Monday 23 January 2012

A Vicar's Apprentice in the White Chapel

I slept badly. The gusting wind rocked the van and, as the lashing rain continued, I woke again needing another pee. The alarm sounded but I was already awake. It was 5.45am and the rain continued to fall. As I brewed up I was filled with a sense of guilt, knowing that Murdoch would have been needlessly travelling since 4am to join me.

We had arranged to meet earlier than usual in the ski centre car park and, true to his word, Murdoch arrived at 6.30am on the dot. Having exchanged pleasantries, our mutual expressions needed few words of explanation. The kettle boiled again and we settled down for another brew, occasionally twitching the curtain to try and catch a glimpse of our distant neighbours in the car park. Who, if anyone, would make the first move?

A few days previously the forecast suggested that Beinn Eighe might be worth a look. We both harbour ambitions to climb lines on its steep walls and, after a Cairngorm winter, the prospect of climbing in the north west is most appealing. However, reports of mild unwintry conditions filter through and Murdoch hasn't been well, so another short "Lochain" day is required.

"How about the Gathering - you can have the hard pitch", Murdoch had suggested in a veiled attempt to clinch the deal. I gave the thumbs up, knowing that on the day I could step aside and let Murdoch shine.  An opportune text gave comfort that the Coire was in condition and this led to an intriguing flurry of further texts as it became clear that a strong team from south of the border shared the same plan.

As the rain turned to snow I twitched the curtain once more and peered out of the van window in the direction of our southern rivals. No sign of movement. Murdoch and I finished our tea, grabbed our sacks and slipped quietly into the darkness. The wind abated and snowfall eased. Perhaps we will climb today after all!

As we geared up two figures romped up the slope to join us. "You must be Jim!" "Dave?" I responded, putting faces to names as strangers became briefly acquainted.  Though we had shared a common plan, they appeared happy to allow Murdoch and me to have first dibs at "The Gathering" (VIII 9) and they would have a look at "The Snow Pimp" (VIII 10).  As we approached the buttress, the cloud lifted momentarily revealing its full height. It was white with rime but, on closer inspection, we found that the cracks were icy. This would render our rack of camming devices ineffective and, knowing that the first two ascents used these for protection, we made a swift call to opt for our back-up plan.

"The Vicar" an old-school Lochain test piece is graded more moderately at VII 8. However, lest you forget, this is the Cairngorms and the Vicar has a reputation that has not diminished since it's first winter ascent in the early 1990's. As the cold wind picked up, our eyes traced our intended line up the steep white wall. Having been vilified in the last week for publicy voicing my criticism of winter routes being climbed in their naked, summer, form there could be no debate today. This was going to be a full value Scottish winter experience.

Me on the direct first pitch of The Vicar (Photo: Murdoch Jamieson)

When Guy Robertson, Pete MacPherson and Greg Boswell climbed the outrageous "Siberian Tiger" (IX 10) earlier this season, they opened up a new direct line to the second belay of "The Vicar" before breaking out right around the arete into more desperate terrain. At a suggested grade of VII 8, we wanted to climb "The Vicar" in two pitches with this new direct start.

What a pitch! Although I was fighting cold hands throughout (lesson learnt - technical, close fitting gloves are best reserved for more benevolent conditions) I managed to climb the pitch cleanly before belly flopping onto the airy belay ledge. I would suggest it is towards the lower end of the grade provided by the first ascentionists, given that the main Vicar pitch (at the same grade) is considerably harder. Nontheless, what a superb pitch and a fitting direct line for the Vicar.

Murdoch following pitch 1, the new direct start to the Vicar

I was travelling light, sans belay mitts, and I was already beginning to regret this tactical misjudgement. My spare gloves were not as luxurious, still they would hopefully restore some sensation to my not-so dexterous digits. I bit my tight glove to remove it from my hand. It wouldn't shift. I bit harder and pulled more firmly. Feeling a sharp pain in my finger tip and knuckle I let my hand fall. My finger was so numb that I hadn't realised that it, together with my glove, had been between my teeth!

Prior to the addition of the direct start, this route was all about the top pitch. But Murdoch was in muted form and not performing at his best. "Come on lad, pull yerself together"! The first few moves are awkward and Murdoch doesn't quite get it right. There's a feeling of resignation in the air as he comes to rest close to my right shoulder. But he's straight back on and appears to be back to his old (well, young) steady, methodical self as he careful unlocks the sequences. But then, unexpectedly, he's off again as a tool placement pops whilst faffing to untangle some gear. No shouts of rage, just an acknowledgment "I'm not psyched and really not enjoying this". But on he goes, cleaning a way forward until he is stumped. "I can't see where it goes". I'm sure it breaks goes out onto the arete on the right, but I don't know at which point. I am anxious not to lead Murdoch into uncertain territory.

Murdoch leading the top pitch of the Vicar,
as my camera struggles with the conditions!
 Mentally rather than physically tired, he moves back left and joins the route "Nocando" at its finale. Bearing in mind Murdoch had climbed "Pick n Mix" (XIII 8/9) the week before, he proclaimed "The Vicar" to be the hardest route he had been on this season. Full winter, rather than favourably lean conditions will go some way to explaining this. But make no bones about it, "The Vicar" is hard!  Sadly I cannot claim to have climbed it. Frozen hands from the start and an extended period of belay duty without food put paid to any realistic attempt of climbing this pitch in good style. As I hauled my way up on the gear Murdoch had placed, bearly keeping my fingers curled around the handles of my axes, I was conscious that the route deserved better. For us both, our ascent was tinged with disappointment in how we performed on such a stage. But time brings some perspective.

Today, as I reflect, I am tired and aching more from our "short Lochain day" than from any other time this season. Yes, yesterday was a tough, challenging day. It was a full Scottish winter experience on an incredible route. I'm happy.


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