A Tale of Two Traverses
One of the reasons I like winter climbing is because of the transient nature of the snow and ice. The captivating scenery is like a set that has been created for a play – a magical scene that you know is temporary and yet is utterly spellbinding. Next year your play will have the same title but the set will never look quite the same. And so our play begins….
Act 1 Patience
Winter climbing demands the utmost patience because it is never certain when conditions are going to be conducive to climbing, and even then they may be short-lived and gone before you can set out. The 2011/12 winter season in Wales/Lakes was just such an example and a complete washout. The 2012/13 season started better with heavy snow in early December but this disappeared quickly and it was mid January before new snow arrived. A series of substantial snowfalls and storms brought copious amounts of snow but unsettled conditions through to early February.
Act 2 Fortune
A sudden change for the better occurred in mid February when an easterly front arrived and a very settled spell of weather followed. The SAIS pie charts for Scotland turned steadily from red to amber to green. Amazingly all aspects of slope across all the main Scottish winter venues became avalanche-free, and the majority of higher level routes were in great nick. By pure chance Barry and I had pencilled in a long weekend to Scotland at the end of February just as the temperature dropped and the clouds lifted. Fortune smiled again when a UKC member offered up 2 spaces in the CIC hut after two of his party dropped out. Being able to stay at the foot of Ben Nevis’ North Face, with just one hour’s walk-in to the climbs rather than the normal three hour slog, was too good an opportunity to miss. By Wed evening we were hoofing it up the Allt a Mhuilinn path in the dark heavily laden with kit and food.
Act 3 Elation
Thursday morning dawned clear and illuminated the immense bowl of Coire na Ciste with its multitudinous crags, buttresses and gullies all coated in white. It took a 45 minute slog up the corrie to reach the uber-classic Green Gully IV/3 on Comb Buttress. A medium length ice wall led to two long pitches of snow/ice gully climbing, then a crux III-IV icefall blob, ending with a long snowfield and an exciting finish up a chimney/ramp to an airy arête. Topping out at 1pm we were rewarded with superb views over Lochaber and out as far as the Isle of Skye. Billowing pink-grey clouds rolled over Aonach Mor and in the far distance a hazy inversion effect hovered over the seaward peaks. It was too fine a day to head back to the hut straight away and route number two beckoned. To get back down onto the coire you have to delicately negotiate the cornice at the top of No 4 gully. Luckily enough traffic had passed through that a sloping trench had been cut into the top and after this a short steep downclimb for ten feet sees you into easier ground in the main gully bed. Down 500ft and back up 300ft took us to the foot of Comb Gully IV/4 with nobody else around. This route follows a narrow twisting gully with two brilliant full-length ice pitches followed by the inevitable snowfield/cornice finish. Thankfully the infamous “cave pitch” was fully banked out relieving us of the need to thrutch! 300m of climbing, not a bad start on Day 1. Cramp and no sleep in a stuffy hut as the days penance.
Act 4 Intimidation
Barry had spotted Harrisons Climb Direct on Carn Dearg in the guide book, “Superb route and best climbing of its grade on the mountain”. Sold! Friday morning was clear, and brought another lucky break. A pair from the joint Anglo-French Alpine Club meet was discussing Harrisons but the Frenchie was put off by the length, remoteness and grade. Let’s get off before they change their minds. A 45 minutes rising traverse from the hut and we just got to the start first, five minutes before the next pair who were shortly followed by a party of three (Jackpot!). The first pitch is a sustained steep 35m grade IV groove plastered with ice and lending an occasional toe-tip bridge point on the left wall. At the top I moved a further 15m up the gully on what looked like steep snow but in fact turned out to be a hard glassy veneer of ice. I took a cold belay hemmed in by the sheer left wall of the gully and chilled by the refrigerator effect of the ice [you need to ask DIccon which bits were the coldest but just imagine him sitting au cheval on the top of a bergschrund, Barry].
Barry led through to an apparent blunt dead end in the gully and went out of sight to the left to find a difficult narrow chimney. The ice here was a bit crumbly in places and with relief he gained the snow funnel above which led to a belay by a snowy col. At this point the route seemed to carry straight on but the leader of the second pair politely pointed out this was only sensible if I really was intending to finish up Boomers Requiem, V5. A fair point, well made, and I turned round. Facing me was an improbable looking traverse, quite steeply banked with snow, leading leftwards high up above the vertical rock face of the gully below. It disappeared out of sight and all the guidebook hinted was…..”leading to an icefall” – Oh Brother! Zoinks !!, to quote a well known hero, (so what utterances do you use when things get hairy-scary?). Feeling a tad weary from the day before, I was nearly intimidated into submission. But there was nothing for it and I set off delicately, mindful of the potential pendulum into the gully should I fall and the need to try and protect Barry as he seconded. After 20m I could see round the corner …..Double zoinks!! The icefall came into view and it transpired it was the top 15m of a route called the Shroud (V1,6) which rarely forms as a vertical free hanging icefall looming over the gully below. The top is probably IV-V and with the 50m rope running out I had to take a hanging ice screw stance right in the middle of it, where a ramp led off right to safety. Looking back the scene felt alpine, the lip of the cascade dropping away and beyond a series of steep ridges coursing the face of Carn Dearg. Barry was out of sight and must have been mildly surprised at my stance when he did arrive but he didn’t show it (eyebrows probably frozen) [amazed by the huge icefall as much as surprised to see Diccon seemingly attached to it, Barry] and led through, up the ramp and up an awkward 5m corner (why do they put them just where you don’t want them) to easier mixed ground. A further two pitches of easy grade II mixed ground brought us to the end of the route and a very large snow basin below the summit of Carn Dearg. From here you could go right for about four pitches of grade III-IV mixed ground, or, as we did given the time, you can hook left and move together for 2-300m of grade II snow to gain Ledge Route and so the top. A cracking day and a top quality route but No 4 gully beckoned and 1.5 hrs descent to the hut followed by a 2hr dash (ok shuffle!!) back downhill to the lower North Face car park. It was a somewhat exhausted pair that only just made last food orders in the Ben Nevis Inn that night.
Act 5 Exhaustion
Saturday. Legs not working so full rest day!
Act 6 Proprioception
Sunday. Legs better but still somewhat lethargic from two hard days and a lack of sleep, we pondered our choices. Figuring The Ben and Glencoe would be mobbed at a weekend we elected for the short (4 mile) walk-in to Creag Megaidh and its 3-400m routes; a grand finale to our play. Once again the pre-dawn start, the fumbling around in a dark car park trying to get kitted up and wondering where the hell all these other parties have come from at this ungodly time in the morning and trying to guess which route they’re heading for. Then a bit of unsprinting: the stumbling lurching gait caused by knackered muscles and a desire to be first to the bottom of the crag. Giving up on the unsprinting, letting a couple of overly-fit parties past and resigning ourselves to whatever comes or is left? Becoming refreshed and energised by the dawn lighting up the lovely woodland of the nature reserve and urged on by the early birdcall. After 2 miles we turned a corner in this long, long glen and the 3km long 500m high cliff of Creag Meagaidh come into view for the first time. It’s some sight and the classic massive “Post Face” with its black rock divided evenly by the “Posts”, the 400m high wide gullies like stripes on a marble cake….made for tasting!! The walking proved easier than expected and the path is a well made gravely track that ascends and contours gradually. So we reached the gearing-up point by the lochan to find the other groups heading elsewhere and Centre Post III/3 unreserved (just when we thought Luck had gone, she comes to our aid once more).
250m of steep unrelenting neve later and we had reached the top of the snowfield (it felt like you were climbing up a gigantic Winter Olympic ski-jump slope). Here the gully narrowed slightly and was blocked by a huge 60m vertical-looking grade V ice tower: the “Direct” pitch. The guidebook calmly states “turn this on the right by a steep and airy traverse across the right wall to a snowfield”. What it fails to mention that immediately below the traverse is a 40m grade VI icewall dripping with large icicles and ice fangs, and 300m below that is the ice-cold lochan with a sign saying “No bombing/no jumping”. “Ok over to you Barry, your lead”, says I calmly! A drop down from the belay on the left wall across the head of the gully and you reach the foot of the ice tower and your only protection for the next 30m (two ice screws in what looks like two ice “eyes” chiselled out by some former group). Then it’s up 10m and across 20m following the steps kicked out by the previous leader. Step and reach right, match, step and reach right, match, and so on, slowly, deliberately, calmly, zoinks! Barry using every one of his 345 proprioceptors to their limit. In the end it wasn’t as bad as it looked but it was a tremendously committing situation, (thank goodness someone else had led it before us) [committing is one word – I would say very, very scary, Barry]. Mind you Barry running out of rope 5m from the belay probably tested his nerves a little and I had to lengthen my anchors right out with long slings to give him just enough to get there. Somehow I managed to miss the traverse left back into the easier top of Centre Post Gully and took us up the direct variant top pitch cheerfully titled “Skidrowe Finish”; a narrow winding gully line leading out on to a very steep snowfield, “sadly” minus cornice but intriguingly with two inches of hard polystyrene-crust snow that gave a really satisfying “thonk”as you kicked into it and made ladder-like rungs for you to step into. An ice axe belay on top to bring up Barry, a well deserved lunch lying down and a joint decision to give ourselves another day off tomorrow. Oh and of course what better than the traditional Proctor moonlit walk-out to round off an exciting day.
Phenomenal luck, and a superb trip; 4 routes in three days of climbing, an estimated 1500m pitches and moving together, 5000m of ascent/descent, 16 miles of walk-in/out. No wonder it’s taken two weeks to recover [I’m still recovering along with all 345 of my Proprioceptors, Barry].
Morale of the tale
a) Traverse out in time and you’ll feel fine.
b) One good traverse deserves another.
Authors note to self:
Next time, 60m ropes, sharper tools, more sleep.