Left Fork of Crowberry Gully.

It was the end of February and the weather had been superb for weeks (if you wanted to go Winter climbing). Taking advantage of these all too rare conditions we were off to Scotland for a week, but there was a slight problem since one member of the team had decided not to come only half an hour before we left. A visit to the local climbing shop (well known source of climbing partners) and a few frantic telephone calls later we managed to fill the spare place in the car with Andy Cave and set off from Sheffield.

After a brief stop in Barnsley to collect some of Andy’s gear, I made the first navigational error of the holiday and got onto the wrong road over the Pennines. Driving around in various directions for a while and finding the roads blocked with snow, we eventually located the Woodhead road. Our late departure meant that we did not arrive in our intended bivi site until 3:00 am on Saturday morning. I shall not reveal the exact location of this three star pit to avoid overcrowding in future 1. It is enough to say that it contains all facilities including free electric heating and hot water.

Reluctant to quit such a comfortable spot despite the perfect weather we did not stir from our pits until 8:30 in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Onich Hotel before continuing on to Glencoe. We parked under the Buchaille near Jacksonville. It was now 10 o’clock and it was obvious that we were the last to arrive. The hordes of other climbers heading for the mountain could be seen crossing the moor and dotted around the hill. After a quick glance at the guidebook we decided to go for Crowberry Gully and possibly attempt the left fork as this sounded more interesting than the ordinary route.

I was resigned to a wait at the end of a queue. However, Andy Cave was very fit and set off across the moor with the snow parting like the Red Sea in front of him. Plattso and I followed gasping in his slipstream. Such was our speed that by the time we arrived at the foot of the gully, we were second in the queue. Conditions were perfect, the gully was filled with neve and the main pitches were well banked up. Unlike normal Glencoe weather there was not a breath of wind. Out of breath and hardly able to speak we caught up with Andy as he paused for a while to put on crampons. This was accomplished all too quickly and we set off up the gully at the same fast pace. The climbing was easy and we were soon at the foot of the Thin Crack Chimney which was covered in perfect neve and easy.

We reached an situ peg belay below a short pitch leading to the Junction. It was decided to rope up and I balanced on the slope trying to extract gear from my sack whilst not dropping anything. Despite being in this situation many times before, I never seem to have learnt to gear up at the bottom of climbs. Eventually the tangle was sorted out and I lead up to a stance below the Junction where the party in front were already ensconsed. The Junction itself looked easy with the traverse well plastered.

Tying on to the in situ peg I was held a brief conversation with the two climbers already hanging from this rusty old relic. The second on this rope revealed that he had done the route once before 35 years ago. The leader was an American who admitted to 65 years and was just in Scotland for a weeks climbing. As he set off his companion mentioned that he was a retired airline pilot who was able to travel anywhere in the world first class. Turning green with envy I thought of spending wet Sundays in Yosemite instead of Stoney cafe. As I brought the other two up to the stance the jet-setting OAP was already up the icy chimney directly above the stance ignoring the easier traverse line and was soon lost to view.

Leaning out on the belay I could see the chockstone of the left-hand branch looming above. In the Cicerone guide book this is simply described as a hard, but well protected technical problem. However, the definitive SMC guidebook gives a much more inspiring description (read it for yourself). The chockstone crux did indeed look formidable and I was glad that it was not my lead. When Andy and Plattso arrived I handed over the gear and Andy started up the first pitch round a small chockstone. By this time several other teams had arrived below us intent, on the ordinary route and at one stage there were six of us suspended from the in situ peg.

One poor unfortunate who could not quite fit onto the stance felt the full benefit of the spindrift which Andy was dislodging from above. One particularly well directed shower going down his neck as he leant forward. Shouts from above indicated that Andy had gone the wrong way around the first chock and that there was a much easier through route underneath. Since reversing down to the stance was difficult, he decided to continue and after some delay was established in the spacious cave below the crux.

Following up the chock it was easy to see what had caused the delay. After an initial nasty little groove which established me a cheval on top of the chock it was necessary to attain a standing position and traverse across one wall of the gully to get established below a small overhang, above which an easy snow slope lead to a cave. The traverse across the wall involved the possibility of a plummet into the depths behind the chockstone should I come off before the overhang.

Communicating this state of affairs in a worried tone to Plattso below, he decided on the much more sensible course of untying so that I could drop the rope down to him behind the chock. Thus he would neatly avoid this section. The snow on the chock and the wall above was like sugar and I had to hook my axes behind small flakes of rock to gain any purchase. Attaining a standing position on the chock was hard and the following move to gain the gully wall even harder. Carefully scraping away snow with an axe to reveal small holds I began to teeter accross. On a couple of occasions a foothold collapsed, but I was just able to stay in balance and finally managed to get into a much more secure bridging position below the overhang. The snow above this was good and with a big heave on well planted axes I was onto the snowslope and trotting up to the cave.

Having cunningly avoided the nasty traverse, Plattso came quickly up the pitch and we all stood in the cave contemplating the crux above. This looked desperate, initially a narrow cleft lead up below the capstone, where a leftwards traverse to gain a strip of thin ice leading the capstone, to what we hoped was easy ground. The initial cleft was covered in verglas and the leftwards traverse appeared devoid of both holds and ice.

However, a large amount of in situ gear boosted confidence as Andy began climbing. Progress could be made initially by bridging up the walls, until an awkward move lead to a good resting place in a niche. From here back and footing allowed a large hold to be grasped with the right hand. Hanging from this Andy tried to reach the ice out to his left, but his crampons scraping in the verglas were unable to gain a purchase. A long sling hung down from one end of the capstone but being ethical (unlike me) he avoided using this. Eventually deciding that a point of aid was needed Andy hooked the sling with one axe and swung across to get established on the ice leading past the capstone. It was possible to rest here in classical back and footing position before the final strenuous pull around the capstone and an announcement that there was only 30 feet of easy snow to a col.

Soon the rope went tight and it was my turn to start climbing. I had decided that the first section would succumb to rock rather than ice climbing techniques, so had parked my axes in their holsters. Although I was able to climb relatively quickly with the security of a top rope, by the time I arrived in the resting position below the final capstone I had lost all feeling in my hands. I stayed crouched like a gnome contemplating my fate while I rewarmed them. Taking my axes out, I shuffled up and managed to hook the sling under the roof. Swinging across onto the ice I attempted to pull up but my rucksack had become entangled on something behind me (modern sacs with side tensioning straps are definitely not made for thrutching about in icy chimneys) and I could move neither up or down. After requesting a tight rope a few minutes of random thrashings followed which eventually dislodged me and the sac and I pulled gasping round the capstone and climb up to the col.

Glad to escape I waited whilst Plattso began to climb. I had left in a few pieces of gear to assist his progress ( being too gripped to remove them myself). Various gruntings could be heard from below as Plattso thrutched up the slippery slot. Eventually we heard a louder grunt and interpreted this as a request for a tight rope. Unfortunately, Plattso was at the wrong end of the difficult traverse to reach the sling with the rope going horizontally away from him round the chockstone. Predictably the tight rope pulled him off and with a loud shout of “You bastards” and an impressive clatter he swung across under the capstone. This manoeuvre had left him out of reach of the strip of ice underneath the capstone and some hefty winching was necessary to bring him over the top. Eventually a pair of axes waving like tentacles appeared over the overhang, soon followed by the rest of Plattso. Like me, interment in the icy slot below had frozen his hands and he spent some time rolling in agony up on the col with the hot aches, while the circulation returned. No sympathy was forthcoming from the rest of the party who produced cameras to photograph the spectacle.

Our knowledge of the topography of the mountain was such that we thought the climb emerged low down on Curved Ridge ( in fact it comes out at Crowberry Tower) and that the summit was still miles away. So we were pleasantly surprised to reach the top after only a few hundred feet and celebrated by lounging around in the sun before ambling back to the car and a well deserved pint.

Footnotes:

1

Some 20 years later I can reveal that it was the station waiting room at the Bridge of Orchy.

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