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12th Jan: Diedre of the Sorrows: a pyschological battle on dark Lochnagar
20th Feb: La Dame de Flåm: a spectacular candle of Norwegian ice
19th-20th May: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: a Cuillin Traverse with Dave Pugh
14th – 22nd June: Desert Island Climbs: a week of rock climbing on Pabbay and Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides
23rd Aug: A Day on the Frendo: classic route on the Aigullle du Midi and a meeting with the Swiss machine
1st - 5th October: Climbing the Peacock Mountain: 1st ascent of 6220m Cheepaydang in the Indian Himalaya
Fri 5 December: At the Cutting Edge: A misadventure in Coire an Lochain
13th December 2014: Boggled on Beinn Eighe: monolithic mixed climbing on a legendary route
13th December 2014: Boggled on Beinn Eighe: At 4am the glow of moonlight through my bedroom window heralded the end of a week of winter storms. The reprieve was due to last for one day only. I glided up the silent white roads to Achnasheen to meet Robin Thomas, and we debouched at Torridon car park at 6am. Despite the shock of our rope-chopping experience on Cairngorm a week earlier we were unhealthily keen for another adventure.
The parking was empty. No-one else had thought to capitalise on this weather-window and the stellar conditions that would surely await us up on the Triple Buttress of Beinn Eighe.
Robin refused my loan offer of my old Nomic axes and reverted to his own battered Welsh relicts.
“I have been sharpening these and they’ll do fine.” Preparatory filing is not usually part of Robin’s repertoire and indicated abnormal levels of psychological intent. Whether this was occasioned by my inspiring choice of route or by his prior engagement to attend the Christmas Tree Harvesters’ Christmas Party in Inverness that evening, I could not tell.
Boggle is one of the mystical routes pioneered in summer by the late Robin Smith in his brief but mercurial career. The route climbs the central portion of the Eastern Ramparts on East Buttress. His description was as enigmatic as it was vague. He said, “Climb by cracks, grooves, flakes, corners, hand traverses and mantleshelves away up and right on the crest of the pillar.” Since 1961 it probably remained unrepeated until Andy Nisbet climbed it 10 years ago, found the features and confirmed a modern grade of E1, 5b. Boggle remained one of the few E1’s on the mountain that had not received a winter ascent.
Every winter visit to Beinn Eighe poses the trial of climbing up and over the mountain’s southern rump to reach the head of Coire Mhic Fhearchair. We left a sack and ski poles on the summit and dropped into the head of the corrie. With that commitment civilisation is left behind. This “into the wild” sensation is one of the enduring attractions of climbing on the Triple Buttresses. Deep beds of wind-drifted snow alternated with bare frozen areas where the vicious westerlies of recent days had scoured the ground. Traversing towards the Ramparts the morning mists cleared to reveal a light sugar-coating on the cliffs coupled with a lattice of snow streaks in every groove and crack.
Robin attacked the first pitch without the precaution of a preliminary runner, and with one of his crampons anti-balling plates flapping loose. I watched with some alarm yet he seemed to enjoy himself bridging and grovelling up over a bulge into a shallow corner. He moved left into a more prominent right-facing corner and then was lost in an immensity of monolithic grey walls. With a deviation left then back right he gained the Upper Girdle traverse ledge 40 metres up. The climbing was fascinating in its sustained complexity, but three hours had elapsed when I took on the rack and headed up and away into Smith country.
Left: the line of Boggle, Eastern Ramparts, Beinn Eighe
Right: Robin, lost in the monolithic walls of the first pitch
The flakes and corners were obvious, the flanking walls bare and smooth. The climbing was rude and athletic but the corner-crack offered sinker hooks. Then I reached a flake, five metres high and sporting an off-width crack of a dimension far beyond the range of our largest Camalot. Luckily, a subsidiary crack-line ran up the wall a couple of metres to its left, offering alternative protection. I climbed this until I could lurch back across to beach myself on top of the flake. Dodging round the base of another huge stone tablet I gained the base of a sheer corner. Strength and ingenuity dwindled at an impasse two metres from the top. Here, the summer description suggested a move out to a foot-ledge on the right edge. Having tapped in a “pecker” hook for nearby protection I swung my foot on to the ledge, and immediately found my body splayed between the brutal certainties of the corner and the holdless improbability of the arête. Close to toppling I snatched our biggest Camalot off my harness and stuffed it high in the corner, then lurched upwards to a matchbox edge stance on the edge of all things.
The warm initial glow that surged through my body seemed as though it would last for hours, but by the time Robin reached me the first involuntary shivers had begun. The addition of our down belay jacket to my apparel did no more than slow the descent to hypothermia. Darkness was all but complete as Robin moved left then bridged deftly up the slot defined by two huge projecting capping blocks. He disappeared into a soaring chimney groove. Waves of sleet and a rising breeze marked the onset of the warm front due to hit that evening. My hopes of a quick outcome sank as the rope edged up in staccato motion. After an hour a sudden flurry of movement indicated the end of difficulties but caused my ropes to become enmeshed in a horrible tangle.
Extrication from my belay required a stern display of willpower. I swopped comforting belay mitts for wet climbing gloves and set to work in cramped robotic motions. The climbing was totally sustained for 25 metres and despite my enfeebled state I could sense the quality. The pitch culminated in strenuous heaves over a turf-fringed bulge, but by its end I was warm once more.
We emerged on the plateau of Coinneach Mor at 6.15pm to face a rapidly rising storm. The snow fields had the consistency of wet cement, and we staggered drunkenly back to our sack and ski sticks. Stuffing kit away we headed face into the storm but couldn’t locate the line of descent. The rain blew upwards into our faces, blinding any forward sight. One gully led us into craggy terrain, so we retraced our steps and finally found the crucial knoll which marks the correct exit point. With this delay Robin’s dwindling hopes of getting to the harvesters’ party were finally extinguished. "It would be great if we could climb these routes a bit quicker," rued Robin, "but I really don't know how." After ploughing down 2,000 feet of porridge-like snow and splashing down the slender path through Coire Dubh, we reached the car at 8.30pm, well and truly boggled by our day.
Left: Martin tackles the corners and flakes of pitch two
Right: Robin enters the gates of hell on the top pitch
Beinn Eighe, Triple Buttress: Eastern Ramparts
Boggle 110m VIII, 8 *** first recorded winter ascent 13th December 2014 M Moran & R Thomas. A monolithic and super-sustained winter line; pitch grades 8,8, 7
Fri 5 December: At the Cutting Edge: The hammer of the 4.30am alarm tested my winter resolve and I drove to Inverness on auto-pilot. Only the first glimmers of dawn and a rapid transfer into Robin Thomas’s rusting van lent any form to the coming day. Overnight snow had fallen down to the level of the car park and the cliffs of Coire an Lochain were vaguely white. Our day’s objective was the slim pillar betwixt the two branches of Y-Gully. In 2006 Tim Emmett and Ian Parnell had climbed a route here that they called Pic n Mix, which featured several falls and resulted in a whopping grade of IX, 9, revised to VIII, 9 by subsequent ascensionists. As usual Robin was in laconic mood and he came dressed in shades of grey, equipped with the same blunted mountaineering crampons and battered axes that saw service on our last winter route together in 2010. I proffered him a loan of my old Nomic axes which themselves had loose rattling heads. The contrast between retro-Robin and “mad for it” Tim Emmett could not be starker, but I had quiet confidence in my man.
Robin squares up to the final tower of Never Mind
We established a belay under the pillar. As the highest bit of projecting rock in the Northern Corries it was riming-up nicely in a rising wind. I was ready to tackle the first pitch, when struck by the realisation that I had no idea where the route goes. Robin’s guidebook was a pre-2006 edition and the only climb described was a summer HVS called Never Mind. Our collective memories of the Emmett-Parnell first ascent video were very vague. So far as I knew Pic n Mix was based on Never Mind, so it seemed logical to follow the summer line, and should that fail we could always follow our noses.
I found a crack-line on the left side of the pillar and pulled up this to an impasse. A fragile rightward traverse ensued, and led me to a platform with an old bent peg. Round to the left the same crack continued and provided a friendly romp for 10 metres to a second impasse at a roof. Two metres to the right on the crest of the pillar lay a wide crack, mentioned in the guide. With a long stretch and a scrattle of crampons on crystal edges, I got my picks sunk behind a chockstone and pulled up to a finely positioned little stance equipped with old slings where the wind blew straight up my coat-tails.
“I’ve been watching the rime grow down there,” Robin observed on his arrival. Coming from anyone else I would have suspected an oblique reference to the slowness of my climbing, but Robin is more probably a rime fanatic and a founding member of ‘The Rime Society’.
While I sought succour in our down jacket Robin surveyed the roofs and grooves above. There were little more than 10 metres to climb to the top, but we remembered tales of a rounded finish. We also knew that in 2012 Nick Bullock had done a direct finish hereabouts at an alarming grade of IX, 10, which had momentarily wiped the grin off his face. This had to be avoided at all costs.
The decision was made to follow the summer description of Never Mind, which directed us to a wide crack on the left which led into a blank overhung groove. Here the route traversed right with aid of rope tension to gain an easier finish. We assumed that the Bullock finish went direct up the groove and that Pic n Mix did the traverse. Everything seemed to fit and Robin found several runner placements plus an old rusted wire in the base of the groove.
For the next 20 minutes I craned my neck over the vertical as Robin launched on a wild traverse with his toe-points in a break on the lip of the roof. Lacking any downward-pulling axe placements he blindly swung an axe into a little corner way round to his right, and all but fell on to it. A little rope tension and a strong shoulder saved him from completely swinging off.
The ridiculous hopelessness of Robin's position on the arete is made clear in Calum Hick's photo from the viewing gallery
Now perched dramatically on a rounded foothold at the lip he stuffed a large cam into the corner, a flared and precarious placement. Far from having reached easier ground he faced either a continuing traverse or a patently desperate upward wriggle on to blank slabby ground. Feeling confident in the runners which were only two or three metres down to his left in the groove he opted for the upward moves, and pulled his ropes round the arête to reduce drag.
“There is absolutely nothing up here but I shall pull anyway,” he announced. An explosion of static energy ensued. His feet scraped up to a sloping bridge and for a minute his frame arched magnificently against the grey winter sky. Then, with a scrape and a sigh, he flew off. I locked the belay plate expecting to hold a short swing, but the ropes stayed blissfully slack, and a second later his feet were dangling two feet above my head. To my puzzlement the main rope was hanging limp.
“One of the ropes has snapped, you’d better let me down” he explained.
Somehow the main blue rope, into which he had clipped most of his runners in the groove had severed on the edge of the arête. Luckily he had clipped two runners into his pink line plus the dodgy cam and together these had held.
The irony that a rope could cut clean-through on one of the most rounded pieces of Cairngorm climbing was not the dominant sentiment at this juncture. A palpable sense of shock induced us into ten minutes of fretful fumbling as we rethreaded and re-tied the ropes. I climbed up to the groove, leant out rightwards and examined the scene. An edge of clean quartz crystals
protruded a couple of millimetres from the break on the arête where the blue rope had lodged. It must have borne Robin’s full weight*.
I have seen rope sheaths stripped by sharp rocks but never a complete cut. I retrieved the cam, left a runner in place and meekly climbed back down.
Robin was not completely deterred. “When there is more rime ice I think a return visit might be in order but with the thickest ropes we can find,” he concluded on the homeward drive.
What remained of the rope under examination back at Robin's house
* In a short fall the loaded portion of the rope gets a shock load.
Postscript: Subsequent photographic research suggests that the second pitch of Pic n Mix goes nowhere near the groove and traverse of Never Mind, but wanders up well to the right. The Bullock Mindless Finish itself may go up a groove on the right, which we had assumed was a grade VI called Headhunter. Cairngorm winter routes can be a lot harder than they look!
Lessons Learnt: i) The incident emphasised the benefits of double-rope climbing, and the importance of clipping the ropes into alternate runners, even at the expense of some extra drag. Leaders should always carry plenty of long extender slings to enable alternate clipping and reduce drag.
ii) I must also admit that in the past I have often deliberately hitched my ropes over quartz spikes of rock on traverses to give a bit of extra protection. I shall not be doing that any more. Quartz is one of the hardest and sharpest rocks around.
1st - 5th October: Climbing the Peacock Mountain:
Cheepaydang - the Peacock Mountain - from Kuthi village
Dawn comes early over the Nama Glacier even in the autumn. The yellow nylon of our tent flushed with sudden warmth a little before 6am. Yesterday’s storm had completely cleared. We had been cooped inside for 12 hours, and there was no temptation to linger cosily in my bag. After many months of planning and conjecture, three days of travel, a 60km trek and a week of painful acclimatisation, the moment of truth had arrived. I scrambled outside in my inner boots and greedily scanned the encirclement of peaks. To our knowledge not a single one had been climbed. Three were substantially in excess of 6000 metres. Writhing icefalls, looming séracs and razor-cut ridges ringed the cirque, but the south wall of a peak known locally as Cheepaydang, the Peacock Mountain, offered a chink of hope.
Squinting through our binoculars I could see that its rock walls were crazily tilted and congenitally loose, but a big snow ramp offered an access, and a deep couloir cut rightwards into the upper mass of the face, emerging at a snowy shoulder high on the summit ridge. My heart leapt. We had found a possible stairway to heaven.
At 8am after brews and muesli my fellow-guide Jonathan Preston and I mustered the team outside. Motivational speaking at 4800 metres in a chill breeze needs to be quick and to the point.
“This is our moment; you’ve put the work in; we have a line; now we need to grasp the nettle…”
After a brief silence our five members each made their response. “I prefer to do something a bit easier if that’s OK with you…” answered David, the model of diplomacy as ever. “I’m just not into it this year man…” said Swedish Patrik, a veteran of 7135m Nun. Even archaeologist Steve, normally a whirlwind of energy, was faltering. “Not feeling the best, would rather explore for a couple of days…” Despair rose in my breast. This bore the hallmarks of a failing pitch on Dragons’ Den. I really wanted to do this peak; it was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen, and, to be honest, the available alternatives were dangerous, complex or relatively small in scale. In final hope I turned to Aussie Mike and Scottish-exile Gordon. In near-unison they declared “Cheepaydang”. Their commitment gave me an instant conviction of success.
While Jonathan took the others off for an excursion to the 5250m Nama Pass, the only known exit from the cirque, we three packed up with feverish intent, and by 10am Gordon was leading us off over a succession of moraine ridges towards a wall of scree that barred access to the ramp. The loads were crippling – 20kg at least. Would that we had come in the spring when the acres of piled rocks might be covered with forgiving snows? The whole mass was poised at the limit of natural repose – an angle somewhat over 45°. Specks in the wilderness, we mounted in gentle zig-zags and, as an afternoon storm swept in, we recalled the training stints that gave us the willpower to fight on - for me a double Bealach na Ba on the bike, for Gordon many a sweat-drenched day in the Malaysian jungles, and for Mike the strength gained on a recent ascent of Mount Cook.
Cheepaydang - S Face and SW Ridge - the route of ascent
Martin leading through the mixed ground at 6000m
Martin on the summit ridge (photo: Mike Page)
Evening view over the Sela peaks and Api from our summit camp
At 5400m the scree merged into a glacier and we found a flattish pitch between two crevasses for our single-skin RAB tents. The clouds cleared and rich evening light suffused the Nama peaks. We ran the Jetboil stove non-stop for three hours on a single can of gas. Mike declined his freeze-dried offering. Suddenly, I felt more than hungry and, mindful of tomorrow’s likely effort, I wolfed down both meals before crashing into my solitary cell. Outside the temperature plunged and the ice cracked in gunshots with the stress of contraction.
The ramp and gully offered no hope of a camp, or even a commodious bivouac. We had to get to the top in one push – a height gain of 600 metres. An early start was essential, but I managed to oversleep my alarm by an hour and twilight was already fanning the eastern horizon when we got going at 4.40am. We left one tent behind and got the sack weights down to a tolerable 16kg. The ramp started at 40° and was conveniently bedecked with innumerable islands of icy wafers. Two substantial avalanche chutes funnelled down on either side. We crossed the leftmost and headed up to the junction where our gully left the ramp and made its incision through serried rock walls. The angle rose through 45 and up past 50°.
The gully, largely unseen in my scan from the glacier, held a continuous bed of snow-ice. Small stones were already wheeling down and fresh drifts of powder condemned us to occasional periods of wading. A detour on to the rocks at the edge allowed Gordon to perform a distinctly exiguous toilet and revealed a splintered rotten mass of mudstones. On completion of his ablutions Gordon reported that one of his crampons was falling apart. In preparation for the trip he had bought designer trousers and state of the art boots, but had decided to rely for grip on a pair of rigid Grivel Rambos of 25 year vintage, which had been festering in his store in Kuala Lumpur for a decade. One of the side brackets was hanging loose. Without spanners to refix it we decided we could push on so long as the front bracket was being held in place by the toe-strap.
Doubts mounted, the sun beat down without mercy and our energies ebbed. In the main gully we were sitting ducks for snow-sloughs and rockfall, and our progress was grinding to a halt. A change in style to pitched climbing might help. I spotted a subsidiary gully with a couple of ice steps up left, and constructed two good cam anchors. The ice steps largely disintegrated and required some deft bridging. As the rope ran out I discovered a second solid belay with two big chock anchors. Things weren’t as bad as anticipated, and at 5975m altitude we could expect to reach the summit ridge soon. A long drag up the continuing couloir led to a big spike anchor. With security we all felt better, even though the hours were fast slipping. A bulge in the couloir debouched into a mass of powder and loose stones. I backed off and headed up left on crumbled shales. The rope ran out without a belay, and the others started climbing. As Mike and Gordon tackled the tricky moves under the bulge I was frantically straining on the leash to reach a rounded outcrop where I could hitch the rope. They emerged looking drawn. We now had 6070m on the GPS altimeter and still there was no sign of the ridge. I pushed on for another 50 metres to a niche where I fabricated another good belay; the time now past 2pm; then on again with a prayer that our torments would soon be ended.
Finally, I edged over a rail of solid pale rock to meet a simple ice slope under the crest. I placed an ice screw belay, removed my sack and slumped on the level half-metre ledge above the railing. With profound relief Mike and Gordon joined my perch. We would happily have bivouacked where we stood.
The views were stupendous. The whole of the unclimbed Sela range of peaks now opened to our south, with the saddle-shaped summit of 7100m Api and a host of Nepalese giants behind. A cloud-sea covered the Indian valleys and plains, broken by a random scattering of thunderhead clouds that rose to prodigious heights. Our altitude was 6160m. “One crowded hour of glorious life” passed to the accompaniment of a glorious brew of tea.
Refreshed, we climbed to the crest to meet the stomach-churning plunge of Cheepaydang’s north wall, and traversed delicately to a generous levelling where we could pitch our tent, exactly at the shoulder that I had spied through binoculars 36 hours earlier. I dug a shallow grave for my bivouac close by, to which the others might minister a succession of drinks and snacks. Rarely is a camp sited so close to a summit and in so lofty a position. I watched the alpenglow die on Holy Mount Kailash, which floated 70 miles to our north, before snuggling down for the night.
The distance to Cheepaydang’s summit was no more than 250 metres and we allowed ourselves a lie-in before tackling the crowning ridge. With the weather in immaculate mood there was no rush; we could savour every twist and turn. A steeper ridge of solid brown rock and a short curling arête took us to the top at 11.30am. Even the top was accommodating, a triangular plinth three metres across which permitted a prolonged picnic. The summit height was 6220m. Only Brammah Parbat – a couple of kilometres to our north – was higher in the Adi Kailash massif. We were relieved to note that both Cheepaydang’s NE and SW summits were lower than our central top. We collected specimens of quartz-rich rocks which had been brave enough to resist the pull of Himalayan gravity. Down below we could trace the labours of the past ten days, down the Nama Glacier, through the little gorge to base camp, and out to the fields of Kuthi village 2400 metres below. We had done it! Our every judgement and guess had borne fruit. What a wonderful feeling!
On return to the tent I scouted the top of the main gully and hacked out a secure anchor for Gordon’s four metre sling on a lump of purple mudstone. We brewed and dozed through the enervating afternoon hours until the sun set and a full moon rose in the east. Mental energy and focus returned. The gully was chill and silent. We hitched our two 60 metre ropes to the anchor and abseiled into the darkness. The gully came up trumps in its offering of good ice anchors. It remained for me to execute the fiddly task of making Abalakov ice thread anchors at each stance.
After four abseils Gordon reported the complete disintegration of his crampon and thereafter proceeded by hopping. Although the angle reduced to 50° I decided to keep abseiling in view of his impediment. After the eighth rappel we made the switch to down-climbing. None of the features remembered from our ascent appeared. We found ourselves trapped by the avalanche runnels and were twice forced to cross the icy chutes, but at midnight staggered round the final bergschrund and regained our campsite on the little glacier.
Energies remained sufficient just to put up the tents and bundle our bodies inside, where we could sleep the sleep of the just till dawn’s call. We had taken our chance and ridden our luck. Life is not always thus, but as Edmund Hillary once said “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
First Ascent of Cheepaydang (the Peacock Mountain) (6220m) in the Adi Kailash range of Eastern Kumaon, India; Alpine Difficile standard with mixed climbing to Scottish grade IV standard. Martin Moran, Mike Page and Gordon Scott 2-5 Oct 2014; Adi Kailash Alpine-style expedition.
Left: Mike and Gordon on the final pitch to the summit - looking down the Rama Glacier and over to the Panchchuli massif
Above: Mike, Gordon and Martin on the summit
23rd Aug: A Day on the Frendo: There is undeniable appeal in choosing a route which ticks the requirements of difficulty but has an easy descent. None serves better than the Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi, graded D+ but offering a 20 minute descent to Chamonix’s fleshpots – provided you catch the last lift! We had pondered the Eiger traverse but a forecast of high winds turned our favour to the Frendo, and so we absorbed the evening sunrays at the Plan de l’Aiguille refuge, calmly prepared for a 2.30am start.
I felt secure in the abilities of my clients. Roger Owen, an Everest summiteer, had endured a 19 hour traverse of the Weisshorn with me in 2009, through which his smiling optimism had overcome the trials of sharing a rope with “Dirty” Des Winterbone. Martin Bewsher was squeezing prodigious climbing enthusiasm into the 10 day annual allowance decreed by his spouse. Now resident in the celebrity suburb of Hale, Cheshire, he professed intimacy with Argentinian footballers and proudly declared himself on flirting terms with the buxom blonde who spun TV’s Wheel of Fortune in the 1980’s.
The first hours went like a dream. My earlier recce of the route down to the Pelérins Glacier proved its worth. We drew ahead of the only other contenders for the route, two Swiss Romands from Sierre and picked up old tracks at the entry terrace. The crampons came off for the first half-hour but the hut warden’s warnings of snow on the route proved correct. The spikes went back on for two lovely pitches of thin ice and snow up the leftward ramp. We now needed to locate grade III “ice-choked chimneys” but dawn is shy in late-August. Restricted to the range of my headtorch beam I struck up a likely line, only to encounter a fierce cleft at least grade IV in standard and devoid of fixed protection. Hooking my axe high into hidden cracks I cursed my ill-fortune and struggled to a belay. I regained easier ground and spotted the scuffs of previous visitors. Dawn’s grey light pursued me into a second innocuous cleft and a second off-route encounter. Old jammed slings adorned an overhanging exit. Disdaining the use of aid I bridged high on foot-slopings and hooked my axe over the top. A foot skidded and the axe popped out. My protection was just a metre below but my plunge continued to a bruising encounter of buttock and granite six metres lower. I screamed at Martin for dropping me so far, but then noticed that a lower sling had pulled out under load creating significant slack in the rope.
This wanton waste of energy and time would cost us dear higher on the route. I refocused, went back up and pulled through with some desperation. Meanwhile, the Swiss boys had found an easier way and were now in the van. Obeying instructions to use aid and with a tight rope Martin grappled up to me, but Roger was recalcitrant:
“Have you got that cam I placed?” I asked.
“Can’t see any cam,” he replied.
“Can’t you reach down to it?” I persisted. Roger now became perverse.
“I can’t go down; I’ve got Ueli Steck behind me.”
“Oh yeah!” I scorned. “Well, if he’s taking the piss, bugger the cam – I’ll charge him for it,” I thought.
Roger duly lurched over the top. No sooner was Roger beached than a tousled shock of hair and an unmistakable pair of quizzical eyebrows bounced up over the lip. It was indeed the world-famous speed merchant. Steck was climbing solo as is his wont. I regained a small shred of pride to see that he used my sling for a pull. After smiling benignly at my apology for luring him off-route, Steck was subjected to a torrent of sycophantic charm from Roger and dutifully posed for a group photo before tackling the walls above in a series of swift, precise and nimble movements – a joy to watch, but impossible to emulate. We suspected he would soon be enjoying an early lunch in Chamonix.
Rencontre with Ueli Steck on the lower pitches
I knew that we had a long day ahead. After getting back on route at the crest of the spur, a weaving line allowed us to move together with occasional runners between us. We took crampons off, then had to put them back on 100 metres higher where the rocks became smothered in snow.
Close to midday we debouched at the notch where the crux pitches commence. Two Lithuanians were engaged on the initial corner. I followed, making copious use of axe hooks and using my free hand to bridge and jam where possible. The climbing was rude – grade IV when dry but Scottish technical 6 in the snow. A second pitch was easier and I still dared to hope for a quick finish.
The Lithuanians had ground to a halt on the third pitch. They were still trying to climb without crampons. While they regrouped I led past in a series of precarious bridging and mantleshelf manoeuvres. The terrain was stubbornly uncooperative and after 30 metres I faced a swing into a horrific off-width chimney some way above gear. I could not afford to fall off again. In guiding terms I went as close to my limit as I dared to squirm into the cleft and yard up on an outstretched axe; and to think that Steck had free-soloed up it two or three hours earlier.
Struggling on another brutal pitch and in somewhat wilted state I felt it timely to save face by recalling my only other ascent of the route.
“I can’t believe I soloed this in 1987,” I blagged.
Roger and Martin were probably thinking “nor can we!”
Meanwhile, they produced sterling performances on every pitch; getting up with minimal assistance from rope or aid. Had either given up the fight we would have been in a real pickle. The fifth pitch culminated in yet another all-out heave up a gigantic overhanging flake. The top of the buttress looked so close, yet produced two and a half more pitches of sustained Scottish 5 and 6 mixed ground. At 7.30pm I made a final despairing thrutch and lurched on to a big flat terrace. Above me the curving snow arête, so famous in photos of this climb, curled up to the final ice wall, and on the skyline the Midi television transmitter glowed in the evening sun.
Roger starting up the snow ridge at 8pm
Arrival at the crux buttress; Swiss team in progress
Looking up the snow arete to the exit rognon and Aiguille du Midi
The morning after: two Martin's prepare to hit the coffee and croissants trail outside the Cosmiques Hut
I stuffed the day’s third flapjack down my gullet, and even accepted one of Roger’s chocolate covered rice cakes in a desperate attempt to restore some glycogen to my depleted muscles. Hopes of a meal at the Cosmiques Hut had long since disappeared and we prepared for a second nightshift.
The beauty of the arête erased all harsh memories of the discordant rock pitches. Roger and Martin ascended against a spillikin of giant granite flakes and the matching linear geometry of the serried pillars on the west face of the Aiguille du Plan. We drew transient warmth from the waning sun, and as night gathered set an ice screw belay under the terminal rognon. The Swiss tracks went leftwards. During four interminable 60 metre pitches of Scottish grade II I slumped and dozed on every belay. At midnight we gained a wall of green ice on the left side of the rocks. Above this a 50 degree snow slope led to a small but delicate cornice. Thirty metres out from my belay I cautiously thrust axes and arms into the soft lip and rolled gently on to level ground. The air was still but the frost bit deep as soon as we stopped.
Faced with the prospect of an ice-box bivouac in the lift station Roger led the day’s last wise decision and we took the longer walk to the comforts of the Cosmiques Hut, where a few climbers, bound for Mont Blanc, had already vacated their beds. Our 22 hour shift was finally done.
As for the morals of the tale - don’t ever underestimate a route with 1100 metres in height gain and pick your partners well. Rog and Martin had been a dream team for what was perhaps my last grande course as an Alpine guide.
Sat 14th – Sun 22nd June: Desert Island Climbs: A self-conscious gaggle of climbers assembled at Oban harbour key on a sunny Saturday afternoon and dragged voluminous baggages on board the ferry for Barra. Supplies included over a week of food, tents, a dozen racks of hardware, 20 climbing ropes and four 100 metre lengths of static rope for abseils. We were 19 in total, a mix of young and old, of the dishevelled and urbane, of weedy wads and weathered professionals –brought together by the organisational power of Sheila van Lieshout and Robin Thomas and united in dreams of cranking sea-washed Lewisian gneiss against a Hebridean sunset.
At Castlebay we made a rapid transit to Donald McLeod’s boat, “Boy James”, and within half-an-hour were weaving through the tangle of uninhabited islands that form the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. Donald is something of a legend among the legions of climbers who have made this journey since the cliffs were discovered 20 years ago. “I’ve only been doing it for 12 years.” he said, “The last boatman lost his mind.” My calculations concluded that Donald has his head firmly screwed on. At £100 per climber and with numbers of 25 or more coming every week in May and June there was money to be made from this business. No wonder it was rumoured that he spends his winters in the Caribbean.
We pitched our tents in the gloaming just above the beach on Mingulay’s eastern shore and the incessant rasping of nearby corncrakes greeted us to the island sway of time. The invasion of dozens of climbers poses challenge for environmental management, to which Kevin Howett’s trenching spade provided the most effective solution. The National Trust bird counters, lodged in the nearby schoolhouse, were friendly but must truly have wished us elsewhere. Considering that Mingulay once supported a population of 160 this modern resurgence might be viewed with a positive slant. We climbers could fondly imagine ourselves as warriors of a different age.
No sheep now graze the island and the grass has regrown to a natural cover of thick floating tussocks. Though none exceeded 3km in distance the walk-ins were akin to trail-breaking in knee-deep snow, and enlivened in places by dive-bombing “bonxies”. The first day saw most teams finding their feet and testing their arm strength on the Boulevard cliff of Guarsay Mor, a 50 metre-high wall of immaculate gently overhanging rock. Braver teams chanced their luck on the sterner ramparts of Dun Mingulay and came back with report of severe damage to an abseil rope on the cheese-grating rock edges at the cliff-top. Without careful placement of edge protection sleeves we would be dicing with death. Aware of that commitment the big free-hanging abseils provided a continuing grip factor throughout the week.
Evening approach to Barra
Old schoolhouse and campground on Mingulay
Alys and Tim Jepson follow the second pitch on Voyage of Faith (E3, 5c)
Abseil down the South Pillar on Mingulay
I climbed with fellow guide Tim Jepson and his daughter Alys, and we made an effective team. Tim and Alys would lead the 5a and 5b pitches and were happy to follow me on the 5c’s. That brought most of the classic E2 and E3 routes on the island within our range. On day two we took the plunge on Dun Mingulay and warmed up with the classic wall of Sula E2, 5b ***. The second pitch exemplified the quality of the climbing here, a precise and fairly bold wall section followed by jug-pulling through a massive overhang.
Climbing days started late. Most of the cliffs face west and carry a scum of briny grease until the warmth of the sun breaks through at midday. Completion of Sula took us to a rather late lunch at 5pm, but we were keen for more, so abseiled in a second time and got stuck into the Voyage of Faith, the first route to breach the serried ranks of overhangs of the central crag. To our dismay a sea fog rolled in on completion of the first pitch and the rock instantly acquired an insidious dampness. Voyage of Faith became an adventure as well as an odyssey. A tenuous traversing pitch took us 30 metres leftwards into the centre of the face directly above the sea. The third pitch weaved up left then hard back right to the terminal belt of roofs, the complexity of line defying my attempts to provide protection for both Tim and Alys’s ropes.
In fading daylight I hand-traversed the lip of the roof on a big flake and hastened to the crux 5c corner right at the top of the climb. Perfect protection gave the resurgence of confidence needed to despatch the move and I belayed contentedly on top in a soup of drizzle. If I was mildly ecstatic I can only imagine the amazement that Howett and Little must have felt on completing the first ascent in 1993. If the guidebook writers must insist on according four stars to the very best routes, then Voyage of Faith is to be one – an intimidating, inescapable and improbable line that somehow releases its gifts at a mild E3.
Alys follows pitch 3 on Voyage of Faith (E3, 5c), Dun Mingulay
Morning on Mingulay beach
The Great Arch of Pabbay with climbers visible on The Priest; Prophecy of Drowning runs up the grooves bounding the left side of the arch
Alys leads the top pitch on Prophecy of Drowning (E2, 5c)
A more relaxed sequitur was required on day three and along with a host of other parties we enjoyed a couple of HVS and E1 routes created by the redoubtable Mick Tighe on the South Pillar and Arena sectors of Guarsay Mor. Here, more bird-life was in evidence – nesting razorbills, guillemots and a rogue fulmar who reserved her vomit for, Welshman Elvin, the last climber to cross the traverse of Archdeacon that day.
Waves of sea fog and dripping rocks deterred many teams from chancing luck again on Dun Mingulay, but Dan, Tom and I talked ourselves into dropping down the 90 metre rope in hope of an improvement. Climbing a wet E3 was declared preferable to prusiking back up the rope and Dan did a great lead on the moist traverse of Sirens. To our delight the sun broke then broke through and we floated through a succession of roofs in brilliant light and a playful breeze. Our day was rounded off with a foray on the single-pitch Geirum Walls on the south coast of the island.
Many route names on the islands dredge the rich store of seabird puns. “Wake Up and Smell the Guano” typifies the better of these. “The Gull who Shagged Me” undoubtedly plumbed the depths, and was far from fitting to an excellent E3, 5c wall climb which tested our fingers on crimps and flakes.
The fifth day was transit day and Donald arrived on time to take us over to Pabbay where an Edinburgh University team was already ensconced. I persuaded Dan to forgo an afternoon off and we tracked over the moor to the island’s craggy south-west peninsula. With sudden ferocity the yawning chasm of the Great Arch came into view as we descended. Some of parties were already abseiling in to the soaring grooves of Prophecy of Drowning, which flank the left edge of the arch.
Dan and I steered away to the Banded Wall and treated ourselves to an Endolphin Rush. The angle of this wall was so severe that we couldn’t see where on earth the route went from below. To complicate matters several lines had been chalked by previous parties. After nervous inspection I chose the most likely of several crack-lines and committed to a swing across the underbelly of the wall. Immediately, my crucial nut runner popped out under the rope’s outward pull. Fighting panic I re-established a secure body-position and got more dependable cams in for protection. A sequence of big pulls and hand-jam rests brought me to a tiny hanging stance, from which I could look between my legs at the shimmering sea and the distant figure of Dan, perched way under the bulge. Few E3’s can compare in exposure. Dan led through the upper roofs and an invigorating afternoon’s work was done.
I rejoined Tim and Alys for our penultimate day, the Prophecy of Drowning our inevitable goal. Morning showers kept most teams in camp but we waited at the top of the Arch, scanning the western sea for a clearance. When it came we slipped down the cathedral walls to a tiny stance on a rib six metres above the oily Atlantic swell. A procession of linked grooves took us to a definite crux at a bulge where strolling 5a became an abrupt 5c. Then Alys cruised stylishly up the spectacular 5a exit. The only deficiency of Prophecy is that it is too loudly vaunted and completion becomes a “ticking-off” exercise rather than a creative act.
We finished the day with a trip to the Poop Deck, an impeccable 25 metre wall, and climbed The Craik and Illegal Aliens at respective grades of E3 and HVS. In between we watched Andy and Robin tackle some beastly climbs on the acutely overhung left wall of the crag, belayed by their loyal ladies Nic and Sheila. Andy chose the stunning crack of The Raven (E5) while Robin indulged his passion for esoterica with a desperate struggle up an off-width E4, 6b. His offers to second this horror-show was politely declined. Meanwhile, over at Pink Wall, the V12 bouldering wads, Jed and Mike conspired to make the 70 metre hanging abseil to its inescapable base whilst forgetting to take their climbing ropes with them! Fortunately another group was operating within calling distance, and after a two-hour wait the required ropes were dropped in.
Hemming on the hideous traverse on Paradise Regained (E4, 6a) - Grey Wall Recess, Pabbay
The man who makes it all happen: Donald finally remembers to ask for payment back at Castlebay
The final day brought a mixture of regret and relief. I took a morning swim off the beach, sad that my weeklong commune with nature was soon to end, but the constant momentum of daily climbing action had left most of us somewhat jaded. Thighs were tired from the daily moorland thrashing and the arms were beginning to wilt. There was just enough spark left for one more big route and I teamed up with an uber-cool German, Hemming, to explore the depths of the Grey Wall Recess. A ninety-metre abseil took us free to the base at sea level. The diagonal line of Paradise Regained fitted our requirements a four-pitch crescendo of difficulty and exposure.
Pitch three posed a horrific off-width traverse line over the void. Halfway across Hemming pulled off a hold. Only a mad grab for his runner saved him a fall into space. I had a devil of a job seconding. This was the only pitch of the week that seemed under-graded at 5b. We were left with an E4, 6a finale up an acutely overhanging corner line, surmounted by a combination of grim tenacity and ridiculous bridging postures.
So our week came to a spectacular end. We were largely silent as Donald took us back to Barra as if to preserve the perfection of what we each had experienced. Shower clouds entwined in the western sky and we passed back through the peaceful islands. Civilisation at Castlebay comprised a remarkable Indian restaurant packed to the gunnels with marauding climbers. The owner was first grumpy, then amazingly friendly, and finally lavishly drunk when encountered later on at the Craigard Hotel music night, despite drinking nothing but orange juice. Replete, we slept out above the ferry jetty and supped the magic of the isles for one last night before return to the whirl of modern life.
Mon-Tues 19-20 May: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Some clients bely their age with a combination of bluster and sheer enthusiasm, but when Dave Pugh scrounged a pensioner's discount on the Misty Isle boat trip to Coruisk my jaw dropped at his audacity. At 65 he would be my oldest-ever traverse partner, were we to succeed. The Dubhs Ridge should have been an inspirational beginning to our two-day traverse, but on a warm sultry morning we both felt listless. The big slabs were damp in places and we laboured rather than romped up to Sgurr Dubh Beag. The abseil off the summit proved awkward and nigh five hours had elapsed from leaving the boat when we reached the crest of Sgurr Dubh Mor. Not even a juicy smoked salmon sandwich could revive me. Dave was already almost out of water. I feared we were doomed to fail - maybe age was finally taking its toll.
Dave Pugh on the crest of Sgurr Dubh Mor with Gars-bheinn behind
Dave's wife Sue had agreed to meet us at In Pinn with our water supplies for the bivouac. We were going to be hours late. Then came a change. A light but refreshing breeze sprung up on the Main Ridge crest, giving us a psychological bounce. I spotted freshwater pools just 60 metres under the ridge in Coir' a'Ghrunnda and detoured to refill the bottles while Dave gathered his powers for the crossing of the T-D Gap. The sight of a group of four climbers ahead of us in the Gap added the spice of competition to our energies. We perched at the top of the short side and watched their travails in the chamber of polish that forms the crux, then abseiled into the clutch of the cleft.
Starting up the Dubhs Ridge with the Main Ridge behind
Abseiling into the T-D Gap
Crux moves on T-D Gap demonstrated by the team ahead
Big exposure on Naismith's Route on the Bhasteir Tooth
To make a successful traverse you need the rock climbing knack. Not only did Dave have intuitive technical talent but at something close to 6 feet 6 inches in height he simply reached through the crux to the “thank God” edge without the usual need to squirm and wriggle. Soon his toothless grin was beaming skyward, a pose of contentment that was reproduced at every vertical juncture of the traverse.
A brief shower on Sgurr Alasdair dampened the rocks but our momentum carried us smoothly up Kings Chimney and on to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. On the long grade 3 scramble up An Stac buttress the Coastguard helicopter made several sorties around Coire Lagan. I was thinking fondly of a cup of tea as we topped In Pinn at 7.20pm.
Sue was perched on the adjoining top of Sgurr Dearg.
“There’s somebody broken their leg down there; I’ve told them there’s a guide coming,” she called.
As soon as we were down the abseil I left Dave and Sue at the bivouac ledge on the west side of the summit, gathered my kit and jogged down to the exit of a rotten gully in the north flank of the West Ridge. I rather hoped that the broken leg would be simple case of support, reassurance and a couple of painkillers while we waited for a rescue winch. The scene which greeted me in the gully was not quite so benign.
The victim, Fiona, was wedged under a boulder, a massive pillow of lava. Her leg was obviously broken below the knee and trapped under the stone. Her boyfriend was supporting her upper body. The stone was two metres in girth and probably weighed between 300 and 400 kilograms! She had lightly touched it on her way past and it had rolled out of its housing. The immediate need was to somehow anchor the rock and try to take its weight off Fiona by means of a hoist. A couple of inches might do it.
I tied my rope round the boulder and rigged a 3:1 pulley hoist using a turret of rock at the top of the gully as the anchor. The other two members of the party helped me start the hoist. It was quickly apparent that we could not budge the boulder with one rope alone.
Thankfully, at this impasse, the Coastguard helicopter appeared and dropped in a squad from the Skye rescue team, Gerry Ackroyd at their helm. Despite advancing years Gerry was in vintage form. At once, he was barking orders in that Lancastrian drawl that all Skye-dwellers know and love so well.
“A’ want four crowbars, an’ mek it quick” he told the controller back at base.
Although Jewson’s at Broadford had closed two hours ago, the chopper disappeared in pursuit of the crowbars and we set to work. After half an hour we had two big rescue ropes tied round the stone and some high-tech ID hoisting devices to supplement my stringy prusik cords. With all three ropes providing 3:1 power we achieved dependable anchorage for the boulder. Then the team excavated the smaller rocks from underneath Fiona and a sudden scream signalled release. A gap opened and her leg popped free.
“Forget crowbars,” yelled Gerry into his radio set.
The poor girl at base clearly misinterpreted this to mean that Gerry wanted four more crowbars. A repeat of the Two Ronnies “four candles” sketch developed.
In unison four members reiterated the command: “Forget crowbars!”
The base control girl momentarily thought that 16 crowbars were required until Gerry found a less ambiguous form of words to report successful extrication. The feasibility of a direct helicopter winch was marginal. The Coastguard chopper is a massive beast with limited manoeuvrability. The winchman was guided horizontally into the gully and the casualty was lifted out in reverse fashion, the stretcher bumping against the gully walls at several points. The hurricane of the downdraught was all powerful.
At close to 11pm in the lingering twilight I wandered back up to the bivvy site with the remains of the rope, first stretched on the hoist and then abruptly shortened with the chopping of the last two metres left trapped under the boulder. The remaining 38 metres of battle-scarred cord would have to see us along the rest of the Ridge. Sue and Dave had the stove going and the tea tasted sweet. Close on midnight the last morsels of cous-cous and tuna were scraped out of the pan and we bedded down for five hours’ repose.
At 6.15am we were back in action. Sue went down Coire na Banachdich while Dave and I cracked on over Banachdich, Ghreadaidh and Mhadaidh. The intricacies of the Mhadaidh tops and Bidein Druim nan Ramh occupied over 3½ hours. However hard I try, the times achieved in the youth of the 1990’s always slip away. Nevertheless, we were ready to face the improbabilities of Naismith’s Route on the Bhasteir Tooth at 2pm; still as serious a piece as it ever was for me despite more than 50 previous ascents. The crux moves are eight metres out from protection and felt like a technical 5a in boots and with a rucksack. Dave followed faultlessly with a succession of enormous reaches and phlegmatic power. We gained the summit plinth of Gillean at 3.45pm. I was beyond the stage of pleasant weariness. My face was taut with stress as we tried to work our way through other parties who were descending the “gendarme” pitch. They were having a fun day. I felt like a desperate man by compare. Such is the effect of a Cuillin traverse.
The pressure finally unwound as we ran down the screes into Coire a’Bhasteir. Sue was waiting for us at Sligachan. After a pint of orange juice and lemonade I was sufficiently mellow to appreciate a dose of post-Abba muzak from her Agnetha album on the homeward drive and this time it was Dave’s turn to suffer in silence.
Thurs 20th Feb: La Dame de Flåm: Flåmsdalen is one of my favourite Norwegian valleys, a narrow wooded gorge, split into discrete sections by bluffs of overhanging rock and sheltering small hill farms on its brief grassy plinths. An ancient road weaves up the trench accompanied by the famous Myrdal rail line. The train rolls up and down four times a day accompanied by warning hoots as it approaches level crossings. Otherwise there is silence. Flåmsdalen’s charm and intrigue makes sharp contrast to the gross barrenness of neighbouring valleys.
When we first looked there for ice climbs in 2010 we discovered a wealth of cascades of all styles and standards, but the dirt road beyond Tunnshelle was usually blocked by snow. Martin Welch had taken the train ride to Myrdal one year and, before entering a long tunnel, reported glimpsing, in his inimitible words, “an astonishing pillar of ice, a Dame du Lac on steroids”, with reference to a famous free-standing ice column in the French Alps. I thought little more of it until the warm winter of 2014 forced us to seek higher ice venues.
The lack of snow allowed us to drive two kilometres further up-valley. After a hairpin climb to the next level stretch a majestic line of ice came into view plumb in the centre of the precipitous western flank. A single candle plunged from a corniced edge at 900 metres altitude and when it hit the tiers below spread into a series of supporting skirts. The candle itself looked the better part of 100 metres in height. The whole edifice sat with imperious disdain high above the valley floor, beyond the reach of instant gratification. It could only be Martin’s “Dame du Lac”. I felt a heart-piercing stab of desire, mixed with fear. Out of its bleak midwinter landscape Norway delivers these moments of elemental thrill like nowhere else of my experience.
Left: La Dame de Flåm
Above: Tamsin leading the second big pitch towards the candle
The Dame de Flåm required immediate action. With temperatures dropping well-below zero and the coincidence of a day off from work I recruited colleagues Tamsin Gay and Kenny Grant to the quest. On a grey morning we squeezed our hired Volvo up the track to a blockage of fallen rocks a kilometre from the fall and Tamsin performed a 10-point turn to get us facing downhill for our later escape. We skated through an ice-floored tunnel, scrambled down a boulderfield and crossed the Flåmselvi on thin pancakes of ice. Kenny mastered a clever zig-zag line to get us through initial rock bands and we ploughed into thigh-deep dry snow in the amphitheatre below the fall. A couple of ice steps and fear of avalanche forced us to put on the rope for two pitches to gain the first skirt of ice. Closer acquaintance with La Dame revealed the capping cornice to be far larger than we had imagined. The ice spewed out from a cavity under a three-metre overhang of snow. Even our Lochaber-expert Kenny, a man hardened to hacking out the cornices of Aonach Mor, was moved to dismay.
The first pitch fell to Kenny. We quickly realised that he gives no quarter to any icefall. Tamsin and I hid behind a curtain while he reduced the 20 metre vertical wall to meek submission. We moved to a second and more substantial tier of ice. As we switched the lead ropes to Tamsin she chose this moment to admit that she had never previously led on to virgin ground, despite having the redoubtable Tim Blakemore as her partner. This was a special moment for her. She set her controls towards the column that now towered preposterously overhead. After 35 metres of continuous WI5 she disappeared up a 70° bank of unprotectable crud. After a few minutes of hesitancy the ropes pulled out to their limit and she established a belay six metres under the belly of a giant ice jellyfish by which the column commenced.
Kenny and I seconded simultaneously to save time. While climbing a few metres ahead I clumsily levered off a sizeable plate of ice with my axe. Kenny placed his chin squarely in its path and arrived at the belay gashed and blooded. Tamsin and I did not appreciate the infliction of gory detail to our belay view, but Kenny seemed unperturbed. Meanwhile a breeze rose and waves of spindrift drifted across the face. The outlines of the valley below faded into a gloom. A storm was in the offing.
I moved under the jellyfish and found a through route behind a supporting strut. From the exit window the main candle soared above. The first moves bulged and a fine spray of water drifted back and forth from its terminal chute. Despite significant fall potential this was not the place for procrastination. I hauled up, committing to 35 metres of verticality, a rack of screws and a bag of wine gums my sole companions. Fortunately, ice columns are often featured into subsidiary organ pipes with blobs of water spray at regular intervals. While the axes sunk beautifully into the intervening grooves I could bridge my feet high on the flanking gargoyles. Soon the ice screws were chewing their way in to the hilt and grim contemplation turned into a joyous romp. After two vertical stretches I found a cavern on the right side of the column and made the perfect belay, cosy and sheltered yet perched on the edge of all things wild.
Kenny half way up the final pillar with the cornice looming overhead
Kenny and Tamsin pull the ropes on the final abseil
Kenny and Tamsin seconded wearing full down belay jackets and didn’t seem to overheat. Ropes and jackets were now wet with spray and rapidly freezing. Kenny took command of the situation. From the first thrust of his axe the outcome was not in doubt. He perched in silhouette on the crest of the pillar, briefly paused to shake out his arm and then placed the first of a dozen ice screw runners. Waiting below we marvelled at his tenacity, but after 30 metres of 90° ice even a man bred on the flanks of Ben Nevis must feel fatigue. He belayed at the final bulge of ice before it was swallowed by the jutting cornice.
Had Kenny brought a shovel we might have suggested that he began tunnelling, but in truth we were happy to declare the climb complete and set about preparing the first ice thread abseil anchor. Tamsin had a Kate Winslet moment as she drilled the screw holes. “Oh my God; the holes don’t meet. Shall I try here or maybe there…” Kenny and I swayed ice-clad in the breeze as if tied to the mast of the Hesperus and prayed for deliverance. Rescue from this point was all but impossible. There is no simple winch when the victims are cowering under a three-metre cornice. Dropping the ropes in such a situation is the stuff of nightmares. With the thread complete we tied them together with the crucial overhand knot, dropped the loose ends and relaxed a notch.
Twilight gloom turned to total darkness after the second abseil. We located a thread that we had placed on the way up and regained our spare kit under the first curtain. Our day’s adventures were not quite over. Wisely, we elected to abseil the approach slopes, which were now cross-loaded with wind-driven snow. Sure enough I triggered a windslab slough after a few metres. Our approach tracks had been obliterated. Eventually we blundered down to a wooded outcrop, 50 metres above the main river, and were forced into a final abseil. My axes, now strapped to my sack, snagged on a branch half-way down. Unwisely, I elected to continue to abseil on assumption that they would pull free. This decision left me hanging upside down in mid-air with my sack above my head. With a desperate shoulder-wrench I got free of the straps and left it for Tamsin to collect.
We regained the car at 8.45pm. A layer of fresh snow covered the road. Without a touch on the brake Tamsin drove us swiftly and silently down the valley while the instigator of the project sat in the back sucking contentedly on his last wine gum, his state of “second childishness and mere oblivion” befitting to the turning of his 60th year.
Sun 12th Jan: Diedre of the Sorrows: Saturday afternoon – just time to get my office up to date and check my last will and testament before driving over to collect Macpherson from Inverness.
Mutilated rabbits were scattered across the road surface over the Lecht. We were bound for Lochnagar, and, in particular the formidable Tough-Brown Face, a sea of boiler-plated ramps and overlaps of virginal granite. After two weeks of melt-freeze cycles Pete had expectations that every runnel and crack would be choked by slivers of climbable ice.
“As I see it we’ve got three route options,” said Pete as we drew into Glen Muick car park, “Mort, Post Mortem or Diedre of the Sorrows.”
With such morbid company for my thoughts sweet dreams were not forthcoming. After five hours wedged across my van’s front seats Avicii announced reveille with a somewhat ironic rendering of “Wake me Up” on my iPhone alarm.
“I’m in your hands,” I told Pete as we trudged up the paths to Meikle Pap. “It’s my first visit…”
This is not strictly true; it would be my first winter climb but not my first visit. In 1980 I marched into Lochnagar corrie on a wild snowy day, and promptly got avalanched on the approach slopes under Parallel B Gully. I ended upside down under the snow with only the fingertips of one hand piercing the surface, by which I maintained a slender airflow until my friend dug me out.
With addition of this macabre memory a review of Pete’s route choice suggested to me that a route that promised only “sorrows” was to be preferred to one that was guaranteed to be fatal, but Mort was high on Pete’s “most-wanted list”, a grade IX with 30 metre fall potential and only two previous ascents.
We arrived an hour too early. We could barely make out the cliff’s features in the twilight, so Pete swung his arc-light head-torch across the scene. The Tough-Brown Face was indeed white, but we couldn’t discern whether the coating was usable ice or a stucco of crud. After deliberation of recent failures and family responsibilities Pete plumped for the relative security of grade VIII Diedre.
Dawn over Lochnagar corrie (photo: Pete Macpherson)
Martin leading the first pitch
When first climbed in 1986 by Dougie Dinwoodie and Andy Nisbet Diedre of the Sorrows was regarded as Scotland’s hardest winter climb. The main protagonist, Dinwoodie, later fell prey to psychiatric illness, while his partner now pootles up 60 or 70 new grade III’s every winter season in his dotage. The route name is an inspired double-entendre. Dièdre is the French term for a shallow corner in the rock while Deirdre of the Sorrows is a tragic play inspired by Celtic legend. The heroine commits suicide rather than submitting to the will of King Conchobar, throwing herself headfirst from his chariot into a rock-face.
All these cheery portents to the day’s action were further buoyed by sight of young protagonist Murdo Jamieson, who passed with Andy Ingle en-route to grade VIII pickings on Black Spout buttress. Twenty minutes later they came back down.
“There’s a wind up there,” moaned Murdo. “It’s cold.”
Really, this boy needs to be sat down and given a lesson in climatology. This is Lochnagar in January Murdo. Anyway, the reluctant pimpernel then had the impertinence to set off up a route called Tough Guy.
A strident dawn blooded the sky as I took the lead up the initial ramps of Diedre. The angle was deceptive. Snow was thickly caked on the slabs. I started at a walk, then daggered axes deep in the snow, and then, to my alarm, found my feet kicking against bare granite slabs. A glance down revealed my ropes hanging unhitched down a 75° degree exposure to Pete’s stance. The search for protection commenced and was to become the day’s main theme. Ten metres higher I straddled a bulge of brittle ice with nought but a tiny leaf peg for immediate security and began to regret my temerity until my aimless hacking revealed the tail of an ancient sling. Not caring to ponder the provenance of such an offering I clipped in and pulled through.
Pete got to grips with the first of two overhangs in the corner. The laments from the dièdre came thick and fast - “This stuff’s shite”, “I could be in trouble here”; “This runner’s a joke”. I began to fear that Pete was frustrated and really wished himself over on Mort, but when I arrived at his stance he declared with relish: “Man, that was a cracking pitch.”
The third pitch was advertised as the crux. The second bulge was directly above Pete’s hanging stance. My crampons are blunt but nonetheless I didn’t wish to inflict further disfigurement on MacPherson’s physiognomy. A stiff pull and a long reach to an iced crack got me over the roof. Onward progress looked simple but tenuous. The walls and cracks were all delicately laced with verglas, but if the ice offered a means of progress it also rendered futile my search for meaningful protection. I tapped in bulldog and pecker hooks into the glue and pushed on. At every easement of angle the security of the ice disappeared in a bank of snow, and I had to rock over with my axes in uncertain mush. Climbing out of a tub of margarine on to a pile of sugar best appraises the predicament. The foolish climber pulls and hopes, but by bridging feet and plunging axes downwards body load is spread and risks diminished.
At this point my excavations revealed another old peg. The pegs detracted from the seriousness of the lead, yet I marvelled at the tenacity of the first ascensionists who placed them in such exiguous posture.
Pete leads the bulge on pitch two
Martin seconds the bulge on pitch two (photo: Pete Macpherson)
We had now gained the obvious traverse ramp mentioned in the description but a drool of ice directly above my belay could not be ignored. By the time Pete had dispensed with it several square metres of bare granite were revealed. After fifteen metres of fluttering he finally reported a piece of “bomber” gear. Seconding the pitch I bridged desperately past Pete’s rock scar, then spent much of my remaining energies extracting Pete’s sinker runners.
Light was fading and the Tough Guys were already on their way home. Although the angle had relented a little we remained spread-eagled in the midst of an array of steep snow-shields and ice-clad bulges. The ambience was of some wild alpine face in a greater range. Though Pete suggested an abseil descent I felt it proper to push to the top, and made a 55 metre lead into the unknown. Each anticipated easement proved elusive. Ice grooves debouched on to 65° snow ribs and protection was strictly rationed. The snow became ever thicker and more arduous to climb. Finally Pete led through to a block at the apex of the face and we were allowed release.
Our schedule had slipped behind Pete’s promised home-contact time. Two abseils landed us safely in Raeburn’s Gully. The instant the sacks were packed Pete’s new “Ueli Steck” boots steamed off into the night. I missed the chance to loosen my laces. Trailing behind, the temperature of my feet rose from glowing to screaming as friction mounted. Finally, I could bear no more and stopped by a burn to bathe them. In those few minutes of pure bliss I heard the muted gurgle of the stream and a rising wind sighing over the grouse moors, and was moved to that indelible sense of place and of being.
The phone signal returned as we sped into Ballater and Pete adopted his girly voice as the days’ activities were recounted. Nicky was left to believe that we had been on some kind of boys’ jolly, but I am sure she knows the truth. It is many years since Joy even bothered asking, but she knows I come home happy. Diedre of the Sorrows had delivered much more pleasure than grief.
Martin tackles the bulge at the start of the third pitch (photo: Pete Macpherson)
Pete prepares to lead the groove of thin ice on pitch four of Diedre of the Sorrows