Wednesday, 1 March 2017

My Five Favourite Hard Rock Routes in Glencoe

Me on "The Screen" 1976.  No runners just head down with "The Terrors" until the rope stops
Plenty of time on my hands at the moment and it's so dry, so I got to thinking about rock routes that inspired me or made an impact on my climbing be it good or bad.  There are quite a lot to sift through and many of the most enjoyable routes have been notable not just by epics or grades but by the people I have shared them with.  I also confess that I have always loved climbing in the Lakes and the Peak.  I have done a lot also in North Wales but as someone from a gaelic culture always struggled with the attitude of some of the locals as it was so out of keeping with what I was used to.  An example being deliberately speaking to friends in a language they new they couldn't understand.  I have never come across that here even in tight knit Island communities where hospitality and courtesy is seen as normal. I have to say that I liked Cloggy though but always shat it at Gogarth above the sea!

There just isn't space here to cover every route that made an impact so I will stick with the ones I literally grew up on before expanding my ambitions a bit more to the Ben, Shelterstone and further affield. Some routes especially when I was a young man, were notable because of the psychological barriers they presented.  That was often because myth and and an aura impregnability surrounded them or in one case because I had been on two fatal rescues on the route when leaders had fallen, and yet it was a classic I wanted to tick (Big Top "E" Buttress).  It took me 10 years after the last rescue there to have the courage to climb it.  An absolutely stunning big mountain rock climb in outstanding situations and technically not too hard at all.  I even managed the pitch that had claimed leaders in a heavy drizzle. The sense of elation at finally laying that itch to rest was pretty heady.  Trapeze, Big Top and Hee Haw as a triple in a late afternoon sunset gives the very best of Glencoe rock.

The harder rock routes of Glencoe for me all had an aura and were shrouded in legend.  The name Smith, Marshall, Cunningham and Whillans were all in there, as was Haston (although Turnspit and Kneepad hardly do him credit) and also home grown hero's such as Thomson and Hardy (Kingpin). My top five to bag in the graded lists were:
  • Big Ride
  • Gallows
  • Carnivore
  • Yo Yo
  • Shibboleth
There are others that are also memorable. Bloody Crack or Ravens in summer (a hard little number!) Marshalls Wall or Valkyrie, or maybe Lechers/Superstition which is a fantastic combo. These five above though had the biggest aura so I will work through them although not by chronological order.  I have worked from Glen Etive to down Glencoe as per guidebook. Kingpin came when I was much older and wiser and less overawed by who had done what, and is one of the best routes in Scotland.  That came 15 years later!

The Big Ride. Haston fell off the big ride many times before giving up and producing an inferior line with a tensioned rope traverse.  He finaly went back and straightened it out to give "The Big Ride" aptly named for the scalps it claimed pre sticky rubber.  Alan Fyffe took on a bet that he would shave off half his beard if he fell off it when doing what may have been the second ascent. Sure enough he peeled off the crux going for a big 100ft slide and removing a lot of skin and had to comply with the bet. Alan was and remains one of Scotland best mountaineers.  Still graded at E3 6a this route still requires some bottle.  I did it on the 5th May 1983 with Wall Thomson and Mary Anne his daughter with me leading all the pitches so Wall could look after Mary Anne who was just 15 and also take pictures.  I still remember the knack of reading the slab for tiny indents and gently rubbing off any loose grains as the crack of a granite grain under your rock shoe would have you off.  The crux is at about 100ft out with no gear up a thin flange where the slab steepens by a few degrees and if you are very careful you can get a micro nut behind it before committing to the last 50 ft.  So 150ft one runner and a 6a move takes you to the belay.  A mental game!
At the pier Glen Etive sometime in the 70's I had long hair!
Gallows. I had been climbing with "Wall" on the Buachaille and we were wandering about doing various routes as you can there.  I think we had come up from Central Buttress doing a route over there that might have been "Iron Cross" which I don't know is recorded but it was Squirrel club little test piece, then we did Engineers Crack and a route thats called "The Widow" I think.  We then went accross and did Brevity, and a couple of other HVS routes when John Anderson walked across and suggested I should cut my teeth on Gallows.  I hadn't really thought of it -  but why not!  Although quite short the first few crux moves are about 5c and take you out on a rising traverse for about 50ft before the first bit of gear.  So Gallows is a test of bottle and thankfully as well warmed up, and with an audience of Creag Dubh who had come to gloat should I fall I managed to piss up it and make a bit of a  name for myself.  This was in 1982 so forgive me for being chuffed as I daresay its regarded as easy these days.  We did a route on the middle of the top tier after, up a thin crack line well right of the corner and it was harder!

Carnivore.  I was beaten to this by Fiona my wife.  We climbed very many routes together and she was a pretty able climber.  Sadly removal of the lymph glands on one side from breast cancer has scupperd that now!  We lived in Duror when first married and I worked as a woodcutter.  To say I was fit and strong would be an understatement.  George Reid my regular climbing partner phoned me up to see if I would take the afternoon off and go climb "The Villains Finish" with him.  I was away up the wood out of contact so Fiona offered to hold the rope.  The back rope on the first traverese pitch jammed so they climbed the entire route on a single 9mm which is pretty necky.  The Villains finish had a fairly big reputation for being brutal so good effort.  To say I was pissed off would be an understatement.  The monsoons came and winter and I had to wait until the following year to work off my frustration.  I was in a hurry to get it done and I press ganged a young instructor at the Glencoe outdoor centre to be my rope man.  So mid March in a snowstorm I stormed the first pitch. Linked the second two in a one'r and prepared for the overhanging crack that gives the direct finish.  Good rock, but hanging out over big space it's an  up out and right move with a stiff 5c pull onto the wall above where its a  gearless runout to the top at a steady 5a. All in a blizzard.  Kev Howett and Dave Cuthbertson were on the crag that day dropping a rope and cleaning what is now a tunnel wall bolt classic.  Kev snapped a photo of me which I have always wanted to see.  I knew Don Whillans quite well as I played darts against him and Joe Brown at the Padarn on trips to Wales, and he was well known by Hamish.  I never climbed with Don but I did climb with Joe who was a fairly regular visitor to Glencoe at that time.
Carnivore first pitch
Yo Yo.  As I worked as a woodcutter accidents were sadly common.  The first 12 years of being married I worked the wood.  Fiona eventually persuaded me to use my brain and I left then went and studied pharmacology, human physiology and went on to become the first person in Scottish MR to be a paramedic who was also registered by the state. This was before the NHS even got organised.  One of my early courses was Scotlands first ATLS course at the Victoria in Glasgow in 1992.  Anyway I digress - working in the wood was dangerous and two folk had been killed near me the year I did Yo Yo and I also slipped and chainsawed my achillies.  Lots of stitches in the Belford by Dr Sen and a few weeks recovery and I was gagging to get a route in.  Loads of holes from the stitches just out didn't deter me from persuading Duncan the lad I did Carnivore with to come and do Yo Yo. So on a hot July afternoon we made our way up the scramble to the bottom.  That whole N. Face intimidates me having been rescued off it at 16 and taken a fall late at night in winter on it and getting pretty badly ripped up.  So there was an edge to just getting to Yo Yo.  I though my foot would trouble me but it was fine.  The first pitch is supposed to be hard and wet but it was  just a bit necky and damp and easy.  I found the middle pitch hard and thrutchy. The last pitch was in late afternoon sun  and the climbing was superb.  Steady and interesting with a huge atmosphere it finished all too soon on "unpleasant terrace".  Getting off the terrace is interesting so worth keeping on the rope.  What a great route.  Quite thuggy but nothing too bad and what a place.  Ed's route the Clearances next door is also one of Glencoe's best but a tad harder and a bit more serious.  Not one to do with a buggered achillies heel!

Shibboleth. Of these routes this one was a bigger breakthrough than all the others combined. This route was Robin Smiths finest in Glencoe and while maybe not technically the hardest route of it's time, it was the neckiest.  I know the routes history fairly well as I new folk that had had climbed with Smith. He made several attempts at it, one resulting in a broken leg for Al Frazer and a huge impromptu rescue operation from the combined forces of Squirrels and Creag Dubh.  Al Frazer had broken his leg badly and was pulled up onto N. Buttress, along above Ravens and out onto the Buachaille summit ridge and then literally carried down to the bottom.  Smith soloed off the route to the side to go summon help. Bold and necky. The rescue itself a huge physical task.  Al Frazer later worked in Raigmore with a climbing friend of mine Bill Amos.

My early interest in the route came from the infamous graded list in the red colored guidebook I had covering Buachaille Etive Mor and Glen Etive. This guide listed Agags Groove as suitable route of decent from Rannoch Wall (Ian Nicholson is the only person I know who used it as this).  With various friends and later Fiona I had been working my way up the graded list and only Shibboleth was left. Many routes at the bottom deserved a place at the top.  I had looked across at the route from various angles doing routes on either side and watched another party from the SMC (Graham MacDonald) on it while I was doing Bludgers/Revelation with George Reid. I even had John MacLean (The Great White Hope was Johns nickname after Smith got chopped) regaling me with the tale of the 2nd ascent he did when he was "looking for that fucker Wheechs peg" while rolling a fag while I was on the crux of "Pete's Wall" at Huntly's Cave. "Wheech" being Smiths nickname.
Gearing up for Shibboleth with George aka "The Mole"
1982 was a washout summer and despite getting a lot of routes done in the Lakes, Derbyshire etc it was very much a poor Scottish rock season until in late August the weather finally cleared and we had a few dry days and sun.  So one Saturday in early September, George  and I  arrived at the foot of Ravens and looked up the black groove of the 5c second pitch. The SMC party who  had been on the route while we were doing Bludgers were back doing the Bludgers/Revelation combo themselves which was a co incidence.  Fiona came up to take a few pictures but had to leave as she was later guiding a group up Gear Aonach as she was the senior instructor at an outdoor centre.

I can still remember stepping onto the first pitch, up past a block with no gear until just before the winking black groove.  I was pretty nervous.  The black groove was wet necky and hard with a cold welded nut hammered into the crack.  The 3rd pitch up to below Revelation flake is a joy but with a sting in the tail pulling onto the belay ledge. The best pitch is up the wall to the right of Revelation flake.  A long pitch of steady successive 5b moves on little rough holds on a plumb vertical wall, then a pull over a small overhang then up the wall to the belay.  With one runner!  All with the gaping maw of Great Gully below, and Ravens winking from the shadows. Absorbing climbing.  The final two 45m pitches to N. Buttress are great 5a climbing up steep walls, or go back as we all do one day and do the route again but traverse right across the cave and do "The True Finish" which Smith added later. The Hard Rock book version is the 5a finishing pitches which really are great.  The cave is just truly spectacular! On finishing we went across and did Yamay, Yam, Happy Valley and May crack in the company of the now sadly late Tam Macaully and Dave "Paraffin" who were well impressed we had done Shibboleth, especially as the crux groove was so wet.

We went to "The Ferry Bar" later that night  (under the bridge at Ballachulish) which was "the" climbers pub at that time.   Ian Nicholson and several others shook our hands saying well done lads, and for the next week we had folk saying I hear you guys did Shib well done! I don't think many routes had that reputation credibilty and aura in Glencoe.  It was nice for once to feel the equal of the legends. I can't think off many mountain routes since that were such a turning point in confidence.  Winter perhaps doing the point in the early 1970's was still something, even though Ian had soloed it in an hour.  Rock climbing probably doing Cenotaph Corner in a pair of big boots might come close!

Ronnie Rodgers on the slabs with the sticky boots of the day! Ronnie and I were probably the only two local boys of the time to take up climbing.  Ronnie did Centurion with Jimmy Marshal and his first route on the slabs was a solo of Spartan slab with Ian Nicholson who said it was just an easy intro to the slabs.

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