There and Back Again
or a wee bit of Scottish winter climbing
"I should think so - in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them," -Bilbo Baggins
|Ben Nevis (N.E. Buttress to the left and Tower Ridge to the right)|
I must dedicate this adventure to my good mate Ivan Locke, as he first loaned me his copy of Tom Patey's 'One Man's Mountain's'. He also introduced me to the inspirational classic motorcycle/climbing video <click to view> that John Cunningham and Yvon Chouinard filmed. Regarding my love for mixed climbing, Ivan had also suggested that I should go climb 'the Ben.' (though he may have meant it in the context of, 'go jump off a cliff, 'go climb a pole', or 'go piss off'). Since then I have been in awe of just about everything regarding Scottish winter climbing. Reading the brilliant acounts of the personalities and the famous routes climbed in W.H. Murray's collections, the hook was set.
A quick Scottish primer:
The weather and route conditions here have fathered an often used descriptor of generally harsh alpine conditions, spoken as, "we climbed in full-on Scottish conditions." I found myself and many climbing friends saying this phrase in the States. But in Scotland it takes on a whole new meaning that I was soon to learn.
Scotland is essentially where mixed climbing was born. If you want to climb bad enough, you'll simply accept whatever nature has to throw at you and be resourceful, that is Scottish climbing in a nutshell. The evolution from tricounies (hobnails) and step cutting to that of vertical ice tools (the Terrordactyl) happened here with the unlikely meeting between John cunningham, Hamish MacInnes and Yvon Chouinard for this very reason.
Hexes, tri-cams, and nuts are far more useful than cams in a rimed Scottish crack. But on certain crags, like Beinn Eighe, a few cams may come in handy (try placing a tri-cam at a tech 8 crux with one hand!)
The SMC has developed the two-tier grading system used in Scottish winter climbing. The first roman numeral indicates the overall seriousness of the climb as a whole and the second arabic number gives the technical grade. As in Masa's unlikely finish of Piggot's route on Beinn Eighe, likely (VII,8). This is a great system as the overall grade accounts for things like protection, belays, sustained nature, etc..
The second tech number is roughly one number higher than our 'M' system for grading mixed routes (Masa's line was in the M7 range).
The ethics of Scottish climbing are extreme like the weather and route conditions. Turf dependent routes require that the turf be frozen (turf is our friend, be nice to turf). As to fixed protection, you'll have a hard time finding any bolts on just about any crags unless they have been set aside for modern sport/drytool climbing. Winter climbing routes are often quite insecure and on many of the crags, either due to the unusual ice formations or simply a lack of available cracks, protection is poor to nill. Perhaps because of this, Scottish climbers are known for their boldness and flexibility regarding route conditions. The old mantra of 'the leader must not fall,' seems a still good rule on most Scottish crags. But of what I saw of Scottish climbers, if there is any protection to be had, and the route gets really hard, they have no qualms about testing the little gear they've placed!
Why come here to climb? I was often asked why I traveled to Scotland to climb. For me it was... the people, the places, and the memorable faces; the names, the games, and the absence of plains; and the histories, the mysteries, and the pyrric won victories.
The Adventure Begins
I arrived late January in the wee early hours of the morning at the Edinburgh airport. My first challenge was to manuever my rental car (with steering on the right and stick on the left) under the cover of darkness and into the left lane of morning traffic. With a few exciting and unanticipated course changes I eventually found myself heading for the Scottish highlands.
|The Highlands and some local woolly residents|
|Masa's stone cottage on the Drumgask farm just outside the small village of Laggan|
This is where I would be 'dossing' for the first part of my adventure in the company of the Japanese climber Masa Sakano and Brit Rob Goodman. I had barely arrived when I found a cup of tea in my hand and a 'biscuit' in my mouth. Though still dripping from their early morning attempts at a climb in overly wet conditions, my gracious hosts introduced me to what I would come to witness throughout my visit in Scotland, an absolutely unwavering hospitality to the foreign visitor. Masa and Rob treated me as a mate from the start. They were both quite good cooks as well and I was daily rewarded by their handiwork. Just a few examples of my host's creative cuisines. I think I gained some weight staying with Masa.
|Traditional Scottish Breakfast|
|Chicken pie with tatties|
The evening of the first day that I had arrived we all drove to Newtonmore and enjoyed the company of Susan Jensen, Bill McConachie and a quick visit by the well-known climber and 2013 Piolets d'Or winner Sandy Allan <click to view Mazeno interview>. So far from home it was nice to see a familiar face in Bill McConachie. His host Susan carried on the Scottish hospitality by inviting me along on several small adventures to pass the time as we waited for climbing conditions to improve.
|Dinner in Newtonmore, Bill's haggis hidden from view. Clockwise from left: Masa, me, Rob, Susan (photo by Bill McConachie)|
The next day I began to become more familiar with the highland weather. January had been unseasonably wet, snowy and windy. And as would be the 'groundhog day' introduction to each morning, I woke to Rain, rain and more rain. Susan and Bill offered a respite and invited me to join them on a driving tour of N.E. Scotland. We followed the Spey river traveling through many small villages along the way and toured the ruins of the Elgin Cathedral. This was a great introduction to driving in the highlands; narrow roads, some without lane markers, no shoulders, all through a winding, hilly landscape. Thankfully the gritstone of the tarmac provided reassuring friction on the usually wet road surface.
|Better than typical highland road conditions, this one actually has lane and shoulder markings!|
That evening we visited Boat-a-Garten near Aviemore and enjoyed the company of Scottish hardman Andy Nisbet. More will be said about Andy later, but they just don't come any better than this bloke. He is a history book of Scottish climbing. He has penned guidebooks, climbed around the world, and has a list of First Ascents headed for the 1000 mark. He is both a joy to share a rope with or a cup of tea. On this evening we all joined for dinner, which happened to be on 'Burn's Night' where we witnessed some of the traditions of this storied event.
|Andy Nisbet on Burns Night 2014|
Another day of rain...drove to Inverness...climbed the indoor rock wall with Rob, Susan and Bill.
Day 4 came with a glimmer of hope in the forecast. We made the drive to Glen Nevis under rainfall the whole way, the outside temperature gauge on the car being our primary focus (hoping for negative C' numbers!) At the car park, it was still raining but somehow Masa managed to pursuade us to get out of the car and start the approach.
It continued raining for most of the approach. The trail had turned into a swiftly moving stream and the surrounding bog was absolutely super-saturated with water. Rob and Masa pointed out our objective on Stob Ban, a rock and turf ridge named the Gendarme Ridge. I broke ahead of my companions and descended to a fast running creek that ran below the steep terrain leading to the base of our route. Hopping across the slippery rocks I fell full on into the water, slamming my shin into a boulder and completely soaking whatever parts of me that I'd managed to keep dry up to that point.
|The Central Buttress of Stob Ban with the Gendarme Ridge in the Center|
|A view up the route of Gendarme Ridge|
Our route, Gendarme Ridge (IV,4) was not looking in great condition. Though we had snow under us now, the temperature was above freezing and there was little hope that the turf on the route would yield good axe placements. I committed to at least giving it a look. I lead the wandering first pitch, stretching the rope a full 60m, but finding only a couple places for protection along the way. The climbing wasn't hard, just somewhat tense without much protection between me and the rocky slope far down below. Fortunately, at full rope stretch I found a crack that was just able to hold a single medium hex with a little pounding. I belayed my new mates up. With little discussion and much agreement, we chose to call this one a day, replaced the hex with a leaver-nut and rapped back to the base for the wet walk out. Thus ended my introduction to Scottish winter climbing.
|Rob rapping down our route|
|Looking back down the Glen as we return to the car park|
|A final look back to Stob Ban|
Ben Nevis"The noblest feature of Nevis that morning was undoubtedly the North-east Buttress. We looked straight on to its vast white face, which by an optical illusion seems always to be toppling over. Our day's route lay up the sharp left-hand ridge, which was silhouetted against the sky and from this angle looked unclimbable. It seemed far too sharp, steep, and icy. Worse still was the lower part, where a pyramid rises seven hundred feet to the First Platform. It loomed monstrously through the smoke and turmoil of drift."-W.H. Murray
The next day we left the cottage at 0530 bound for the mighty Ben Nevis, with our minds on the N.E. Buttress (IV,5). At the car park we met Helen and the four of us started the long approach to the Ben. 2 1/2 hours later we reached the CIC hut and took shelter to gear up for our climb.
|Ben Nevis, the Observatory Gully area. This cirque holds the classics: Zero Gully, Point Five Gully, Gardyloo Gully, Observatory Ridge and Tower Ridge routes|
|Helen left and Rob right, gearing up for our ascent in the CIC|
|Rob soloing to the first platform|
|The curious rime icing that covers much of the rock on Ben Nevis|
|Masa starts the roped climbing|
|Rob attempts to get the entire sandwich into his beak, combining two of his three favorite things|
|Rob waving in the center of shot|
|Rob belaying Steve as the weather moves in. (photo by Masa Sakano)|
We soloed to the 1st platform. From here, Masa started climbing with Helen belaying, Rob quickly followed on my belay. The weather was initially quite clear with light winds. But this odd Scottish weather soon disolved to snow and ice pellets and the wind increased from 20-30 mph. The route was quite 'banked-out', with loads of snow covering many of the crux features. I swapped leads with Rob and bipassed the famed 'man-trap' as it was quite full of loose snow. The route wanders a bit and I ended up climbing an extra pitch as we tried to follow the correct line.
|Towards the middle of the route|
I found the iconic '40ft corner' a very insecure and tricky section to lead with no protection, quite steep stemming with thin frozen snow over rock slab. The final pitch took me to a stance on the summit with no anchors available. I dug in my crampons against a snow birm and brought Rob up.
|Rob and Steve, two happy climbers atop Ben Nevis. (photo by Masa Sakano)|
|The ice bollard abseil|
|A wonderful place to warm up after a day of hard climbing seen through the fogged lense of my camera|
|The SMC Ben Nevis route book. It was an honor to add my name to Helen's route entry for the N.E. Buttress of Ben Nevis|
"...On the broad snow-fields beneath our boots each crystal crumb threw its own shadow on to the gleaming crust. The whole frozen world was alive with the shining of light. No man will ever know Ben Nevis. On the other hand Nevis will always help him to know himself. There is no end to such knowledge. Likewise there is no end to the joy of getting it."-W.H. Murray
We celibrated our success over a pizza called the 'Ben Nevis' and hot tea at a small shop near Ft. William. Our heads were buzzing with the feeling that comes from a big climbing day that turns out well! As Sandy Allan likes to say, "the rat has been fed."
Driving the hour back to Laggan through the night was an ethereal experience. The narrow highland roads wind up and over the hills. The headlites of the car illuminated the canopy of tree limbs arching over and above the road, and created a tunnel through the darkness ahead. With cobblestone walls along either side of the road, one very much had the feeling of traveling through the story of the Sleepy Hollow. Celtic folklore inspired Washington Irving's tale, with the Scottish version involving a man who was 'decapitated during a clan battle at Glen Cainnir on the Isle of Mull.'
The next day we slept in, dried our gear over the wood/coal stove, and rested our sore calves. Beinn Eighe in the Torridon Hills would be our next objective.
Beinn Eighe"The glow deepend on the mountains. The Sail Mhor of Beinn Eighe, pointing a leviathan fin out of the mist-sea beyond Coire na Caime, was touched by a fire like live coal."-W.H. Murray
Rob and I were awoken just after 2:00 am as Masa ran upstairs and exclaimed loudly, "wake up, we need to hurry, everyone from the BMC event is going to Beinn Eighe!" We staggered downstairs to where Masa had already prepared sandwiches for our breakfast and boiled hot water for tea. We were out the door by 2:30, though had to make a quick return to the cottage as Steve had forgotton his shell jacket in the flurry to get moving. The 10 minute delay still put us at the Torridon car park first after a quiet 2 1/2 hour drive.
I believe it was close to a 3 hour approach to the base of the climb. Rob was having a bit of stomach issue and was forced to make multiple stops along the way, poor fellow, he rallied each time and caught up with us.
|Our first view of the iconic Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe in the early morning light.|
As we geared up for our climb of the Central Buttress, Piggot's Route (VI,7) the BMC groups began to arrive below us. But thanks to Masa, we were first!
Rob took the first two blocks of climbing, I lead the next two, and Masa took us through the cruxes to a final pitch that sent Rob to the top of the Buttress. The climbing was very high quality mixed, with excellent hooks and pick placements through steep and wandering terrain. Ice sticks could be found in the occaisional crevice but generally was too thin for screw placements. The gear however was quite good, though we had just recently climbed Ben Nevis where the gear was poor to nil, so my perspective may have been blunted. Compared to a recent ascent of Bird Brain Boulevard back in the States, this route was much more sustained, with more challenging cruxes and a rivaled view of the snow-covered Torridon hills around us. I would have to say it was the best technical multi-pitch mixed route that I had ever done outside of Alaska (the Root Canal climbs of Alaska being the best, far longer but of a lower technical grade of mostly ice).
|Steve belaying Rob on the first pitch. Fuselage Gully is to the right of the fellows gearing up below us. The lower portion of Sa'il Mho'r behind me. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
|Rob starting up the Central Buttress|
|Masa inching his way up the first chimney|
|Rob heading up the steeps of pitch 2. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
|Rob on the ledge below the crux pitch.|
|A climber abseiling into Blood, Sweat and Frozen Tears to our right|
|Steve heading up pitch 3. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
|Masa riding the Arete, pitch 5|
|Masa working the alternate finish. After a prolonged effort it finally went at M7. Having dropped one of his axes (which unclipped itself) the final moves were single tool. Rob later recovered the axe embeded deep in the wide crack.|
|Rob, having exited the squeeze chimney, moves up to take on the variation crux. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
|Rob working hard to nail the insecure crux moves. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
|Masa finishing the final technical moves of the Central Buttress with Rob belaying.|
|Another great perspective of Rob belaying up Masa. Sa'il Mho'r behind him.|
|Steve repacking gear on the Summit of Beinn Eighe as the sun drops out of view. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
|Liathach hills at sunset. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
|Three tired but exalted climbers. (photo curtesy of Adam Booth)|
|Climbers at top of West Buttress|
|Climbers descending the south side of Beinn Eighe with head torches. (photo curtesy of Masa Sakano)|
After reaching the car park we made for the village of Kinlochewe. The Kinlochewe hotel, a meal of risotto, a pint of Tennents, and a trip into the past...to celebrate. The hotel has been a traditional venue for SMC meetings from as early as 1899. Parts of the hotel date to the mid 1600's. The walls are adorned with photo's and gear from Scottish mountaineering past. It felt all too natural to be tipping back a pint over a full meal, talking to one's mates about the high points of the day's climbing. The squeeze chimney. The queue that had formed while Masa struggled with the crux variation. The dropped axe. The unforgettable sunset views of the Torridon hills...
|The bay windows of the Kinlochewe Hotel. Looking back into time...|
|The 2011 SMC photo with the president Andy Nisbet seated in the center|
Bill and I made an attempt on a route on a crag called Meall Gorm, or at least an attempt to locate. With any Scottish crag, the first challenge is to locate where the climb is and how to get there. That may seem obvious with any climbing in any country, but signposting and road layout are something altogether different in Scotland. The start of any crag research is to study the Ordinance Survey map of the area in question, a must have. This is easy in plan, but once you hit the road you often find that a critical junction has not been marked and it may take you awhile to figure this out. However, the scenery is mostly breathtaking, so you may get distracted from your primary objective of getting to the climb, and find you are constantly stopping to snap pictures of the views.
|Not a map of middle earth, just an OS showing Meall Gorm.|
Our 2+ hour planned drive turned into a 4+ hour start/stop tourist trip. We finally located the crag, but as is often the case, the temperatures were far to warm. The snow had mostly melted from the crag, and it was no longer in condition to climb with tools. Had we brought our rock shoes, we might have gotten in a few pitches.
|Meall Gorm in the rain.|
Glenshiel and Crag X
I'm not really sure that I understand how this day came into being. Perhaps just the combination of the remarkable Scottish hospitality, a few connections made, and possibly fate if you put stock into that. Bill and I were invited to join Andy Nisbet and Sandy Allan on a first ascent of a line located in Glenshiel. All we were told was to meet them at Andy's place in Boat-a-Garten for the drive to Crag X at 6am the next morning. The next day we piled into Andy's car and were off to the unknown crag. During the drive we found that Dave Macleod would be joining us to do some filming for the forthcoming Fort William's Mountain Festival. Andy was being honored with the 2014 Excellence in Scottish Mountain Culture award. Andy didn't blind-fold us for the drive to the secret crag, but it didn't matter, as we were too mesmerized by the landscape and the winding roads to have been able to locate it on a map. We passed over sheep gates, stag ranching pens, and rolling highland grassland.
|Andy Nisbet going over the approach with Dave Macleod.|
|Dave, Andy and Sandy on the approach to Crag X!|
|A picturesque glen|
|Gearing up at the base.|
|Sandy belaying Andy.|
I climbed the snowslope to the base of the route and took a short video...<click for view surrounding Crag X>. Andy and Sandy roped together and took a position above Bill and I on the lower steps of the route. Andy led out, climbing slowly and methodically through insecure corners. Protection was scarce and the manky 'freezer' ice slowed any progress. Andy lost a torque on his axe and he fell, abruptly pulling an intermediate piton and coming onto a fairly placed peg. He was winded but not hurt. Sandy lowered him back to the belay.
A conversation insued about the route being out-of-nick and that perhaps we should bail on the FA attempt. I asked Andy if he minded or not if I gave it a go. He gave me the thumbs up and up I went. Dave had spent some effort climbing around to the top of the crag for his filming top-rope and I really wanted to see a successful ascent for Andy. I led up Andy's corner and clipped the two pieces that he had placed. The rock was covered in some places by loose snow and by thin rotten ice in others. The conglomerate rock beneath was of decent quality and some excavation revealed a flairing crack that followed the dihedral above. I was able to get in a solid #1 cam and followed that with some pounded in nuts higher up.
I had passed above Andy's high point and reached a set of crux moves. The next few feet were hard won and I ended up taking three 10-12' falls in the process. I was in for cleaning and bailing at that point, but a few positive words from Dave and I knew I had to give it at least one more go. Dave included the next exciting event in the short film on Andy at the Festival, the film tells no lies...<click for video about Andy Nisbet with Steve's cameo falls on Crag X>. I was shaking out with the left hand in preparation for the move when the right tool popped, whoops. I ended up wrenching my left ankle on the fall otherwise I'd probably have given it another go still. Dave was kind enough to clean the route as I lowered off. At the base I took my boot off and wrapped the ankle tight. I knew I didn't have that much time until the ankle wouldn't take my weight so borrowing Bill's poles I set off for the car-park ahead of my mates, gimping down the glen.
|Sandy Allan, Andy Nisbet, Steve Towne, Bill McConachie. (photo by Dave Macleod)|
We drove to a nearby village and stopped in at the Cluanie Inn for some tea. This is where Dave did the interview for the film clip above. Bill and I were also interviewed but our's didn't make the cut. I think I was still pretty high about the whole exerience of the day. I remember muttering something to Dave regarding a question of what had happened up there today? I think I quoted Keith Richards saying..."if you don't make bold moves, you don't get fucking anywhere. You've got to push the limits." But jeeze, how do you follow up two guys like Andy and Sandy?? I was just happy to be soaking it all in.
The day ended with a take-away 'fish-n-chips' dinner in the car with Andy, Sandy and Bill. Talking of the days events, and simply buzzing in the company I held.
This sadly marked the end of the climbing portion of my visit to Scotland. My ankle injury would take longer than the time I had to heal. Bill continued climbing with various partners and I returned to Edinburgh to welcome my wife Lynn and Bill's wife Ann on their arrival. The 4 of us were able to make a quick trip back to the highlands for a tour of Dalwhinnie Distillery and to share tea with Andy.
|Andy and my wife Lynn.|
To Whom Do I Owe the Pleasure?
To whom do I owe the pleasure,
Of an adventure on the crags?
To put my mirth to measure,
In the land of heather and stags?
To whom do I owe the pleasure,
Of an adventure on the crags?
To put my mirth to measure,
In the land of heather and stags?
In a cottage on Drumgask Farm,
Lived a wee-nimble Japanese bloke.
Masa shared a Scotsman's charms,
And was quick to laugh and joke.
His mate from Leicester down South,
Was a tall and sturdy Brit.
Found often with food in mouth,
Rob's motto was 'climb-eat-bed!'
Stob Ban was our first foray,
On the route called Gendarme Ridge.
We were rain-soaked at the belay,
And abseiled after one pitch.
The mighty Ben Nevis was next to climb,
The N.E. Butt in banked out nick.
Helen joined us on insecure rime,
And we topped Ben with blunted up picks.
Pigott's route on bewitching Beinn Eighe,
A classic of mixed Scottish cracks.
A joyful long climbing ballet,
The crux fell with only one axe!
To whom do I owe the pleasure,
Of an adventure on the crags.
To put my mirth to measure,
In the land of heather and stags.
Crag X and the Unnamed Climb
Andy Nisbet was an Aberdeen climber,
Who kept a quiet and joyful mind.
But his climbing was that of a tiger,
He had tackled the boldest of lines.
Cairngorm Sandy had guided the Himal',
And he'd starved on Mazeno Ridge.
Climbed from Torridon to Cham to Nepal,
Professed 'winter-climbing' spares us the midge!
The Lochaber Scotsman Macleod,
A rock and mixed legend in his prime.
Both the 'Hurting' and 'Rhapsody' cowed,
He joined in to film the climb.
And a Yankee named McConachie,
Who'd ticked Nettle-Quirk, Ham-n-eggs, Cassin.
Truely a climbing devotee,
But addicted to cocoa and caffiene.
With this all-star cast of fellows,
We approached the Crag X face.
Well above the highland meadows,
We gathered for our brace.
Andy boldly lead up the route,
And fell down when he pulled a pick.
The line was totally nails,
In it's presently pitiful nick!
I asked Andy if he would'nt mind,
If I were to give it a go.
So up the challenging chine,
I climbed the insecure snow.
Advancement was extremely hard fought,
And I paid with three 12 foot falls.
My belayer Bill, every one caught,
Safely down the slabby rock walls.
As I prepared for one final try,
With my axe quite firmly stuck.
A quick shakeout of the hand,
I popped off like a diving duck!
Inverted in my plunge,
My feet pointed towards the sky.
I decided to 'chuck up the sponge',
And to Crag X, say my goodbye.
So as my Scottish adventure comes to a close I leave you with Gandalf's final words to Bilbo after his own grand adventure...
"My dear Bilbo!" he said. "Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were."
|And finally, as Sandy so often said, "the rat has been fed." Back to the salt mines for now... but the rat is starting to get hungry again! (photo curtesy of Ted Stallone)|