Jeff Mercier and Greg Boswell Complete Hard Scottish Winter Routes

Jeff Mercier and Greg Boswell seem drawn to technical, challenging routes. The harder, the better.

Mercier and Boswell initially planned to head to Senja, Norway for ice climbing. A nasty-looking weather forecast and minimal daylight led them to cancel that plan.

“We spent 48 hours looking for other options in Europe, but when it came to making the most of our time, finding good conditions, and having the opportunity to climb some of the best mixed routes in the world (maybe I’m biased), there was only one realistic destination…Scotland,” Boswell wrote.

Jeff Mercier in action.

Jeff Mercier in action. Photo: Greg Boswell


Up first, Black Spout Wall

During the first three days, Mercier and Boswell tackled a few difficult climbs.

First up was the second winter ascent of Black Spout Wall in Lochnagar. Guy Robertson and Nick Bullock made the first winter ascent in February 2012. They graded it IX 9.

“The 170m-high Black Spout Wall towers above the prominent gully of The Black Spout and is the steepest feature on the mountain. It was first climbed in summer by Dougie Dinwoodie and Bob Smith in 1976 at E3 5c and is one of the most sought-after rock climbs in the Cairngorms. Such a prominent route was a clear winter target and it had been probed by several teams, but all had failed on the steep, wide, rounded crack of the first pitch,” Alpine Journal UK wrote back in 2013.

The start of pitch 4 on 'Black Spout Wall'.

The start of pitch four on Black Spout Wall. Photo: Greg Boswell


For Boswell and Mercier, pitch four (known as the inhospitable crack pitch) proved super tricky.

“The wide crack with nothing to hook at the back, just the head of my axe marginally catching on the sidewalls with nothing to stop it if it ripped,” Boswell said.

His arms wilting with fatigue after beefy pitches lower down, Boswell had to fight hard to progress. Eventually, he found the turfy ledges which marked the end of the route’s difficulties.

After the second winter ascent of this very sustained route, Boswell upgraded it to IX 10.

On day two of their trip, Mercier and Boswell added a new two-pitch finish to Manticore (also in Lochnagar), which is graded VIII 8.

On day three, they climbed two routes: The Migrant Direct and Savage Slit in the same area (graded VII 8 and V 6 respectively).

A photo on the Scottish winter mountains taken during the first three days of the expedition.

A photo from the first three days of the expedition. Photo: Greg Boswell


Hamish Frost joins the team

On Jan. 16, Hamish Frost joined the team and took them northwest, to Cul Mor.

“This cliff is one of the craziest places I’ve climbed in winter. Its vast steepness and the amount of unclimbed terrain is mouth-watering. The problem with this place is that if it looks easy it will be hard and if it looks tricky, you’d better be wearing brown pants,” Boswell wrote.

The trio started to climb up a technical new winter route. According to Boswell, they battled their way up three hard, bold pitches. Pummelled by wind and spindrift, they eventually reached the last pitch.

“With spirits high we looked up, this pitch with its three overhanging rooves looked like it could potentially be semi-amenable, and at least it looked like there would be good protection,” Boswell said.

Photo of Cul Mor.

Cul Mor. Photo: Greg Boswell


Frost falls

With Frost leading, they probed up, but progress slowed. Frost decided the next section wasn’t for him and made the sensible decision to retreat and pass the ropes to Boswell. But as Frost was down-climbing, an axe ripped and he fell.

“Hamish [Frost] flipped upside down and I proceeded to watch one of my best friends take a 15+ meter fall, ripping more gear as he went. Instant sickness hit my stomach and as Jeff [Mercier] was belaying I thought the rope was ripping through the device. Why was he still falling, I thought,” recalls Boswell.

Fortunately, Frost stopped below the belay. They took a second to breathe and assess the situation before Mercier and Boswell got Frost back to the belay ledge.

“He knew he’d hurt his ankle but as the true hard bastard that he is, he blurts out: one of you needs to finish the route,” Boswell recounted.

They finally finished, naming it Flyby “in homage to Hamish’s Top Gun style inverted passing of Jeff and I at the last belay,” Boswell said.

Hamish Frost (above) and Jeff Mercier climbing up the route.

Hamish Frost and Jeff Mercier. Photo: Greg Boswell


Mercier and Boswell’s other new route

Mercier and Boswell continued the next day. On Cul Mor, the duo made the first ascent of Overwatch and graded it XI 11.

“This route’s crux pitch was my hardest winter onsight to date. With its technical style and bold route finding, all with zero knowledge of where to go or if I’d even find protection if I pushed on, I’d say I put in everything that I’ve learned in my 20-year winter climbing career to get up without incident. When new routing on hard virgin terrain, not only is the climbing difficult, but you don’t even know if it’s possible. Now we know it is,” Boswell said.

After two epic days on Cul Mor, they walked back to their van through fresh waist-deep snow and decided for a slightly easier day in the Northern Corries the following day.

On the Cul Mor buttress.

On the Cul Mor buttress. Photo: Greg Boswell

Kris Annapurna

KrisAnnapurna is a writer with ExplorersWeb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, and news updates in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., for the past year with ExplorersWeb. Prior to that, Kris worked as a real estate agent, interpreter, and translator in criminal law. Now based in Madrid, Spain, she was born and raised in Hungary.