The last time John Orr and I climbed together was a Sunday back in Feburary 2014. We made the first winter ascent of route called ‘Root of All Evil’ IX,8 on Beinn Eighe. I don’t know what happened but the last 4 years have slipped away and all we have managed was a quick social evening whenever I was in North Wales. Anyway, John has been busy with the guides scheme which means his personal climbing has taken a back seat for parts of the year. At the start of the winter, he sent me some dates of when he would be in Scotland and was keen to hook up. He obviously pointed out that he has only been skiing and had done no climbing of any form recently.
The season rolled on by and many crags came into good condition. John and my date was fast approaching and there was that little reminder each time that he has only been skiing. Centurian VIII,8 seemed to keep popping its head up in our discussions. Naturally John had his reservations. A long hard and sustained winter route. However, the forecast was perfect and its rarely in such good winter condition John agreed it was a good opportunity. I must admit, I did have new route psyche on Beinn Eighe burning at the back of my mind. I disguised this by suggesting a nice short easy day, but John never bought that one as he had been there before. The deal was, he would have a go at the first pitch then I would lead the next 3 hard pitch’s then take it from there. And that’s exactly what happened. Pitch 2 was the most time consuming as its long and sustained. Higher up the route, I feared the route 2 traverse would be a nightmare due to the volume of snow on the slabs. But as I started the traverse, it became almost a walk due to the snow being fairly useful with a slight but of consolidation. The trench formed in the snow down Ledge Route at 9 pm was a welcome sight.
|Me following pitch 1 of Centurian (Photo: Johm Orr)|
|John following pitch 2 of Centurian (Photo: John Orr)|
|Me on the thin traverse on pitch 3 of Centurian (Photo: John Orr)|
|John following pitch 4? I think of Centurian|
The Steeple IX,9, that would be another long winter affair I often thought. Iain Small has often voiced his reservations about climbing it in winter. He is a proper winter climber preferring the winter only ground. In saying that, he has an impressive CV of winter ascents of hard rock routes! Living now in the modern era, I couldn’t help but notice several reports of the Shelterstone crag been in good condition. I tentatively suggested The Steeple to Iain and to my surprise he agreed out right. The route had already had 3 ascents, with various means of gaining the upper pitches which include the stunning corner pitch. Martin Moran and Pete Macpherson climbed a much more pure line of the route back in 2012. Taking in the entry summer 5a pitch’s but swapping the slabby summer 5c pitch for the needle 5b pitch, this seemed a good option for Iain and myself.
Iain got the ball rolling on the awkward groove first pitch. Pitch 2, the continuation of the groove has a superbly fractured left wall. Littered with perfect pick placements, this pitch in its own right would have a que of climbers back to Aviemore if it was located in the Northern Corries. The summer 5b pitch of The Needle, gave Iain a good workout. Following him, I forgot how strenuous it was and the seconding fear started to rise exponentially. Busting my gut pulling into the finishing groove of the pitch knocked my confidence, but I never voiced my concern. ‘Aye, that was quite tricky, nice one Iain’.
|Me following pitch 1 of The Steeple (Photo: Iain Small)|
|Iain on the Needle pitch|
Leading the ramp and layback groove sharpened my focus again. Pick eating cracks are always welcome, but sometimes are hungry resulting in a stuck tool. Some jiggery pokery, I managed to free the tool with a raging hot temper. Arriving at the belay below the corner, I thought ‘Oh, that looks tricky’. At least the belay platform was nice below which offered me some comfort.
|Me on the ramp pitch (Photo: Iain Small)|
It was still light, which was a bonus, but glancing at my watch, and knowing the rate I would be climbing at, I knew the head torch better be strapped on. Questing up, the initial part is beautifully strenuous and positive. Forgetting what this pitch was like as a summer route, I hoped the pitch continued in a similar positive fashion. Then I was ground to a halt. Baggy cracks, little feet and strenuous positions, my body was cramping up. Laybaying on tools, feet pasted on nothing, hand jams, matching tools a thank god chalkstone was reached. Here I could just chill out and hang on. That has its advantages and disadvantages. The rest of the pitch was still hard and awkward to climb. With it being winter, of course everything was covered in snow and clearing was a pain in the ass. But climbing snowed up rock is the stupid game we play so I’m not complaining. Of course it was dark, and topping out of the corner with little gear left on my harness, everything was buried, there was several times I wished it all to be over. Finally I got myself strapped in onto the airy and lonely perch below the final wall which guarded the easier exit ground above.
|Me on the Steeple Corner pitch (Photo:Iain Small)|
I recalled Pete Macpherson saying that this pitch just sucked the energy out of you. I can confirm it does. Thankfully for Iain, the cracks were taking cams so it was safe. Purple camalot size. Great, but not great for picks. So, some seriously strenuous pulls from him and an snowy mantel the ropes began to feed out quicker. A pleasant sight for any tired belayer. A faint‘Safe’ was heard, this was music to my ears. Following this pitch with cramping hands, biceps and abdominal s was a joy in the rain. The warm weather was pushing in and our lovely crisp winters day was over. Standing at the base of the Sheltersone at 10pm on a Sunday night in February pissing is not my favourite thing at that time of night. Add in the fact we had the painful walk out of Corie Domhain through a deep thawing snowpack with bags twice as heavy. That again, is not my favourite thing. However, the deep satisfaction of The Steeple coursing through my body and an unforced grin, the walkout was easy. Some cold broccoli, a tin of mackerel and some oat cakes was a welcome dinner back at the car park.
|Iain on the final top wall pitch|
I cant quite remember the weather pattern but I think it thawed for a few days, then a re freeze with high pressure saw the ice begin build and pump out from everywhere. Nick Bullock and I had arranged to go out. Going to Ben Nevis on a stellar forecast was neither of our ideas of fun. We took the risk and wondered about the icy routes on Giants Wall on Beinn Bhan. Neither of us had climbed the outrageous line of Gully of the Gods VI,6. Hoping that would hold the ice we chanced it. I must admit, walking in, I had my reservations. But, it was such a gorgeous day and we both agreed even taking the bag for a walk and looking at stuff was going to be satisfactory. Giants Wall looked lean and my heart sank a little. But peeking into Gully of the Gods, it was sufficiently smeared in ice. Boom! This route is by far one of the best winter climbs I have done. 3D fun is the best way to describe it. We were on top by 12.50pm. With the sun splitting the sky and not a breath of wind, we just hung around lapping it up. Cheating really, it was too easy. The idea of doing a second route was quickly put in the bin. How often do you get to sit about in the warm sun in winter after a route? It was as opposite to hard mixed climbing as you can get.
|Nick on pitch 1 of Gully of the Gods|
|Me on the 3D pitch 2 (Photo: Nick Bullock)|
We agreed that Der Risenwand VII,6 looked icy enough so stashed the kit. The following day we walked in with light bags and trainers over the frozen bog. A novelty for this wall. My previous visits have always been wallowing around in deep snow, in the dark falling into bogs, sliding on wet vegetation. The usual grinding approach in the North West. We roped up for the first 3 pitchs then just soloed along the terrace and up the ramp until a narrowing that neither of us fancied without a rope. The original line makes an airy step left at the top of the ramp. Nick reached a belay just before the step. As I approached he was like ‘Oh, look at that over hanging ice above you Murdoch. That looks rather good and tasty doesn’t it?’ I looked up, and thought, for fuck sake! But, it did look rather attractive. However, it did look like you had to utilise a wedged block which looked rather too exciting for me. Anyway, away I went. A steep strenuous mixed traverse right gained the ice, followed by some cruddy ice, it wasn’t a place to fall. But thankfully I didn’t. Nick followed then did what he is good at and just ploughed on doing one very long dynamic pitch to the top dragging me up behind. Another, fine day. Great company and good chat putting the world to right, it has to be my best weekend of the winter!
|The magnificent Giants wall of Corie Nan Fhamhair|
|Nick on pitch 1 of Der Risenwand|
|Looking up at the wrong moment. (Photo: Nick Bullock)|
|Nick on the traverse on pitch 3|
|Me following pitch 3 (Photo:Nick Bullock)|
|Nick on the middle terrace.|
|Me following the ramp (Photo: Nick Bullock)|
|Me on the new Icicle variation finish (Photo: Nick Bullock)|