Westerly storms had battered the Scottish hills for more than a week, but at least temperatures had fallen and ice had started to form. In these conditions, Lurcher’s Crag in the Northern Cairngorms can be blasted clear of powder and prove a reliably icy venue. With a window in the weather opening up, Andy and I committed to the arduous walk-in, hopeful for good conditions.
We cunningly outflanked the Chalamain Gap on wind-scoured slopes of hard snow above but our smugness was short-lived as we hit the painful boulder fields beneath the crag. We were thankful of the team ahead, who’s trail we followed into the boulders and who had at least found most of the holes! Having climbed a number of the ice lines on the crag, including a superb day out linking Window Gully and K9, I was keen to see if Diamond Gully was in condition. This necessitated a long traverse beneath the entire northern section of the crag, allowing us to scope all the routes on the way.
It was clear from below that the crux ice pitch on Diamond Gully wasn’t quite there, but en route we had spotted an enticing looking line of icy slabs and icefalls, halfway between it and Central Gully. With the sun beating down and time ticking, a quick decision was made and we set off up the face, following our noses.
A rope-stretcher of a pitch brought us to a huge block and a solid rock belay, from where the choices were a steep pillar to the left or easier bulges to the right. It would have been rude to ignore the pillar, so I swung up left and was immediately reminded of the need to engage brain and employ some proper technique! Thankfully the ice was of excellent quality and mostly first-time placements allowed swift progress up the pillar and into an ice-choked groove behind the block. Exiting the groove provided a brief sting in the tail before a sold ice-screw belay was reached above.
The second icefall was brilliant fun; after another icy groove and a stiff pull round to the right, Andy cleared the overlap and joined easier-angled ice for a long pitch up the face above. More open face climbing up easy snow in the sun lent a real alpine ambience to proceedings and we moved quickly up to the base of the summit buttress and belayed near the foot of Reindeer Ridge.
We now had the option of joining one of multiple existing routes to the top but luckily the upper groove of Have an Ice Day looked to be in condition. Andy traversed right to the base of a lower groove and climbed through a short ice bulge that required a strange mantel-shelf move when the ice abruptly ended. Another snow bay and large block belay followed before Andy took the reins again in the upper groove.
This pitch provided a fine finish to the difficulties; squeezing round a chock-stone on ice, surmounting ice bulges and a final series of exposed moves out right at the top. The first ascent was in mid-December 2015 in leaner conditions but in the banked-out state we found it felt more like grade IV, albeit good value! The angel eased above and we were soon on top, getting blown uphill by the strengthening wind as the weather deteriorated.
It was a nice surprise to find such a brilliant route up this part of the crag, without really intending to! It’s well worth doing and compares favourably in quality and grade to Window Gully and K9, but is quite a bit longer. The topo and detailed description are below.
An Ice Surprise ** (IV, 4/5), 365m, Lurcher’s Crag, Dave Riley and Andy Harrison, 25th Feb 2022:A long icy adventure up the face on the highest part of the crag, best done when continuous ice leads through the lower overlaps. Start mid-way between Central and Diamond Gullies, 60m below a huge block and a two-tiered icefall.
- Climb a rope-stretching pitch of iced slabs and small steps to a rock belay in the huge block (60m+)
- Swing up left onto a steep ice pillar (5) and climb it into a groove behind the huge block. Escape the groove to belay on ice beneath the next overlap (20m). This pitch could be outflanked on the right.
- Climb an ice groove to beneath the overlap, break out right and climb easier angled ice trending left to a rock belay (60m)
- Move back out right and climb easy snow before trending left to a block belay near the base of Reindeer Ridge (60m)
- Traverse back right until beneath a groove with a steep ice bulge, move up this into a bay and a block belay on the right below St Bernard’s Ridge (55m)
- Climb the big icy groove above (Have an Ice Day) to exit out right with difficulty onto easier ground (50m)
- Climb easier snow and rock steps to the top (60m+)