Sunday around 6pm: I jumped in my girlfriend’s brother’s pickup which he had lent me and headed for Inverness. After changing plans half a dozen times over the weekend for our intended day out on Monday, finally Neil Adams’ photos of the Godfather on Beinn Bhan that popped up on Facebook around lunchtime sealed the deal. It was a no brainer!
I picked Guy up in Inverness and we headed on to Applecross to meet up with Uisdean Hawthorn, who was also psyched to join in on some big new route adventures!
As we put up our 5 star accommodation under the glow of the trucks headlights, the snow was coming down hard and after the usual “what time you wanna get up” discussion, we dived into the tent and I set my alarm for 5am.
The following morning, as I sat in the pickup and tried to perfect the art of getting dressed in the drivers seat whilst spooning cold rice-pudding into my mouth, I could barely see any of my red tent under the white coating of thick powder snow. I really wasn’t looking forward to wading through the waist deep blanket of white that I presumed was waiting for us on our approach. But eventually we set off in the direction of the coire and cheerfully marched into the blizzard.
Much to our surprise, apart from the occasional foot going through into the hidden rivers and bogs below, the walk-in was pretty much painless and the snow levels seamed to allow a gentle passage into the mouth of the coire and eventually to the big gearing up boulder.
As we donned our dry thermals and climbing attire, Guy pulled a fair sized plastic lunchbox from his bag. I quickly made the joke, “no wonder you were lagging behind with that excess weight in your bag. Did your mummy pack it for you?” but he shrugged it off lightly and we moved back onto preparing ourselves for the days’ activities. As we left the boulder and headed for the Giants Wall, Guy pipes up with, “Many an epic has started from this boulder”, and with a nervous gulp in my throat, I continued upwards.
Our plan was to try and make our way to, and hopefully through, the huge roof on the left hand side of the big face. Guy and I had ventured in to try this line back in January 2013 but unfortunately, we had found less than adequate winter conditions and had opted for the route Genesis instead, to try and salvage the day.
Guy had scoped the line and studied the info from an older, recorded summer ascent that made its way up in that area. We had discussed our options and opted to start up the first long pitch of Godzilla and then try and move left to gain the huge groove. We had roughly guessed where the pitches would go and with the roof looking like it would be the crux of the matter, we decided that it was Guy’s turn to take the helm for the hard pitch (pitch 4) and I would take pitches one and three.
I set off up the first pitch with the snow still teaming down on us. Despite this I swiftly made upwards progress and after realising that I had made the rookie error of leaving most of the quick-draws with Uisdean at the bottom, I placed the odd bit of kit and eventually gained the big belay ledge on the right after about 50m. The snow had now stopped, the sky had brightened up a little and I had a good feeling about how the day might turn out.
I was kind of happy knowing that I didn’t have to lead what looked like the obvious hard pitch on this route. My last two outings into the hills had tested me both physically and mentally and I was looking forward to having a nice tight top rope above me after Guy had hopefully put the route to bed.
After not too long, everyone was back together on the stance at the top of the pitch. Guy and I then exchanged the rack and he headed out left in search of new ground. The traverse pitch didn’t really put up too much of a fight and after no time at all, despite an introduction to a vey loose and large block, Guy was shouting safe from the belay at the bottom of a smooth and interesting looking groove/corner that was capped by a square roof.
It was my turn again and I naively thought the pitch would be over in no time at all and I would soon be relaxing again, waiting for the main event. I set off up the corner and it quickly became apparent that the lack of footholds and very aeriated turf was going to pose a bit of a problem. I tried to get runners in the icy cracks and ended up continuing up to below the square roof to see if I could find a better resting position. After my axes ripped through the grassy weeds that I was hoping to be good solid turf, I proceeded to try and find a way to gain the steep ground above.
I looked out left to see if I could see any footholds, as my arms were starting to inform me that I needed to get my weight on my feet soon! I longingly probed out left, but this was to no avail. On my return right, between my feet skating off miniscule smears, still with only two very wobbly nuts in the icy crack between the belay ledge and me, I reached out to grab and regain my other tool with my right hand; as I moved over my left tool ripped! Fear suddenly kicked in and I grasped at the only thing I could, which happened to be my lanyard that was clipped to my right tool. The next second or so went by almost in slow motion in my head.
Guy instinctively took in when he saw my left tool rip, not knowing I was still on the wall, but all this was doing was pulling my grip away from the safety of my right tool. “SLACK, I’M STILL ON MY LANYARD” I screamed, as I watched the two crappy nuts dancing away in their icy crevice below me. “Oh good” Guy shouted.
Despite the fact that I was looking at a potential gear ripping fall onto the belay and my right hand was screaming at me with fatigue to try and find a left tool placement, Guy’s comment almost made me laugh! There was absolutely nothing that I would have said about that situation that was “Oh good”, but in hindsight it probably was good that I hadn’t been off and tested the cruddy nut runners.
All of this was still in slow motion mode within a second or two. I then fired my left tool into the crack below my other and released my right hand before it exploded with lactic. I then rushed and smeared my feet up high and shot my left front-point into a hairline placement on the wall. This gave me enough height to get a cam under the roof and try and gain some composure again to figure out where to go.
I shouted down that I was going to have to commit out right, but there was absolutely no footholds! I was now pretty damn pumped and all I wanted to do was return to the belay and for it all to stop. I swung over the roof and spied a tiny foot placement that might hold my front-point, high up and right. In my head I didn’t know what to do; if I retreated I would be way too tired to have another go and if I threw my foot up and right and fully committed I would be far from my protection with no guarantee that there would be any waiting for me above.
“I’M GOING FOR IT!” I shouted down, knowing that would ready my watching companions for action. I could subconsciously feel Guy shuffling on the ledge in anticipation, but all the time never removing his sight from every minute movement I made as I tried to gain height and move away from this horror of a situation.
Smearing with my left knee, my right foot was level with my only axe placement as a pulled through with my left tool and it caught on something underneath the snow. No time to test it, I pulled down hard and moved my weight onto my right foot. My left tool shot down about an inch and I nearly squealed in shock, still on though, I swung for the obvious blob of turf that I had had my sights on since I had pulled round the roof. BANG! As I swung into it ”No No No…”, it was shit, nothing, totally crap! I raked at it and it was more stringy roots and no purchase was to be had. I gulped again thinking back to what Guy had said when we had left the boulder, about “Many an epic”.
I frantically tried to find some protection and managed to get some very marginal gear behind some even more marginal looking tiny flakes. But at this point a fall was very much out of the question, if I didn’t want to get hurt!
I probed up then returned to my very strenuous and almost painful semi-resting place to try and relive my arms before another probing mission started to gain the obvious ledge above the steep groove I was in.
After fighting off the demons in my head that were telling my to just give up and let go, I spied it, another tiny foothold! I was going to have to fully commit to a loose flake that I had already ripped the bottom off of, but if it held I would be able to get my feet up on the foothold and make a lunge for the ledge.
After a series of grunts, strenuous layaways and a wild swing for the turf I finally… found more useless frozen spongy crap. My axe ripped through and I couldn’t believe the pitch just wouldn’t let up! I eventually balanced myself and slowly gained enough height to flop over and reach the safety of the ledge! Holly Shmockes!
Once I shouted “SAFE”, Guy asked me to hold on whilst he put his eyes back into their sockets, which again added a bit of humor to the situation and I gathered my thoughts whist I brought them both up. All I wanted was a nice tight top rope on the hard pitches! Then again, where is the adventure in that?
Next it was Guys’ lead again and after he had battled with some more of the lovely fully frozen string grass from hell, he found himself situated in an almost lying-down position below the huge roof. He could see a weakness and after arranging some gear he committed to the cause and quested through the ludicrously steep ground and eventually out of sight. It almost went completely quiet for a second, then… BAM, I saw his feet first then he came fully back into sight and the ropes went tight. “Ahhhh this bloody stupid turf, shitty stuff, I had it! I had done the hard bit!”. I was gutted for him, as he had done what looked like the hardest moves of the pitch.
But he channeled his turf-fueled anger and eventually fought off his own demons and climbed the pitch to his high point and beyond to reach the sanctuary of the belay ledge.
By this point my whole body was cramping up from my previous exertions and I had to dig deep to second up through the very strenuous moves in the roof, but once I got going I really enjoyed the climbing and It was awesome to know that we were one step closer to victory!
As the next pitch looked more amenable, but by no means easy, Uisdean tied into the sharp end and by this point it was getting dark, so by the light of his head-torch, he took us up and onto the huge terrace that sits about two thirds of he way up the cliff.
Once we were on the terrace we knew that the next section wasn’t going to be impossible as we were intending on following a line that Guy and Dave Macleod had done a few years previously. So once on the ledge, I straight away traversed a few meters left, eager to see where the next pitch would take us. As I went around the corner all I found was a huge steep amphitheater with no easy passage to be seen. I went back round to Guy and Uisdean, “are you sure its round there?”. We all walked around and Uisdean kindly pointed out that it was definitely my turn to lead again. Oh the joys!
I tied into both ropes and moved on up. I could see the way I wanted to go but around the upper right side of the steepness was out of view so I was going to have to go and see what was there for myself. Thankfully after one last committing move up and right, I found myself on less steep terrain and continued upwards through steep chimneys and behind hanging chock-stones for another 35m to belay in a ginormous cave that pretty much runs behind the whole of the upper God Father wall, it was breathtaking!
Uisdean took the next pitch and lead us to the summit under the glowing beams of the clear skies and bright moon. Despite nearly falling asleep on the last belay, I had an unshakable feeling of joy running through me that fueled me up the last long and extremely fun pitch.
We topped out at 9:30pm and after descending back to the bags, Guy revealed what was lurking in his secret lunch box all along. He had three big wedges of caramel and Oreo cake and it was by far one of the highlights of the day. I even apologized for making fun of him earlier! We swiftly sorted the gear and stomped back to the car through deeper snow than we had encountered on our way in, but it was all downhill, so no one cared!
Once back at the car we chatted to Ian Small and Murdo Jamieson who had just arrived for an early start the following day for their own Beinn Bhan adventure, then Guy and I jumped in the truck and set our sights on Inverness where Guys’ car was waiting.
I ended up camping in the car park once I had dropped Guy off, as I was heading to Kinlochleven the following day for work, and I was way too tired to drive any more.
The following morning I awoke to another snow covered tent and some very aching muscles. It also happened to be my birthday, and I had a little laugh to myself whilst thinking that only a climber would wake up in a tent, on their own, in a snowy car park on their birthday. But it was very much worth it for the days climbing we had just had!
That night and the following day I was working with Cotswold Outdoor Academy over at the Ice factor, and after I had woken myself up a bit and had a much needed shower, it was a super fun couple of days and it was awesome to see so many psyched people eager to learn and have a go at ice climbing. Hopefully I’ll bump into some of them on the hill in the future!
I received this email from Guy the following day that also made me giggle a bit.
“It felt / looked to me like you were working harder up there than on either of our previous two outings? Sorry you got the harder pitch again Greg, it wasn’t intended, honest. Anyway, no matter the grade I’d give the journey four stars for sure.”
Ohhhhh the joys of new routing in winter, you never know what’s going to happen, but it’s usually a whole lot of fun!
The Messiah (First Winter Ascent 2015)
-Grade – X/10 ****
-8 pitches (two of which were tech 10)
-Guy Robertson, Greg Boswell and Uisdean Hawthorn