The roads sparkled with ice and dawn came with resplendent hope as we trudged up the south flank of Beinn Eighe. Our day's aim was to complete a new route on the north face of Sgurr Ban that we had first tried two years ago. Robin plugged giant steps, knee to thigh-deep at times, linking the few small islands of rock that were still exposed after two weeks of snow accumulation. I made the oft-used 'bathroom break' excuse and followed at a respectful distance, taking over only for the last 50 metres to the col.
The sun was risen and Sgurr Ban was bathed in white light. The north face is rather impressive and known to few. A fine diagonal gully cleaves the face and a few summer routes were recorded on the bounding walls 20 years ago. One of these was called Scarface, graded E1, 5b, named after a recent rockfall and given a health warning in the guide-book. In fact the route takes the most impressive bit of rock on the face, akin to the finest climbs in nearby Coire Mhic Fhearchair in scale and steepness. We failed on our first attempt in January 2017 due to pending storm and darkness after scratching out a tenuous and winding series of manoeuvres on the lower wall. Today we would try a direct line.
Robin carried the same set of battered DMM Rebel axes that had performed on our first new route together in 2010 and his crampons were in urgent need of an angle-grinder, but he seemed blissfully unaware of these impediments once tied into the rope. Today, the first pitch was my task. We soloed up the grade II apron to the base of the wall and I installed Robin in a miniature grotto just right of the corner line of Scarface.
The weather was still calm and I set off in positive mode, climbing leftwards across ice smears to gain the corner. An intermittent blade crack fitted my axe picks to perfection. Slots and torques abounded for ten metres whereupon the rock became splintered. I bashed in a peg and bridged higher up to a roof. A second peg hammered in to the hilt lent courage for a committing layback round the bulge. Arched and committed with feet scraping on a decidedly blank wall, I stretched a little further and hit yet another sinker placement. A better crack now materialised and 12 metres of steep but positive arm-hauling brought me to the abseil sling and hanging stance that we'd reached in 2017.
The second pitch is given 4c in the summer route description but looked decidedly fierce with a four-foot roof split by a jamming crack. Robin stretched his trousers to splitting point bridging across the void of the roof, shoved our largest cam into the crack, then became distressingly stranded with body splayed over the lip of the overhang. The problem was that the only footholds were way out right but the only usable rock was a jamming crack way over left. Axe hooks were in short supply. He decided to go left. Struggling is not a term normally associated with Robin Thomas but there was just a hint as he lurched on to a foothold above the lip.
The summer ascensionists had gone right at the roof so now we were on new ground. Robin went up a bit, then down diagonally and climbed a steep groove way out of my sight. Half-an-hour later he announced he was safely belayed. I bridged across the roof, and realised I couldn't reach the large cam. One of the ropes had slipped off the roof and was now pulling me leftwards. Meanwhile, I had unwisely omitted to remove Robin's belay jacket before commencing the pitch. This titan of the down-fill must have a Tog rating up in the hundreds and is more suited to Everest than Benn Eighe.
Very soon I was cooking at about 200degC, dangling off an axe barred in the jam crack, legs flailing in space, while screaming for slack in one rope and tight on the other. With real prospect of relinquishing all contact with the rock I desperately clipped in to the axe and removed gloves to get my fingers to the jammed cam.
A severely depleted Moran winced his way up the remaining difficulties to join Robin at the foot of a fine chimney, some 15 metres high and of body-swallowing dimensions. The walls bounding our stances framed an impressive vista of the corrie lochan and the snow-bound wastes of the Beinn Eighe nature reserve. It's some privilege to be able to climb in isolation in the middle of a World Heritage site! While I sucked on an energy gel Robin squeezed his way up this final difficulty. He pronounced that this was not a suitable pitch for rucksack-carrying climbers. I followed, plus the sack but minus the belay jacket this time, and, employing the vestigial shreds of energy, wriggled to the top.
A south-west wind and blatters of sleet met us on the summit. Darkness was falling. The snow was fast turning to porage. We ploughed down to the col, located our second sack and ski sticks, then made a swift descent via a series of sitting glissades to get back into Coire an Laoigh. Heavy rain commenced just as we lifted the tail-gate on the van at 7pm.
Was this a three-star route I asked Robin? Well, if it is steep, inescapable, sustained, and three pitches long it must be. We decided to name our winter version Scarred for Life - grade VIII, technical 8 (or 9 depending on how you fare on that roof). Despite complete muscular trauma and the onset of thigh cramps I felt fairly chuffed, if truth be admitted - a first new route for four years with the thrill of pioneering an unknown cliff close to home. Despite the body's protestations and studious attempts to give up on hard climbing I guess I'm still hooked!
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