Thursday, 24 September 2009

Looking back on the summer climbing season

Although there will probably be the odd dry and fine day in the Autumn, and I daresay I may get a few more scrambles and climbs done before the winter kicks in, I think it is now safe to say that summer is over. So it's time to reflect on a successful summer of mountaineering in Glen Coe and the surrounds, and point out some of the highlights.

I think the summer climbing season kicked off with our unseasonably hot trip to the Lake District in March. We got two climbs done of substance: Middlefell Buttress via its Severe line, followed by a rambling exploratory route on the South Face of Harrison Stickle. This was a great start, as it was my first Severe lead and it injected a good dose of confidence after months of not touching rock.

Three trips to Polldubh, on the 20th of March, 2nd of April and 3rd of April laid the foundations for our enthusiasm for cragging later on in the year. Highlights of these visits include Fence Edge--Isi's first Mild Severe lead, and a struggle for us both at the time, Tricouni Slab, my first Very Difficult lead in over a year, followed the next day by Three Pines (Severe 4a) and Tyke's Climb (Very Difficult). We had built a decent amount of momentum and when Jamie suggested a trip to Reiff and Sheigra a couple of weeks later, it was difficult to resist!

The Reiff trip did a lot of good for both myself and Isi, and was hugely enjoyable to boot. The best routes of this trip included Moonjelly, Tystie Slab, Slanting Corner, and the crowning glory of them all: Tall Pall. This sweepingly exposed Severe climb is hidden amongst the Treasure Island Walls at Sheigra, and features a steep slab, an airy traverse suspended high above a churning abyss, and steep climbing to the top. It was the most spectacular single pitch climb I had ever done and also the first Severe I found straightforward! The trip was rounded off by Isi's significant lead of Meikle Neuk, her first Hard Severe lead and my first second at this grade.

Mountaineering rock climbs began for the year when James and I climbed the North Buttress of Buachaille Etive Mor on the 29th of April. Traditional, long, sometimes vegetated, and offering many excellent chimney pitches, this felt more like a real climb. It appealed to the explorer in me.

Rock climbing took a brief pause during a spell of perfect winter conditions on the 10th-11th of May, during which time I made my solo ascent of Dragonfly (III) on the great ice face of Aonach Beag, followed by the traverse of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete and over Ben Nevis.

On the 14th of May we were back at Polldubh, pressing home our assault on the Pine Wall and SW Buttress areas. Isi led Pine Wall, somewhat soft for Hard Severe 4a and a non-line compared to the much easier but better Gutter to its right. I led the short and almost ridiculously well-protected Tear, my first lead at Hard Severe. Shortly after this trip, another visit with Jack took us back to SW Buttress, where Jack led the thin and sketchy route Scratch--no pushover at Very Severe 4c, and I found it precarious even following Jack's rope.

During this same spell I had begun to systematically explore the 'top crag' above the Clachaig, which is un-named but allegedly at least partially explored by Ed Grindley at some point in the past. I climbed several routes between Moderate and Very Difficult standard, and many times prospected the excellent-looking chimney and nose climb on the main wall, but never succeeded in an ascent. James, Isi, and myself also climbed the Bowstring on Aonach Dubh, a very fine long Difficult route on the Terrace Face.

The best period of the summer began on my birthday, the 3rd of June.

Isi and I made our way to Ben Nevis after the bar closed and walked leisurely into the coire, reaching the base of Tower Ridge as the sun rose. Our ascent, clad in big boots and carrying only 100ft of rope and a long-shafted ice axe by way of technical equipment, was one of the best climbs of the entire year. We employed the rope only for the exposed step into Tower Gap, and in the cave pitch I chopped steps out of the banked-up ice.

On the 8th of June I climbed the North Route on Bidean, a nightmare of a climb in summer conditions. The guidebook gives it 'Difficult' but realistically it is ungradeable; a contender for Exceptionally Difficult (Vegetated) if ever there was one!

The following day, Jack and I climbed Nirvana Wall on Far Eastern Buttress: two pitches of pure joy, and I now look back on this ascent as the height of my rock climbing powers, such as they ever were. We discovered after we got back down that the route was Hard Severe 4b, despite how smoothly the climb had gone.

James and I climbed Agag's Groove on Buachaille Etive Mor the day after that. This superb mountaineering rock climb felt like a real achievement and was certainly not an easy ascent. One of the finest climbs of the summer. On the 24th of June we went back to Ben Nevis and climbed its North-East Buttress, the premier line on the mountain, and (in my opinion) better even than Tower Ridge. It was also the longest rock climb I had ever done, at almost 500m in height and countless pitches.

The 'great confidence crisis' began when I failed to climb Staircase at Polldubh in late June. This was compounded by a trip to Dunkeld and Clova in which I made mistake after mistake on easy climbs, ultimately losing my ability to calmly make bold moves on lead without worrying about falling off. Jamie's patience and natural teaching ability helped to minimise the damage, but to all intents and purposes my confidence crisis was a freefall. I got dragged up some more Severes and Hard Severes on that trip, mostly shaking like a leaf all the way up. After that point I never led harder than Very Difficult again.

What I see as the second phase of the summer began on the 4th of July, when I made the first recorded ascent of No.2 Gully Buttress Climb on the West Face of Aonach Dubh, using period equipment including nailed boots. This fine arete of Moderate rock re-awakened the exploring urge, and from that point onwards that grand face was my greatest inspiration. Our activities as a group, including Isi, James, myself, and (on one trip) Rachael, moved almost entirely in the direction of mountaineering routes. It was a polar shift partly in response to my vanished enthusiasm for single-pitch rock climbing, and partly I think in anticipation of the coming winter.

We climbed the Slab Route on Beinn Trilleachan, and the Pinnacle Ridge of Garbh Bheinn--both highly obscure, somewhat vegetated, traditional routes. Then we went to Skye and had a belter of a time. The Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean proved to be one of the finest mountaineering routes of the summer, and Mummy's Church at Carn Liath was a hugely enjoyable caving mission.

Another short trip to Reiff saw us tick off some more of the Difficult and Very Difficult routes, but my head was still in no sort of order on single-pitch ground and I did not lead well. Then it was August and it rained--a lot! Other than a very good day on Lagangarbh Buttress, I spent all of my time exploring on Aonach Dubh and working out all the possible ways that a solitary man might find of climbing the cliffs. I discovered the Amphitheatre Escape Route, the difficult and forboding Buzzard Ridge, and several times prospected a direct passage through the Amphitheatre but was thwarted by the mighty dripping overhangs above the Great Slab. A bit further around the hill, on the South-West Face of Stob Coire nan Lochan, I discovered an unknown pinnacle of great promise and made the (probable!) first ascent of 'the Arete' on its northern side.

This almost brings us up to date. In the last settled spell, I climbed a'Chailleach, followed by the Aonach Eagach, and a couple of days later the North Buttress of Stob Ban--a very serious 'scramble' with two hard chimneys to contend with. Last week, Shrike Ridge on the West Face of Aonach Dubh fell to a determined assault, despite its obvious difficulties, and proved to be the best route I had so far done on the entire mountain.

Taken altogether it has been a fantastic summer, with some fine achievements and some very memorable mountain days. However I think the most important achievement of the summer is the wealth of knowledge and experience we have gained--particularly with regards to future winter ascents of routes we have done this summer. The North-East Buttress, Tower Ridge, and further exploratory missions on Aonach Dubh: these are all major objectives for the coming winter season.

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