Thursday, 25 June 2009

The North-East Buttress of Ben Nevis

Yesterday, James and I journeyed to the North Face of Ben Nevis to climb one of the greatest classic ridges in Britain: the North-East Buttress. First climbed in 1892, this was an awesome prospect in its day and to the modern mountaineer it presents an inspiring objective.

From the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, Volume 3, No.6, September 1895 (believed to be the first ascent at the time):

"The mountaineer who makes his way up the Allt a' Mhuilinn, under the stern north precipices of Ben Nevis, sees before him, high up at the head of the valley, a steep black ridge jutting out against the sky, which seems grander and more precipitous than any of its neighbours. This is the N.E. buttress, the finest object on the mountain, and one of the last to engage the attention of the climber."

This perfectly sums up the allure of this superb route. For me, it is THE line on Ben Nevis, and even though the ascent is not so continuously superb as that of Tower Ridge, it is the more striking ridge and a greater mountaineering challenge.

Our ascent began by seeking out the First Platform, which proved to be not so obvious as we had expected. We wasted perhaps an hour climbing to and fro on the nondescript slabby ground just above the Platform, without realising we had already passed it! Never mind: we reached it eventually, and from that point the route was obvious.

After a short section of narrow ridge, an obvious leftwards-slanting gully turns the first steep wall to the left. We then moved together up nondescript easy terrain for some distance. It is this section of scrappy Moderate (or easier) ground that marks Tower Ridge as superior in quality, at least in summer, as Tower Ridge is continually excellent when it comes to the quality of climbing.

We soon reached the Second Platform, and after this the climbing got steeper!

We decided to start taking fixed belays when we reached the Overhanging Wall. This wall can be climbed directly or turned to the right by a ladder of very high steps, both routes at about Very Difficult standard. I took the right-hand route, which I found reachy but the holds were enormous and square-cut.

The notorious Mantrap was some distance ahead. This short but harsh pitch eats people up during winter ascents, and is the usual reason why winter attempts fail. In summer it is less serious but still a formidable obstacle.

We reached a steep wall which we thought might be the Mantrap, but it fell easily enough after some reconnoitering, with a devious traverse left underneath a bulge. Above this, an easy 60m section of ridge with a tremendous view led to another steepening in the ridge, and an ominous wall that had no obvious way up from our vantage point.

The views from this point were simply staggering. Looking down the entire North Face of Ben Nevis, 2000 feet almost vertically down, gave a fantastic sense of scale to the face. I can think of no other point on the cliffs where I have yet been that gives the same sense of verticality and sheer depth. This is one other area where the NE Buttress beats Tower Ridge hands down: Tower Ridge is amongst grand crag scenery, but does not give the same powerful overview of the entire mountain in its views.

When we finally reached the Mantrap, we were left with no doubt that this was indeed the NE Buttress's 'Bad Step'. A 3m high wall, slightly overhanging and split by a diagonal crack with in-situ rusted pitons, it looked quite reasonable but proved to be a bugger of an obstacle! I tried it six or seven times, trying different hold combinations, but ultimately the holds were so polished and less-than-positive that it was highly strenuous maintaining position for long enough to figure out the upper moves.

I concluded that if I was three inches taller, or had longer arms, I could reach a good jug hold for my left hand and haul myself up. This doesn't excuse the fact that my footwork was not good enough to compensate for the poor handholds. I can blame the polished sloping footholds as much as I like, but the fact is that if it was in a cragging environment I probably would have been able to overcome it. So much for calling myself a 'mountaineer'!

I turned the Mantrap on the right by a steep slab and corner, feeling as if I had failed even though I am well aware the Mantrap has defeated better climbers than me. I could have aided through that one step using the in-situ pitons, but to me that would have been a greater failure on my first ascent of the ridge. Perhaps the next time I go up there, if I still cannot climb the Mantrap free I might aid my way up it just to avoid the contrived variation to the right.

The final pitch on the ridge was the Forty-Foot Corner, a superb bit of climbing on good rock with excellent protection (including two more fixed pitons from previous winter ascents).

We topped out on the summit of the Ben to be greeted with the same superb views I have enjoyed on my previous three visits to the roof of Britain. However, the summit area was overrun with screaming children, some of whom were engaged in races over the boulder-field. Several other climbs had words with the youths and asked them to quieten down (they were literally screeching at the tops of their voices), and I could not help marvel at the contrast between our solitary climb and the hubbub of dozens of walkers at the summit. It's the same story with Snowdon or Scafell Pike: you have to seek out the hard routes, by the standards of the masses, to achieve solitude.

The North-East Buttress was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. The prospect of a winter ascent is a bit intimidating, but I think it is a logical goal for the next winter season, after I have some more experience on Grade IV terrain. Who knows, perhaps the Mantrap might even be easier, with ice tools to torque into that diagonal crack!

Photo album from today

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A summer's evening at the Clachaig Inn

I've finished work for the night, and am sitting on the patio in front of the Clachaig, sipping a pint of cider. The light is starting to soften towards evening and the shadows are lengthening on the great spur of crag slanting down from the summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh; Banana Buttress and my neglected project crag have already fallen into shadow. The Aonach Eagach's jagged crest stands high, catching the sun's rays, deeply creased by dark gullies.

Directly across the glen, the great West Face of Aonach Dubh seems diminished by the harsh orange light on the crags; the only shadows visible are in the Amphitheatre, and the hollow at the top of No.2 Gully, behind the band of crag on Dinnertime Buttress where I once had an epic months ago. The Pinnacle Face, the nemesis route for all Clachaig climbers, loses all definition in the flat lighting; it is in the mornings that this face looks at its best.

The evening is cooling and the midges are starting to come out, but there is not a single cloud in the sky and tomorrow is going to be hot.

I am contemplating tomorrow's expedition to Ben Nevis, an ascent of one of the first routes ever done on the face: the North-East Buttress, a tremendous VDiff mountaineering route that has inspired me for years. I am feeling a strange sense of deja vu. For a moment I have gone eleven months back in time, and I am sitting in the campsite at Zermatt drinking beer, planning mighty endeavours in the high Alpine peaks above the village.

In so many ways this feels like a summer's evening in Zermatt. The peaks all around me have, through many adventures and hard-won climbs, attained the same legendary status as the Alpine mountains of my summer stomping grounds. There is that same quiet, that same expectant silence of the a tiny valley enclosed by towering peaks, and a small nucleus of human habitation enveloped within it. For once I am not working and I am able to sit and reflect.

The light on Aonach Dubh is starting to burn orange, becoming the ruddy Alpenglow that makes the Matterhorn shine red long after the valley is plunged into night.

It has occurred to me that although I am not able to go to the Alps this year, I have brought the Alps to me right here in Glencoe.

Friday, 19 June 2009

New Glencoe Scotland network launched

A new Glencoe network has just been launched and appears to have got off to a flying start! It would seem to be Glencoe's answer to Facebook, and there are already some fantastic photos up there.

The weather this week has been a bit disappointing to say the least, with a lot of drizzle and rain, so it was the Ice Factor for us on our days off. However, next week the forecast is fine, so we hope to climb the North East Buttress of Ben Nevis.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Curved Ridge with Maz

Today Maz and I walked up Buachaille Etive Mor to climb Curved Ridge. She had done the Aonach Eagach the previous day and was keen to try something a little harder, so Isi suggested Curved Ridge as a good next step up the ladder.

The weather proved to be on the atmospheric side, with swirling mist masking the buttresses and ridges of the Buachaille. Curved Ridge was a good choice for Maz: she found it challenging but not worrying, despite the damp rock, and we only got the rope out for the awkward corner pitch.

After we reached the summit, the clouds lifted a bit and we romped along the ridge towards the second Munro. A quick descent down the scree path, then back to a shift behind the bar!

It was also very good to see my friends from the UEA Fell and Mountaineering Club, most of whom I had not seen in exactly a year. Almost like visitors from another world, in fact--and it felt very bizarre being behind the bar instead of on the other side of it!

Photos from today

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Agag's Groove, the ultimate mountain VDiff?

Today, as my third hill day in a row, James and I headed up to Buachaille Etive Mor to climb Agag's Groove. This is another one of those ultra-classic routes that has inspired me for ages. It is a steep and very exposed rock climb breaching the enormous face of the Rannoch Wall. Surprisingly at only Very Difficult standard, this climb proved to be quite reasonable, albeit with some entertaining moves for a VDiff!

The climbing was simply stunning throughout. The first pitch was highly enjoyable and easy, the second even easier but excitingly run-out (luckily not so exposed). The third pitch was the real gem: a highly exposed traverse onto the vertical open face, with hundreds of feet of air beneath you, then a very steep and strenuous crack climb back up to the final belay. As I couldn't quite reach the best holds, I ended up laybacking the first few moves of the crack! Not as straightforward as the grade would lead you to suspect, particularly given the awesome exposure, but the gear was very good.

After completing the final also exposed pitch, we continued scrambling up to the Crowberry Tower, then abseiled off the back of this and summitted the mountain. Including part of Curved Ridge, Agag's Groove and the Crowberry Tower, we spent most of our time on the mountain either scrambling or climbing. An absolutely top day.

Photos from today

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Nirvana Wall, Aonach Dubh East Face

This afternoon, Jack and I set off towards the east face of Aonach Dubh to get a climb done in the cool of the evening. We decided to head towards the far eastern buttress, where a two-star Severe line caught our eye: Nirvana Wall.

Standing beneath the Wall, it appeared improbably steep and unfeasable at such a reasonable standard. However, it also looked exceptionally good. I led the first pitch, which was certainly sustained for a few moves on the initial steep wall, although the gear was good and the holds were positive. Most of the rest of the first pitch was easy after those first ten metres of Severe climbing.

Jack then led up the second pitch, a near-vertical crack running directly up the open face towards an overhanging roof. It was an awesome lead, just as technical as the first pitch but even more exposed. When seconding, I found the climbing on this top pitch simply magnificent. Taken overall it is probably one of the finest rock climbs I have ever done, right up there with Tall Pall at Sheigra in terms of quality.

UKC gives the route a grade of Hard Severe 4b. Not sure if I agree with this or not; it was sustained and exposed, but the gear was good and it didn't really feel 4b. Ultimately the route was so enjoyable I don't really care how difficult others think it was. It challenged me without being frightening, and provided an exhilarating climb.

Another excellent climb. Tomorrow we are heading up to the Buachaille to climb Agag's Groove.

Photo album from this evening

Monday, 8 June 2009

The North Route of Bidean nam Bian, 200m Hard Very Vegetated

Early this morning I headed up to Bidean nam Bian. My original plan had been to climb Hourglass Gully, if it was complete; however the chockstone was bare, so I decided to go and explore instead.

First of all I investigated Collie's Pinnacle, but I decided not to climb it as I didn't fancy climbing back down the chockstone pitch in Central Gully after the climb. I will come back with a rope so I can abseil back down this short section.

I then traversed the cliffs and found the steep, dirty crack and chimney that is the start of the summer line of North Route. It's an excellent winter Grade II, open to variation as I discovered in an excellent mountain day over the winter. In summer it is Difficult, first climbed in 1930 and (I suspect) probably never done since!

The strenuous initial crack soon turned into a mossy chimney that kept getting steeper and steeper. I not only had luxurious vegetation to cope with, but also the fact that almost every single piece of rock was loose or moving freely. The ascent of the (at times) vertical chimney was extremely hazardous and felt very tough for a Diff. It's a traditional route to say the least! At one point I dislodged a block the size of a freezer.

I wished I either had nailed boots, or the ability to smear on vertical mud and moss! My ice axe was certainly indispensable.

After the horrible gully comes to an end, the route joins up with the lines of both the Icefall Variation and the Direct. All three variations on the North Route finish up a ridge of good clean rock, although there are still loose blocks and spikes. It's similar in character to Tower Ridge, although the line I took was about VDiff as I wanted to avoid the contrived escapes into the gully to the left to avoid difficulties.

I finished the route with the distinct sense that I was lucky to be alive!

Photo album from today

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Tower Ridge on my 23rd birthday

Tower Ridge is a route I have wanted to do for years--in fact, it is probably the first big mountaineering route I can remember aspiring to do. It has length, character, reputation, and a superlative line. Several times over the past two winters I have come close to attempting it but have always been put off by conditions or logistics. Like the Matterhorn, it is a piece of rock that inspires me, a dream of mountaineering in its own right, more a symbol than a climb. Yes it is now a trade route, but that does not belittle this fine ridge.

Early this morning, at 1:30am, Isi and I left the North Face car park and began a leisurely walk through the forest towards the CIC hut. Our plan was to be the first on the route, see the sunrise from high on the ridge, and have the summit to ourselves. However we also resolved to take our time, as Isi had just finished a shift behind the bar! At just before 4am we stood beneath the scramble leading up to the Douglas Boulder, and thus the climb began.

My overall impression is one of sustained scrambling interspersed by the odd pitch of Moderate and Difficult climbing. The chimney pitch out of the Douglas Gap was the first entertaining bit of rock climbing, dead easy but exhilarating. I was climbing in my winter boots and we decided to solo everything we could, although I carried a 100ft rope coiled around my shoulders and also my trusty Aschenbrenner ice axe, a relic from the 1930s and the best axe for cutting steps I have ever owned. The chimney pitch passed without incident and soon we began the sustained scrambling to reach the top of the Little Tower.

We ended up soloing almost everything, as the climbing was easy. Only in the chockstone tunnel pitch did I need to employ my ice axe, cutting steps up the hard ice banked up in the tunnel. Upon reaching Tower Gap we decided to take a direct belay to protect the initial exposed step into the Gap: an easy move, but with a high penalty for a slip or loss of confidence.

By around 7am we were on the summit of Britain, alone with the silence and the majestic views looking down on all the other mountains of the British Isles. We descended with the same leisurely pace, reaching the Ben Nevis Inn just after 10am and realising that it was far too early to expect them to serve us a post-hill pint!

Another highly memorable day in the mountains, a satisfying conclusion to years of dreaming about Tower Ridge, and the best birthday I can remember in many a year.

Photos from today.