Friday 14th started like any other day of our week in Scotland. Up ready and waiting for Matt (aka Faffy McFaff) :-)
The plan was to be leaving the car park by 0800 Matt would ensure this to be 0830, but had built some hill fitness and we would arrive in the coire basin around 1030.
Heavy snows and mild weather would ensure the route and the fall back routes chosen would be capped by large unstable cornices and certainly not worth the danger. Wishing not to repeat Dorsal Arête and avoid SC Gully. The ridge and arête routes that were within my leading limit conditions were thin thanks to a previous day of mild weather.
A short tea break was taken whilst I decide our best plan of attack. Allowing for the conditions and the amount of day light left I chose what appeared to be a very easy ridge to the left of Boomerang Gully. This and route is shown below.
We roped up (Nik, Matt and myself) and moved as one to a small scoop in some rocks at the bottom of the easy ridge. We placed some gear for the benefit of Matt (he had only ever climbed sport before Dorsal Arête). We quickly climbed this little bit and started moving as one, with myself leading the team and every pitch that would follow.
It soon became even more apparent that Matt was struggling with the concept of taut ropes between the party members when moving as one and I would need to implement natural belays on the steeper or less stable ground. At one point the rope was extremely slack and behind Matt who was at the end of the three. Implementing the use of natural belays slowed our progress considerably.
After about 1.5 hrs we arrived at some steeper ground, we contoured to the left to a boulder with a large face behind it and steep snow slope to the left running up and out of sight. To reach the boulder, a snow and rock step had been climbed, above some much steeper ground. A quick check of the time suggested that it had taken a bit longer than the 1.5hrs I had guessed, it was 1400.
Nik and I discussed the remaining daylight (3.5hrs) and the current weather and expected weather later that evening, that appeared closer than it should have done, balanced against the speed of the group and estimated 250 meters of the route left (this was a pretty good estimation). I also considered the ability of a group member to descend safely.
I was left with the decision continue or descend, I stuck my head around the boulder to assess the route conditions and made the decision to head for the summit. I believe this to still be the best decision for the point we had reached and the factors mentioned above.
Off I plodded, promptly found some gear and continued, some more gear was found in a small chimney, then a 40mtr run out was ground to a halt on a narrow ridge above a spur of Boomerang Gully, I settled into a belay stance. Nik and then Matt followed. 3-4mtrs above me along the ridge was a nice large belay platform I was aiming for. I asked Nik followed by Matt to climb to this, it was easy but exposed ground. Nik assembled a bomber belay, tied Matt in and I took a short walk along the ridge to join them.
The next pitch would start more exposed and a little steeper, I moved to the centre right of the snow slope (it hung over the spur to the right and large cliff to its lower left. I carefully and efficiently made my way to some rocks placed a sling and a nut and moved up to a prominent spike to belay them up.
Nik arrived sometime before Matt again, and these gaps would grow on the next few pitches. Yet again Matt was shown how to clove-hitch and was made safe. (This would test my patience on the last belay stance).
Moments before I would leave this belay the sun would shine into the coire below to highlight a golden eagle swooping low through the coire and then rising gracefully on the wind above the summit heights and drift away. I pointed this out the Nik and Matt, let it soak in (this is why I do this), then noticed the cloud advancing and the wind increasing.
The next pitch was over open snow slopes broken by rocks, these provided little in the way of runners. I found two close to each other 15 meters before I would run out of rope. These snow slopes had started steep and shallowed where I would be forced to improvise a belay, it turned out to be bomber.
Once again Nik arrived promptly and Matt struggle to move at pace or would move to quickly in sections demanding the slack be taken in. I would tell him once more that “You climb at the pace of the belayer, the belayer has two ropes and climbers to contend with, not to mention the snow and rocks causing massive amounts of drag”.
He arrived and took several minutes to make himself safe, minutes we no longer had. The cloud cover had moved in and the wind had picked up. The eagle was probably somewhere snug and safe now or far above the dropping front. I barked some instructions at Matt, he was now safe. Nik and I sorted the rope.
I set off again, the ground steepened sharply and lured me left. After trying to bridge up a chimney, sense kicked in again and I found a good, but small nut placement on its right and rounded its right flank to steep but clear ground and the belay I had identified from the last stance. I covered this ground quickly placing only a sling over a spike as I passed it. “I must keep moving and fast...........but carefully” I told myself, the weather was closing, it was snowing lightly and it was getting dark.
I built another bomber belay and then it was Nik’s and Matt’s turn to join me. Nik was sorted and away in a flash. She made careful progress and was half to the belay. When I noticed Matt had not moved. I yelled at Matt to climb when ready, he took his sling out of the threaded anchor and I turned to check Nik’s progress. She was nearer and moving nicely. A couple of takes on the rope alerted me to the fact that Matt had still not moved. I yelled again, he faffed with his axes and yelled with earnest at him to “hurry the f*** up”. He finally left the belay this must have taken 5-10 minutes after he had dismantled.
Nik arrived and made herself safe and readied, to belay the final pitch. She had been a star all day and had maintained faith in me. Matt arrived, but due to his lack of pace, “Less haste more pace”, I asked him to make safe. Nik and I continued to sort the ropes, Nik was safe, but I held Matt’s end of the rope still. Once Nik and I had sorted one rope I turned my attention to sorting the other with Matt. I did not believe what I saw. Matt was stood holding the rope loop I had given him to make himself safe and looking at his HMS.
“For f*** sake!” I yelled, patience finally snapped, it was now dark. I had a rather dodgy traverse to make in the snow and dark. I tied the clove-hitch and made Matt safe, he had stood there for 5 minutes not safe, other than the fact that as I had not checked what he had done, therefore had kept him on belay, whilst the ropes were sorted.
At this point I sorted that rope and then Nik put me on belay. There was still a very annoying twist in the ropes, that made belaying near impossible. The traverse needed smooth running rope. I made myself safe again on one rope, untied from the other, sorted the twist with Nik’s help, tied back in and then set off.
We still had to get down safely in dark, windy and snowy conditions. Unfortunately Matt did not grasp the seriousness of the situation, this frustrated me no end. I moved about 3 meters away from belay, cleared my thoughts and headed off.
Up a small gully below the summit of Stob coire an Lochan, I then broke left across a large snow slope, I had found a marginal natural runner and carved deep in to the snow behind it to provide some (very little) protection. :-s
I pressed on, kick, kick, thwaq, thwaq, kick, kick, thwaq, thwaq,.......thwaq, the snow cracked above this axe placement.......I froze........watched..........nothing happened. I kissed the snow in front of me (the slope was quite steep 65-75%), it shouldn’t fall apart that’s why I chose this line. The next couple of moves I couldn’t believe my luck. The axes and crampons punched their way into polystyrene type ice...I smiled and patted the ice, like you would a dog for behaving.
My mood lifted and I calmed further, 15 more meters and a 60 meter run out was completed safely in the dark. I built the final belay, took a moment to myself and then signalled Nik and Matt to climb.
Sat on that belay in the dark I seemed to be alone forever. I thought about the sunny start to the day, the eagle, the route itself had been fun, the last pitch and the fact that Nik would look at it and think “Him and his bloody traverses”...... made me smile.
In what seemed like an age Nik arrived, to my delight, moments not minutes later Matt. We got our head torches out, then Nik and Matt ascended the ridge to just below the summit cairn. I followed with a sigh of relief and walking a bit like a cowboy, the last belay was not the most comfortable, but with that traverse I wanted bomber not chaise lounge.
We summitted. I called my friend Cat, who was expecting us for a drink to say where we were and how long I expected the descent to take. She had descended Broad Gully the day before and said it was fine and to bum slide down it. This was a great idea and BG is easy to find from the summit.
I guided Nik and Matt down from the summit to the top of BG, avoiding the easiest ground in some spots as this comes with deadly consequences in one particular spot if you carelessly trip.
At the top of BG, we removed crampons and stowed one axe ready for a glissade to the coire below. We sent Matt first and I followed Nik closely as she was a bit nervous as she could not see the coire floor below. Once the angle slackened, I took off, like a rat up a drain, but downward.
I decided it would be a great idea to try to stand up out of the glissade and run the speed off (“you idiot”) I know. The ensuing controlled roll
At the coire floor, we regrouped, had tea, food and water and then plodded out of the coire and back to the carpark. I sent a text to update Cat we were leaving the coire and expected time of arrival.
As we descended Matt raced off, seeing this I was glad I had instructed him to leave his helmet on. Fortunately the only misfortune he would have on the descent would be his fading head torch and route finding. We had seen his torch flickering in the distance a few times as we made a comfortable and steady descent.
However, we arrived at the car to find no sign of him. Seconds later the local police arrived. They had been called by a passing motorist and alerted of our car, they said they had seen our lights a while before and were just checking we were all “ok”. We said the 3 of us were fine, they questioned the third. Nik and I laughed at the fact that we had seen Matt speedily heading for the wrong car park and he was now making his way back up after I had called in the right direction, we told them this, they found it amusing also.
The police were great and didn’t read the riot act, they actually laughed along with us as we told of our epic. We left the car park and headed back to the youth hostel having missed last orders.
We had had an epic day, they say you are not a climber until you have an epic. I never realised I had to have one in every discipline. But there are some great things that have come out of this, my ability to act calmly, efficiently and professionally under pressure in poor conditions. My winter route finding seemed to prove an ability to find stable and interesting ground without overstretching my limit. I found that I could lead a group comfortably on an unfamiliar route and off a winter ridge line in less than ordinary conditions.
Finally, on researching the route I was surprised to find that there was not one listed. Therefore I have contacted the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and Andy Nisbet has recorded the route in the 2008 journal. Now we have wait and see if it has been climbed by anyone else. This will be quite exciting if it stands as this was only my second time winter, climbing and Nik and Matts’ first.