With the good weather continuing, I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 this morning to make the most of the precious few hours before my shift at 3 o'clock. The night had been very cold and it took a brisk walk down the road to warm me up: in fact, I was half expecting the rocks on Aonach Dubh to be iced!
Once again, I plodded up the vegetated Lower Tier of B Buttress on the West Face. To my great surprise I noted two other climbers following me some distance below. These are the first climbers, other than myself and my friends, that I have ever seen on this face ... and I go up there a fair bit!
With no particular aim other than to explore the Upper Tier beyond F Buttress, I decided to traverse the Middle Ledge in order to avoid the horrendous Great Slab, which I would have to descend if I had climbed the Middle Tier of B Buttress. If that sounds confusing, that's because it is! It is an incredibly confusing crag, vast in size and complex in its ways, and it has taken me many visits to learn its various ins and outs.
I scrambled up the Amphitheatre and escaped to the right. This is the normal route for B-F Buttress, the serious scramble Rachael and I did a year ago. It finishes up a fine pinnacled arete of rock, and I noticed that the ridges to the right of this are not recorded in the current Glen Coe guidebook.
The ridge directly right of B-F looked superb. Intrigued, I scouted out the base and found a way up a cracked slab and steep wall: a stiff little pitch, which I soon discovered could be avoided on the left, to reach a gap between two vegetated scoops.
From this point, my explorations will be best described by the route description I have written for UKC:
SHRIKE RIDGE, Very Difficult, 60m (**)
One of the best routes of its type on the Upper Tier, with good rock, sustained climbing on the second pitch and exhilarating situations. Situated on the upper section of F Buttress, right of the final arete of B-F Buttress Route.
1. Climb a slab, steep crack and wall to a small gap. This short pitch may be avoided to the left by easy scrambling up a vegetated scoop.
2. An excellent pitch! Climb the overhanging front wall of the arete directly on good holds. Step up onto the knife-edge and climb steeply for about 10m up the arete, extremely exposed, with a couple of bold moves. Resist trending right onto the slab to avoid the crux step, as the slab is less sound and harder than the arete.
3. After reaching a small ledge, the angle relents and pleasant easy climbing leads to the last obstacle, a short tower formed by a detached boulder. Move right, layback up a short rib, then bridge up the final groove. After the groove, scramble easily to the top.
Upon finishing the route, I broke out into a broad grin. Shrike Ridge is the best route I have ever done on Aonach Dubh West Face--and that includes 'established' climbs such as the Pinnacle Face and B-F Buttress. I am astonished that it has never been recorded, but I'm sure I am not the first person to have passed that way and enjoyed the airy delights of that knife-edged crest.
Another point to ponder is that lately my performance on the crags has suffered, mostly from being unable to commit to bold moves on lead. I wonder why it is that I will sometimes get worried leading VDiffs at Polldubh, and yet I can wander by myself to a neglected corner of a vegetated mountain face and create a new route, which is more serious, more exposed, and just as technical as the VDiff I was worrying about on a sunny roadside crag?
I think it is about feeling in control. When cragging I do not feel in control. I am following a route that is well-established and has been climbed hundreds of times. This fact imparts judgement on you, as a climber, when you set foot upon the route with your huge rack of nuts and cams and karabiners. I feel more in control when pioneering on serious mountaineering terrain, even if that terrain is often chossy, exposed, and objectively dangerous. The rope I carry can be a genuine aid in retreat but sometimes it offers only the illusion of being able to back down.
Today, that sense of being in control came from the simple fact that, once I was committed to the arete, there was no way out but up. I think I need that kind of stark reality, the realisation that you have no choice but to make a route, in order to motivate me. And I think that is why serious scrambling, Alpine climbing, and Scottish winter are (to me) the ultimate forms of mountaineering.
Photos from today Note September 2011 This route is now officially graded Difficult after several repeats by various parties.