Words: Simon Richardson
Photography: Jack Anstey
It's the middle of September and the plan is to go rock climbing in Glen Clova, a jewel of a valley cutting deep into the south-east flank of the Cairngorms. The weather forecast is atrocious, but fellow climber Robbie and I decide to give it a go anyway. After all, if you never try you will certainly never succeed.
"The wildest and most savage of Britain's National parks..."
The day is grey and overcast as we drive along the long twisting road from Kirriemuir. Raindrops pepper the windscreen. The weather is following its script but it does not dampen our enthusiasm. It is impossible not to be inspired by the beauty of Glen Clova. The final few miles beyond the Clova Hotel are along a tiny single-track road. The hillside rises up sharply to our right, rocky and steep and scooped out by deep corries, and at the head of the glen lies the Craig Broadlands. Big, dark and menacing, it hints at the magnificence of the Lochnagar massif behind. But there is a softness to the Glen too – the valley floor is perfectly flat with tree-lined fields. Cows graze on lush wet grass and pheasants scurry indignant across the road. The scene is more reminiscent of the Lake District than the Highlands. If you ignore the soaring ridgelines above it is easy to forget that you are in the Cairngorms, the wildest and most savage of Britain’s National parks.
Starting with a Clova Classic
Fuelled by optimism, Robbie and I head up to the Red Craigs on the north side of the Glen. As we reach the foot of South-East Crag the rain reduces to a drizzle. With nothing to lose we pull on our wet weather gear and set off up Central Crack (Severe), a Clova classic that cuts straight up the centre of the cliff. The initial holds are sloping and greasy and demand precise footwork, but higher up the route is endowed with big positive edges. Before long I forget about the damp and wet and revel in the joy of moving smoothly up rock with ever-increasing exposure below.
At the top, I clip into a helpful in-situ abseil sling, put Robbie on belay, and take in the view. It has stopped raining now and I look straight across to Winter Corrie, the most frequented winter climbing venue in the glen. For many years Glen Clova has been a sleepy backwater, hidden away from the mainstream spotlight, but now it is undergoing a climbing revival. The neighbouring Corrie Farchal, which had been curiously neglected until recently, now has over two dozen new winter climbs. The most popular route is the evocatively named Silver Threads Among the Gold (IV,5) – a delightfully varied mixed outing up the central buttress. Previously, mixed routes that rely on a combination of frozen turf, icy streaks and snowed-up rock had been in short supply in Glen Clova. The area was best known for its frozen watercourses such as Look C Gully in Corrie Fee, but unfortunately milder winters mean they are now rarely in condition. There are now a good selection of mixed routes all over the Glen.
The route names in Corrie Farchal have an age-related theme – reflecting the passing years of the first ascensionists – but the young guns have been leaving their mark in Glen Clova too. Corrie Bonhard, just out of sight to my left, has become a boulderer’s paradise with dozens of problems established and many more waiting to be discovered. A wonderful aspect of climbing is that every successive generation interprets mountain terrain differently and finds alternative ways to express their individuality.
It is this diversity in British climbing that makes it so special. I've been fortunate enough to stand atop untrodden peaks in the Himalayas, scale new routes in the Alps and make first ascents in places as far-flung as Alaska and Antarctica. But many of my most memorable experiences have taken place in the British Isles. Outings such as the Cuillin Ridge on Skye, the Old Man of Hoy and Orion Direct on the Ben are world-class routes that live long in the memory. The scale may be smaller than the Alps but our ethic of ground-up ascents and fixed gear preserves the adventure and makes our climbs as challenging, committing and rewarding as any alpine playground.
"The clouds are dark and threatening."
Soon Robbie is at the stance so we abseil down and decide what to do next. The clouds are dark and threatening again, but the rock has dried a little, so we scramble up to the foot of the Upper North-West Crag. This is my favourite cliff on the Red Craigs with timeless classics such as Diagonal Double Direct (E2) (‘more positions than the Kama Sutra’ the guidebook advises) and the steep and sustained Red Wall (E1). We settle on Alder (VS), which has a sensational final section up the vertical face left of Red Wall. It looks improbable from below but I remember that the holds are generous and appear just when they’re needed.
The first section up an awkward crack is dripping wet, but the jams are good and I’m soon at the foot of the upper wall. I clip an old peg and delight in the sensation of space as the cliff disappears below my feet. Exactly as I remember, the climbing flatters to deceive. Big jugs and plentiful protection take me to the final hanging crack, but my momentum is brought to an abrupt halt by a long reach for the final hold that is slippery and soaking wet. I fumble around far too long, before eventually wriggling in a cam and pulling triumphantly over the top.
The right place at the right time
To the west, I can see the steep profile of the east face of Cairn Broadlands with its remarkable pinnacle formed by a landslip. Hidden from the valley floor, I chanced upon this striking feature a couple of years back and climbed its vertical front face immediately after the great New Year storm of 2016. The turf had been flash-frozen by the ferocious easterlies and its steep walls were rimmed white. It gave an excellent technical mixed climb, but next day, as warm weather swept in, it was no more. This sums up the challenge and fascination of Scottish winter climbing. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. Tactics dominate over strength – it is a subtle, intellectual game, where routes have to be teased out from the prevailing weather and conditions.
Robbie is up the climb in a flash so after a bite of lunch we descend to the lower cliff. We watch a heavy shower sweep down the other side of the Glen, but incredibly it just misses us, and the rock is still dry. We decide on Proud Corner (VS), the outside arête of the Lower North-West Crag. Proud Corner is a serious route for its grade with a long runout section and fully lives up to its name.
The first half of the route is steep and exhilarating with big holds, but the crux demands concentration. I move up to a hidden pocket, crucial for protecting the thin moves above, and curse when I find it full of water. I wipe my fingers, place a small cam and then launch up the imposing wall above. Steep moves on fingertip ledges focus the mind. The exposure bites and the solitary cam is far below my feet when my fingers curl around a well-hidden edge. I pull up and it’s all over bar the shouting, but mindful of the previous route, I ease my way carefully up the finishing holds watching out for unexpected wet sections.
A surprisingly satisfying day of climbing in Glen Clova
As I belay Robbie I reflect that is the changing of the seasons that make Scottish climbing so unique. Our seasons are distinct and dictate the activity we do throughout the year. Naturally, winter is for ice and mixed and summer is for rock, but it is the shoulder seasons that provide the most variety. Rock climbing invariably starts on low lying crags in the spring, but this is also a great time for ski touring in the Cairngorms or for climbing thin face ice routes high on Ben Nevis. More challenging is to combine disciplines and climb rock and ice routes on the same day. One of the most sought-after April prizes on Ben Nevis, for example, is to climb Point Five Gully (V,5) in the morning followed by Centurion (HVS) in the afternoon.
Autumn is a transition period too. Many folks retreat to the gym or spend the time hill walking to get fit for winter, but we’ve been rock climbing today instead. Our duel with the weather has added another dimension and made it feel more like mountaineering than straightforward cragging experience. As we bounce back down to our packs at the foot of the cliff the clouds darken and the heavens open. We throw on our jackets to avoid a soaking and descend to the valley floor, happy and carefree that we have snatched some great climbing in Glen Clova despite the doom and gloom of the weather forecast. It has been a surprisingly satisfying day.
As we walk along the road to the car I notice that the rowan trees are heavy with red berries hinting at a cold winter to come. Next time we are climbing in Glen Clova it will be to play another game. We’ll be armed with axes and crampons, primed for ice and mixed, and all set for an adventure of a different kind.