9 March 2010

Scottish Mixed Taster

Central Buttress, Stob Coire nan Lochain

I just could not resist the temptation of trying some Scottish mixed when Scott said he was driving north for a weekend blast, I should be looking for a job but I hope I can delay that for a bit longer.  It was getting a bit embarrassing when people asked "have you climbed on Ben Nevis" no, I would explain that all the mixed I have done has been in the Alps or Rockies.  On top of this I was seriously interested in finding out what mixed climbing on gear was really about and when the conditions are 'in' the opportunity must be taken which is what Dave, Si and Pete had been doing in Wales by the sound of it.

Actually I have tried to climb in Scotland in winter once before but things conspired against me that weekend. This trip got off to a shaky start when we arrived at 4 am saturday morning and had to pitch the tent on snow before getting some sleep (my suggestion of walking in to the crag then was ignored).  Once all morning pre-climb logistics had been completed and Scott and I were stood at the base of the chosen route in Stob Coire nan Lochain it was afternoon.  A quick check of pitch one by Scott confirmed that we didn't have enough time so we started wading through snow towards plan B: Twisting Gully RH.

 Twisting Gully RH looking a bit steeper than reality
(Scott Swalling) 

This route turned out to be quite good fun, the climbing style was pretty much as I imagined but I encountered conditions that I have not seen on other mixed routes.  First was this stuff (called neve apparently) half way between snow and ice with a consistency like fresh waterlogged ice that was great to bury a pick in (and at hiding rocks).  I guess you just have to accept blunt picks if you want to climb that stuff as there is no way I'm going to keep sharpening my 70 pound pair of picks.  Second new experience was steep soft wet snow.  Luckily a climber appeared ahead of me from the gully on my left and proceeded up towards the cornice.  I placed a wire and followed his footsteps up past a hopeful screw he had pushed in to the snow (I only had a 120mm screw so didn't even bother) as the snow steepened I started to feel a little apprehensive, insecure even.  How had he climbed up the snow and on to the plateau?  As I stood there with both arms horizontal, buried up to my elbows and tried to drive axes in to something solid my short mono-point crampons with melon sized balls of snow attached slipped through the crumbling snow steps.  hmmmm? interesting!!  Eying the chaps anti-balling plates I inquired how he had got to safety?  After groveling over the top I couldn't find the stake or bolts so copied the sitting belay thingy and wondered how much friction was produced as the rope ran over the snow edge.

Daniel, Nik and Giles

Sunday:  an early start got us to the foot of Central Grooves (VII 7) with a full day ahead of us.  Scott began climbing pitch 1 and I huddled in to belay duty.  After a time Scott was stopped by a difficult section and decided that it was my turn.  While Scott had been climbing I was kept entertained by events in the gully to my left.  First I was concerned to see a leader rocketing down the icy funnel past his belayer, ricochet off a boulder then stop several meters below the belay.  As he untangled himself he laughed the incident off and the trio continued with their day.  Then there was the husband and wife team who had developed a system of climbing photography calls...... "photo" then "climb on" I heard.   As I turned to see what was happening now the leader arranged himself in an action pose and again called "photo" after his belayer had taken a photo through the gloom she called "climb on".  These events were almost enough to make me forget the snow that fell and immediately melted soaking our kit.

 Scott nearing the crux and his high point on Pitch 1

After Scott was back on the ground I tied in to the pulled ropes and started up the groove which soon got tricky.  Some of the holds weren't very convincing, and it was another new experience finding cracks choked with ice.  The temperature was surprisingly warm and the rock surface was wet even though it felt freezing,   A lot of the horizontal edges were heaped with poorly adhered snow ice that would barely support a pick but was difficult to clean off if I wanted to hold the rock with my hands.  After some excellent climbing I reached a belay that consisted of a large gravestone size flake that appeared to be held in its recess by a rusty peg on either side.

The second pitch was quite hard work for me as I used every form of encouragement I knew to try and persuade Scott to carry on leading up the route that I had chosen.  When I seconded this pitch I found what had been causing the trouble, it was hard!!.  An awesome lead from Scott despite the slight rest, his ascent of this route was more of an achievement than mine.

We agreed that I would then push for easy ground by running pitch 3 and 4 together, it seemed to me that the climbing got easier but protection got worse as height was gained.  The culmination of this was a good bit of Elvis leg at the top of a hanging slab.  I found this section really focussed my attention as the slab was covered in a layer of crap ice that was not stuck to rock so could not be used for axes or crampons.  I couldn't see any gear that was going to be easy to place and the moves were off balance.  Interesting how different this could be in different conditions.

As I stood belaying at the end of pitch 4 light from a red sunset slowly faded off hilltops across the valley, the temperature had dropped like a stone, the rock had dried, lightened and looked much better from a completed route.

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