Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Ben

The West coast of Scotland saw its best February weather since 1897 in 2013.
Which was nice. Sinéad came over on the 15th, and we had fun doing tours of Glasgow and Edinburgh. We tried our hand at snowboarding (Sinéad's idea, I wanted to try skiing!) which was good fun and involved much falling over.


I banjaxed the A2 pully on my left ring finger in Jnuary and its been slow to recover. I always think pully injuries are the most pathetic injury ever - "Oh I can't climb, I've hurt my finger!" It's been very hard to discipline myself not to crimp or pull too hard on it, and I took a fortnight off pulling on holds entirely in early february, running and swimming like a mad eejit instead which was oddly fun. I hope to do a bit of fell running this summer, all being well.
On the 23rd I went along to a coaching session with Dave MacLeod at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven. It turns out this was probably the greatest weekend winter climbing weather ever, but the opportunity to learn from Dave was not to be missed. The afternoon was spent on the bouldering wall and I learned a lot from Dave, despite my pully. It's a bit scary being analysed in your climbing by one of the best climbers on the planet but his advice on momentum and self-analysis were really useful. I also learned how to use a fingerboard properly - this 7-seconds-on-3-seconds-off-and-repeat nonsense only trains endurance and not strength, with a '4 seconds at maximum effort then 30 seconds rest and repeat'regime being more useful. So I've started to train my openhanded grip more as all this crimping has been what knackered my A2 in the first place.
Anyway, last weekend I got back out in the big hills again. Om Friday night I met Sam (who I met through the Lifts/Partners forum on UKC) and his modified van in a carpark in Dumbarton and we headed north for Fort William. Temperatures were up a bit and our original plan of Creag Meagaidh was abandoned for Ben Nevis instead. We hatched a plan to try North East Buttress on saturday, and I was psyched. I'd had a go at it last year with Alek, accessing the route via Slingsby's Chimney (ostensibly a grade II). A combination of a late start and Slingsby's being grotesquely out of condition and terrifying led to us reaching the route at 1.30pm and abandoning our attempt. So I was keen to have another go.
We didn't leave anything to chance this time and the alarm went off in the north face car park at 4.30am (yay for Alpine starts). Sam's van is very comfortable but a bit of psyche made getting up easier. By 5 we were on our way, reaching the CIC hut by 7. Sensibly, we avoided Slingsby's and got on the route by the access ramp from Coire Leis, reaching the First Platform and the start of the route proper at 8. Conditions were perfect, with solid snow and the odd bit of ice.

North East Buttress, 2.3.13
The route was brilliant, and the cloud occasionally cleared to give great views of the Ben and Lochaber. The ice gullies all looked in good nick, with not much sign of melt. We made great progress on quite an Alpine route, pitching one or two tricky mixed steps. Before we knew it we were at the famous 'Mantrap', notorious for its difficulty in icy conditions.
The Mantrap turned out to be quite overhyped. It's only 3m tall and is well protected. The good conditions certainly helped, A reach over the top to good nevee, a high step and a biiiiiiiiiiig pull and it was done. I belayed at the base of the 25 ft high corner above - the famous '40 ft corner' (the bottom must have been banked out). This was so heavily rimed up I was able to get an ice screw in it! Sam's axe popped out of the nevee that seemed bomber to me while he was pulling through the Mantrap and he took a bit of a tumble, just goes to show that you can never be 100% sure of your placements in Scottish Winter!
20 ft corner
Sam dispatched the 40 ft corner in no time and before we knew it we were on top of the Ben. We had planned enough time for a 4pm top-out; we topped out at 10.30am after 2.5 hours on the route! A surreal experience, and we took our time on the way down No. 4 gulley, getting a good look at the conditions. A pint in the Grog and Gruel in Fort William after one of the longest walk-ins and biggest routes on the Ben was surreal.
Topping out

Psyche levels stayed high after that, and we felt quite fresh so on Sunday we were up at 5.30am and off up the Ben again. This time we went for the ultra-classic Point Five Gully. I'd been wanting to do this all season and there seemed no better time.
Approaching Point Five Gully
After the long sweaty slog up under Observatory Ridge we were on the route by 9. The ice was perfect and plastic, and the route was quite stepped from all the traffic of the past while. There was no wind or spindrift and we had the route to ourselves. What more could you want?
Sam led off up pitch 1, turning round to tell me that the route was 'tremendous' which my innate Scottish Winter pessimism heard as 'horrendous'. But tremendous it was; steep but secure, with plenty of bridging up glorious ice. The second pitch was a dream, probably the steepest pitch but good footwork allows half-decent rests to be found. I somehow dropped a screw which someone below picked up, hopefully I'll get it back through UKC.
Sam on the Rogue pitch
Moving together to the top

Sam finished off the difficulties with the excellent 'Rogue Pitch'. This led to easier grade II/III ground above with one last icy step to pitch. I took the hardest line up this for the hell of it and then we moved together to the plateau, topping out for 12.30. We sat on the top and had a bit of a picnic, the summit to ourselves; I've never been up there when it's been so pleasant!

Day 2 atop the Ben

Point Five is more than worthy of its reputation and I was very pleased to climb the most famous ice gully in the world as a first ice grade V. We headed back to the van and stopped off in the Clachaig Inn Glencoe (probably the best pub in the world) for a celebratory drink on the way back home. A brilliant end to the best weekend of winter climbing I've had!
Back home in Ireland this weekend for Mum and Sinéad's birthdays. The weather is set to get cold again so I'd like to get back up to the Ben for St Patrick's Day weekend...

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