Sunday, 11 March 2018

Wall of the Early Morning Light

What's all this Beast from the East shite about? We're dossing in a layby at the base of the Bealach na Ba and the weather is great. Bit windy but the sky is blue...ish, and there hasn't been a snowflake all day. Kind of weird to imagine the rest of the country grinding to a halt, idiots trapped in their cars for like 19 hours, shops all running out of bread and milk. Why does everyone panic buy bread and milk? If the Beast really is the harbinger of an icy apocalypse, why the fuck would you stock up on stuff that will go mouldy within the first week? 

Anyway, oblivious to all this chaos in the north west, we're doing the usual thing, stuffing our faces with pork pies and whisky as preparation for a big route on Beinn Bhan. I've always wanted to do a route in one of the enourmous corries that line its east flank. They're long, serious, rarely in condition. I'm gambling that the sustained cold weather will bring the massive icefalls into good nick. The classic direct route is Silver Tear, but we're all sadly too shit at ice climbing for that one, so instead the plan is Wall of the Early Morning Light, a slightly easier route that wanders all over the place seeking out the easiest way through a series of steep sandstone tiers. 

The corries of Beinn Bhan from the road

The team is myself, Pat and Graham. Me and Pat are carrying most of the gear in, so we will make Graham lead all the hard scary bits. Don't want a couple of southern ponces upsetting Scottish pride after all. The walk in is pretty steady, and by about 8am we are in the awesome amphitheater of Coire na Poite, trying to spy a feasible route through a series of steep dribbles of ice and snowy terraces. After the north face of the Ben it's easily the most impressive wall I've ever seen in Scotland. Makes Sneachda look like a bouldering wall. 

Entering the mental Coire na Poite

We gear up at the bottom and figure out a line to take through the initial icefall. The most direct line looks pretty steep and not brilliantly formed, so instead we head further right to better looking ice. Looking in the north highlands definitive guide afterwards we might've climbed the start of a route called Meanderthal, but it's pretty hard to get info on this face, so fuck knows. Anyway, I lead the first pitch, steady IV climbing with decent ice and screws, and belay on screws when I get to easier angled stuff above. And by easier angled I mean 50-55 degree bullet hard neve, which is something we will get increasingly familiar with as the route goes on.....

Approaching the right hand icefall start to the route

Graham is the only one of us with any sort of talent for this ice climbing business, so he leads the next 2 pitches to another terrace of snow, past a thin crux section near the top. Pat and I hack our way up after. The belay is on dodgy screws and because of the angle of the neve we're perched on there's no way to take a proper rest there. Instead we kick steps into the fucking stuff and try not to weight the anchors. Not easy finding space for 3. To save time me and Pat traverse simultaneously across the terrace towards where we think the route usually goes. But the scale of the face is such that we don't get anywhere near the next section of ice, so end up bringing Graham across on some utter toss belay so he can finish the traverse. I lead another pitch up and across some ice and belay off a single tied off peg just right of the steep bit. No obvious way through presents itself. I vaguely remember something about a chimney in the guidebook description (like 3 sentences for a 400m route) but I'm not sure where it's meant to be. But it's Graham's problem so who gives a fuck....   

Me leading the first of 18 pitches

He traverses left then spies the chimney and starts climbing upwards. We can hear him yelling that it's fucking nails, and I stare at the tied off peg and fight to supress hysterical laughter. What fun we're having. But he gets up the bastard like the ice weapon he is, and soon enough it's my turn to follow. The gear is wank and it's pretty hard and steep, easily V 5. Superb lead by Graham. Above there's what looks like a short ice step, that turns out to be almost as hard and cruddy as fuck. I gibber my way upwards towards what I hope is a ledge. This turns out, of course, to be yet more 55 degree neve. There's another step barring access to what I'm sure is the final snow terrace before we head left into a big fault line to the top. So I have a go at it but it's steep, off balance, and the ice is complete toss. No problem, I'll just belay and make Graham lead it instead. Serves him right for not carrying a rope in. 

Looking back down into the corrie - climbers crossing the frozen lake (last photo we took!)

Graham leads the final ice step, and it is indeed fucking hard. Pat and I wearily grovel up after him and we peer across the terrace with thousand yard stares, hoping there's an easy line to the top just round the corner. It's getting on in the day and I'm starting to wonder if we'll finish the route before it gets dark. And whatever else we encounter there's definitely a cornice to be overcome. Still, I reckon we'll be alright, can't be too bad now - so of course the traverse across the terrace alone takes another 3 pitches. Bastard. But at least we can see the fault line now and it doesn't look that hard. Graham and I lead a pitch each before the daylight fails and darkness steals across the highlands......fantastic.

Just to make matters worse I now desperately need a shit. It's so bad I get Pat to belay Graham up pitch god-knows-what, while I undo the waist belt of my harness, teeter on my front points, and unleash a foul torrent of cack down the mountain. Pat stoically pretends that he's.....fucking anywhere else but here, I suppose. If I overbalance mid-shit then I'll probably pull the 3 of us off the sodding hill altogether, hurling us all to a messy, shitty death at the bottom. Still, I feel much better for it, and that's the main thing. 

So it's proper headtorch climbing now, and I reckon we've at least 3 more pitches to go. From Graham's wank belay I traverse across unconsolidated snow towards a break in otherwise steep looking ground. A hard move with no footholds sees me on a slightly gentler slope of neve, and I manage to find an ok hex belay just above. Once again the 3 of us perch miserably on our front points, unwilling to test the only thing that's holding us to this sodding face. Graham leads a final unprotected pitch up steep snow ice to where I'm frantically hoping the final snow slope lies. Thankfully our estimation is correct, and from this last belay I trudge up steep neve towards the looming cornice above. 

Much to my surprise and relief, there's a big notch in the bastard, so it's completely piss. I crawl onto the summit plateau of Beinn Bhan on my hands and knees, dig in, and belay Pat and Graham up after me. It's bitterly cold in the wind but I'm so tired I find myself nodding off as I pull the rope in. It's about 10pm now. We quickly pack up the gear and begin a fairly straightforward plod back down to the cars. 18 pitches, probably 600m of climbing with the right hand start, rubbish belays, fuck all good runners, and a few unfortunate flecks of shite still clinging to my trousers.....what a fucking route!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017


Winter 2016/17 is fucking awful. However, in between the rain and devastating thaws, Staples and I manage to bag a few routes in early March. Best of the lot are probably Curved Ridge of the Buachaille in bluebird conditions, and a traverse of An Teallach a few days later. The viz is pretty pish for An Teallach unfortunately, but still a fantastic, atmospheric day. We also sneak a couple of harder routes in Coire Sneachda and Stob Coire nan Lochain.       

Pat and I head up to the Ben afterwards in the vain hope of snatching something. We climb Ledge Route in the rain (past a guy pitching the whole bloody thing to teach his girlfriend how to winter lead, the poor bastard), then give up on winter and go rock climbing in the Lakes instead. Photo is me grovelling up the steep bit of Kransic Crack Direct. We also have a fun jolly up the easy mountain classic Gillercombe Buttress.

Langdale Enchainment with Pat and Megan - godawful polished solo up Lower Scout, the classic VDiff on Upper Scout, Slip Knot then Slab Route on White Ghyll, then finally the mega classic Golden Slipper on Pavey Ark. Superb early season trad day. 

First pitch of Pluto, Raven Crag. Steep corner crack, grovelling frog traverse, delicate techy rib; any pitch could be the crux. I find them all equally hard. Megan particularly enjoys the traverse pitch, literally screaming and weeping for joy the whole way.....;)

Photobombing at Avon Gorge, one of only two days climbing down south all year. I somehow manage to slap my way up an E1 called Limbo, pretty hard by my standards for April, just in time for an ear operation and subsequent loss of all fitness immediately afterwards.....

Pembroke Easter Jolly. It is fucking freezing so no one climbs particularly hard, but between us we tick a shitload of easy classics, drink a lot, and consume unhealthy ammounts of spam. Still in recovery from the ear op, I climb like a sack of mouldy turds. Great jolly with a proper climbing squad.

After getting some form back, and shockingly managing to onsight Cenotaph Corner, fuck knows how, I go back to Pembroke a couple more times. Highlight is definitely Heart of Darkness/New Morning, which is everything a sea cliff classic should be - committing, terrifying, strenuous, greasy, traversey, steep, terrifying, seagully and terrifying.        

Staples leading his first E1, Manzoku, another super sustained Pembroke classic. Top effort from the boyo.

After that I move up to the Lakes for a job. It rains a lot. I spend most of my spare time cycling up hellishly steep mountain passes rather than climbing. However in July Staples comes up for what is to be Jock Rock Jolly II.....half of which we spend in the Lakes doing some trad classics. Best day is up on Gimmer, doing North West Arete, Whit's End Direct and Kipling Groove. After that we drive straight up north, a few days of perfect weather forecasted.....

Sword of Gideon in the awesome Bealach na Ba. First multipitch on Torridonian Sandstone. Staples manages to fall off the first pitch, which is graded a whopping 4a, the fucking tit.

The Bealach na Ba. I'd be back to cycle up this monster later in the year.

Back to the incomparable Diabaig. Best rock in the world. First up is the Black Streak. Warm up for the big one.....       


The Diabaig Pillar. Best single pitch trad route in the world. 40m of crimpy brilliance up perfect golden rock. Not a bad first E2.

The Pillar in all its glory.

After getting the shit kicked out of us on Kilt Rock, we spend the final day of the trip doing a big link up of routes on Sron na Ciche; Chioch West, Arrow Route and Integrity.....       

After that we traverse the Cuillin Ridge over Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr mich Chionich to finish on the Inn Pinn. Spectacular mountain day.

Abseiling off the UKs hardest mountain peak.

After that I spend the rest of the summer cycling. Here I am bollocksed out of my mind after finishing the Fred Whitton route - 100 miles and nearly 4000m of climbing. Going over Hardknott Pass right at the end nearly fucking kills me.

It is all training to cycle the North Coast 500 route of Scotland with Dad. Best trip of the year. 7 days of hills, wind, rain, the odd bit of sun, and the most beautiful scenery in the country. And of course the obligatory tourist pose at John O Groats. We travel pretty light, stay in hostels, and average about 85 miles a day. We also meet a guy in a cafe who turns out to be the first person to do Land's End to John O Groats.....on a fucking unicycle! Absolute nutter. 

I do the odd bit of rock climbing in the autumn, but my winter psyche is taking over. Taking advantage of the first cold snap in november, I climb a bunch of fun easy routes, mostly solo. Photos taken on the classic low grade route of Lochnagar, Central Buttress. Massive effort from Graham with the camera actually making me look sort of cool.... 

Dorsal Arete - the most fun grade II I've ever done!        

I don't want to spend the entire winter season in Scotland, so instead I head off to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to bag a few peaks. Annoyingly there is no snow, meaning I spend the whole time scrabbling my way up scree slopes and choss. I do manage to climb 4 4000m peaks before getting bored and fucking off, including Jbel Toubkal.

Typical view from the High Atlas - shite rock, dust and desert!

Psyched to get back into winter, I attempt a lean Bowfell Buttress with my boss John. After 2 pretty hard pitches I find myself torquing up the crux crack - my first V 6 mixed lead. The crack is fine, but I go and ruin it all by taking a massive lob when a sketch hook rips on the thin slabby traverse above. Despite being all bashed up I manage to finish the pitch second try. Annoyingly the final pitch isn't properly frozen, so we reluctantly rap off from a big flake. Gutted not to finish the route but a mad little adventure anyway, and it's always good to push into a new grade.

Back in Scotland I climb the Stob Coire nan Lochain classic Scabbard Chimney with a super talented guy called Jamie. It is filled with useless powder. Needless to say I find it fucking desperate. Jamie floats up it of course, levitating up invisible hooks and edges, while I hack and flail and swear for every bitter inch of progress....

Final route of the year.....and what a route! The sustained cold spell in december has brought the icefalls of Beinn Udlaidh into condition. With Katie I climb the mega classic Quartzvein Scoop in pretty decent nick. Easily the most pure fun Scottish winter route I've ever done! The next day we walk into the Ben hoping for more ice. The Curtain is tantalisingly close to being formed but just too thin on the initial slab, so we have to leave it there. And then an innevitable december thaw rolls in. But it's been a great start to the 17/18 winter season, so here's hoping it continues that way, with some fat ice in the new year!

Finally a massive thank you to all my climbing partners this year; Staples, Pat, Megan, Javi, Grace, Cam, Anna, Gerwyn, Rich, Jimbo, Jack, John K, Graham, Dave B, Jamie and Katie. Thanks also to Bob for pushing me to go faster up the passes, and Dad for the NC500. Cheers for the awesome photos and more importantly the adventures.