Helen Rennard and Ben Silvestre made the second winter ascent of Pobble (VII,7) on Foinaven on January 20. This 160m-long summer VS is located on Lord Reay’s Seat, a cliff that does not hold winter conditions well and can be difficult to reach when the roads are covered in snow. Malcolm Bass and Simon Yearsley first attempted a winter ascent in November 2004, but found mounds of graupel below the crag, with a totally black buttress above.
This time, even with heavy snow across the Highlands, there was concern about conditions on the cliff. Helen takes up the story:
“As more and more snow fell, our plans for the weekend of January 19-20 changed from the Ben to the Far North, where we hoped there would be less wading, but enough snow to climb some rarely-in-condition routes. Ben drove up from North Wales on the Thursday (January 18). Poor road conditions north of Ullapool, blizzards and my confusing directions to the Naismith Hut in Elphin (‘If you pass the sign for the Elphin Community Hall on the way out of the village you’ve gone too far’, not realising that there are, in fact, three signs for the Elphin Community Hall) meant that Ben didn’t reach the hut until nearly 1am. Our plans for a big day on the Friday were therefore changed to a shorter outing on Quinag.
On Saturday we took a gamble and headed into Foinaven. Earlier in the week I had messaged Malcolm Bass (who, together with Simon Yearsley, made the first winter ascent of Pobble (VII,7) in March 2006 and the first ascent of The Long March (VII,8) in 2010) for his thoughts on whether Lord Reay’s Seat would be white. In short, Malcolm didn’t know, and there was always a risk that we would spend the whole day getting in and out to not climb anything.
We were woken at 2.58am, two minutes before my alarm was due to go off, by graupel hammering on the windows of the hut. A slow drive north in the dark with fresh snow on the roads was followed by a five-hour walk in through snow and snow-covered bog and heather. There was a glorious pink sunset behind us. It was light long before Lord Reay’s Seat came into view, and when it did, we were delighted and relieved to find it white (Malcolm and Simon had found the crag black on their first visit – a lot of effort to not climb anything!)
We climbed Pobble, which has five great pitches of varied climbing: technical moves on pitch one (which was different to the pitch Simon and Malcolm had climbed as they had traversed in on ledges from the right whereas we climbed a more direct line closer to the summer route) – steep and burly on pitch two; a squeeze chimney and chockstone on pitch three – slabs and arête on pitch four – and a technical wall followed by more slabs to the top (all of the slabs were under powder). There were a few scary moments with the odd loose rock, including a large flake which detached itself with me on it below the arête (Ben had pulled on this with both axes, and then with both hands, but thankfully it remained in place for him… ) but otherwise it was good quality rock with lots of deep quartzite hooks and axe placements. Ben and I both thought VII,7 was spot on for the grade.
There was a bit of a navigation mishap on the top due to tiredness then back to the bags and the long march back out. Or more a long stumble/shuffle, which is what I was reduced to doing half way along the Landover track. An amazing starry sky more than made up for this though. A slow snowy drive back in the small hours (at least there was no other traffic about for me to crash into while I struggled to stay awake) got us to the hut about 1.30am, not long after Robin Clothier, Tim Oliver and Dave Keogh had arrived back after climbing The Nose Direct on Sgurr an Fhidhleir. Someone joked that we could swap routes now that there were tracks into both cliffs – we could finish eating our tea and get going for another day. Realistically though, not a chance!”