So here I was yesterday, starting up this Grade V ice pitch, close to fulfilling a cherished dream and possibly somewhere well along the scale from quite excited to ******* terrified… but just how did I come to find myself at the sharp end on The Wand (V,5) on Creag Meagaidh?
Well, it’s got to be largely serendipity in this case because I wasn’t even thinking about trying to arrange a climb when I dropped into The Ice Factor (as I often do) on my way home from an evening run last week. But Dan had been up Organ Pipe Wall on Ben Udlaidh that day, I asked the grade, got told V,5 and mentioned that I’d never done a V yet but intended to get my first soon. At which point Jamie B chirped in with ‘no prizes for guessing which one’, I replied that, sure, I’d been talking about a couple on the Ben (Point Five and Indicator Wall) but was now also considering the likes of South Post Direct and The Pumpkin on Creag Meagaidh… and Jamie came straight out with ‘do you want to do one of them this Sunday?’
So that was that, and we were off first thing Sunday, but even our 5:00am departure from Kinlochleven and 6:30am walk-in wasn’t enough to beat the queue for The Pumpkin, so what next? Having already gained the Inner Corrie, South Post Direct was no longer so convenient, and Diadem’s been downgraded to IV in the 2008 Scottish Winter Climbs, so The Wand was the obvious choice and we soloed up the start of The Sash to get to it in company with a Diadem-bound, fellow Pumpkin-thwarted pair who’d already done it the previous day.
Now, The Wand starts with an impressive icefall described as varying in height between 45m and 60m, and certainly at the upper end of that yesterday (although sporting altogether more modest umbrellas than the spectacular crop shown in the Scottish Winter Climbs cover photo of Blair Fyffe on the route). So we split this in two, Jamie led off and I arrived to join him at the cave belay with an attack of full-blown hot aches of the briefly dizzy/queasy kind. At which point I had the option of leading through or getting him to rearrange the belay for me, chose the former in the belief that the ground above didn’t look quite as steep as what we’d just come up, but very quickly discovered that it was! So I had one early wobbly moment when I thought I was letting go of both axes and about to come off, but a combination of Jamie’s repeated reminders to shake out (it works!) and my survival instinct (simply can’t fall here…) saw me back in control and I think I led the remainder of the pitch in reasonable style. Except that I arrived at the belay believing myself to be out of screws and spent ages digging for non-existent rock gear before placing a peg, threading an icicle and finally discovering two more screws on an inaccessible clipper (things that have been almost nothing but trouble to me!) way round towards my back. After which there remained another, somewhat easier ice pitch (which Jamie led) and a straightforward snow pitch (mine) to the plateau, followed by a tortuous descent to the Window in the mother of all whiteouts.
So that was that and I’m still half-dazed by the realisation that I’ve not just been on Grade V ice for the first time but led it as well. Which doesn’t mean that I’m about to start indiscriminately launching myself at every V in the book, but does give me the confidence to believe I can do it again, retain my composure in the knowledge that I survived the first, and add some extra ‘headroom’ for those IIIs and IVs. As for those ice clippers, I’m afraid that, with some mysterious loss-through-spontaneous-unclipping incidents and difficulty arranging them in positions I find both accessible (which they have to be) and secure, they just haven’t worked out for me so far. But that’s alright because the Petzl Ice Flutes I’d already ordered (and should be able to arrange quite nicely on my double bandolier) arrived today and can get a whirl next time out. If I tell you that I’m also suddenly finding myself close to ordering a new pair of axes when I swore to stick by my modified Flys for a while longer, it’s Jamie who’s been tempting me there… but I’m thinking I’ll have to let him off if I do take the plunge for this milestone climb that I didn’t expect to get quite when I did! :-)