Mortal Combat

On Thursday night I jumped on the train again to Aberdeen, to meet up with Guy. We then headed over to the Lochnagar car park, where we met up with Nick Bullock, who had driven up from Wales earlier that day. We sorted out the gear and after I had set up Guys tent, we hit the hay for a few hours sleep before heading off early on Friday morning.

As we walked in, the snow conditions were the polar opposite to how they were the previous week. Instead of trudging through gloopy porridge like snow, we marched across bullet hard neve and reached the col in no time at all.

The sun was just coming up when we reached the col, and in the morning light we could see that the Tough Brown Face was looking in perfect condition. We also knew that if the snow on the routes was anything like the snow underfoot, it was going to be very useful and hopefully, a very good day.

We headed off to the base of the route, and as we were unsure about what route to go for, Guy lead off up the first pitch to gain the big turfy ledge.

Me pulling through the roof on pitch two (Copyright - Nick Bullock)

We then all agreed that Mort looked like the route for the day. So I headed off up the second pitch (which happens to be the crux pitch) and soon found myself under the steep roof that barred access to the upper wall.

After some up and down movements, trying to figure out a sequence through the roof, I eventually went for it and blasted my way upwards to gain a pretty comfortable position after the steep pulls.

With a bomber right axe placement, and what felt like a super solid left tool placement on a decent sized and very positive rock edge, I kept me right tool where it was and matched my left tool to place some gear on my left . After clipping the gear and re-matching my tool so I could reach out for my right axe again, the edge I was hooking (which turned out to be a forearm sized block) came away, and left me hanging from my springy lanyard on my right tool.

What then came out of my mouth, I’m not going to repeat. But as you might have guessed, I was not best pleased to be robbed of the onsight of this well known hard route. I was feeling super comfortable, after climbing the steepest section, just got some protection in and then I was off, due to unforeseeable circumstances of a loose block (that looked and felt super solid). I was gutted!

Me leading the crux pitch (Photo credit -

Still in a little bit of a rage, I got lowered down and jumped straight back on the route without resting. I charged back up to my high point, fuelled with adrenaline, psyche and a touch of frustration and continued upwards.

Guy seconding the crux pitch

I was soon brought to a halt, when I couldn’t figure out how to gain any more height. I could see where I needed to get to to get a rest, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out how to do it. I tried every feasible way I could think of, and just as I was losing hope and psyche, I gave it one last try.

Using the tiniest hook I have ever pulled hard on, and throwing my legs and body into a position I didn’t think I could, I yarded up and made an almighty rock over onto my right foot and away from my gear and any chance of retreat. Shit………

Then the only thing that was going through my head was, “what a stupid F**KING idea that was”! I was now fully committed to the boldness and couldn’t find any gear that would stop me from plummeting into the belay ledge if I was to fall from the upper wall.

Nick showing us what technical really means!

But after some huffing and puffing and some woeful whimpering which Guy and Nick got a little chuckle from, things like “I don’t know if I can do this” and “I’m all Idea-ed out”, I eventually unlocked a crazy sequence that allowed me to cross over the huge prominent fin that defines this route. After this I managed to keep gaining height with some more technical moves. But all the time I was moving up, there was still no gear to be had. I placed a crappy looking turf hook which was my last runner and my only one for quite a way.

The climbing eased a bit, but as there was still very little gear, my mind was still in full concentration mode. The last tricky section before the belay was a turfy bulging wall, but as the turf was quite aerated , it still kept me from relaxing until I had built and clipped the belay. Then it was ahhhhhhh…… another super technical pitch, with some bold and very complex climbing ticked.  It took me about 4.5 hours to lead the crux pitch, and this is mostly due to the puzzling nature of the climbing. Once you work it out, and you pray that the tiny placements don’t rip, then you can usually make some good progress.

Guy and Nick came up the pitch on second, and it was humbling to hear that it wasn’t just the fact that It was bold that was making it feel hard for me, the pitch didn’t give up easily for any of us.

Guy Leading pitch three (Copyright - Nick Bullock)

After a quick gear sort and some food, Guy headed off up the final hard pitch, obviously filled with a little anticipation. But I wasn’t too worried, he’s good at pulling it out of the bag when it’s needed!

He moved up higher and higher and after arranging one or two pieces of his own gear, and clipping a fair few pieces of insitu runners, he went for one last all out charge through the last steepening. This paid off, and it wasn’t long before we could hear the whoops of “SAFE” and “YEAH” that marked the end of another brilliant adventure.

Nick and I raced up the pitch as quick as we could to try and make the most of the daylight, but even so, I still ended up climbing the last section of the route by head torch light.

Once back at the bags, we were all filled with cheer and psyche after getting another cool route ticked, but I was still a little deflated by the rock coming away on my pitch. But it’s as close to an onsight as you could get, having not failed due to personal fatigue and still having the technical crux to do, so it’s all good I suppose and I’ll settle for ground up. Also It was cool to get the second ascent of this line, considering the first ascent was a combination of 15 years of effort, that come down to one outstanding lead, that was futuristic for its time and date.

Having had such a good day on Friday, it is a bit annoying to have spent the last three days in bed with the flu. But as soon as I feel a bit better, I’m looking forward to getting out again and doing some more good routes while the conditions are ace!

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