In the continued absence of sufficient motivation to write the many gems of Cairngorm wisdom I keep meaning to share, here’s a revived tale from many years ago when I used to occasionally visit parts west of the ‘Gorms – and when I used to tie onto a rope and perform feats of near competence on rock.
It first appeared on the Braes o’ Fife MC website, where it can still be read, but to celebrate its republication here I’ve removed some (but not necessarily all) of the typos.
For the benefit of non-climbers, the Etive Slabs are a large area of granite slabs set at about 40 degrees or so on Beinn Trilleachan. Despite the reputation of the place, some of the routes do boast the odd hold but all the climbs rely to greater or lesser degree on friction climbing and can have long stretches of unprotectable ‘padding’ when the friction of the granite only just outweighs the force of gravity. Falls have the potential to be large and highly abrasive. Add to that the fact that the easiest route is VS and it can be seen why the place has a formidable – but curiously attractive – reputation among climbers of lesser ability (that’s me, folks!). It is, however, a superb location with great views – and the two routes there I was ever capable of doing were among the best I remember.
(Oh, and the three other climbers in this story, despite my calumnies, are actually proper climbers and very able.)
Some climbing trips become elevated by posterity to the status of epics. This, however, was just a debacle.
Four of us – Dave Bryson, Colin McGregor, Chris Horobin and myself – were bound for the Etive Slabs. Rain threatened, but the blood was up and, even though we could see streaks of water on most of the routes, we decided that such fine fellows as ourselves must surely be able to forge our way up something.
Spartan looked pretty wet – a pity, since it’s the easiest route there – but Hammer looked drier and we straggled over to the foot of it and geared up.
A rush of enthusiasm took us up the first pitch, despite having to climb a lay-back with hands wrist-deep in sodden slime. It did look dry further up though… really it did.
Spirits were still high when we foregathered at the stance before the infamous Scoop, which was bone dry and despite its reputation went easily (amazing what modern rubber can do), and before too long had passed Chris and I joined Colin and Dave at the next belay.
Those who have been there know that this belay offers a superbly comfortable stance – for one. Four proved to be a bit of a crowd. Dave was quickly despatched above, while Chris and I were left arranging a semi-hanging belay for ourselves on the open slab beside Colin’s comfortable seat, in what was to be the last rational action of the day.
Weeps were beginning to emerge from the corner, and because of the specific inclination and frictative properties of Etive granite they were regarded as a bad thing and could not be ignored, especially by Dave, who had to step over them with the utmost delicacy. By way of compensation, opportunities for placing protection were blossoming; but just before the crux traverse Dave was to find that there could indeed be too much of a good thing.
By the time he reached the start of the traverse he found he had used all his quickdraws, with half the pitch left to climb.
Leaving a Friend at his highpoint, he down-climbed the corner, stripping most of the gear, and returned to the traverse, all the while bearing with superb élan the helpful comments and suggestions from his companions below.
To be fair to this Greek Chorus, the two on the slab were by now having to regularly shift position to avoid the increasing volume of the weeps, at least one of which was making a serious bid to be redesignated as a stream. The third member of the group, although secure on his stance, was greatly involved in the management of two ropes which often, though not always, were going in opposite directions.
Anyway, our bold leader was concerned about the traverse, not whether the shower below were dying of hypothermia or drowning. His own position was looking worse by the minute.
The holdless traverse now had a sizable and very off-putting weep running right down the centre of it, and it required a step both fairy-like in delicacy and elephantine in stretch to get across to the security of a flake behind which a runner could be wedged. Mr Bryson managed that step.
Now most people would have been happy to have achieved such a feat, but that wasn’t enough for Dave. It was the way the ropes ran, you see. Whether for aesthetic reasons, or just because of rope drag, they just would not do.
What happened next has been called into question by many who have done this traverse – and by even more who have failed – but all three of us who watched from below are agreed on what we saw.
He reversed the traverse.
Once back in the corner he rearranged his protection again and repeated the traverse in the conventional direction, but it was all to no avail. His by now mutinous companions were more impressed by the volume of water than by the feat of rock gymnastics, and forcibly made the point that they were by now saturated with, in equal parts, drizzle, seepage and pessimism.
Even Dave had to give in (It’s hard to keep climbing when your second ties off the ropes.) and once more he did the impossible by reversing the traverse.
Defeated but unbloodied, he soon joined us on what was once more an extremely overcrowded stance.
While he was down-climbing, removing all his carefully placed, replaced and re-replaced protection, Chris and I creaked into action, untying from our own ropes to arrange an abseil. It was at this point that what, even then, could have passed into club legend as an epic, finally crossed the dividing line into debacle.
Mindful of our status as adoptive Fifers, both Chris and I were agreed that only in direst necessity should we part from any of the expensive little bits and bobs which hung from our harnesses, and providentially an old loop of damp, smelling and rather stiff mohair rope was attached (or perhaps had grown from) a rock near our stance.
An experimental tug, careful not to pull too hard, was enough for us to persuade ourselves that it would hold a bus, and it did at least bear our weight as we abbed down to the next ledge.
By the time we were down a quick-thinking Dave had untied from both his ropes and clipped into ours just in time to stop us from retrieving them. We were prepared to overlook that breach of etiquette, but Colin was not.
Now left on his own with two uncoiled 50-metre ropes, he was exceedingly vocal in his protests, and so upset that he proceeded to abseil without attending to either of them.
All went surprisingly well until he started to move.
At that point both ropes did exactly as uncoiled ropes do and started to arrange themselves in the sort of knots only otherwise encountered in the more fevered designs of our Celtic forebears. By the time he was only halfway down to us he had no choice but to sidle across to a wide, sloping heather ledge to regroup.
A bad choice. The presence of the long, straggling heather was too much for the already excited ropes and they immediately began a frenzied mating dance with the lank strands of Calluna (very) Vulgaris.
It is with some regret that I note Colin’s lack of proper appreciation for our helpful advice and rather amusing jokes about spiders, spaghetti and knitting. In addition, he seemed to take it rather less than sportingly when he threw a painstakingly coiled rope to us only to see it miss by a mile and uncoil down bare rock. His temper was frayed even further when the re-coiled rope was flung a second time, only to become intimately entangled in the upper branches of the dead tree we three were now belayed to.
All good things come to an end though, even Colin’s jolly floorshow, and we were just drying the tears from our eyes when Colin abseiled the rest of the way down to our ledge, which was still about 100 feet above the foot of the climb. He stopped just above us and leant back against the tree……which broke.
This should have been a moment of high drama – literally. A hundred feet, after all, is still a long way to bumslide down rough Etive granite. But I fear we were now all far too far gone to treat this development with the gravity it merited.
Tied to a now forlorn bit of stick on a narrow ledge, we fell about in helpless hysterics. All save Colin, who still failed to see the joke.
And of course the final joke was on us. By a fairly minor contortion we could now look across the slabs to see the rather odd spectacle of numerous climbers (who all seemed to have found dry rock to climb on), all in that classic Etive crouch but all craning their necks to see what all the noise was about.
Hammer, it appeared, was the only route too wet to climb.
Debacle? Well of course. But at the end of the day I would cite A.F. Mummery’s thoughts on what makes the true mountaineer:
“The true mountaineer is a wanderer. Equally whether he succeeds or fails, he delights in the fun and jollity of the struggle.”
Or, as a more contemporary philosopher put it: “Cracking day, Grommet.”