Updated: Jun 12, 2018
Doing two routes on Carn Dearg buttress is a dream day for a mountain rock climber, but isn't easily achieved. First, you need a two-week drought to be sure there will be no seeps in the overlapping shields of this mighty buttress. Then, you need a suitable partner. It's not so easy when we are preoccupied with work and family.
My dream combination was Titan's Wall with King Kong - the Ben's ultimate wall climb combined with its most devious and clever route finding masterpiece. I'd built up a bit of form from a few days of trad climbing and reckoned I could hit the E3 lead on Titan's with a decent chance of success. The weather was perfect and I had the time off, but enquiries of colleagues and friends failed to elicit interest.
Then one of our trainee guides, Will Harris, asked if I fancied an evening session picking the pockets of the conglomerate sport climbs at Moy Rock by Dingwall.
"I guess you'll be working back on Skye tomorrow," I said as we chalked up for a third route.
"No, actually..." he replied.
Ten hours later we we speeding down the Great Glen bound for the Ben.
My first summer climbs on Ben Nevis have a special place in my memories. When 17 years old I hitched from Newcastle to Fort William on my own and naively imagined I would get a free bed at the CIC Hut. To my luck the hut was open. The two occupants had a healthy irreverence for the rules of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and were happy to let me in. They must have top climbers of their day, and I wish I could remember their names. Over the next three days I scrambled up the Ben's great ridges in splendid sunshine while they were spreadeagled on the shadowed walls of Carn Dearg. King Kong was their final route, in 1972 the hardest climb on the mountain. I sat in the hut doorway and watched their tortuous progress through the evening, absolutely awed. They came back triumphant at midnight.
Nowhere else of my experience offers such thrilling and satisfying climbing as Carn Dearg Buttress. I have only managed a few visits but each was a red-letter day. Through-leading on Centurion with my son when he was 18 and guiding the 11 pitches of Bullroar come top in the memory bank. The lines are intimidating and improbable in appearance. Each has a historical significance in the development of Scottish climbing. They yield only to a positive athletic style coupled with clever technique. The rock is impeccably solid and when dry gives good friction. Forget the finger-crunching extremes of modern sport climbing. This, for me, is real climbing.
Today the spring snowfields of Carn Dearg were fast-melting and a clear stream flowed out under the base of Titan's Wall, feeding luxuriant cushions of ferns and saxifrage. A ragged crack-line of 35 metres forms the first pitch. Will led this with measured calm and perched on a tiny ledge just left of the main shield. The 45-metre crux pitch follows the continuing crack and is described as "sustained, strenuous and at the top of it's grade". First climbed as an all-out aid-route by Clough and MacInnes in 1959 to considerable protest of the purists of the day, Mick Fowler and Phill Thomas made the first free ascent in 1977 - opening the modern era in Nevis rock climbing.
I jammed and lay-backed the crack in hopeful mood until, at ten metres, my fingers found a wet slot. Seeping rock after a three-week drought - I couldn't believe it! I pushed in a cam and pushed on to drier holds in a little casement where I could wedge my elbow for relief. There were more wet jams above. Now in desperation mode I lurched up and tried to exert enough torque force on a slithery finger lock to hold me for ten seconds to place another cam. The instant the cam lodged I grabbed it and clipped in for a rest. Better a rest than a fall, I thought. A treacle of sweat swathed my forehead. I wondered briefly whether to lower off and let Will do it, but found some resolve. The seep ended a metre higher and a perched block offered a sure rest three metres beyond. I stripped off my fleece, cast it down the cliff, and rejoined the fight. With an arched layback I got back on to dry cracks. After a rest at the block I romped the final 20 metres, feeling the sort of buzz I thought I'd lost somewhere back in my thirties. It takes a fantastic pitch to rekindle such exhilaration. Will followed in unblemished style and we abseiled back down the route.
Back at the base, while Will consumed bagels and a pot of hummus, I pleaded my case that we should do King Kong next. I led the first pitches, up the corner of Centurion for 20 metres then out along the steep slabs of The Bat traverse to a hanging belay at a large block. King Kong now jinked up left over overlaps and on to unseen slabs of pink andesite. Will was sufficiently impressed to ask for a reading of the guidebook description on several occasions. The initial overlap proved particularly awkward. How do you haul one's body over a three-foot overhang on to a 70 degree slab when the next usable hand-holds are undercuts? Thrilling laybacks off projecting flakes breached the next shield, where a precise hand-traverse led to footholds and another hanging stance. The next pitch - a 5b - took on a third overlap then climbed 15 metres up the left side of a pristine wall before traversing out along a tiny ledge to gain easier ground, yet another "best pitch I've ever done here" experience. After one further pitch we traversed over to the Titan's Wall abseil and prepared for home.
Even the walk out was a delight. Two great routes in the bag, a firm dry path, nice light training shoes and a Lochaber sunset for entertainment - this was an hour to savour whether you be 17 or 63!