Andy Nisbet (1953-2019) was one of Scotland’s greatest climbers, mapping over 1,000 new routes in the Highlands and other mountain ranges across the world. In March 2007 he tackled the first ascent of a new winter route on Beinn Eighe, and in Ben Hope in the far north; he was to die on this mountain on 5 February 2019.
With the recent death of Andy and his climbing partner Steve Perry on Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro at 927 metres (3,041ft), Scottish mountaineering lost one of its finest, most enthusiastic climbers.
In Scotland’s relatively small climbing community there is a lingering sense of disbelief that someone like Andy could have succumbed to an accident in the mountains. To most of his contemporaries he oozed a resolute sense of indestructibility. The remote, windswept corries of the Scottish Highlands were his playground, and no one knew them more intimately.
A pioneer of 1,000 or more new climbing routes, Andy had climbed the Munros (Scottish mountains over 914 metres/3,000ft) five or six times, and the Corbetts (Scottish mountains between 762 metres/2,500ft and 3,000ft) too. With new routes to his credit in the Himalayas and the Alps, Andy’s climbing career wasn’t reserved for his native hills.
Andy in March 2007 on the first ascent of Beinn Eighe (Steve Perryl)
Many would also credit him as one of the pioneers of modern mixed Scottish climbing, using a combination of rock, ice, snow and frozen turf to reach the top, ‘torquing’ his ice axe in cracks for leverage – techniques that have since been adopted throughout the world.
Andy Nisbet was a prolific guidebook writer and for many years kept records of new routes for the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC). The meticulous nature of his new-route collecting is legendary; those records kept by the SMC will be part of Andy’s legacy to Scottish mountaineering.
Born to the hills
A son of Aberdeen, Andy studied biology at the city’s university, followed by a PhD. He had been introduced to the hills by his parents, and mountains were in his blood; it didn’t take him long to turn his back on a potential scientific career to become a full-time peripatetic climbing instructor.
Andy met his wife Gill in 1991. She was a client on a trekking expedition he was leading and they married two years later. Sadly, Gill died prematurely from cancer in 2006 and close friends became concerned that Andy wasn’t looking after himself. He became very lean and his diet appeared to consist of Sugar Puffs, which earned him the nickname ‘the Honey Monster’.
After Gill’s death, Andy continued to be based in the shadow of the Cairngorms where he had regular work at Glenmore Lodge, the National Mountaineering Centre near Aviemore. Despite being one of the country’s foremost alpinists, he never managed to acquire the coveted international mountaineering carnet of the British Mountain Guides. His lack of skiing skills let him down, but despite that he was never short of work, guiding for a range of schools, most notably Martin Moran’s outfit in Lochcarron in Wester Ross.
Undaunted by age
That relationship was often a worrying one for Martin. He has written about Andy encouraging students with barely any experience to tackle new winter routes within their first week. Nevertheless, the students loved him, and “would leave with a string of first ascents under their belts”.
But perhaps Andy Nisbet’s greatest legacy will be the fact that he was still climbing hard new routes at the age of 65. His enthusiasm unthwarted by age, his ambition undiminished by the natural degenerative process. Martin painted a poignant picture of the elderly Honey Monster: “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.”
That simple description – the physical frailties of age wrapped up in the fervour and passion of youth – sums up the zeal that allowed Andy Nisbet to climb at the highest level until his death at the age of 65.