Tuesday, 25 August 2009

A moment in time

6:54 AM, Monday the 11th of May, 2009

For what seems like the hundredth time over the past hour, I pause to rest my calves. The ice feels very steep, doubly so with the heavy weight of my pack, laden as I am with food, water, and bivouac gear. I kick into the ice with my right foot. The front crampon-points bite and hold, and I straighten the leg, allowing the other to relax. There is a deep burning in my muscles, but I am close to the top of the face, and in my heart there is a growing elation as I know I have got the North Wall of Aonach Beag in the bag.

I came here alone and with no guidebook or knowledge of the face; just a desire to find a route up one of the greatest mountain walls in Lochaber.

I do not need to take stock of my situation, for my senses are alive in a way they never are at sea-level, and sensitive to every detail around me. The sky arcs over my head as a dome of azure, glittering with that perfect Alpine clarity that I know and love from high ascents in the Zermatt peaks. The sun rose some time ago, while I was low down on the face, and as soon as its rays hit the ice my route was transformed. To my mind, from the moment I left my tent in that magical corrie hours before, this was no longer a Scottish mountaineering problem, but an Alpine ascent.

The sun burns hot and bright. I am in my shirtsleeves, and my arms are burnt brown already, but wear thick woollen mittens to protect my hands from the ice. I wear glacier goggles and everything is monochrome yellow-green.

I look down between my legs. The great sweep of ice descends sheer downwards for over 1300 feet at an angle approximating 60 degrees. There are two gaps in my tracks, hidden by the even steeper icefalls which approached the vertical. Looking far down into my beautiful corrie, I can see the snowline, and beyond it, the waterfall and grassy alp where I had spent the night. It is a wild and remote place, far beyond all paths and human contact.

Above me, the ice steepens yet further, but there is only a short distance to climb before the cornice, and the long-anticipated summit.

I get going, climbing powerfully despite the weight of my pack. The ice is hard, plastic; perfect conditions. I turn the cornice, hook over the final vertical metre, and collapse, exhausted, upon the icy plateau of Aonach Beag.

My thoughts are entirely vacant. The sky blazes upon me and I can feel fire in the crisp air. My hands are heating up in their woollen cocoons. I turn my head to the side and look along the ground, but can see only two colours: white and blue.

With effort I stand, breathe deeply, and slowly raise my eyes to greet the view. Ben Nevis, highest peak in the British Isles, pierces the sky with its white towers. I can hear the silence echoing around the vastness of this hallowed place. This high summit is the altar at which we worship this mighty game we play. I feel like the first man to see into the promised land of the mountains, and as with so many of these moments before, the image is burned forever into my mind in an instant.

My reward for this physically and mentally trying ascent is the experience itself. Alone, at the start of the day and with many miles of mountains yet to cross, my path will take me to the summit of Ben Nevis and then back down into the mundane real world.

But the physical journey is not why I play this game.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The ascent of an unrecorded pinnacle

A brief spell of sunny weather, after days of continuous rain: the forecast may not have been good, but at 1pm this afternoon I found myself walking up into Coire nam Beithach nevertheless, to make the best of it. My plan was to try to find a way up the North Face of Stob Coire nam Beith, a very serious place that had defeated me three times before. I had learned that No.4 Buttress could be climbed by an easy route, so this was what I decided to aim for.

The river crossing halfway up the coire proved to be a hazardous affair, as the river was in full spate. A pair of walkers ahead of me lay like beached whales on the far shore after their struggle with the rapids. I elected to find an easier way across, and after much exploring to and fro I managed to wade across a relatively easy section.

Soon enough I was at the foot of No.4 Buttress. I managed to get less than ten metres up the route before deciding it was completely unjustifiable! Even by my standards, the ridge was obscenely loose and vegetated. I don't think I will be going up that way again in summer, but I can see how it would be a good winter climb.

Time for Plan B. On the way up, I had noticed a number of crags on the South-West Face of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Incredibly, this entire face only has two recorded routes--both from 1948! I noticed a pinnacle some way up the hill and resolved to go and climb it.

The approach to the pinnacle involved steep work on loose ground and vegetation, enlivened by an easy scramble up to a 'false pinnacle'. A large squall hit whilst I was on this scramble: the skies turned black, the wind increased to a howling gale, and for about twenty minutes I was pelted with rain, hail, sleet and even wet snow.

Eventually I stood beneath the pinnacle itself. It showed no sign of traffic; the steep front of the tower looked too hard to climb alone, but hosted several potentially good routes for a climbing team.

I discovered a subsidiary arete to the left of the main face of the tower. It was vegetated for the first few metres but soon turned into a fine, exposed arete of good rock with excellent holds. There were a couple of tricky moves, and the final teeter across the knife-edge ridge that connected it with the main pinnacle was very exposed, but all in all it was a fine short climb at Moderate standard. The summit of the pinnacle was an exposed, blocky platform perched nearly two hundred feet above the mountainside, with several worryingly loose blocks! Given how strong the wind was at this point, I was content to crouch and did not dare stand upright.

The descent from the pinnacle was a short Grade 1 scramble down pleasant rocky steps, then a short narrow gap between the tower and the hillside. I decided to descend down Coire nan Lochan, a wise decision I think given the state of the rivers.

The tradition for naming rock pinnacles on this side of the hill is to name them after the first climber to stand on the top, so I hope I am not too presumptuous in naming my unrecorded tower "Roddie's Pinnacle", since I can find no evidence of a previous ascent. Several routes of potential exist here; I am calling the line I took "The Arete", but I will go back at a later date with a climbing partner and a rope, and explore the other possibilities this fine tower of rock has to offer.

Photos from today

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Cabin fever!

The weather continues along its autumnal path, with the usual maddening Glen Coe trick of only being sunny, dry and warm when I am at work, and raining whenever I have the opportunity to get out on the hill. We are basically writing August off for any real mountain routes, which might be unfair as I know a lot of other people are getting stuff done, but the last time I had time off which corresponded to a good forecast was last month when we were in Skye!

This is doubly frustrating for Isi, who has her SPA assessment booked early next month and wants to get some more leads in. For my part I have wholly returned to "Autumn Mode", ie. hillwalking, scrambling, and scheming for the winter. For the most part it feels like autumn here, with the odd sunny day when I am trapped behind the bar!

To be perfectly honest, my enthusiasm for rock climbing is cooling significantly, as I knew it would towards the end of the summer. Rock climbing is for the most part a diversion for me. This year I am unable to visit the Alps, and for the past two years, the Alps is what I do during the summer. I often describe myself as 'mostly a mountaineer', but I think this summer has highlighted the extent to which this is true. Of all the (climbing) staff at the Clachaig I am the least enthusiastic about rock climbing, except in mountaineering situations, and the most at home on snowy and icy ground.

Increasingly since the end of the winter I have found myself erring towards scrambling as a way of climbing mountains, which was how I started climbing in the first place, and certainly holds a sort of purity for me: it is a simple, unfettered way of climbing complex and sometimes difficult ground. When scrambling with others I use the guidebook, but when scrambling alone I prefer not to refer to it, and to find my own way up. One of my favourite things is to simply explore and find new routes, or to re-discover old ones. In this way I have climbed twelve low-grade routes in Glencoe that are unrecorded, and 're-discovered' a number of others without reference to the guidebook. It is a hugely satisfying way of climbing: discovering some obscure, traditional arete, vegetated and loose and hidden away out of sight in some forgotten corner of a neglected mountain face.

Left to my own devices over the summer months, this process of exploration is what I will naturally gravitate towards--quite a different activity to visiting a sunny crag with friends and ticking off three-star routes. This is something I also enjoy in its own right but it does not have quite the same immediacy and sense of discovery, even if the rock is bound to be better! I think this fundamental difference has highlighted to me what kind of climber I am, and now that I am more aware of this, the possibilities for next winter are already starting to excite me.

In the meantime, though, I would like the weather to get its act together, please!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Lagangarbh Buttress

Today, with a brief window of fine weather between spells of rain, we decided to head over to Buachaille Etive Mor. Our plans were open-ended: with both climbing and walking gear in the car, we decided to take things as they came.

In the end we decided that the rock was still going to be too wet for climbing, although it continued to dry throughout the day. The Grade 2/3 scrambling route of Lagangarbh Buttress caught our eye, as a route we had wanted to do for some time and one of the most obvious ridges on the mountain.

The walk-in was even easier than the usual Buachaille walk-in ... literally ten minutes from the road! After stomping up soggy ground for a while, we climbed some easy rough slabs of excellent rock for a fair distance before encountering steeper ground. At this point the route became less obvious, but still maintained its non-serious atmosphere as we debated which way to go. We tried several variations but ended up following the most fun option all the way to the top!

At one point, Isi and James turned a steep wall on the left, while I decided to find a way through the steep ground directly. It proved to be harder than it looked, thanks to a band of less-good (and greasy) rock.

The ridge continued more easily until one final steep section of scrambling, which leads to the top of the route. After a short walk up scree, we arrived at the ridge crest.

Lagangarbh Buttress proved to be a leisurely, chilled-out route and a good option for a 'drying' day.

Photos from today

Sunday, 9 August 2009

"Buzzard Ridge", 60m Difficult, Aonach Dubh West Face

Another short day before a five o'clock start at work, and on an August weekend no less: it would have been all too easy to stay in bed and recover from the extreme Friday and Saturday night shifts, but I was determined to get on the hill and made the effort to get up early.

Once again I found myself plodding up the pathless steep grass of B Buttress Lower Tier on the West Face of Aonach Dubh. My mission was to further explore the expanse of rock on the Upper Tier immediately north of the Amphitheatre. With no routes recorded, but much obvious rock at an easy angle, it is an obvious target for exploration.

The ascent of B Buttress is by now very familiar, and passed without incident, save a trivial variation on the Middle Tier at Difficult standard (immediately right of the normal scrambling way up). Upon reaching the Rake, I traversed the ledge southwards and soon reached my destination.

This region of the face is complex and confusing when near at hand, despite my familiarity with it, and even now I am not entirely sure of the location of the Amphitheatre's North Ridge. I attempted a steep and serious buttress I believed to be the North Ridge, but could find no way up at anything less than Very Difficult standard, and eventually gave up (the North Ridge is supposed to be no more than Moderate). This leads me to suspect that the North Ridge is hidden somewhere further right.

I then explored the steep ridge immediately left of the Amphitheatre Escape Route (which I climbed the other week). The direct start proved to be too wet and difficult to climb alone, so I ascended easier rocks to the right of a shallow scoop, crossed the scoop, then re-joined the ridge. As I stepped onto the ridge, a buzzard swooped overhead from its nest amongst the rocks, providing the name for the route.

The climb is steep and sustained. An initial awkward mantleshelf move gives access to a complex of vertical steps and ledges, most of which have to be mantled in a similar fashion. The exposure mounts as the route becomes even steeper, and the crux move requires astute route-finding to discover the most feasible way up: a series of steep moves onto smears, followed by a strenuous pull up around a protruding nose.

After climbing the face, I ran down the Coire nan Lochan path and was back several hours before my shift began. The last three jaunts on the face have all lasted exactly five hours; I think I've got that mountain sussed!

(Unfortunately I have no photos from today, as James had the camera.)

Friday, 7 August 2009

Some thoughts

Although the general weather patterns are improving, and I had an opportunity to get on the hill this morning at last, circumstances have intervened. Last night was one of the worst shifts on the bar for quite a while, and by the time I had finished washing all the dishes and cleaning the kitchen it was almost 2am. I am now unable to sleep. So much for my plan of getting up at 8am and going scrambling! Maddeningly enough, Isi is going climbing and today will probably be sunny...

It is getting to that point in the year where my thought and plans turn towards winter, the season where the mountains are better and we can be true mountaineers instead of pretend ones. In that spirit, I have dredged up a quote from a blog entry I made over three years ago, and which still echoes my sentiments about mountaineering.

"A mountain is a symbol and a metaphor for something great and heroic within every one of us, an elevated piece of the world where we can experience life in concentrated form: all the pain, the challenge, the disappointment, the love, joy, pride and energy of being alive. The mountains show us the true substance of life. Going to the mountains is going home. The physical benefits are insubstantial and transient, but what we get from it is sheer joy, and joy is after all the end and purpose of all life (thanks for that, Mallory!)

"A truly great ascent is the nearest an atheist can get to a religious experience. A summit can be a place of pain, exhaustion, worry ... but it can also be heaven on earth, a place of such breathtaking magnificence and emotion that you remember it for all the days of your life. It goes far beyond the things you see and feel there and then. The mountains make us value the good things in life so much more, and make us better people."

To this I will add that the moment of 'summit' can be, on some occasions, the most concentrated distillation of every experience of life. My most vivid memories are of mountain tops: Bidean nam Bian on the 2nd of January, cold and austere, a Brocken Spectre looming over the Aonach Eagach; Stob Coire Sgreamhach after a brutal fight with its North Face; and alone on the summit of Ben Nevis at dusk, coated in ice from head to foot and utterly spent. It is in these moments of pure fusion between triumph, elation, sensory experience, and suffering that we can see a little deeper into the stuff that makes us who we are.

Roll on the winter. With a bit of luck, the snows will start to return in a couple of months.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Making the best of the autumnal weather

The weather has been poor in Glencoe for quite a while now, with big, hard rain showers sweeping the entire region several times a day--often interspersed with frustratingly sunny weather! Therefore, mountaineering rock climbs have had to take a back seat and we have been getting out and about far less often.

However, we have made an effort this week despite the poor weather. On Thursday I went for a pleasant wander up the Lost Valley to Bidean and back down over Stob Coire nam Beith, one of my favourite mountain walks. It was the first time I'd been hillwalking without any scrambling or climbing in ages, and it made a refreshing change, given the poor weather. However, it was also highly atmospheric, with mist swirling between the peaks, and cold as well--the temperature on Bidean's summit can't have been higher than five degrees, and for a brief period I observed some sleet falling before it turned back to rain.

Yesterday the forecast for Lochaber was even worse than it had been, although MWIS promised the far North West to avoid the worst of the storm. So we drove up to Reiff, one of our favourite cragging locations, an idyllic cluster of sea-cliffs on a distant peninsula north of Ullapool. Although I am still having trouble climbing bold routes due to the confidence hit I took some time ago, we managed to get eleven routes done from Moderate to VDiff in the few hours before it started raining.

I'm not sure how I am going to be able to get that same level of confidence back I had a few months ago. The symptoms are all familiar to me: fear and alarm while trying to commit to an exposed move, often a step across to the side. Quality of gear makes little difference. The end result is that I waste time and energy faffing, and ultimately either have to power through the move propelled by fear alone, or lower off. The grade of the route seems not to have much relevance (yesterday I had to back off a VDiff).

Although I have no specific desire to be climbing harder routes, it is frustrating that a few months ago I was happy leading Hard Severe 4b, and now I doubt I'd be able to lead a Severe. It is a problem I am going to have to work on before the winter climbing season begins (not too long now!)

Photos from Bidean and the Lost Valley
Photos from our trip to Reiff