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14th February The Great Smear of Grindsfjell - a quality new climb on Norwegian ice
31st January: Reflections on a Rescue - a difficult day with Torridon Mountain Rescue Team on Liathach
6th – 12th June: Tour of the Stacks - a week on the sea-cliffs and stacks of the North-West and Hoy
14th February The Great Smear of Grindsfjell:
“By my reckoning we’ll have climbed fifty shades of ice by the end of this week.” opined Daniel Davies as we drove through the hairpin tunnels that climb from Aurlandsdalen to the mountain cliff of Grindsfjell.
Much as we lamented Dan’s humour we had indeed covered ice of blue, green, yellow and dirty grey hues in the past four days, including the “super-vertical” headwall of Reppanutenfossen. With a cold fine weather forecast I planned a special mission to cap our week of Norwegian ice. Two huge ice smears had developed on the slabs of Grindsfjell. They emerged from seams in the rock 50 metres below the cliff-top. I had also spied a long thin dribble of ice in a cleft above the left-hand smear. If we could make a link we might claim a notable prize, for the line was almost certainly unclimbed.
Dan’s partner was the droll Dane, Rasmus, who had displayed remarkable aptitude for crabbing up vertical pitches in soft boots and a pair of Grivel G12 walking crampons. Rasmus was not a man in doubt of his ability.
“Now I am climbing steep ice OK; can we do a different style of climb tomorrow?”
“Well, I might just have the type of climb you’re looking for,” I replied, pulling out a small rack of rock hardware in anticipation of some mixed climbing above the smear.
Left: The Great Smear (we are visible on the top section of the route)(photo: Donald King)
Above: Cloud-filled Aurlandsdalen viewed from the route
So at 8am I led my eager ice puppies across the long traverse towards the smear from our parking lot at the entrance to Stondalen tunnel. The ice sheet was unrelenting in its 70 metre sweep, and yet the optimist in me noticed that the angle was a few degrees off-vertical. Fog choked the lower valley while the sunrise flushed the high plateaux.
“If you are ever going to stick your neck out Martin, today’s the day!” I mused.
We clambered over banks of rotten snow festooned with bent birch trees, and roped a final section up an icy ramp to gain the foot of the smear. Although the ice had appeared tenuously thin in distant views, the scale of the place was so big that we were actually able to plant our longest ice screw to secure ourselves at its base. The ice soared skywards.
I got to work quickly knowing that team confidence was fragile at this point. A bulge at 8 metres pushed me on to my arms, but above the angle eased to a steady 80°. I could climb in balance with 80% of my weight on my feet. After 45 metres I made a belay and brought Dan and Rasmus up. The smear continued but after a further 25 metres ran up rightwards to disappear in a sweep of rock overlaps.
Just as hoped, there was a link up left to gain a thin cascade in the upper cleft of the cliff. A tantalising ice column drooled over a rock overhang. Simultaneous with this discovery the sun rose over the plateau. I planted Dan and Ras well to the right of the column and attacked before the sun’s heat became intense. Wrapping my tools round the pillar I bridged up until I could plant the tips of my picks in a thin screen of black ice above the overlap. Standing in fragile balance and with only a few millimetres of tip grip, I tied-off my shortest ice screw less than halfway to the hilt, and, with this moral support, pulled delicately up until I could reach a thicker floe. Much pleased to accomplish such a smart little piece of climbing I belayed at once and brought on the boys. With an occasional tight rope they managed but were rather dismayed to view a tower of cascades stretching above to the skyline.
Above: Leading the 2nd pitch up the ice smear
Right: Tackling the crux section through the overlap
My own brio was dampened by the continuing steepness. A juice-sapping 50 metre pitch gained a glacis under a final cleft where umbrellas of ice sprayed meltwater over my hood. We were close to success but did Rasmus and Dan have the strength to complete the pitch? They seconded simultaneously as I played the ropes through my belay plate. Less than half-way up all movement on Dan’s rope ceased. While Rasmus clambered up to me I shouted hopefully.
Normally, Dan responds with a cheery “Okley Dokley” but instead he declared, “I think I have an issue here.”
I held my patience and waited a little longer. The sun was fast sinking and every minute lost now would be repaid with five minutes in darkness. The end-of-course party beckoned and benightment on Grindsfjell was not a healthy alternative.
“What’s the issue, Dan?” I eventually called.
“The issue is that I have dropped an axe.”
I was determined not to be cheated of our climb by a mere mishap.
“Climb with one and I’ll try to winch you.”
“Okley Dokley,” came the battle-cry from the depths. He was not to be denied.
I clamped my Ropeman metal-prusik on Dan’s rope, ran a long sling through the anchor karabiner and down to my waist. With a series of body-weight hoists and some remarkable wild swings from Dan, the final WI5 section was vanquished and he arrived with his customary effervescence, seemingly unperturbed by his misadventure.
The top pitch was brief and beautiful. I bridged past the umbrellas and pulled left on to dry turf. A horn of rock adorned the top. As the lads seconded I draped two slings for our abseil and celebrated success in the glow of sunset.
The temperature drop was instant. We pulled on belay jackets, stowed spare kit and fixed head-torches. The abseils began with a 60 metre monster slide. The ropes pulled like a dream. The second abseil revealed Dan’s discarded Nomic axe lodged in the only bit of snow on the whole climb. He’s a lucky so-and-so, that boy. A third 60 metre rope-stretcher took us to the base of the smear. The ice threads were working a treat and we did two more abseils down the introductory steps to gain the base of the route. Eschewing the long traverse back to the car we strode gaily down open slopes between the stands of trees, dodged through a boulder-field and gained the road a kilometre down from the parking lot. Beers, dinner and banter were imminent.
Dan took the wheel and waxed lyrical on ballroom dancing on the homeward drive.
“So good for one’s balance and there’s no feeling quite to compare with whirling your partner out of a tight corner with a firm hand on the waist and a quick back-step........
There are clearly thrills far beyond my world of ice.
1st recorded ascent: D.Davies, M.Moran and R.Nielsen V WI5+ 165m ***
Left: Martin leads the long 50 metre cascade towards the top of the route
Above: My partners in crime - Rasmus (l) and Dan (r)
Reflections on a Rescue: Joy heard the 2am call and I dragged myself out of bed. Two climbers were overdue from the grade III gully called George in Coire Dubh Mor on Liathach, a route that I have done on dozens of occasions. Muster time was 6am at the team base in Torridon Youth Hostel. I instantly knew that this was a serious shout. I had been retreated from An Teallach the previous day in conditions both wild and dangerous with huge build-ups of drifted snow. The overnight weather forecast was appalling with a “polar low” due to give blizzards and storm-force winds.
Our immediate assumption was that the climbers had been avalanched at some point. Andrew J was acting as coordinator. He gave us the bare bones of information. The wife of one had raised the alarm when they had failed to arrive at the hostel as planned on Friday evening. She was back at home in Suffolk. The two friends had travelled up on Thursday night for a weekend’s climbing. Helicopter assistance was unlikely for several hours, so a foot search was launched.
Six of us were assigned to walk round the back of the mountain and climb into Coire Dubh Mor to approach the route. Three others, led by Jim S, would go up the south side to check likely descent routes. Throughout our searches the prime concern was to avoid placing ourselves in unnecessary danger. At 6.30am we left the Coire Dubh car park, wrapped up to the hilt. Ryan led for a way until the path disappeared under deep drifts a hundred metres up. Mark and I took over and we staggered blindly in the storm. Ferocious cross-winds knocked us over every minute or so. The task ahead seemed overwhelming. The march to the steeping stones in Coire Dubh, a fifty minute jaunt in dry conditions, took us over two hours, but the dawn gave us better orientation.
Emily and Ronald remained in the lee of a large boulder to provide a radio link round the back of the mountain as necessary. I didn’t envy them as they donned down jackets and hunkered down under a group shelter. All the way through the valley the snow was knee-deep and akin to a wet quicksand, sucking the life out of the legs. However, visibility was improving. The worst of the storm had moved through. I began to believe that we could do something useful. Mark is a fit warrior. He and I took turns to forge a trail while Ryan and Charlie handled the radio communications.
Coire Dubh Mor and Liathach summit - scene of the search
After three hours we reached the corrie. A quick scan for recent avalanche debris revealed nothing. Perhaps they had bivouacked in the route. There is a cave at the crux which could provide some shelter. Cautiously, we probed higher, digging out snow pits to check for active windslab. The further we went the more confident I felt. The fresh snow, though thigh thigh-deep in places, revealed no tendency to fracture. Naturally, there was reluctance at base to give us the green light to climb higher, but we impressed Andrew that we could reasonably scout the gully and then traverse out to the north ridge of Spidean a’Coire Leith.
Charlie and Ryan stayed back to be available to traverse into Coire na Caime if needed there. Moving one at a time Mark and I ploughed between islands of rock. Soon we could see the whole route. It was empty. The mountain now revealed its full profile, blasted clean by the storm with every nook and cranny etched in wind-packed snow. The puzzle of the missing climbers was now as absorbing as it was troubling. Avalanche was no longer the only scenario. A fall on descent was as likely, and in the teeth of a hurricane the climbers would almost definitely have descended from the exit of the route direct into Coire na Caime rather than trying to get over the summit.
Mark and I climbed swiftly up Spidean’s north ridge. At the exit of George we found two tangled ropes and the remains of sandwiches. Our suspicions were confirmed. The two climbers must already have been desperate to have dumped their ropes. We reported the find and suggested an immediate switch of operation to Coire na Caime. With its lochan jewels and ice-scraped terracing this is most the lovely of mountain corries but can turn into a desperate trap in the teeth of a storm, with no path out and no phone signal. Charlie and Ryan began a horizontal traverse round into the corrie. Stornaway Coastguard helicopter was now on scene and would collect more rescuers from Torridon base.
For Mark and I the priority was to check for tracks over the summit. It was important to eliminate that lingering possibility. As we cramponned up the final ridge the NW wind still blew in occasional gusts of 50mph. We found old crampon scrapes around the summit cairn and scouted the “false line” towards Pyramid Buttress where climbers might have strayed and fallen, but there was no conclusive evidence of recent activity. We decided to complete our mission by descending the normal route down the “bum-slides” from the col east of Spidean’s summit. We dug a test snow-pit and again we found no layering. I launched down first. The ride was exhilarating. Within 5 minutes we were 250 metres lower. Nowhere was there any avalanche debris or recent tracks. For us the last hours had been an intriguing and, dare I admit, satisfying piece of mountaineering. Despite the dread narrative that underlay our mission, we were pleased that on this rescue our efforts had made a genuine contribution to a resolution. So often they don’t.
Then we heard a burst of activity on the team radio. One of the two missing climbers had emerged at Coire Dubh car park and Gerry McP had picked him up in the team bus. He was weak and mildly hypothermic but otherwise unharmed. He had left his friend in Coire na Caime where they had bivouacked through the storm. We dared to believe that both had survived. All that was needed was a quick airlift and this story could end in triumph. Our spirits soared.
“Tell him that we have got his ropes,” I blurted out in sheer relief.
Mark and I swooped down the second series of bum-slides and reached the road in 40 minutes.
Gerry picked us up. He had dropped the climber off at the hostel, Charlie and Ryan has spotted a bivouac shelter a few hundred metres away and the helicopter was on its way, but Gerry’s mood was more sombre.
“His friend was conscious when he left him, but he’d stopped shivering during the night. That’s not good.”
Back at the hostel the climber was re-warming, wrapped in a down jacket, his feet in a warm footbath. He was almost euphoric that his ordeal was over and that the rescue team had now taken over the final phase of the recovery. He recounted his epic. His friend was the more experienced climber but they had endured a terrible battering from spindrift in the gully. At one stage his friend took an hour and a half to establish a belay and became too exhausted to lead the final easy pitch to the top. They descended direct to Coire na Caime in darkness and his pal was avalanched on the way down, sustaining minor head injuries. They had bivouacked behind a boulder and he had left to seek a rescue when the wind started to drop at 8am. We could imagine how desperate a night this had been.
The helicopter reported that they were returning with victim and rescuers. With a severely hypothermic patient they would doubtless go straight to Raigmore Hospital. Meanwhile, the first survivor was taken off by the warden to have a shower and change of clothing. Then Gerry took a second radio call from the pilot, and he emerged with solemn face. The outcome was not good. The helicopter paramedic could detect no signs of life.
Our hopes were dashed. There seemed little more that I could do. There were several team members on hand to help deal with the situation and I had nine new course clients arriving in just a few hours. I needed to recover some spirit and strength for an evening of cheery meeting and greeting.
Yet I little imagined what trauma was still to come. The helicopter landed as I drove off. The prognosis was so certain that, instead of heading to hospital, they unloaded the casualty outside the hostel. Almost simultaneously, the wives and parents of the victims arrived at the hostel, unaware of the outcome. Despite strong dissuasion from the team leader and police they had flown up from London and came direct to the scene. Our team doctor Gerry managed the situation with superb professionalism. The stretcher was taken into the warden’s house where Gerry was able to confirm the death. Other members looked after his friend and the families in the hostel, and then Gerry had to give them the dreaded news. Usually, rescuers can maintain a degree of detachment from the personal drama of a fatality but not in this case.
From group management and physical determination, through technical expertise, communications skill and eventually to pastoral care of a bereaved family the Torridon mountain rescue team had done a magnificent job.
I couldn’t help but look at the press reports the next day, and on the Sky news web site a hundred and more comments had been appended to the brief story of a climber killed in an avalanche in Torridon. I should have resisted the temptation but began scrolling. One after another strident criticisms of the climbers flashed across the page. “Bloody idiots – shouldn’t even have gone out in that weather.” “Don’t they realise they put other people’s lives at risk.” “They don’t deserve to be rescued going out in those conditions.” “It’s always the same – English climbers coming up and killing themselves on our mountains…”
The vitriol of the baying mob was occasionally alleviated by an expression or sadness or sympathy, but the overall tenor was that of intolerance. How would the grieving wife, parents and friends of that young man who perished on the mountain feel when they read those posts, as inevitably they would do. How callous, how ignorant, how arrogant? Yes, these guys made serious misjudgements that cost the life of one, yet an essential human freedom is the freedom to make mistakes. Mostly we learn from them, but sometimes we aren’t given that chance. I tussled briefly with a surge of anger and switched off.
6th – 12th June: Tour of the Stacks: A full-blown storm greeted the arrival of our sea stack groups in Inverness. Blind climber Redmond Szell was with us again, along with his trusty steed Andres Cervantes, a warm-blooded Columbian readily convertible to the austerities of northern Scotland. Their main aim over the next three days was an ascent of the elusive Am Buachaille off the headland south of Sandwood Bay. Dennis Ayre and Alison Fisher were on board for the whole week with onward tickets booked for the Old Man of Hoy after completion of mainland preliminaries. Nick Carter managed to extricate himself from family devotions to guide Red and Andres.
We drove the high road west through gutsy squalls and found sanctuary in the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s hut at Elphin. There was scant temptation to rise early on the morn. Gloom-laden skies swept fine rain against the panes. Only when inactivity threatened to become indolence did we venture towards the headlands of Reiff, the miniature sea-cliff paradise out west of the Inverpolly mountains.
Around midday the air cleared and the clouds lifted retreated to a lofty canopy. Save for a few rogue showers we enjoyed an afternoon of increasing warmth on the Pinnacle Walls sector. In Dennis and Alison I had a retained firefighter and rope access technician to boost the party’s collective skills. At 63 Dennis might be termed an old timer but he champed at the leash until given leading duties and flashed up a V Diff, a Severe and a VS like a rat up a drainpipe.
On adjoining routes Red disported himself in a brand-new flaming orange jacket. Thanks to his ascent of Hoy’s Old Man in 2013 Red was now the epitome of the modern commercial climber. His account of his journey from delinquent student through loss of sight to conquering climber, The Blind Man of Hoy, was hot off the Sandstone Press. He now possessed sufficient impertinence to confront Berghaus as to why they had no para-climbers on their sponsored lists.
Back at the hut we indulged famously on Joy Moran’s supplies of ginger cake, jam slices and banoffie pie with a lasagne and salad thrown in for good measure. With the forecast set for two days of light winds and clear skies we scheduled Am Buachaille for Tuesday, by which time we reckoned the Atlantic swell would abate enough to allow us to swim the channel and climb the stack in the permissible window two hours either side of low tide. This left Monday free, and while Nick took the celebrity team to Sheigra sea cliffs, I headed to The Old Man of Stoer with Dennis and Alison. Alison required fortification with one of Lochinver’s famous pies before we sallied forth.
Dennis crosses the tyrolean traverse to the Old Man of Stoer
A storm-bound Am Buachaille from Sandwood Bay
On arrival at the cliff edge opposite the stack we spied two climbers already on the climb, the leader perched under huge overhangs some way off-route, and his second spread-eagled on a tenuous traverse. Prolonged screams were interspersed with gruff commands. Clearly, a happy couple were at work. We didn’t wish to intrude on their bliss, but with the time well-past midday we needed to get going. A rope was in place across the channel, sparing me the indignities of a swim.
We fixed our own static rope as a back-up and I inspected the horrors of the crux first pitch. The eight-metre traverse was liberally smeared with sea foam, but with the aid of painful hand-jams I got across and preserved my pride. On reaching the platform at the left edge of the stack, our hopes for a sun-warmed ascent were dashed. An insistent breeze blew in from the south-west forcing me to wrap up in three layers plus a windproof. The second pitch was a romp, save for a bulging corner where an arm jam sequence threatened a tear to the shoulder rotator-cuff. Feeling pleasurably confident I took a direct short-cut on the third pitch to avoid the tricky 4c crux. Two giant cams protected a series of balance moves through some gritty rounded strata.
I encountered the crisis couple at the summit belay. The leader had regained the correct line, but instead of doing the decent thing and getting his lady off the stack pronto he had continued the climb.
“You all-right youth,” he said in cocksure Yorkshire and disappeared down the abseil leaving his traumatised partner unsure of how to attach her prusik and abseil device.
“He’s training for his MIA assessment. I’m afraid this is not really my scene,” she said. I reflected that it was as well that this wasn’t his assessment.
With Stoer under the belt we dared to believe that we could outfox the tidal vagaries of Am Buachaille. The weather had other ideas. A fresh sou’wester blew all night and through the morning, and rolled out a pall of cold grey cloud. Throughout the trek in Nick and I guessed that the seas would be troubled. Sure enough, when we breasted the cliff-edge the sea bench around the stack was awash. With a swell of two metres and a tidal range of just three and a half there was no point shivering in the wind for hours in wait for the lowering of the tide. Red would have to return another year to complete his sea stack trilogy. The beach crags north of Sandwood Bay offered an immediate restorative for our disappointment.
As we trekked over the unblemished sands of the bay we spied two other well-wrapped climbing strays, one of cadaverous mien, his older companion a jocular contrast who proudly announced his place of residence as Swindon. The most plausible designation of this odd couple was as a guide and his client. They had hoped to do Am Buachaille as a warm-up for Hoy.
Red and Andres climbing Roseroot at Sandwood beach crag
The East Face of the Old Man of Hoy in morning sunshine
North of the bay Torridonian sandstone is replaced by ancient Lewisian gneiss as the surface rock. The coastal crags were sea-washed and of immaculate hue. We did a couple of agreeable routes – Marram (VDiff) and Roseroot (VS) - with the sands and waves as a backcloth, then bent into the wind for the seven kilometre trek out. Red managed a quick swim to add to the day’s 16km walk and two routes, and arrived back at our van much in need of succour. Soup, noodles and yet more cake fortified us for our respective night journeys. Nick, Red and Andres were bound for Inverness and home, while Alison, Dennis and I drove into the twilight through Durness and along the north coast towards Thurso. At half past midnight we parked up and bedded down across the three bench-seats of the minibus, well-placed to catch the morning ferry to Orkney.
Dennis succumbed to sea-sickness as soon as the boat left Scrabster harbour and the sail past the cliffs of Hoy under glowering skies was devoid of its usual thrill. Dennis was allowed a brief recovery with a bacon and brie snack at Julia’s Café while I summoned a taxi for the six mile drive out to Yesnaby. With six hours to kill before the evening passenger ferry to Hoy there was climbing to be done. Remarkably, there is a sport climbing venue in the flagstone quarry just inland from the battering waves. At first sight it would be all too easy to dismiss these eight metre routes as trivial, but we found ourselves increasingly engaged and taxed as the grades moved up from 5 to 6a+. Alison and Dennis were then subjected to two prusik ascents of the rope in preparation for potential eventualities on the Old Man next day.
The usual weird and wonderful Orcadian characters were encountered on the boat to Hoy. Tickets were issued by a chirpy New Zealander who was miffed when I suggested he might be doing a holiday job.
“I’ve lived here for years mate,” he protested.
Rackwick Hostel is a tiny old schoolhouse, any semblance of charm extinguished by a plethora of Health and Safety impedimenta for its eight paying beds. A dowdy couple, who looked somewhat older than Dennis and I, were in residence and not overly impressed by our indulgence in chocolate cake. They crept in past us at 8pm and emerged from their dorm 11 hours later just as we were tucking into breakfast. Their breakfast supplies appeared to consist of a green-teabag and a spoonful of unsweetened muesli. Dennis effectively soured the atmosphere by casting the used teabag into the rubbish. The poor gent looked most distraught as he scrabbled round the kitchen bench in search of it.
“But I always have a second cup,” he complained.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to fish in the bin for it,” Dennis consoled.
I left for the Old Man with the thought that if my life ever becomes that grim I’ll be off to Zurich to die with dignity.
Dennis flashes through the crux section on Hoy's second pitch
Alison and Dennis on the Old Man's summit
To our delight, the air had mellowed and the winds fallen light. The Old Man’s East Face glowed in sunlight as we made the usual detailed inspection of the route from the mainland cliff-top. For the first time in the week I had the pleasure of overheating as I bridged and jammed my way through the “coffin” crux on the second pitch. Alison and Dennis both quit the coffin half-a-metre too low and committed themselves to tenuous moves on the sandy slopers of the outside wall. Thankfully, neither was forced to put yesterday’s prusik training into practice.
We cleverly weaved a line past a row of eight fulmars on the fourth pitch and Dennis was assigned the sharp-end for the top corner. “Ron Hills” stretched to their limit, he bridged his way to the top with aplomb. We lazed on top in the sun puffin-watching for the best part of half an hour, enjoying our just rewards for five days of effort.
The second abseil took us straight into the arms of the two climbers from Sandwood who were just completing the second pitch. The complications of housing five climbers on a hanging stance were solved by rehanging our abseil ropes on an extended sling and making a quick by-pass. Having survived the excitements of the final free-hanging abseil, we enjoyed a prolonged afterglow lounging at the base. The flailing of Swindon Pete up on the stack was not the only wildlife event on view. A mother duck was taking her five chicks out into the tidal pools where big waves were crashing every couple of minutes. Hungry seals bobbed in the surf beneath the outwash, ready for a quick snack should the ducklings succumb. Several times they narrowly escaped the flow before the errant mother led them back to safe ground.
Back at the hostel we were just relaxing with a post-prandial glass of red wine when four weathered Scotsmen arrived. They had walked the four miles from the ferry and from their scanty gear they produced a variety of phials filled with malt whisky. These buddies were sharing a magical mystery weekend, organised by one of their number who refused to divulge the next day’s itinerary. As evening shadows lengthened we wondered whether they might end up helping in the rescue of Pete and his pal from the Old Man. We were wrong. The leader burst in at 10pm, his gallows complexion now suffused with a victorious glow. This was further enhanced on his production of an unopened bottle of Glenfiddich from his sack. We capitulated to the ongoing celebrations and filled our glasses. Swindon Pete limped in twenty minutes later, convinced that he had fractured a metatarsal bone when he swung off the crux. He explained that the two of them had met up through a “climbing partner wanted” post on the UKClimbing web-site. In just four days together they had pulled off a noteworthy success. While outside the curlew’s calls heralded the gathering of the night, our banter flowed until the whisky ran dry.