Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tower Face of The Comb. Ben Nevis, Friday 20th February 2015.

So, on Thursday I committed myself to a plan; and that was to be involved in a climb that was way above anything I would attempt to a lead myself. Winter V'4 on a good day  is the hardest I've attempted and that was Diadem on Meagaidh some four years earlier.

This time I had been invited to join mate Dave Sharp and his friend John Crook on a day on The Ben. These boys are both hard committed climbers - and with good reason as both have recently joined the BMG Guides Scheme. It must be said though, that their love of climbing mountains came long before their desire to train to be guides - as you'll see as you read on. There is no point in doing a job unless you love it - you'll never give others your best otherwise.

04:15 the alarm went off - a truly early start for me and by 05:15 I was off to pick up Dave & John from their vans in the free car park at Fort William. The rain blatted off the windscreen as I drove to Fort Bill in the darkness, a part of me really wondered what the hell I was doing!

Lads collected, we soon arrived in a dark & wet North Face Car Park - how many parked cars!! As we kitted up a chap emerged from a bivvi tent next to a car. Now that shows some commitment; or lunacy - depending on your point of view!

The first two photos were taken as we emerged into daylight on the approach to The North Face. The rain continued until the top car park whereafter it became snow. By the time we arrived at the CIC Hut (photo two) we were in "full on" Scottish winter conditions!

Now, I have over 20 years on both Dave & John; and as we headed up the Allt a' Mhuillin, I found myself slipping further behind the pair who waited for me to catch up on two occasions. Sensing that I was perhaps "punching above my wieght" coming out with these two fit young fellas, I had a conversation first with Dave and then with John in which I made it plain that I considered it a priviledge to be out with them at all; and I expressed my concern that I didn't want to "hold them back". Neither of them would have any of it!

We trudged on up into Coire Na Ciste into gathering gloom and ever deepening fresh snow. It took about two hours to walk from the North Face car park to the CIC Hut and it took another hour to get to the foot of The Comb.

John can be seen approaching the foot of Comb buttress as it rears up out of the mist. At least we were sheltered from the wind of which there was virtually none - that is one of the good things about Coire Na Ciste - it is often well sheltered!
We all got geared up at the foot of the buttress and then Dave made his way up the left hand side in search of the foot of the route proper. It was chilly and still snowing hard and by now the fresh snow was getting really quite deep (photo four). I was truly glad of the ski poles loaned me by past client & friend - Alison Laws.

At last, after a short solo up on to a banked out ledge, we all found ourselves attached and with the lads keen and ready to go. Me - well, I wouldn't go quite as far as being keen at this stage; I certainly felt apprehension at what was up ahead. It was a classic "hard route" and harder than any winter climb I'd been on before. At this point, that was all I knew!

Photo five sees Dave & John at the first stance. Dave I've known for a while having met him through another friend and aspirant Mountain Guide Neil Mackay a number of years ago. Up until Dave invited me to join him on a winter ascent of Bowfell Buttress V'6 in February last year - all we had ever done was meet up for a pint in The Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal with others (when I would generally get wasted to the chagrin of my long suffering partner) Anyway - there  is more to life than drinking of course and so, it is with pleasure that I've been able to get out with Dave on occasion for something much, much better than a pint!.

John is a relatively unknown quantity. I'd heard his name mentioned a few times as being a mate of Dave & Neils so he was clearly an very good climber. To get an insight into what John is about one must read his blog crookclimbing and then you'll see he really is an outstanding climber & adventurer - it's an awesome read.

Likewise, Daves blog onthesharpeend is also a good read. Started only recently after Dave's ascent of the 1938 route of the Eiger with Kev Avery, Dave's got a good writing style and has done some fine stuff since then, so this promises to be worth checking out on a regular basis!

The SMC guidebook description for Tower Face of The comb describes starting from the left hand edge of a ledge and climbing  a left facing corner to reach a parallel ledge 10m above. Move right until halfway across the ledge then climb a short steep wall and mixed ground above to a good belay below the prominent left facing groove that cuts through the steep lower section of the face.

In photo six, John sets off up the left facing corner leaving Dave belaying and with me waiting in readiness, both of us on parallel ropes.

Part of the plan leading up to Dave & Johns "BMG Winter Induction" is for them to be climbing above the required grade of V and to be able to practice the ropework and stance management required for when working with clients and that is one of the reasons why, as a 3rd person, they were happy to have me along.

With John safely up and across the ledge having shouted down "safe" and then taken in the rope tight, it was my turn to climb up and then make the traverse across.

The climb up was not difficult; although there was an interesting moment getting past a block en route to the traverse which felt quite exposed and was covered in fresh snow. Sideways movement using a combination of "daggering" and front pointing brought me to a point from which I was able to take this photo of John on his stance midway across the ledge.

It felt like airy stuff and a trifle exposed, as with the cloud having closed in again - the base of the buttress could no longer be seen, However, I reached John with no difficult and we were immediately joined by Dave.

At the stance which consisted of several wires and a "Hex" all brought together to a central attachment point, a back wall & block formed an interesting corner at our anchor point. John decided that the route on lay with following the ledge to its far end and then trending back on to the ramp somewhere above our heads.

Off he went and after a while we got the shout of "safe" and then the ropes went tight. "Off you go" said Dave and so off I went - rounding the end of the ledge and then climbing the slabby ramp by way of an ice filled groove - plenty of good pick placements, no problem. I was enjoying this so far, but knew that the harder climbing was yet to come. Indeed, once were were all at John's stance (photo eight) it was commented on that the route thus far had been felt to be no more than IV - within my paygrade then! It had certainly felt ok to me.

Photo nine sees Dave taking a moment to look at the camera as he set off from the end of the ramp on to the crux pitch of Tower Face of The Comb.

The description is as follows

50m. Climb the groove and comtinue up easier ground to belay below an impending wall. A fine and sustained pitch.

Having looked up from the belay directly below on the ledge and also from this point, the pitch in question didn't look too bad at all.

The truth of the matter was soon to follow - for me at least!

One thing I hadn't bargained for with this steep and hard Scottish mixed climbing was the amount of hanging around that takes place for the belayer whilst waiting for the leader to make their way up the difficult pitches. The fact that the pitch was clearly harder than the previous two was not lost on me due to the fact that once around the corner, the rope was moving very slowly in comparison with the last two pitches that John had literally "flown up".

Anyway, here he was (photo ten) looking about as chilled as he could be waving his arms and stamping his feet to keep warm as we both "chilled down" - literally! on the stance - making the most of the opportunity to get a bite to eat & drink. I also got the opportunity to know him quite a bit better, so it was a good place to be despite the cold!
Photo eleven sees one of the many spindrift avalanches that came down the crux pitch and Dave can be seen right in the middle of this one. It looked kind of amusing - but of course the joke would be on you if you were in the midst of it.

By this time, we had been joined on our stance by a couple of German guys who we had seen moving up to the base of the route from our perch a little while earlier. It transpired they had, in fact, come all the way over from Bavaria to to try out the "Scottish winter experience". I got the distinct impression that were not too enamoured with it!

They were very patient whilst we all waited for Dave to climb the crux and once we duly got the call of "safe" from above - off we went with me some way behind John, glad to get moving again!

The climbing was indeed steep; and at one point, I found myself in extremis as the saying goes. A steep smooth slab on either side of me and only a narrow icy groove above in which to put picks that were ripping out "what the fuck do I do here!"  I shouted up "there's some good pick placements up above mate" was the reply. Somehow I found them and scrambled my way up to a spike that seemed to be just above the crux of the pitch; although I managed to get one of my lanyards wrapped around it. Fuck! I freed the lanyard but then had to be lowered back down below the spike to free the sling thread I'd not managed to dislodge on the way past. Back above the spike, I fell off when a pick ripped, then I was back on and easing up the icy chimney to the sloping stance above with encouranging comments from the lads "well done mate! - good climbing, nice one!" Later, I discovered that during this pitch, I had smashed the screen of my trusty Panasonic DMC FT2 camera. Bollocks! Oh well, at least it still takes photos even I cannot now view what I am taking.

At the stance above, we all had a bit of a rope fankle to deal with then John set off leaving me & Dave to wait it out. John had decided to go for the "Chimney Variant Pitch" graded at V'5 and he soon disappeared from view.

The fact that this pitch wasn't much easier than the previous one was once again obvious as the rope ran out again slowly; and Dave & I must have been on the stance for best part of two hours. During this time I became really cold and it was obvious that the down jacket I had donned under my shell wasn't doing the job. I was bloody freezing!

Eventually the rope came tight and off we went with Dave setting off first. A rather "lairy" traverse brought us both to the foot of the chimney (photo twelve) which was steep and hard to get into. There was a blank wall on the left and a turf hook really high on the right. With an axe in that and one in the back of the chimney I somehow managed to get purchase and make my way up, backing & footing, finding pick placements, more encouragement from the lads above. This time I didn't fall off.

Above here was a large stance where the others had been joined by the German lads again whose leader was just ahead of us on the final pitch. Dave set off up this with difficulty along a ledge where the steep wall above pushed him off balance. Once around the corner, the rope ran out quickly then went tight. Time to go! John followed mentioning something about using a hook to the left as I swung across the ledge. I suspected I might fall off but didn't  and once round the corner the ground was easy and I soon joined the others. Ahead loomed the final buttress - a sinch at grade III (photo thirteen)

Dave dashed off and can be seen on the left hand side of this final buttress giving John & I a direct belay. Once we were there, he led off up the final part just as easily and suddenly we were all at the top with only a narrow but easy snowy arete between us and the plateau. It was getting dark and the time 17:20. We had started the route shortly after 9am! A quick group hug and we were all on the top. The german lads had been inspecting the top of Comb Gully with a view to abseiling down (they had left their sacks at the bottom of the route) but Dave & John had heard the rumble of a large avalanche in the region of number 3 gully and it was felt it was better that they accompany us down the west face to halfway lochan and back out to the North Face car park. We descended this slope in a blizzard and in the dark - at times following a compass bearing and at other times following the tracks of others which led us down across the Red Burn towards Halfway Lochan. The deep snow that had fallen during the day continued all the way to the "top car park" and here we had a brief stop to eat whatever we had left in our bait boxes. At 20:40, we arrived back at my car which we had left almost 15 hours earlier. I, for one, felt pretty battered!

Was it a worthwhile day? At times, on the route, whilst freezing my nuts off, I found myself questioning this; and when John asked me what I'd thought of it all on the stance at the top of the Chimney variant pitch, I told him I wasn't sure. Indeed, despite the offer to climb further with these guys next week in The Gorms before they start their "Winter Induction", during the climb, I had moments of real reservation; and serious thoughts of taking the easy option to head for the warmth of home afterwards to be with a loved one who had let me come up north without question or reservations some weeks earlier.

I was invited to go out with Dave & John today - indeed, they were both keen that I should go. However, I'm glad I chose today to let them get on with it as I really do think I would have only held them back. You've got to pace yourself as you get older - whether or not you like it!

But as to more climbing with this pair - next week? definitely! Its looking like it will be more of the same in The Gorms until they have a rest day on Friday before the start of the Winter Induction. I'm sure it will be hard and it will be cold, but I'm sure I can deal with that. So yes - I'm going.

The truth of that matter is that yesterday was an awesome day; and it really was a priviledge to share a rope with these two. I spent the day doing what was undoubtedly, the hardest and most rewarding winter climbing I have ever experienced.

Thanks lads!

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