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MARTIN'S 2016 BLOG

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6th - 29th May: Climb a New Mountain - the first ascent of Vishnu's Citadel

14th – 18th March: Jack of All Trades - a Scottish mountain pentathlon

4th March 2016: One Day Wonder – a solo winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge

22nd-28th February: Six Days on Skye - making the most of wonderful winter conditions on the Cuillin

16th February 2016: A Taste of the Western Ghats - climbing the Tail Bhaila pinnacle with the Mumbai climbers

6th – 29th May: Climb a New Mountain - the first ascent of Vishnu's Citadel: The name Peak 5968 doesn’t stimulate the romantic juices, but there it was on an old Survey of India map highest in a cluster of ridges on the southern fringe of Garhwal Himalaya. The range is called Vishnu Ghar Dhar – the ridge of Vishnu’s abode – and I had admired it from the north on a trip back in 2000. The peaks may not top the magic 6000m barrier but they looked complex, serrated and heavily glaciated. Ascents at sub-6000m altitude are possible on a three-week time budget – a definite plus to those with working lives.

Dawn over the Indian Himalaya on the summit climb

Morning views on the summit push: the beautiful snow spire of Pk 5880m with Nanda Devi on skyline

Instinct told me to go in early spring when winter snow cover would ease the approaches. The north flanks drop into broken icefalls, so we would go in from the south. I could find no records of anyone ever exploring these southern glaciers, yet they are some of the most accessible in the Indian Himalaya.
Promoting a journey of discovery with an outcome unknown may seem a difficult pitch. Yet we soon had 10 members signed up with Adele Pennington, Francis Blunt and me as guides. Numbers were swelled by addition of five Indian staff, and I reckoned we’d need 40 porters to get us all to a base camp on the Gimme Glacier. We could hardly arrive unnoticed with such an entourage.
We journeyed from Delhi by train to Haridwar and then by minibus up the Alaknanda valley, the resurgence of springtime signalled by the purple blossom of countless jacaranda trees on the roadsides. Turning off the highway 15km before Joshimath we entered a peaceful world of pastoral harmony at Urgam. Fields of ripe wheat were arrayed across wide slopes between 2000 and 2400m altitude guarded by huge horse chestnut trees.
The low starting altitude imposed a big ascent on day one of the trek. We tramped 1500 metres uphill to emerge from the forest on the ridge of Bansi Narayan. Our campground was besieged by rhododendron in full flower. The afternoon clouds cleared to reveal the vast depths of the Joshimath valley and the great peaks beyond – Dunagiri, Nanda Devi, Trisul et al. A small temple lies in a hollow by a fresh-water spring. Paradise didn’t last long. Within two hours of arrival we faced a porter strike and worked till the midnight hour to ferry all loads up to camp and then get porters, staff and selves fed.

The Gimme Glacier from base camp

Two of our porters on Acchari Dhar as the snowstorm starts

Above: The Gimme icefall with route marked

Right: Superb alpine terrain on our training climb to the 5100m rock peak

An easy day was now essential to allow for acclimatisation and we strolled 3km across grazing meadows to another camp-ground by a shallow tarn called Sonal Kund. We were now on the dissected flanks of a ridge called Acchari Dhar and needed to traverse several kilometres to reach a shoulder where we could turn into the Gimme Glacier valley. There were many local folk from Urgam on the slopes, all searching for the lucrative insect fungus keeda jadi, which grows out of dead caterpillars under the snows and is revealed in spring. Keeda jadi is a powerful steroid. A single sprig is worth Rs 250, a kilo can fetch Rs 40,000 in the Chinese medicine market – that’s a year's earnings for a Garhwal villager. No wonder few locals wanted to carry loads for us, despite our upping the daily pay rate offer to Rs 1,000. Instead, we had a bunch of inexperienced and youthful porters from another valley who didn’t know the way and struggled to manage 20kg loads.
The traverse of Acchari Dhar provided us and them with an epic. Two hours were spent lost among crags and rhododendron jungle before we all located the correct traverse-line. By this time storm-clouds were brewing. We passed only one cramped stopping point, but, buoyed by advice that we could cross the shoulder in a couple of hours, we pushed on. This was a big mistake. After hours of wetting drizzle a vicious thunderstorm with snow-squalls broke at 4pm, stranding the party across vertiginous slopes. The porters’ clothing was woefully inadequate.
Suddenly, we had a crisis. I told those nearest to dump loads and head back to Sonal Kund. They didn’t need telling! A mass retreat ensued. We scoured loads to find tents and some sleeping bags for ourselves. An exposed ridge offered the only possible camping spot, and tents were hurriedly erected on exiguous perches. Some members spent the night without sleeping bags. The last porters got back to Sonal Kund camp at 11pm. Understandably, the majority of them deserted our cause next morning and went back to Urgam.
We woke to fine weather but faced a desperate situation. Some 500kg of our kit and food was strung out across Acchari Dhar in random dumps. Over the next three days and through further thunderstorms we worked like Trojans to rectify the situation. Four young porters stayed on to help us and a few locals were persuaded to join them. Adele led an advance party over the shoulder, 600m down into the Gimme valley and 300m back up to find a base camp site under the glacier snout. Francis and I ferried about 250kg of kit across the shoulder ourselves. Eventually, all our members and most importantly, our cook Naveen, were installed at base. Despite the debacle, nearly every item of equipment arrived at base camp over the following week.
After this, things could only get better! Base camp was a beautiful boulder-studded meadow fed by vigorous freshwater streams from the melting snows. The Gimme Glacier curved up into an impressive icefall and at its head lay a 5300m col. From our scrutiny of Google Earth satellite photos we knew that we had to cross the col to reach our goal – the elusive Peak 5968m.  Francis and Adele reconnoitred the icefall. Opinions were divided on the safety of the planned passage up its left-hand side.
Meanwhile I took two members, Simon and Steve, on a “training” climb up a huge snow couloir to gain the bounding ridge of the valley at 5100m. We were repulsed the last metres of our objective, a fine rock tower, but were rewarded by inspiring views of pristine glaciers and rock peaks. The prevailing geology was of solid corrugated gneiss. This was a super-alpine paradise. Our spirits were quickly crushed by three hours of oven-baked torture while we descended the gully in full glare of the midday sun, but at least we now had some reliable weather.
While good weather lasted it was essential to make a decisive bid to find and climb Peak 5968m. Our high-altitude porters, Heera and Mangal, were summoned to our advance camp. Adele and her strike-force of Nigel and Martin together with Francis and I got up at midnight and made a decisive climb through the icefall to emerge in a shadowed glacier bowl at 5200m. While the others set camp Francis and I forged onwards for another kilometre to reach the col at 5360m. A blindingly beautiful view broke forth. There across the gulf of the Panpatia valley lay the bulwarks of Parvati Parabat and 6596m Nilkanth. Most importantly, the sunlight crown of Peak 5968m rose up to our left. We’d need to descend a hundred metres before we could commence her summit climb, and for sure this was a climb to be done at night, but the route was undoubtedly feasible with a margin of safety. I shrieked with delight, while Francis murmured his approval.
While Adele and team settled in to the 5200m camp we hurried back to advance camp to report the good news. As is inevitable, not all members were fit enough or sufficiently fired with enthusiasm to make the attempt, but we mustered five more members in addition to Martin and Nigel. Heera and Mangal joined us and next morning we nine moved up to join Adele.

Vishnu Killa (Peak 5968m) from the col

Camp 2 at 5200m on the Gimme Glacier - route to col behind

Simon and Steve toiling on the summit slopes - the col is below

Summit group (L to R): Heera, Mangal, Nigel, Martin H, Adele, Simon and Steve

A happy day was spent dozing, brewing and feeding in our tents. When the sun went down we settled to four hours’ repose and got up at 10.30pm to start the summit bid. Francis forged ahead with youngsters, David and Phil, and stalwart 'oldie' Raymond who had only just recovered from fever. The descent from the col was the psychological threshold. Now we were committed. The night hours passed in a serpentine ascent of the glacier, weaving round huge crevasses and ice walls. Adele and I met the dawn at 5700m on the upper slopes. The eastern skyline was punctured by the spears and obelisks of the great peaks of the Nanda Devi range. The sunrise came slow but at 6.00am the sun burst forth in glory. Soon after, Francis and team passed us on their descent, close on two hours ahead of us.
Had they been to the top? Well, yes and no. True to the sporting tradition of amateur mountaineering they had stopped three metres below a crowning cornice and decreed that the summit plinth should remain the domain of god Vishnu and his cohorts. Adele and I applied no such scruples on our arrival. With the aid of two axes she heaved up the overhang with a timely push on her bottom from below. The rest of us followed, most poignantly Heera and Mangal, for whom this was one of their cherished local summits.
The views of distant giants like Kamet was tempered by intriguing prospects of nearby glaciers and surrounding peaks. The name Vishnu Killa – Vishnu’s citadel – was mooted. The only disappointment was that our GPS recorded the altitude as a mere 5960 metres rather than the 5968 we expected!
By midday the last stragglers staggered back into camp, enervated rather than ecstatic. A succession of brews and a freeze-dried meal soon restored equilibrium.
We all returned safely to base camp in the shadowed hours after dawn and celebrated success with a tot of scotch and a feast of pakora.

Last night on the trek out: sunset view to Dunagiri (7065m), Nanda Devi (7816m) and Trisul (7120m)

14th – 18th March: Jack of All Trades: When the weather turns fine towards the end of winter there is an agony in deciding what to do. Everything is possible. The winds are light and the roads are dry, low-level crags bask in radiant sunlight, the northern slopes are packed with firm Spring snow and ice lines linger in shaded clefts. There is simply too much to do. It is as if life is passing in a flash and you can’t possibly hold every grain in your hand. With five days to play I decided at least to try. A pentathlon of activities took shape in my thoughts….
Monday: Cycling:  The last film of cloud cleared the sky soon after dawn. Conscience dictated that I do my penance on the bike first. I hadn’t been out for a ride since Christmas. The circuit of the Applecross peninsula is a hilly ride that needs a scenic stimulus – 60 miles from home with about 1600 metres of ascent. After warming up over Kishorn hill I put my head down to the 600m Bealach na Ba climb and just hoped that the stamina was there. A slight tailwind flattered my performance and I made the top in a laboured 56 minutes. The summit panorama revealed the Cuillin much-denuded of snow but still splendidly alpine. After a 14 minute descent to Applecross village I stuffed down a honey sandwich and set to on the 24 mile roller-coaster round the coast to Shieldaig. The lack of training started to show.  The sudden changes of incline caught me off-gear and short of power. At the bend of Fearnmore the magical shift of view to the Torridon peaks gave a spiritual lift, but by Shieldaig I was badly flagging. After a two minute break to relieve my bladder and force down a Topic bar I got into a steadier pace on the gentle homeward roads and swung back into my driveway in a cumulative time of 5hr 40min.
Tuesday: Rock Climbing: With the brute physical challenge of the bike ride out of the way the solo climbing morning should have been a light relief; but I hadn’t touched rock for three months and by the time I was stuck halfway up a blank slab I was longing for the certainties of the saddle. I went to Creag Lundie slabs on the south-facing slopes 250 metres above Loch Cluanie. Many times I had glimpsed these pink facets of granitic rock while driving past.  Closer acquaintance was long overdue. The slabs are 20 metres high, impeccably clean and seamed by shallow runnels. After wandering cautiously up three easier routes I trusted my footwork sufficiently to try a 5a called Wee Baldy. Ten metres up, I ran out of ideas and realised the improbability of climbing back down. Panic was not an option. A fall would end in thick heather – not life-threatening, but with skin-grating and ankle-snapping possibilities. The time was 12.41pm. At 14.00hr I was due to convene a meeting back in Lochcarron. That schedule depended on a miniscule red nubbin for a finger and a thumbnail smear for the foot. How life depends on the most slender of calculations! The pressure mounted. I simply had to trust the smear – 100% or nothing. I abandoned my inhibition, forced myself into the move and miraculously found new holds that I hadn’t noticed from below. Up and off with a romp. I drove home somewhat madly and got to the meeting at 14.01pm! 
Wed: Ski-ing: The northern flanks of Druim Shionnach and Creag a’Mhaim, the easternmost peaks of the south Cluanie Ridge, still held a raiment of spring snow and while climbing on Creag Lundie I spotted several good lines for ski descents. The switch to ski touring pushed me out of another comfort zone. I hadn’t clipped on skis since early January and the snow might vary from frozen neve to soft slush according to exposure to the sun. I set out from Cluanie Inn in chilling fog, broke through the temperature inversion at 450m, then toiled wearily up the ridge to the 987m top of Druim Shionnach. The first planned run started on a 45° headwall with scattered rock outcrops, hardly extreme skiing but extreme enough for me. I lingered on the summit, savoured the view and sipped hot tea. As with nearly every mountain run the start is the steepest. I skied cautiously along the lip of the slope gauging the consistency of the snow, until I found an open break. After just two jumpy turns I was panting in exhaustion. A traverse line took me to an open bowl where a semblance of style was achieved. A pleasant diagonal run took me to the base of a second bowl nearer Creag a’Mhaim. I shouldered ski and boots, and hoofed 300 metres back up to the summit ridge in my walking boots. My confidence was higher for the second run and the snow surface was reliably soft. Lower down I found a nice linkage of patches that got me down to within ten minutes’ walk of the Old Cluanie Road. I hiked back to Cluanie pleased as punch with the morning’s work.

The North face of Ben Nevis seen from our descent of Carn Mor Dearg

Cathel seconds the first pitch of Hadrian's Wall Direct

Cathel McGlashan leads the upper ice pitch on Hadrian's Wall Direct

The summit of Ben Nevis in shirt-sleeves weather

Thursday: Ice Climbing: I left home at 5am to drive down to Ben Nevis for two days of guiding. My client, Cathel, was disturbingly young and fit but I loaded him with rope and rack, which kept him at bay until we reached the snow-line above the CIC hut. As usual there was a gaggle of teams heading up into Observatory Gully all brandishing ice tools. Ice options were limited to the grand classics. Hadrian’s Wall Direct looked fat and, to our surprise, all the advance teams walked straight past, leaving the route free. With air temperatures well above 0°C the bottom pitches were a little wet but the upper section was increasingly firm in the shade. To my pleasure Cathel led a couple of pitches including the ice exit at the top. We emerged into brilliant light on the summit. The West Highlands, Mull, Rum and Skye floated over a sea of cloud. We stripped to shirt sleeves, and I felt sufficiently inspired to suggest that we prolonged these magical scenes by returning over Carn Mor Dearg.  An hour later I began to regret this rash enthusiasm. The arête was a balancing delight but I had forgotten there was a 200 metre re-ascent to CMD. My body thermostat went into overload and simultaneously my troublesome knee started emitting a sharp pain on every 90° bend. However good the views the 1200 metre descent seemed never-ending. I felt truly wrecked as we battered down into a sea of mist in the lower forest.  Cathel departed and I made good my recovery plan – a large brew, a fish supper from the Inverlochy chippie, and a nice hour drinking tea and slobbering over apple pie in my van while listening to Beethoven’s 5th on a Radio 3 concert. I settled to sleep across the minibus seats feeling human again. Just one day to go!

On the lower section of Tower Ridge (climber: Nigel Williams)

Coming round the Eastern Traverse on the Great Tower

Friday: Mountaineering: At 6.45am my new client, Nigel, pitched up at the North Face car-park in a bright and perky mood.
“I’ve got a special request,” he said. “After the climb can we finish over Carn Mor Dearg. It’s one of my last Munros…”  
Rarely do I do point-blank refusals, but my conscience was not especially troubled on this occasion.  We hitched a lift up to the top of the forest with Guy Steven and his client, and for a second day emerged from the mists half-way to the hut. Nigel wanted a preparation route for his forthcoming trip with us to the Himalaya. Tower Ridge was in alpine condition. A line of frozen steps snaked up the easier sections, and the rock was dry and warm to the touch on the steeps. Without the pressure of queues or the discomforts of wind-chill, we could savour the true quality of the climb. Nigel bagged Ben Nevis summit, but said no more about Carn Mor Dearg, and we descended by No 4 Gully. Spring sunshine greeted us down in the forest.
Driving home I remembered that I’d promised Joy we would go camping over the weekend. I can’t deny that I secretly prayed that Saturday would dawn drab and cloudy, so that I could lie abed in peace.

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4th March: One Day Wonder – a solo winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge.

4am: Sligachan Hotel: I am going to try the Ridge in winter. At my age there won’t be many more chances. After a brief thaw fresh snow has fallen and moist north-westerlies have produced renewed riming. Last week’s tracks should be covered and the Cuillin should be banked up again. Barely any rock should be showing. These are the pristine conditions I want for a journey that‘s been in my dreams for half my lifetime.
I plan to start by Pinnacle Ridge, reach Gars Bheinn a couple of hours after nightfall, then order a taxi pick-up from Glen Brittle to get me back to the car.
The weather forecast is for showers later and strengthening winds but for now the sky is clear and the temperature 3°C. On with the sack and away with a spring in my step - I really do want this!

Summit of Sgurr nan Gillean: 3hr 20min: I took the walk-in at a modest pace and reached the top of the gully between the 1st and 2nd Pinnacles in 2hr 10min. Dawn came with reluctance and light fog accompanied my ascent of Pinnacle Ridge, leaving me cocooned in an ethereal world of dim whiteness and grey shadows. The snow was firm and frozen throughout. I abseiled off the 3rd Pinnacle and soloed the rest; just 1hr 15min to the top of Gillean. I smiled to think this takes about 4 hours when guiding a roped party.

Bruach na Frithe: 5hr 20min: I had written a schedule for the traverse, shaving a couple of hours off reasonable summer timings. Much depended on frozen snow and good visibility. The four metre step on the ridge to Am Basteir was thickly banked and easier than in summer. I abseiled down King’s Cave Chimney to get off the Tooth, then hit flat light and featureless terrain on the ascent to Bruach na Frithe. It became difficult to see the lumps and bumps on my way and I stumbled over a couple of times.

Sgurr a’Mhadaidh: 8hr 35min: Visibility deteriorated further on the long descent from Bruach na Frithe to the An Caisteal gap. I lost my sense of orientation, and started doubting whether I was even on the correct ridge. After what seemed an age the vertical wall of An Casiteal came into view. I surmounted the wall without difficulty. Every little ledge was covered in firm snow-ice. I was glad I’d gone leashless with my Nomic axes. I could swing my picks with freedom and confidence. The cloud thinned revealing Bidein Druim nan Ramh as an iced-caked castle. This is a thorny obstacle in summer, with slippery slabs and tiring descents, but today it was a joyous cruise. Slabby grooves had transformed into genuine ice pitches. During a stop for a smoked salmon butty at Bealach na Glaic Moire, the clouds lifted briefly to reveal the glittering waters of Coruisk and Scavaig.  I found the first tracks of the day descending off the 1st top of Mhadaidh. Perhaps they belonged to recent ascensionists of the Icicle Factory, a modern classic on the NW Face, because they disappeared at the top. I made my own trail to Sgurr a’Mhadaidh. So far, so good; I was 50 minutes up on my schedule.

Sgurr na Banachdich: 10hr 15min: The mist clamped down once more on Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh. The continuous exposure was making me palpably tense. I could barely decipher ridge from void. The summit crest seemed never-ending. On the ramp under the teeth of Thormaid I hit deep soft snow, which sucked the sap out of my muscles. My litre water flask was still full. At the first level bit of ground after the summit of Banachdich I stopped, mixed two Berocca tablets and took a good slug of juice, which washed down infusions of salted peanuts, jelly babies, and a melting chocolate brownie. Knowing that Banachdich was the half-way point along the ridge I realised that the traverse would take me well into the night. The key was to get across the TD Gap by nightfall. With clear sky I could easily navigate the remaining peaks to Gars Bheinn

View across Coire Lagan after completing In Pinn

Break for Berocca, peanuts and jelly babies above Coire na Banachdich

In Pinn - the short side looked tempting

Looking down Cor'uisk from Bealach a'Glaic Mhor - 7 hours in!

Inaccessible Pinnacle: 12hr: As I crossed the head of Coire nan Banachdich the cloud lifted and the sky brightened.  Spindrift and vapour trails streamed off the ridge. The weather was freshening up. A squall of hail quickly passed through. On reaching In Pinn I was concerned about soloing the East Ridge in a rising cross-wind. I briefly considered trying a quick solo up the harder short side, but the ice cover was thin and the fear of getting stranded without secure pick placements made me think again. So I tied on to my rope at the base of the long side, climbed steadily up the initial groove, then made the scary step up right on to the edge. Immediately, the wind put me off- balance. I made a six metre rope loop on my harness and teetered up a move until I could hook a thin sling over the tiny spike at the crux. A squall of graupel commenced. My ropes streamed out sideways in the gale. Near to panic, I clipped in and made the perilous step on to the spike. Once established at the half-way ledge I pulled in my rope loop to retrieve the sling only to find that nothing was attached. In my confusion I’d clipped the runner into the free-hanging loose rope. I had to arrange an abseil to get the sling.
I was seriously cold by the time I touched the In Pinn’s summit block.

Sgurr Alasdair: 14hr 2min: The abseil took less than a minute and I pounded down the ramps under An Stac keen to regenerate some body heat. The clouds cleared across the corrie, revealing Sgurr Alasdair in searing white relief. Having wasted half an hour at In Pinn the onward obstacles grew in stature. The north ridge of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich in itself counted as a lovely little alpine route. I abseiled King’s Chimney, and hurried round to the complex linkage of slab and gully that gains the final arête of Sgurr Thearlaich.  Hours of tip-toeing were taking their toll. Descents were becoming especially stressful. I reckoned that since starting up Pinnacle Ridge 80% of the traverse had been subject to terminal exposure in event of a tumble. On reaching Alasdair’s summit the light was fading fast.

Gars Bheinn: 19hr 5min (!): I abseiled into the clutches of the TD Gap as night fell. All day I had held a resolve to climb out by the short side and thus preserve the true ethics of the traverse. Confronted with this fiercesome wall, I tied off my rope at the bottom and made several knotted loops ready for a back-roped ascent. One pull-up and I thought again. I only had a few nuts and two runner slings. The moves looked to be technical 6. If I fell here I could be truly stuffed, and it had started to snow.
Three minutes later I was at the bottom of the approach gully on the avoiding manoeuvre, thankful for my prudence. The last portion of the ridge, a bouldery slog in summer, no longer seemed so simple. Visibility dropped to the ten metre arc of my headtorch. There would be no moonlight. A constant stream of ice spicules further confused my orientation. I had no map or compass, only my fund of knowledge from 45 previous traverses.  Yet, under heavy snow cover nothing looked familiar. On Sgurr Dubh Mor I made three false starts before finding a line.
Now came the most complex bit of navigation on the whole traverse – the zig-zag traverse to An Caisteal and the bewildering ascent to the flat-topped crest of Sgurr nan Eag.  The torch-beam threw out a backcloth of dancing flecks of white. Many times I was fooled into thinking this was a real piece of mountain. Every drop could have either been two metres or 20 for all I could tell. For the best part of an hour I found no clear point of identification, but blundered forward on intuition. The north-east wind was my best guide. I needed to keep it blowing obliquely over my left shoulder whenever I hit the crest. The way seemed interminable. At times I felt I was going mad, but in truth I was travelling well under half my normal speed. Would Sgurr nan Eag ever arrive?
I gained a crest and followed it with blind faith until I bumped into the little outcrop topped by an unmistakable beehive cairn. The last big col before Sgurr a’Choire Bhig was filled with soft drift and took ten minutes to cross. Occasionally I spotted breadcrumbs of ice in the snow, the remnants of old footsteps. They kept me right for the last link to Gars Bheinn. As I clambered on to the summit, my phone rang. It was Joy.
“What’s kept you? It’s too late for a taxi. Can I come to get you?”
I looked at my watch – 11pm; I was embarrassingly late.
“To be honest I don’t know what time I’ll get down at this rate. Thanks, but please get your sleep. There may be folk in Glen Brittle Hut and I can sleep in there.”
As if to emphasise this truth I took 15 minutes just to undo the frozen knots in my crampon straps.

Glen Brittle Hut: 23hr 30min: I strode into the blackened glen, dreaming I would see an array of parked cars at the hut, but alas, apart from the green glow of the fire safety light, the place bore no sign of life. I was too worn mentally to particularly care. The entrance offered a porch to keep me out of the wind and a bench seat provided a semblance of insulation. I loosened my boots, put on my down jacket, and stretched out in triumph. I had actually done it!

Sligachan: 30hr 45min: Come dawn I creaked my chilled frame into action and explored the communications potential of the glen. As expected there was zero mobile signal, and all attempts at requisition of taxis on reverse charges from the call box were refused. I began to walk and immediately cheered up. Maybe someone would be trying to escape this valley of doom by car. The only vehicle that came was upon me before I could flag for a lift. By the time I’d reached Fairy Pools car-park I gave up hope of seeing another, and struck out on the Bealach a’Mhaim path, the direct way back to Sligachan. Another five miles wouldn’t break the bank after 24 hours on the Ridge!

22nd – 28th Feb 2016: Six Days on Skye:

At last, we had the Cuillin in perfect winter condition. Double negatives apply in such circumstances. There was no reason not to go to Skye every day of the week!
Monday: Iced Pinnacle: (with David King). The last of the snow squalls chased us up the West Ridge of Sgurr Dearg. The upper slopes were plastered with an untracked coat of hard névé crust. Even getting to the base of the Pinnacle the exposures were disconcerting. Had we slipped we could easily have ended up down in Coire Lagan.  In Pinn emerged from the squall cloud as a stark white tooth, rimed on all sides to a thickness of several inches. The ascent of the East Ridge was far-removed from the romp of summer. I led on two axes with some delicate manoeuvres, giving thanks for the tiny spike at the crux whose protection reduced a patently-deathly grade VI to a thought-provoking grade IV. The sun came out as David climbed on to the summit plinth. Never have I seen this view look so majestic.
Any hopes that conditions would ease on the onward traverse to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich were quickly dashed. This was alpinism in its purest form, two climbers, a linking rope and a good deal of mutual faith that neither one nor the other would slip. I began to wonder at the audacity of the 6 hour traverse recorded a week previously by Fin Wild and Tim Gomersall. 
From Mhic Choinnich we made two abseils down King’s Chimney and past Collie’s Ledge. There was insufficient time to continue over Thearlaich and on to Sgurr Alasdair so we descended into Coire Lagan direct, joining the Great Stone Shoot in its lower half. We reached the car at 6.15pm after a day of 9½ hours.

Reaching the summit of the In Pinn 22nd Feb - Coire Lagan behind (climber: Dave King)

Afternoon view from Blaven summit over the sea to Rum


Tuesday: Escape from Colditz: “A short day today,” I told David, “but we must go back to Skye.” Blaven is a wonderful mountain for winter climbing. The walk-in is relatively short and the cliffs sport a fascinating network of gullies and clefts. We headed for the most obvious line – the iced ramp-cum-gully named Escape from Colditz. The route lies on walls under the South Summit buttress. The line is fed by constant drips from icicle curtains on the vertical walls above. Inevitably, given the route’s name, there is a tunnel section passing through a large chockstone, but today the ice was thick enough to by-pass this obstacles. We were up in 1½ hours, back at the car by 2pm and I was luxuriating with a cup of tea and a bowl of peanuts back home an hour later. Short days recharge the batteries yet still give vivid experience.
Wednesday: Blaven NW Face (with two Richards, Crompton and Sore). A beautiful line of ice was visible on the upper part of the East Face, close to Clough’s Cleft, a grade V of notable quality according to the guidebook. I hoped that the cleft itself might be iced. We toiled up firm crust past the Great Prow. I took only a minute to declare the Cleft unsuitable. Apart from being bare it looked hard! The glittering icefall on its left was only partially formed. Before we descended Rich S wanted to see the view of the main ridge. He had attempted the Ridge three times in a single week the previous summer, each without success! At that moment a glorious idea took hold. We could descend the far side on to the gullied NW Face of the mountain and enjoy an exploratory climb while enjoying the panorama of Gillean and cohorts throughout the climb.
Despite some tiring sections of drifted graupel the main gully gave good sport. The Richards led through to a final steepening, where the difficulties significantly increased. I felt the need to be tied on so led the last bit – an entertaining grade III – and belayed from the summit trig.
The boys drank in the views both south across the sea and west across the great Ridge, then we skipped down in an hour. Cushioned by the snow my knees raised barely a murmur of protest, and I felt good to go again the following day.

Leading the East Ridge of In Pinn - a delicate affair (photo: Dave King)

David enjoys Escape from Colditz (III), Blaven

Thursday: Pinnacle Ridge: I could sense that my companions were mountaineers at heart. Why seek out shadowy clefts when we could be up on the ridges? Best of all the day-routes on Skye in winter is Gillean’s Pinnacle Ridge. This is a true alpine challenge with two tricky descents. In other words, if you aren’t bold in movement and quick on the task you can end up either benighted or in retreat.
We put crampons on below the Bhasteir Gorge at 400m and ‘scrunched’ delightedly all the way to the gully between the 1st and 2nd pinnacles.
Even with my knowledge of the route and a preparity to run out the route with only the occasional sling or axe belay, the climb took the best part of four hours. I could not recall a single move above grade II in technical standard but in grip factor the climb merited its grade IV overall rating. The boys were decidedly exhilarated by the experience.
We ate long overdue sandwiches on the summit nest and descended the West Ridge, quitting the abseil on to groomed slopes of pristine névé. The crampons stayed ‘on boot’ all the way back to the burn at 400m. With the sky lightly overcast the snow had not melted one jot through the day.
Friday: A day off recharged my batteries and enabled me to clear the back-log of e-mails before arrival of the new client wave – Al, Mark and Roger together with extra guide Sandy Allan.
Surprise, surprise! “I think we’ll go to Skye, chaps,” I announced at dinner.
Saturday: Social Climbing on Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh: The weather reached a new pinnacle of perfection, a cloudless and peerless day, with temperatures of -5°C in the shade and shirt-sleeved ambling up in the sun. After five days without meeting a soul I was not in the least resentful that the Ridge was buzzing with weekend warriors. Two SMC stalwarts – Pete Biggar and Roger Robb – were gearing up as we pulled into the layby at Glen Brittle youth hostel. The Club has picked a great weekend to have its winter meet on Skye.
We wandered up Coire a’Ghreadaidh and gravitated on to the NW Ridge of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh. The guys deserved a scenic day to repay long journeys from Cirencester, York and Aberdeen. The climbing and the banter were lively and ‘jelly babies’ were produced for extra succour. We climbed to the summit in five pitches of grade II. The summit crest was a race-track today. Three groups – all engaged in a full Ridge attempt – passed us within half an hour. They ranged from super-light to heavy-laden. The leader of the latter party advised that he had to be back in London to do the school run by 7am on Monday, and faced ‘a fate worse than death’ if he didn’t make it. With less than half the Ridge done he clearly had something of an epic in store.  
We were happy to traverse the short link to Sgurr a’Mhadaidh before making our descent. As the temperature plunged we fondly imagined them couched up high in “mystical wells for their midnight rest”.
Sunday: Back to Blaven: We returned armed with Nomics and Quarks for a more technical day. Sandy, Al and Mark headed for Escape from Colditz while Roger and I explored the grooves of South Buttress. The face was still bathed in morning sunlight on our arrival, yet the snow remained sufficiently frozen to give traction to our ice picks. We picked the obvious groove of Virgo, a IV, 5, and I led off clad just in a thin vest and micro-fleece. At the first stances the sunshine was so pleasant that my fingers were warmer without any gloves. The route stiffened markedly in its upper half. A groove of soft ice enticed me into a deep chimney. The protection was disarmingly scant for the ensuing struggle and my sack proved an awkward companion. I squeezed out into an easier-angled ramp, where a solid hexentric chock gave me heart to tackle the exit moves. Here the ice thickened sufficiently to permit of some joyous swings.
We emerged on the South Summit as a southerly breeze developed. A light cloud veil obscured a few of the higher Cuillin summits, presaging a change in the weather. The magic of Skye would soon be over. We might wait a week or a year for this to return but such days must never be forgotten.

On Pinnacle Ridge, Sgurr nan Gillean (climbers: Rich Crompton and Rich Sore)

Summit of Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh - 27th Feb

 

16th February 2016: A Taste of the Western Ghats;

The overhanging prow of Tail Bhaila

Martin with Tail Bhaila behind

"Ganapati Bappa Moraya!"

The car doors were locked. There was no escape. My new-won Indian friends raised their arms and pounded out this frightful chant.

“It sounds like you’re making a ‘Comrades till Death’ suicide pact”, I suggested, realising that I was an inextricable part of the day’s plans.

“Oh no”, reassured Rajesh, “this is our plea to Lord Ganesha for his blessings on our adventure, the louder the holier.

We passed Sunil’s Celebrity Waxworks - “Why bother going to London?” was his promotional strapline - followed by a long line of “Chikki” stores. Chikki is one of Maharashtra’s favourite snacks, essentially a peanut and jaggery tablet of monstrous calorific content.  Turning off the Mumbai-Pune highway we made a winding ascent on to one of the many tablelands of the Western Ghats range. “Ghat” is the Sanskrit word for terrace or platform, and these ancient hills are formed of vast lava flows, capped by remnant and towers which reach over 1000m in altitude. The hills are better known to Mumbaikers as the Sahyadris (the benevolent mountains). For comparison, imagine the north Pennines or Brecon Beacons covered in jungle. There are countless scarps of vertical cliffs and many pinnacles along the edges of these terraces, some of them over 100 metres in height.

The countryside became peaceful. We bumped along a side-road for 5 or 6 kilometres, passed through a narrow pass and came upon a spacious plateau, partially clothed in trees. On the far side a crenellated crest of rock with a split in the middle dominated the view.  This was Tail Bhaila, our objective for the day. We parked at a charming village, with a courted estancia, where tea and breakfast were summoned.

Tail Bhaila village and typical Sahyadri scenery from the route

Sorting the kit below the route - note 100m static lines !

Ashish follows the first pitch

Reaching the summit

“There are four routes here. We are going to climb the right edge…” explained Prasad.
Scanning the overhanging profile it was clear that this was by no means the easiest of the four. My prospects were further weighed down on being handed a plate of upma, a savoury concoction of ground wheat akin to cous-cous.

“In India we like to climb on a full stomach,” laughed Rajesh, but it was already apparent that Rajesh was the day’s official photographer and was not intending to climb. Instead, he entrusted me to three hotshots – Ashish, Atin and Prasad, who hauled substantial kit bags to the base. As we approached closer the ridge was revealed to be wafer-thin, with sheer or overhanging walls on both sides. Any ledges were generously festooned in thick tufts of grass. The local monkeys popped up by the track, sensing food and aggressively posturing their intent.

“You will lead, Ashish will second and Atin and I will come up on jumar,” announced Prasad, a 47 year old, who operated machinery cutting out storage cylinders for nuclear waste in his working life.
I had suspected they would spring this privilege on me and the only saving grace was their assurance of sound chemical bolts for protection. Rajesh had been a pioneer in the early development of these pinnacles, and explained how they were all led on sight with hand drill to place expansion bolts. My respect increased as I confronted the prow of the pinnacle. I tied into the lead rope and one end of an enormous static line was clipped into my harness for the jumar team.

The rock was variously compact and crumbly. The extreme heat of the dry seasons causes exfoliation of the surface layers, which created disturbing hollowness on some sections. Nonetheless, the rock was super-rough and I gradually attuned myself to the frictional support, padding and bridging upwards with a reasonable semblance of style and giving thanks for the 8-inch chemical bolts. After 30 metres of VS/HVS standard I swung on to a tiny perch on the crest of the prow and brought up Ashish. My hopes that the hard bit was over were quickly dashed. The second pitch was scruffy but ended in a bulge with the last bolt beneath the feet, giving the certainty of a knee-crunching impact on a ledge in event of a slip. I squirmed and probed for ten minutes, failing to find a single dependable hold. Then it dawned that the solution was to get a clutch on the protruding grass clumps with which to haul myself into a full-blooded mantle-shelf position.

We fixed the static rope at the next belay and Prasad commenced his ascent, swinging merrily on a single strand of 9mm line. The sight made me relieved to be leading, despite the prospect of tackling an abrupt bulge at the start of pitch three. Now that I’d tested the strength of the local grasses I was able to surmount this with a couple of desperate tufting moves, but the grade seemed around 6b+ even with the grass. With the temperature now rising above 30°C my mouth went suddenly dry and my heart-rate rocketed.

“God; these boys can climb,” I thought as I gave Ashish the call to start. With little ado he whipped out a 4-foot metal ladder from his rack and scampered up the bulge without a pause. It was notable that they hadn’t offered me such aids when the gear was apportioned at the bottom.

Having narrowly avoided being sandbagged on pitch 3 I was confronted by more bulging rock at the start of pitch 4. The holds were shallow slopers and the likely grade 7a+. After a few trials I gave in to temptation and pulled on a bolt. Easier 6a moves led out to the top. I pulled out of the shade into a midday furnace – 36°C by Ashish’s reckoning – and yet the hot season hasn’t really yet begun. At this point both Prasad and Atin were spinning spider-like from their white static lines.

We rigged the abseil ropes and I was given the honour of going down first, so managed to avoid a dose of heat exhaustion. Back in the shade I joined Rajesh, Dinesh and Kallol as the others performed their descent on the static ropes which exhibited all the suppleness of steel cable. The shade of the village trees and verandas now beckoned.

By mid-afternoon we were supping teas and admiring the prodigious fin of rock that we had climbed.
“We have 32 pinnacles in the area,” proclaimed Rajesh. Strangely, I was moved to enthusiasm by the thought that here was a challenge to occupy a climbing career. Or maybe, it would be nicer just to trek off across the ghats, which stretched away into limitless haze.

Had I wondered about the contribution that our support party might make to our venture my suspicions were soon answered back at our bungalows in Lonavala. A bottle of Glenmorangie disappeared with frightening speed as Rajesh gave us a film-show of his last trip to the East Karakorum. We dined off fresh pomfret fish from the seas off Mumbai and at 3am I was supping Sikkim whisky from Dinesh’s hip-flask while clapping along to Kallol’s rendition of interminable Bengali folk songs.

Thirty-one pinnacles to go, I thought. If only life was long enough!

The team: Rajesh Gadgil, Ashish Mhatre, Prasad Mhatre, Atin Sathe, Dinesh Korday and Dr Kallol Das

The Sahyadris stretching away to the south

The team: L to R: Kallol, Rajesh (the driver), Dinesh, Rajesh (our guru), Martin, Prasad, Atin

 

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