Yesterday I picked up H at 5.30am for a drive west to Beinn a Dothaidh. This is a superb venue, with steep, turfy routes, just the sort of stuff I love! I'd been worried that we might not get anything done at all though. The east coast has seen a phenomenal amount of snow over the past week and the radar had shown that the west coast was receiving a dump on the Friday evening. But I was thinking that the Bridge of Orchy area looked like the cut off line for the more heavy snow showers so might be okay. And I was correct, it was superb!
We got there eventually though and our chosen route, Stairway to Heaven was free of other climbers. I'd chosen this route as it looked nice on the topo and had no technical grade and seemed straight forward enough. Well, it should have been straight forward! We had a bit of a rope issue though! I'd deliberated over taking 1 rope or 2 ropes but in the end just went for one rope, as my 2nd half rope is only 45m and I couldn't be bothered with short pitches. Bad mistake!
The first pitch started at the foot of a triangular shaped buttress and there was a steep start to begin with. I'd shoved in a hex for the belay, then some gear at the steep step, then more gear above the steep step which was off to the left. Already I was feeling a bit of drag in the rope. Moved up again for a while then got in some more gear way out to the left before moving up and right. The drag was getting worse! Ended up at another steep section which felt overhanging, it was bulging out so much! There was an excellent block out to the right that I was able to hook my axe around but I just couldn't reach the good turf over the top of the bulge. I kept popping up for it, but the bulge would just through me down again, it was getting annoying!
2 guys had shown up at the bottom of the route and I shouted down that they shouldn't wait as I'd be there for some time. I decided to try and turn the bulgy bit on the right, which involved a sketchy traverse, then a section where I crawled along a ledge and dropped down a step, then moved up and over the steep bit. That was funky! Unfortunately, I'd placed a sling around that original block and then the rope seemed to snag on blobs of turf and no matter how I tried I just couldn't free it! I was in a pickle now! I couldn't budge an inch and couldn't seem to free the rope, and there was no way I was downclimbing what I'd just done!
It was a nightmare! I was thankfully in a good position and was able to heave on the rope with all my might with both hands, so much so that I was almost pulling myself off the route at times! Slowy, inch by inch I managed to pull up a few metres so I could make some more moves. Then I had to repeat the process again, then again, then again until I could find a suitable belay. The gear had been amazing below but was becoming sparser! I had around 5m of rope left before I got a suitable belay. I wanted a stonking one as I thought H might find the pitch difficult. The belay wasn't perfect, but was adequate. H had to climb the start of the pitch with some slack in the rope until the rope had freed some and I could pull it in. She managed the pitch really well, finding it easy which was great and I was really impressed! Thus ended the faff of the 1st pitch.
2nd pitch faff. H reckoned she could lead the 2nd pitch which looked a lot easier than the 1st, up another short step, then what looked like a snowy ramp above to antother steepening. Off she went, until I could see her going up a snowy steepening over to all the steep rocks on the left hand side of the buttress. 'Um, H,' I shouted, 'I think you need to be more right, away from all the steep bits. But she had thought she could go right up to the steep bits and then traverse rightwards at the top. It didn't look probable to me, but I should have trusted her more, after all she was the one up there and was able to see things more than I could down at the belay! I shouted up that she really had to go rightwards lower down, but she didn't like the look of that, so came back down and said I should try it.
After sorting the rope and gear, I set off over the wee step and onto a flat snowy section. It looked like you go up the snowy bit, then cut round to right. I could see why H had thought it looked scary as there was a big drop below and no gear. But the snow was soft enough to kick into and firm enough that it wasn't all falling away which made the traverse across nice and easy. Then it was just a case of heading up a snowy ramp to a belay. Again the belay wasn't the best, but adequate and I brought H up. We had another rope moment, with the rope getting snagged somewhere. H couldn't free it, even when she went back. I think it had dropped down a gully as she'd come up the flat bit and snagged down there. Anyway, to solve the problem, H clipped herself into some gear I'd place en route, untied, pulled the rope through, then tied back in. Of course, communication was hard as she was too far away and I was clueless as to what was going on, wondering why she was taking so long on what was really easy ground. I think both of us were getting fed up of shouting, so I just waited to see what was going on. Eventually the rope ran fast again and she was across, explaining what had happened.
We decided that I should lead the last pitch as the guide had said there was a crux on the second steepening. But it was a doddle! I think the first pitch was harder than that! There was one steep section, where you had to make another traverse again and that was it. But I think I'd just gotten used to all the traversing about by now and the little steepenings that it seemed really easy. And H found it easy too, surprised that it hadn't been harder as she could have led it fine. Time was getting on though and the light was fading, due to all the rope snagging faff. After bringing H up the last bit, there was just an easy scramble to the top, so we just packed away the rope and soloed up the 20m or so. The fog was thick and H thought there was a big cornice at the top. I explained how the mist and fading light was making it look deceptive and there wasn't really a cornice there at all, remembering the time Andy and I took RB up Central Gully in Sneachda only to be faced with a humungous cornice in the mist, wind and spindrift which turned out to be not so big and you could go around it!
We shoved stuff in our bag, deliberated whether we should descend West gully, decided against it as it was getting dark and set off for the path down. The mist had cleared and it seemed to get loads lighter which made things easier and we found the path no problem, not needing the map. From previous visits I remembered a steeping at the top of the descent then straight forward after that. By the time we'd gotten about half way down the the ridgey bit you descend down, the dark had well and trully set it. Looking up to the cliffs, we could see some headtorches still on the West Buttress. A couple of guys had passed us as we stopped on the approach up to the cliffs, to have something to eat. One guy said hello and the other guy blanked us completely. Who knows whether he was nervous of the day ahead, and keeping himself to himself, or just plain ignorant! Anyway, we reckoned it was them up there and there was slow movement and I think they were on one of the V's, so we assumed they knew what they were doing and carried on down.
It had gotten misty again and we got to a section where there seemed to be a bit of a drop and we were hesitant to fumble on in the dark and mist again. Out came the map and H had her GPS to confirm where we were. It seemed we could go due West to avoid the steepening, but then we'd have to traverse right round again. The couple of bloked who'd been waiting for us on the route, and had then decided to go do Taxus instead, over took us on the descent, hesitated at the steep bit but then carried on down. I admit to being a bit sheepish here and following them. But we could see there headtorches down there and it seemed that the ground wasn't as steep as it looked, just the dark and mist making it deceptive again.
The going was quite slippery though, soft, fluffy powdery snow over frozen rock and I'm not sure which of all of us fell onto our backsides more! At one point when I slipped, my foot got snagged on something and my whole body fell downwards, but my leg stayed behind. Aaaarg! &*^%%^& that was sore! I'd pulled a muscle at the top of my leg, lay on the ground groaning for a moment, then picked myself up. It twinged and ached for quite a while, but I could walk on it just fine and by the time we'd gotten back down to the car it had loosened off again. Then began the drive home.
Ace day though and at least we managed to finish our route this time, in spite of all the rope snagging/drag problems.