Older entries 2012 2011 2010
Sept 11th-Oct 8th: The Ascent of Nun: expedition to 7135m Nun, the highest peak in Kashmir Himalaya
July 15th: Mont Blanc Dreams: traversing Mont Blanc with my daughter Hazel
June 18th - 21st: The Blind Man of Hoy: guiding the first ascent of the Old Man of Hoy by a blind person
Sat Apr 7th: Cairngorm Four-thousanders Ski Tour: The round of Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul and Braeriach
Mar 29th-30th: Easter Perfection: glorious days on Meagaidh and Ben Nevis
Mar 8-9: Homeground Ice - ascents of the classic Torridon grade V's - Poachers and Umbrella Falls
Feb 24th - Mar 3rd: Aurland Massive - a week of ice in Aurland, Norway
Wed Jan 15th 2013: Suspended Animation - new route on Beinn Bhan's Suspense Wall
Wed Dec 12th: Nailing the Steeple - winter ascent of Steeple on Shelter Stone crag
Sept 11th-Oct 8th: The Ascent of Nun: Our planned objective was 7075m Satopanth, but in June flash-floods and landslides devastated the valleys of Uttarakhand Himalaya. Official figures put the death toll at 5,000 to 6,000, roads and bridges were badly broken, and all tourist access to the region was closed. With Satopanth declared off-limits we had little more than a month to find an alternative objective of comparable stature. We turned far to the north-west, to Zanskar Himalaya in Jammu & Kashmir state. Nun and Kun are an attractive pair, both over 7000m. We plumped for the highest and 7135m Nun became our holy grail. We spotted the peak during the flight from Delhi to Leh. She floated serenely above a host of 6000ers. The weather was set fine, and Leh is a wonderful place for acclimatisation and a cure from stress.
Most members opted for mountain-bike hire and spent a day cruising the banks of the Indus for 60 km. Evenings were spent demolishing momos in local restaurants, while supping beer secreted in teapots to avoid any offence to the local Muslim population. Breakfast meetings were fixed for the German bakery, but were confused by the discovery that there are at least six German bakeries in Leh. We finally alighted on the establishment which offered two of the largest croissants ever witnessed plus butter, jam and coffee for £1.50. The main downside of Leh is the common street-dog. By day they curl up cute in shady corners, but by night they sustained a continuous howl of territorial barking. Ear plugs are essential.
A 5 hour eastward drive took us to the savage Kanji canyon to commence our acclimatisation trek. We hired six horses, but one bolted at the first glimpse of freedom and was never seen again. Despite the loss of a capital asset worth close on £1,000 the horse-man seemed blissfully unperturbed. Ladakhi communications are very simple. The single word "julay" covers every conceivable request, greeting or expression of thanks. On trek we were led by the lean bony frame of "Doctor" Mangal, one of three HAPs (high-altitude porters) contracted for the expedition. He had recently recce'd the whole 30 mile trek in 13 hours end to end. We were sufficiently taxed to do it in three days, but there was a 17,000 foot pass in the way. My deputy leader, crimp-master Dave Kenyon, sought out many a virgin wall of rock in the desiccated Kanji valleys whereupon he locked on to nubbins and hung bat-like until vertical yearnings were satiated. One 70 metre wall of limestone even stirred the leader's passions - with bolts and a couple of weeks Zanskar rock could become a feature in Climb magazine. The problem is how you can climb on a weighty diet of paranthas, pakora and porage.
The Kanji La trek ended at the windswept monastery of Rangdum Gompa. Few bleaker spots exist in India. A small military garrison guarded this enclave of decrepit monks and complained of their punishment posting. The Suru valley meanders west from Rangdum, then dramatically deepens as the glaciated valleys of the Nun-Kun massif feed into its waters. Simultaneously, the austere Buddhist culture of the drylands is replaced by Islam and the slender minarets of a mosque poked up from the first village, Parkachuk. A richly coloured sunset illuminated our first view of Nun. She rose in an impassive wedge of ice 3,000 metres above our valley thread, and if she looked cold, we gained tangible proof on meeting two young boys from an Indian team who had frost-bite to fingers and toes and were being evacuated to Kargil hospital.
"Guru" Martin at Camp One with Nun behind
Kathy on the steep fixed ropes between Camps One and Two
The victorious Swami Kenyon team return to Camp Three after their summit climb
Swami Kenyon discovers a new rock haunt on the Kanji La trek
Three other teams were up on the mountain in completion of their expeditions. Ten climbers made their summit push that night. This accorded with our master-plan whereby all necessary fixed ropes, tent ledges and tracks would be ready in place for our late-season assault. On September 19th we made the five hour ascent to Nun base camp at 4630 metres. Refugees from the other expeditions, some successful, others frostbitten and empty-handed, streamed back into camp, among them the obligatory Irishman Kevin. "Fixed ropes all the way to the top, boys," he said. "Two ice axes each? You don't even need one ice axe up there, pal!" Veterans of Everest and Cho Oyu in our party brightened markedly with this news and fondled their jumars. Maybe they wouldn't have to do any climbing to surmount this peak.
No sooner was our toilet trench dug than Bryan tested it to destruction, collapsing its retaining walls and breaking the tent pole in his effort to avoid planting his backside in the contents. Swami Kenyon and Guru Martin assayed the route to camp one with our Sherpa Dawa and HAP Govind. The immediate decision was made to occupy Camp One on a vast glacial plateau at 5500m. A substantial icefall barred the way. Benji, a man for whom frostbite holds no fear, threw his threadbare belongings into a 35 litre day-sack, while Bryan battled vainly to fit his down accoutrements into a 90 litre monster. Kathy sighed in relief to clip the first fixed rope, but blanched in horror at a crossing of several life-severing crevasses of limitless depth. Nun appeared above the plateau - distant, noble, piled high with snow meringues. No pushover, this one - even with the Sherpas' lines.
Camp one was deathly cold, but after two nights Swami Kenyon moved into focused mood. He kept his team up high, thus denying Swedish bartender Patrik any further use of his foldable IKEA chair. Meanwhile Guru Martin made a strategic withdrawl for replenish strength with chapatti egg rolls and finger chips back at base. The last stragglers of other teams departed home and we were left in lonely isolation. Facing dire warnings that we'd be treated as Pakistani insurgents or else face jail if caught in flagrante use of terrorist communications in this border zone we had left our satellite phone back in Delhi. Some members found it hard to deal with two weeks without their internet feed; others wondered what would happen if there was a mishap, as if a fleet of helicopters should be on hand to pluck us from the brink. Guru Martin tried reassurance: "You can forget about getting rescued above 6000 metres; we just have to get ourselves down; it's a bit like real mountaineering!"
The Kenyon team moved stealthily up the mountain - a formidable Lancastrian-Scottish-Swedish-Spanish-Indian-Nepali combo, that included 3-times Everester Dawa and our beanpole Liaison Officer Gajju. The Moran cohort returned to the fray a day in arrears with Mangal, Govind and a bag full of base camp puris. The climb from the plateau up to Camp Two was exposed and grade II in Scottish difficulty. Even fixed-rope sceptics were glad of the umbilical cord. The Karakorums were splayed across the horizon, Nanga Parbat due west and K2 and satellites up north. To the south-east the Indian Kishtwar ranges railed up like a storm-tossed sea. The weather held. On September 26th Camp Three - the summit camp - was occupied and at 3.30am on the 27th the silent Swami and his followers left for the top.
In the pursuing team Benji was in creative mode, using his experience working as Santa Claus in locations as divergent as Oxford Debenhams and Lapland to concoct the plot of a forthcoming Christmas blockbuster. "The Santa Cull" would feature gratuitous violence as a child, tricked out of his innocent belief in Santa, wreaked vengeance against the false Santas of the world until a showdown with the real Santa, played of course by Benji. This would doubtless resurrect his acting career but his energies might have been better employed eating more Maggi noodles, and in consequence his strength waned on the grinding plod to Camp Three. A storm blew in as soon as we arrived and the pitching of our tents turned into an epic. Dawa and Gajju returned with the felicitous report that all members had made the top and the Swami would soon be down. They emerged from the blizzard at 4pm. I vainly searched the Swami's countenance for signs of strain as he sipped reluctantly on a cup of tea.
The storm returned by night. I found myself on the down-slope of our tent floor with Mangal and Govind squashed on top of me. The tent porch flapped and hummed in the wind. We postponed our own summit bid, and as the victorious Kenyon team made their departure at 10am I looked up at an unbroken slope of freshly-blown snow where yesterday there had been a firm trail. Nonetheless, I directed my team to steel their nerves and sit the day out. Benji celebrated his 56th birthday, pinned in his tent under the crushing radiation of a re-emergent sun. Then, in mid-afternoon the snowfall returned, slowly choking my lingering hopes for a summit attempt. To sit at 6500m - just 640m from the summit – in the dawn of the knowledge that you can't succeed is a bitter pill.
After our second night the fine weather returned. Nun threw her shadow 40 miles out over the Kashmir foothills as we packed at dawn. For a last time Bryan's torpedo-like sack was stuffed to its brim. Meanwhile Benji donned his tam o'shanter and worked bare-handed to pack our kit in a temperature of minus 15degC. We rolled the tents and headed down, reaching base camp just after nightfall after 12 hours on the go. Naveen's meal of rice, dahl and vegetables was a just reward, and disappointments faded a little. Overnight Bryan became reacquainted with our toilet and left it looking as if it had been attacked by an incontinent elephant.
With our attempts completed three days ahead of our due leaving date, there was inevitable desire among some to get off the mountain to enjoy the luxuries of valley living. The girls, Kathy and Dolors, dreamt of hot showers and fresh clothes. We suggested that Kargil town was not the sort of place to indulge such fantasies and warned them to expect adventure should they break free from the expedition umbrella. Patrik and Nigel joined them on the downward trek, while the diehards stayed put and savoured final mountain days. The Swami disported himself in lizard-like pose on a variety of boulders around base camp. Benji surmounted a rock peak of 5250m and displayed his ceremonial underpants - 30 years in age - on the summit block. Guru and Govind returned to Camp One to clear the kit, burn the rubbish, then jumped down the icefall slots for a final time. Dawa recovered from a severe attack of snow-blindness.
On October 3rd we left base camp to its winter repose and a host of singing porters from Tangol village carried our kit down to the Suru valley road. The advance team had indeed had an adventure - in form of a head-on collision with a truck which bore the painted slogan "Oh my God Help Me". Dolors cut her head, the others got out unscathed. A crowd of hundreds quickly gathered including local imams. The paucity of local hospital facilities was explored and the conclusion reached that a speedy withdrawl to Leh was required. The 200km drive to Leh is accompanied by a landscape of arid intensity, interspersed by the most gorgeous pockets of irrigated husbandry. The team was reunited in Leh on Oct 4th and flew back to Delhi on the 6th. Though lodged under the Christian care of the YMCA hostel behaviour then became a trifle degenerate. Patrik sampled the cocktail menus of every nearby five-star hotel, Dolors got bitten be a dog while making an early morning dash round Connaught Place. Benji ate his way through every food menu he could lay his hands on; and the Guru joined iron-pumping Indian youth in the YMCA gym. The incredible spiritual citadel - cum - theme park of the Swami Narayan Akshardam was visited. And to cap everyone's pleasure our own spiritual icon, Swami Kenyon finally met his demise, falling down the stairs at the United Coffee House after a single slurp of Kingfisher beer. "Friction's not good there," he remonstrated.
July 15th: Mont Blanc Dreams: When a daughter, who has been exercise-averse all her teenage years, declares that she intends to climb Mont Blanc, a father’s reaction might be that of incredulity. Hazel was both blithely confident and deadly serious. This was no occasion for scorn. I booked her on to one of our Mont Blanc Ascent courses, while she proved her intent by jogging a half-marathon and acquiring some snow skills. That still left a massive leap of faith to the scenario at 2am on July 15th when five of us stepped out of the Tête Rousse hut.
With Euan Whittaker, John Flood and Dan Davies, Hazel had already traversed the Pigne d’Arolla and climbed the 4206m Alphubel, and yet, faced with the scale of the 1650 metre summit climb her confidence seemed to desert her. From the moment we left the hut she dragged her heels. Gone was the verve and sense of fun that had carried her over the training climbs. We crossed the Grand Couloir in the safety of night, but intermittent ice falls from somewhere down the Bionassay Glacier exacerbated the air of tension. The scramble up to the Goûter Hut seems never-ending, and rock is not Hazel’s passion. Behind her, Dan was an exemplary rope-mate and mentor, crying “wonderful” at every completed move and responding with a cheery “okele dokele” to every guide-command. However, excessive optimism often serves intensify the pessimist’s gloom. I know how easily dreams are sacrificed when the spirit wavers and, inwardly, I’d abandoned hope when we pulled on to the old hut railings at 4.45. Our two-hour schedule had long-passed.
I switched Dan over to Euan and John’s rope and they disappeared at a lick while Hazel and I reorganised ourselves. We donned down jackets and crampons and supped from a flask of hot coffee. The dawn was perfectly still and clear. I prayed that the transition to snow would revive her, and, indeed, we moved over the crest of the Aiguille du Goûter with some purpose. Far from agonising over every difficulty, Hazel was now wondering only what was up-ahead, and seemed to relish the long zig-zag drag up the Dome du Goûter, which for most is the most infernal part of the climb. My faith was restored. The issue was only a matter of how long and my worries transferred to the problems of descent.
Mont Blanc is a terrain for all-comers. Hardened alpinists and record-breakers mix with showmen, eccentrics and those who should never be let loose on a big hill. Today the mountain was relatively quiet, the climate tolerable and the social atmosphere mellow and accommodating. We were passed by an Austrian who claimed he had ascended from Chamonix in 6½ hours. Why then was he carrying a bedroll on his sack? At the shoulder of the Dome the unforgettable view of the Bosses Ridge and the summit cap appeared. We were passed by Colin, Ruslan and Ryan, three of last week’s course clients who had climbed the mountain on their own. All this stimulation kept Hazel keen to the task. We edged up the Bosses Ridge in stints of 40 or 50 paces, and reached the top at 10.40am.
I turned away and choked back several sobs while Hazel herself had a little cry. Then we hugged. It was an “only a hill but all of life to me” moment. Then we busied ourselves taking photos for Hazel’s charity, the Aberlour Child Care Trust. Meanwhile a team from a well-known competitor guiding company turned up. Their guide immediately straddled the summit crest, pulled out his radio and called his colleague, who, it seemed, was operating on the Gran Paradiso 60 kilometres away.
“Mont Blanc John calling Paradiso Jim, do you read, over….” After a crackle Paradiso Jim reported in to say he was waiting in a queue to get to the summit Madonna. “And where are you?” Jim asked.
“Well, if you look hard over at Mont Blanc you’ll see me standing on the top,” he proudly announced.
After this particularly vacuous display of communications expertise, Mont Blanc John recognised me and, after the usual guides’ handshakes, he took a photo of Hazel and me together. Then he headed back down the ridge with his clients. Almost immediately a helicopter appeared close by. This was to be no fly-past. With a hurricane blast the helicopter landed 10 metres away. Perhaps Mont Blanc John had more power than we thought. A quick call to the high mountain gendarmerie and his competition could be effectively blown off the mountain. We dived to hold down rucksacks and each other. Two policemen jumped out, strolled about the summit for a couple of minutes, then jumped back in. When the chopper took off I stood up, forgetting that I’d been pinning my water-bottle between my legs. My one-franc bottle of Co-op mineral water slid off down the north face with distressing grace. We would have to survive the descent on the half-litre that Hazel had left.
Our plan was to complete the classic traverse down the Three Monts route to the Aiguille du Midi. Euan and team were already somewhere down there. We’ll be quicker on snow, it will save my knees and will save re-crossing the Grand Couloir at the most dangerous time of the day, I’d thought. That logic was to ignore the seriousness of the glacial slopes on Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul, as well as the 360 metres of re-ascent need to reach the cablecar station. Initially, the descent is fast and simple. We stopped on the Col de la Brenva for a snack. Nobody was about apart from a solitary guy who appeared to be digging himself into a crevasse. Time spent here is precious. There are few wilder or less accessible spots in the Alps.
Arrival at the brink of the Maudit face gave me an instant reality check. I peered down the 55° snow-ice slope. How could I have thought to send my little girl down there? This was some way beyond her past experience. A nearby party was abseiling but our rope wasn’t long enough for that. I coaxed Hazel to back-climb to a rock anchor 15 metres down. Then I lowered her to the ledge at the bottom, and climbed down after her. Having failed to credit her with technical sagacity I was dumbfounded to find that she had neatly coiled the rope ready for my arrival.
We continued to a steep lip with a simply enormous crevasse below. Hazel bottled up her fears and made a five-foot jump to clear the chasm, while I belayed hopefully on a wobbly boot-axe belay. This is a dangerous spot with steep slope facets broken by little ice séracs. Hazel remembered last year’s Mont Blanc tragedy.
“Did your friend Roger die somewhere around here?” she asked.
I hadn’t wanted to touch her sensibilities by this remembrance. A father imagines his daughter to be forever young; but now she had asked.
“Well, it was just about here actually, Haze,” I replied. We hurried on to the safer inclines of the Col Maudit.
By now the sun was burning our necks and we were reduced to stuffing Hazel’s bottle full of slush in hope of further drink. We breasted the Tacul shoulder and at last could see the Midi, but Hazel was not to be fooled. I suffered every fathom of the despair she felt at seeing the vast snowfields and the terminal climb that still separated us from the journey’s end, and still there was danger. The tracks down the Tacul face crossed into jumbled ice blocks from an old sérac collapse, then veered across another huge chasm. I hurried Hazel as best she could manage, and by 4pm we were sat on the Col du Midi, safe from avalanche but still 3km from the station.
I knew that I’d already taken Hazel well beyond her comfort zone. We were both parched and despondent. Now I had to push her still-harder, for there was risk that we might miss the last cablecar down to Chamonix if we didn’t get a move on. Normally, I can drag clients along on a rope with cheerful dispassion, but it wasn’t easy to make my daughter suffer so. She responded positively, but her legs were all but gone. As the slope under the Midi took hold our pace count dropped from 20 to 10 and then 5. A string of late parties passed us. I fulminated silently. Would we miss the cabin? Sight of a gaggle of tourists on the viewing platforms calmed my fears. There was a backlog of visitors to be shuttled off the mountain. We would make it. We inched our way up the final arête to the safety gate, and 15 hours after tying to the rope at the Tête Rousse we staggered home.
Immediately, we were accosted by a silver-haired moustached American and his perfectly-permed wife.
“I know that look anywhere,” he said. “that’s the Mont Blanc stare.” It was slightly discomforting to realise that it was me he was looking at, not Hazel. Guide, client, father or daughter – the Mont Blanc traverse is a hard yard.
June 18th - 21st: The Blind Man of Hoy: In January I was contacted by Redmond Szell who suffered a degenerative eye condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. His remaining vision was, he said, akin to looking through a pinhole into a smoke-filled room. He was intent on attempting The Old Man of Hoy even though his recent experience was confined to London climbing walls. With an agreement to provide two guides and three-days of prior outdoor training I accepted the assignment. Fears of tortuous days and ultimate failure were quickly dispelled when he arrived in Lochcarron. Red dispatched sport climbs up to 6b standard with such speed that it was hard to keep abreast pointing out the holds. A nine-hour day on the Applecross Cioch Nose tested his stamina and scrambling ability and he made the E1 grade at Diabaig crags with no more than an occasional tug on the rope. Under his charming exterior Red occasionally evinced the anger and frustration that had attended a condition first diagnosed at the age of 19. He admitted that the onset of each winter was a particularly depressing time, but the Hoy project had given him new purpose.
On June 19th our team of six took residence in Rackwick Hostel – including Red’s friends and supporters Matthew Wootliff and Andres Cervantes, adventure-film cameraman Keith Partridge and my guiding colleague, Nick Carter from Inverness. First Nick and I took Matthew and Andres up the Old Man visualising the technical challenges for Red, while Keith checked camera positions and shot the incidental footage.
The Old Man of Hoy and St John's Head as we sailed past on the Stromness ferry - June 18th
Red tackles the crux moves on pitch 2 of the Old Man with Nick "filming" and mentoring him through the 5b sequence
The day of Red’s climb was dry but overcast. For a second time he marched over two-mile approach track. We tied Red on to a short rope, and descended the tumbling fields of bladder campion and sea thrift to the bridge of fallen blocks that lead out to the stack. In the late 18th century a huge sea arch collapsed to leave the Old Man as an erosional remnant and the bridge gives non-tidal access. Red scrambled over the barrier with total trust in our directions and we reached the base two and half hours of leaving Rackwick.
Nick is effectively laid-back in coaching style while I can bark a bit when stressed, so we agreed that I would lead the climb while Nick mentored Red. Keith gave him a “handycam” to do the close-up action filming then retreated to the cliff-top to work his long lens on the big crack. The crux pitch begins with a five-metre descent followed by the sandy traverse to gain the crack. I belayed Red on two ropes, keeping one direct to him so that he wouldn’t swing too far if he slipped. Meanwhile Nick attached jumar clamps to a third rope which I had fixed to my anchors. From my belay I could see nothing of Red’s progress and the enveloping tumult of sea and wind prevented verbal contact. I kept the ropes a little slack fearing that I would pull Red off if I hauled tight as he traversed. Finally his red shirt appeared under the crack and he climbed into the bottomless chimney known as “the coffin”. The crux lies in making three-dimensional calculus to quit the coffin on to a tiny sloping ledge on its left face. Even for the sighted these moves are distinctly tricky and strenuous. Go too high and you get horribly jammed in the roof of the chimney, come out too soon and you can slip off into space.
Nick simultaneously worked his camera, moved his jumars and gave Red directions. I saw Red’s hands feverishly sweeping the left wall until he felt the ledge. Then he made a contorted Egyptian bridge across the coffin and swung out. I pulled in, fearing he would lose grip, but Red used brute strength to yard his left arm up to a higher flake hold. Panting furiously he stepped up on the ledge. With the crux surmounted Red had nought to fear on the upper pitches. Two hours later he bridged up the final corner and felt the cold sea breeze blowing through the crack that splits the twin summit blocks, then scrambled to the top. He was probably right in his claim that less people have sat here than have reached the summit of Everest. The three abseils were dream-like in their simplicity. Red slid down the final free-hanging abseil so fast that it was well that Nick was holding the ropes from below to slow him before touchdown.
Wearily, Red reversed the long scramble back to the cliff-top where Keith conducted a triumphant interview and Matthew and Andres hugged him in celebration. Red admitted he was mentally shattered and I felt pretty worn as we trudged back to Rackwick. Keith is a consummate professional and was busily sorting video and audio content before the first cup of tea was brewed. Nick proudly handed over his camera.
“It’s so easy this camera,” he said. “You just open the viewer and away you go. Brilliant.”
Keith looked quizzical as he opened the list of clips, ready for download. The film was empty.
“You mean you didn’t press the red record button?” he asked politely. For a couple of minutes Keith scrolled through his own footage, gently shaking his head.
Nick sidled off towards the shower, while the all-conquering “blind man of Hoy” sat dumbfounded, clutching a can of beer that had all of a sudden become flat.
“I am sorry chaps; we’ve only got half a programme here; we really need to go back tomorrow and do it again.” And in the event, this we did!
Red in the belay nest at the top of the second pitch
Red on the summit with Nick Carter
Sat Apr 7th: Cairngorm Four-thousanders Ski Tour: Scotland’s most famous ski tour is the round of the 4,000 foot summits of the Cairngorms – Cairn Gorm (1245m), Ben Macdui (1309m), Cairn Toul (1291m) and Braeriach (1296m). With a start and finish in the vicinity of Coire Cas ski car park the distance is 28km with 2,000 metres of ascent. Twelve hours is a target time in good conditions.
Although the snow-line was slowly creeping uphill the plateau was still white. The forecast offered a calm day but with cloud and snowfall spreading in during the afternoon. This was Alex’s last chance for a tour before returning to studies. Ibrahim Park – resident outdoor pursuits teacher at Gordonstoun School - was co-opted to the plan and we laid our skins on the snow at Coire Cas ski station on the stroke of 7.30am on a fine chill morning.
Left: The perfect morning for a ski tour - the Northern Cairngorms from Loch Morlich (photo: Alex Moran)
Above: Leaving the summit of Ben Macdui for the Tailors' Burn descent
This was Alex’s first tour of the year and Ibrahim’s first for two years, giving me hope that I could match the pace of my younger companions. I had been in secret training in the gullies of Glen Carron, but Alex had two weapons in his armoury. First, he produced an enormous lunch-bag, packed by his mother. Why was mine only half the size? Second, he carried a supply of effervescent Berocca tablets, which offered balanced rehydration and an inordinate supply of vitamins to perk the limbs of the weary skier.
We got into stride with a steady 70 minute climb up the pistes to Cairn Gorm summit. The plateau to Ben Macdui was a smooth quilt of fresh powder. Three descents and three long gentle climbs took us there by 11.30. While I supped frugally on a cup of detox herbal tea, Alex gulped his first Berocca mix and left a stain by the summit worthy of a virile tom-cat.
The 700m descent of the Tailor’s Burn into the Lairig Ghru is the skiing highlight of the tour. With bright sunlight we had perfect visibility to handle the mix of névé and packed drift. The one distressing feature of this lovely run was that the lower we descended the further we had to climb back up to Cairn Toul on the far side of the valley. I decided the simplest method of dealing with the 700 metre climb was to shoulder our skis, fit crampons on ski boots and make a frontal attack direct to the summit. I skied across to the base of the ascent, while Alex and Ibrahim stopped at the burn for water. With a second Berocca now dissolved Alex’s vitamin intake was boosted to 1200% of his daily requirement. Examination of the next snow-stain showed that his yellow was not so mellow.
An alpine sun beat down on the 90 minute ascent of Cairn Toul. Even I began to feel somewhat dehydrated as we climbed the headwall of Coire an t-Sabhail. Our line popped out by the summit cairn where a slight breeze lifted our enervation. We were now at the furthest extremity of the tour and the sight of grey clouds advancing from the north-west induced a sense of urgency. We had to ski 6km round the corniced head of the great Garbh Choire to Braeriach. With muted enthusiasm I examined those bits of cliff which weren’t entirely buried by snow and considered the massive walk-in. With all respect to the likes of Andy Nisbet and Simon Richardson, I concluded that the pioneers of these lonely places had more zeal than I. In contrast to the Macdui plateau the incline to the Wells of Dee offered a bone-rattling ride over icy névé interspersed by rimed rocks.
Superb 600m descent of the Tailors' Burn into the Lairig Ghru
Alex on the big climb to Cairn Toul
Apart from a lone runner and lone skier on Macdui we had seen no-one all day, so it was good to see some walkers at Braeriach. They predicted good snow for our descent, which was welcome news for the light was now flat and our collective thigh muscles had passed beyond the burning stage into a leaden numbness. Alex packed his water bottle with slush and drained the dregs of a third Berocca. The pristine snows of Braeriach were left glowing in a shade best described as radioactive orange.
I was determined to show smooth skiing skills as I passed the walkers on descent, but glided blindly into a series of sastrugi hummocks. Legs wide-apart, I clattered past, narrowly avoided a series of rocks and skidded to a halt on the brink of Coire Beanaidh. After a short re-ascent on to Sron na Lairig we made the 400 metre run down Coire Gorm. A field of rippled drifts rather spoilt the initial turns, but smoother névé gave a swift finish as the slope flattened to heather moors at 750m altitude. A short walk got us on to a cummerbund of snow that led round to the Lairig Ghru where a fresh stream emerged from the snow. With a manic grin Alex popped a fourth tablet in his bottle and pumped up his vitamin reserves to 3000% of his RDA. Whatever the state of his urinary tract he still seemed to be thriving, so I too succumbed to the temptation. A single tablet dissolved in half-a-litre of water produced a remarkable resurgence. Within 20 minutes I felt my energies renewed. All the torpor of the latter stages of the tour lifted and the fear of thigh cramps receded. Some products really do work.
I changed into trainers and packed skis and boots to my sack for the hike up to the Chalamain Gap. In the gap we clambered over the debris of the avalanche that claimed three lives in February, a sad reminder of the human cost of a big winter. Warm evening light illuminated the return to Glenmore. We had been lucky with the weather. Alex and Ibrahim savoured a final kilometre of easy ski-running down to the Allt Mor. I was happy just to walk and enjoy the sense of oneness with both self and nature that comes after a wonderful mountain day.
I little expected that an hour later I would be driving homeward into a full-bore blizzard. Winter, it seems, is not quite over yet.
Mar 29th-30th: Easter Perfection: You know that Scotland’s conditions are special when you can have one of the best piste skiing days of your life on Cairngorm. After this surprise and a night with Jonathan and Diana Preston I left Auchosnich at 6.50am on a serene frosted morning and drove gently down to Aberarder to meet Gareth. The number of vehicles in the Creag Meagaidh car-park suggested we would have difficulty in finding any routes free of other teams, a predicament made rather more serious when I realised that I had forgotten my helmet. The walk-in to Coire Ardair was relaxed and surprisingly the corrie looked quiet. The Post Face was taking the full-brunt of the morning sun, but there looked to be thick blue ice in Last Post. We sweated horribly on the approach up Easy Gully, only to find a party already embarked on the lower icefall. Missed the Post (V, 5) offered a good alternative. The lower icefall was straightforward grade IV. Two other climbers arrived and their leader followed Gareth nose-to-tail as he seconded. Why do people do this when there are several other routes nearby with nobody on them? The second pitch led up shorter ice steps to a long snow-slope. I just reached rocks on the rope stretch and belayed on a knife-blade and two wires.
The upper gully looked steep and its whiteness suggested that the sun had rotted the ice. I climbed a couloir which steepened to 70° at the base of a narrow gully. I searched the rocks on either side but could find no protection whatsoever. Alarm bells rang. I was 30 metres above the belay without any gear. A fall here would mean death to us both of us and, in all likelihood, to the party who were following. Had the ice in the gully been blue I might have continued in confidence that I could place ice screws. Instead, I went right until I found rock runners. Now I was 12 metres off the line of the gully, so climbed the mixed terrain directly above. The climbing was tenuous with some technical 6 moves, but at least a few vital runner placements were offered. Meanwhile, the impatient leader of the following team set off up the gully without the courtesy of asking if I minded. Had he fallen he could have ripped us off the gully as well. I was thankful to find a flake for a decent belay just as my ropes ran out.
The final headwall was a vertical icing cake, with fringes of rock and turf separated by near-vertical banks of snow. Luckily, I found placements for both of our pitons before swinging over a bulging section. Above, the angle eased only by five degrees and I was now committed to finish. I cleared a flat projection of rock and hung a sling from it to protect the last ten metres. Every step in the snow required several hard kicks and axe placements were unconvincing. I was relieved to pull over the cornice after a trying pitch of VII, 6. Gareth seconded well and I was glad he didn’t test his 95kg bodyweight to my belay.
We walked back round the corrie edge enjoying the evening light and reached Aberarder at 7.10pm in the gloaming, worn-out after a trying day.
The Post Face of Creag Meagaidh
Ben Nevis on Easter Saturday 2013
I managed to borrow a helmet from Kenny Grant, then drove into Fort William to pick up a fish supper. At 9pm I parked up at Aonach Mor ski station, enjoyed a quiet brew and bedded down in the back of the bus.
The morning gave a glorious rebirth. I had slept well and awoke to frost-glazed windows and birdsong. There was nowhere I more wanted to be with the prospect of a big day on the Ben ahead. I knew that Gareth would respond, despite the fatigue of the Meagaidh day, especially with the Ben in impeccable condition. We left the top of the forest at 7.40am and headed into the Orion basin on seeing that Minus Two Gully was empty. A static rescue rope hung down the gully, and we assumed there had been a recent incident. Indeed a Sea King helicopter soon arrived and dropped a rescuer in to the top of the route to retrieve the line. The downdraught created extreme spindrift and wind-chill that was incongruous on such an azure day. The first pitch was thin and narrow, certainly technical 6 with just-adequate rock protection. Thereafter we enjoyed more conventional WI 4 climbing for three long pitches, and emerged on North-East Buttress around 3pm. We simul-climbed 80 metres, avoided the Mantrap by the downward deviation to the right and emerged on the plateau just as evening’s lightshow began. My only previous ascent of Minus Two was thirty-three years ago and I felt reassured that the experience could be just as good after so long a gap. A big group of German students were gathered at the summit trig point singing hymns. The atmosphere up there was riveting.
My knee gave continuous discomfort on the descent of Number Four Gully but a brilliant display of white light up on Tower Ridge gave visual recompense. I was glad to get my sticks out for the walk back. We reached the van at 7.10pm after a day as perfect as one could desire. With the dead knocking in my knees I know that these days won’t go on for ever. There will come a last time, so it is as well to store every detail for the memory of old age.
Gareth seconds the first pitch of Minus Two Gully in tricky thin conditions
Gareth emerges on the plateau at the top of North-East Buttress
Mar 8th - 9th: Homeground Ice: The wind funnelled through Glen Torridon, a high-speed Siberian express that whistled into every cranny and offered no respite. The gale was made visible by a horizontal waves of sleet. The mountains were covered in a deathly shroud of blowing snow. We were spurred only by the certainty that Poachers Fall would be in good condition and the hope that there would be a degree of shelter on the north side of Liathach. My companion, Gareth Maker, had travelled up from Glasgow late the previous evening on my promise of some classic Torridonian ice so I couldn't easily offer excuses. The approach to climb fulfilled every climber's nightmare. The insistent winds chilled mittened hands. Errant rucksack straps whiplashed my face with maddening regularity. The sleet laid a film of moisture on clothes and sacks that froze once we passed into the freezing zone. I have walked into Coire Dubh Mor upwards of 100 times, yet became disoriented once we entered the pall of cloud. Nothing seemed to be in its right place and none of the familar boulders appeared. Only when we stood in the bevel of the corrie floor and I spotted a familiar rock band in the lower cliffs was I certain we were in the right place.
The transformation to full winter conditions was sudden. The snow was set like concrete and the rock were rapidly accumulating a coating of rime ice. We edged awkwardly up the 45 degree snows to the base of Poachers Fall, braced for any rogue gusts that might threaten our balance. A flow of blue ice indicated the line and gave us a deserved reward for our persistence. A 55m pitch of continuous grade IV ice led into the prominent cave at mid-height on the fall. A substantial seepage of water was creating a canopy of soft ice. I snuggled into the sheltered nook behind the curtain and regathered my composure while Gareth seconded. When plagued by discomfort and difficulty there is temptation to forgo the essential organisational tasks. I forced myself to comply with the routine established over countless winter climbs. Ropes were carefully lap-coiled in short drapes away from the drips. I stuffed my technical gloves down my vest to rewarm them for the next pitch and added a thick balaclava to the clothing armoury. By the time I tackled the 5 metre crux pillar on the second pitch the shivers had stopped and a sense of control had returned to the venture.
Verbal communication was impossible in the wind. I signalled for Gareth to climb by three tugs on the rope. When he tugged downwards I thought he wanted slack. I paid him half a metre and received a more urgent tug by way of reply. Clearly, tight-rope was required instead, so I pulled hard and Gareth completed the pitch via a series of strange upward lurches. He arrived with one axe. The perils of climbing without safety leashes had been realised, but he had put in a sterling effort to climb two vertical passages with one tool. The third pitch climbs a narrow gully then crosses a bulging section, where Andy Nisbet commenced his infamous 20 metre fall in 2003. The ice was chewy and reliable. I lowered Gareth my second tool to assist his ascent. An easier ice step and névé gully completed the climb.
The condition of the route had been superb, in stark contrast to the swirling maelstrom that enveloped us on the summit slopes. My spectacles became rimed as we staggered into a 50 mph wind in search of the gully on the south flank that commences the way-off. A bone-rattling descent down brick-hard snow and long slopes of boulders brought us under the cloud-base and into the land of the living. My body had been chilled to the core for most of the past ten hours. We had certainly suffered for our art.
The issue of the lost ice axe and a slightly improved weather forecast together helped to steel our nerves for a return to the fray in the morning. The air was now dry, clouds were breaking off the tops and the wind had dropped a notch. Yesterday's intensity evaporated. A team from Glasgow University had snaffled Gareth's Quark, but we caught them as they started the first pitch of Poachers. We traversed off left to the start of Umbrella Fall. By reputation easier than Poachers, Umbrella Fall actually offered much more technical climbing in the prevailing thin conditions. Each of its four pithces was a technical delight with a move or two of grade 6 - a narrow off-balance ramp, a wet wall of fresh ice, a miniature pillar and a 2 metre mixed section where a perfect axe slot allowed a big reach to the continuing ice. With every pitch my faith and pride in Torridonian ice were restored. We enjoyed each technical problem knowing there would be a rest above. We romped to the ridge in a fresh breeze, back-climbed Way Up gully into to the corrie and walked out down Coire Dubh in contented satisfaction. To my deep gratification Gareth ranked the two days as his best-ever ice climbing experience in Scotland. The home ground had come good!
Coire Dubh Mor of Liathach in Feb 2013 - Poachers Fall in centre and main summit above (photo: Paul James)
Poachers Fall and the rimed rocks of Coire Dubh Mor are revealed after our ascent of Umbrella Fall
Feb 24th – Mar 3rd: Norway Ice: Aurland Massive: The arrival of a new crop of ice climbers brought anticipation and trepidation. Some we knew by reputation. Paul “Lady-Hunter” clearly regarded any Scandinavian destination attractive, irrespective of the availability of ice, but he hadn’t bargained for the deserted streets of Aurland on a freezing night. His boots were as bendy as his morals, and were complemented by 10 point granny-crampons. Glenmore Lodge wouldn’t have allowed this kit on a beginners’ winter skills course! With no gear shop within 50 miles ice smearing would be the order of the day.
My team of Anesh Narsai and Mark Currey were keen and well-tooled, but perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to embark on one of the world’s biggest ice climbs on day one of the course, especially as Mark has spent the last two years in the sands of Oman. We went to Gudvangen, the Yosemite of ice climbing. The Kjerrskredskelven fall starts at 100m above sea level a mile and tops out at 900m. The lower canyon gave a sustained four-pitch at WI5 grade and is a worthwhile climb in its own right. Eager to see more I persuaded my team to follow the gorge to another 60m WI5 barrier pitch which led into the majestic upper amphitheatre. From here Kjerrskredskelven goes up right in a six-pitch sweep of grade VI ice, while the direct route “Into the Wild” climbs straight up thin smears in the headwall. My mind went into overdrive. Could we come back later in the week, avoid the lower section by bushwhacking into the bowl through the woods, then climb the upper Kjerrskredskelven? What a thought…
Our descent started badly when Mark dropped his belay plate and I had to abseil on stacked karabiners. Arriving at a hanging stance I fed the green through the next abalakov anchor and we pulled mightily to no avail. The ropes must be twisted, I thought, and I made a wearying 30 metre prusik back up the lines. Sure enough there were a couple of twists so I relaid the ropes, shifted the knot and abseiled back down. Again we heaved on green but after two metres it jammed again. Dusk was fast gathering, we hung from a 6mm cord with a void of 120 metres beneath our heels and Mark was shivering from the prolonged immobility. With increasing desperation I prusiked back up a second time. Suddenly the truth dawned. Green was threaded through the anchor. We should have been pulling on red!
The remainder of the descent went smoothly, but my confidence was shaken. How could I have been so stupid? Big Norwegian icefalls possess the power to awe and oppress. On this occasion I had lost the psychological war. For us, a full ascent of Kjerrskredskelven would be a step too far.
German über-alpinist and statistical wizard, Robert Jasper, graded the full line of Into the Wild VI WI6+ X R M6. Our ascent of the lower third might best be named “A Walk in the Wild” and merely rated V WI5, but we came in on the E16 in a V50 and I definitely scored M10 on the muppetry scale. Beat that Jasper! Meanwhile, under tutelage of Ewen Todd, Paul H had mastered the grade III Turlifossen with aplomb and discovered a Latvian barmaid in the Aurland hotel.
In the Wild: Gudvangen. The upper fall of the unpronounceable Kjerrskredskelven with the vague smears of Into the Wild to the left; we had already climbed 5 pitches of WI5 to get this far!
Anesh and Mark seconding in tandem on the first big pitch of A Walk in the Wild, Gudvangen
Aurlandsfjorden on a glorious winter day
Anesh Narsai in cruise control leading the WI 5 crux of Tunnshellefossen, Flåmdal
Tuesday morning brought me to breakfast in a groggy state. Our new guide, Mark Walker - bespectacled, clean-shaven and depressingly lively - bounced from fridge to table like a manic woodpecker, while burbling inanely about the perils of margarine. “Dangerous stuff, this. Stay off it, I’d say; but what do you think in Wales Phill?” Our senior guide, Phill Thomas, tactfully replied “I prefer butter myself, boyo.” Mark was galvanised by this idea. “Now butter, that’s interesting stuff. Tastes good but could be harmful. Has anyone thought about Lurpak? It may be spreadable, but is it butter?” If the BBC ever need a replacement on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show there’s a job waiting for you Mark. Eventually, his eyes glazed over and with the words “I must get on the internet” he wandered off clutching his iPad.
Out on the ice Anesh, Mark and I subjected ourselves to a short sharp shock from the 90 metre Storefossen. The fall is 20 minutes’ walk off the E16 in Undredalen. The first pitch had a WI 5+ bulging section on bonded icicles. This was a challenging choice for Anesh’s first lead of the week, but with help of half-a-dozen pre-placed ice screws he cruised to success. The upper pitches relented a little and we were back in time to hear of Paul’s conquests of the grade IV Sivlefossen followed by a young German lady who milked goats in her spare time. That evening I discretely disconnected the chalet Wi-fi. This apparent “malfunction” immediately sent Chris Evans out on to Aurland’s streets in search of a new connection. We supped our beers in contented silence.
Wednesday was set aside for Round 3 with the Seltunfossen. This Lærdal classic had rebuffed Anesh and Ewen twice the previous week. On the first attempt the ropes got wet in the approach stream and had frozen like piano wire at the base of the fall. The rematch ended in Lærdal hospital after Ewen was “bricked” by falling ice. Fine weather and a temperature of -7°C allayed our fears on the third visit. This route has to be done by every visiting climber. Two 60 metre pitches of non-stop Scottish grade V are followed by a 50m final pitch of intermittent Scottish V, all on a waterfall some 50 metres wide. Anesh led the third pitch with aplomb and we were down in time to participate in a game of “hunt the iPhone” down the road at Jutlamannen. Paul’s partner Dave had secured the phone in an unstitched hand-warmer pocket in his fleece with the inevitable result that it fell through when he took his harness off in the woods.
Thursday brought the first pulse of mild damp air after a fortnight of blue skies. A day off was declared so that Evans could catch up on the internet and Paul H could plague the barstaff at the Aurland hotel. Whilst some took the Gudvangen-Flåm boat trip, the highlight for others was a shopping trip to the Aurland Spar. It was while they were hunting for a carton of custard that they stumbled upon a new form of local wildlife, the Cockney Aurlander. A little guy in a shellsuit and beanie hat was hanging round the girl at the check-out, to whom, it transpired, he was married. They had met while she was on holiday in London. He gesticulated with stabbing fingers. “Tell you where the custard is, mate; past the crisps and turn left; easy innit? Or do you geezers want powder…” Our boys decided not to go down that route, and with the Aurland Massive in residence they made a hasty check out.
The weather gave us a delightful reprieve on Friday, and an alpenglow spread over the plateau as we drove up beautiful Flåmdal. The five-pitch Tunnshellefossen offered the opportunity for Anesh and Mark to consolidate their leading skills. Mark was a little unsure about rigging belays so we did a demo and dry-run on setting anchors, equalised sling and direct “plaquette” belay before he led the first WI 4 pitch without supervision. “Clever lad, that Mark” I said to Anesh. “He’ll have no problems on the belay.” Mark disappeared over the top of the pitch. For fifteen minutes both we and the ropes remained motionless. “What can he be up to?” We were then treated to a crescendo of swearing that must have woken the farm dogs down at Tunnshelle, followed by the airborne appearance of that errant belay plate. “For God’s sake just put me on a waist belay, and I’ll come up and sort you out,” I yelled.
All credit to Mark. He took on another lead of WI 4+ higher on the route, but this time it seemed wise for me to simul-lead alongside him! Anesh styled the WI5 and WI4+ top pitches and with four big abseils another grand Norwegian day was done.
Meanwhile Paul and his bendies had accomplished their first Scottish grade V and he had wolf-whistled a local blonde, who turned out to be a boy with a bleached mullet. Our last day was a wash out. We would have climbed, but the rain had washed all the salt off the Flåmdal road, leaving sheet ice that put the Chris Evans Volvo in a spin. We retreated to our cosy cabins and prepared a last night celebration. Paul turned out in clubbing vest and studded metal belt, but the rest of us were happy to dram and jaw in the cabins. The team cooked the guides an admirable pizza and pasta repast and cabin owner Sjur raised the spirit by bringing a bottle of cognac to the feast. Somewhat disappointed by his uxorious company Paul mused, “Think I’ll stay in Bergen tomorrow night, why not?” Sadly, we feared that his search for Bergen’s Club-a-Go-Go on a wet Sunday night would only lead to the Club-a-No-No. With the right boots and less worrying about the placement of his tool Paul could be a top ice climber.
There was big satisfaction for the guides in seeing so many of our clients leading with surety and confidence. Rod and Owen were a top team, safely mastering WI4+/5 on lead. they even did the WI5 Tverrafossen entirely on their own and strolled up Point Five Gully on their return to Scotland, wondering when it was going to get steep. Mick Bailes led at WI3/3+ throughout his week, as did Rhiannon Taylor and Rose Miotchell. At 61 years old Steve Taylor achieved his aim to lead WI4+ and place his own gear. Mark C had no problem on WI4/4+ and Anesh was cruising WI5 on lead at the end of the fortnight. We don't want you guys to put us out of a job, but it is the true measure of success in coaching when our students are confident to lead. In the scale of both its personalities and ice climbs Aurland 2013 had without doubt been massive.
Intro groups enjoying the grade III Turlifossen in the sun
The Aurland Massive on the last night of the course
Thurs Feb 21st 2013: In the Land of the Lynx: A grand day's ice in Norway.
INGÅNA (MN 269663; altitude 480-740m; aspect NNE) V, WI 5+/6 300m climbing **
The left branch of the Ingåna gorge develops a thick and fat double-tiered icefall, which is reliably in condition every season. The top tier is well-seen from the vicinity of Mo in lower Råsdalen.
Approach by driving through Raa farm and continuing on a private road on the west bank of the river for 2km to a parking place by an orchard just beyond a bridge over the Ingåna stream. The farm road is marked as “no entry”; so it is advised to request access from the farmer. Either:
- Follow a good tractor track up the right side of the orchards and through woods, then take a vague path up on to the crest of the ridge overlooking the canyon. Climb the crest for 150m then traverse right along a terrace, descending exposed ground to a point 30m above the gorge. Either abseil or scramble down a ramp. The bifurcation of the canyon is 50m beyond and the climb starts here; or
- Follow the stream bed direct up the canyon – 3 steps of WI 2/3 which could be soloed (1.5hr).
Climb the first step in 65m (WI 3) and walk to the base of the first big tier. This gives a steep 60m pitch with 10m of WI 5+/6 at an icicle curtain, followed by 45m of WI 4 and 3. Walk 80m to the 2nd tier. A 50m WI4 pitch leads to a terrace. The fall above gives two pitches of 30m and 40m with sustained near-vertical climbing at WI 5 standard.
Abseil from a tree on the left side of the fall. 6 x 60m abseils back to the bifurcation.
The route was first recorded as “Sheep’s Heaven” by Hari Berger and Ines Papert in 2005.
Wed Jan 15th 2013: Suspended Animation: How wonderful to see the hills coated in fresh snow after a particularly dismal start to New Year! We must thank Pete's wife Nicky for switching her nursing shifts to allow Pete to get out for a precious day. The habitual 3am start was deferred to 6am on this occasion as Pete was still recovering from a family-induced chest infection that had laid him low over the holiday period. How times change. In his heyday Pete would have still been recovering from his New Year binge on January 15th. Beinn Bhan's Suspense Wall seemed a good target for a shorter day with an approach walk of 2 hours over the top of the mountain. The face is effectively a sheer knife-cut down the wall of Suspense Gully, plumb vertical for 100 metres. I had done a good grade VII route up the right-side of the wall with Tim Blakemore in 2008, and a stiffer challenge direct up the middle was an obvious if improbable target. We spent half an hour scanning the wall from the opposite side of the gully and could see no continuous cracklines. We simply started near the centre where there looked to be hope and followed our noses. There aren't many cliffs as big as this left in Scotland which have never been touched, summer or winter. We were real pioneers and the sense of intimidation was measurably increased. Pete led up tricky walls and pulled violently over a bulge into a right-facing corner. He locked his arm round his axe, braced his crampons on tiny wrinkles and battled to excavate gear placements. I recoiled to hear him say:
"I don't feel the love; I really don't feel the lurvve."
So was it all over between us after 4 years together? There again, he might have been recalling lyrics from a favourite Barry White track; or perhaps he was merely expressing a lack of attunement to the task in hand. Finally, he got gear and body together, extracted a badly jammed axe pick and waltzed across to series of ledges to gain the first terrace on the face. Pete seemed very keen to send me up a verglassed bottomless chimney in the second tier but I declined in favour of a right-facing corner. Here I found a superb pick crack under the snow. The rock was proving more accommodating than expected, but the barrier of overhangs in the third and biggest tier left us no illusions. Every potential line looked extreme or impossible. Pete decided that after leading one pitch of technical 8 he didn't want to overstrain his weakened chest.
I applied my geological intuition. Every corner line looked compact and blank, but I knew that sandstone often gets more weathered and cracked out on the arêtes. So I traversed left to a rib of sorts and headed up in hope that the rock would give me enough small mercies to overcome the roofs. All the joys of on-sight climbing could now be indulged - patient probing of moss covered rock for cracks, delicate dancing on tiny tufts of febrile dry grass, controlling the adrenalin-surge when a 10 kilo rock collapsed under my foot. Eventually I found myself performing a death-like trance perched on a rib. With faith and a realisation of the paucity of alternative options I teetered up above doubtful gear to gain a sloping ledge. Now I could traverse above the overhangs to an open-book corner of immaculate rough sandstone, whose concessions included some nice flat edges for the feet but did not extend to the provision of cracks. I tried using my gloved hand to pull up but my fingers slipped on the icy hold and I ended upside-down suspended from my axe by my safety cord.The axe had held on a 5mm placement in verglas. It's amazing how strong a marginal placement can be. That lent me more confidence and I trusted my tools on the second attempt to surmount the last three metres. I can only recall the crux pitch of God Delusion over on Giant's Wall for comparable intensity of route-finding pressure and unpredictable rock. Pete led through up a technical 6 finishing corner in the dark and by 6.30pm we were done, dusted and on our way home. Suspended Animation seemed a good name to link the climb's location with the emotions it induced.
Left: Pete tackles pitch 1
Above: Martin about to embark on the tech 9 crux section on pitch 3
Beinn Bhan, Coire na Feola
Suspended Animation 150m VIII, 9 **
A direct line up the steepest section of the big wall on the right side of Suspense Gully. Pitch 3 is comparable to the crux of God Delusion. Start 10m up the right gully at the first horizontal break in the wall.
1. 30m 8 Traverse 6m along the break and climb a wall to a higher break, then go strenuously over a bulge into a right-facing corner. Break out left to a ledge and ascend diagonally left to a terrace; block belays under a bottomless chimney.
2. 25m 6 Move up under the chimney but traverse 4m right and climb a rather more friendly right-facing corner. Belay 10m higher under a belt of overhangs.
3. 40m 9 Traverse 10m left and climb to a higher ledge. Go up the corner above for 4m and traverse 4m right to a rib; then make precarious moves up to a tiny ledge and continue to a resting hold at a block – an intense passage. Traverse 4m right to a spike and climb the open-book corner directly above on thin hooks to easier ground. Belay 6m higher at a terrace.
4. 20m 6 Climb the corner directly above to a big terrace.
5. 40m Easy ground to the top.
P.Macpherson & M.Moran 16th Jan 2013
Wed Dec 12th 2012: Nailing the Steeple:
Week commencing December 10th; snow conditions are immaculate with a hardening of the snow after a temporary thaw, but the steepest faces in the west stripped of rime….. my mind whirled into action and I dialled Pete.
“How do you fancy a one-day traverse of the Cuillin Ridge?” The suggestion that we venture into the realm of classic mountaineering brought a the quickest rejection in marital history.
“No!” he replied in quizzical amazement that Moran was weakening in old age.
“Well, maybe Shelter Stone or Lochnagar,” I countered.
“Aye, Steeple should be absolutely nails.” The enthusiasm was back. All those hours hanging off the dry-tooling board in his garage weren’t going to be wasted on a ridge walk.
Whenever Pete talks of climbing “nails” crop up with depressing regularity. I had identified three grades of “nails” in the Macpherson scale.
Mere “nails” means a hard unrelenting work-out for a high-toned physique. “Absolutely nails” adds in a high probability of falling off, but might just be possible for me, on a good day and with extreme application of technical ingenuity. The grade to avoid altogether is “totally nails”. This one denotes screaming, retching and, for me, an inevitable plunge.
Steeple is a magnificent summer E2 up the face of the Shelter Stone bastion, far away in the Cairngorm outback. Only two winter ascents are known, the first by the late Alan Mullin in 1998. Although some aid was used and questions were asked about conditions, Mullin’s “dusk to dawn” ascent pointed the way for the next generation. Pete Benson and Guy Robertson repeated the route without the aid in 2002, missing out the first two pitches in favour of the more amenable Postern Direct. The soaring 40 metre corner and a devilish exit up wall cracks at the top of the bastion raised the estimated grade to IX, 9. I was intrigued as to why both ascents had missed out the summer 5c pitch at one-third height in favour of the summer crux of The Needle. That intrigue and the lure of the Steeple corner produced a flicker of motivation to be weighed against the inevitable trials of an 18 hour day.
My last visit to the Stone a year previously had been traumatic. I endured something of a nightmare on the top pitches of The Needle after getting seriously cold during a three-hour belay shift. This, coupled with a debilitating walk-out through drifted snow left me in need of four days on the proverbial couch. A year older and an even harder route; so what could be different this time?
On Tuesday I made a ski tour over to Ben Macdui to check on conditions on Shelter Stone. A light dusting of whiteness promised ideal conditions. I collected Pete from Inverness and we bedded down in the back of my bus in Glenmore, primed for a 2am reveille.
The night was calm and icy but pitch-black. A good trail led us into Coire an-t Sneachda, but somehow we missed the line of steps up the Goat Track and followed vague prints diagonally into ever-steepening terrain. By the time we clocked our error we were perched on the Fiacaill Ridge on the wrong side of the corrie, wasting the better part of half-an-hour on Pete’s already hectic schedule. We duly ascended the ridge and descended Coire Domhain. We stashed one sack and ski sticks at a large boulder alongside Hell’s Lum Crag. Now was the time to check on provisions for the route. The usual stomach-churning mix of energy gels, Scotch eggs and Haribo sweets emerged from Pete’s larder together with a litre drink bottle.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
“Red Bull and Lucozade; 50:50,” Pete replied. “Should keep us going, but don’t drink too much of it or else you’ll get dehydrated.”
The logical impossibility of this statement left me puzzled as we traversed the snow slopes on a compass bearing to hit the base of the crag. Considering that much of breakfast’s fluid intake had been a generic Red Bull substitute called “Rooster” I was clearly in for a dry day.
Standing on belay at 6am, groggy after a sleepless night and with 240 metres of patently difficult climbing above, I felt desolate.
“We need to get up the first two pitches by daylight,” came the Macpherson mantra as he disappeared into a long slabby groove that constitutes Steeple’s 5a summer start, thirty-five metres of sustained technicality, and probably a good VII, 8 on its own. The tactics for seconding are vital on a long route. You can either climb carefully, saving energy but possibly wasting time, or else heave-ho and thrash for glory on a tight rope. After a desperate ten minutes trying vainly to remove one of Pete’s pegs I went for the go-faster style. I fell once and twice ended up hanging one-armed off an axe, emerging in a state of thermostatic overload.
“Nice pitch this next one,” crooned Pete as he pointed me to the continuation groove, another summer 5a, but this time furnished with a delightful hairline crack for the axe picks.
Dawn came with a majestic two minute display of alpenglow over Cairngorm before we were plunged into the arid light of a mid-December day. Having quitted the initial groove we scampered up the easy steps to the middle wall of the cliff. The summer 5c crux of Steeple was directly above but Pete wasn’t keen.
“We could waste crucial time pratting around on that and it could be totally nails” he reasoned. Those fateful words induced my immediate compliance to veer right into the summer 5b of Needle, and, in further mitigation, the Steeple 5c did look bare.
As I had previously led The Needle pitch I summoned Pete to the front, warning him that the first section was a tad unprotected. These hesitant scratchings were accompanied by a multitude of curses that must have unsettled climbers arriving for a climb on the other side of the corrie. Dressed in electric-blue pants, lime-green shell top and orange helmet, Pete bobbed up and down like a novelty condom, his ropes dropping clear for 8 metres to my stance. Having raged across the sketchy traverse he collected his nerves and calmly mastered the intricate walls above. I had led this pitch reasonably well myself a year ago but now I found it unrelentingly hard on the second and fell again at the crux bulge. So much hard climbing and I wasn’t enjoying myself in the least!
It was imperative that I get on the sharp end to restore my focus. The next pitch reinstated my joy in winter climbing, a series of life-enhancing laybacks on torqued axes, followed by a delicate dog-leg up to the spike that stands beneath the monolithic Steeple corner. With the clock at 2.15pm we had a chance to get up it before nightfall. I looked up once at the sheer walls and shuddered in the thought that it was impossible. When I looked a second time I noticed a hairline crack running up the left wall. Calmly, I visualised how to bridge my front crampon-point and pick into the crack while laybacking the main corner and I even noticed vague etchings on the right wall for a bridged foot. There was a way after all. Leading this seemed distinctly preferable to hauling Scotch eggs and the Red Bull up another pitch, while desperately trying to remove jammed nuts every three metres. The only problem was that Pete would doubtless love to lead it too and so came the moment that tests every climbing partnership.
“You go for it man,” Pete said as he clipped into the belay. “You said you fancied it if we didn’t do the summer 5c.”
I knew how hard that must have been for him to say and I loved him at that minute. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t “man-love” - Pete’s gastric habits preclude any consideration of that - but it was the gel that makes climbers do great things together.
I put my planned sequence of moves into action and cruised the first eight metres to a semi-rest at a knee jam. Now the hairline crack disappeared and the main corner crack became too wide for axes. Had there been verglas the next bit could have been impossible. As it was I had to put axes over my shoulder and jam my way up the next six metres with gloved hands. As strength waned to nought I stretched to a hook on a chockstone and the pitch was solved. Twenty metres of fantastic positive hooking and bridging got me to the lonely spike belay beneath the glassy final wall.
Pete now faced the harder task, to second the corner and then lead through up the exit. He had already led this pitch on the first ascent of Stone Temple Pilots with Guy Robertson two years previously and said it took every ounce of his remaining strength. Mercifully, it is short. Having rested at the belay for five minutes and fixed his headtorch, he set to work on the baggy cracks, stuffing in gear while torquing desperately and throwing himself out right where a “thank God” hook permitted a heave on to a sloping ledge. A further 20 metres of interesting wandering took him to the top. I seconded in matching style, fighting stinging elbow cramps, and at 6.20pm pulled on to the top, just 20 minutes over the Macpherson target time of 12 hours.
Aviemore’s vague neon glow marked the location of the Coire Domhain gap and the homeward route. We skirted round the corrie and down under Hell’s Lum where a large windslab had recently fractured, leaving a swathe of broken china across our tracks. Back at the sack my lukewarm herbal tea did little to revive. With the stimulants long finished, we were reduced to a slow but contented plod back to the car park. The problem with climbing, like so many addictive activities, is that the more you do the more it takes to get the level of total satisfaction that we felt that night. As the years pass and the flesh weakens, this truth becomes critical and something has to give, but, for a while at least, Steeple had stalled the march of fate.