Sunday 2 March 2014

Third Time Lucky

Andy and I have got history with Unicorn. I did a lot of my early winter climbing in Stob Coire an Lochain and remember looking across to this big obvious corner, clearly the line of the crag, never thinking that I'd be good enough to have a crack at it. Several years later we went for our first attempt. We didn't get very far, but it only increased by desire to get on the route.

We had another rematch at the end of last year. Andy took a couple of falls on P1 and backed off. I wasn't feeling in great form but set off up it anyway. My very ambitious goal was to get up to the fixed gear so I could lower off & get our gear back. Because of my low expectations, I headed up without any food or, crucially, a head torch. By some miracle I managed to climb the first pitch (taking something like 3.5 hours on lead!) but by the time Andy had led the second, it was dark and we were both frozen and exhausted so we abbed off.

This unfinished business had been on my mind ever since. Thankfully Andy agreed to humour me one more time and come back for a rematch.

Here we go again

As we approached, I was feeling confident - The route looked in great condition, I'd led the first pitch before and had succeeded on some hard routes recently, so surely this time it would go.

An hour later, I was about 10m up the route and struggling. The route was every bit as hard and awkward as I remembered. The gear was OK, although I wasn't sure I wanted to test it. I committed to the crux, one pick in the crack, one on a tiny thin hook and a leg bar across the flare. Then, disaster! The axe in the crack ripped and I came tumbling down just as I had a couple of years previously. This was not the plan!

Andy seconding the horrendous flare
I lowered back to the ground to eat, drink and chill out for a minute. Suitably refreshed, I headed up again and this time, pulled through OK. However the section above proved to be a lot harder than I remembered. Where previously there was some useful ice, this time there was just crud. I teetered upwards, making slow but steady progress. My frozen hands and soaked gloves fumbled gear, dropping the small nuts, but I pressed on and made it to the stance. I eventually managed to contrive a belay with the remaining gear and brought Andy up.

Don't fall now!

Andy headed on up, linking P2 and P3 to bring us to the end of the main corner. From here, there are two options: head left into the final chimney of Tilt (as per the first winter ascent) or head right and up (as for the summer route). We chose the easier Tilt option and topped out with daylight to spare.

The end is in sight

I'm delighted to get the route done at last. It felt harder than any of the other VIIIs we've done this year, and miles harder than Centurion a couple of weeks before. I'm glad I don't need to do that first pitch again!


Jim Higgins has retired from winter climbing, or so we all thought. So you can imagine my surprise when I got a text saying he fancied getting out for one day only, and was I up for Centurion?

I climbed this route in summer 5 or 6 years ago. Even back then, I remember thinking it would make an amazing winter climb. It was clearly out of my league at the time, but I've had the ambition to do it ever since. This was the first time that my abilities, climbing conditions, weather forecast and psyched partner had coincided so I jumped at the chance.

Jim on P1
And the didn't disappoint! Never desperate but constantly interesting, and what a line! Definitely one of the best winter routes I've ever done. If there was ever a route worth coming out of retirement for, it's this!

Me on the thin traverse on P3 (Photo - Jim Higgins)