascents at very high grades and even more desperate winter variations are being achieved.

Such is the scale of the rock architecture however, that despite over half a century of endeavour, the scope for hard new lines – and some perhaps not so hard – remains considerable on the magnificent cliffs surrounding the Loch A’an basin. Nevertheless, the wilderness climbing of the Cairngorms remains very much the preserve of the dedicated expert - which is why the televising of an attempt on a major first ascent here is so unprecedented, and why The Great Climb is likely to prove a once-in-a-lifetime experience for armchair adventurers viewing from a safe distance!


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