Gryphon Grooves

Forrest Templeton leading the lower ice gully during the first ascent of Gryphon Grooves (VI,6) on Lochnagar. The combination of recent easterly storms and freeze thaw lead to abnormal ice build up in the gully lines on West Buttress which have normally stripped out by early March. (Photo Simon Richardson)

A key piece of advice in Chasing the Ephemeral is take time to assess conditions at the base of the cliff before you start climbing. The ten minutes you spend at this point can be the most critical point of the day and make all the difference between success and failure.

The conundrum that Forrest Templeton and I faced as we stood below the great North-Eastern Corrie of Lochnagar on March 25 was that it was very hard to determine the conditions on the crag. Almost all the cliff was plastered white, buried beneath deep rime. It was difficult enough to pick out individual lines on the buttresses, let alone decide how climbable they might be. Was there ice beneath all that rime or just bare rock? It was impossible to tell. The north-west facing aspects looked slightly less blutered, so after 30 minutes of pondering we started heading up towards the Shadow buttresses. Soon after I heard Forrest shout from behind me:

“Hey Simon, what are those ice lines up there?”

Forrest was pointing up towards West Buttress, which I had written off as a possibility as it is fully exposed to the sun late in the season. But sure enough, Gargoyle Chimney was fat with ice, and the gully line of Gargoyle Direct to its right, had an enticing thin white ribbon running down it. Now Gargoyle Direct does not climb the gully in its entirety, but follows the buttress to its right in its lower section, so this was too good an opportunity to miss.

We ascended the lower tier by following the first two pitches of Quasimodo, which contained a thin layer of sticky ice and boded well for the climbing above. Forrest made short work of the lower gully finding good placements just where it mattered, and then made a bold set of moves through the icy overhang above. Gargoyle Direct re-joins the gully-line at a wide snow bay this point, but the gully splits just above, and I knew the narrow left branch was unclimbed. I remember looking down it from the neighbouring Bell’s Buttress one stormy day with Chris Cartwright and thinking it would make a good climb.

The problem was the left branch was blocked by an impasse of huge chockstones forming a large roof draped in a spectacular frieze of icicles. Rather hopefully I climbed up underneath them and tried to excavate a way through, but the passage was far too narrow. There was nothing for it but to climb up the outside of the hanging icicle frieze. A short five-metre gully on the right gave access to the base of the icicles where a good crack miraculously appeared in the smooth wall that took a cam and a nut. Courage was in short supply, but the runners provided sufficient encouragement to pull onto the frieze, which promptly began to collapse under my feet. Fortunately the axe placements were good, and some wide bridging and a couple of frantic heaves took me up to some good turf and the top of a rather unlikely-looking pitch.

Forrest made a strong lead of the left branch that narrowed to only 30cm wide at one section and soon we were in the amphitheatre with the Gargoyle winking at us from just below the plateau 30m above. Even though it was over 20 years ago, I can still remember leading the pitch up and right under the Gargoyle when Alastair Robertson and I made the first ascent of Quasimodo, and finding it tough. This time was no different, and it proved to be a battle with icy cracks and huge sheets of rime that occasionally detached and tried to pull me off as they fell through the ropes.

We shook hands on top reflecting that Gryphon Grooves (VI,6) had been an excellent climb – sustained, interesting and somewhat unusual. But best of all, it was completely unexpected and the result of an eleventh hour route choice. The few minutes before you start climbing are precious and can be the most important part of the day!

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Moulin Rouge

The 250m-high subsidiary buttress between Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower and Glover’s Chimney in Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis. 1. Pinnacle Buttress Direct (V,5), 2. Moulin Rouge (VI,6), 3. Pinnacle Buttress Right-Hand (IV,4), 4. Glover’s Chimney (III,4). (Photo Simon Richardson)

For me, the beautiful proportions of Pinnacle Buttress of the Tower makes it one of the most alluring features on Ben Nevis. So much so, that I’ve climbed seven routes on its crest and flanks, but in my focus to unravel its secrets I had ignored the subsidiary buttress to its right. This area was first explored by Donald Bennet and R.Tait in November 1957 by a Grade III line that traverses in from Broad Gully a long way left. The buttress was finally climbed in its entirety by Rab Carrington and Brian Hall in March 1976 by a route called Pinnacle Buttress Right-Hand (IV,4). I’m not sure if the route has ever been repeated in its entirety, as the initial start left of the icefall of Glover’s Chimney is extremely steep and rarely forms, although it is possible to avoid this section by coming in from Glover’s itself. The first ascent description is very brief, but it is likely that Rab and Brian finished up the final section of the Western Traverse on the Great Tower.

Robin Clothier and George Armstrong were the first to climb the prominent ice line dividing PBOT and its subsidiary buttress in March 1989. Pinnacle Buttress Direct (V,5) is a very fine climb and sees a number of ascents nowadays, but between the Direct and Right-Hand lie another series of grooves, and these were the focus of Sophie Grace Chappell and I on March 20. The problem is how the gain the grooves as the lower section of the buttress is undercut. As it happens, the lower section of the Pinnacle Buttress Direct icefall divides, and the right-hand branch leads to a hanging terrace cutting across the face. This proved to be the key, and led to excellent and surprisingly independent climbing up the grooves above. After three long pitches we were under the snow slopes leading up to the steep headwall on the western side of the Great Tower.

The beautifully white rimed headwall looked too good to miss, so we started up the initial section of Rotten Chimney, and made the awkward right step of the Western Traverse to gain the hanging corner slicing straight up the centre of the wall. The climbing was steep, but fortunately there was good ice beneath the deep rime. As always there was a trade off however, and protection and belays were difficult to find.

After six long pitches (and a false start walking up to a route in Observatory Gully earlier in the morning), time was getting on. Dusk was falling as we scampered across Tower Gap and headed up the final crest of Tower Ridge to the plateau. In keeping with the nightclub theme on PBOT (Stringfellow and Goodfellas) we called our climb Moulin Rouge. It felt VI,6 on the day, but in less icy conditions it may be a little more friendly. Having said that, any route that tackles the 250m-high west flank of the Great Tower is a meaty undertaking and I suspect that Rab and Brian’s Pinnacle Buttress Right-Hand is a notch intergraded!

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Tempest Corners

Robin Clothier starting up the initial mixed corner of Tempest Corners (VI,6) on Ben Nevis. The route follows the series of grooves to the left of Joyful Chimneys on South Trident Buttress. (Photo Simon Richardson)

The grooves left of Joyful Chimneys on South Trident Buttress on the Ben had fascinated me for years. The problem is that they need ice and by the time this has formed in early March, the morning sun is high in the sky and quickly strips the face. This winter boded well however – it has been a cold snowy season without too much sun – so on March 17 Robin Clothier and I went to have a look.

As anyone who was out climbing last weekend knows only too well, the winds last Saturday were ferocious. When we reached the bottom of the route it was too cold to consult the guidebook so we started up the route from memory. We climbed an ice groove right of a long straight rib, and then continued up a steep set of right-facing corners to reach easier mixed ground above. After two mixed pitches on a ramp overlooking Joyful Chimneys we reached the junction with Pinnacle Arête. The route was four rope lengths to this point and we then moved together up the final 100m of the arête to the plateau.

It was a good climb, worth VI,6 for the second pitch alone, but back in the hut when I checked the guidebooks I realised that we had started up Jimmy Marshall’s original line of Joyful Chimneys and then joined the finishing pitches of The Copenhagen Interpretation higher up. Most folk nowadays miss out the first two pitches of Joyful Chimneys and start from Central Gully (as described in Mike Pescod’s guidebook), so we could have recorded our route as a link between Joyful Chimneys Original Start and The Copenhagen Interpretation finish, but it would have all felt rather unsatisfactory.

New lines on the Ben are precious and need to be treated with respect, so there was no option, but to go back and turn it into a fully independent route. So next morning Robin and I returned to the long straight rib, but this time climbed the mixed groove on its left side from where a hidden traverse led right to the VI,6 corner pitch. Above, instead of following the mixed ramp of The Copenhagen Interpretation, we climbed an inset gully on the left that led through a series of vertical bulges to a broad platform on the upper right side of the second tier of South Trident Buttress. Hanging above was a beautiful right-facing mixed corner, white with hoar frost. This feature looks very steep from the corrie floor, but now we were underneath, it began to look possible. The problem was the wind was still very strong – so strong in fact that the most violent gusts were blowing the rack that was hanging in the belay up the cliff.

But now was our chance, so I headed up into the corner, which soon bulged into a vertical flared offwidth with smooth sidewalls. There was no possibility of any protection but an unlikely cam placement lured me onto the vertical right wall where a series of holds led upwards. It was one of those pitches, that was far easier than it had any right to be, and although completely absorbing it simply flowed. Soon I was belayed at the top of The Clanger and from where a quick traverse onto the upper crest of Pinnacle Arête took us to the plateau and 20 minutes later we were coiling the ropes in the shelter of Number Four Gully.

So all in all, it was a magnificent route and well worth the two-day effort to piece it together. As for a name, Robin suggested Joyless Grooves because of the ordeal with the wind, but Tempest Corners (VI,6) seems a little more appropriate.

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Creag Meagaidh Diary

Iain Small leading the crux roof of the Moth Direct (VIII,8) on Pinnacle Buttress on Creag Meagaidh. Iain together with Dave Macleod and Helen Rennard made the second ascent of The Moth adding a new start and finish in the process. (Photo Dave MacLeod)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks on Creag Meagaidh’s Pinnacle Buttress, which has probably been in it’s best condition since winter 2005:

February 24: Iain Small and Andy Inglis climb Paradise Lost (VII,8), a new route up the centre of the buttress between Ritchie’s and Smith’s gullies. It starts up Martin Moran and Pete Macpherson’s 2010 mixed route Last Day in Paradise (VII,8) and then trends left up an icy slab and a spectacular icicle-bulge through a roof. It rejoins Last Day… on Last Day’s fifth described pitch.

February 24: And for a second route of the day, Iain and Andy make the second ascent of Eye Candy (VII,7). This spectacular series of hanging ramps and corners overlooking the right side of Smith’s Gully we first climbed by Guy Robertson, Es Tresidder and P.Hostnik in March 2005.

March 5: Iain Small, Dave MacLeod and Helen Rennard make the second ascent of The Moth (VII,8) adding a difficult first pitch and a new poorly protected finish to give the Moth Direct (VIII,8). “A long day on a big and serious face.” The Moth is another Guy Robertson creation, first climbed with Es Tressider in March 2005.

March 9: Andy Inglis and Murdoch Jamieson climb the classic Fly Direct (VII,7). “A great route on a dodgy day.” The route was also climbed a few days earlier by French climber Bruno Sourzac. Bruno is no stranger to the cliff as he made the first ascent of the mythical Extasy (VIII,8) with Dave Hesleden during the 2005 International Meet.

March 12: The weekend thaw has stripped the lower part of the cliff and the first pitch of The Fly Direct has collapsed. Making the most of the remaining ice Guy Robertson and Simon Richardson repeat Paradise Lost (VII,8) adding an Independent Finish (VI,7) up the left edge of the buttress overlooking Ritchie’s Gully.

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You Can’t Win ‘Em All

View across Coire Lagan to Sgurr Alasdair on the Cuillin Ridge from the top of the new addition Un Pin (I), which is seen just left of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. (Photo Andy Nisbet)

“Whilst many times guiding the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the 1990s, I often looked down its Coruisg side to where slabby ground dropped away rapidly,” Andy Nisbet writes. “Because the slope was convex, all you could see was what was in your imagination. I always meant to go back and climb up the imagined line but kept getting distracted by icefalls nearby (I only went as far as Skye when conditions were excellent). The closest was two years ago when I went with Sandy Allan to do the line, but we climbed steeper and thicker ice to the right (Inaccessible Icefall, Grade IV,4). But the line itself looked easier, although with a couple of tricky ice steps.

With conditions being good in the west this year, it was raised up my ‘To Do’ list so I drove over to Skye on March 13 and headed up to Bealach na Banachdich. It was probably shorter to approach via Coire Lagan but I went the way I knew, descending from the Bealach and going back up to the start.

There wasn’t much ice left but a huge amount of snow, deep and wet but comfortably taking my weight. The real surprise was that any potential difficulties were banked out leaving a mixture of walking and easy climbing. Which was disappointing but still an unusual line, where the drips from the thaw fell out from me because I was tucked under the overhanging sidewall of An Stac. And quite a drop underneath when I moved out under the Inn Pinn itself.

And a brief but spectacular view from the summit of Sgurr Dearg before the mist closed in and I got lost in the whiteness. I know the ground well but with a clear afternoon forecast, I didn’t take a compass. So I followed footprints down, finding out too late that they came from Coire Lagan and not the usual way up. But no-one was there to confiscate my winter ML. So 25 years of curiosity has been resolved, although not with the excitement I expected. I’ve called it The Un Pin (250m Grade I), although it will rarely be that easy.”

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Western Highlands Most Sought After Route

Robin Clothier leading Tir na Og (V,5) in Knoydart with Doug Hawthorn just visible on the far skyline. Although the route is a classic Scottish icy winter outing it has not been tamed by modern equipment and remains a serious proposition. “The best belay all day was dodgy hex, half a warthog and my axes!” (Photo Richard Bentley)

I received an intriguing email from Richard Bentley on March 5:

“I got the call from Robin at 9pm last night. (He wouldn’t say the route.) Meet at Spean Bridge at 7am. A drive, a boat, a fast stomp in – Uisdean, Doug, Robin and me. Twelve hours later, back at Spean Bridge. Fab ice, icy mixed, big classic route on a big mountain. (You have to guess!) What a team!”

The boat was the giveaway, of course. Richard had made an early repeat of Tir na Og (V,5) on Ladhar Bheinn in the company of Robin Clothier, Uisdean and Doug Hawthorn. The 350m-long Tir na Og was first climbed by Con Higgins and A.Foster in February 1978 and was the first Grade V route in the Western Highlands. Despite being a highly sought after objective you can still count the number of ascents on the fingers of one hand. Twelve hours is a remarkably fast time for the round trip. Most climbers visiting Knoydart do not use a boat and take a full weekend to walk into Barrisdale, climb a route, and walk out again.

Robin summed it up a few days afterwards. “Routes should not be all about standard tick lists. This climb should be on everyone’s CV!”

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Southern Highlands Update

Coire na Saobhaidhe on Beinn Chuirn with the line of Lucky Strike (III) marked. Substantial cornices overhung the previously climbed routes further right. (Photo Martin Holland)

Martin (Wilf) Holland visited Coire na Saobhaidhe on Beinn Chuirn near Tyndrum on March 6. “A brief break in the clouds allowed me to see the crag and there were surprisingly large cornices, which had survived the thaw of two weeks ago,” Wilf told me.

“The cornices were above all the existing routes put up by Andy Nisbet and Dave McGimpsey in 2008. I therefore, climbed a line just left of the main gully, which finished up a barrel-shaped buttress, this provided the crux and was cornice-free. I started from the base of the main gully, which means the 115m route length is longer than the previous routes, but the lower section was easy with just the odd step. The upper buttress was the meat of the route and meant that Lucky Strike probably just creeps in to Grade III.“

A week earlier on February 25, Robin Clothier, Ian Dempster and Stuart McFarlane added a new route to Ben Lomond. “We wanted to avoid the crowds,” Stuart explained. “The venue had to be north facing and hold snow well, since the weather had been sunny and clear. Ben Lomond seemed a good choice, especially since the Met Office forecast morning fog for that area, surely that would hoar the rocks?

The plan worked well with firm snow, it was bitterly cold and mist engulfed the summit. I had always fancied Lomond Corner so set off up that in one long pitch, the other two moving up so I could reach belay.

We then descended to have a look at Rowardennan Rib, which climbs the right side of a square rib. Between that and Endrick Corner lay a turfy line leading up into a recess on the left of rib, before an obvious groove ran parallel with Endrick Corner and through a steepening above. This provided an excellent IV,5 turfy mixed route.

Earlier during the walk to the summit, I listened to Robin and Dr Ian, discussing the problems facing the NHS, so calling our new addition Opinionator seemed rather fitting!”

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Der Riesenwand Direct Finish

Murdoch Jamieson pulling through the crux bulge of the Direct Finish (VII,7) to Der Riesenwand. “It was possibly steeper and more difficult than the picture shows, especially establishing oneself onto the ice,” Nick Bullock commented afterwards. (Photo Nick Bullock)

Murdoch Jamieson and Nick Bullock climbed a direct finish to Der Riesenwand (VII,6) on February 25. Just before the ‘memorable swing around a bulge’ on the upper left-trending ledge, they were attracted to steep ice on the right, so Murdoch made some mixed moves right to gain the hanging ice. “We were not following the natural line, but it was nice, exciting and very airy climbing,” Murdoch explained afterwards. After this pitch there were two more of about Grade III/IV to the top.

There was some discussion as to whether this finish had been climbed before, but the consensus is that it was probably unclimbed.

“I can see how this could have been done in whatever condition or with a bigger icicle and how it would be more straightforward then, but still worth a guidebook mention maybe as the overall grade does increase with this finish,” Nick concluded.

So for those looking for a bit more adventure on an ascent of the Northern Highlands ultra-classic of Der Riesenwand, then the three-pitch Direct Finish (VII,7) could be just the ticket!

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Andy Nisbet on the first ascent of Attaboy (V,6) on Beinn Fhada in Kintail. This excellent- sounding route ‘was rather good, as intimidating but ultimately helpful lines are’. (Photo Dave McGimpsey)

“Beinn Fhada is almost on the west coast behind the Five Sisters of Kintail,” Andy Nisbt writes. “It’s sheltered from most snowy wind directions so is often my choice if there’s too much snow elsewhere. No doubt it rains a lot on a westerly but I hope not to be there. It has two climbing corries, and not surprisingly, the further away one, Coire an Sgairne, doesn’t seem to get many climbing visitors. Except me and friends, of course.

Recent conditions of cold easterlies and lots of snow have attracted me there. The lower section of the corrie doesn’t freeze very often but that isn’t a problem this year. Because it lies on the side of the ridge between the two corries, there isn’t enough drainage for regular ice but the schist holds plenty of turf. Ice is OK, but it’s always a gamble whether unclimbed ice lines are complete, whereas turf is guaranteed if it’s cold enough.

So on February 26, Dave McGimpsey and I headed there to try a new line I’d spotted on my crag shots. It was a prominent deep groove in the highest section of the cliff, and while I was pessimistic about climbing it direct, it looked like you might be able to bypass its steep crux on the left. In great conditions of hard snow, Dave and I soloed up to below the groove. Dave fancied giving it a go but the ice was thin and my pessimistic self could see a crucial section, which might break off and require a very awkward retreat. The left side also seemed steeper and smoother than appeared in the photo, so a line up to the right seemed the only option.

Once out there, a small steep groove above seemed to hold enough turf. The moment I set off, the mood changed to optimism. The turf was good and cracks appeared at regular intervals. Schist is all or nothing in this respect, and this groove had it all. After passing the difficulties, the main groove was easily regained and followed to the top. It was easier than expected at IV,5 and at least provisionally it’s called Zeitgeist, only because it sounds a good name but without having any relevance to the route.

While we were looking in all directions for a way to avoid the steep groove, I couldn’t help noticing a potential line low down on the left, climbable but way too far left for us that day. So when I got home, I looked at my crag shots to see where it went. It led into steep ground but with two parallel grooves and a crest between them. The crest had snow patches so wasn’t just a smooth arête, plus the arêtes here have more features than the grooves.

So Dave and I headed back on March 7 after heavy snow the afternoon before, and again the hope that it had snowed less near the coast. I think this was true but it didn’t seem so when even the approach path was deep, although fortunately there were walkers ahead of us. As we gained the corrie, the snow depth seemed to lessen, probably blown into the valley, but the crag was pure white and the line intimidating. Dave spotted a different groove filled with thick ice and headed up to investigate. Dave likes ice but I hadn’t taken any ice screws and it looked a bit steep. The odd thing is that it really focussed me on giving the other line a go.

So we soloed up the easy start, and then a not so easy break out left until we both agreed not to do any more soloing. I was contemplating a low line out left but Dave had spotted a higher line. He said it looked fine, so a decision was made. We spent a while looking for a belay, finally settling for a peg driven into turf, but it took so much hammering that we decided it must have gone into rock. The fine looking line didn’t look easy fine to me, but a score in the rock 10m up turned out to be a perfect crack which I duly laced up in case there wasn’t much more (there wasn’t). The trouble with small ramps is that you only get your axes or your feet on them, so they aren’t in balance like you’d hoped. After trying the foot option and finding nothing for the axes, I went for the axes option and swung my feet on to steep ground below. But the axe placements seemed good, so a couple of moves left me with a fierce pull back on to the ramp. I hammered in my axe just to make sure it couldn’t come out, ignoring as usual that it might get stuck, and pulled up on to a ledge (it did come out, just). A grovel over a chockstone gained a bigger ledge and easier ground. We were climbing on a skinny 60m rope doubled, so pitches were short.

The potential grooves seemed to end in unpleasant bulges so Dave carried on to the crest. I asked him if it looked OK but he was non-committal, however the speed he climbed suggested that it was. I did shout up that the photo suggested a steep bit higher up but probably on my pitch and he answered that he was at it. A helpful flake-crack didn’t take him very long, but a couple of rocks came down as he warned me that it was loose. It didn’t seem too bad as a second but it doesn’t with a rope above you.

Next pitch was mine, and looked steep. I tried looking left and right but straight up didn’t look any worse and was clearly the purest line. There was a 10ft flake perched on the crest, not looking attached to anything, but I decided that if it stayed there in the summer, then it should be solid enough when frozen. While I was contemplating, Dave actually moved his belay so he wasn’t underneath it, but didn’t tell me till afterwards. With a sling runner on a rounded flake, I reached round and found what appeared to be a good placement. After a ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ moment, I came back down and put in a couple more runners. This time it was a definite should and the steep moves were over quickly (as steep moves need to be). Then it quickly got easier.

We turned the rope into a single and Dave ran out a 60m pitch to the top. The wind was getting up but the top was nearly calm and the views into the other corrie were fantastic. Last time we descended into it as Dave wanted to solo Left-Hand Gully, which I admit looked great but I didn’t have the energy. For once it was in its Grade II nick and he loved it. I used to be graded II/III, but I’d never seen it in Grade II nick so it went into Northern Highlands South as a III. But this time we descended the ridge and back into our corrie to rejoin our approach steps, an easier choice.

The steep ice groove is still unclimbed, but escapable after the groove and again higher up, so I think we chose the better line. Actually it was rather good, as intimidating but ultimately helpful lines are. We called it Attaboy (V,6), as Fhada is pronounced Atta.”

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Easan Feidh Climbed At Last!

The cold weather brought the frozen waterfall of Easan Feidh in the Far North-West into rare climbable condition. Steve Perry and Sophie Grace Chappell battled through a long approach in deep snow and endured spray from the unfrozen central part of the fall to make the coveted first ascent last Monday. (Photo Steve Perry)

Steve Perry and Sophie Grace Chappell showed remarkable vision, determination and persistence when they made the first ascent of Easan Feidh (VI,6) on March 5. This spectacular 90m-high waterfall, which lies on Creag na h-lolaire to the south of Ben Klibreck, had been eyed up by connoisseurs of the area as an excellent winter objective for a number of years.

“Mike Geldard, who used to run The Crask Inn, is a good friend of mine and first showed it me on the map a few years ago, so it’s been on my radar for quite some time,” Steve told me. “Mike has seen it formed various times over the years as his sheep graze in that area and he can get all the way there on his quad (7km from Crask). After seeing lots of low level ice posted on Facebook I called him and he said it will be there because the burn is frozen at The Crask. Now Mike is one of the most reserved people I know, so when his parting words were ‘come up, it’s spectacular!’ we changed our plans.”

Sophie Grace recounts the story of their ascent: “You come over the bealach from Crask on the old stalker’s path. You count Mike and Kai’s sheep for them as you go. (Their herd is 67 animals, we counted 78.) You wish it was colder and it was snowing properly not sleeting and you had ice underfoot not that sloppy white custard that recently-melted ice makes. Yet Mike did say “If the burn at Crask is frozen then it’s in.” And the reason we’re here now is because Mike told Steve on the phone that the burn at Crask is frozen. Local knowledge – it’s better than any forecast…

As you trudge you start looking at the gullies across the glen on your right. Where is it? Where is our Cunning Plan? Heck, I hope it’s not meant to be there, or there, because that looks rubbish and that’s not in at all… you go on a little further down the hill towards Loch a’Choire and round a bit of a corner and… OMG.

There’s a slightly gnarly gulch across the glen, with a good potential sport-climbing-venue crag overhanging it on the left and all sorts of steep tussocky nonsense on the right, and above the gulch it breaks out into a big and spectacular amphitheatre with an overhanging rock-nose on the left, and above the amphitheatre on the right… Oh. My. Sweet. Lord. A double-band waterfall straight up a rock-face, 20m wide at the bottom and 80m high before the angle eases, well frozen to right and left but running down the middle, all chandeliers and pillars and stalactites, yellow and horned and crested, and massive. Simply massive. Massive and, even from a kilometre away, quite obviously really really steep: 80 degrees then 90 degrees then 60 degrees. People have been climbing in Scotland for 150 years, for heaven’s sake. 150 years, and no one’s done this before?

And you think, “So we thought from the gradients shown on the map, which worked out at one in one i.e. 45 degrees, that this might be a bit like Steall only easier. Might be a romp-up grade III playground. Nothing of the kind. This is a stunning, stunning route. But it’s also clearly a bit of a mission. More like Bridalveil than Steall. And with all this thawing going on, is it even sound?”

And you listen to your partner going “My God, that looks amazing. We’ve got to. We’ve simply got to. After that walk-in? When this is hardly ever there? There’s no frigging way we’re just taking the gear for a walk today.”

And you think, “Oh, here we go. Here comes another epic.”

So you cross the glen and scramble up the gulch in the deer-tracks, scattering the hinds out of their sheltered cove, trying to keep your boots out of the six-foot-deep break-throughs into the burn, and you gear up in the amphitheatre at the foot of the route. There’s so much spray it’s like getting dressed in a cold shower. And part of you hopes that a car-sized lump will come down before you start (missing you) and act as an official declaration that the route’s not in. Or that Steve’s test screw will go straight in and straight out again like the ice wall is a giant slush puppy. But no. Under the top inch or so it’s really good ice.

So no excuses left. Up he goes and I’m standing there in the spray, listening to the thud and crunch of chunks of ice falling off the waterfall, watching the ice-spicules piling up like hourglass sand as the water-course hollows out the ice on either side of it, watching the ropes siphoning water off the ice like a running tap, trying not to move so I don’t get that clammy-clothes feeling all down my legs and back, trying to belay him from somewhere slightly less wet than anywhere else (there’s no such place).

The good news is it’s snowing properly now, not sleeting. So it’s getting colder: excellent, though there’s surely no chance it will stop the spray. I watch the little snow-sluffs coming off the heathery slope on the other side of the amphitheatre. I search my memory, wondering if, from the stalker’s path, I saw a big avalanche-apron at the top of our route. Don’t think so. Certainly hope not. Bugger all we can do about it now if there is. (But no, there isn’t.)

He has a long pause after about 8m (afterwards he tells me he was seriously thinking about backing off). But up he goes, up steps and grooves, steep but manageable, to a good ledge on the right after 30m, gets safe, lies down and has a good swear at his hot aches.

And now it’s me. I wring out my gloves (“100% waterproof” it says on them—ho ho ho), clip my tools into my spinner-leash, check my crampons and my harness, tighten my boot-laces, then pretty much race up it because I’m so desperate to get out of the wet and warm myself up again. Whack punch whack punch. I start with my heart in my mouth but in fact the ice is brilliant. 80 degrees is so much easier than 90, you can use your feet so much more, provided you can see them through the mist on your glasses. And at the ledge I get the hot aches too. I wail and swear and howl, and tie myself in, take my gloves off and on, and clap and flex my hands to make the pain worse but briefer, while Steve puts my glasses away for me and flakes the ropes. He’s got two pegs in the rock and I think “Grand, now I know we can ab off if the second pitch is a horror-show.” (Good job we didn’t—when I clean the belay the bottom peg comes out with just six hammer blows, and when I hit the top peg, the rock around it disintegrates into flakes of choss first blow. So the bottom peg is very dubious, and the top peg wouldn’t have held a sneeze.)

Pitch 2. Steve goes left round an ice-pillar. First move he puts a screw in the pillar to back up the belay (just as well: see above) then he’s in a vertical sentry-box in the ice. He gets two parallel screws in and has a think. Then he just goes for it, straight upwards as quick as he can before his feet come off. He tells me afterwards he climbed it pretty much arms-only. He slithers when he gets on it but he controls it. Then I have a very good view of his anti-ball plates for about half an hour: he’s straight above me and moving very carefully indeed. It’s seriously steep, it’s like it overhangs the belay, and he’s got a screw in at the top of the sentry-box (hurray) and he’s chopping away a huge ice-umbrella so he can move up and left. Then he disappears over the brow—to my delight, because it means he’s on less steep ground. Another twenty minutes and he whoops, which is better still. Can’t hear what he’s saying but the tone is jubilant. I whoop back.

Then up I go and oh my goodness it’s steep. Where Steve slithered, I pop off, and swear my head off. I thought I was going to do this clean but the vertical sentry-box is beyond me. My crampons aren’t sharp enough, the ice here is too flaky and cruddy, and I’m trying to do it too fast. Snakes alive, Steve, this is completely nails, how on earth did you get up this? I flail a bit. I stop and give myself a sweary talking to. Calm the F down. Take your effing time. Use your effing feet properly and get them kicked in better underneath the cruddy top layer. Go A-shape. And stop effing over-gripping.

Once I’m above the sentry-box it’s okay. One way or another I get to the belay (which is excellent this time—a nut and a slinged boulder that would hold the Queen Mary). I carry on up the heather to the top and start coiling the ropes.

And now I’m on the plateau, and it’s there. We’ve done it. It’s in the bag. High fives and back over the sleety moor in the dusk for tea and medals with Kai and Mike, where I hog Kai’s scones and the wood-burning stove, and try and get all of their collies on my lap simultaneously, to warm me up.

Overnight in Steve’s spare room near Inverness, there’s a glow and a buzz: that after-route feeling, so hard to beat. It’s hard to sleep, but we both dream of the route. And the next morning I look at Steve’s route photo and I think: Oh my sainted aunt. We climbed that. We—climbed—that. Route of the season!”

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