Friday, 28 April 2017

Return to the Buachaille

Len and I thought we knew everything that the Buachaille Etive Mòr can produce, but our old friend of innumerable ascents had a surprise in store for us on a bleak cloudy day when the air was full of damp as we donned our boots.We had been trying to arrange this climb for quite a while. Len had been out of action due to leg trouble and it was two years since we had been linked by the rope.

He had been telling me how much he had been missing rock climbing and the zest for living you feel at the end of a hard day.Right now our arrangement did not look quite so attractive as we slung our sacks and set off up the north-east face as we have done on many other ascents.

Len wrote the two-volume SMC Climbers’ Guide to Glencoe, so has a unique knowledge of these crags.As yet we hadn’t discussed what we might climb. We simply kept going until we found steepening chutes of grey-pink stones becoming rock and struck up until we found ourselves in Crowberry Gully.

A sharp exit on its left wall and we were soon at the foot of its retaining ridge which is one of the great classics of Scottish Mountaineering.It was climbed direct for the first time in 1900, four years after its very first ascent by its easiest route.

Normally we scramble up to Abraham’s Ledge without the rope, but we found the introductory cleft so awkwardly slippery that we were glad to rope up for the next 60 ft. pitch where I made full use of the excellent handgrips.My feet were slipping on holds that felt as if they had been soaped and I would have been glad of the friction of old-fashioned tricouni nails.

Len’s rubber soles were doing the same.“I’ve never known these rocks so greasy,” he said. “It must be the result of the summer we didn’t have.”He surprised me however by not taking the line of least resistance but setting off on Greig’s Ledge which has a very awkward and exposed move.

I was not sorry when its slippy surface persuaded him to take the easier and lower detour of the original route, though even it required exceptional care, it was so slimy.Back on the airy crest I took over the lead again hoping for better things on cleaner rock. This section is steep and pleasant as a rule, but not that day.

At the end of my rope I came on a young climber belayed on the only ledge watching his leader trying to make a turning movement round an edge which would take him out of sight of us.He made it just as Len joined me, but there seemed to be something holding him up beyond and all of us on the ledge were getting very cold.

Just as the leader was running out of rope he shouted that he had found a stance.“Come on!” he called to his second—easier said than done for the youngster hadn’t a clue how to tackle the problem. After he had swung off on the rope three times he shouted up that he wasn’t going to make it.

“You’ll have to,” came the not very reassuring answer. “You’ve got to get up.”Len and I had been quietly discussing an alternative route out to the right. He set off on it, while I took the worried climber in hand.

“There are some holds there that you’re not using. Now if you do what I tell you you’ll get up all right. Don’t hurry your movements. Place your feet, keep your balance and try to keep moving.”He nodded and then by way of explanation added, “I’ve never climbed before today.”

He did well, placing his feet as I had suggested, and while he was moving Len had gone right and was above him ready to give a hand if he needed it.

But he got over the bulge which was the crucial bit, and in two more rope-lengths we were all up, passing a third party on the ridge so that we had the delightful crest of the Crowberry Tower to ourselves, even if it was only a point in space with no horizon.

Now we were in great spirits. Even if the ascent had not been “enjoyable ” because of the grease, the concentration required had worked its magic. As we went back down by the Curved Ridge we felt we had had a great day.

Tom Weir : First Published in The Scots Magazine 1980