After an abortive trip up Ben Wyvis a week ago, John Mackenzie and Andrew James visited the North-East Face of Sgurr na Muice in Strathfarrar on January 29. The result of their efforts was the first ascent of the 280m Globetrotter (IV,4), one of the longest new routes climbed so far this season.
“Although the South-East Face was bare, the numerous ‘ridge and furrow’ grooves and arêtes on the North-East Face were definitely frosted,” John explained. “But as they contain only thin strips of turf, Andrew and I went further right to the long curved bay that contains more turf as well as the longest routes on the cliff. This section borders the far left end of the more conventional looking crags on Sgurr na Fearstaig’s South Top.
This bay contains climbs such as Pigsty and Trotters gullies, and has the same ‘ridge and furrow’ geology, but the cliff is in tiers, separated and bottomed by a glut of turf. Knowing that it holds cold probably better that anywhere else locally I was not surprised to see it white with a light dusting of snow that complemented the extensive hoar frost.
Trotters Gully lies on the right side of this bay and I had often looked at, but then bypassed, the rather unassuming turfy buttress that borders the left side of the gully. Today was a good opportunity to have a closer look. The first impression was that it was much bigger and steeper than I had previously thought. Time was not on our side as we both had been to parties the night before and it was already lunchtime so our ‘quick nip up something not too long or hard’ might need reappraisal.
Of the several possible lines, a steepening turfy runnel led up to, and hopefully through, various rock bands. Sure enough, after a warm up pitch things steepened and options narrowed. Rock belays were excellent but of the seven long pitches only the sixth had good protection. Basically the route went straight up with a short traverse on pitch three into a hidden gully with the occasional rock spike on sidewalls giving runners.
Pitch six was definitely the technical crux and the most enjoyable with a fine slab with one inch-thick plastic ice leading directly into a very steep narrow chimney that was well protected and delightfully awkward. A further turfy runnel led to the top after 280 metres of Tech 4 and a split grade of III/IV as heavy snow would reduce difficulties somewhat.
However, it was now 5pm, gloaming was upon us and we were in an area where there was no phone signal. We should have been home by now! Two options for descent presented themselves. The shortest but most awkward was to descend the open gully called Cadha Raineach on the map, or else go over the top of Sgurr na Muice and descend the ‘Couloir’ that still had a thin strip of snow. This was longer and technically easier, but could be nasty in the dark. We chose the former.
I’ll gloss over the stumbles, the bad language, the trying to avoid sprained ankles etc. but by the time we reached the base we were struggling to catch the last photons of light. Venus shone like a head torch, but too far away to be of assistance. Orion simply mocked. To save battery we stumbled on trying not to fall into Loch Toll a’Mhuic, and having congratulated ourselves on that, promptly walked straight into one of the two neighbouring lochans.
Finding the narrow path was not easy, but we did. Only after a further photon snatching bumble did we put on the torches. Even then the path, now more resembling a scree slope in places, kept losing itself and we still had a major burn to cross. Once this obstacle had enacted its revenge, the way was simpler and the path better defined. I still managed to lose it and twist an ankle, but by then grim ‘SMC Club Determination a la the Song’ had set in. So with a limp and a grin we reached the Strathfarrar road after 7pm. The under keeper was about to set out to check if we were still alive as our wives had been phoning. A radio call sorted out the panic, but be warned, phone reception only works at the locked gate at the start of the road, so you’re on your own up there.
There is, of course, a moral to this story. An hour in the morning is worth two in the evening! Still the stars and planets were good and the route wasn’t bad either!”