Monday, March 4, 2013

Belts, Marks and Thin White Lines

Just in case anyone is trying to get confused, the following comments are my own and not those of my day job at Climb Magazine. Also whilst I will be talking about one climber I don’t wish this to be misconstrued as personal attack on him, in fact I’m a big admirer of his.

I don’t usually post too much contentious stuff here, to be honest I’d rather share photos and adventures, but I feel a need to put into print a few thoughts on some recent ascents in Scotland. During the last few weeks of February Dave MacLeod climbed several new routes on Ben Nevis, some such as a new VII near Clefthanger were exemplars of perfect practice – hoared up rock, ice and deep snow on ledges. Two of Dave’s new lines however were some way from best practice. The first White Noise took the radically overhanging wall right of the CIC Cascade ice climbs. Climbed after abseil inspection and with photos showing completely bare rock this route is so far outside traditional Scottish ethics that I don’t think Dave would attempt to claim it as such. Noticeably he has used an M grade (used for continental mixed climbing – traditionally on bare rock to an icicle, but also used at many ‘dry-tooling’ venues where routes can be climbed all year round) although he does confusingly compare it grade wise with his own route The Cathedral, a grade X on the Cobbler. The second ascent that troubled me was of a very well known last great ice line on the Brenva face called the Snotter. On his second day of attempts Dave reached the hanging icicles that mark the route creating a VIII,8. Once again the photos tell a story with the crucial wall accessing the icicles again completely bare.
Dave Macleod on the first ascent of White Noise M10/11 Ben Nevis Copyright Jamie Hageman

The ‘magic’ at the heart of Scottish winter climbing arises not just from this countries great landscape, it’s challenging weather or it’s world class routes but largely from a universally adopted ethical approach. The key point being that routes should only be climbed in ‘true winter conditions.’ It is however an ethical code that is potentially fragile. In fact it gets broken numerous times every season usually in the desperate rush for a first route of the season, on minor routes with the consequence usually only ripples in the conscience of those individual climbers. This time however the climber involved is the most influential climber in the UK and the flag bearer for Scottish climbing on the international stage. Also at least one of the routes was a much coveted last great problem on Scotland’s signature mountain.

Both routes were publicised together, but it is perhaps best to deal with them separately as they raise different issues. White Noise is perhaps the starkest transgression – from what Dave has written on his blog it seems obvious he was aware that this would be a controversial route I wondered if a big ‘dry’ roof climb would be accepted. Things have moved on a bit in recent years though, with most folk realising that the biggest roofs in certain places in the Scottish mountains just do not get rimed up and so must be climbed in the prevailing conditions, or left. After years of passing those cracks it suddenly seemed totally stupid to leave such good routes unclimbed, so I went back up and did the right hand crack.’ 
I for one certainly don’t think White Noise is acceptable – it’s basically not a winter route but a pure dry tool route that can be climbed at any time of the year. Dry tool routes have a tenuous place in British climbing but surely not on our greatest mountain. If White Noise had been climbed in a quarry it would have been applauded, if it had been climbed in a quiet Glen on a low profile natural crag then it would have been silently ignored but right in front of every climber passing by the CIC hut is as provocative and inappropriate as any indiscretion I can think of in Scottish winter’s very colourful history. I sincerely hope the route will be left as an aberration and not emulated by any other winter climbers in Scotland. If it’s accepted then dry tooling is fair game on any mountain in Scotland. Also I don’t buy some of Dave’s justifications about steep rock not hoaring up. It depends largely on where the route is; on the Cobbler where Dave’s Cathedral route is everything hoars up take a look at the pic below of Greg Boswell’s recent repeat. In the Cairngorms and on the Ben most bits of rock hoar up, how frequently depends on the altitude. In the case of the low lying White Noise it is likely to be extremely rarely, but the higher Anubis (another of Dave’s super hard super steep routes) hoars up pretty often (Dave himself attempted it in fully hoared conditions). In the North West hoared conditions are rarer and different winter indicators are needed such as frozen turf or ice. With patience almost every higher altitude objective will at some point come into extremely wintery conditions. I can’t think of a better summary than the comments of one leading activist who called the line “White Nonsense”.

Greg Boswell repeating the Cathedral Copyright Adam Russell

The Snotter is more subtle, and judging by the internet responses I’ve seen perhaps splitting opinion. Some feel that because the hanging icicles were such a focus of the route that it justifies accessing via bare rock. My own view is that it’s an unfair Scottish winter ascent. Obviously with that much ice the route isn’t a summer climb and I’m fully aware that many ascents of winter lines have been made in marginal conditions, where the odd section has moves on bare rock. However with The Snotter the whole of the crucial section of the route is seemingly devoid of winter’s touch. That section of the route does get wintery and will have been so already this season. Dave lives pretty much at the base of the Ben, and I know he’s been injured and I’m sure was keen to get in on the action, but this major last great problem deserved to be climbed in the best possible style.

In Scotland our ethical process is at times puzzling, nebulous and definitely frustrating. But I feel by letting our routes keep their winter defences, they are transformed into great climbing experiences. The value of such an approach has been proved to me time and again when I’ve introduced climbers visiting from overseas to Scotland in the winter. When you describe the fact that we must wait until the rock looks white, only to then scrape away the snow in order to climb a route brings forth looks of utter incredulity “are you guys nuts?” But when you listen to those same climbers, after they’ve done a route they enthuse about Scottish winter climbing. 

This is perhaps why I am being harsher on Dave than I might be on others, Dave is in the position where almost any ascent he does gets reported on the international media – his blog post about these two routes was picked up immediately by and, and news will now have spread worldwide. Dave’s is nigh on worshipped by many grass roots climbers – what he does and says is often read as gospel. His influence on an international level is also highly significant – his routes such as the Hurting were a large part of the reason stars such as Charly Fritzer, Dani Arnold and Ines Papert have visited Scotland. The rich experience many overseas climbers have had in Scotland’s winter has I believe been a significant part of the trad revolution currently sweeping through mixed climbing. It would be a real shame if that message became confused by ascents like Dave’s recent ones on the Ben. 

The title of this post comes from a post Simon Richardson wrote on his site called Overstepping the Mark and a response Dave wrote today on his blog in which he felt simon was 'particularly below the belt'. Interestingly as of this morning Dave has amended his original blog post reporting both ascents and removed the photos of The Snotter, Planetmountain and UKC for some reason have also removed images of the route and UKC have changed the title of their news post [EDIT I got confused here and UKC didn't use Dave's Snotter pics at anytime].