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Book of the month: The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland

Thursday, 3 December 2015

It’s getting mighty cold out there – the Met Office has issued a yellow ‘be aware’ warning for parts of the Scottish Highlands – but falling mercury levels could spell promising conditions for winter climbers. If you’ve been waiting all summer to get your ice axes stuck in, take some inspiration from this account by Guy Robertson, a veteran of the Scottish mountains. Though he has made ascents in regions as diverse as Morocco, Jordan, The Alps, Norway and Peru, his heart lies in Scottish winter and it isn’t difficult to see why. Taken from The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland, this is Guy’s story of exploring The Upper Cliff of Coire Ghranda, which is ‘not a place for the faint-hearted… [but] it has all the attributes of a perfect winter crag – very steep, very vegetated and very wet’. 

Side-stepping carefully out and left, one of the pair now scans the wall. A great icy canvas, as yet devoid of art. His eye traces keenly up, through familiar territories, to a previous impasse where it all ran out. The undisputed blankness that black schist often presents. Dwelling briefly on that point of return, of sure and sudden failure, he shrinks from memories of defeat. Tracing left now, across and away back down, he finds a subtle snow cone flirting with sheer rock; a weakness, a quick decision, and a flicker of his fire. 

The ropes are unleashed at the base of the line, and the signs are good. A cooperative fault bristles with vegetation, slanting left to a bulge, from where a line of tenuous icy tears weeps back across right, and so on into a groove, it would seem, and the start of a battle unknown. A quick knuckle-numbing punch up the fault brings blood to chilled bones, then a sinker belay, and the second man soon flights up behind to kick out his place. 

Into the fray now, teetering out on the tears, to where a searching grope right for the groove is rewarded with a pick in a crack. Both feet swing in tandem to settle on creases, and the unknown groove now bears gifts. Nuts tumble from the rack like coins from a slot machine. A thin seam yields a high torque on the left wall, for a high step up with the right foot, then the same again, rocking over, to both picks in good turf. A scrabble, a puff, a mantelling heave, and the turf sits solidly under his crampons.

Above is a corner – smooth, black and steep. There’s no hint there of turfy goodness, and there’s no faint slot for a pick to keep. So he swings back out left, blindly, popping up onto the crest, to where dragging ropes and a tempting eyrie force a second stance. Good cracks, good belay and some good progress for sure. Safe? Enough, at least, to ignore the threat of the bulging wall barring access above. Coils of rope are rushed in, and the shivering second is yanked from his bubble to hack and claw with stiffened limbs up the groove to the stance.

Their words of uncertainty are brief and in agreement; they are only mild in hope. Our second now leads through, from defence to attack, struggling with the sudden shock of the transformation. Soon he’s ten feet or so up, axes dangling hopelessly from his wrists, spread-eagled, underclung it seems on verglas, and looking quite the limpet. With nothing stopping him below, their stance becomes a target, a human bullseye. The belayer concentrates intensely, hounding every twitchy move, surely wishing he was leading and out of the firing line. But the limpet sticks, and slithers haltingly upward, nothing breaking the shared apprehension but the frightened, lurching gasps of his frozen breath. Until a pick is thrown suddenly, repeatedly and with conviction overhead. C’mon! C’mon! C’mon ya bastard! The pick finds a slot.

Several great gasping puffs, and an all-or-nothing heave confines their ‘impassable wall’ to the history books – for now at any rate. Watch me here! Not hard, but bugger all gear! No worries, it’ll save some time, and it’s running out for sure. A quick snack. Stomping feet and bouncing shoulders, as the rope feeds quickly out and the second’s eyes gaze out into the murk, questioning the depth of the grey, and the lateness of the hour. Then the ropes go slack. Aye, slack, take some in then. What? But that’s no … whaahooooaaaaayyaaaa! The Banshee howl booms heavily round the bowels of the coire, both the ropes strike taut, and there’s metal clashing metal.

Delayed impact … whhhhhhhuuump!

Jeeezus man, you OK? Oh man, oh man, I don’t know, I think so, give me a minute. Any blood?

When does falling become flying?

The clock’s tick now echoes alarmingly, such is the hour, and the white murk is turning brown towards the sunset. At this, their third stance, the prospect is undoubtedly the grimmest yet. Any weakness above is reliably short-lived, and no line seems logical in any way. The grooves all fade to walls, all the walls are capped by bulges, and there’s no glinting crack to catch the eye. But with battered pride set aside with such stalwart valour below, who would they be to shy away now? At least take a look man, take a look. So he looks, and he looks, and he looks again. Each time he probes tentatively higher, each time he is more committed, and each time the intensity of his awareness of that commitment grows, until he knows – there’s no going back. A move up on more frozen moss than turf, with no bite for crampons, arms locked at the elbows and feet smearing an uncertain balance on the smooth, blank schist. Protection still eludes him, and his need becomes acute. The leader must not fall. Fate hangs like a guillotine, sharp and taut around him, as his moves become more frequent, more sure, but less cognitive. It’s climbing by instinct. The belayer
stares silent at the clean sweep of the rope, momentarily punctuated by a solitary peg, tied off and tokenistic.

The first bulge is beaten, trending left under the worst of it, the second succumbs to a more head-on approach, cranking hard towards the sanctuary of what appears to be a decent crack. Praying for mercy. Brief mercy there is, in the form of a nut, but the crack turns blind and forces wild swings out right, crampons all smearing again until a tiny spike accepts a sling. Then right again, and down. Down? He realises now that there is no line, only the desperate and chaotic clamberings of a man seeking escape, and there, at last, it appears, out of nowhere – a slim groove laced with ice. Once more the cracks all disappear but it doesn’t seem to matter; there’s a way out up ahead, and the trimmings of ice and turf have returned sure grip to both feet. Head down, into high gear, engage the exit ramps, and they’re out of there.

Staring out into the giddying, amorphous expanse of a winter’s dusk up high, he feels the clammy cool of relief on frosted cheeks. The Final Destination. It’s over, and he knows it, but he’s spent of any passion. Sleep whispers in his ears as he slowly heaves the ropes. Real life is a galaxy away – driving cars, tapping keyboards, drinking beer, sitting on sofas, watching telly. For a while up there it’s just hot blood and wind, grey space and frozen ropes, until the faint jangle of the second becomes louder from below. And then the two are united, slapping backs and shaking hands, sorting the compass and the map and the who-goes-first, the slow grind down.

Heading into Ghranda from the north-west, with the Upper Cliff just coming into view on the right. © Guy Robertson

Andy Inglis approaching the Upper Cliff. © Guy Robertson

Andy Inglis on the first ascent of Rebirth of the Cool (VII, 7). © Guy Robertson

Andy Inglis on the first ascent of Rebirth of the Cool (VII, 7). © Guy Robertson

Andy Inglis on the first ascent of Rebirth of the Cool (VII, 7). © Guy Robertson

Click HERE to purchase a copy of The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland.

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