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MARTIN'S 2014 BLOG

Older entries 2013 2012 2011 2010

12th Jan: Diedre of the Sorrows: a pyschological battle on dark Lochnagar

20th Feb: La Dame de Flåm: a spectacular candle of Norwegian ice

19th-20th May: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: a Cuillin Traverse with Dave Pugh

14th – 22nd June: Desert Island Climbs: a week of rock climbing on Pabbay and Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides

23rd Aug: A Day on the Frendo: classic route on the Aigullle du Midi and a meeting with the Swiss machine

23rd Aug: A Day on the Frendo: There is undeniable appeal in choosing a route which ticks the requirements of difficulty but has an easy descent. None serves better than the Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi, graded D+ but offering a 20 minute descent to Chamonix’s fleshpots – provided you catch the last lift! We had pondered the Eiger traverse but a forecast of high winds turned our favour to the Frendo, and so we absorbed the evening sunrays at the Plan de l’Aiguille refuge, calmly prepared for a 2.30am start.
I felt secure in the abilities of my clients. Roger Owen, an Everest summiteer, had endured a 19 hour traverse of the Weisshorn with me in 2009, through which his smiling optimism had overcome the trials of sharing a rope with “Dirty” Des Winterbone. Martin Bewsher was squeezing prodigious climbing enthusiasm into the 10 day annual allowance decreed by his spouse. Now resident in the celebrity suburb of Hale, Cheshire, he professed intimacy with Argentinian footballers and proudly declared himself on flirting terms with the buxom blonde who spun TV’s Wheel of Fortune in the 1980’s.
The first hours went like a dream. My earlier recce of the route down to the Pelérins Glacier proved its worth. We drew ahead of the only other contenders for the route, two Swiss Romands from Sierre and picked up old tracks at the entry terrace. The crampons came off for the first half-hour but the hut warden’s warnings of snow on the route proved correct. The spikes went back on for two lovely pitches of thin ice and snow up the leftward ramp. We now needed to locate grade III “ice-choked chimneys” but dawn is shy in late-August. Restricted to the range of my headtorch beam I struck up a likely line, only to encounter a fierce cleft at least grade IV in standard and devoid of fixed protection. Hooking my axe high into hidden cracks I cursed my ill-fortune and struggled to a belay. I regained easier ground and spotted the scuffs of previous visitors. Dawn’s grey light pursued me into a second innocuous cleft and a second off-route encounter. Old jammed slings adorned an overhanging exit. Disdaining the use of aid I bridged high on foot-slopings and hooked my axe over the top. A foot skidded and the axe popped out. My protection was just a metre below but my plunge continued to a bruising encounter of buttock and granite six metres lower. I screamed at Martin for dropping me so far, but then noticed that a lower sling had pulled out under load creating significant slack in the rope.
This wanton waste of energy and time would cost us dear higher on the route. I refocused, went back up and pulled through with some desperation. Meanwhile, the Swiss boys had found an easier way and were now in the van. Obeying instructions to use aid and with a tight rope Martin grappled up to me, but Roger was recalcitrant:
“Have you got that cam I placed?” I asked.
“Can’t see any cam,” he replied.
“Can’t you reach down to it?” I persisted. Roger now became perverse.
“I can’t go down; I’ve got Ueli Steck behind me.”
“Oh yeah!” I scorned. “Well, if he’s taking the piss, bugger the cam – I’ll charge him for it,” I thought.
Roger duly lurched over the top. No sooner was Roger beached than a tousled shock of hair and an unmistakable pair of quizzical eyebrows bounced up over the lip. It was indeed the world-famous speed merchant. Steck was climbing solo as is his wont. I regained a small shred of pride to see that he used my sling for a pull. After smiling benignly at my apology for luring him off-route, Steck was subjected to a torrent of sycophantic charm from Roger and dutifully posed for a group photo before tackling the walls above in a series of swift, precise and nimble movements – a joy to watch, but impossible to emulate. We suspected he would soon be enjoying an early lunch in Chamonix.

Rencontre with Ueli Steck on the lower pitches

I knew that we had a long day ahead. After getting back on route at the crest of the spur, a weaving line allowed us to move together with occasional runners between us. We took crampons off, then had to put them back on 100 metres higher where the rocks became smothered in snow.
Close to midday we debouched at the notch where the crux pitches commence. Two Lithuanians were engaged on the initial corner.  I followed, making copious use of axe hooks and using my free hand to bridge and jam where possible. The climbing was rude – grade IV when dry but Scottish technical 6 in the snow. A second pitch was easier and I still dared to hope for a quick finish.
The Lithuanians had ground to a halt on the third pitch. They were still trying to climb without crampons. While they regrouped I led past in a series of precarious bridging and mantleshelf manoeuvres. The terrain was stubbornly uncooperative and after 30 metres I faced a swing into a horrific off-width chimney some way above gear. I could not afford to fall off again. In guiding terms I went as close to my limit as I dared to squirm into the cleft and yard up on an outstretched axe; and to think that Steck had free-soloed up it two or three hours earlier.
Struggling on another brutal pitch and in somewhat wilted state I felt it timely to save face by recalling my only other ascent of the route.
“I can’t believe I soloed this in 1987,” I blagged.
Roger and Martin were probably thinking “nor can we!”
Meanwhile, they produced sterling performances on every pitch; getting up with minimal assistance from rope or aid. Had either given up the fight we would have been in a real pickle. The fifth pitch culminated in yet another all-out heave up a gigantic overhanging flake. The top of the buttress looked so close, yet produced two and a half more pitches of sustained Scottish 5 and 6 mixed ground. At 7.30pm I made a final despairing thrutch and lurched on to a big flat terrace. Above me the curving snow arête, so famous in photos of this climb, curled up to the final ice wall, and on the skyline the Midi television transmitter glowed in the evening sun.

Roger starting up the snow ridge at 8pm

Arrival at the crux buttress; Swiss team in progress

Looking up the snow arete to the exit rognon and Aiguille du Midi

The morning after: two Martin's prepare to hit the coffee and croissants trail outside the Cosmiques Hut

I stuffed the day’s third flapjack down my gullet, and even accepted one of Roger’s chocolate covered rice cakes in a desperate attempt to restore some glycogen to my depleted muscles. Hopes of a meal at the Cosmiques Hut had long since disappeared and we prepared for a second nightshift.
The beauty of the arête erased all harsh memories of the discordant rock pitches. Roger and Martin ascended against a spillikin of giant granite flakes and the matching linear geometry of the serried pillars on the west face of the Aiguille du Plan. We drew transient warmth from the waning sun, and as night gathered set an ice screw belay under the terminal rognon. The Swiss tracks went leftwards. During four interminable 60 metre pitches of Scottish grade II  I slumped and dozed on every belay. At midnight we gained a wall of green ice on the left side of the rocks. Above this a 50 degree snow slope led to a small but delicate cornice. Thirty metres out from my belay I cautiously thrust axes and arms into the soft lip and rolled gently on to level ground. The air was still but the frost bit deep as soon as we stopped.
Faced with the prospect of an ice-box bivouac in the lift station Roger led the day’s last wise decision and we took the longer walk to the comforts of the Cosmiques Hut, where a few climbers, bound for Mont Blanc, had already vacated their beds. Our 22 hour shift was finally done.
As for the morals of the tale - don’t ever underestimate a route with 1100 metres in height gain and pick your partners well. Rog and Martin had been a dream team for what was perhaps my last grande course as an Alpine guide.

Sat 14th – Sun 22nd June: Desert Island Climbs: A self-conscious gaggle of climbers assembled at Oban harbour key on a sunny Saturday afternoon and dragged voluminous baggages on board the ferry for Barra. Supplies included over a week of food, tents, a dozen racks of hardware, 20 climbing ropes and four 100 metre lengths of static rope for abseils. We were 19 in total, a mix of young and old, of the dishevelled and urbane, of weedy wads and weathered professionals –brought together by the organisational power of Sheila van Lieshout and Robin Thomas and united in dreams of cranking sea-washed Lewisian gneiss against a Hebridean sunset. 

At Castlebay we made a rapid transit to Donald McLeod’s boat, “Boy James”, and within half-an-hour were weaving through the tangle of uninhabited islands that form the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. Donald is something of a legend among the legions of climbers who have made this journey since the cliffs were discovered 20 years ago. “I’ve only been doing it for 12 years.” he said, “The last boatman lost his mind.” My calculations concluded that Donald has his head firmly screwed on. At £100 per climber and with numbers of 25 or more coming every week in May and June there was money to be made from this business. No wonder it was rumoured that he spends his winters in the Caribbean.

We pitched our tents in the gloaming just above the beach on Mingulay’s eastern shore and the incessant rasping of nearby corncrakes greeted us to the island sway of time. The invasion of dozens of climbers poses challenge for environmental management, to which Kevin Howett’s trenching spade provided the most effective solution. The National Trust bird counters, lodged in the nearby schoolhouse, were friendly but must truly have wished us elsewhere. Considering that Mingulay once supported a population of 160 this modern resurgence might be viewed with a positive slant. We climbers could fondly imagine ourselves as warriors of a different age.

No sheep now graze the island and the grass has regrown to a natural cover of thick floating tussocks. Though none exceeded 3km in distance the walk-ins were akin to trail-breaking in knee-deep snow, and enlivened in places by dive-bombing “bonxies”. The first day saw most teams finding their feet and testing their arm strength on the Boulevard cliff of Guarsay Mor, a 50 metre-high wall of immaculate gently overhanging rock. Braver teams chanced their luck on the sterner ramparts of Dun Mingulay and came back with report of severe damage to an abseil rope on the cheese-grating rock edges at the cliff-top. Without careful placement of edge protection sleeves we would be dicing with death. Aware of that commitment the big free-hanging abseils provided a continuing grip factor throughout the week.

Evening approach to Barra

Old schoolhouse and campground on Mingulay

Alys and Tim Jepson follow the second pitch on Voyage of Faith (E3, 5c)

Abseil down the South Pillar on Mingulay

I climbed with fellow guide Tim Jepson and his daughter Alys, and we made an effective team. Tim and Alys would lead the 5a and 5b pitches and were happy to follow me on the 5c’s. That brought most of the classic E2 and E3 routes on the island within our range.  On day two we took the plunge on Dun Mingulay and warmed up with the classic wall of Sula E2, 5b ***. The second pitch exemplified the quality of the climbing here, a precise and fairly bold wall section followed by jug-pulling through a massive overhang.

Climbing days started late. Most of the cliffs face west and carry a scum of briny grease until the warmth of the sun breaks through at midday. Completion of Sula took us to a rather late lunch at 5pm, but we were keen for more, so abseiled in a second time and got stuck into the Voyage of Faith, the first route to breach the serried ranks of overhangs of the central crag. To our dismay a sea fog rolled in on completion of the first pitch and the rock instantly acquired an insidious dampness. Voyage of Faith became an adventure as well as an odyssey. A tenuous traversing pitch took us 30 metres leftwards into the centre of the face directly above the sea. The third pitch weaved up left then hard back right to the terminal belt of roofs, the complexity of line defying my attempts to provide protection for both Tim and Alys’s ropes.

In fading daylight I hand-traversed the lip of the roof on a big flake and hastened to the crux 5c corner right at the top of the climb. Perfect protection gave the resurgence of confidence needed to despatch the move and I belayed contentedly on top in a soup of drizzle. If I was mildly ecstatic I can only imagine the amazement that Howett and Little must have felt on completing the first ascent in 1993. If the guidebook writers must insist on according four stars to the very best routes, then Voyage of Faith is to be one – an intimidating, inescapable and improbable line that somehow releases its gifts at a mild E3.

Alys follows pitch 3 on Voyage of Faith (E3, 5c), Dun Mingulay

Morning on Mingulay beach

The Great Arch of Pabbay with climbers visible on The Priest; Prophecy of Drowning runs up the grooves bounding the left side of the arch

Alys leads the top pitch on Prophecy of Drowning (E2, 5c)

A more relaxed sequitur was required on day three and along with a host of other parties we enjoyed a couple of HVS and E1 routes created by the redoubtable Mick Tighe on the South Pillar and Arena sectors of Guarsay Mor. Here, more bird-life was in evidence – nesting razorbills, guillemots and a rogue fulmar who reserved her vomit for, Welshman Elvin, the last climber to cross the traverse of Archdeacon that day.

Waves of sea fog and dripping rocks deterred many teams from chancing luck again on Dun Mingulay, but Dan, Tom and I talked ourselves into dropping down the 90 metre rope in hope of an improvement. Climbing a wet E3 was declared preferable to prusiking back up the rope and Dan did a great lead on the moist traverse of Sirens. To our delight the sun broke then broke through and we floated through a succession of roofs in brilliant light and a playful breeze. Our day was rounded off with a foray on the single-pitch Geirum Walls on the south coast of the island.

Many route names on the islands dredge the rich store of seabird puns. “Wake Up and Smell the Guano” typifies the better of these. “The Gull who Shagged Me” undoubtedly plumbed the depths, and was far from fitting to an excellent E3, 5c wall climb which tested our fingers on crimps and flakes.

The fifth day was transit day and Donald arrived on time to take us over to Pabbay where an Edinburgh University team was already ensconced. I persuaded Dan to forgo an afternoon off and we tracked over the moor to the island’s craggy south-west peninsula. With sudden ferocity the yawning chasm of the Great Arch came into view as we descended. Some of parties were already abseiling in to the soaring grooves of Prophecy of Drowning, which flank the left edge of the arch.

Dan and I steered away to the Banded Wall and treated ourselves to an Endolphin Rush. The angle of this wall was so severe that we couldn’t see where on earth the route went from below. To complicate matters several lines had been chalked by previous parties. After nervous inspection I chose the most likely of several crack-lines and committed to a swing across the underbelly of the wall. Immediately, my crucial nut runner popped out under the rope’s outward pull. Fighting panic I re-established a secure body-position and got more dependable cams in for protection. A sequence of big pulls and hand-jam rests brought me to a tiny hanging stance, from which I could look between my legs at the shimmering sea and the distant figure of Dan, perched way under the bulge. Few E3’s can compare in exposure. Dan led through the upper roofs and an invigorating afternoon’s work was done.

I rejoined Tim and Alys for our penultimate day, the Prophecy of Drowning our inevitable goal. Morning showers kept most teams in camp but we waited at the top of the Arch, scanning the western sea for a clearance. When it came we slipped down the cathedral walls to a tiny stance on a rib six metres above the oily Atlantic swell. A procession of linked grooves took us to a definite crux at a bulge where strolling 5a became an abrupt 5c. Then Alys cruised stylishly up the spectacular 5a exit. The only deficiency of Prophecy is that it is too loudly vaunted and completion becomes a “ticking-off” exercise rather than a creative act.

We finished the day with a trip to the Poop Deck, an impeccable 25 metre wall, and climbed The Craik and Illegal Aliens at respective grades of E3 and HVS. In between we watched Andy and Robin tackle some beastly climbs on the acutely overhung left wall of the crag, belayed by their loyal ladies Nic and Sheila. Andy chose the stunning crack of The Raven (E5) while Robin indulged his passion for esoterica with a desperate struggle up an off-width E4, 6b. His offers to second this horror-show was politely declined. Meanwhile, over at Pink Wall, the V12 bouldering wads, Jed and Mike conspired to make the 70 metre hanging abseil to its inescapable base whilst forgetting to take their climbing ropes with them! Fortunately another group was operating within calling distance, and after a two-hour wait the required ropes were dropped in.

Hemming on the hideous traverse on Paradise Regained (E4, 6a) - Grey Wall Recess, Pabbay

The man who makes it all happen: Donald finally remembers to ask for payment back at Castlebay

The final day brought a mixture of regret and relief. I took a morning swim off the beach, sad that my weeklong commune with nature was soon to end, but the constant momentum of daily climbing action had left most of us somewhat jaded. Thighs were tired from the daily moorland thrashing and the arms were beginning to wilt. There was just enough spark left for one more big route and I teamed up with an uber-cool German, Hemming, to explore the depths of the Grey Wall Recess. A ninety-metre abseil took us free to the base at sea level. The diagonal line of Paradise Regained fitted our requirements a four-pitch crescendo of difficulty and exposure.

Pitch three posed a horrific off-width traverse line over the void. Halfway across Hemming pulled off a hold. Only a mad grab for his runner saved him a fall into space. I had a devil of a job seconding. This was the only pitch of the week that seemed under-graded at 5b. We were left with an E4, 6a finale up an acutely overhanging corner line, surmounted by a combination of grim tenacity and ridiculous bridging postures.

So our week came to a spectacular end. We were largely silent as Donald took us back to Barra as if to preserve the perfection of what we each had experienced. Shower clouds entwined in the western sky and we passed back through the peaceful islands. Civilisation at Castlebay comprised a remarkable Indian restaurant packed to the gunnels with marauding climbers. The owner was first grumpy, then amazingly friendly, and finally lavishly drunk when encountered later on at the Craigard Hotel music night, despite drinking nothing but orange juice. Replete, we slept out above the ferry jetty and supped the magic of the isles for one last night before return to the whirl of modern life.

Mon-Tues 19-20 May: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Some clients bely their age with a combination of bluster and sheer enthusiasm, but when Dave Pugh scrounged a pensioner's discount on the Misty Isle boat trip to Coruisk my jaw dropped at his audacity. At 65 he would be my oldest-ever traverse partner, were we to succeed. The Dubhs Ridge should have been an inspirational beginning to our two-day traverse, but on a warm sultry morning we both felt listless. The big slabs were damp in places and we laboured rather than romped up to Sgurr Dubh Beag. The abseil off the summit proved awkward and nigh five hours had elapsed from leaving the boat when we reached the crest of Sgurr Dubh Mor. Not even a juicy smoked salmon sandwich could revive me. Dave was already almost out of water. I feared we were doomed to fail - maybe age was finally taking its toll.

Dave Pugh on the crest of Sgurr Dubh Mor with Gars-bheinn behind

Dave's wife Sue had agreed to meet us at In Pinn with our water supplies for the bivouac. We were going to be hours late. Then came a change. A light but refreshing breeze sprung up on the Main Ridge crest, giving us a psychological bounce. I spotted freshwater pools just 60 metres under the ridge in Coir' a'Ghrunnda and detoured to refill the bottles while Dave gathered his powers for the crossing of the T-D Gap. The sight of a group of four climbers ahead of us in the Gap added the spice of competition to our energies. We perched at the top of the short side and watched their travails in the chamber of polish that forms the crux, then abseiled into the clutch of the cleft.

Starting up the Dubhs Ridge with the Main Ridge behind

Abseiling into the T-D Gap

Crux moves on T-D Gap demonstrated by the team ahead

Big exposure on Naismith's Route on the Bhasteir Tooth

To make a successful traverse you need the rock climbing knack.  Not only did Dave have intuitive technical talent but at something close to 6 feet 6 inches in height he simply reached through the crux to the “thank God” edge without the usual need to squirm and wriggle. Soon his toothless grin was beaming skyward, a pose of contentment that was reproduced at every vertical juncture of the traverse.
A brief shower on Sgurr Alasdair dampened the rocks but our momentum carried us smoothly up Kings Chimney and on to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. On the long grade 3 scramble up An Stac buttress the Coastguard helicopter made several sorties around Coire Lagan. I was thinking fondly of a cup of tea as we topped In Pinn at 7.20pm.
Sue was perched on the adjoining top of Sgurr Dearg.
 “There’s somebody broken their leg down there; I’ve told them there’s a guide coming,” she called.
As soon as we were down the abseil I left Dave and Sue at the bivouac ledge on the west side of the summit, gathered my kit and jogged down to the exit of a rotten gully in the north flank of the West Ridge. I rather hoped that the broken leg would be simple case of support, reassurance and a couple of painkillers while we waited for a rescue winch. The scene which greeted me in the gully was not quite so benign.
The victim, Fiona, was wedged under a boulder, a massive pillow of lava. Her leg was obviously broken below the knee and trapped under the stone. Her boyfriend was supporting her upper body. The stone was two metres in girth and probably weighed between 300 and 400 kilograms! She had lightly touched it on her way past and it had rolled out of its housing. The immediate need was to somehow anchor the rock and try to take its weight off Fiona by means of a hoist. A couple of inches might do it.
I tied my rope round the boulder and rigged a 3:1 pulley hoist using a turret of rock at the top of the gully as the anchor. The other two members of the party helped me start the hoist. It was quickly apparent that we could not budge the boulder with one rope alone.
Thankfully, at this impasse, the Coastguard helicopter appeared and dropped in a squad from the Skye rescue team, Gerry Ackroyd at their helm. Despite advancing years Gerry was in vintage form. At once, he was barking orders in that Lancastrian drawl that all Skye-dwellers know and love so well.
“A’ want four crowbars, an’ mek it quick” he told the controller back at base.

Although Jewson’s at Broadford had closed two hours ago, the chopper disappeared in pursuit of the crowbars and we set to work. After half an hour we had two big rescue ropes tied round the stone and some high-tech ID hoisting devices to supplement my stringy prusik cords. With all three ropes providing 3:1 power we achieved dependable anchorage for the boulder. Then the team excavated the smaller rocks from underneath Fiona and a sudden scream signalled release. A gap opened and her leg popped free.
“Forget crowbars,” yelled Gerry into his radio set.
The poor girl at base clearly misinterpreted this to mean that Gerry wanted four more crowbars. A repeat of the Two Ronnies “four candles” sketch developed.
In unison four members reiterated the command: “Forget crowbars!”
The base control girl momentarily thought that 16 crowbars were required until Gerry found a less ambiguous form of words to report successful extrication. The feasibility of a direct helicopter winch was marginal. The Coastguard chopper is a massive beast with limited manoeuvrability. The winchman was guided horizontally into the gully and the casualty was lifted out in reverse fashion, the stretcher bumping against the gully walls at several points. The hurricane of the downdraught was all powerful.
At close to 11pm in the lingering twilight I wandered back up to the bivvy site with the remains of the rope, first stretched on the hoist and then abruptly shortened with the chopping of the last two metres left trapped under the boulder. The remaining 38 metres of battle-scarred cord would have to see us along the rest of the Ridge. Sue and Dave had the stove going and the tea tasted sweet. Close on midnight the last morsels of cous-cous and tuna were scraped out of the pan and we bedded down for five hours’ repose. 
At 6.15am we were back in action. Sue went down Coire na Banachdich while Dave and I cracked on over Banachdich, Ghreadaidh and Mhadaidh. The intricacies of the Mhadaidh tops and Bidein Druim nan Ramh occupied over 3½ hours. However hard I try, the times achieved in the youth of the 1990’s always slip away. Nevertheless, we were ready to face the improbabilities of Naismith’s Route on the Bhasteir Tooth at 2pm; still as serious a piece as it ever was for me despite more than 50 previous ascents. The crux moves are eight metres out from protection and felt like a technical 5a in boots and with a rucksack. Dave followed faultlessly with a succession of enormous reaches and phlegmatic power. We gained the summit plinth of Gillean at 3.45pm. I was beyond the stage of pleasant weariness. My face was taut with stress as we tried to work our way through other parties who were descending the “gendarme” pitch. They were having a fun day. I felt like a desperate man by compare. Such is the effect of a Cuillin traverse.
The pressure finally unwound as we ran down the screes into Coire a’Bhasteir. Sue was waiting for us at Sligachan. After a pint of orange juice and lemonade I was sufficiently mellow to appreciate a dose of post-Abba muzak from her Agnetha album on the homeward drive and this time it was Dave’s turn to suffer in silence.

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

 

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