It’s the easiest thing to stop being a climber, without ever having to take a conscious decision.
Several years ago I became involved in bothy maintenance, had some great weekends, rediscovered the joy of wandering about in the Cairngorms, visiting odd corners I’d never seen, sometimes walking miles and climbing up and down thousands of feet without ever visiting the summit of a hill. Made a lot of new, good friends too.
Not that I’d fallen out with my existing friends, not left the Braes o’ Fife MC that I’d been in for 20 years or so. Nor did I stop climbing. Summer and winter I was still getting the routes in. I even notched up a couple of first ascents, getting my name in the SMC Journal. But over the course of a few years, the gaps between climbs were getting longer and longer. Last year I went along the Aonach Eagach with a mate and was quietly taken aback at how much harder and more exposed it had gotten since the days when I used to do it twice or more in a year. A few weeks ago I took another mate up Curved Ridge on the Buachaille: I had no trouble with the moves, but the head was minced. So was it time to accept that maybe the rope should be relegated to car towing duties?
Cue Colin to the rescue.
I’ve climbed with Colin since he was a teenager learning his way around the crags, watched him develop into a far better climber than I ever was or would be, and enjoyed his patience in continuing to climb with me even after his abilities had far outstripped mine, choosing easier routes to accommodate my limitations, sometimes urging me onto harder routes in an attempt to get me to push my limits – not always successfully. After the kids came along my nerve grew annoyingly inconsistent: sometimes I’d back out of doing anything, other times I’d go for it, doing necky leads that surprised even myself. But I know it was frustrating. One time, after a rush of overconfidence, I agreed to do an HVS on The Ben with Colin: Bullroar. After advising, cajoling and pulling me up the forbiddingly steep first pitch – the technical crux – we did one more short pitch to land at the start of a long Very Severe (4c) traverse across slabs which sloped down to disappear over a massive drop. As soon as I looked across I knew I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to do it. I also knew that Colin’s blood was up on this one. We spent about half an hour, nose to nose on a belay ledge about the size of a shoebox arguing heatedly, vehemently, before Colin gave in to my obdurate refusal to move anywhere but down and we made a long and unhappy abseil which only made the ground on rope stretch. We did Observatory Ridge instead that day – a classic route, but poor consolation for a fired up Colin.
That was years ago, and even Colin had been climbing less often (relatively), so when he announced that this was the year we would do Grey Slab I was in no position to refuse.
Grey Slab is a three-star Hard Severe in Coire Sputan Dearg, 115 metres over four pitches, first climbed by Mitch Higgins, John Innes and Brian Lawrie (then only 16 or 17 but to notch up a goodly tally of new routes in the Cairngorms) in 1963. I’d had it on my ‘to do’ list almost since I started climbing but it had just never happened – even though it had been on Colin’s list for almost as long. The trouble with all the Sputan routes is that they’re just so far away. While, as Tom Patey almost said, you can go to Glen Coe and belay from the car, it takes at least three-and-a-half hours to walk in to Sputan Dearg from the Linn of Dee – and the base of the cliffs is somewhere about the 1100 metre mark, so you’ve climbed the equivalent of a hefty Munro before you even get your rope out.
It’s worth it though. While I had always lacked either the weather or the partner to get round to Grey Slab, I’ve twice done the magical Crystal Ridge, climbed Terminal Buttress and Pinnacle Buttress, and been in there in winter to climb a challengingly poorly built-up Ardath Chimney at second attempt, again with Colin, and finishing after dark in a face-shredding blizzard.
So it was back in again. Colin set the weekend on the basis of an optimistic forecast, then suggested we take the Friday off to make a long weekend of it. Then we saw another forecast suggesting it might rain on Saturday so we ended up leaving Fife on Friday morning, leaving the car at the Linn of Dee and staggering up to Bob Scott’s with implausibly heavy sacks under a blistering sun. After a brief pause to lay out our sleeping bags to stake a place (thought it would turn out we were the only ones in the bothy all weekend) we set off, still laden with all the ropes and ironmongery, for the long, crushingly hot trudge up into Coire Sputan Dearg.
Even with frequent water stops I thought I was going to die – and I knew it was serious when Colin confessed that between the heat, the almost non-existent path and the weight of the sack, he was quite tired.
By the time we got to the foot of the route and geared up it was 3.30 pm, which turned out to be fortunate timing, for, after the first pitch we were at last in the shade, though still, at about 4000ft, comfortable in tee-shirts.
Was I apprehensive?
Well yes. Of course I was, and so was Colin when he saw me trying to tie on, but at least I was determined to do it, and once we got started it was all back to business as usual.
Colin led throughout and there were a few calls of advice on holds, but after an awkward first pitch and a mental bracing as I contemplated the second (flashbacks to the Bullroar traverse in the way the slab sloped off to the side and disappeared), I found the route absorbing and continually interesting. It was seldom strenuous: the crux second pitch requiring delicate footwork and trust in the friction offered by the weathered granite, with just the right number of handholds in the corner and on the right wall. The slab pitch was easier in the guidebook, but not by much on the rock: everything there, but every move requiring thought and sometimes close attention, with some holds only becoming apparent as they came within reach.
At the start of the final pitch I had a few ‘moments’ while belaying Colin, thinking about the step down to traverse into the chimney. It was a classic ‘Hollywood’ ledge – about a foot and a half wide and extending round a corner, but with a distinct couple of steps downward on sloping holds. Easy enough when it came to it though, with the tricky bit in getting myself swung round and established in the chimney, then making the first few moves upward on rock that was still a little gritty underfoot, despite a lot of clearing by Colin. Grassy steps seemed dreadfully insecure until Colin advised me to leave the chimney for the left wall, which had plenty good holds right up to a final steep, blocky clamber to the top and a wander up a grassy gully to top out onto the plateau. Job done.
Pretty sure I wouldn’t have led any of that, but there was no time I wished I wasn’t there (it has happened in the past) and by the time I reached the top I was left with the feeling I might even do it again – after I’d hobbled across to that crystal clear stream I could see and hoovered up a couple litres of water!
It could only be a bothy night. On Friday night we were too tired to celebrate much – it was half past nine before we even got back to the bothy, and after 10 before we ate – but, after a leisurely stroll up the Derry to the Hutchison Hut, where we lay on the grass and watched two tiny helmets crawling up Talisman, we returned to Scottie’s again on Saturday night and did full justice to the medicinal alcohol we’d carried in.
Climbing? Who’s stopped? Not me.
All photos of me were taken, of course, by Colin McGregor, to whom grateful thanks are owed for their use and for leading the climb