For a while now I’ve been watching with envy other climbers on this most famous of all Scottish winter climbs and wondering if I was ready for it. With this wonderful winter weather continuing, I finally decided to push all the doubts about my current fitness levels, my technical ability and unfamiliarity with the route to the back of my mind (ignore other might say). Having a spare week I urgently searched for a climbing partner and Pip answered my call. After cooking an early breakfast in the back of my van on Tuesday morning still wrapped in my sleeping bag we set off from the North Face car park at 5:00 in the morning and through the light of our head torches we made the familiar walk up through the forest to the top car park. Full light had now arrived and gave us a clear view of the North face and the track up to the CIC hut.
After gearing up at the foot of the Douglas boulder, we started up the gully to the Douglas gap at 08:00. 2 other teams were heading for climbs on the observatory ridge and North East buttress, but worryingly no one seamed to want to follow us, pity I was hoping a team would be in front of us and we could follow in their footsteps, never mind its sometimes a benefit to have the climb to yourself. We soon reached the Douglas gap and a couple of pitches had us out of the gap and on the ridge proper. On the ridge there was not much sign of recent activity, bar one sort pitch we moved as one and were able to progress up the ridge following some raised footprints to the foot of the little tower. A check of the watch showed it was already passed 12:00 goodness me how time fly’s. So in between the snow showers we found a spot out of the wind and had a bite to eat. The little tower took a good 3 pitches to negotiate and I was glad I brought the 60m rope rather than my usual 50m, by the time we reached the top of the little tower and saw the task ahead of us time was getting on and we were a bit behind schedule.
Being a bit late we decided to once again move as one along the very narrow ridge to the foot of the great tower and the Eastern traverse, the crux of the whole route. Now at this point I wish I’d taken a picture of the Eastern traverse but I must have had other things on my mind. The only photo’s I’ve seen of this steep snow bank traverse show either a ledge carved in the neve, or a series of foot holds along the route, all we could see was the faint outline of the occasional foot/crampon print to mark the way. I guess like me when the route is like this, other people also forget about the camera. Still it was no place to dilly dally so once we were happy with the anchors and Pip had me on belay I set off in the lead across the slope. After about 5m I spotted an in situ piton which a gleefully clipped, after that I found nothing. As a got further round the corner there was extensive build up of rime on top of the neve, which I had to clear for every axe placement before reaching the solid stuff underneath. Once round the corner I got a small nut in and continued up to the top of what I now know to be “fallen block chimney” this was completely filled in and on reaching the top and after a lot of digging around, I found the end of a cut sling which I followed to a good thread belay. Once secure and while still in communication I belayed Pip around who continued with a good lead to the top of the Great Tower.
I followed Pip up to the top of The Great Tower from where he had set up the belay and then continued along the very narrow wind swept ridge to Tower gap. Looking down into the gap I spotted the mentioned in situ sling wrapped around the block below, but being of normal stature I was having a hell of a job reaching it, in the end I hooked off the sling with my axe, clipped it and then placed it back on the block. Once on the block I had several attempts at going down the west side of it into the gap, in the end I gave up at this and putting the axes over my shoulder and using the sling I was able to climb down the east side a little until I was able to bridge the gap. Getting up the other side wasn’t exactly straight forward either, but with some effort was able to go up the center though a shoulder width gap. Once on the ridge the other side of the gap I was relieved, but was having trouble finding anchors in the deep snow. In the end I had to continue further until I could find a wide enough spot on the ridge to make a snow bollard. Once secure I belayed Pip across the gap to join me, by now it was getting late and the snow had started falling again obscuring the top. A brief break in the weather gave us a view of the head wall below the top with some obvious looking anchor points in the rock, if there wasn’t enough rope to top out, Pip could make a belay there. Pip continued up past me to the head wall and started to make the belay, just as well as I’d slightly misjudged the distance in the bad vis and there was only 5m of rope left, again glad of my 60m rope. By now the sun had gone down and sitting at the belay on the exposed ridge I was chuffing freezing waiting for Pip to set up the last belay. At last it was ready and I joined him on the head wall. Although we had seen the exit from below, it had been some time ago and was now obscured, so setting off for the top out I got a good runner in just round the corner, just in case the top was corniced. In the end the very last section was straight forward and finding the remains of an old bollard which I re excavated, I had the belay set up in no time. In the end we topped out just as darkness descended, perfect timing we fooled ourselves. Breaking out the flask of tea and stowing the gear in the dark we set off for the long walk back via the red burn and across the moor to the forest. It always amazes me how quickly a forest can grow in the time it takes to do one climb, I swear the forest and the path was at least twice the length as on the way up. Eventually we arrived back at the car at the late hour of 10:30 in the evening, it had been a 17 1/2 hr day with 11 1/2 on the route with 600m plus of climbing, not the quickest time in history but at least we didn’t have to spend the night on it. Apologies for lack of photo’s of the latter half but time was pressing and my fingers were cold and I didn’t wand to drop it and and lots more excuses I’m sure.
If anyone else is up there over the coming days, my second left a number 9 nut stuck in the left hand crack of the head wall below the summit, (can’t say I blame him it was about to get dark) clip if you want and if you can get it out after we can come to some arrangement for its return.
Having a few days of now full of a bad head cold, I always seam to come back from Scotland with some lurgy, still looks like winter will be with us for a while yet.