Out of the blue I managed to find a climbing partner for this weekend. When taking RB to the wall, I had sometimes climbed with a lass from the wall and she just happened to mention a previous trip to the Alps and I asked curiously whether she did any Scottish winter stuff, only to be met with much enthusiasm. Brilliant! I wanted to do something easy seen as it was our first time out together and was deliberating between Dothaidh, Glen Coe and Ben Lui. The day I'd went up Central Gully on Lui, I thought it a bit dull and thought the rib next door looked far nicer, so I decided we could give that a go.
I picked H up at 5.30am and we left the carpark at 8am. The walk in was fine, really pretty with the mist swirling all around, so pretty that I went to take a photo only to realise that the camera batteries were flat. Gutted! So no pics today, and there could have been some corkers too!
The walk up into the gully is a slog, my arthritis is protesting more and more about these steep walks. Helena offered to take some weight, but I'm far, far too proud and stubborn for that. When the day comes that I'm unable to carry my own share, is the day that I should give up. And the sack wasn't too bad as it was a very small rack of just some nuts and slings, and just the one rope.
We got to the bottom of South Rib eventually and I started off up a snowy ramp. I'd climbed up just over 30m and there was no gear whatsover. I'd not thought about the rock here being schist at all, so it was very compact, no cracks for nuts and I hadn't brought any pegs, thinking I wouldn't need anything like that with it only being a grade II. I came to a steep section of turfy ledges up a steep wall. It was probably only around 10-12m high, but the turf I'd come across so far wasn't frozen at all and the snow completely unconsolidated. There's no way I wanted to try and go up that steep wall without the turf being frozen enough, as it was just off vertical, and didn't even seem like gradeII territory, and there was no gear to speak of!
So I climbed back down to H, we shortened the rope and moved higher up the left side of the rib to tackle it a little higher up. That was much more friendly and seemed much more like grade II ground! And it seemed more frozen too. The going was still slow though, I was having to sweep away lots of snow for nearly every axe placement and I was constantly on the look out for gear. A bank of cloud and wind was passing through and I wondered how much rope I had left but I couldn't hear any reply from H when I shouted down.
I came across a ledge that actually had a rocky bit with a crack so decided I'd stop there to belay. Got in one good nut, and one pretty crappy one, but it was better than nought. I'd only run out around 40m, which was a bit annoying as time must have been ticking on, having wasted time climbing up and down that first bit earlier. H didn't want to lead as she wasn't sure where the route went. I remember feeling the same when I first started leading in winter, that unless I could see ahead of me where the route went, then I didn't feel confident enough to do it.
The next 2 pitches were standard grade II, lots of easy grade I bits with the odd step off steeper II. The going was getting slow again though, the snow was getting deeper and I think I placed around 3 bits of gear in the whole 120 metres. All the bits I did find were totally bomber though, so that was reassuring. Eventually got to a steepening which looked fun and I reckoned the angle would ease after that and it would be another easy ropes length to the summit. How wrong I was! Tackled the steepening by going rightwards, then cutting back left and then came to a flat and level section barred by a high overhang. Hmmmmm. I was wary of the snow on the flat section, it looked so flat and uniform that it seemed a bit weird and there was a big hole in the middle of it, that I carefully avoided! I peered over the right edge. If I could scrabble down a little, then there was a system of vertical ledges round on the right of the overhang. They were above a massive drop and there was no gear whatsover to protect me. I toyed with trying it, but I'd run out alot of rope with no gear and was faced with a huge fall into space if I came off.
I decided against that option and went over to the left side of the overhang and peered down. I could see that if you climbed down a snowy ramp, then you could access another less steep wall to the left of the overhang. I thought about that for a while then turned back to look at the overhang instead, maybe I was thinking it was harder than it looked. On the left side was a smooth and blank looking vertical wall. On the right was a series of overhangs. There were cracks here and it did look do-able to me by someone that can climb overhanging rock with axes. Now I've climbed plenty bulges and a couple of roofyesque type moves on grade IV ground, but this looked harder than anything I'd ever done before. There was no way I could contemplate that, I'd never even seconded anything that looked like that before!
I thought I would bring H up and explain the situation to her. So I dug around in the snow and managed to unearth a small block to belay from. As I was working, I was planning a way out of our situation. I'm not used to being the more experienced one but it felt good and I felt in total control. I was thinking about trying the option of going left, but the light was starting to turn that way when you just know it's going to start getting dark any minute. I toyed with the idea all the same. I've been caught out by the dark on several occasions and it doesn't bother me, but I've always been finishing the route at the time and can see the actual top, or it's just been walking off in the dark. The cloud had parted briefly beforehand and I could see that the summit was still some way away, around 100m. My main concern was that we were on the wrong route. I couldn't understand it though! There was only that one rib that came down into the corrie on the left hand side so it couldn't be wrong, could it? I was scared of climbing up and being faced with another overhanging section like that, or climbing msyelf into a spot where I couldn't make anymore upward process and where there would be no gear to speak of to make an abseil. Hmmmmm. It was decision time!
If we downclimbed the snowy ramp, then a series of ramps would take us leftwards off the cliff and down into South Gully which didn't look too bad. There had been lots of evidence of the snow sloughing off previously, I'd seen bits and bobs of wind slab around, not much to be too worried about, but the snow was pretty deep and unstable in places. I took note that there had been lots of graupel around, but wasn't too worried about that as it was only on the top layer of snow and not underneath, but it was handy to note it was in the area for the future snow pack.
Once H was up, I explained the situation to her, was tempted to joke that she could lead the next pitch and point her towards the overhang, but decided against it as time was getting on. The going looked easy going down the snowy ramps and H is confident on that sort of ground, having done a lot of ski mountaineering in the Alps, so we just headed down ropeless, which was safer anyway as there was no gear! The light was fading fast and it was getting difficult to judge how steep the ground was below us. We got to a point where it seemed that the ground seemed to drop away lower down and I was wary about going further. It looked more inviting to head into the gully. Still, because of the snow, I was a litte wary, but that seemed the best option in the end.
There was a small wall beside the gully which had a perfect crack in it (where were they on the route itself!)
It was hard to see what the gully was going to be like, whether there would be any steps in it at all. H wanted me to go first so I could find some gear lower down if need be. I told her she wouldn't be very well protected coming down though, but if that it was hard then I would come back up and protect her from above. Luckily it was a doddle. It was barely even grade I and H had been more than happy coming down the steeper ramp above with a rope. So I told her to just untie and slide the rope down and I'd pack it away. We went down seperately though, to keep an eye on each other and before long the angle eased again. We both fell into holes quite a few times and it was so tempting to start bum sliding down the rest of the way. But it was getting pretty dark by this point and I had bad memories of smashing against a big rock when bum sliding in the dark one winter previously.
Once we were out of harms way, we stopped to sort our sacks and I gave D a phone as I knew he'd be worrying as I hadn't texted him at all and it was around 5ish. Getting down to the landrover track was a slog. The path was all verglassed and we had to go on the grassy bits beside the path. We came across footprints going down and then saw a headtorch in the distance, seems we weren't alone on the hill after all. The walk back to the car seemed to take forever and a day and my ankle was starting to seize up a little. I'd always scoffed at people taking bikes into Ben Lui as it never seemed that far to me when I'd been up there before. But last time I was up, we'd walked over the next 2munros along and came down off the hill that way. But the slog along the road took ages and the carpark never seemed to be coming!
We got there eventually though, it was 7.40pm, nearly 12hrs out on the hill for an unfinished grade II, brilliant!