Friday, 6 January 2012

Thinking outside the box on Ben Nevis (posted by James)

Garadh Buttress (III), the main buttress in the foreground

After a 3 week gap since I last went climbing due to Christmas, Hogmanay and a long period of bad weather, my psyche levels were at an all-time high yesterday morning to get out and test myself.

It has become clear by now that this winter is of a different breed to the previous two seasons…dominated by low pressure (so far) and weather to challenge even the most hardy. As a result my attitude has seen a definite shift this winter. I'm making sure that I get the most from every day I go climbing - and at the moment for me that means soloing routes that are going to put me to the test.

A rare few hours of clear weather and magnificent conditions on Ben Nevis

I liked the idea of soloing another route that wasn't well known or has much information regarding it….I'm really starting to enjoy the added sense of adventure and commitment you get when you have little idea what you're going to be up against.

Climbers beneath the Douglas Boulder

In February 1970, N.Muir and G.Witten did the first ascent of Garadh Buttress (Scottish grade III) on Ben Nevis. An obvious and aesthetic feature on the Eastern side of Coire na Ciste, yet not mentioned in any guidebook I've seen or logged on

The easy start to the route

The only reference I've seen to it was in Simon Richardson and Ken Crocket's excellent book on the history of Ben Nevis - and I stored it in my mind when I read about it 2 weeks ago.

It fitted the bill. A snowed-up rock route with an approach and descent on slopes which weren't going to be too prone to avalanche.

So…feeling like a coiled spring after my break from climbing, I set off up Coire na Ciste towards Garadh Buttress full of energy and intent. The buttress as a whole is not at a steep angle, but once I started climbing it revealed its slightly deceptive nature.

After the initial easy rocks you reach a steepening, which as a whole is at an easy angle but the individual moves themselves were a bit more committing than on first sight. Areas of crust and cruddy ice made sure that I was concentrating fully on every move.

Looking down Garadh Buttress

I rapidly started to really enjoy it. After a small snow-field you reach the next steepening where most of the fun happened. I twisted through snowed-up rocks and icy slabs before making a down-sloping right traverse which was pretty tenuous - and it delivered me at the foot of the crux.

The crux was a short but steep ice bulge. I had to smash through a small ice-umbrella in order to get a hold for my left crampon and then looked for axe placements. My left axe was fine but I could find nothing solid for the right axe at all, and I started to get quite pumped.

Starting the crux

The key to the crux, and to finishing the route, eventually came down to a very thin placement of my right crampon on a very small and unstable "cauliflower" of ice. A fall here would certainly be fatal. I concentrated hard for a few seconds, imagined my next move precisely, and went for it with the knowledge that my mind was what was being tested, not my muscles.

And then I was past the crux onto easier ground, and that familiar buzz went through me - the kind you can maybe only experience when you're soloing. But it was slightly different this time. A route with no description, no information on route-finding, difficulties or other climber's experiences. Just a grade…and in Scottish winters, grades can mean anything.

A good start to 2012


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