Making the first ascent, on-sight, of a grade X climb has become something of a ‘Holy Grail’ for the current generation of Scottish winter climbers. It’s a desprately tall order given the fickle and precarious nature of your typical Scottish route, but at the end of the day an on-sight is what our grading system is supposed to describe, and for most of us, at least, it is what we aspire to. It makes sense, after all, when days are short, walk-ins lengthy, and conditions so variable, and it just seems to align with the ephemeral nature of so many winter routes.
More often than not , however, opportunities to explore new ground on-sight at our limits are extremely limited. Limited by the ability to identify suitable routes – i.e. harder, but not so hard you’re going to fall repeatedly – and limited by the ability to strike effectively when the conditions, partners and life in general all align at the right moment. When these opportunities do arise you only get the one chance – strike a match and it all burns down.
When I found myself racking up beneath the fifth pitch of Nevermore on Lochnagar’s Tough Brown Face on Monday past, I knew it was just one such opportunity. I’d previously spent something like 15+ hours belaying Pete Benson and others on the very difficult second pitch, but nonetheless I’d still only once had the chance (a few weeks previously) to explore this pitch – my pitch, as it were. On that occasion it had been late, I had been borderline hyperthermic, and I had been unable to commit. I had climbed down and offered Nick Bullock the reigns, but after a half-heatered probe he had also backed away. This time though, things were different – I was fresh and with daylight to spare. But the steep, rounded rock and lack of obvious protection had grade X written all over it. If it didn’t happen then, it possibly never would.
After several ups and downs – none of them yielding much new hope – the roof was reluctantly turned leaving protection below, a most marginal hook pressed away down to knee height, the other tool desparately stretching, battering away at the large snow-ice mushroom topping the groove above. Then a stick, in almost nothing..elongate, reach up, then another – the only meaningful bodily contact now a single monopoint on a sloping match box. Just one more step up though and there will surely be some gear; my opportunity thn extended. but then it strikes, a flame, and the opportunity burns out – I’m falling backwards, flipping upside down, one of my axes jettisoned out into white space, I’m squalking like the Ravens who’ve made this route their home.
And that’s it, for me at least – over you to you Nick, old man. If I’m going to have anyone here with me to salvage an opportunity it might as well be your good self. Internally, I questioned whether I had fallen simply because I fell, or was it in fact down to shaky concentration, a lack of gaurantees. Of course this is precisely why we were there – to shun any degree of certainty, any knowledge of what lay ahead, either in terms of difficulty or indeed safety. But at this level, for me personally, the white noise was becoming deafening. I felt sure the climbing was within my physical capabilities, but the risk? I wasn’t sure. This was new ground in every sense.
The next hour passed in slow motion, watching Nick slowly adsorb to the cliff. No noises, no wobbles, indeed no external signs of the cranking hypertension searing through his every muscle. Grade 10 to clear the roof, then sustained 9 for fully 15m. One little clutch of protection at halfway. Nothing else. As the rope etched out an increasingly long, loose arc from this island of safety I traced his potential trajectory down for 10m, then the big swing sideways, rope castrating against a perfect knife edge of granite. But still he moved on, feet popping occasionally from slight diagonal breaks, then at once tucked away up by his axes desparately trying to clear a final bulge. I felt faint at the thought it could have been me. Then, out of this harrowing silence came his strangely reluctant droll, “Raat then Robbow, I think we’ve got theess bastad now”. Nevermore – five piches, solid X,10.
Strictly speaking, I can’t say that Nick’s ascent of both hard pitches on Nevermore was the first on-sight of a new grade X winter route, but I can say that in my view it was probably about as close as anyone’s got to it. It isn’t a particularly ‘new wave’ line, and it certainly wouldn’t be graded M-ridiculous if you stuck a load of bolts in it and climbed it without the snow and ice. But it clearly demonstrates we’ve got a way to go in terms of questing new realms of difficulty in the psychological battleground of traditional winter climbing.
It also puts this most exquistive and beguiling of cliffs most firmly back on the cutting edge winter climbing map :-)