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Interview: Greg Boswell on Bold Scottish Winter Climbs

The accomplished rock and ice climber discusses first ascents and what it's like to climb a grade X. "He said my main pro that I was banking on stopping me if I fell, just pulled out, and most certainly wouldn't have held if I'd come off"

Photo by: Greg Boswell of Jacob Cook

No stranger to harsh climbing conditions, Greg Boswell has stormed the Scottish winter climbing scene this year with a series of hard climbs. For those who remember, a few years ago he and Nick Bullock were attacked by a grizzly bear when approaching an ice route in the Canadian Rockies. Read about how they fought it off here.

Boswell has a long list of bold ascents to his name, including the first ever onsight of a grade X 10 with The Greatest Show on Earth on Cul Mor with Guy Robertson; the first ascent of Powerdab D13 as the hardest drytool route in England; the first ascent of Frankenstein D13 as the hardest drytool route in Scotland; and ascents of Illuminati M11+ WI6+, Val Lunga Messiah X 10 265m, Banana Wall XII 12 FA and more. In Canada, he made the first onsight of the 50-metre Victoria’s Secret Variation M7++ on the Stanley Headwall, and onsighted Rocket Man, the 350-metre VI M7+ WI5+ on Mount Patterson.

So far this winter, Boswell and Guy Robertson made the first winter ascent of Nihilist at X 9 and the first ascent of Vortex X 10. He also teamed up with Squamish-based Jacob Cook for some cold climbs. We touched base with Boswell to hear about the start of winter.

How’s the Scottish winter so far? It’s been a bit of a late start to the season this year, but thankfully it’s arrived with a bang. We’ve had some really persistent cold (by Scottish standards) weather over the last two weeks and it’s really helped routes come into condition. The downside to this is that there has also been loads of snow which has made moving around in the mountains and on the routes a bit time consuming, but not impossible and just adds to the experience.

What routes did you climb with Jacob Cook? We had a good couple of days climbing and going over loads of mixed and winter orientated skills for him to take on his next big adventure in 2023. We did two fun routes, the first was a shorter day which gave us time to go over other things after. We climbed a really fun route called Transcept Groove IV 5, which offered some awesome chimney action near the top and was a good intro to the Scottish mixed scene. The next day was a longer and more sustained route. We did Shadowlands VI 7, which was a seven pitch, three start classic. The climbing was much more involved and the upper third was very characteristic of a big mountain route, with lots of snowier easier terrain leading to the summit. I think Jacob definitely ticked all the boxes with his first Scottish Winter experience.

What was the Nihilist like in winter conditions? Nihilist was super fun, but also it involved some really thin climbing, which is always made more tricky when there’s loads of hoar frost around. It makes it hard to see potential placements and adds a sort of blindness to the technicality of the difficulties. Once I committed to the crux moves, there was no going back, so I was thankful that I was able to push on successfully and eventually finish what turned out to be an awesome, bold and interesting pitch. The second pitch was more straightforward in terms of where to go, but was still steep and had a slightly committing aspect as you pulled over the overhang and into easier terrain.

How long had you been looking at Vortex before the FA? The actual line of “Vortex” that we followed we chose on the day as we stood at the base of the buttress. But it’s been a good few years since we did The Greatest Show on Earth on this crag, and since then we’ve been planning to return for another battle with this cliff and sample its greatness again.

What was the crux? The crux was definitely getting over the roof and then climbing the next very thin and pumpy section above. Not only was the climbing very technical, but it was also super bold with the minimal protection that was available turned out to be useless. When Guy seconded up, he said my main pro that I was banking on stopping me if I fell, just pulled out, and most certainly wouldn’t have held if I’d come off. So I’m glad I didn’t! The second crux aspect may have been the weather. Not only was the climbing really tricky, but we were getting blown around and having spindrift dumped on our heads throughout the entire climb. This definitely adds an extra element of difficulty when you’re driving to climb hard and safely.

What’s it like climbing a grade X? I think the last question gives a good insight. It sometimes involves very hard and committing climbing, where you can’t see what’s going to involved from below. You have to just commit and keep stacking and figuring out the technical moves as you go, some of which might be too tricky to reverse/down climb. Sometimes the gear is also poor or hard to place and you might need to just push on with the climbing without any worthwhile protection.

What’s next? I have a bunch of interesting routes I’m keen to get done this season. But there’s some stand out lines that I want to put to bed in the next couple of months. So it’ll probably be some volume in the coming weeks to get a good base to my fitness, then I’ll get on the bigger project lines that I’ve got my eye on this season. I’ve not climbed anything really really hard in Scotland for a few season now, so I’m keen to get on a bit of a test-piece soon.

Lead photo: Greg Boswell of Jacob Cook