Friday 28 December 2012

Rehab on the Ben

After a nasty fall at the start of November, my ribs had pretty much healed and I was desperate to get back out. The second half of December seemed to offer ideal conditions for those able to get out mid-week, but was thoroughly disappointing for us "weekend warriors". Cabin fever was beginning to set in.

All that was resolved yesterday with a great day out on the Ben with Jim. We discussed a few options - Jim was keen for something a little more adventurous but given my weakened state, I didn't fancy a complete epic, so we settled on Sidewinder on South Trident buttress. Although this was only climbed in winter for the first time in 2005, it has become a popular route and is generally considered to be low in its grade (although the grade is VII,8). This sounded hard enough to be challenging yet easy enough to retreat from if I was really struggling. I'd also been impressed by it when looking across from Strident Edge a couple of years ago, and wanted to do it ever since.

Since the route isn't in the SMC Ben Nevis guide, we were relying on word-of-mouth and others' blogs for info. I had the impression that there was an easy introductory pitch, a harder middle pitch and a crux on the top pitch. In my weakened state, I suggested Jim take the crux (I could claim it was generosity, but it was mainly cowardice!). He led off up the first pitch, taking no time to reach the foot of a steep corner 30-odd metres above.

Arriving at this belay, I realised that I might have made a mistake - this looked a lot harder than I'd been hoping for! The crack in the corner would have accommodated perfect hand-jams in summer but required careful and strenuous laybacking & torquing in winter. I made several forays up and down the initial section, placing high runners and finding excuses to procrastinate. I knew that I had to commit to reach the security of a chockstone above, but my head hadn't recovered from the fall, and convincing myself to go upwards rather than downclimb to the security of the belay was a real struggle. Jim showed admirable patience, and eventually I managed to commit, reaching from a strenuous bunched position up to a solid hook around the chockstone above. Surely that was the crux done? Apparently not - a couple of metres higher, the exit from the corner onto the powder-covered slab above proved every bit as hard and a lot sketchier. The gear was good but it was doing little to reassure me. Again, I eventually convinced myself to commit. "Watch me!". A thin hook slipped then caught again. My other axe struggled for purchase in the soft snow. Finally, I grovelled onto the slab and crawled up to the belay.

Jim seconding the tricky exit from the corner

The pitch above was long and sustained, taking another corner then the continuation groove above. Jim put in an excellent lead to bring us to the ridge above. A tiring swim along this through deep powder brought us to the plateau.

Jim setting off up the top pitch
This morning, I have the familiar ache of shoulders, back and calves that always follows a good winter day. I also have the relief of knowing that I can still climb this stuff. It'll take a little while for my head to settle down fully, but my doubts that I can still enter the exciting and adventurous world of winter climbing, or that I want to, have gone.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Hung Drawn and Quartered!

Suddenly it was looking rather promising for the weekend ahead. The hallowed hills of north west Scotland were teasing, tantalising and, now, flaunting as first-hand accounts filtered through.  I haven't yet secured a partner. It's the SMC dinner and other "regulars" are already committed or out of action.

I'd met Ross a week earlier at Newtyle and, having exchanged numbers, it was with relief that his tentative response became certain. I had now secured a partner. Typically another offer came through shortly after which I had to decline. Sorry Roger, I'm sure you would have done the same!

Plan A was quickly shelved on learning of rain at 600m near Applecross. And, then, a text from Pete Macpherson suggested "Hung Drawn and Quartered". Rather than striking the fear of god into me I was inspired. Before now I had not had the opportunity to climb on Skye (summer or winter) and I vividly recalled Pete's photographs and tales from the second ascent of this fiercely overhanging crack-line, with Ian Parnell, in 2010. "The best Grade 8!" Pete enthused.  He would be prospecting a new route on Am Basteir with Martin Moran and we could join the party. Incidentally (or should that be coincidentally) it was Martin who grabbed the first ascent of this plum line in 2008, so we would be in perfect company.

Basteir Tooth (Photo - Pete Macpherson)
The walk in was a joy, if a bit icy underfoot, as the crisp dawn revealed the most stunning alpenglow over the Cuillin Ridge. The true extent of this spectacle was largely lost on me at the time as Ross and I geared-up close to King's Chimney, but Pete Macpherson's excellent photographs captured the moment. We couldn't have chosen a better day for my first route on Skye!

But was I fit enough, strong enough, brave enough?

Rather than give a blow by blow account of the route itself I will simply say that it was st-e-e-p, hard, intimidating and utterly brilliant. My arms surrendered in the final few feet of the third pitch, resulting in an impromptu belay and Ross leading through to complete the pitch in style. With the hardest climbing now behind us, I led the way to the top.

The line is kind of obvious! (Photo Pete Macpherson)
Many will sit in their comfy chairs in front of their PC and say that my ascent was flawed (Ross's most certainly wasn't) and, yes, I cannot claim a clean ascent. Failure? No, I won't accept that. At least I had the balls to try. I gave it absolutely everything and in the process I had an amazing day. True failure would have been not trying at all.

Did I say it was steep? (Photo - Pete Macpherson)
Nearing the end of Pitch 1 (Photo - Pete Macpherson)

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