In most places, a “winter ascent” must fall between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In Scotland, the guidelines, defined by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s Code of Good Practice, are much more conditions dependent. The rock should have a winter appearance with ice, verglass and hoar frost covering it, not just snow; there should be enough ice to need crampons and axes. Additionally, “it is the view of the overwhelming majority of Scottish climbers that bolts are not to be used in winter ascents in Scotland.” While the official winter climbing season ends around March 21 in the northern hemisphere, the Scottish winter season can and go well into April or even May if conditions allow.
On April 8, two of Scotland’s most seasoned mixed climbers claimed the first Scottish winter ascent of Nevermore, a 150m rock route in the Cairngorms originally climbed by Dougie Dinwoodie and Bob Smith in August of 1981. Located on Lochnagar’s Tough-Brown Face, Nevermore takes a direct route between Mort (E1 5b [5.10], 110m; winter IX,9), and Post Mortem (E3 5b [5.10/5.11], 150m).
During the 2011-2012 winter season, Pete Benson and Guy Robertson attempted Nevermore three times with Pete Macpherson but were continuously shut down by a technical second pitch that they consider X,10. During their third and final effort of the season, Benson finally unlocked the second pitch only to get turned around below Pitch 5 in thawing conditions.
Benson and Robertson returned to the area for a fourth attempt in early March of this year, this time with Nick Bullock, but fading light and frigid temps turned them around on Pitch 5, yet again.
On their fifth attempt, Benson was unable to join Robertson and Bullock. Despite good winter conditions, they thought it would be their last chance of the season. The duo set off on April 8. Bullock took care of the technical second pitch, leaving the final and unknown fifth pitch for Robertson.
Moving up on rock and very thin ice, Robertson pulled over a roof leaving the last piece of gear well below him and no more available pro placements in sight. He exploded off the thin streak of ice below him and went soaring through the air, losing one of his axes. “I wanted to say, ‘I’m going rock climbing and I don’t want to break my legs.'” Bullock wrote in a report for UKClimbing.com, “But instead I heard myself saying, ‘OK, give me the gear, let’s have this bastard.'”
Taking the rack, Bullock moved slowly past Robertson’s highpoint. Dropping a hook in a poor pick placement was the only protection he could find above the roof. Severely runout, a terrified Bullock inched higher, battling to keep moving. A fall would certainly have been catastrophic.
Hailed as one of the last major winter projects on Lochnagar, “[Nevermore] was the most strenuous and possibly the boldest, most technical route I’ve ever climbed in Scotland,” says Bullock. “It is close to some of the routes I’ve climbed in the Rive Gauche in France but I think it was more bold than most of them.”