Wednesday, 17 May 2017

It ain't over till the Fat Lady Sings

This month's summery weather was preceded by one of the coldest blasts of air of this entire Winter. Spotting this on the forecast at the end of April, my inner winter climber was immediately excited, so I text Sean the forecast and before we knew it we were standing shivering outside the CIC hut wondering what the hell we were doing

Sean Henderson starting up the Gargoyle Flake in atypical late April conditions.

Gargoyle Wall had been high on our ambitions for this Winter but due to the fickle conditions had yet eluded us and we'd resigned ourselves to not climbing it this year. However here we found ourselves on the awkward approach from the CIC in a howling gale, clagged in, snow dumping down, tripping over screes, with a solitary snow bunting trailing us all the way upwards from the hut. We continued up round the crag base in awe of its steepness and in search of the obvious Gargoyle Flake. It was only whilst gearing up that we both admitted that we were keen on turning back at the hut; can't admit defeat before the other though can you!

Sean isn't flicking the yellow rope I promise; an idea of the day's conditions.

Sean made easy progress up and along the flake before stopping dead in his tracks. With dubious protection for the initial committing move, besides the flake as a natural runner, once he stepped down off the flake and made for the steep cracked groove above, there was no turning back. A thin hook low on the right, some commitment onto some good but small mono edges and big reach up and left saw him committed into the cracked groove. This in turn seemed to coincide with the worst of the weather and I was worried at points that Sean would be blown off the wall by the worst of the gusts; meanwhile I hunkered shivering at the belay wondering why we weren't sport climbing. Nonetheless, Sean kept a steady head and made progress between the squalls before sizing up the chockstone above. This provided the best climbing of the pitch, with a superb dropped knee out left allowing you to span up and over before easier climbing led to the belay above. A solid lead in testing conditions (and a solid belay also in testing conditions I might add).

Sean committed into the cracked groove on P1, in-between the heavy squalls, No.3 Gully Buttress in stonking nick - fortune favours the midweek slackers.

I ran a very short connecting pitch up and right along the gangway which pops you out at the platform beneath the shattered corner, giving view to the Gargoyle Wall Cracks looming ominously above. I belayed here and Sean kindly allowed me to continue leading from there. With the Cracks now in sight my excitement was bubbling, so I quickly ran on up the shattered corner before being stopped hard and fast by the gales and upward blizzard. I hung around with my eyes tightly shut waiting on it abating only to hear Sean shout up that it might be a good idea to come back down. I unfortunately couldn't argue with this and down climbed to the belay. Here we hunkered for around 15-20 minutes laughing that the most full on day of the Winter was nearly in May! I think Sean at this point was pretty cold and contemplating the sensibility of an ab off, however I was too psyched to not give the Cracks a bash now I'd seen them - I knew I just needed a 15 minute lull and that would be my opportunity. 

Sean doing battle with the infamous Gargoyle Wall Cracks in some pretty full on conditions.

That opportunity arrived and I was soon fully engaged with the infamous Gargoyle Wall Cracks at last. I knew that I had to make rapid progress up them before the next squall arrived, as climbing the Cracks without goggles would have been impossible. I shot on up immersed by the steepness yet buoyed by the positive crampon edges and secure hooks. I was loving every move and felt super comfortable so didn't waste much time fumbling in gear with the squalls in mind. Each move up the Cracks just flows and every hook and crampon edge was as good as the last. Before I knew it I was pulling over onto the belay platform above, hooting as I lunged over! It was great to get that fleeting feeling of mastery which all climber's chase for what must have been a fleeting 15 minutes, something it seems you sacrifice so much energy, time and commitment chasing. 

For a brief ten seconds blue skies shone down on us; Sean dispatching the final pitch in good style.
Sean followed on up just as the next squall arrived and admitted that he was quite glad that I'd led on through as he didn't reckon he'd have been able to lead it quite so quickly. It was nice to hear this as Sean is definitely the rope gun between the pair of us. Eager to get ourselves off the crag, Sean made quick work of the final chimney crack in more testing conditions, before finishing easily on up the ramp to the plateau.

Well chuffed on top!
In typical Scottish fashion the clouds lifted and winds died to mark our arrival on the plateau, providing us with atmospheric views down Ardgour and out towards Glenfinnan. It felt pretty special to have the entire North Face of Ben Nevis and the plateau to ourselves that day. More so because of the amount of effort put in and doubt overcome in what were pretty full on conditions. It will also be our last Winter trip for a couple years as Mr Porky is off to the Alps on a sabbatical come the end of May.

Brilliant light over The Mamores and Glencoe hills on the descent.

We returned to Sean's van elated to get such a great route done when the Winter was meant to be all but over. We slept easy that night with stinging faces and eyes like slits. 

The next day we felt pretty tired mentally and physically, so settled on a big mountaineering day up Tower Ridge instead of forging another route up Number Three Gully Buttress. This proved to be a good shout as the warm front had arrived earlier than forecast and things weren't properly frozen until around 1200m. Tower Ridge was another route we had both really wanted to get done this Winter in primo conditions. In the end we settled for it under powder but were glad to find some helpful neve across the Eastern Traverse and final slopes out of Tower Gap. It's been a while since I've been along it in Summer so couldn't quite remember all the intricacies of navigating the towers but it went without stress moving together the bulk of the way, despite Sean realising that he'd lost a crampon at one point.... 

Sean on the Eastern Traverse, Tower Ridge; thankful for some half decent neve.

Our day on Gargoyle Wall I think is perfectly summed up in Simon Richardson's new book, 'Chasing the Ephemeral':

"The trick with mountaineering is never give up until you absolutely have to."

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