Friday 19 February 2010

Raven's gully

I can't help being a bit of a believer in karma when it comes to the weather. Put the time in, slog it out even on the grim days, show the crag you're doing it for the love of it, and sooner enough you get rewarded with something special.


It might seem a just case of buying more lottery tickets, but the other way round seems to apply too - go out too fast, too keen, aim for a big tick straightaway, and the weather has a funny habit of shutting you down, knocking you back. So I'm blaming this grit season's weather (which, snowballing bonus aside, has been perhaps the worst in recent memory) on Caff's arrival in Hathersage last september, and subsequent lack of respect for the crags. Now he's tied up back at work, I'm expecting whatever the winter equivalent of an indian summer is. Stand by folks! The other possibility is of course that the crags are in a more permanent huff, caused by folk's general retreat to The Climbing Works given so much as a cloud on the horizon. I'll take dodgy weekend weather over crowds anyday, but if it stays like this y'all are going to have to show the rock a little more love!

Buachaille Etive Mor at first light

And so it is with the winter nick, which is what any sensible climber in Britain is concentrating on right now. After my shaky start to the season, I took a bit of a gamble and headed north despite not knowing much about the weather, or even how I was going to get back south again. It seems the gods love a trier, and we woke in Ben's van to a snow-capped Buachaille gently glowing in a perfect clear dawn. Its hard to drive past such a sight, so we headed up to Raven's gully, buoyed by a couple of other guys with the same idea. By the time we got to the base they'd already checked it out, and were heading down. 'Not enough ice' was the verdict, 'unless you're into that Dave MacLeod shit'. I caught a twinkle in Ben's eye and up we went, for the compulsory 'wee look'.

Raven's Gully

Raven's is a bit more intimidating than the average scottish gully. It's steep, deep and narrow - more of an oversized chimney-crack. Five or six massive boulders lie wedged at intervals and form the major difficulties. The moves past are short lived, but dependent on ice smears and the height of the snow banks underneath. The perfect route for a couple of boulderers? After ten metres of snow we were tucked in a dry cave full of delicate icicles. Two chockstones were stacked above, but the gear looked good, and retreat easy. Can't harm to try, eh? Fifteen minutes and a lot of scratching later, and Ben had given up on the traditional left wall and moved onto the right. A sneaky gloved jam, some hand-swaps, and he was up. Now my turn. Even in good nick the left option gets tech 6, not a grade I've climbed before, so it was going to be a tough warm-up!

Just getting past the first, easier, chock was bad enough, and I plomped back down in the snow when my attempted wide bridge popped. A more determined approach saw me laid on the chock, panting, and then it was onto the crux. I avoided Ben's jam with a sneaky torqued adze, and leant out left and got a placement in the base of the smear. Before I could stop myself I'd run my feet up, whacked in a heel-toe, freed the adze and crossed through and got a better axe placement. Feet out, lean forward, wriggle right axe out, wish I was leashless, big stretch, plant once, twice... and I was up. How hard could the rest be?

Ben was ensconced in the next cave, which looked even drier, and my pitch followed a similar pattern, though this time with some awkward chimneying thrown in. And so it went on: another pitch, another chockstone, the next one featuring some wrist-straining wide bridging, followed by locking-off dodgy hooks in snow which had me wishing for a face mask.

Above the gully branched, and I headed up only to find Ben a good way up the wrong branch. On the plus side, it meant a top-rope for the tricky section switching back into the left branch, and I gained some snowy grooves. I did my best, but a tricky section had me placing a big hex before I could get above Ben, and I knew I was in for some rope drag. Thankfully it eased above, and I ran out another twelve metres or so before another steepening. A frustrating search for gear came up with nothing, and I pushed on ever further above the hex on crappy snow, only to get to another steepening. Now I'm not shy of a run-out, but I wasn't prepared to push on any further, and got stuck into another long hunt for gear. Finally an almost-spike and an icy cam off to the left at least gave the rope some punctuation, and it was up again.

With proper neve, or some trickles of ice, this pitch would have been steady IV, but with only crusty snow and the odd buried turf blob it was decidedly tough. Above looked easier, but the rope drag was getting bad. Ben stripped his belay and climbed down, and I pushed higher, but still no belay in sight. Higher was a tight chimney that looked like the final hurdle, and in the back I found out a small chock and threaded my first decent runner in forty metres. By now Ben was climbing too, so I wriggled on and made the belay, about seventy metres out from the traverse. They say these things are enjoyable retrospectively... I'm still waiting!

Ben on top of The Buachaille

The reward, though, was the summit. Clear air, a few raggedy clouds, and hardly a breath of wind. Ben Nevis to the north, Ben More on the horizon to the west, and in every direction a sea of snow-clad hills. Having had an annual trip up here for the last few years I was getting to know them now, making the view all the more special. Ben Cruachan, Schiehallion, Kintail - . We headed down, and at the lip of Coire na Tuilach I paused for a last look around, drinking it all in, before, reluctantly, descending.

View north to Ben Nevis


Ian Parnell said...

great pics adam, was that last thursday or friday, got to be the best days of the season so far.

Adam Long said...

Wednesday 10th. We had great weather on the friday too. Didn't get out last week sadly - no partner...

Fiend said...

"And so it is with the winter nick, which is what any sensible climber in Britain is concentrating on right now."

Aye, the skiing has been in great winter nick...