Tuesday, 5 January 2010

North Buttress : an analysis of defeat

Despite the less than perfect forecast, my friend Mike Martin is up in the Glen at the moment, so we decided to go climbing today. Unfortunately Mike and I don't seen to have a lot of luck when we climb together: on the first occasion we were forced to cut our route short to prevent being late for work, and the second time was the notorious Pinnacle Face epic, which resulted in the loss of both Mike's ropes and a good deal of his gear, not to mention a nerve-wracking multipitch abseil in the dark. Today the forecast was not great, but encouraged by the good weather early on we decided to head for the Buachaille.

Our chosen route was North Buttress, but things went wrong from the start. Here is my analysis of the defeat, blow by blow, and (I think) illustrates the alarming way that minor annoyances can quickly escalate to become a full-blown epic. Luckily on this occasion we managed to avoid the epic part, but it was potentially a close escape.

1. Mike spent longer than expected getting from Ballachulish to pick me up at the Clachaig, thanks to a little overnight snow making the roads difficult.
2. This resulted in me thinking Mike had decided to sack it in for the day, so I went back to the Bothy to adapt my kit for a solo day out.
3. Neither of us had food, so we had to go to the garage to pick up something to eat.
4. In the event it was ten o'clock before we left the car park.
5. After walking for about ten minutes, Mike realised he hadn't locked the car, so had to run back to lock it.
6. He then realised that he had an extra rope in his sack which was weighing it down: the rope was buried in the snow for later retrieval.
7. On the way up we were plagued with doubts about whether or not we would have time to complete the route, and considered choosing a shorter climb.
8. On the initial easy section of the climb, Mike climbed a rocky wall I was unable to get up. I tried to find a way up the side but had to put on crampons to deal with the frozen turf. This wasted some time.
9. Above this wall, Mike dealt with the powder-covered slabs with ease but I found them tough going in crampons. I progressed slowly on the Grade II rambling terrain.
10. A diversion to climb a short ice pitch which I anticipated being easier than the slabs took longer than expected, thanks to rubbish ice.
11. We were overtaken by another team as the weather started to close in.
12. Just before the start of the difficult pitches, a blizzard hit and soon enough we were enveloped in heavy spindrift.
13. With two teams above (one of them very slow), bad weather upon us, and a sense that we didn't have much luck to play around with, we made the decision to bail out of the route.

The descent was safe enough but time-consuming, as the accumulating powder and spindrift was difficult to descend through. Rather alarming quantities of windslab were building up, even though we were on a Northerly slope where avalanche risk should have been minimal. In all fairness there was no risk of an avalanche, as the terrain was well-broken up, but the huge shooting cracks across the pack was a bit alarming.

We descended in snow showers back to the car, aware that we had been well and truly beaten by a combination of circumstances, largely beyond our control although I think we were both guilty of more faffing than is usually acceptable!

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