The Mainreachan Buttress at last jutted out from among the northern spurs of Fuar Tholl, near Achnashellach, like a giant stone tongue rooted in the throat of the corrie. Would it be worth the miles of steep path and orienteering through thick pine forest? Happy Hamish's Bumper Joke Book had turned us on with its talk of the "wonderful" Mainreachan Buttress. 'Wonderful' compared with what? The towering scarps of shattered rock, oozing black peat clumps, and wind-tattered heather that they seem to like climbing in Scotland? We'd been caught before, by Norman Tennent's guide to climbing in the Islands. It uses expressions like "about 300 feet up" and in general lures you helplessly onto colossal dripping faces best left to the buzzards. But Hamish's photos were appertising. As you enter the corrie, you compare the Buttress with the book, trying to pick out the major ramps and chimneys which should be the signposts to the route. But only the main grain of the strata can be identified for sure.
The Buttress is too big, too riddled with features of all kinds — deep black chimneys, massive ribs, little hanging gardens of rain-fed weeds — for it to be decoded yet. All we can make out is a gallery of wet gangways that zig-zag upwards from the right-hand bottom corner where the roots of the Buttress are deeply buried in a million chunks of rock swept down from the mountain.
To save time we carry the ropes up the first hundred feet without uncoiling or tying on. We pad over beds of sopping plants, reluctant to wet our PA soles, not feeling too secure as we move out onto the cliff and our fingers grovel on the water worn slabs beside us, which are coated with primitive rust coloured plant life. As the gangway zigs back rightwards and rears more steeply we look for a belay. Pete will lead the first pitch. I'm always slow to gear my nerves and anyway he's spied plum pitch from the book description and has clearly been working out which series of earlier leads will put him in place to lead the plum. I'm resigned to being outmanoeuvred by youth, flair, and skill.
After two false starts Pete pulls up mossy little wall and disappears. The rope begins to run out almost uncomfortably fast. Fuck!... he must be waltzing up the next stage the gangway. No comments come echoing down. The pitch must be too easy; to me either the ravings of the happy climber...Gemsville!... Lovely stuff!... You'll like this (usually sarcastic) — or the grunt remarks a leader makes to vent his tension.
Twenty-five feet of rope left — fifteen-ten. I give him a call: "Ten feet to go." No reply. I call again. He shouts "OK" but the rope still pays out and starts to drag at the knots in front of my harness. "Pete!"- irritably- Pete ! 'That's me'
He pauses, shouts -irritably 'No belays in this fucking place' and moves upwards more slowly.
I untie myself at top speed telling myself he'd never slip on rock this easy He stops. feeling the impossible rope drag and presently the ropes are taken in and a wordless shout urges me to get moving. I pull up steeply, with the usual feeling of ineptitude on the first exposed and awkward moves of the day. And as usual it goes in passable style and limbs become supple as though cold lubricant were warming up.
I join Pete on his little landing up on the second storey and find him absentmindedly taking in coils of rope while he eyes the next few moves. It's up to me to lead through, and I fancy, maybe too suspiciously, that Pete is working out whether this will definitely put him in line for the more impressive stretches of clean steep rock that wait for us above our heads. I finish the remaining straightforward climbing and find some sharp-edged vertical cracks for nuts to belay on. The only trouble is that the rock on the right or outer side of the cracks is not solidly part of the mother crag, it's a big poised pillar cracked through at its base. The rock parts slightly as I wedge in a Moac. The Buttress is starting to show its rotten teeth. None of the homely solidity of Lakeland rock — sound, gardened and tidied by thousands of climbers. This particular high, damp, north-facing chunk of the Scottish Highlands is so rarely climbed, so often probed and prised-at by long-lasting winter ice- that it is one monumental ruin, ready to fall apart.
The gangway has reached a dead end. The grain of the rock has changed. Above us hang overlaps, slabs, and nearly vertical walls, dozens of them, like scales on a great stone dragon. Lines are not obvious, though three fine routes (Investigator, Sherlock, and our own Snoopy) are supposed to converge and parallel near here like tracks in a goods yard. The book points us at an "obvious black corner". We've learned to dread that word "obvious". There are approximately two hundred black corners, all of them no doubt obvious from one angle or another. All we can do is keep moving upwards — the serrated vertical blades of rock round to our right do not invite an exploratory traverse. Pete, now purged of his ill humour at the messy start to the climb, pulls up into a shallow groove, helped by cracked blocks on either side, and moves deliberately, without bafflement but with much care, up a 30-foot wall immediately above us, pausing often, at his ease on very small footholds, to put in wires (not the smallest) and small hexes. It looks quite technical. As usual I try to memorise the moves, as usual they scramble in my head, and I remind myself it's more fun working it out for yourself anyway. He moves unexpectedly right off the wall onto a series of airy little shoulders, moves back left using features too small to make out from below, pulls over onto a ledge, and then spends so long fixing the belay that I know it must be exposed up there. Clearly the real climbing has begun.
In a minute or two I move up, admiring the lead. It isn't desperate, holds do arrive, small flakes to reach for, sharp-edged cracks for side pulls, but they must have been small and balacey to stay poised on while choosing and putting in the nuts. The system of tensions and balances I'm using often feels improbable, but it's not too hard to climb smoothly on the security of the top rope. I join Pete to find him looking along the crag in a surmising way. As we face the crag, to our left the stance ends in a drop with a blank face above it. Just above us are more off-putting dragon-scales with no hint of helpful cracks or spikes, just evil little greenish slopes ready to throw us back down. To the right is a precarious pile of spurs — fingers and bones of rock jammed into each other like off-cuts in a timber yard. A ledge leads towards this. It would go. But the looseness! Pete says, "This is pure gannet shit," and looks witheringly at the waste of stony rubbish that towers and falls around us, dwarfing us. On a bad day, if it was cold, late, or otherwise an ill-starred time, the feeling might well begin to niggle: "This is no place to be," and then I might get to envying the saner species that frequent the mountains, ravens and hares and goats and peregrines. But today is good. The Buttress is so imposing. The vistas of the Torridon mountains are so tremendously sculpted. The joy of getting stuck in with Pete on yet another hard crag is so keen that nothing can baffle our momentum. I give him back the gear that I took off the previous pitch as I climbed and eat a piece of mint cake. Pete shows his mistrust of the gannet shit by saying, "Try and get to that corner and then have a look" . It's true that we're now following our noses, the line has become very uncertain, and if the broken corner won't go, some very dodgy abseils might have to be embarked on.
I set the inside edge of my right foot on the ledge and ease myself along it, curling my fingers round various spikes and letting go again when they rattle about like old door handles. I could now drop, not throw, a stone three hundred feet straight down on to the scree slopes that wash the right-hand (west) face of the Buttress. Have I led a whole pitch? If so, this must be a stance. My feet are as much on air as on rock, only my left hand is on anything sizeable or solid, and when I put a wire into the only crack available- like a dentist probing a bad mouth- I realise I'm only comforting, not safeguarding myself, because it's another Mainreachan Special. The right-hand jamb of the crack is formed by an undercut block that would. knock off with one swing of a sledgehammer.
I call to Pete, "I can't stop here." Do I mean I want to reverse the last 25 feet? Or that I expect him miraculously to reassure me that this little perch is indeed a stance? He says, "What's it like round the corner?" I lean out from my good left-hand hold and peer round the shattered rib to my right. It is like a badly bombed cathedral, with stubs of flying buttresses far below, cracked walls angling out of sight at my eye-level, broken gutters spilling debris onto us from above and out of sight. Twenty feet below there are little ledges with some grass. But it would take Extreme. maybe impossible, climbing to reach them. The arete above me which runs down to my shattered rib might go but it would be desperate to start. I'd have to pull up on those terrifying loose pinnacles. And who knows what's up there? It's a perfect case of the devil you know. A ragged crack-line leads off on a traverse at our level. It makes sense to at least set out across the 25-foot bay of nearly vertical rock between my corner and its counterpart across the way. I shout to Pete, "I'll try to traverse from here," and set off, wishing I had something real as an anchor instead of that wee wire in shaky rock — if I fall, Pete will hold me, but if the corner collapses it could cut the ropes . . . It is so sheerly necessary to move, in the teeth of whatever risks. that the risks themselves shrink into finite factors. Each one is no less but no more dominating than the things that are going for us. We know that the line has been climbed before. by Boysen and Alcock (but which line. exactly?). 'We have plenty of gear and we know how to use it. Above all, the flow of momentum draws us upwards, magnetized by the grand size and shaping of this scarp that rears into the blue summer sky powered from below by memories of how often we've set off upwards and usually made it.
I still can't believe this looseness. The crack-line is there but the holds it links are mostly loosely-wedged spikes far gone in some long process of parting from the crag and rattling down onto the spoil-heap below. They're also far apart; I have to move by stretching my night foot as far as I can stride, lodging it on a spike that moves a little, gripping another such loose thing in my right hand, and balancing alone the wall. Never before have I entertained for a moment the idea of trusting my weight to stuff like this. There is nothing else to do. The route is here to be followed, the crag to be climbed, and we're marooned in the middle of it. Each precarious move is no more thinkable, no more possible, than the last. Each is thought of and then done. Instability becomes normal, like settling down to live on ground being shaken and broken by an earthquake.
Chris Dale on the first winter ascent of Snoopy: Andy Nisbet©
No point in putting in nuts. If they didn't pop out, it would be be putting stress on loose stones. which would tear out and fall. In these conditions.You can so distribute your weight that no one shaky stone is taking the whole stress (or so you tell yourself). This needs such concentration that I can feel my brain starting to flag. And the fear is eating in, although touch and muscle-power go on functioning smoothly — they've got to. I even manage to pause, crucified on nails of wobbling rock, to spy out the remaining feet of the traverse. I hate this insecurity. The position is so exposed, the holds so unconvincing, that the great space of air behind and below me has begun to seem more real than the rock-face. This is more like hang-gliding than climbing! But six feet above, the rock now looks better. There's a stratum of pocked and bubbly material like a slab of Aero two feet thick. Is it friable or solid? Pulling up more than I like on a loose spike, I lodge the fingers of my right hand on the strange rock and tug at it. Solid as can be. Much less for the fingers to grip than the shaky spikes but secure, secure. I pull up some more, at last get two points of firmness, continue to do the splits sideways along the face but now I'm hanging from this solid stuff above my head, the danger is waning, I make it to the far corner, to a little platform with room for a pair of PA soles, and anchor thankfully on a secure Moac.
I shout "Taking in" and pull rope along the face until I'm ankle deep in it, not daring to drop the slack in case it jams in the crevices below. Sweat runs down my brow from below my helmet and nips my eyes. A shout from Pete: "That's me." I check the belay. "Climb when you're ready." A couple of minutes and his face peers round the shattered rib. He scans the traverse and smiles a weird smile. "Killer, eh?" he says. "All good stuff," I say. He plucks the wire out of the rock, racks it, and steps round onto the face. He doesn't move across it fast, and when he reaches the last section he makes to move downwards a little before seeing it to be an impasse and trending up towards the bubbly stratum. Has this pitch been climbed before? It doesn't match the book too well, but how would you define 700 feet of rock like this in ten lines of clear prose? If not the route, is it a hard variation? or a new line? or have we strayed off Snoopy onto Investigator? (It doesn't match it either.) We say little as Pete joins me on the stance. All thought has to be for the tidy managing of the ropes and the picking of some line up the bulging array of dragon-scales above us. Pete leads a 50-foot pitch that turns out more sustained and technical than its forerunner two pitches ago — bridging with holds for the left foot but the right relying on hope and friction; running out of jugs and juglets and laying away from sharp but small cracks; finding it hard (Hard VS) but sensing that the climb is about to yield its last defences.
When I follow, I feel so tired in my head that I don't mind asking for advice on a few of the moves. In any case the previous 600 feet of climbing have served as a whole week-end's work-out forced into three hours, and my limbs now feel as though they could find a way up anything. The belay is a solid ledge which actually gives us room to stretch a bit and wiggle our bruised toes. Above us are heaps of scree ready to spill off the summit edges like slates off a roof. To the right, prows like gargoyles jut out from a point near the true skyline of the Buttress. Normally the situation would still be awesome, but there's a limit to how many qualms you can feel in a day. I diagonal quickly upwards towards the prows, enjoying the feel of sun-dried sound rock as though it were new-baked bread after a meal of dubious meat. My arms and back are tired — how many pull-ups could I do now? But strength is reflected back into them by the solidity of this last rock, the sunshine we're climbing into out of the corrie's shadow, the goal and the safety and the rest that are waiting for us just above. We virtually bracheate alone and up those final overhangs, hardly bothering about protection, as though we had made it back into the ape world we evolved from, and lie down on the parched moss of the summit. Above us clouds drift past and normality flows in on us like water into thirsty soil.
Thanks to Andy Nisbet for the photographs of Mainreachan and Snoopy.