Petestack Blog

6 April 2013

Red Gully, Sgor na h-Ulaidh

Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 6:20 pm

While everyone else seems to be on their umpteenth routes of an ‘endless’ Scottish winter season, my ascent yesterday of Red Gully (III) on Sgor na h-Ulaidh with Jamie B and Jay was quite incredibly my first of the year! And it’s a very good route (classic, even) that would surely see more traffic if transported from Glen Coe’s most retiring Munro (with three-hour walk-in) to one of the more visible/accessible crags.

Have to start, however, by telling you about the ‘unpacked’ packed jacket I was so sure I’d forgotten that we wasted 25 minutes heading home for it without even stopping to check my rucksack before discovering that I had it all the time (so doubt I’ll ever hear the last of that)!

Anyway, Red Gully proved to be a neglected gem, taking a well-defined and aesthetic line for 200m+ to finish within metres of the top (‘a true summit couloir’, as Jamie put it) and providing three decent ice pitches (of which Jamie led the first two and I led the third) before a top half (which would be close to two ropelengths if you belayed where the ice ends) on steep snow. It was a good stiff III, with the ice pitches harder than they looked, the easier top section still relatively serious through lack of gear, and belays in general requiring imagination to arrange (eg mine was an equalised cam — in an isolated mini ‘island’ — and buried axe, which even Jamie, with his nose for gear, agreed was as good as I was going to get).

As for that unpacked/packed jacket, I’d been told that I had to wear it once we’d picked it up, but happily regarded myself as released from that obligation by knowing we’d made a totally unnecessary diversion to get it, so didn’t!

2013-04-05redgully1 2013-04-05jay1

2013-04-05jamie 2013-04-05redgully2


2013-04-05topout 2013-04-05redgully3

(Thanks to Jay for the photos of me.)

11 August 2012


Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 12:45 pm

Went mountain cragging in the sun with Jamie Bankhead yesterday, when we took the ferry over to Ardgour to do Excalibur (HVS) on the South Wall of Garbh Bheinn. And what a stunning route this is, with a steep first pitch (the technical crux, led by Jamie) leading to a gobsmackingly bold rising traverse (led by me) above a big roof to gain the sanctuary of a lovely little corner and easier (but still worthwhile) final pitch to top out close to the summit cairn. So this traverse is technically quite straightforward at barely 4c and you’d just walk across it if it grew out of a grassy terrace, but the protection’s absolutely rubbish (spent far too long looking for ‘small wires’ that were barely there!) and the thought of a slip leading to a big, gear-ripping (or no-gear) fall above all that space is more than enough to concentrate the mind! (You can see a different approach in the final photo with the leader of that pair taking a higher belay further right to leave a rope above the second.)

23 July 2012

Eastern approaches

Filed under: Climbing,Music,Running — admin @ 3:02 pm

Nice trip east (within Scotland!) this past weekend with music, climbing, running and catching up with old friends all combining to produce a hugely enjoyable whole…

Started with a visit to Ian Kinnear in Edzell on Friday afternoon to get a new chanter reed and general check-over for a set of smallpipes he made, then on to Kirriemuir to see Campbell, Jillian, Brendan and Lauren. Climbed three modest bolt routes (Becalmed F4+, Sombre Reptiles F5+ and On the Up F5+) at Kirrie Hill with Campbell on Friday evening, then up Glen Clova to the Red Craigs (see bottom right corner of map) for a couple of routes on Saturday. So we did the super-classic VS Proud Corner (surely one of Scotland’s finest outcrop pitches at the grade), which I’d done once before three years ago with Simon Davidson, then the Hard Severe Monster’s Crack, which starts well before degenerating into a scrambly garden and improving again through a steep variation finish with surprisingly awkward top-out. Then, having said my goodbyes yesterday morning, I set off for a meaty hill run from the Glen Doll car park, achieving most of my ‘Plan A’ by taking in all tops of Broad Cairn, Cairn Bannoch, Tolmount and Tom Buidhe but canning a possible northern extension to Carn an t-Sagairt Mor with cloudy and viciously windy conditions combining to slow me down and reduce its allure. And there’s the essential paradox of hill running in such conditions, with the freedom of keeping your head up and moving quickly (both warmer and more fun) at conflict with the necessity of stopping for conscientious navigation work (colder and frustratingly ‘stop-start’) and leading to mistakes like my bizarre overshoot of Crow Craigies (don’t know what I was thinking there except that what I could see of it didn’t look significant enough to be classed as anything!). But, once free of the clouds and fiddly navigation, I made good time down Jock’s Road to complete the loop, coincidentally (and strangely satisfyingly) logging 20.93 miles to go with Tuesday’s 20.92! Also no doubt that (despite the cloud and wind) I had the best of the day when it started raining on my way home, got wetter and wetter on the drive west and is still absolutely bucketing today!

17 January 2012

No picnic, but not indigestible

Filed under: Climbing,Walking — admin @ 6:34 pm

While the tale related here still lacks a clear end (or at least the one it was ‘supposed’ to have), it most definitely began some thirty years ago with my first reading (as a mountain-mad teenager) of No Picnic on Mount Kenya, Felice Benuzzi’s thrilling tale of his audacious wartime attempt on that great peak:

I emerged at last, stumbled a few steps in the mud and then I saw it: an ethereal mountain emerging from a tossing sea of clouds framed between two dark barracks — a massive blue-black tooth of sheer rock inlaid with azure glaciers, austere yet floating fairy-like on the near horizon. It was the first 17,000-foot peak I had ever seen.

I stood gazing until the vision disappeared among the shifting cloud banks.

For hours afterwards I remained spell-bound.

I had definitely fallen in love.

So I too was hooked, and that, despite my more distant view (informed only by words and pictures!), was the start of my own Mount Kenya affair, with the dream slow to take more tangible shape till Angus upped the ante by sending me a guidebook and I subsequently emailed him to say:

Let’s do it! Rainier + a.n.other(s) in 2006 and Mount Kenya in 2008?

Now, for one reason or another (mostly training for three West Highland Way Races in 2007, 10 and 11 as well as my Winter ML assessment in 2011), that timescale for Kenya slipped a bit, but it remained firmly on the agenda (no way did I want to be looking back in old age saying ‘we should have done that’!) and we finally booked a package with EWP (run by a friend of a friend) for Christmas 2011 to take us from Nairobi to the mountain and provide us with porter/cook support while leaving us free to do our own climbing. And then, after much careful planning and rationalisation of gear (helped by convivial discussions with Mike Pescod and Chris Vind, who’ve both been there several times), we were actually on our way.

Arriving at Nairobi on Christmas Eve, we were met by Kingston and Dickson (‘Mike Pescod is my friend so you are my friend’!) before driving on roads good, bad and unfinished (all typically shared with overladen pushbike, motorbike and donkey cart) to Chogoria in the ubiquitous Toyota Hiace (surely Kenya’s most common vehicle!) to pick up Alfred (our cook and de facto guide), Douglas, Festus, Ken, Kenneth, Jack and Jackson, who’d all be working as our porters. And then we set off for the Chogoria Bandas (huts) with eleven of us (a new driver taking Dickson’s place) bouncing up a severely eroded, rutted and apparently interminable track in an old Landrover before Angus and I finally got dropped off with two of the crew to enjoy a walk up the last bit! Have to say I was surprised by dinner, with one crucial piece of information (‘SPECIAL NOTES – NO SEAFOOD OR FISH FOR PETER’) apparently not getting through from EWP, but a pretty comfortable night (buffalo banging against the huts!) at nearly 3,000m was followed by our first distant sighting of the twin peaks of Batian (5,199m) and Nelion (5,188m), with a bonus elephant to boot.

Now, Mount Kenya’s notorious for its significant incidence of AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness, with excessive haste fuelled by underestimation (when it’s neither particularly high nor difficult in global terms) probably the principal cause, so our walk-in was carefully planned to give us the best chance by proceeding ‘pole-pole’ (essential Swahili for visitors!) up and down over five days, with camps at Nithi (3,300m), Lake Michaelson (c.3,950m), Simba Tarn (c.4,600m) and the Austrian Hut (4,790m). But I was plagued even so by blocked noses and headaches resulting from those long, stuffy, twelve-hour nights lying in the tent (the temperature dropping quickly enough to drive us in at dusk most evenings) and we saw ample evidence of misjudgement and/or bad luck on meeting others retreating from tighter schedules with hacking coughs.

Trying to convey the wonders of that walk-in through a handful of two-dimensional words and photos is quite frankly impossible, but who could forget that Christmas trip to the Nithi caves and waterfall, the spectacular setting of Lake Michaelson nestling in the floor of its stupendous gorge (try to imagine yourself looking back from high up the ‘gorges’ photo in real-life 3D!), or scenery and vegetation that swung between the surprisingly familiar (look down here and you could be in Scotland) and the totally new (look over there and you most certainly couldn’t!)? Not to mention both ‘Scottish’ weather (mist, rain and then snow at Simba Tarn, with few sights of our peaks for the first few days) and ‘Kenyan’ (blue sky and sunshine of course!), with ‘cultural’ discussions where (prompted by questions about what we made of it all and how things compared to home) I maybe took on the impossible in attempting to express my mixed feelings of excitement at being there, guilt at being the ‘rich white man’ abroad (numerous pushy selling/trading/begging episodes at roadside stops having already left me feeling very ‘white’!) and hope that our presence was nevertheless bringing our companions profitable employment.

So here we were at the Austrian Hut on this very windy Wednesday, with Point Lenana (Mount Kenya’s third peak at 4,985m, and magnet for excited trekkers) bagged in the morning (no, I never touched the steel cable and five or six steps now fixed to the rocks!), two of our porters on their way home with the load lightening every day, a solitary guide/client pair successfully negotiating the Normal Route on Nelion (which we hoped to complete as Shipton and Tilman did by crossing the Gate of the Mists to Batian) and another party making much slower progress before finally retreating after apparently losing time off-route. While our schedule did allow for a practice climb up Point John (or similar) or further acclimatisation day, we’d pretty well agreed to go straight for the big one if conditions (both health and weather) permitted, and that’s what we did… but with the unplanned twist of our late decision to dump the sleeping bags, stove and cookable food (effectively ruling out a planned bivy by taking just bivy bags and duvet jackets). Leaving camp at 5:00am Thursday (my nose gushing blood as I tried to blow it clear!) to cross the Lewis Glacier and tackle the awkward initial scree slopes by dark, we then had to wait (not that long) for the two guided ropes of three led by Felix and Duncan ahead of us to get started, finally hitting the rock as it caught the rising sun at about 6:30am. So we were right with them for the first two (Grade 1) pitches, and here I was thinking they’d be slower (as threes) up the more technical stuff and we’d be able to follow them the whole way, but of course I was underestimating the guides’ slickness on a route they both knew and we were soon back alone completing the trickier traverse (with awkward, airy move to reach the base of Mackinder’s Chimney) to the rib (Grade III or IV, depending on guide) right of the Rabbit Hole. And here I messed up by straying right of the ‘easy rocks’ at the top, landing myself in a properly scary (‘trouser-filling’) position as I pigheadedly pulled over a steep bulge capped by a loose block before more sensibly instructing Angus to remove my runner (some distance below) and step back left. With this (mainly self-induced) ‘mauvais pas’ vanquished, it was easy climbing (few runners needed) for several pitches up One O’Clock Gully (II) and the slabs (I) to the crossing of the ridge at Baillie’s Bivy, but time was somehow disappearing at an alarming rate and (see the building problems here?) we were neglecting to eat or drink as we pushed to keep moving at the necessary speed…

Having said something earlier about ‘much careful planning’ (possibly already wasted after dumping the bivy gear and bumbling on up!), perhaps I might add that I’d bought all three printed climbing guides and made up a laminated sheet with their Normal Route descriptions and diagrams. But here perhaps too much information proved counterproductive with the mist closing in and the descriptions simply confusing things by disagreeing just when we needed their help most. So we had Cameron Burns telling us to ‘descend about 25 meters onto rock ledges above the Upper Darwin Glacier’ where Iain Allan said ‘turn the Gendarme on the left by first descending 7 to 10 m and then up a large gully’ and the EWP map/guide ‘descend 3m, then up on easy ground (sometimes icy) to the base of a wall.’ Which meant yet more time lost in poor visibility while I tried this way and that, only deducing later that Burns must be describing the original way by Shipton’s and Rickety Cracks (with the ’25 meters’ still only making sense as a descending traverse?) and not De Graaf’s Variation, which is given by the others as the Grade IV crux and may be the ‘easiest, most direct route’, but remains quite a tough cookie at that (think Severe pitch feeling more like VS at over 5,000m). From which you might guess that we did eventually locate it (my assessment of some meaty moves on smallish holds with good rest points and gear being in stark contrast to that of a cold, tired Angus, who had a desperate struggle to follow), but that really was the beginning of the end with ambition, realism, hope, common sense and goodness knows what else all battling in mental (mortal?) conflict and another easy pitch up the ridge above taking us to what we conceded to be our high point of just over 5,100m…

So it was mid-afternoon, we’d done the crux and, with ‘just’ a couple of short Grade III sections (the first an ‘unobvious traverse’) and some Grade I ground between us and the summit of Nelion, I’ve little doubt that we’d have got there (and probably even over to Batian) by nightfall. But we were cold, tired, hungry, thirsty (nay, I was raw from drinking nothing while puffing away at altitude!) and, with no sleeping bags or stove, needing to get down. While it was still sorely tempting to press on, we’d be committing to (at best) the bivy from hell followed by a tricky descent in even (probably much!) colder, tireder, hungrier, thirstier shape and (at worst)… well, who knows? We’d just spotted the two (successful) guided ropes abseiling back towards us, were aware that a couple of the bolted abseil points might be tricky to find, could see the logic in following a group who knew them all, and that was that. It was a no-brainer (simultaneous, ‘telepathic’ agreement) and we were going down!

Now, we might have been slower than the guided parties climbing up, but they had six to get down (one of them injured after somehow swinging into the rock) where we were just two, and much waiting (as well as considering how we could help) ensued before we thankfully accepted Duncan’s invitation to share ropes and speed things up for all eight of us. So Felix took our ropes and theirs to fix multiple abseils for everyone, with Duncan and us bringing up the rear to strip the abs as we followed the others down (strangely our second ‘joint’ big mountain descent after previously sharing ropes with an RMI party on Mount Rainier). The sun was back out (quite a tease despite our very sound decision!) but the abs were purgatory (it’s a long way down but we must have gained all that height on the climb!), with some being overhanging and even conspicuously free (Duncan admitting to hating that one) and me now tired enough to be needing mid-rope rests (you might not equate sliding down a rope with effort, but everything’s so bloody tiring at altitude!). With it getting dark as we came off the face, we still faced a ghastly descent down that blocky scree to the Lewis Glacier, one of the weariest trudges of my life back up to our camp at the hut and a night so cold that I still shiver at the thought of the bivy we’d escaped, but we’d given it everything and, despite some natural disappointment when the day had started so full of hope and expectation, been respectably (truly!) high on the mountain. For sure we’d made mistakes (probably starting with ditching the bivy gear in the hope of climbing quicker) and been too slow (for which we could blame everything from misty route-finding dilemmas and confusingly contradictory guides through time-consuming over-engineering of belays to simple inexperience of covering that kind of ground at altitude with the speed required for success), but lessons were learned, I’d get to the same place in half the time now and it doesn’t have to (isn’t going to!) be the once-in-a-lifetime shot I’d first imagined.

As for our next moves when we could maybe have given it another go, we’d tried to make a ‘flexible’ arrangement (pending outcome of the climb) for a few days’ safari but, with no easy way of rearranging that from the mountain, felt effectively committed by our booking and might even admit to craving the change as the mounting days at altitude took their toll. So, despite mixed emotions on abandoning our coveted peaks to others (with both Nelion and Batian climbed during the clear days of our descent), we’d had enough, needed to get down for some air and were happy just to complete the circular tour by way of easy days to Mackinder’s and Shipton’s Camps at c.4,200m before leaving via the Sirimon Route. And here at least (or last?) we were rewarded with the most spectacular views, with the descent to Mackinder’s disclosing a staggering series of new angles on those now familiar peaks and spires before settling down to the ‘classic’ view of Batian and Nelion split by the Diamond Couloir and Glacier, Shipton’s (where I set my personal altitude record for appalling piccolo playing!) notable for both the attractive prospect of Terere and Sendeyo (something of a cross between Stac Pollaidh and Suilven?) and sterner north side of Batian, and the Sirimon walk-out on New Year’s Day the stunning vision (eagerly anticipated from Chris Vind’s slides) of Batian as the great icy fang you might imagine from Felice Benuzzi’s description. So I’ve uploaded a fair sequence of photos to show some of these striking scenes, but had better also explain the ‘seaweed’ one as being named for the lichenous rock so prevalent on the climb over the Hausberg Col to Shipton’s Camp and conjuring up the strange vision of some cosmic low tide on a 4,500m seashore!

And so to the safari I’d formerly only been able to see following a successful ascent, with a further night’s camp at Old Moses (3,300m) taking us to the Sirimon Gate and another rendezvous with Dickson and his Hiace leading (via a night at Naru Moru River Lodge, where we found attractive grounds but no hot water!) to many never-ending drives on disintegrating roads in another Hiace (what else?) with Francis and Alfred, who stayed with us as cook for the whole trip. Had we guessed that ‘camping’ safari meant a night (at Lake Nakuru) in what I’d call a holiday cottage followed by two (in the Maasai Mara) in a canvas bungalow with real beds, tables and chairs, plumbed loo, basin and shower when we’d expected a simple tent like the well-used Gelert we’d just spent eight nights in, perhaps we’d have skipped the Lodge, but you live and learn! To sum up our safari sightings, we scored a clean sweep of the ‘big five’ (buffalo, rhino, lion, elephant and that elusive leopard up a tree), with huge supporting cast of (in no particular order) baboons, monkeys, hyraxes, zebras, giraffes, hippos, warthogs, hyenas and ostriches, so many types of antelopes (including my naturally favourite impala) and birds (yes, I know the ostrich is a bird!), solitary crocodile, cheetah, jackal and something-or-other-cat that Francis excitedly pronounced very rare, and probably loads more I’m simply forgetting right now. But the grisly highlight has to be the pride of lions stalking the herd of topi, giving chase (we thought the lioness had gone too soon but she knew best!), bringing one down and noisily devouring it… a genuinely exciting sight when it’s ‘live’ (as in happening before your eyes) and the outcome unknown! So the safari was good (with Francis an impressively knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide), I’m glad we did it and happy to have brought the memories home, but must also say I’ll not be rushing to repeat the hundreds of boneshaking, dusty miles involved in getting there and back (so surely a prime national asset like the Maasai Mara deserves better than that hellish ‘road’?) and couldn’t stand many more mosquito bites (something that never troubled us during our ten days on the mountain but proved to be something of a holiday ‘sting in the tail’).

While we’d been eagerly anticipating our final-evening meal at Nairobi’s famous Carnivore restaurant, I’d ultimately have to class this ‘good’ rather than ‘great’, with Kenya’s 2004 ban on the sale of the game meat that used to be its raison d’être being largely to blame and the lack of anything more exotic than crocodile or ostrich (where the Burns guide had specified ‘zebra, crocodile, waterbuck, hartebeest, giraffe, and various gazelles’) being disappointing despite the attractive ambience and excellent cooking of more domestic fare. But perhaps my real gripe here is with Burns’s book when he should have got that right for the 2006 edition and we’d already found it (despite its usefully wider scope) to be consistently outclassed by the Allan guide on the mountain, with the latter’s ‘definitive’ coverage of routes and variations (note the scarily different assessment of the South Face Route!), better geological information (so where’s the nepheline-syenite in Burns?) and fascinating section on place names just some of the reasons we preferred it up there. To which I might add that I’d still suggest getting both (along with the EWP map/guide) for their different content, but cross-checking carefully where we learned the hard way from the ‘De Graaf affair’, and maybe (just maybe!) treating the East African/UK grade comparisons with a pinch of salt where our route surely warrants a good Severe at IV- instead of the V Diff/Mild Severe they give for IV!

So that’s our Kenya trip in a prosaic nutshell, and I’ve been wrestling for days with the words and photos (choosing the ‘right’ ones from 802 proving almost as tortuous as the writing!) to commit even this shadow to type. But so much of interest and importance remains unsaid, with what I’d envisaged as a glorious conclusion to my dream now looking more like just the first ‘act’ and strong connections to the place and people joining the mountain as reasons to return. No doubt that Batian’s still the big draw (still my ‘magic’, no.1, most wanted world peak!) and I must unlock the Gate of the Mists before this affair can ever be considered over, but there’s so much to explore with Mount Kenya no more a single peak than the North Face of Ben Nevis just a wall, and I’ll be hoping to see some familiar faces when I do. So perhaps I’ll be booking Dickson to do some climbing (when he’s happy to share the lead and I could get excited about heading up there with someone who knows the mountain like he does!) or perhaps I’ll be returning with Angus (hmmm, when?) and/or others, but whatever happens I simply must save the last word just now for Alfred, who worked tirelessly for us the whole fortnight as cook (such good food!), guide and friend, and wish the Mugendi family great joy with the baby daughter born on our final day in Kenya.

Asante sana, Alfred, and here’s to the next time! :-)

19 November 2011

Trangos on the Buachaille

Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 8:11 pm

Some rain this week to dampen our recent spell of fine late autumn weather (aka ‘summer’) but, with today looking OK and my new La Sportiva Trangos (the blue ones, just bought for Mount Kenya) needing a test beyond some evenings as expensive carpet slippers, I took them for a wander up North Buttress on the Buachaille Etive Mor. And how good they are… being light, comfortable and precise, walking, scrambling and climbing well, and just generally inspiring confidence in everything they do. Also thanks to Dean Carpenter at Ellis Brigham, Fort William, for the time spent on Wednesday playing with fit and trying tweaks for my mutant right foot, none of which I needed today (was carrying that tweaked insole just in case!) but am glad to have in reserve for the longer periods of wear where they might yet prove significant. :-)

10 August 2011

Ready for the Storm!

Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 11:44 am

While there are many great rock climbs at Polldubh, Storm (HVS 4b,4c,5a) is the undisputed classic in taking a compellingly natural and sensationally exposed line in three pitches of increasing difficulty up the biggest and best wall on the crags. And I’d done it just once before (22 July 1990), with my 21-year-old memory of gibbering up it on second remaining a demon requiring exorcism through leading now I’m back climbing again and promising to expand my leading horizons beyond measure if I ever plucked up the courage to get on it. So I hummed and hawed about it for a couple of years, but still couldn’t quite see it happening with that half-imaginary great shadow to cloud the issue until suddenly deciding (maybe after listening again to Dougie MacLean’s Ready for the Storm?) one unexpectedly sunny day last week that it was time. But I couldn’t find a partner, the weather turned again and it was ultimately just luck that brought me the combination of a fine evening (last few hours before the rain, with enough breeze to keep the worst of the midges at bay) and a willing accomplice in the very steady Johnny MacLeod last night…

So I gave Johnny the first pitch (no gimme at 4b with a couple of awkward moves low down), with the master plan being for me to lead the big crack pitch (if that’s not a misnomer when you’re basically climbing a wall with holds up the crack line rather than the crack as such) and crux groove while retaining the option of Johnny leading through to take the crux if I’d had enough. Can’t say I was quick on the crack, but kept it all under control with the climbing steady rather than hard and moves exciting more for the situation than their technicality. Then must admit to wavering with another party on the route behind us (‘we’d be quicker if you just led through and we didn’t have to rearrange this hanging belay, Johnny’) before taking the plunge… except that it wasn’t a plunge but more of a silly slip from the crux bulge as I missed a foothold and felt my stupid hands let go when all but over it. So I could have backed off and turned my agenda for the climb inside out by letting it all get to me, but one crucial foothold and two good nuts (to back up the two ‘blind’ cams that caught me) later and I had it below me, yelling ‘ya beauty!’ and finding it surprisingly straightforward in the end. A pity about the fall (not the first Johnny’s seen me take!), but still pretty chuffed and not letting that take too much of the shine from such a cathartic experience! :-)

So you know what’s sitting in the CD tray this morning and will be spinning again as this gets posted? That’s right, The Essential Dougie MacLean

But I am ready for the storm, yes sir, ready
I am ready for the storm, I’m ready for the storm

1 August 2011

Butterknife and Centurion

Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 1:09 pm

‘It was the best of times (pitch 2 of Butterknife), it was the worst of times (pitch 2 of Centurion), it was the age of wisdom (choosing Butterknife), it was the age of foolishness (considering Centurion even if Johnny couldn’t make it), it was the epoch of belief (leading the jugtastic steep Butterknife corner), it was the epoch of incredulity (finding the equivalent Centurion corner to be steeper and more sustained than I’d thought)’… och, stuff that, it’s not original and not even all true when (despite one or two of those ‘just get me out of here’ moments) Scottish mountain rock climbing simply doesn’t get much better than Butterknife and Centurion on consecutive days! So perhaps it wasn’t necessary to misappropriate and mangle one of the most memorable opening paragraphs in English literature to say so, but somehow ‘we went climbing on Friday and Saturday’ just doesn’t carry the same evocative weight as ‘we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way’…

So we (Isi and I) went climbing on Friday and Saturday with two four-star mountain crag classics in mind, heading first for Butterknife on Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour then (roping in Johnny to look after us on the hard bits!) Centurion on Ben Nevis. And (to deal with Friday first) our ascent of Butterknife was absolutely the ‘best of times’, with the stunning corner of the second pitch as good as it gets at any grade (some say VS, but we thought it Hard Severe 4b) and the one fairly nondescript pitch (the third) in four not detracting significantly from a route of the very highest quality.

Butterknife photos mainly by Isi, with first and last cropped by me and that corner unmistakable below/right of centre in the first…

Now, you can’t really top Butterknife in its own way, but Centurion’s bigger, meatier, two full grades harder and just as good in taking the central corner of the mighty Carn Dearg Buttress to some easier (but breathtakingly exposed) middle ground before breaking through a crown of overhangs via two stunning final pitches. So you start up this deceptively tricky little wall (given 4c in the SMC guides but 5a by Latter, and led by Johnny after I turned it down), then it’s straight to business with the big corner pitch at no-nonsense, unlikely-to-be-bone-dry 5a. And Isi bravely took this on, making steady progress at first but finally running short of quick draws at some slimy impasse about two-thirds of the way up, taking a hanging stance and bringing up Johnny to finish the pitch with the pair of them doing well to sort things out up there. By which time I’d had long enough to start getting both lonely (with the ‘queue’ below dissipating to try other routes) and suitably apprehensive at the first stance, found it exciting enough just to follow with my comparative lack of recent rock mileage and (perhaps disappointingly when I’ve not been backing off so far this year) subsequently declared myself content to remain passenger/photographer for the day. So Isi led the airy 4b traverse across the corner’s left wall and Johnny naughtily ran the 20m 4b pitch up the flaky wall above into the following 40m 4a groove thing on our 60m ropes to land us below the so-called second crux. Which (according to the master plan) he led and I might have gone second, but had to send up Isi first to re-clip the crucial runners from her red rope to my blue rope with a potential swing to kingdom come facing me if I came off the way things were. And it’s a great 5a pitch, feeling both more my style than the big corner and surprisingly amenable to follow but, just when you think you’ve unlocked the door and are almost home dry, you’re confronted with the most improbable-looking seventh and final pitch up a 4c ‘spiky arete’ and bulge which Isi coolly despatched to log a thoroughly deserved ‘alt lead’ for the climb as a whole.

Centurion photos currently all by me, but still hoping to get one or two of me from Isi…

So that’s Centurion, and what a great day we had despite (or perhaps even because of) those ‘moments’ we’d ultimately all miss if they never happened! Must just add that there were teams enjoying routes all over the Ben including (we believe) something new and hard up the right wall of Sassenach, but also some major rockfall incidents (we heard two) with the helicopter apparently lifting someone from Tower Gap as we were tackling our final pitch, so obviously hoping those involved are recovering OK.

27 July 2011

Another day in crag heaven

Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 1:00 pm

Summer at last and you might think this the ‘wrong’ time to be sitting inside blogging, but I’m between climbing days, it’s on the hot side for mid-day running and (without looking at any wholesale waste of the weather) I’m happy enough to be hiding from the noon sun right now. So time to tell you about another good day yesterday and a surprising first visit for Noel (who’s climbed just about everywhere else I can think of!) to the Ardnamurchan Ring Crags.

Now, where better to start than the lovely VS slab of Greta Gabbro on Dome Buttress which, having led three times before, I had lined up as a nice wee lead for Noel? Followed by the steeper neighbouring (H)VS of Claude which, having seconded just once and remembering nothing about the moves, looked like a good tick for me. And it’s a great wee route with some surprises up its sleeve, being essentially non-pumpy where it looks strenuous, with good rests (the one thing I could remember clearly) and gear but some quite tricky climbing. So VS or HVS? For what it’s worth I can see the argument either way, with the rests and gear maybe suggesting VS but some of the moves (undoubtedly 5a) just feeling sort-of HVSy! And, having climbed both harder VSs and easier HVSs, I’m still on the fence here.

Anyway, after I’d abseiled back down Claude to get two hands and a nut key onto the walking Master Cam 0 that Noel couldn’t retrieve single-handed on the way up, we moved over to Meall an Fhir-eoin Beag (aka Creag Meall an Fhir-eoin) for the essential VS crag classic tick of Yir, which I’d expected Noel to lead before finding myself back on the sharp end. But Noel led the lovely curving crack (second pitch of Cuil Iolaire) above to keep things nice and even. And then we headed up to the summit knoll of Meall an Fhir-eoin for Fear of Flying (VS) so I could get on something I hadn’t done before (the lure being Gary Latter’s Scottish Rock description of ‘a good route in a wildly exposed position for the grade, following parallel cracks running horizontally left above the overhanging wall’)… but who knows if we did it right or not? So there are three cracks leaving the corner of Pyroclast, with the first being an obvious foot ‘ledge’ along the top of the wall but threatening an increasingly tricky escape upwards and the others (just a few feet higher and more obviously ‘parallel’) which I took being fingery and very, very naughty for 4b (felt closer to 5a)! Not quite what I was expecting either way, with these thin cracks being short-lived but exciting when I’d had this vision of fatter cracks going on for longer, and arguably a somewhat contrived way to leave the more logical Pyroclast corner, but still another good lead for me. And perhaps we were just spoiled by starting with three of the absolute Ardnamurchan classics, so… another day in crag heaven? Overall (with four good routes on perfect rock, stunning sea/island views from our progression up the hill and a perfectly-timed return for the second-last, 9:00pm ferry), you bet!

21 July 2011

The Autobahnausfahrt Enigma

Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 11:11 am

So yesterday might have been Wednesday (who knows when you’re on holiday?) but, graced by the fine evening which Tuesday lacked, it made a good surrogate Tuesday for the Polldubh Club at (guess where?) Polldubh. And I climbed the first three pitches of Autobahnausfahrt on High Crag with Noel, finding them dirty and feeling harder than their given grades of 4a, —, 4b, with the route apparently needing more traffic to keep it ‘nice’ (NB we’d both soloed it before, but not for many years and neither of us would have done last night!). So it came as no surprise this morning to discover a note (re. the middle tier of High Crag) in Gary Latter’s Scottish Rock stating that:

The routes are a little bit dirtier than the more popular shorter routes lower down, but not unduly so.

However, this post is not so much about Autobahnausfahrt as Enigma (a fine Sullivan/Clough route on the cleaner upper tier of High Crag), which searching this blog should tell you I’ve climbed far more often. But it’s also a route that appears to have been accidentally ‘airbrushed’ from the history of Polldubh climbing and (through cumulative misreading of something started with the best of intentions) completely swallowed up by Autobahnausfahrt. So let’s take a look at the strange history of the ‘Autobahnausfahrt Enigma’…

  • Enigma was climbed at Hard Severe by Terry Sullivan and Ian Clough on 11 April 1959, with Enigma Direct (the better way) added by Clough in 1962 and described in the 1970 Schwartz/Wright guide (the only place noting the distinction?).
  • Autobahnausfahrt was climbed at VS (with combined tactics and a point of aid over the upper tier roof) by Klaus Schwartz and Brian Chambers on 2 September 1969 and again described in the 1970 Schwartz/Wright guide (possibly also the only place with a clear description of the third pitch).
  • With the aid being removed from the upper tier roof of Autobahnausfahrt by Kenny Spence and Rab Anderson in 1981 to produce the much harder Auto Roof, Autobahnausfahrt is described (to produce a consistently-graded combo) in the 1985 Grindley guide as finishing up Enigma. But, with the note explaining this unfortunately not on the same page as the route description, the accidental elimination of Enigma has begun…
  • Skip forward another five years to Kev Howett’s Rock climbing in Scotland (1990) and we find a Kinloss Grooves/Autobahnausfahrt combo that’s actually a Kinloss Grooves/Enigma combo, with first ascents credited to Clough/Sullivan and Schwartz/Chambers when they should be Clough/Sullivan and Sullivan/Clough!
  • Forward again to the SMC’s Highland Outcrops (1998) and the Autobahnausfahrt description gives the unacknowledged Autobahnausfahrt/Enigma combo, where looking up 1969 in the separate first ascent list will tell you that the FFA of pitch 4 (as Auto Roof) was by Spence and Anderson, but not that pitches 4 and 5 are actually Enigma. And yet the information is buried there (where no-one not in the know will be looking for it) under 1959, where you’ll find the solitary reference to Enigma in the whole book (it’s neither listed as a route in the main text nor mentioned in the Autobahnausfahrt description) as ‘now included as the second last pitch of Autobahnausfahrt.’
  • Forward again to the SMC’s Scottish Rock Climbs (2005) and Latter’s Scottish Rock (2008) and you’ll find both describing the whole combo as Autobahnausfahrt (credited to Schwartz and Chambers), with Enigma conspicuous by its absence and the accidental ‘airbrushing’ complete.

So does it matter? Well, I say yes! Both Sullivan/Clough and Schwartz/Chambers partnerships are important to the history of Polldubh, but Enigma’s a great little route in its own right (the best and cleanest part of the new ‘Autobahnausfahrt’) and deserves to be recorded properly. So (making an open plea to future guidebook writers here) please can we have Enigma back?

10 July 2011

Ardnamurchan again

Filed under: Climbing — admin @ 12:34 pm

Something of an impromptu Polldubh Club meet at Ardnamurchan yesterday, with Johnny and myself heading west to join Geoff, Tony and Phil (who’d been there overnight) on the Ring Crags. So we started at Achnaha Buttress because they all wanted to try it, Johnny fancied a look at Wheesht and nobody seemed to believe it wasn’t very nice, but a quick look was enough to convince Johnny that my two-year-old memory of ugly, sharp-chipped rock was spot-on and we left the others to climb Plocaig Rock while heading straight to Sgurr (Sron?) nan Gabhar. And here we set about the trilogy of HVS crack lines, with Johnny leading Ozone Layer, me leading Solar Wind (quite taxing for my first day on rock since October!) and Johnny taking over again for High Plains Drifter (which, having spent so much on Solar Wind, felt harder than I’d remembered from 2009), while Geoff, Tony and Phil arrived to do Thor, Mjollnir and Ozone Layer. After which we found ourselves back at the superb Meall an Fhir-eoin Beag, where I’d had my eye on Volcane as a possible E1 lead but, still not wholly trusting my fingers after a minor struggle to get established on the initial 4c crack, handed the 5b crux pitch to Johnny, who despatched it very nicely before declaring an interest in Minky at E2 5c or E1 5b depending on which guide you’ve got. So I said OK, if it’s the SMC’s 5c you might find me struggling to follow but I’ll probably be OK at Gary Latter’s 5b, Johnny made a very nice, steady lead of this lovely direct route up the rib to the right of Yir and I found most of it surprisingly amenable (NB the photo of Dave Cuthbertson in the SMC’s Scottish Rock Climbs doesn’t look like Minky!) despite being quite impressed by the thin and run-out crux. As for the grade, it just didn’t feel like 5c but it’s harder to judge when seconding so better ask the leader, and Johnny’s thinking appears to be along the lines of 5b but borderline E1/2. So I also led the easier, upper pitch (taking the steep, straight crack directly above rather than curving crack of Cuil Iolaire to the side when I’ve done both before and you could argue that both Minky and Yir are slightly compromised as classics by having no compellingly logical continuation pitches) and we left Geoff and Tony (who’d just done Crater Comforts) finishing the comparatively unsung VS of Not Today Dear (up the arete to the left of Oswald) while we headed for the road.

Now, having read all of this, you might just be wondering why I was jumping straight on HVSs and E1s (top grades for me as ones I rarely lead) for my first outing of the year when I could have been climbing myself in with something a little easier. And here I can only say that it cuts both ways, with some warm-up climbs sounding good in theory but also giving me the chance to bottle out when it’s so easy to talk a good climb till you’re actually there and looking at it, and in some ways easier just to get straight on before any such inhibitions get to you! So we had a great day of satisfying climbing even if I was both taxed by some of my leading and inelegant in its execution, but I’m under no illusions that I need to be climbing more regularly at these grades to give myself any chance of becoming truly comfortable with them. :-)

Photo of me on the crux of Minky courtesy of Geoff Hewitt and added 11 July.

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