Monday, 11 January 2010

The Return

A return to the Aonach Eagach ridge

Sit down and make yourself comfortable, I want to tell you a tale.

In 1871, in the town of Whitburn near Sunderland, Lewis Carrol sat down, took up his pen and ink and wrote a poem. Combining old-english sounding nonsense words with ancient mythology he weaved a web of adventure most bizarre, and called it Jabberwocky.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Fast-forward 83 years to May of 1954, and we find a group of pioneering climbers exploring the cliffs of Gearr Aonach, high above The Lost Valley in Glen Coe. Over three days they climb three new routes and, evidently inspired by Carrol's wordplay, call them The Wabe, Mome Rath Route and Outgrabe Route. Before long the cliff they are on becomes known as the Mome Rath Face, and as the years pass more adventurous souls play out their own journeys across it and continue with the poem theme, with routes like Jabberwock, Slithy, Brillig and Gyre. Initial exploration was limited to the summer, climbing the sunny mountain rhyolite, but then on the 16th of February in the cold winter of 1969 two teams opened the crag as a winter venue. On one rope, Hamish MacInnes, Ian Clough and J. Hardie, on the other Allen Fyffe and J. McArtney. Freeze thaw cycles had sent fat cascades of ice dribbling down the lines of The Wabe and Mome Rath Route and the teams climbed these respectively, creating two of the all-time classic ice lines in the Glen. From then on the Mome Rath Face has been a venue for all seasons, often with the winter routes following the older summer lines.

These days it's rare that the crag comes into the winter condition of days gone by. Its south-easterly aspect catches any sun going and its relatively low altitude (650m) conspire to melt any snow and ice before it become signigicant. However, in the midst of 'The Big Freeze' that we're currently enjoying, Blair and I decided to go and see how things were shaping up. Tools were sharpened and screws wre packed in expectation of plump cascades and icy tendrils. Leaving the car the night-dark of Glen Coe slowly gave way to the first shapes of dawn in The Lost Valley and as the sun made it's way into the morning sky we spied the crag for the first time. Alas and alack! The ice we were hoping for was no-where to be seen! Obviously it takes some incredible conditions for these routes to form - there wasn't even a hint of ice climbing potential.

Not to be put off, we kept on to the foot of the crag to see what we could find and there was definately some mixed climbing to be had. In the end we decided on the summer Severe called Slithy, taking a system of grooves, cracks and shallow chimneys on snowy rock and perfectly frozen turf. A first winter ascent, we assumed, and fitting that the next generation of the Fyffe family is pioneering winter routes on the same crag as his Dad. We followed the summer line throughout, climbing four pitches with a pokey crux first pitch followed by some fairly sustained turf bashing on the second. The last two pitches were easier but still good climbing on an obvious line and Blair reckoned on a grade of about VI 7, and with his experience, who am I to argue?

Blair starts pitch 1 of Slithy

Blair following pitch 2

After being denied ice on the Thursday we decided to hunt for it again on Friday, reaching the foot of Blue Ribband on the South flank of the Aonach Eagach just as the sun was rising behind Buachaille Etive Beag and the moon was sinking behind Bidean Nam Bian. Three superb pitches of steep ice and lots of soloing later we found our selves on the pinnacles section of the ridge in the bright early afternoon sun. The last time I was on the ridge I was involved in a rescue after a chap took a big fall from the pinnacles, so it was with some trepidation that I followed along begind Blair. Before long though, we were on the way back down to the car with my demons exorcised.

The moon sinking behind Bidean

Blair starting Blue Ribband

Recently I've been feeling less and less inspired by winter climbing: the thought of going to the same old crags in the same old crappy conditions; racing the hordes of muppets and maniacs that seem to come out at winter; grovelling in powder. Compared to rock climbing it seems so graceless and, dare-I-say-it, pointlessly miserable. However, the last few days of geat weather and this long cold spell have reminded me why I used to love it. Exploration, the bluest sky above the whitest snow, getting away from other climbers to new places and quiet back-waters, and the views, views that no words could do justice to. So, while this good weather stays, I'm back in the game.

Me starting pitch 2.

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