It was in large part a wonderfully diverse, vibrant and inspiring rainbow of characters that really appealed to me when I started out winter climbing. Images of the ‘old man’ Marshall holding court over a simmering Dixie, amongst a gaggle of muscle-bound shipyard workers in some draughty cave in Arrochar; of the old fox MacInnes stumbling into the CIC Hut from a blizzard, his trousers all torn, brandishing some home-made ice weaponry for his next vertical battle; or of Dr Tom, replete with tricounis, tartain shirt and woolly jumper, fighting ice-clad granite rocks and hypothermia on Lochnagar. These guys were like Centurions or Gladiators to me, and their heroic tales, well polished by the passing of time, were a tremendous source of inspiration.
My own climbing partner during those formative years – Fred Brown – was himself a character very much of this gnarly howff-dwelling ilk. This was a man who laid caches of food, whisky and other nefarious substances in strategic locations across the length and breadth of the Cairngorms – all in the name of “geographical research”. And who famously climbed Douglas Gibson Gully in winter wearing a pair of floppy Hi-Tech trainers. I recall another particularly grisly episode – also on Lochnagar – where we climbed Parallel Gully B together on a wild winter’s day. Fred had decided to field-test a pair of leather, studded-knuckle Hummel Doddies believing they might provide greater protection for hands bashed repeatedly against the ice, whilst allowing greater dexterity when fiddling with gear. But alas, his concept was failed from the outset, and on returning to our rucksacks after our successful ascent we marvelled at the continuous streak of red snow running up the lower chimney.
Fred gave up climbing shortly after we both left University, and sadly I’ve seen him rarely since then, but there was an inherent wildness and sense of liberty about him that inspires me to this day.
Just as the tales, heroics and misdemeanours of the great characters are passed on down the years, so of course is the legacy of their climbs. Well, most of them at any rate. There are certain idiosyncratic qualities, for example, in any Smith route or Patey route or Fowler route one might care to repeat. I don’t believe it’s too far a stretch of the imagination to suggest that something of the characters themselves lives on in their greatest climbs. But occasionally, just occasionally, something and someone great gets missed, overlooked. Or maybe they were just too near or even beyond the fringe to become captive to the mainstream.
A few years ago, on hearing I’d been exploring new routes on the Giant’s Wall in the back of Beinn Bhan, Norrie Muir sent me a topo. I don’t know the man at all, but I sensed we had an affinity of spirit. I remember laughing at a photograph hanging on the walls of the bar in the Kingshouse Hotel – John Maclean I think it was, leading something up on Slime Wall in the 1950’s, with Norrie at the belay below, quite literally taking the piss. He was a young man on a hard climb in an old photograph, and here he was now an old man in real life, sending me pictures of routes I’d never known.
Interestingly enough, the topo he sent was of one of my most prized unclimbed lines – the great soaring roof-capped groove that dominates the view of the steepest section of Beinn Bhan’s Giant’s Wall. This was a genuine “line to die for” (though not literally I was quietly hoping) and here was I staring at an old photograph with a route marked straight up it. It has been climbed before by one of Norrie’s mates. Coming from anyone else I might have been dubious, but it was quite clear that this was no joke. And, in any case, whatever humour may have anointed our brief email exchange was for my part quickly eliminated when it dawned that not only had this line been climbed before – it had been climbed free and in summer. My jaw may well have hit the floor.
Anyone that knows this cliff will appreciate its tottering, Jenga-like qualities. Believe me this is not an affectionate colloquialism – it’s a statement of fact. For my part, this fact was borne out by a particularly terrifying experience whilst first attempting what was to become The God Delusion (IX,9) when both my axes, all my protection and half the cliff underneath me suddenly departed.
In fact the whole of the vast, triangular right hand side of Giant’s Wall is quite literally an assemblage of giant sandstone blocks, shards and monoliths, precariously held in place by moss, soil and various breeds of vegetation. In places one can peer down into great cavernous shafts behind gigantic loose flakes, seemingly leading onwards and downwards to the very bowels of the Earth. The Entrance to Hades perhaps? In winter, of course, a plentiful supply of water oozing from the abundant greenery soon freezes to provide glue in the form of ice. Not so in summer, however, when the crag must surely present nothing more to the approaching climber than an enormous and singularly repugnant fecalith.
And as if all this wasn’t off-putting enough, this part of the cliff is also arguably the steepest chunk of rock to be found anywhere on the British mainland. Drop a stone from its top and it may well miss the halfway terrace – if it does it won’t be stopping until it comes to rest on the coire floor two hundred odd metres below. This is no place for the faint of heart.
The originator of the line on Norrie’s topo – one George Shields of the infamous Creag Dubh Mountaineering Club – was clearly not faint of heart. Having now climbed said line in winter I can also confirm that neither was he faint of finger! On the contrary, in fact, I would go so far as to stick my neck out and suggest that this was perhaps a contender for the hardest rock climb in Britain at the time. (The word “hardest” in this context should of course be interpreted in its richest sense). We had been led to believe, prior to our winter ascent earlier this week, that the summer version of the climb – pioneered over 40 years ago, in 1972 – might provide climbing which would merit a modern grade of “anything up to E3”. There are only three words I can think of in response to this statement – AND THE REST!
Soon after gaining the great groove by a cunning horizontal traverse in from the right, we abandoned any ideas of following Norrie and George’s topo. Even with the added benefit of slim picks to slot in the occasional hair line cracks afforded by the smooth, overhanging rock, the line up the right wall of the groove was just too hard to even contemplate. It looked at least E4 in modern money. In any case, the back of the groove, despite containing a large and ominous roof ten metres up, was adorned with ice and turf. It was rich for the winter picking.
The intense battle that ensued stretched both Greg and I to our limits, in my case perhaps even a little beyond. In failing light, I struggled repeatedly to seat the tip of a blind pick away up right and over the lip of the great roof, only to have it suddenly rip twice when cutting loose and trying to pull over. On the belay below, Greg was totally spent. I was now rapidly following suit. I imagined the ghost of Mr Shields himself leaning over the edge of the roof above me and shouting something gallous and demeaning in a coarse Glasgow accent – “Come on ye wee Aberdonian shite, where’s yer mixed climbing skills now then!” Young Uisdean Hawthorn, the third man on our team who had “come along for the ride” must have wondered if this was what our adventures were always like; dynos and power screams from Greg, and now whooping great flyers from me. All very dramatic, but Uisdean did a great job of keeping a (mostly) straight face.
But we couldn’t leave this empty handed. I’d been into the cliff for a look so many times before. I’d never seen conditions like this. Long before The Legend of George Shields was born I’d been attracted to this wonderful feature – such steep and powerful lines are very few and far between. So with long sucks of oxygen (and a front lever to maintain enough torque) a rush of blood and adrenaline saw my feet up over the lip. A hurried nut stuffed into a mossy, parallel crack. A precarious pull on some stringy, frothy turf. My chin was now on a ledge some five metres or so above the lip. A smile erupted across my face as I let out a great yowl across the coire.
Big George wasn’t up there, of course, in ghostly form or otherwise, but through perhaps his greatest of routes – The Messiah – he had in some way been given a new breath of life.