Back in December 2013 I walked into Coire an Lochain with Dougie (the yellow ranger) Russell to try a particularly interesting looking route. It was a route that I had spied with Guy two seasons previously when we were walking in to do something else in the coire. From that day it had been niggling away in my mind as something I had to have a go at!
So I geared up below the face and eventually built up the courage to start up the route. Unfortunately this courage didn’t last long and after about 8m of climbing, I decided to down climb and save the onsight attempt for another day. It just looked too god damn hard! I told myself that it was early in the season and once I’d got a couple of routes under my belt, I would feel better. We then went on to do the FWA of The Demon that day, which seemed to feel like a worthwhile salvation of the good conditions.
So earlier this season 2014/15, I ventured back into the coire with Guy to have another sniff at the route we had loosely been calling “Banana Wall”, due to its immense steepness. I geared up again and told myself to stop being a big wimp and have a proper go at the line. I knew Ines Papert had had a look at this route back in 2011, but had also decided to move off right and go for the more amenable, yet still very hard and steep looking line that is now known as Bavarinthia IX/9 after they made the first ascent that day. Banana Wall has a way of persuading people not to try it!
But I started up again and after arranging some very interesting and by no means bomber gear, I probed upwards trying to make some sort of progress. But no matter how many times I told myself to just man up and get on with it, I was just too scared of the route. It looked so much harder than anything I had tried before, and the worst part was, I couldn’t see any gear at all if I was to continue into the steepness. The route is crazy steep, and placing gear was going to be hard at the best of times, let alone fiddling in inventive protection. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I down-climbed again, and it became: Banana Wall two, Greg zero!
It was still very early in the day and the weather was perfect, so Guy and I chatted about our options and whether or not we could justify a ground-fall from high on the route if we were unable to find any gear and if the climbing was too hard to reverse. So I opted to open a new chapter in my winter climbing career, and abb the route.
I never thought I would do this on a winter line, as the Scottish ethics are very much in favour of the “Ground Up” approach. But I laid out some very stern rules in my head and decided that if I wanted the sport to keep progressing, then maybe this is not such a bad idea. I really wanted to climb this route but didn’t want to go into unchartered territory that was so overhanging and end up getting hurt.
So when I abbed in, all I wanted to do was get down to the lower part of the route so that I could see if there was enough gear to push on from my high-point, and make it into a relatively safe-ish fall zone away from the ground. I did not want to search for any axe placements under the thick blanket of white and I certainly did not want to try any of the moves on the route. I wanted to keep as much of the unknown and the Scottish magic alive as possible! Whilst abbing the pitch, it swiftly became apparent that it might have been a fools errand. The second you have left the belay (rapp point) you are in space and free hanging and despite placing a few pieces of marginal gear to keep me in a bit, it was obvious that I was going to get nowhere near my climbing high-point to see if there would be an protection to aim for.
As I slowly moved down the ropes, hanging about 8 meters from the wall, I tried to see distinctive features that might hold the key to upwards movement on my next attempt. But nothing popped out at me, I had spied one or two things higher on the wall to potentially aim for, but whether or not I would be able to stay on the thin looking climbing long enough to place the gear was a different story! I decided to then rapp all the way to the ground and clip the abb ropes into the belay to hopefully pull Guy closer to the wall as he came down and help him get a better look. Again he spotted the obvious features higher up but nothing you couldn’t really see from the ground, and I couldn’t get him anywhere near the wall on the lower section to get any proper feedback or info. So down he came as well!
So we learnt two things that day, It’s unbelievably steep, and it looks amazing! Not much we didn’t really know before we rapped it, but that’s the game of adventure!
We trotted back down to the car in fairly high spirits imagining what it would be like to climb such a crazy looking route. All I could think about was how I would feel if I finished the pitch and reached the belay.
Since that day in Lochain, I have upped my training a fair bit, which in turn has helped Guy and I to have a fairly successful run of harder routes in the past couple of months. In doing these routes, I think it has put my head in the right place for trying something at or beyond my limit, so it felt right to return to Banana Wall for a proper go at the prize.
So on Wednesday I returned with my good friend Masa Sakano with the intention of seeing how far I could get into the steepness. I very much did not intend to get up the route that day but I knew if I wanted to try and do it this season, I would have to man up and put some effort in!
The approach was fairly straightforward until we gained the coire, in which we found that all the surrounding snow had been recently scoured and dumped right below our intended buttress. It looked pretty scary, and after we had picked our way up the lower rock bands, we met the last open slope before the safety of the crag. I checked the snow and didn’t like what I found! It was pretty dodgy to say the least, but we made our way through the minefield and eventually got to the base of the route (legged-it upwards).
Now the nerves returned! As Masa was sorting out the ropes, I warmed up my arms and shoulders and tried to focus my head into the, “you’re about to get scarily pumped” zone. Once everything was ready I just went for it. I moved up to my previous high point and craned my head back to look up the wall above me. I slowly moved upwards and eventually unlocked a technical sequence to take me to below the first steep bulge/roof. This section took me ages to work out, and after a good while trying to see how to progress upwards, I shouted, “I’m going for it, WATCH ME” and fired through a strenuous sequence taking me into a blanker looking section of the wall. I pushed on and fought for gear, and pushed on some more, getting more and more pumped with every move and every upward motion I made, the route got steeper and steeper. My first go ended much higher than I thought it would, when my axes ripped and I took a huge whipper back down the wall and found myself hanging in space and very very pumped!
I got Masa to lower me down, and after a bit of food and a lot of fluid to try and revive my cramping arms from their painful spasms. I decided to give it one more good go before calling it a day.
I moved up the wall again, feeling much more sluggish and tired than before. I eventually found myself high on the steep headwall above the crazy overhanging lower section, and far above my last runner. I committed to a heart in mouth sequence of thin hooks and shallow torques and tried to see a way to gain the belay ledge, but even this was not an easy task. After a big rock-over where my foot nearly skittered off the placement that definitely would have ejected me from the crag, I mantled up onto the sloping ledge and WHOOPED with joy! I had done it. One of the hardest looking lines I had seen in winter and I’d got up it on my second proper go!
I built a belay and Masa tied on the bag full of jackets and food. I was spent! As I hauled up the kit, my arms wouldn’t stop going into fits of muscle lock and pain. But I didn’t care; it was all part of the joy of getting the route.
Unfortunately, Masa came off seconding the route and ended up hanging in space away from the wall, and by this time the storm winds that were forecast were in full flow. He was getting buffeted around as he jugged up the rope to reach the headwall and then he eventually joined me on my small sloping ledge of joy and happiness.
We swapped the gear and I swiftly led the second pitch which was much more fun for my cramping arms. It was dark by the time we rapped back down to our bags, but we were both psyched and sufficiently knackered after an awesome days climbing.
Masa asked me what grade I was going to give it as we walked out from the coire, and this got me thinking. It is hard to grade this route, as it was so steep and strenuous, and easily physically harder than anything I’ve lead in winter before in Scotland. But the grading scale is so broad for Scottish mixed climbing that it’s hard to narrow down.
It is definitely much harder than other stuff I have been doing this season and the gear is hard to find and place due to the strenuousness and technicality of the climbing. It is easily a grade harder, or even two, than The Hurting and Don’t Die of Ignorance and if other people think that these are in fact grade XI/11, which they very much might be (I don’t think they are, but that is just my personal opinion) then Banana Wall is easily XII/12. I would possibly give the climbing M11-ish on this route. Whereas it would probably be between M7 to M9 for most other things that have been given higher grades in Scotland. So It just depends on the circumstances, but for now I’m going with the grade of XII/12 and regardless of grade (I’m open to change), it was an awesome adventure and it feels like a huge weight off of my shoulders to get it done!
I can’t thank Masa enough for coming out and joining me on this strenuous and interesting adventure, but I’m glad he was there to share the moment with and hopefully we can share many more in the mountains in the future.
I’d also like to thank Ines Papert for making an awesome and inspiring ascent of the Hurting last week, and in good style too! This got me super psyched to get on Banana Wall as soon as it came back into condition.
Banana Wall – 25/2/15
-Coire an Lochain
-FA- Greg Boswell and Masa Sakano