Friday, 31 October 2014

On Great Gully Buttress

WHERE do all these people come from?” said Len. You would think nobody did any work.” “Including us?” I asked, since the day was Tuesday, in the middle of the June heat wave, and here were we, speeding north to Buachaille Etive Mor for the second time in four days. His remarks were evoked by the sight of so many sun-worshippers by every burn and bay from Loch Lomond side to Rannoch Moor.

Len had managed to snatch an additional day because he had been working over the May holiday, and the marvellous warmth and clarity of the previous Saturday had whetted his appetites After the wettest May in meteorological history, we had almost given up hope of dry rocks. Then had come our good luck, to be on Buachaille  Etive on the first real day of summer.

This looked as if it was going to be a repeat, and car windows down, we were enjoying the fresh scents wafted into us from bluebells, May blossom, rowan and gorse, all at their brilliant best together, in a world of shimmering birches, oaks and beeches. “ I’ve never seen anything better than this !” exclaimed Len. He was almost running out of exclamations by the time we reached Ben Lui, rising  above us with a, thousand feet of unbroken, snow in its corrie.

Then to Loch Tulla, floating snowy reflections from the Black Mount peaks ; and when we stopped to pay homage we could hear the vibrant “reeling” of dunlin, and,surprisingly, the “ tuleep ” of ringed plovers, the first time I have known them here.

Buachaille Etive Mor, its rocks shiny pink in the morning light,looked invitingly clean as we slung our packs and started towards Great Gully. The good weather and dryness ofthe past four days had filled Len with ambition. After our climbs on the Saturday he had talked longingly of Guerdon Grooves, a very exposed and delicate climb, so sustained at one point that the leader needs 150 feet of rope to reach a stance.

He had asked me to bring my long Perlon rope. I kept my apprehensions to myself as we scrambled up the rocks below our route, remembering that some of the best men known to me have retreated from this climb, indeed have had to “ rope-off ” it when failing to find a way. Len had done it once, and I did not know whether to be sorry or glad when, after scrutinising the buttress rising smoothly and without break for over 500 feet, he pronounced it “hopeless.” I could see why.

 The rocks were stained with gleaming patches of wet, on a route which has to be absolutely dry before there is any hope of ascent Let’s do ‘Ledgeway’ on Great Gully Buttress,” Len suggested.You take the first pitch, I’ll lead the crux.” Rock climbing has been rightly called “ a baleful sport”. I always find it so, especially when the first steps of a pitch are hard and unrelenting and I have to fight an inner voice of fear. Yet I never climb well without this ” inner voice.” It is rather like the moment of getting up to give an after-dinner speech. You may feel a sense of inadequacy for the task, but if you have given thought and preparation to the subject, then you will forget yourself as you begin to talk.

On the rocks, the mind takes over from the nerves, as the whole of your experience and training goes into the control and balance of the body,with an effect of exhilaration on your whole being. This pitch docs not let up for forty feet, and when he joined me for his lead, I was glad to hear Len say he found it hard. Marvellous rock. The best in Glen Coe,” he said as he traversed rightward from me. He could have added that it is also some of the steepest rock, and I saw the route was none too easy to find as he explored right and left before committing himself to a line that lefty the rope hanging clear in space behind him.

Then he vanished from sight, behind a bulge,and in a short while I heard his “ Come on!’. The crux was where he had disappeared, a daunting place with an overhang pushing you out with its beak. And no holds for a pull up until you make a delicate move up the smooth right wall and then you can swing boldly onto the nose and enjoy the thrill of your body tilting over the long drop below.

The next pitch was mine, right over Len’s head,for a hundred feet of sheer climbing delight,never easy but never too hard. The route had us purring with pleasure and after it we crossed over to Rannoch Wall,to the foot of Grooved Arete, first climbed by John Cunningham and Bill Smith 21 years ago.

It was this amazing pair of climbers who pioneered Guerdon Grooves, setting a standard of achievement hitherto unknown on Scottish rock. Members of the Creagh Ddu club, they are still active and as good as ever * Wherever their names are linked to a route you can expect something technically exciting. This one is particularly elegant.

Len took the edge of the arête which soars up for ninty feet of small holds, where every move depends on fine balance. The crux lies above and this fell to me. The problem is to get around the crest of the arête into the groove beyond. I enjoyed it, but made the mistake of keeping too vertically to the crest above, until I found myself unable to proceed, so I had to climb down again which was very much harder than the crux.

Now we coiled the rope and followed the Crowberry Ridge over the Tower to the summit of the mountain, basking in a sunlit world of peace and silence, strange contrast to the Israeli war which had been dominating our thoughts for a week. Boots off, we gave thanks in silent contemplation of the Lost Valley snows, still filling the cream jug between Bidian nam Bian and Stob Coire nan Lochan.

All too soon we were scrambling down the Curved Ridge, marvelling at the changes which four days of sun had wrought in the hanging garden beneath it, with clusters of buttery globe flowers, sprays of yellow roseroot, starry saxifrages amidst red campion and the white flowers of fleshy scurvy grass.
We felt the world was a pretty good place as we took the winding track along the foot of the crags, stopping now and then to look up at the pink edges of soaring rocks which have given us such intense delight over the years.

* The legendary John Cunningham was killed when coasteering on the Gogarth sea cliffs, North Wales in 1980. He drowned whilst attempting to rescue a student who had fell in the water.His body was never recovered.

Tom Weir: 1967