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SATOPANTH EXPEDITION: 1st - 29th Sept 2010: Our expedition to this iconic 7000er in the Gangotri massif of the Garhwal Himlaya was plagued by the tail-end of one of the most severe monsoon seasons in living memory. The rains had already wreaked havoc across the Indus flood-plains in Pakistan. Our 13-man team comprised leader, Martin Moran, deputy and field assistant Alex Moran, David Bingham, Steve Foster, Steve Greenhalgh, Andy Hemingway, Arun Mahajan and Steve Matterson, liaison officer Dhruv Joshi, high-altitude porters Sherpa Thukpa and Govind Singh, cook Sharan and kitchen-boy Manish. Flooded roads at Rishikesh, as we entered the foothills confirmed our fears that the monsoon was still in command of the weather. A huge rockfall blocked the Gangotri road just a couple of hours before we arrived in our coach, necessitating early disembarcation and transhipment of our kit. We commandeered two jeeps to take us to Dharali where the team dismounted and enjoyed a peaceful 25km road-walk through the pine-filled Bhagirathi gorge to Gangotri village. The next day we took a beautiful acclimatisation walk up the Kedar Ganga valley towards the spear-headed peak of Thelay Sagar. On the way back disaster struck! Steve F slipped off a muddy slab at an awkward stream crossing, plummeted down the slab for 10 metres and sustained a huge gash which stretched over 4 inches across his knee and penetrated through to the bone. Fortunately he had not severed tendons or ligaments and could bear weight on the knee. Even more fortunately Steve is a doughty character. Rather than whimper and faint - as the rest of us felt like doing - he declared himself fit to walk. With support from two sticks and close supervision he limped 800m down the exposed path to Gangotri and stitched up the wound himself (his first suturing since becoming an anaethetist). Sadly, this was a premature end to his trip and we arranged his evacuation by jeep the next morning. Our trek to base camp was enlivened by the rescue of a young porter who was knocked off the path by a falling stone and was found clinging to the edge above a 100m vertical drop to the raging Bhagirathi river. We were then dampened by a day of continuous rain as we scrambled over the endless moraines of the Gangotri Glacier. Then our spirits were redeemed by a magnificent morning when 6543m Shivling appeared through wreaths of residual mist. Our base camp was established at Vasuki Tal - a remarkable moraine-dammed lake at 4930m altitude above the Chaturangi Glacier. The rain-snow line was above 5000m and we were able to make rapid progress establishing Camp I under the north wall of Satopanth at 5400m. Above us an Indian military police team were struggling with deep snow, strong winds and poor visibility at 6000m. As they admitted defeat after two weeks of fruitless effort, we made a load carry up to Camp II at 5960m on the north ridge. We left the gear and food stashed and returned to base for a rest only to receive a dire weather forecast on our sat phone, which predicted 10 inches of rain falling over the coming weekend. Alex and Dhruv made a vital mission to retrieve our mountain boots and snow shovel and mothballed Camp I in readiness for the storm.
During 48 hours of non-stop snowfall
we had to worked round the clock digging out the tents to save them from burial and collapse. When the skies cleared on Sept 20th we had four feet of powder snow at base and our plans for a summit bid lay shattered. We had a single pair of snow-shoes, and with their support we spent three days breaking a trail the 8km back to Camp I, watching a multitude of avalanches and dodging fresh debris cones. The route had only taken 4 hours before the storm! Thankfully a tiny section of marker wand was still showing, enabling us to excavate five feet of snow and salvage some 130kg of kit. Sadly the gear dumped at Camp II was declared inaccessible. A huge slab avalanche had obliterated the route and we couldn't justify the risks involved to our team in trying to reach it.
We then enjoyed a magnificent trek back out. With the weather at last improving the stunning scenery was displayed to its best. Our disappointment was mitigated by the fact that our failure was totally outside our control. We had all worked well together as a team and had worked tirelessly to clear snow, drain campsite quagmires and break trails. An Austrian team took our place and used our tracks to move up for their summit attempt. They made the top 6 days after our departure but one of their team fell and was killed on the descent. We rued the fact that had we gone out two weeks later we also might have succeeded, such is the lottery of weather and conditions. However, in the face of tragedy feelings of relief and pride in a safe evacuation were uppermost in our minds on returning home.
We also owe our safe return to the Indian staff of Himalayan Run & Trek who performed superbly in difficult conditions, and dealt with all manner of adversity and discomfort with stoic good humour. Our high-altitude porters Thukpa and Govind showed immense courage and strength – digging out our mess and kitchen tents again and again during the storm. Govind proved to be a magician, gently massaging the leader's lower back muscles into life and then bringing 17 porters to our base camp within two hours of setting out on a mission that was expected to take two days! Despite threats that all our communications equipment and supplies of eggs and whisky would be confiscated at National Park and Police checkpoints our Indian staff go us through without any problem. Sharan and Manish performed heroically in the kitchen tent through the bad weather. They produced superb meals, always served well on clean plates – even though the conditions were appalling with snow, mud and water slopping around in the cook tent. How on earth did they produce light and fluffy birthday cakes and huge piles of crisp finger chips on a couple of belching kerosene stoves? It is easy expect that everything will be done efficiently and quickly on these trips. We often don’t appreciate just how much effort, skill and time goes into the logistics. We were delayed by no more than half a day on our journey home whereas other parties had been stuck by anything up to a week waiting to get transport past landslides. HRTPL director, Mr Pandey, has selected only the most resourceful and loyal staff and has trained and disciplined them to a very high standard. Even when we have a difficult and unsuccessful trip like the Satopanth expedition, I am personally so awed and emotionally moved by the duty and love shown by our Indian staff and porters that I always want to come back to India. They are wonderful human beings – showing resourcefulness, fortitude and a nobility that puts us Westerners to shame. And of course, we now have the magnificent views in our photographic collections to add to the human memories......
2010 HIGHLIGHTS Left-
David McMeeking and Ian Parkinson enjoying a morning view of the Matterhorn from the Tete Blanche (3724m) 14th July 2010. Right: Sandy Scott reaching the summit of the Ober Gabelhorn: Aug 18th 2010
summer course season started with heatwave conditions. Temperatures between 32 and 35degC were recorded in Sion on many days in early July, freezing levels hovered above all but the highest summits and the mountains were quickly stripped of their heavy blanket of spring snow. Thankfully, these conditions ended by July 20th and cool unsettled weather ensued for the next 6 weeks. This meant that weather conditions were often difficult but snow conditions gradually recovered and were intermittently excellent in the latter part of the season.Our Mont Blanc groups both succeeded, with 7 climbers making the "three cols" ascent from the Cosmiques Hut. The Swiss Big 3 and Eiger-Matterhorn groups had more mixed fortunes. Only four out of 13 made the top of the Matterhorn, several attempts being cancelled due to snowy conditions, and the Eiger remained snow-bound and elusive all season. By contrast the 4357m Dent Blanche - our local "giant" - proved a worthy alternative and was climbed by 20 clients, mainly in tricky snowy conditions where crampons had to be work throughout the ascent. Other notable successes for our Intermediate and Grandes Courses teams were the N Face of the Gran Paradiso (AD+), Dent du Geant (AD), Ober Gabelhorn NE Ridge (AD+), Schreckhorn SW Ridge (AD+), L'Eveque Traverse (AD), Central Pillar - Pte de Tsalion (D), W Ridge - Dent de Tsalion (AD), MBlanc de Cheilon Traverse (AD-) and Triftigrat on the Breithorn (D).Our first year of running Performance Alpinism courses for our most experienced climbers faced some disruption from the weather but the three teams still managed the Schreckhorn North Ridge (D) (Martin and David Horwood) - a 19 hour day from Gleckstein to Schreckhorn Huts, Schreckhorn S Pillar (D+), a highly impressive 14 hour round trip (Andy Teasdale and Jonathan Richards), Vaucher Route (Aig du Peigne) (TD) with its brutish grade V and VIa cracks and chimneys (Martin M and Ian Carey, Jon Bracey and Richard Cooper), Kuffner Route on Mont Maudit (D) in splendid virgin snow conditions (Martin with Ian and Richard) and the "grande classique" of the East Face of the Grepon (Anthony Franklin, Stuart Mechie and the evergreen 65 year old Bill Shaw).It was delightful to have two fully booked Swiss Trekking Peaks courses this year and they achieved some fine climbs and tours. Staying at the cosy Bouquetins Bivouac Hut was undoubtedly a highlight as were ascents of the Weissmies, Wildstrubel and Pigne d'Arolla. The two week course went on to complete the Italian Haute Route with Graham Frost, crowned by a night at the 4554m Margherita Hut on Monte Rosa.Equally rewarding as the climbs achieved were the gains made by all our guests in skills proficiency and technical confidence, especially all those who took oiur one week Introductory Alpine course. The Ferpecle Glacier, though still retreating, provided an excellent "ecole de glace" with ice walls, crevasses and ravines aplenty for ice climbing, crampon techniques and crevasse rescue. Several of our clients enjoyed pushing their leading skills on local rock climbs at Arolla and Bramois and on the beautiful 13 pitch Miroir d'Argentine. Evolene's "via ferrata" tested the fear thresholds of beginners and experts alike.As always Judith was there at Chalet les Maures at the end of the day to replenish calorie deficits with a wonderful spread of cakes and scones, followed in the evening by a delicious 3 course dinner. We simply couldn't offer the high quality of holiday without the hard work and talent of Judith and our expert guiding team who showed determination and imagination in providing exciting but achievable itineraries in face of difficult weather and sometimes dangerous conditions on the mountains. Well done to you all:- Guides: Tim Blakemore, Jon Bracey, Hannah Burrows-Smith, Anthony
Franklin, Graham Frost, Matt Helliker, Neil Johnson, Dave Kenyon,
John Lyall, Andy Perkins, Walter Phipps, Jonathan
Preston, Andy Teasdale and Ewen Todd, and to Aspirant Guides: Mark Walker,
and James Thacker.
Arctic Norway: 29th May - 12th June 2010: Lyngen Alps: Our group of 9 set up camp
at Svensby on Lyngen in glorious sunshine. Sadly, the
good weather was due to break in 18 hours, so after 3
hours sleep the teams were up at 2.30am ready to snatch
a climb before the fronts arrived. Jonathan Preston took
Katherine Henderson, Neil Lindsey and David Sandham to
Trollvasstinden (1440m), which they despatched in a 16
hour round trip at PD+ standard. Martin Moran and Robin
Thomas took on the impressive peak of Stortinden (1512m)
by its NW Ridge with Richard Ausden, Richard Hampshire
and Keith Horner. This rock route proved long and engaging
with a committing abseil off the forepeak. In thick fog
they could find no way to get back up the forepeak on
their return save for aid climbing back up abseil line!
A bedraggled but triumphant party arrived back 22 and
a half hours later.Stortinden is undoubtedly one of the
toughest Norwegian peaks (AD+). After 36 hours of rain
and snow a window of fine weather emerged on Tuesday evening
and the whole group climbed up the beautiful valley of
Steindalen in southern Lyngen to explore the range of
undocumented peaks around the Steindal Glacier. Robin
and Martin's teams ascended a 600m 50deg couloir on the
south face of 1595m Nallangaisi (AD) while Jonathan took
his charges on a peak-bagging venture that ended on 1511m
Steindalstinden. Both groups emerged from their climbs
close to midnight in piercing cold and blinding sunlight
with hosts of hazy snow-wrapped peaks on all horizons,
an unforgettable experience. More bad weather allowed
for another respite until Friday when a hopeful forecast
sent everyne out towards Istinden (1495m), just north
of Lyngseidet village. Another glacier climb led into
fog, wind and blowing snow and the final climb up the
SE Ridge was a grand winter climb, much in the Scottish
mould (PD+ or Scottish grade II). The three ascents took
a total of 50 hours, emphasising the adventurous nature
of Norwegian mountaineering, all a far cry from the busy
Alps. We never saw another soul on the hills all week.
Mountain exertions were sustained by a spacious and luxurious
cabin accommodation and excellent campsite, replete with
sauna, down at Svensby
Lofoten Islands: We arrived at
Svolvaer in heavy rain showers but the weather promptly
dried up and gave us generally fine but cold conditions
all week, making campsite evenings rather chill but keeping
all insect life at bay. The "Magic Isles" fully
lived up to their reputation and we had an exceptional
week's climbing. On Sunday we all limbered up with some
single pitch rock climbing from 4 to 6- standard on the
gorgeous sea-washed granite at Paradiset. Jonathan, Richard
H and Neil then took off to Loftoen's second highest peak,
Geitgaljern (1085m) (PD+), while Martin, Katherine and
Bill Shaw enjoyed 7 magnificent pitches of fissured slab
on the classic Bare Blabaer (5) at Djupfjord, one of the
best VS routes anywhere. On Tuesday Jonathan's team stuck
with a mountaineering theme and climbed the grade IV Pedersen
Ridge, while Martin, Katherine and Bill were tempted by
the majestic 400m prow of Presten, despite obvious grade
6 difficulties. The famous West Pillar (6, 11 pitches)
tested the team's resolve and sense of humour to its absolute
limit but they emerged unscathed in mellow sunlight at
11pm after a 12 hour ascent of one of world's great rock
climbs. They then declared a rest day and took a boat
trip up the Raftsund, viewing Tolkienesque peaks, sea
eagles, rainbows and several dozen cruise-ship tourists
bedecked with long-lenses. Meanwhile, Jonathan took Neil
up the classic Piano Handlers Route (4). On Thursday we
all joined forces for an excellent scramble to the top
of 943m Vagakallen, the dramatic craggy peak which dominates
the climbing area of SW Austvagoya. The final day saw
Jonathan, Richard and Neil traverse the grade 4 Short
Man's Ridge while Martin, Kath and Bill climbed the beatiful
slabs of Solens Sonner (6, 4 pitches). The late evening
drive back to Tromso was broken by a stop for massive
pizzas and burgers and an encounter with a plain-clothes
traffic policeman. Our social pleasures were enhanced
by the presence of young guns - Alex Moran and Robin Thomas.
Alex removed most of the skin off his ankles leading the
6+ Vaganrisset jam crack while Robin led a spectacular
on-sight first ascent up a 4 pitch overhanging crackline
near the Migan Pillar at 7+ standard (sustained E5, 6a),
the Risset Rider, in their inimitable words, a truly "amazing"
climb and a contender for the 51st best route on Lofoten!
It was a privilege to hang with these dudes over a beer
at the Henningsvaer climbers' bar. They even did something
useful, bought a rod and caught some fish for our last
dinner. In fact our only cultural disappointments were
missing the "Goat Jazz" concert in Lyngen and
the Lofoten "Codstock" music festival which
sadly had finished the previous week.
18th 2010: A Magical Day on An Teallach: I
was lucky to pick a stunning day of cool weather and
perfect Alpine conditions to do the An Teallach traverse
with Jamie Emberson and his 15 year old son Ollie. It
seems that this winter simply doesn't want to end.
climbed the access gully ftom Tollan Lochain then tackled
the terminal buttress of Corrage Buidhe direct by the
grade III wall and chimney. Our decision not to wear
crampons was vindicated on the pinnacles where many
of the rocks were dry and exposed, but coming off Sgurr
Fiona we badly misjudged how frozen the snow would be
and I had to kick and then cut many steps to get us
down without crampons. We descended into A'Ghlas Thuill
and reached the road at 8pm after a memorable 10 hour
day. Ollie is much too young to have been gifted a day
of such perfection!
we had Britain's finest mountain entirely to ourselves.
and Ollie Emberson stepkicking up neve snows on the An
the pinnacles looking across Strath na Sealga to the Fisherfield
evening on the descent of Bidein a'Ghlas Thuill looking across
Ghlas Mheall Liath to the Fannaichs
9th 2010: Last Day in Paradise: 5.20am.
We were the first to leave Aberarder for the 6km trek to Creag
Meagaidh and the dawn glow was already rising in the east. Pete
Macpherson was sporting a brand-new pea-green shell garment
which rendered him even more sickly than our last meeting when
he was jammed to his toilet seat with a dose of gastro-enteritis.
Since then Pete had become "man of the moment" with
his ascent of the grade IX SuperRat on Creag an Dubh Loch with
the lugubrious Guy Robertson. Perhaps I should say "man
of a few moments" because very soon after Dave MacLeod
had grabbed back the headlines with his winter ascent of an
E8 on Ben Nevis! Huge slab avalanches had recently swept down
the slopes from Carn Liath leaving a swathe of debris across
the path for several hundred metres. Soon the regal splendour
of Coire Ardair hove into view, surely Scotland's second most
beautiful corrie, which comes close to the graceful elegance
of Beinn Eighe's Coire Mhic Fhearchair. Our plan was to attempt
a second ascent of the grade VIII Extasy - a super-steep climb
up the Pinnacle Face achieved by Dave Hesleden with French ace
Bruno Souzac in 2005. To our disappointment we quickly saw that
the face had been stripped of much of its snow and ice by the
sun, and any claim to a winter ascent would be deemed unacceptable
by the desk-bound troglodytes who infest the forums on UK Climbing.
we wandered up Raeburn's Gully devoid of real purpose until
we saw the face to the left of Smith's Gully - white, icy and
tempting. Clearly, there was no existing route here. The wall's
main feature is a huge smooth slab. The top half was iced. The
bottom was bare of adornment save for a scattering of grass
tufts. The slab was protected by significant overhangs and we
attacked at the only weak point, where a tongue of ice had formed
on the lip of an accessible bulge. I led the entry pitch and
Pete disappeared across an overlap to tackle the slab. We expected
little or nought by way of protection, but Pete's lead was accompanied
by a constant tapping of his hammer, and the ringing response
of sound pitons. I emerged on to the slab to be informed that
there were three good pegs in place to protect some delicate
moves from tuft to tuft. This was not ideal news for a man who
was using Petzl Nomic tools. In their wisdom the French manfucturers
designed these without a hammer-head, no doubt thinking only
of pretty-boys posing on steep icefalls and not a couple of
ugly brutes trying to whack their way up a Scottish mixed climb.
I had bashed the back of my shafts close to oblivion by the
time I had removed the ironmongery and swung nervously across
to Pete's stance.
tried initially to traverse back left to reach the bottom of
the ice smear on the upper slab, but the rock was hideously
smooth and protectionless. Mindful of pendule potential (see
Feb 5th below!) I shrunk back and opted to tackle an overhanging
corner of pink quartz which was helpfully cracked. My head was
cooking in my helmet when I reached a resting niche and after
brief aeration I swung left on to the stub of an ice fang and
hurried up left to regain the edge of the slab where the ice
was usable. A perfect crack materialised in the wall for a secure
belay. Pete was up in a few minutes in his usual ebullient fashion.
"Do you ever second slowly?" I asked. "There's
not much point in hanging around", he replied while delving
into our climbing sack for rations. It came as something of
a shock to discover that Pete was enhancing his already manic
energy levels with a diet of Red Bull and Haribo "Tangtastic"
pastilles. It was less of a surprise to learn that he had cancelled
a dental appointment to make today's climb.
led straight up the ice smears, showering me with ice chips
and Invernessonian exclamations such as "Bloody excellent
man!" and "An absolute belter". He disappeared
on to the Apollyon Ledge. From below the pitch had looked about
grade IV. In the flesh it was a scary sequence of ice scratchings
at 75 deg angle. A fierce final barrier reared up above the
Ledge, capped by a roof band with a turf-smeared lip. I teetered
up poorly protected moves to the roof and followed a single
horizontal pick crack out left to a vertical dribble of ice
on the left edge. With a reasonable peg in the crack I could
blame only my own febrility for failure. Torquing off one pick
I reached high to the ice with the other and swung my feet up
to the first usable ice blobs. After three or four moves I was
20 feet above the peg, barely in balance and utterly exhilarated.
I managed to get a short ice screw lodged to protect the last
moves to the easy ground at the top of the buttress. The climb
had exceeded every expectation we'd had of the day.
we wandered over the Meagaidh plateau amidst a resplendent sunset
I sensed that this might be the last great day of the greatest
winter of my lifetime. We settled on "Last Day in Paradise"
is an appropriate name, although "Tangtastic" was
an early frontrunner until I choked on another handful of Pete's
cannonfodder. While I was looking forward to several days of
guiding work and a gentle wind-down from the winter Pete knew
no such peace. Barely had we coiled the ropes and the Robertson
texts were flying in - "Minus One Direct... Mort next week...ground-up..on-sight...no
deviations...diamond-hard...only grade IX...". There are
times when you long just to feel the patter of warm rain on
your face and see the daffodils in bloom.
across the big slab on the 2nd pitch of "Last Day
in Paradise" (VII, 8) on Creag Meagaidh
steep rock to gain the ice fangs on pitch 3
Macpherson enjoying the Meagaidh alpenglow after the climb
slab avalanche trail on the approach to Coire Ardair
Feb 18th 2010: Vettisfossen: At
275 metres (900 feet) vertical height the Vettisfossen is claimed
as the highest single-plunge waterfall in Northern Europe and
is certainly the most famous of all Norway's falls. Due to its
relatively low altitude (400-700m) and the high volume of its
feeder river Vettisfossen very rarely freezes completely. The
three month freeze of 2010 coupled with relatively dry autumn
could produce the necessary conditions for an ascent on ice.
The Vettisfossen was first climbed in 1978 by Americans "Hot"
Henry Barber and Rob Taylor in one of the most astounding feats
of ice climbing of all-time given the equipment and protection
of the day. It remains a certain grade VI and has only been
repeated 12 or 13 times, the last-known being in 2006. If there
is one ice climb you want to do before you die the Vettisfossen
has to be it. The only problem is that it may be the last
ice climb you do before you die given the objective dangers
of its multitude of hanging ice fangs. Any sudden change in
temperature can render these monsters dangerously unstable.
potential negatives I had more than a sneaking interest in this
frozen colossus. Vettisfossen lies well-hidden 6km up-valley
from the roadhead in Utladalen; so while Martin Welch guided
our clients on the Avdalsfossen I took a walk to check out the
conditions. There was no indication of the coming drama as I
wandered through the birch woods past Vetti farm, but quite
suddenly a remarkable rock canyon opened in the east flank of
the valley, revealing vertical rock walls split by the silver
plunge of several thousand tons of frozen water. My guess was
right - Vettisfossen was in! The base of the canyon was peppered
with the debris of fallen icicles. A base cone 90 metres high
reached up to the lip of a cavern where the tendrils of ice
from above dropped over to make a delicate curtain. An ominous
and persistent splash of water was audible to the side of the
joining curtain where the residual water flow still drained
through. The "kark,kark, kark" of the resident raven
echoed round the enclosing walls. Otherwise there was a terrifying
silence. Truly, this place is the hall of the mountain kings.
reckoned that the curtain looked thick and dry enough at one
point to enable a direct ascent of the overhang and on my return
had no difficulty in co-opting Mr Welch to the plan. Five days
later on our next day off we rose hideously early, drove round
the Sognefjord and past the giant smelting works at Ovre Ardal
to reach the gate of Hjelle in Utladalen at 4.45am. The parking
lot was empty - we would have the climb to ourselves. The two
hour approach walk was one of peace and quiet confidence. At
first light we scrambled into the amphitheatre over the swathe
of fallen ice blocks and prepared to tackle the initial cone.
Then came the big shock. I peered up to the overhang through
the morning murk and realised that my crucial curtain and its
linking icicle had disappeared in the intervening days since
my last visit. Presumably, we were now standing in some of the
debris of the collapse. I was completely spooked. I had been
so sure that the ice curtain was solid and would only grow with
time. In that instant my resolve shattered.
Martin got the bit between his teeth and took the initiative.
We soloed 30m up the cone and I belayed under the shelter of
an ice umbrella while Martin forged quickly upwards to escape
the imminent threat from those daggers that were still stuck
to the overhang. His lead took us into a massive cavern behind
the cone. The upward view was sobering. The water poured from
two circular drainage chutes which looked like the thruster
cones of a space rocket. Perhaps the growing pressure of blocked
water had caused the curtain to collapse. At least, there was
not even the slightest temptation to climb there. However, there
was a chance that we could by-pass the overhang using ledges
on the rock walls to its right side. A long ramp of glass ice
led to a point level with the roof. Above the roof a series
of snow-covered ramps and ledges led 30m back to regain the
ice. If only we'd brought some rock protection gear!
again Martin stepped into the breach and led a hair-raising
pitch across the rock wall, linking blobs of snow-ice with very
limited protection. Amazingly, the pitch was no more than Scottish
grade III in technical standard, but definitely the most stupendous
of its grade I've ever done. Now the climb was back on track.
I led a long pitch of WI5 to gain a cave on the right edge of
the fall where I thought I could escape the threat of a gigantic
claw of ice that hung overhead. This appendage was attached
to the icefall by a slender horizontal arm and had no right
to be where it was. My efforts were to no avail. The cave stance
was directly under the claw. I lengthened my belay rope and
planned a desperate dive to the back of the cave if it snapped.
With the passing hours a sense of resignation to danger prevailed
and a cautious enjoyment of our remarkable situation took root.
now led us leftward up ramps and through a squeeze-box behind
an icicle to gain the centre of the upper fall, where the ice
narrowed and steepened into an 80 metre series of columns and
grooves, split here and there by overhangs. I guess this was
where "Hot" Henry reputedly hand-jammed up the icicles
with his leather gloves on the first ascent. Martin's arrival
at his belay was greeted by an alarming cracking sound that
reverberated down to my stance. His stance had a hanging bosse
of ice fangs as a canopy and even sported a glass window, through
which he could see the water flowing down the central drainpipe
of the fall just a couple of feet away. Why he was so anxious
to continue leading on the next pitch through the roofs I couldn't
imagine! Having spent two hours standing under the "claw
of death" I was more than eager to get out in front myself.
pitch above overhung about three metres but sported grooves
and lips which allowed for dynamic bridging, the sort of moves
that ice climbers call "funky". Any ice splinters
that I kicked off now fell uninterrupted for 150m to hit the
bottom cone. The Vetti raven wheeled overhead then settled on
a pine tree at the lip of the fall to watch the outcome. After
25 metres I reached a tight standing stance, wound in three
screws to the hilt and relieved Martin of his miseries under
reckoned there were 70 metres to go, and although the angle
was relentless the threat of a wipeout from above was steadily
diminishing. As Martin led through I could relax and even enjoy
the plunge of the abyss beneath and the wider views over to
Stolsmaradalen and the Hurrungane mountains. I contentedly hummed
my tune of the day, which inappropriately enough was Dougie
Maclean's "Solid Ground". Martin's pitch sported a
10 metre wall that overhung gently and wrung much of the strength
from my upper arms as every move required a lock-off. He was
"on fire" today. What on earth had got into him? Perhaps
it was his new diet of Maximuscle powder and malt whisky. Despite
never having been seen to do a single pull-up in his life he
was unashamedly consuming gallons of Maximuscle each day. Previously
he had survived on malt whisky alone.
light was fading as I took to the final pillar on the left of
the icefall. The angle stayed at vertical but the ice was solid
and the axe nicks of a previous party materialised in the ice.
Place an ice screw, bottle up some courage, climb 6 metres,
hang straight armed on a tool, and place another one. The drain
on muscular resources was unyielding until I drew level with
the fringe of trees crowning the canyon and pulled into balance
at the very lip of the fall. I felt a brief pang of reluctance
to leave the vertical world. For years I had dreamt of climbing
Vettisfossen and now the dream was all but over. Then a manifoldly
greater urge took hold to propel me to safety. I stepped on
to the level river bed and lashed myself to the biggest birch
tree within reach.
thought of descending the icefall induced renewed panic. However
far it was and however long it took we would walk down. Within
a few hundred metres we struck the trail back to Vetti farm,
and we skipped down its zig-zags floating in a euphoria of relief.
Neither the 4km return walk back to the base of the fall to
retrieve our sacks nor the 5km slog back to Hjelle dented my
energies. For those brief hours in the darkness I felt boundlessly
strong and indestructible. We were both back to the car by 9.30pm.
Sadly, the feeling was short-lived. Two very different characters
staggered out of bed at 7am next morning to face another day's
Vettisfossen from below (with the curtain intact!)
ice overhangs and top of the cone with the curtain missing
big traverse pitch back to the ice
seconding above a 200 metre free-fall
through the roofs high on the climb
two protagonists, much relieved, at the top!
Feb 11th 2010: Ardalstangen's "Double Whammy": The
Sognefjord is the greatest glacial trench in the world, its
waters dropping to 1000 metres in depth and its enclosing walls
soaring to 1400m in a dizzy sweep of vertical birchwood and
overhanging rock scars. Streams tumble off the plateau and plunge
into spectacular canyons on the sidewalls. Arrival in Western
Norway always induces conflicting senses of intimidation, oppression,
awe and wonder. The scale is far beyond anything in Scotland
and the ice climbing potential is simply mind-boggling. All
estimates of lengths and difficulties of the icefalls prove
woefully inadequate. If the ice-climbing is exacting and thrilling
it is equally exciting just to explore some of the valleys by
car and spy out new waterfalls, gullies and clefts - the majority
of which must be unclimbed.
one such scouting mission in 2009 Martin Welch and I spotted
an astounding double pillar of ice in the forests above the
metal -plating town of Ardalstangen. Although just 300m above
the main R53 valley road it could only be seen from a 200m section
of the minor spur road to Seim. There was fair chance that these
slender pencils had never been climbed when we returned this
year. After just 30 minutes of bushwhacking up the approach
gully we stood abreast of the first pencil at dawn. The angle
was unbroken at 85deg and we guessed its vertical height at
100 metres - later revised to 120! We led through on three pitches
of 45m, 50m and 45m at an unyielding WI5 standard. The time
was already past 1pm as we cramponned round a corner in the
streambed and into a miniature rock amphitheatre to be confronted
with the upper pencil, which was both higher and steeper with
a free-standing pillar near its exit. We were going to have
raise our game to get up this in the four remaining hours of
first wall proved twice as high as expected. I attacked with
intent placing no ice screws until the angle turned vertical
and the ice broke up in cauliflower formations 15 metres up.
Leaving strenuous but straightforward wall-ice I now had to
bridge and jink my way from cavity to cavity pulling gingerly
on hooks over the flowers and placing ice screws wherever a
solid runnel materialised. Forty-five metres up the ice reverted
to a smooth homogenous consistency. As Martin climbed up and
led through I said scornfully, "Hah; 30 metres of grade
4 and we'll be at the icicle". An hour later and with just
5 metres of rope left Martin made a belay, still 20 metres under
the crux pillar. I seconded in mute humility. The standard hardly
dipped below WI5 (which means "all but vertical!"),
and now it was rapidly getting dark, the orange glow from the
smelting factories at the fjord-head offering the best available
light until we switched to headtorches. I hurried onwards under
the icicle which was guarded by a triple-layer of giant sundew
formations. We had envisaged skipping from one to the other
in neat steps but each was four metres high and formidably overhung.
So instead I skirted round to a cave refuge to the left and
behind the ice pillar.
had to face work the next day. It was already 6.30pm, the barren
night frost had clamped on dampened clothes, gloves and ropes.
Descent would take at least three hours. There were reasons
enough to retreat without even considering the hollow screen
of glass ice that formed the pillar; and yet, we would never
be here again, on the cusp of a memorable victory of freedom
over common sense. So I led out of the cave, placed an axe in
the ice screen above and swung out on to the front face, my
heels pivoting above a 500 foot free-fall into the shadowed
gulch below. The pillar was composed of a fragile assemblage
of organ pipes. I squeezed and bridged between the pipes, then
placed a screw which produced a deep hollow creaking in the
ice. For a moment I regretted my folly. There was no way back
from here and no hope of an early rescue if anything went wrong.
However, hanging icicles do generally get thicker the higher
you climb. With that crumb of comfort I nervously squirmed upwards
for another eight metres until I found solid blue ice, which
offered better protection and positive progress. After another
ten metres of verticality I reached an easement. We were still
40m from the very top of the pillar but the angle was considerably
less from here onwards. By the time Martin joined me the first
Abalakov thread was already in place, and any scruples of incompleteness
had been subordinated to the practical needs of a safe descent.
We made five rope-stretching 60 metre abseils to reach terra
firma. At 7 full pitches this had been a medium length route
by local standards. How on earth do they do the really big ones
on a day? Double Whammy seemed a good name because we felt pretty
hammered when we stumbled back to the car at 11pm. There was
deep satisfaction that we had discovered, enjoined and consummated
a line of true aesthetic beauty.
Martin Welch gets started on pitch 1 of the lower column; Right:
the hidden beauty of the double pillars
ICE COURSES 2010
With Norway enjoying its longest and coldest freeze for 20
years, conditions in Aurland were amazing right down to sea level with every
major watercourse frozen. So
an excellent ice climbing fortnight was enjoyed by our
10 clients with guides Tim Blakemore,
Matt Helliker, Martin Moran and Martin Welch. Weather
conditions were excellent throughout with temperatures
rising to -2 or -3 degC by day and dropping to -7 to 14degC
by night. There was very little snow to hamper the approaches
and many routes began at the side of the road.
Feb 7th-14th Allan Clapperton and Des Hajdu climbed the
120m column of the Boafossen in Laerdal (IV, WI 5/5+).
Des did a probable new climb with Martin Welch in Gudvangen
- Kjel Corners - a very Scottish line of ice ramps featuring
caves and columns (IV, WI5, 250m). Meanwhile Allan and
Martin M did the lower icefall of "Into the Wild"
(one of the longest ice routes in the world which continues
to an altitude of 900m from a sea level start!). The lower
section gave 4 pitches of sustained WI5 ice in a narrow
canyon and makes an excellent grade IV climb in its own
right. The remaining 12 pitches can be conveniently postponed
to another day!. Allan also did the Tverrafossen in Aurlandalen
(III, WI 5). Allan and Des led through on the Turlifossen
(II, WI3) in Aurland and the 180m Avdalfossen (II, WI3+)
the week 14th - 21st Feb Nick Owen, Tim Dawes and Tim
Blakemore climbed Kjel Corners, Tverrafossen, Turlifossen
and the Storefossen (WI5+) in Undredalen. Dee Elnanjjar,
Willie Munro, Tamsin Mayberry and Kai Ren Ong explored
the unchartered icefalls of Flamdalen and climbed a real
beauty - the 300m Tunnhellsfossen (IV, WI5) with the two
Martins, which gave three 60m pitches of sustained WI4
then two harder finishing pitches of WI5. It was a lovely
day climbing above the forested valley in total silence
save for the hourly passage of trains on the famous Flam
to Myrdal line.
13 hour effort was trumped by David Horwood and 63 year
old Ron Crowe who tackled a narrow gully above the Aurland
roundabout with Matt Helliker. We had all noticed that
this gully was choked with ice. It took the threesome
all day and a bit of the night to climb 19 pitches to
the top of the gully, with lots of WI4/4+/5 and a crux
pillar of 5+ at the top. They started 50m above sea level
and finished at an altitude of 625m. The torchlit abseils
were noticed by local residents who called the police,
who then called the Norwegian Red Cross Search and Rescue
Corps. As a result the final abseils were accompanied
by green strobe lighting, reminding David of his all-night
rave days. The descent was completed close to midnight,
and the rescue team disbanded. As a result David has ventured
the name "12am Eternal" for the climb, recalling
one of the electronic thumpers he must have pogoed to
before he became an insurance underwriter!
5th 2010: Swinging through the night on the Pale Rider: Despite
a warm cloudy night and a slow thaw Robin Thomas and I ploughed
up the snowy back-slopes of Beinn Eighe, hopeful that something
would be in condition to climb over on the Triple Buttress.
On dropping into the headwall of Coire Mhic Fearchair we were
amazed to see a thick coating of rime ice on the upper half
of the cliffs, and headed over to the centre of the Eastern
Rampants where no winter routes have yet been recorded in the
vicinity of the Pale Diedre. Our choice was the summer E1, 5b
of Pale Rider which takes a crackline 15m left of the diedre.
Pitch 1 climbes a big left-facing corner. Looking up there was
little to suggest credible winter conditions. Robin took ages
to warm up and climb this 4c pitch, convincing me that all was
not as it seemed! Sure enough, when following I found many tenuous
and desperate moves with all the ledges covered in snow and
thin verglas smears in the corner. The summer crux is the diagonal
crack-line of pitch 2, which was decidedly white in appearance
as the surface layer of rime thickened. I quelled inital trepidations
by noting that the cracks looked thin and continuous, so that
I would have a steady supply of axe hooks and locks to mitigate
the prevailing verticality. Despite co-operative placements
Robin followed my lead with surprising caution and slowness,
arriving at my stance protesting that it had been desperate
and that he was wasted.
"Shall I lead on?" I asked. "No I'll do a bit
of leading" he replied. Looking up at the rime-crusted
walls above there was more than a bit to do! Night was setting
in. Robin had forgotten his headtorch but fortunuately I had
a little Petzl Tikka light as a back up. His first moves were
not encouraging. He slithered and scraped on a snow-covered
slab, all but falling off the initial moves, but then he seemed
to switch into a different zone which we might call "Robin's
world"! Progress came by panther-like stealth. There was
no macho-hammering of axes, just prodding and probing. Robin's
torchlit shroud appeared to prowl across the befogged skyline
of the wall. "It must be easy" I thought and settled
into relaxed mode on my belay, chewing peanuts, sipping sweet
tea, then all but dozing off a couple of times. A sudden yelp
and snatch of rope jerked me awake. Robin was dangling 20 foot
down the wall. "I'm sorry, a hook ripped". He pulled
up the rope and then silent progress resumed, but from now on
his belayer was somewhat more attentive. Finally Robin made
a long right traverse and disappeared up a chimney to gain the
final snowslopes. Little did I know but I'd just been witness
to one of the finest on-sight winter leads.
the time I started I'd been standing motionless for nearly 3
hours, but even allowing for being cold and burdened by sack
and belay jacket, the climbing was patently tenuous. An excruciating
foot traverse with axe picks on a single 5mm hook led to a narrow
ramp without footholds. Somehow Robin had banged in a peg perched
half-way up this, at which point I was clinging desperately
to my axe at waist height off a shallow blade torque. Wih my
other axe I patiently tapped out the piton, then arched into
a layback for another huge reach to a poor hook with foot braced
on a miniscule knobble. More tenuous climbing took me to a hammered
warthog and the final traverse! I was proud to have teetered
up the whole pitch without falling. On removing Robin's last
runner I realised the rope was stretching horizontally for 30
feet without any runners. I edged across the last traverse,
stretched for a thank-God turf placement, then skipped my feet
across. As my weight came on the axe it ripped and I set off
on a massive crashing pendulum, which ended with me dangling
30 foot down a smooth wall. Half an hour of desperate prusiking
on iced ropes followed. "I couldn't find any runners. I
hope you didn't fall far", was Robin's comment as I clambered
up to his stance!
After struggling over the top sans map and compass in
dense fog, we relocated out sacks and ski sticks then bumslid
the south side into Coire Dubh only for me to discover that
one of my axes had become detached from my sack. This meant
reclimbing 1500 feet up the slope to find it, and delayed return
until nearly 1am!
Eighe, Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Eastern Ramparts
Pale Rider VIII, 9 ***
The winter ascent climbed thin cracks to gain the main corner
from the right side on pitch 1. The summer crux (pitch 2) was
sustained but highly co-operative. The 3rd pitch moved right
from the summer line after the left traverse and thin ramp,
climbing a vague crack rightwards then traversing delicately
right along a footledge to gain a terrace. A short easy chimney
at the right end of the terrace led to the final slopes (50m,
serious and sustained with big swing potential for the second).
Pitch grades 8, 8 and 9.
M.E.Moran and R.Thomas, 5th February 2010
21s 2010: Return to An Teallach: After
a week of milder weather and a general thaw it would have been
easy to abandon our new route project on An Teallach's awesome
Hayfork Wall. However, on Wednesday chill continental air returned
and collided with a weak Atlantic front to produce a couple
of hours of gentle snowfall on the hills. Would this, coupled
with a night frost, be sufficient to coat our wall with ice?
It was a gamble to which we would not know the answer until
we rubbed our noses against the wall at 3000 feet altitude.
That required another 4am reveille and a dark walk over the
Dundonnell moors. A troubled dawn rose above isolated towers
of grey cumulo-nimbus and briefly fired the ridge crests to
a bloody red as we cramponned into the cleft of the Hayfork
Gully. Wind scouring had turned the gully bed into a serpentine
sculpture of graceful snow ridges. The snow itself was rock-hard
neve of the most desirable variety.
was labouring with a neck injury sustained by walking into a
children's swing bar at the Aviemore fun house. How the mighty
are slain! Nonetheless, he was up ahead in the gully as usual.
We passed black and snowless walls but on rounding the final
bend Pete called down that we had conditions. We could barely
believe it? Our wall was varnished in verglas and the fresh
snow had stuck to the ice to give a white veneer thicker than
we had encountered 10 days earlier when there was a foot of
snow at sea level. When verglas is abundant the difficulty usually
increases and protection options always diminish.
these thoughts in mind I squared up to the big first pitch that
Pete had led so well on the first attempt. The boulder-problem
start was now somewhat more serious. Whereas last week's landing
was a friendly soft drift, I was now faced with the prospect
of cracking an ankle on landing and then shooting headfirst
past Pete down the ice gully, thereby doing no favours for my
self-esteem or enhancing our chances of getting up the route.
Thankfully, I hit the crucial placement in the strip of moss
that adorns an otherwise blank wall and quickly cranked up to
the turf on the first ledge. There is undeniable pressure in
having to lead a hard pitch, already mastered a week previously,
merely in order to get my leader into position to tackle the
crux above. The climbing becomes a job of work. There is no
room for flair, no room for error; and yet, once I warmed to
the task, progress came steadily and I sensed a reserve of strength
even on vertical or overhanging moves. Having done so many routes
in the last month were we getting complacent, overestimating
difficulty, or were we just getter better, stronger and more
competent in our footwork? The stress level only rose once when
a crucial cam placement started walking down a verglassed crack.
The fall potential here was over 10 metres, but I was able to
hammer in a hex nut as a back up.
grateful relief I reached the peg belay of last week and brought
Pete up, while watching two golden eagles at play over the Glas
Thuill on a rising southerly wind. A sizeable overhang barred
access to the upper crack. A direct route was mossy and crackless.
Happily, Pete acted on my silent prayer that he would try the
arete to its right where visible flakes offered hope of a positive
outcome. The result was more surprising than we had ever imagined.
The sandstone layers, hitherto bulbous and obstinate, now opened
to offer cracks and footholds aplenty. Within an hour Pete was
chomping his way to the top on magnificent snow-ice. Instead
of a pitch of hideous VIII we had a sensational VI, 7 where
every probe with the axes produced a solid placement.
were on top by 2.30pm, a wonderful VII, 8 in the bag, which
Pete wanted to call Silver Fox, the nickname of Inverness geography
teacher Will Wilkinson who had died in the recent avalanche
on Ben Nevis. Our rewards were an exhilarating view over the
pinnacles of Sgurr Fiona and a daylight return to the Scots
Pines and rhododendron of Dundonnell.
rock on pitch 1 of Silver Fox (VII, 8)
Fiona and the Corrag Buidhe pinnacles from the top of
15th - 17th: Our
first weekend courses of 2010 coincided with a general thaw,
and the snow and ice shrunk significantly over the three days.
Nonetheless some good climbing was achieved - Beinn Bhan A'Chioch
Ridge with Direct Finish (III, 4), Fuar Tholl Access Gully Ice
Exit (III), Forcan Ridge of The Saddle (I), Flakey Ridge on
Creag Coire an't Slugain, Glen Shiel (III, 4) were all enjoyed
and Sunday brought fresh snow and renewed frost to the higher
TRAVERSE ATTEMPT: 6th - 7th Jan 2010: Mike Coppock and
Alex Moran (pictures
Sgurr Fionn Choire and Bruach na Frithe from the Tooth;
and Right: Dawn over Sleat and the mainland
we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained
success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom?
No and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction...fulfilled
a destiny. To struggle and to understand- never this last
without the other; such is the law..." (George Mallory)
Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean from An Caisteal
Bhasteir Tooth and Sgurr nan Gillean
approaches the summit of Bruach na Frithe in virgin snow
long walk home: dusk over the Glen Brittle moors
Jan 11th: Crag X with Pete Macpherson: Today was the day
for our big new route attempt, a line I had attempted two years
previously and had obsessively desired ever since. Many a sleepless
night had been spent visualising the contortions, theatrics
and raw courage that might be needed to climb this thing, and
our armoury included our Camalot 6 and a 32 foot sling for imaginary
chockstone belays. An ominous south-easterly wind had sprung
up overnight and the sea level temperature had risen to the
dizzy height of zero degrees C, heralding the beginning of the
end of the 24 day freeze. After two hours of vigorous snow-shoeing
in the dark we reached the corrie floor and Pete declared himself
sufficiently weak to open up a giant tupperware of pastries.
After swallowing four of the same, the Macpherson clan battlecry
echoed round the corrie. "Come on, sausage rolls, do your
stuff!" He led up the approach gully with renewed vigour,
swinging his tools like the claymores of old. This route could
never withstand the coming onslaught....
rounded the last corner and met the most profound denouement.
The enemy had simply disappeared. In place of a soaring 50 metre
chimney there was an enormous fresh pink rockscar. Over half
the climb had collapsed since my last visit. An estimated 500
to 1000 tons of rock was buried somewhere in the gully bed.
One of God's more endearing attributes is a profound sense of
irony, and here he had played his hand to perfection, mocking
the arrogant posturing of humanity. "The last great challenge"
was no more.
distinctly spooky feel gripped the party. Was our Heavenly Father
waiting for our arrival somewhere up in the rime-coated galleries
ready to hurl more scorn and another few hundred tons of rock
on our pretensions. After some procrastination and involuntary
emptying of bowels, a thorough survey was taken of the rest
of the cliff and two new routes were attempted. I spent two
and a half hours climbing 20 metres of fantastic but exceedingly
thin wall-climbing before falling off. At one point an overwhelming
sense of weakness forced me to attempt a figure-four on a horizontally
torqued axe but the shaft bent so alarmingly that snapping seemed
imminent, so a teeth-grinding crank had to suffice instead.
The line was diagonal so when I retreated after my fall and
stripped my gear, removal of the last piece of protection left
me with an alarming swing and "Toni Kurz-like" plunge
as the slack in the rope was taken. Luckily I was fetched tight
on the rope two feet off a hard landing.
it was now 1.30pm the hibernating Macpherson was prodded into
action and prised out of his duvet jacket in order to try another
line. Fuelled with a handful of my jelly babies the boy responded
with characteristic brio, yarding up a thin mossy wall to gain
a deep crackline that continued skywards to tackle some depressing
overhangs. As darkness gathered I expended my last reserves
of arm strength to follow this 40 metre tour de force
and found Pete hanging off two pegs and an inverted cam, his
feet braced on near a vertical slab covered with grass tufts.
This was not the most reassuring of belays. More roofs and a
fierce finishing crack loomed overhead. Now out of sausage rolls,
Pete was mute and despondent but I exhorted him to have just
one look, for this line, if completed would be a absolute stonker.
His first placement ripped and he tumbled on top of me, hooking
my headtorch strap and nearly garotting me on its stretched
elastic. At least this mitigated the factor 2 fall. As it was,
one of the pegs had bent 45 degrees under the load. The retreat
was sounded and after much effort to insert a third peg we spun
nervously down the impassive walls to regain the sacks.
snow-shoes we blasted out 5km to the road in just an hour and
a half. Without them we would probably never have even reached
the cliff. Backed at the car one of us who shall remain nameless
reflected that the mountain had been "untamed, spicy and
untouched by anyone else - just like the wife!" Squash,
crisps and, much to Pete's annoyance, a blast of Will Young's
greatest hits sustained us on the homeward drive. More wild
dreams and sleepless nights await until the day we can return.
day on the hill: Sausage-roll machine Pete MacPherson
hard at it
What was left of our much-vaunted new route mission
Jan 8th: Sgurr an Fhidhleir, Coigach: What climb can be
worth getting up at midnight, driving 2 hours on snowy roads
and walking for 3 hours in inky darkness? The Coigach Fiddler
is one such place. This precocious horn of layered sandstone
projects from the northern corries of Ben More Coigach and is
one of the country's finest venues for adventurous winter climbing.
Remoteness is one of many challenges here. The cliff is only
ever in condition after heavy snow, which means that the 6km
walk-in will always be a trial. The cliff has a huge curving
corner-line in its left face, the fiddler's bow by which the
mountain was probably named. Guy Robertson had a project here
to climb the bow direct all the way. Previous summer (Boysen
and Patey) and winter (Cartwright and Richardson) ascents had
traversed right out of the bow half-way up, deterred by the
steep and slabby corner above. Expecting a long day the Robertson
summons to a midnight start was ungodly but wise.
Garve junction I collected Pete Macpherson, who was somewhat
deranged from lack of sleep and a morbid fear that he'd simply
drown in the drifts without snowshoes, and we met Guy at a lay-by
on the Achiltibuie road. After some blundering with gorsebushes,
a deer fence and an ice-covered creek we struck out over the
moor towards a vague mountain horizon. I had the only snowshoes
so beat a trail while Pete and Guy ploughed my tracks behind.
At times the drifts were thigh-deep. The Fiddler was dimly lit
by a half-moon when we pitched up at its base at 6.30am. An
icefall gleaming at the top of the bow was our guiding light
to locate the route. A deathly cold gripped us as we fiddled
through a protracted gearing-up operation. The temperature that
night dropped to minus 20degC at nearby Altnaharra!
soloed nervously up a series of ice and heather steps, the angle
perceptibly increasing until we felt sufficiently exposed to
seek the first available flake for a belay. The twilight lasted
nearly two hours and the Coigach and Assynt hills slowly emerged
from hibernation like the "frosted cities of timeless sleep
waiting for the errant knight" of Winthrop Young's great
poem. Pete took the first difficult lead up the first two steps
of the corner and for once the boy-racer was slowed to a nervous
crawl as he bridged tenuously up a groove of rippled sandstone.
Though not especially strenuous this pitch is probably worth
technical 8, all too easy to fall off when seconding. The existing
routes now traversed right. The corner above was hideously smooth
with rock roofs on its left side. Guy had the challenge of forcing
a way through this unknown ground. To his delight smears of
half-inch ice ran down the slabs. With axes in rock and turf
placements in the roofs he could tip-toe up the ice and did
a superb sustained pitch of 50m to gain a tiny stance below
fierce capping overhangs at the top of the bow. The ice continued
right up to the final roof and with its help I swung over one
bulge. I then found a perfect thread runner and traversed right
on the last plate of ice to find wonderful rock placements for
the final swing on to easier ground.
were surprised and elated that the route had yielded so quickly,
having really expected a 24 hour grade VIII horror-show. The
climb had taken only 7 hours and we could enjoy a splendid sunset
vista out under the Coigach mists and over the sea to the gold-lit
Summer Isles and Wester Ross headlands. As climbers we gratefully
accept what favours the mountains give. We'd had a fantastic
day on a superb route. The grade is VII, 8 with technical grades
of 8,7,7 on the three hard pitches. Possible names were bandied
about on the walk-out. Bow-Selecter-Directer was undoubtedly
popular but The Bow Direct was more suitably formal to such
a special place and more appropriately respectful to our predecessors.
The final decision was left to Guy.
wonderful to get home at a sensible time, to toast the toes
on the fire and drop into bed for an 11 hour sleep. Early starts
are nearly always worth it!
Jan 6th: The Storr, Skye: After another night and day of
heavy snowfall on Skye, Martin Welch called to report excellent
conditions on the prodigious basalt cliffs of The Storr. He
had tried the ramp line on the big cliff behind The Old Man
at New Year but was stopped for want of large camming devices
on the crux barrier pitch (or at least that's his excuse!).
Mick Fowler had climbed some of the deeper gullies here in the
1990's but to our knowledge the 200-metre ramp was unclimbed.
With growing excitement we drove the snowy road north of Portree
and walked up the forest approach path in pre-dawn light. Above
us the Old Man and his cohort of pinnacles emerged from the
morning mists like fossilised phantoms, bearded with rime and
snow. Rabbits scuttled out from their overnight snowholes as
we ploughed the drifted slopes towards our cliff. The mainland
hills from Assynt down to Knoydart stretched like a line of
slumbering ghosts across the Inner Sound. The morning sun touched
the cliffs for half an hour then left us to our frozen scratchings.
first pitch took us to a cluster of old pegs and an abseil sling,
presumably left on a much earlier attempt. Martin was armed
with my largest cams, including a giant number 6, and sent up
the crux barrier. He fixed the cams in a big roof crack then
shuffled left to a smooth wall. Basalt lavas are inherently
rotten and crackless. The existence of cracks for axes picks
or protection is unpredictable and unlikely. Martin bridged
up, scraped at the snow-covered rock and announced that this
was a pitch that I would really enjoy. So, within half an hour,
I was up at the sharp end, fiddling a poor cam into a flared
crack, while contemplating a nasty fall if it ripped. As fear
welled I turned to my new secret weapon, a £10 Pecker
recently purchased from Macpherson Mountain Sports at generous
discount. This hook-beaked little fellow can be hammered into
hairline cracks and here it saved the day, tapping nicely into
a little crack that no other piton could have fitted. With a
little more assurance I weedled my way up the wall to gain good
belays at the start of the ramp.
led through on three long pitches up the ramp. The middle pitch
was a wonderful 50-metre grade 5 chimney with good gear every
5 or 10 metres. A snow-squall swept in as Martin led out of
the ramp to a short finishing arete and we emerged into a stinging
blizzard amidst the weird assemblage of pinnacles and clefts
atop the Storr plateau. Although the climbing was a little imbalanced
in standard this was a terrific line climbing the centre of
one of Britain's most dramatic bits of landscape. We've called
the route Storvegen (the big road), and the grade would
probably be VI, 8.
of Skye: Trotternish,
220m VI, 8 **
This is the big ramp cutting leftwards across the big cliff
behind the Old Man. A compelling line, although the climbing
is imbalanced by the short but thin crux section. Start in the
subsidiary gully as for Deeply Digestible Gully.
1. 25m Climb the gully to belay at old pegs.
2. 15m Go up the cleft on the left to a roof (large cams), then
move left and up the short barrier wall (crux) to ledges at
the foot of the ramp (good belays up right).
3. 50m Follow snow and ice ramps to the base of a chimney weakness
in the ramp.
4. 55m Climb the chimney line with sustained interest and good
5. 60m Go easily up leftwards on a turfy weakness and climb
a gully to the crest of the buttress.
6. 15m Climb rocky steps on the ridge to the top.
and M.Welch, 6th January 2010
Dawn over the cliffs - our climb takes the obvious ramp and
Right: Sunrise over The Old Man of Storr
View over The Storr and Inner Sound to the Torridon Hills from
the route; Right: Martin Welch tackles the crux pitch
30th - Jan 2nd: New Year Stravaigs: Our New Year courses
chanced on some of the best conditions we've had for years.
An ascent was made of Spidean nan Coire Clach on Beinn Eighe
on an ominous windy day. We then broke trail on the round of
Beinn Alligin (I) and enjoyed a good slide down Coire an Laoigh
on newly-packed drifts. New Years Day saw ascents of Mono Blues
Gully (II) and Turquoise Gully (III) on Meall Gorm which each
gave excellent wee ice pitches. Finally we traversed the Forcan
Ridge of The Saddle (II) which sported long sections of snowy
arete and superb easy mixed climbing.
Shayler, Eva Groenveld and Chris Crowle on the Forcan Ridge
of The Saddle, Jan 2nd 2010
27th: Sundance on Beinn Eighe: Of all the great routes
I wanted to do in the North-West Highlands, the fantastic corner
line of of Sundance on Beinn Eighe's Far East Wall was top of
the list. I'd been there with Blair Fyffe in 2007 to try the
first winter ascent, but Blair's brain was working in the 7th
dimension of astro-physics that day and he retreated from halfway
up the first pitch. The problem with this wall is that anyone
who hasn't climbed there before will be deterred from trying
the climbs, unaware that the sheer quartzite is improbably helpful
for axe picks and toe holds. Ian Parnell and Guy Robertson did
the winter first in 2008 and gave it the obligatory four stars.
Not only does Sundance take an inspiring natural line but during
a freeze it develops two bizarre icicles from its upper roofs
and dribbles water ice down the face below, giving the potential
for a true mixed climb.
appointment with Sundance commenced with greasy fried eggs at
4.15am. Alex and I drove up to Achnasheen where the Macpherson
machine was stuck in a snowdrift, but after short delay to dig
him free we continued to Glen Torridon. Out threesome tumbled
out into the night at 5.50am and trudged up somebody's wayward
tracks towards Coire Dubh. Any climb on Beinn Eighe's Triple
Buttress has added challenge in the steep walk-in over the top
of 950m Coinneach Mor, which is especially gruelling in knee-deep
snow. I let the youngsters burn some excess calories on the
upward yomp, following at a respectful distance and trying to
moderate the output of sweat. Leaving our sacks at the top,
we plunged down into the head of Coire Mhic Fhearchair. Scotland's
greatest corrie was looking particularly sublime in the morning
light. The ice sheet on the surface of the lochan was criss-crossed
with dark strips like the tracks of a giant skidoo. Maybe Santa
had been drunk in charge of his sleigh after completing his
was already 20 feet up the route and looked set to do a Ueli
Steck on the first pitch without crampons by the time Alex and
I arrived. We called him down and he was assigned photographic
duties to keep him occupied while I made a cautious probe into
the iced groove cutting the fist tiers of rock. Supposedly 'easy'
introductory pitches need the greatest of care. This one seemed
a steady VII,7 and protection was hard-won with the cracks choked
in verglas. No sooner was I belayed than the Macpherson machine
swung into action, yarding up the groove in five minutes and
racking up a massive bandolier of kit ready for the fearsome
second pitch. Alex arrived and was sufficiently impressed by
the prevailing verticality to require fatherly reassurance as
to the strength of the belay anchors, one of which promptly
fell out as Pete levered his axe on a loose flake.
2 climbs a vertical wall and enters a narrow hanging chimney.
Two blobs of frozen moss and a thin streak of verglas were the
only adornments. Pete was soon into Macpherson mode, with bouts
of frantic action interspersed by simulated farting sounds.
"This looks mental man," he said at one point, but
progress continued unabated and his head disappeared up the
chimney while feet and knees pedalled and scraped against the
projecting walls. Within an hour Alex and I were trying to second
with some semblance of grace while Pete took endless photos
of our travails. My pride in seniority took a further blow as
Alex caught me up on his rope and demanded more rapid progress
from his Dad.
third pitch tackles the icicles of the upper corner. The walls
beneath the first roof were thickly smeared in verglas. I felt
a sinking feeling - the moves looked desperate, protection marginal
and Pete had that expectant look that demands positive lead
action. At times like you this you need faith. Pete's pitch
had sported magnificent hooks and cracks for axe picks all the
way. I had to believe that the same would materialise under
the inches of ice on my pitch. I teetered into a bridged rest
under the first roof while an uninterrupted drawl of two gossiping
men drifted up from below. Climbing as threesome has social
benefits for the seconds but the leader can feel decidedly neglected.
An eight-foot curtain of ice drooped from the second roof. I
gave it one hard tap and the icicle detached en-masse. There
was a sudden and satisfying end to the banter as this damoclean
missile crashed into the rock and shattered a few feet from
their stance. With their attentions duly regained I swung right
under the roof to discover perfect blade placements. I then
bridged on to what remained of the ice and pulled on to the
next belay ledge, to complete a truly awesome pitch.
nightfall the Macpherson whirlwind swung back into action on
pitch 4. The first ascensionists, who happen to be quite good
climbers, described this mossy verglassed corner as "bold".
Now when I read this I usually ferret around for any available
bits of gear. But to Pete "bold" translates as "go
for it"!. As he was about to launch himself up this horrible
corner, I politely suggested he might find gear in a crack well
out to the left. Sideways motion isn't Pete's strongest climbing
skill, but happily he heeded the advice and Alex and I were
spared the prospect of being impaled by the Macpherson crampon
points. After fixing two good wires he swung back to the corner
and finished the climb with his usual aplomb.
emerged into moonlight on the summit ridge at 5.30pm, packed
up and then bum-slid down the southern slopes enjoying a panoramic
view of the serrated outline of Liathach on the far side of
Coire Dubh. And to think that people wonder why we do it. Days
like this come as close to perfection in life's experience as
one can dare to imagine. The only subsequent route is downward.
By midnight, after two beers and a huge meal I was trapped by
leg cramps in the sofa of our attic TV room. The rest of the
family had turned in, and I grimaced through a whole double
bill of Alan Partridge before I recovered sufficiently to stagger
24th: Applecross Adventure: With perfect weather and conditions
Alex and I secured a day's leave from Christmas preparations
with a promise that we'd be back for the evening carol service.
Deterred from hoofing through the snow for hours, I suddenly
remembered a big cliff low on the flanks of Meall Gorm below
the Bealach na Ba - Creag a'Chumhaing (crag of the defile).
This is one of biggest and steepest cliffs in the area, nearly
800 feet in vertical height, forming the towering prow that
frames the postcard view down the pass. No-one is known to have
climbed it. With deep snow and frost down to sea level this
crag could, at last, be in prime condition for an ascent. With
an approach up the road we could reach the crag in a sensible
time. However, we were sure that the Bealach road would still
be closed, so planned to snow-shoe up to the base in the hours
before dawn. We were pleasantly surprised to find the road ploughed
and open when we rolled up at 6.30am, so we could drive to within
a 15 minutes walk of the start! This gave us the problem of
killing time until dawn at 8am. It was case of either dozing
in the van listening to an hour of Sarah Kennedy's drivel on
the radio, or else getting out and finding our way by torchlight.
Needless to say, it was distinctly preferable to blunder around
the snow-covered heather in -5degC.
The cliff has a huge vegetated corner cutting up the first tier.
This was easily located in the twilight, and dawn was flushing
the mountains with a pink glow when I completed the first 50
metre pitch. Much of the vegetation, upon which we had planned
to rely, was entirely disposable, and the veneer of water-ice
down the left wall was merely decorative. Happily a crack materialised
in the back of the corner, offering improving protection and
axe pick placements. Although only technical 5 it was a tiring
and stressful lead. Alex led through to find a weakness in the
next band, a chimney and corner system which looked ominously
straightforward from below. Torridonian sandstone has the habit
of flattering to deceive and soon I found myself brushing my
nose against a decidedly steep corner groove some 10 metres
high. There was a crack in the back for picks and gear, and
therefore no excuses for failure. Two and a half pitches and
4 hours had passed. We were now on the spiral terrace just under
half-height. The headwall above looked scrappy, but perceptions
needed adjustment to the scale. This cliff is fully 150 metres
Alex did two excellent leads of sustained technical 6 to bring
us to the final tiers of rock at nightfall. Depressingly fierce
overhangs reared overhead. Were we to be denied at the last?
I traversed to the right end of a ledge and spotted a steep
crack-line cutting up to a weird projecting rock gargoyle. This
was a rocky road to salvation. Would the gargoyle collapse and
take me with it? The moves to reach it were strenuous and committing,
and all too quickly I was grappling with a cluster of loose
flakes and chockstones. Happily, the gargoyle itself remained
motionless and I clambered atop, hoping for a rapid end to the
route. However, another 30 metres of steep rock loomed out of
the darkness. Our plans to add our singing talents to the Christmas
Eve service were now abandoned, apologies were offered by mobile
phone and instead we hummed Christmas ditties into the blackness
of infinity beyond our torchbeams. Another almighty struggle
up a big groove ended with my clinging grimly to another sheaf
of loose flakes with my feet pedalling uselessly on a bare slab,
wondering which ones to throw down at Alex and which to stack
precariously at the back of the cleft.
We topped out into fields of glistening hoar frost at 9pm. The
cliffs on either side offered no easy descents. Several gullies
cut back down to the road, but most are grade II or III and
only one of them is grade I. We had to find the grade I purely
by guesswork. The gully we did descend was a foul agglomeration
of deep powder snow and loose rocks with an icy step halfway
down. We tottered down and staggered back to the road in a confused
state of dehydration and elation. We forswore a visit to join
the Christmas party at Lochcarron Hotel and drove straight home
where Joy was glad to see us back in the fold ten minutes before
midnight, and we thankfully indulged the pleasures of hot baths,
a giant spaghetti and a warm fire. We'd had a brilliant adventure.
There aren't many such virgin cliffs left in the country and
there is a primitive thrill in battling a way through the cornices
of turf and improbable prows of weathered rock. The grade is
VII, 7 and "Peace on Earth" seems a suitable Christmas
Meall Gorm, Creag a' Chumhaing: Peace on Earth 275m VII,
This grand adventure climbs a direct line up the frontal face
of prominent cliff at the entrance to Coire na Ba, and is repulsive
and exhilarating in equal measure. Pitch grades of 5, 4, 7,
6, 4, 6, 3, 7, 7 make for an arduous outing, but difficulties
are mitigated by the 15 minute walk-in from the road. Fresh
snowfall and a few days of sea-level freeze create the required
conditions. Start at the big corner, which cuts through the
1. 45m Climb the open-book corner with sustained interest to
belay below the first terrace.
2. 15m Move up to the terrace and traverse right to belay at
a detached flake left of a chimney and crack line.
3. 50m Climb the chimney, then move up left and climb a steep
corner crack to gain the Spiral Gully terrace. Belay on blocks
The headwall above looks scrappy but don't be fooled!
4. 25m Follow a crackline 5m right of an icefall to a higher
5. 25m Go up a turfy depression on the left past a tree to belay
at a cluster of flakes (ancient abseil sling).
6. 30m Take the right trending line between imposing roofs,
traverse left for 3m and ascend a groove to a turf ledge. Belay
on the left.
7. 20m Go up to the terrace below the formidable final tiers
and traverse to its right end. Belay beneath a crack.
8. 25m Climb the steep crack to a projecting gargoyle and continue
up a chimney with chockstone to belay by a large block.
9. 40m Go up then left to reach a right-slanting gangway, which
splits the final overhangs and is climbed to an abrupt finish.
& M.E.Moran, 24th December 2009
Dec 21st: Glen Shiel: Pete Macpherson, Finlay Wild, Murdo
Jamieson and I ploughed in to the W Face of Druim Shionnach
above Cluanie Inn. The roads were in bad shape. Cunningly, Pete
and I arranged to arrive 10 minutes after the youngsters and
were able to follow their tracks until they seemed to veer way
off route and we made our own trail. Pete tried a new route
up a steep crackline. Despite carrying 10kg of hardware including
sizings from knifeblade pegs to a gigantic Camalot 6, the crack
was of the perfect size for a Camalot 4 - the one piece of kit
we didn't have! Pete placed marginal wires instead and continued
up some strenuous moves before running out of steam and courage.
Luckily, his top wire held and he lowered off. Judging by a
bloodcurdling yell from Murdo, there was clearly some exciting
action going on over on Bow Peep - an excellent V,6 ** . I decided
to try an easier looking new line just right of Cave Gully.
This gave two long pitches, following a series of corners and
ramps then finishing up a smart chimney that offered a perfect
wall crack for the axe picks. Overall grade V,6, and worth two
stars. Name? Well Pete had wanted to call his expletive-ridden
horror Rage Against the Machine; but I'm a Joe fan myself so
threatened to call my route The Climb - a relaxing ballad with
a soulful groove. To Pete's relief I settled on The Gruffalo,
an aimiable monster with long nose and a crooked smile - a bit
like Pete himself! Conditions were 100% perfect - we even had
bits of old snow-ice. We walked out in darkness, blundering
around for half an hour in knee-deep drifts before fixing our
course to the guiding star of a floodlit Cluanie Inn.
Shionnach, West Face: The
Gruffalo 80m V, 6 **
route climbs the line of corners just right of Cave Gully, finishing
up a chimney in the sidewall. Start at the base of the first
step in the gully.
1. 35m Climb turfy grooves in the right wall, and continue to
the base of the subsidiary chimney taken by Cave Gully. Move
right and climb to a ledge under an imposing crack-line.
2. 45m Go up the slab corner on the left for 10m then pull up
right into a deep chimney, which gives a superb pitch.
& M.E.Moran, 21st December 2009
Dec 18th: Blasphemies on the Migrant Direct: We had planned
a "mission" to do a big route on Lochnagar but wimped
out in face of a snowy forecast. So it was back into the Northern
Corries for another short day. The weather was windless with
gentle intermittent snowfall. Conditions on the Coire an Lochain
cliffs were challenging. A partial thaw earlier in the week
had been followed by a rapid refreeze, leaving most routes sheathed
in verglas. The rime, usually soft and febrile, had melted and
refrozen into substantial ice daggers. We chose Migrant Direct,
a route that was supposed to be more easily climbable with the
help of ice. Worryingly, the overall grade is considered VII,
8 without ice but VIII, 7 with ice. Pete led an enjoyable technical
7 pitch to a balcony under the overhanging corner groove that
forms the crux. Sure enough there was a strip of thin ice in
the back of the groove but the sidewalls looked so smooth and
were so thickly caked in rime that it was pointless trying to
excavate any footholds for bridging. Instead, I found it necessary
to yard up on the arms, jabbing the axes from nick to nick in
the ice, while windmilling my left foot in the groove and bracing
the right knee against the rime. Having stripped old scabs off
my knee-cap a trail of blood quickly developed down the wall.
Protection was left a considerable way behind and strength had
drained to the last remaining trickle when it became possible
to twist the hips and throw a foot out to a ledge on the left
arete. Rarely do I profane the heavens but this was an appropriate
moment! Thankfully, the standard eased thereafter although protection
remained sketchy. By contrast to all the other routes we've
done recently this felt decidedly the most desperate. There
are those who try to exclude strenuosity from the technical
grade. All I can say is that whoever gave it a technical 7 must
be formidably strong! We drove home through steady snowfall.
Aviemore is transforming from planning nightmare to winter wonderland!
Dec 11th: Tolstoy's Masterpiece: Pete MacPherson and I did
War and Peace (VII, 8) in Coire an Lochain - a Davison/Nisbet
route up No.4 Buttress right of Fallout Corner. This was an
excellent outing. Any route authored by Brian Davison deserves
respect as his strength and ability are legendary. However,
we found conditions helpful. There was usable ice in the first
pitch. Much rock was showing on the second and a party had done
the route earlier in the week, giving away most of the secrets
as to where there were useful placements. Nonetheless, the crux
overhung was exhilaratingly commiting and strenuous and the
exit was problematic with thick rime masking the rock. Weather
and ambience in the Northern Corries were once again magnificent.
There were a few other parties out doing Central Crack Route,
The Migrant, Hoarmaster, Deep Throat and Aqualung. It is a pre-Christmas
bonanza for all of us lucky enough to live near the hills, without
immediate gainful employment.
Dec 4th: Ventriloquist, Coire an Lochain: Never has it been
so easy to get up at 4.30am and drive to the Cairngorms - dry,
cold with full moon. The Northern Corries cliffs were plastered
in rime and snow with barely a rock showing. The dawn was one
of the most splendid I've ever seen. All the Central and West
Highlands from Meagaidh up to Wyvis were arrayed in pink alpenglow
for 10 minutes, reminding me of the vast expanses of western
Norway. Within this breathtaking landscape the Monadhliath windfarms
poked up like minute matchsticks, adding dimension and scale
and thus enhancing the view. Pete MacPherson and I decided to
climb on the least snowy buttress, No.1 in Coire an Lochain.
Ventriloquist has a mean reputation at VII, 7 - having spat
off several leaders. We climbed it direct with no deviations
into Auricle. I was pretty pleased with my first pitch which
had a horribly technical sequence with no gear above a big ledge.
Pete despatched the crux crack in a couple of minutes and carried
on up the final pitch. I guess I got a bit blase and switched
off a bit when seconding, but after falling off twice I was
cut down to size. Thereafter I grovelled my way to the top with
a series of grim laybacks off torqued axes, feeling and looking
like a spreadeagled goose half-roasted for Christmas. To think
that this route was first done by men with beards, straight
shafts and wristloops back in 1990! All I can say is "respect
to Nisbet and John Lyall"! Ventriloquist felt like a gritstone
E3 6a whereas Sioux Wall was like a steady sustained mountain
E4 5c by comparison.
30th - Dec 1st: Sioux Wall and a Pasting on Tower Ridge:
I had two excellent days on Ben Nevis on Monday and Tuesday,
The cliffs were heavily caked in verglas, rime and soft ice,
making mixed climbing genuine but laborious as every placement
had to be cleared of crud. On Monday Pete and I did Sioux Wall,
a modern classic, one of the best hard mixed climbs I've ever
done. In the evening we enjoyed a dead calm on the summit plateau
together with a full moon. The only downer came when we couldn't
get the lock to open on the CIC Hut door. That meant an unplanned
return to the valley, but thanks to Rich Bentley's hospitality
we enjoyed a cosy night sleeping among his cats on his lounge
on Tuesday it was back up the track to the hut. Nick Owen and
I had a mini-epic on Tower Ridge, which was plastered in snow.
We were hit by violently gusty winds on arriving at the Great
Tower and completed the route crawling on all fours for fear
of being blown into the maelstrom. A steady 70-80mph wind greeted
us on the top. The newly erected cairns were a great help in
guiding us safely down the Tourist Route. As a guide I shouldn't
really say that but at nightfall in a storm it is always a relief
to find proof of the correct route.
Nov 29th: Cioch Nose: four of us from Torridon Mountain
Rescue Team had a fun day in cold clear weather examining the
difficult terrain on the Applecross Cioch Nose. If anyone gets
cragfast here the rescue scenario will be highly challenging.
Steep vegetated cliffs with narrow terraced weaknesses and a
500 foot clear exposure down the Nose would make a crag-snatch
or stretcher-lower a very complex and committing task. We abseiled
down the whole route, checked belays and took GPS references.
If you do fall off here we are now ready for you, but I wouldn't
necessarily recommend the experience! Anyone going here in the
winter months needs to be fully equipped with headtorches and
basic bivouac equipment.
DEVI EAST EXPEDITION: 14th MAY - 23rd JUNE 2009
team of 6 spent a varied and rewarding five weeks in the Nanda
Devi range of Kumaon in India with the blessings of good weather
and a safe return. A beautiful 5 day trek took us from the roadhead
at Munsiari up the Gori Ganga gorge, then up the Lawan valley
to a base camp at 4280m under the awesome 3000m SE wall of 7434m
Nanda Devi East. Base camp was an extensive flat grazing meadow
with fresh running water and a carpets of primulas.
Heroic Poles: A Polish expedition was already camped nearby,
in the final stages of their attempt on NDE to celebrate the
70th anniversary of the historic first ascent in 1939. Jan Lenczowski,
grandson of first ascensionist Jakub Bujak, was the leader.
The 1939 climb of the SE Ridge was the hardest pre-war route
in the Himalaya by a considerable margin, and has only been
repeated a handful of times, all with extensive fixed roping
apart from an impressive Alpine-style ascent by British Guides
Roger Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma in 1994. The subsequent story
of the 4 Polish engineers who pulled off the magnificent first
ascent in 1939 is harrowing. Two were killed by an avalanche
on Tirsuli three weeks after the NDE climb. The other two, Bujak
and Klarner, were unable to return to Poland due to the outbreak
of war. Bujak went to Britain, worked in the war effort, then
disappeared in mysterious and unexplained circumstances in Cornwall
in 1945, just after the war's end. He never saw his wife or
family again after leaving for Nanda Devi. Klarner wrote a book
on the trip, returned to Poland after the war, but then disappeared,
presumably into one of Stalin's gulags in 1949. His daughter
published the book in 1956.
Lapak (5782m): The
whole team (Jim Finnie, Paul Guest, Rob Jarvis, Martin Moran,
John Venier and Leon Winchester plus our LO, Luder Singh from
Kulu) warmed up with an ascent of Nanda Lapak, an excellent
training peak on the ridge east of Nanda Devi. From a comfortable
camp at 5100m an AD standard climb was made to the summit, with
a section of 80m of hard brittle glacier ice at 60deg angle
forming the crux. The views were exceptional, probably the best
of the trip.
the Poles gave up their brave attempt on NDE, having fixed ropes
to 6900m. They had been hampered by deep snow and strong winds.
It was sobering for us to see these hardened climbers (one had
summitted Everest sans-oxygen!) retreat through exhaustion.
Nonethless, we made our first foray to Longstaff's Col. At 5910m
this col is a historic gateway to the Nanda Devi peaks, first
reached by Dr Tom Longstaff in 1905. The problem with the col
is that can only by accessed by a 40 to 50 deg snow/ice couloir
which is no less than 1000 metres in vertical height! Add a
16kg load plus the essential need to reach the col soon after
dawn before the sun loosens the snow and avalanches commence,
and you have a challenge. We set out at 1am. In fog and light
snowfall we took 8 hours to reach the col. John, who was carrying
an enormous sack, dropped out half-way. Longstaff's Col would
be fine if a nice cosy snow hollow for a secure campsite could
be found; but no, the col is a knife-edge with a 900m plunge
into the Sanctuary on the far side. We hacked two tiny tent
platforms on the crest and prayed that it wouldn't be windy.
This is no place to trip over a tent guyline! The day was probably
the most exhausting of the trip, but ended with a majestic sunset
over the Sanctuary.
Devi East Pinnacles: Over
the next two days Martin and Rob with Leon and Paul explored
the route across the pinnacles towards NDE. The Polish team
had done a superb job of fixing 8mm ropes to an assortment of
old pegs hammered into rotten rock. The pinnacles were snowed
up and very airy. The climb across the three towers was totally
exhilarating - akin to the Eiger Mittellegi ridge. Martin and
Rob continued up the next buttress, looking for a potential
campsite at 6100m. However, the fixed ropes ran out and a long
exposed snow ridge continued to the next step with no sign of
a campsite. Deterred, they returned to the col, and on the evening
of June 1st the 6 climbers descended to base camp for a rest
and a rethink.
recce was then taken under the south wall of unclimbed Changuch,
a beautful peak of 6322m south of base camp, which had resisted
three previous attempts. We spotted a feasible route up couloirs
and ramps to gain its NW Ridge. After tactical discussion we
decided to forgo a slim chance of getting up NDE for the chance
of getting our names on the first ascent list! Meanwhile Jim
was suffering from a strained knee and John was struggling with
health and fitness. With little chance of climbing Changuch
they both decided to leave the trip early and departed for home
on June 7th. While Rob, Paul and Leon made an initial foray
to Changuch NW Ridge Martin faced the unenviable task of going
back up to Longstaff's Col with high-altitude porter Heera Singh
to retrieve some 35kg of equipment and tentage. They left Advance
camp at 4870m at 7.15pm , reached the col at midnight and got
back to camp just as the sun hit the couloir at 6am.
the night of June 6th/7th Rob, Paul and Leon climbed the couloir
and ramps to gain the Changuch NW Ridge at 5800m. After a tough
all-night climb hopping in and out of avalanche runnels they
established camp with two single-skin tents on an exiguous site
at the col, and rested for the next 36 hours. Martin and Luder
followed the route the next night joining the col camp at 3am.
After a fine hot spell of weather a more unsettled phase took
hold with afternoon snowfall blowing in from the south. However,
the nights were still fine and after shaking off several centimetres
of fresh snow the team emerged at midnight on June 8th/9th.
In Rob's tent Luder was sick, vomiting his breakfast back into
his mug. But this boy is made of tough stuff - within a few
minutes he declared himself ready to start. Martin was suffering
paroxysms of finger and toe pain, contracted from spending a
cold night bivvying outside. Nonetheless, the teams were ready
to move at 12.30am. Martin led the first 130m of mixed ridge,
then Rob took over to make a sterling lead of the exposed snow-ice
slopes above. We moved together across a 250m 55deg traverse,
then Rob led 4 steeper 60m pitches to gain the undulating upper
arete. At around 9am he pulled on to the summit crest. The highest
point was a crumbling pinnacle 30m across the crest.
downclimbed the route to regain the col just as the afternoon
blizzard began at 1pm. After a cramped and pensive afternoon,
the decision was made to bale out as soon as the storm ended.
We couldn't afford another 24 hours trapped on the col. At 6.30pm
descent was started. The slopes below the col had a thick cover
of fresh snow. Once we had satisfied ourselves that they were
safe the downclimbing was easier than we might have expected
in bare icy conditions. At midnight we emerged into phantasmagorical
moonlight on the Lawan Glacier, and wandered back to base camp
in an exhausted reverie. Naveen produced tea, soup and dahlbhat
at 3am and we turned in to bed at dawn!
Pass : After
three days of complete rest the team were ready to tackle the
final phase of the trip - a crossing of Traill's Pass to Pindari.
Britain's first commissioner to Kumaon, Mr G.W.Traill, had crossed
this 5312m pass in 1832. Due to glacial retreat the crossing
became much more difficult in the 20thC and the only recorded
crossings were made in 1941 and 1994. Leaving base camp on a
glorious morning on June 14th we climbed a glacier and 300m
45deg gully to reach the col and camped on the plateau beyond.
That night the weather was warm and misty and we had a tough
job trailbreaking over the plateau next morning to reach a rock
shoulder at 5425m where a mighty downfall broke away into the
Pindar valley. As clouds boiled up and snowfall commenced we
tackled a tricky descent of a 55-60deg snwo/ice gully, then
dropped off a glacier shelf on foul exposed and vegetated ground.
With clear weather we might have safely reached Pindari by early
afternoon, but fog and blizzard complicated routefinding. We
could not risk a blind descent to the valley with so many cliffs
in the vicinity. After many false starts and the best part of
400m reascent we finally bushwhacked a line into the valley
and reached the shepherds huts at 6.30pm - all of us totally
blown! Luder asked the shepherd, Amar Singh, if he could offer
any food and 90 minutes later we were sat cross-legged in his
hut enjoying a magnificent if spicy dahlbhat. The next three
days were spent wandering down the gorgeous Pindari valley,
happily little-changed since my last visit in 1995. We ended
with a knee-crushing 1500m descent to the roadhead at Song.
June 20th we were reunited with our superb base camp team of
Naveen, Mangal and Heera at Berinag. A delightful night was
enjoyed in the bustling hill resort of Naini Tal before the
final weary bus ride back to Delhi and the furnace-like blast
of an air temperature of 43degC! Thanks to Guide Rob Jarvis,
to Mr Pandey and his dedicated staff at Himalayan
Run & Trek, to Mountain Equipment (in particular
Duncan Machin) for generous support on purchases of clothing
and equipment for the team, and to our peak-bagging LO Luder
Singh for helping to make this one of our most memorable
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