Andy Nisbet was undoubtedly the greatest and nicest character with whom I have ever worked and climbed. His death on Ben Hope came on the same day and at the same time as I was making a first winter ascent of one of his summer climbs on Beinn Eighe. We shared the same wonderful dawn, the hard plough through pristine dry snow to the foot of our cliffs and the joy of success on our climbs. For Andy and his partner Steve Perry that joy was to be their final gesture in this world. A misstep or a snow slide; who knows? They fell and perished on Scotland's most northerly Munro, a storm-battered and defiant hill at the edge of the world; just the sort of place that had entranced and inspired Andy all through his life.
Andy worked for Moran Mountain from 1989 through to 2008. He guided on five Himalayan expeditions for us - most memorably making the first ascent of Nanda Not South Face in 1995 and Nilkanth West Ridge in 2000. Each winter he was a regular resident at our base in Strathcarron. Our students and clients were always delighted to see his arrival, limping, slightly stooped but with the warmest of smiles and the fire of enthusiasm in his eyes. Here was a living legend and a friendly one at that.
In the 1990's the potential for making new climbs of modest and classic grades in Kintail and Wester Ross was immense. Andy saw the opportunity to pioneer whilst simultaneously earning his living. Snow skills coaching was completed within half-a-day, the briefest preamble to the real thing. Scores of new routes of esoteric appeal and variable quality were climbed in off-beat locales. The students would leave with a string of first ascent under their belts, buzzing with the general craziness of days out with Andy. Thrashing up turfy grade III's, wading the River Shiel and driving madly homeward to get back in time for Neighbours or Andy's evening fix of "Heather the Weather" on BBC Scotland - every client of those years that I've met in later life has vivid memories of the man and his passion.
To be fair, many of Andy's discoveries were of excellent and lasting worth. He guided three students up the first ascent of The Sneak on Liathach - a three-pitch grade V icefall on Liathach - this on the final day of an 'Introductory Climbing' week! Big Gully on The Saddle, the Over Sixties icefall on Liathach and Boulder Problem Buttress on Meall Gorm - these and many others have become minor classics.
When Andy joined our instructing team he was already the most important mixed climber of his generation. His exploits in the Cairngorms led and bridged the way between the postwar era of Tom Patey and the modern activism of Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell. With singular vision he forged Beinn Eighe's Triple Buttress as the greatest mixed climbing arena in the country. He was experimental in use of gear. In my first meeting with him in 1986 he was climbing in rubber laundry gloves, professing that they were absolutely bombproof in every weather. For the first winter ascent of The Needle on Shelter Stone Crag, perhaps his finest climb and the hardest grade VIII I've ever done, he wore 'trampons' - a home-made hybrid between old-school nails and crampons. This was done in 1985 - a fantastic achievement of its time.
Andy was always modest about his personal abilities and judicious in his choice of climbing partners. Knowing his limitations in strength and athleticism he recruited talented partners like Colin MacLean, Andy Cunningham, Brian Davison and Dave McGimpsey whom he could rely upon to take on the steepest leads. Yet he could pull some very hard leads out of the bag himself when pushed. He was the only man who instituted the idea of making planned bivouacs on the longest winter routes, a strategy first employed in 1980 on Beinn Bhan with his grade VII masterpiece, Die Reisenwand - an extraordinary adventure on one of Scotland's steepest and highest mountain walls, climbed with Brian Sprunt.
Left: The stupendous crux ramp on grade VII Die Reisenwand on Beinn Bhan, one of Andy's seminal new routes climbed in 1980, and Right: an older Andy thrutching up one of his beloved chimneys on the first ascent of Once Bitten, Twice Shy (VI) on Sgurr an Lochain, Glen Shiel in 2007
His Himalayan exploits are equally rich in memories. He became a regular fixture of my expedition staff on trips to India. At 6700 metres on Nanda Kot he took over the lead when others were wilting, popped a couple Diamox pills to fuel the effort and post-holed 100 metres to reach the summit ridge and complete the first ascent. In 2001 he refused to be beaten by Nanda Ghunti's South Face, after we'd been forced back by a thunderstorm 120 metres from the top. While the others opted for the easier north-flank route, he commandeered the most gullible client, Mike Brennan, and went back up to complete this thousand-metre face new route with just a single 15 metre length of rope for protection. As his boss I tried but could never entirely put the brakes on his more outlandish exploits.
Through those years Andy enjoyed the love and companionship of his wife Gill, who shared many of his climbs and expeditions. When she died of cancer in 2006 Andy was shaken but not beaten. His body had taken a huge toll from accidents and progressive wear, car crashes - some but not all as driver - as well as avalanches and various mountain scrapes. In 2003 he fractured his femur in a fall near the top of Poachers Fall on Liathach, a route he had pioneered 25 years previously. He waited 14 hours, standing on one leg and hanging on ice screws before a rescue arrived. Despite these setbacks he forged on, living life the only way he knew, focusing increasingly on what remained in Scotland and inspiring the love of others in the process.
Andy on his last Himalayan trip to Adi Kailash in 2014 dispensing Talisker on our return from the climbs and sharing patrolling duties on the Chinese border
Everyone who ever climbed with Andy as a friend or client came away feeling privileged to have shared his rope. His frugality was legendary - a winter night spent at Andy's lair in Boat of Garden required an Everest-grade sleeping bag - yet he was generous in spirit and effortlessly courteous to all he met. Experts, legends, hot-shots, beginners - Andy was a gentleman to everyone. So longed as they professed a love for the hills they made the grade as far as Andy was concerned.
I guess we all knew in our hearts that the Ben Hope day would happen eventually, yet we applauded his fortitude and his serendipitous survival, willing him onwards to yet another adventure. All those whose lives he touched will be feeling much-diminished this week. There'll never be another Andy.
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