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12th Jan: Diedre of the Sorrows: a pyschological battle on dark Lochnagar
20th Feb: La Dame de Flåm: a spectacular candle of Norwegian ice
Thurs 20th Feb: La Dame de Flåm: Flåmsdalen is one of my favourite Norwegian valleys, a narrow wooded gorge, split into discrete sections by bluffs of overhanging rock and sheltering small hill farms on its brief grassy plinths. An ancient road weaves up the trench accompanied by the famous Myrdal rail line. The train rolls up and down four times a day accompanied by warning hoots as it approaches level crossings. Otherwise there is silence. Flåmsdalen’s charm and intrigue makes sharp contrast to the gross barrenness of neighbouring valleys.
When we first looked there for ice climbs in 2010 we discovered a wealth of cascades of all styles and standards, but the dirt road beyond Tunnshelle was usually blocked by snow. Martin Welch had taken the train ride to Myrdal one year and, before entering a long tunnel, reported glimpsing, in his inimitible words, “an astonishing pillar of ice, a Dame du Lac on steroids”, with reference to a famous free-standing ice column in the French Alps. I thought little more of it until the warm winter of 2014 forced us to seek higher ice venues.
The lack of snow allowed us to drive two kilometres further up-valley. After a hairpin climb to the next level stretch a majestic line of ice came into view plumb in the centre of the precipitous western flank. A single candle plunged from a corniced edge at 900 metres altitude and when it hit the tiers below spread into a series of supporting skirts. The candle itself looked the better part of 100 metres in height. The whole edifice sat with imperious disdain high above the valley floor, beyond the reach of instant gratification. It could only be Martin’s “Dame du Lac”. I felt a heart-piercing stab of desire, mixed with fear. Out of its bleak midwinter landscape Norway delivers these moments of elemental thrill like nowhere else of my experience.
Left: La Dame de Flåm
Above: Tamsin leading the second big pitch towards the candle
The Dame de Flåm required immediate action. With temperatures dropping well-below zero and the coincidence of a day off from work I recruited colleagues Tamsin Gay and Kenny Grant to the quest. On a grey morning we squeezed our hired Volvo up the track to a blockage of fallen rocks a kilometre from the fall and Tamsin performed a 10-point turn to get us facing downhill for our later escape. We skated through an ice-floored tunnel, scrambled down a boulderfield and crossed the Flåmselvi on thin pancakes of ice. Kenny mastered a clever zig-zag line to get us through initial rock bands and we ploughed into thigh-deep dry snow in the amphitheatre below the fall. A couple of ice steps and fear of avalanche forced us to put on the rope for two pitches to gain the first skirt of ice. Closer acquaintance with La Dame revealed the capping cornice to be far larger than we had imagined. The ice spewed out from a cavity under a three-metre overhang of snow. Even our Lochaber-expert Kenny, a man hardened to hacking out the cornices of Aonach Mor, was moved to dismay.
The first pitch fell to Kenny. We quickly realised that he gives no quarter to any icefall. Tamsin and I hid behind a curtain while he reduced the 20 metre vertical wall to meek submission. We moved to a second and more substantial tier of ice. As we switched the lead ropes to Tamsin she chose this moment to admit that she had never previously led on to virgin ground, despite having the redoubtable Tim Blakemore as her partner. This was a special moment for her. She set her controls towards the column that now towered preposterously overhead. After 35 metres of continuous WI5 she disappeared up a 70° bank of unprotectable crud. After a few minutes of hesitancy the ropes pulled out to their limit and she established a belay six metres under the belly of a giant ice jellyfish by which the column commenced.
Kenny and I seconded simultaneously to save time. While climbing a few metres ahead I clumsily levered off a sizeable plate of ice with my axe. Kenny placed his chin squarely in its path and arrived at the belay gashed and blooded. Tamsin and I did not appreciate the infliction of gory detail to our belay view, but Kenny seemed unperturbed. Meanwhile a breeze rose and waves of spindrift drifted across the face. The outlines of the valley below faded into a gloom. A storm was in the offing.
I moved under the jellyfish and found a through route behind a supporting strut. From the exit window the main candle soared above. The first moves bulged and a fine spray of water drifted back and forth from its terminal chute. Despite significant fall potential this was not the place for procrastination. I hauled up, committing to 35 metres of verticality, a rack of screws and a bag of wine gums my sole companions. Fortunately, ice columns are often featured into subsidiary organ pipes with blobs of water spray at regular intervals. While the axes sunk beautifully into the intervening grooves I could bridge my feet high on the flanking gargoyles. Soon the ice screws were chewing their way in to the hilt and grim contemplation turned into a joyous romp. After two vertical stretches I found a cavern on the right side of the column and made the perfect belay, cosy and sheltered yet perched on the edge of all things wild.
Kenny half way up the final pillar with the cornice looming overhead
Kenny and Tamsin pull the ropes on the final abseil
Kenny and Tamsin seconded wearing full down belay jackets and didn’t seem to overheat. Ropes and jackets were now wet with spray and rapidly freezing. Kenny took command of the situation. From the first thrust of his axe the outcome was not in doubt. He perched in silhouette on the crest of the pillar, briefly paused to shake out his arm and then placed the first of a dozen ice screw runners. Waiting below we marvelled at his tenacity, but after 30 metres of 90° ice even a man bred on the flanks of Ben Nevis must feel fatigue. He belayed at the final bulge of ice before it was swallowed by the jutting cornice.
Had Kenny brought a shovel we might have suggested that he began tunnelling, but in truth we were happy to declare the climb complete and set about preparing the first ice thread abseil anchor. Tamsin had a Kate Winslet moment as she drilled the screw holes. “Oh my God; the holes don’t meet. Shall I try here or maybe there…” Kenny and I swayed ice-clad in the breeze as if tied to the mast of the Hesperus and prayed for deliverance. Rescue from this point was all but impossible. There is no simple winch when the victims are cowering under a three-metre cornice. Dropping the ropes in such a situation is the stuff of nightmares. With the thread complete we tied them together with the crucial overhand knot, dropped the loose ends and relaxed a notch.
Twilight gloom turned to total darkness after the second abseil. We located a thread that we had placed on the way up and regained our spare kit under the first curtain. Our day’s adventures were not quite over. Wisely, we elected to abseil the approach slopes, which were now cross-loaded with wind-driven snow. Sure enough I triggered a windslab slough after a few metres. Our approach tracks had been obliterated. Eventually we blundered down to a wooded outcrop, 50 metres above the main river, and were forced into a final abseil. My axes, now strapped to my sack, snagged on a branch half-way down. Unwisely, I elected to continue to abseil on assumption that they would pull free. This decision left me hanging upside down in mid-air with my sack above my head. With a desperate shoulder-wrench I got free of the straps and left it for Tamsin to collect.
We regained the car at 8.45pm. A layer of fresh snow covered the road. Without a touch on the brake Tamsin drove us swiftly and silently down the valley while the instigator of the project sat in the back sucking contentedly on his last wine gum, his state of “second childishness and mere oblivion” befitting to the turning of his 60th year.
Sun 12th Jan: Diedre of the Sorrows: Saturday afternoon – just time to get my office up to date and check my last will and testament before driving over to collect Macpherson from Inverness.
Mutilated rabbits were scattered across the road surface over the Lecht. We were bound for Lochnagar, and, in particular the formidable Tough-Brown Face, a sea of boiler-plated ramps and overlaps of virginal granite. After two weeks of melt-freeze cycles Pete had expectations that every runnel and crack would be choked by slivers of climbable ice.
“As I see it we’ve got three route options,” said Pete as we drew into Glen Muick car park, “Mort, Post Mortem or Diedre of the Sorrows.”
With such morbid company for my thoughts sweet dreams were not forthcoming. After five hours wedged across my van’s front seats Avicii announced reveille with a somewhat ironic rendering of “Wake me Up” on my iPhone alarm.
“I’m in your hands,” I told Pete as we trudged up the paths to Meikle Pap. “It’s my first visit…”
This is not strictly true; it would be my first winter climb but not my first visit. In 1980 I marched into Lochnagar corrie on a wild snowy day, and promptly got avalanched on the approach slopes under Parallel B Gully. I ended upside down under the snow with only the fingertips of one hand piercing the surface, by which I maintained a slender airflow until my friend dug me out.
With addition of this macabre memory a review of Pete’s route choice suggested to me that a route that promised only “sorrows” was to be preferred to one that was guaranteed to be fatal, but Mort was high on Pete’s “most-wanted list”, a grade IX with 30 metre fall potential and only two previous ascents.
We arrived an hour too early. We could barely make out the cliff’s features in the twilight, so Pete swung his arc-light head-torch across the scene. The Tough-Brown Face was indeed white, but we couldn’t discern whether the coating was usable ice or a stucco of crud. After deliberation of recent failures and family responsibilities Pete plumped for the relative security of grade VIII Diedre.
Dawn over Lochnagar corrie (photo: Pete Macpherson)
Martin leading the first pitch
When first climbed in 1986 by Dougie Dinwoodie and Andy Nisbet Diedre of the Sorrows was regarded as Scotland’s hardest winter climb. The main protagonist, Dinwoodie, later fell prey to psychiatric illness, while his partner now pootles up 60 or 70 new grade III’s every winter season in his dotage. The route name is an inspired double-entendre. Dièdre is the French term for a shallow corner in the rock while Deirdre of the Sorrows is a tragic play inspired by Celtic legend. The heroine commits suicide rather than submitting to the will of King Conchobar, throwing herself headfirst from his chariot into a rock-face.
All these cheery portents to the day’s action were further buoyed by sight of young protagonist Murdo Jamieson, who passed with Andy Ingle en-route to grade VIII pickings on Black Spout buttress. Twenty minutes later they came back down.
“There’s a wind up there,” moaned Murdo. “It’s cold.”
Really, this boy needs to be sat down and given a lesson in climatology. This is Lochnagar in January Murdo. Anyway, the reluctant pimpernel then had the impertinence to set off up a route called Tough Guy.
A strident dawn blooded the sky as I took the lead up the initial ramps of Diedre. The angle was deceptive. Snow was thickly caked on the slabs. I started at a walk, then daggered axes deep in the snow, and then, to my alarm, found my feet kicking against bare granite slabs. A glance down revealed my ropes hanging unhitched down a 75° degree exposure to Pete’s stance. The search for protection commenced and was to become the day’s main theme. Ten metres higher I straddled a bulge of brittle ice with nought but a tiny leaf peg for immediate security and began to regret my temerity until my aimless hacking revealed the tail of an ancient sling. Not caring to ponder the provenance of such an offering I clipped in and pulled through.
Pete got to grips with the first of two overhangs in the corner. The laments from the dièdre came thick and fast - “This stuff’s shite”, “I could be in trouble here”; “This runner’s a joke”. I began to fear that Pete was frustrated and really wished himself over on Mort, but when I arrived at his stance he declared with relish: “Man, that was a cracking pitch.”
The third pitch was advertised as the crux. The second bulge was directly above Pete’s hanging stance. My crampons are blunt but nonetheless I didn’t wish to inflict further disfigurement on MacPherson’s physiognomy. A stiff pull and a long reach to an iced crack got me over the roof. Onward progress looked simple but tenuous. The walls and cracks were all delicately laced with verglas, but if the ice offered a means of progress it also rendered futile my search for meaningful protection. I tapped in bulldog and pecker hooks into the glue and pushed on. At every easement of angle the security of the ice disappeared in a bank of snow, and I had to rock over with my axes in uncertain mush. Climbing out of a tub of margarine on to a pile of sugar best appraises the predicament. The foolish climber pulls and hopes, but by bridging feet and plunging axes downwards body load is spread and risks diminished.
At this point my excavations revealed another old peg. The pegs detracted from the seriousness of the lead, yet I marvelled at the tenacity of the first ascensionists who placed them in such exiguous posture.
Pete leads the bulge on pitch two
Martin seconds the bulge on pitch two (photo: Pete Macpherson)
We had now gained the obvious traverse ramp mentioned in the description but a drool of ice directly above my belay could not be ignored. By the time Pete had dispensed with it several square metres of bare granite were revealed. After fifteen metres of fluttering he finally reported a piece of “bomber” gear. Seconding the pitch I bridged desperately past Pete’s rock scar, then spent much of my remaining energies extracting Pete’s sinker runners.
Light was fading and the Tough Guys were already on their way home. Although the angle had relented a little we remained spread-eagled in the midst of an array of steep snow-shields and ice-clad bulges. The ambience was of some wild alpine face in a greater range. Though Pete suggested an abseil descent I felt it proper to push to the top, and made a 55 metre lead into the unknown. Each anticipated easement proved elusive. Ice grooves debouched on to 65° snow ribs and protection was strictly rationed. The snow became ever thicker and more arduous to climb. Finally Pete led through to a block at the apex of the face and we were allowed release.
Our schedule had slipped behind Pete’s promised home-contact time. Two abseils landed us safely in Raeburn’s Gully. The instant the sacks were packed Pete’s new “Ueli Steck” boots steamed off into the night. I missed the chance to loosen my laces. Trailing behind, the temperature of my feet rose from glowing to screaming as friction mounted. Finally, I could bear no more and stopped by a burn to bathe them. In those few minutes of pure bliss I heard the muted gurgle of the stream and a rising wind sighing over the grouse moors, and was moved to that indelible sense of place and of being.
The phone signal returned as we sped into Ballater and Pete adopted his girly voice as the days’ activities were recounted. Nicky was left to believe that we had been on some kind of boys’ jolly, but I am sure she knows the truth. It is many years since Joy even bothered asking, but she knows I come home happy. Diedre of the Sorrows had delivered much more pleasure than grief.
Martin tackles the bulge at the start of the third pitch (photo: Pete Macpherson)
Pete prepares to lead the groove of thin ice on pitch four of Diedre of the Sorrows