A Load of Cobblers…

“I know what you’re thinking; did you hit it 4 times or 5? To tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I kinda lost track myself, but given you’re on the crux move of the route, your only runner is this half inserted warthog, and your belayer’s attached to a pair of axes buried in cruddy soft snow, you have to ask yourself “do you feel lucky punk – well do ya?

Still managing a grin!

Still managing a grin!

In truth, the little rock step half way up Great Gully on the Cobbler isn’t that complex a problem to resolve; better mountaineers than me would probably barely register it as they romped on past. Sadly, I am not a better mountaineer,  it wasn’t banked out, and the consequences of a screw up on my part for the other people on the rope didn’t really bear thinking about. At the other end of the scale from ‘better mountaineer’, I guess non-climbers might wonder exactly what the attraction is in standing perched on 4 little points of steel, calves beginning to feel the strain, with the gusting wind blowing armfuls of snow around and into your clothing. Contrary to what the Dorothy-Grace Elders of this world think, I don’t have a death wish – if I had, I wouldn’t have been having the internal conversation that was currently taking place. A couple of deep breaths, then I test the security of my crampon points – they feel secure, so I use them to push up a little higher, and that gets me within range of a decent handhold; one foot comes up onto a sloping rock that nonetheless offers enough friction to keep my crampon in place, and suddenly we’re moving; almost flowing, but we don’t want to be getting ahead of ourselves here. Hints and tips from better climbers, stored away in the mind over the years, come flooding back and I reach high with one axe, over the shelf and hook a decent little crack, which allows my other foot to come up, the second axe can now reach lovely frozen reassuring turfy snow, and suddenly I’m standing on the top of the shelf, body buzzing with the adrenaline rush that comes in the wake of receding nerves. A few metres up easy snow, and I arrive at a fracture in the rock which gulps down a meaty big hex, I clip the rope, and now I can relax and enjoy myself again as I make my way up to a big beautiful spike of a rock which offers a suitable spot from which to protect Katie and Alex as they make their way over the rock step and up to join me.

I keep the rope tight as they take their turn negotiating the rock step, and then Katie leads up the last section and brings Alex and myself out onto the summit of the Cobbler.  Great Gully is listed in the guide book as a Grade II, but we’re all agreed that in it’s current condition, it’s definitely “stiff for the grade”; one of those wonderfully euphemistic terms that gets bandied about in our pastime that hints at all sorts of tense moments, clenched buttocks and butterflies in the stomach.  It’s a wonderful example of what a proper scientific study (which this is not) might term “commitment creep”; at the outset of the day, we’d had the usual chat on the way up the hill about our expectations for the day, during which the three of us had clearly stated our commitment to not sticking our necks out for the sake of adding a couple of grade II gullies to our logbooks, given it’s not the sort of climbing that’s going to have Mick Fowler worrying about his chances of collecting the Piolet d’Or later in the year.

First on our list in the morning had been Chockstone Gully, a grade II climb notable for the quirky finish which requires you to burrow out through the snow under a massive chockstone which sits at the top of the climb. At this late stage in the season, most of the hard work had already been done, but it still required me to slide off my rucksack and push it ahead of me before I could deploy the technical climbing technique of graceless ‘thrutching’ to squirm my way up and out and belay Katie and Alex up and out of the hole. Dusting ourselves off and sorting out our kit, we were able to take stock of our situation; the sun had come out while we’d been in the gully, and we had emerged to a glorious view as the sun played over the snow plastered summits of the Cobbler.

Up ahead of us, the second part of our outing beckoned; Great Gully is a slightly harder proposition, especially in the current lean conditions as the start to the route involves negotiating another chockstone, although this one involved some proper rock climbing, rather than squirming about in the snow.  Above this, an easy angled snow slope led to the rocky step, although the soft, slabby nature of the snow meant care was still required. I worked up to the base of the step, then spend a fruitless 10 minutes digging about in the snow looking for cracks in the rock which might offer a solid placement. Sadly, nothing was forthcoming, which meant we were going to have to work with a reinforced buried axe, which given the current snow conditions, wasn’t the most reassuring option. Above us, the tricky rock step loomed, and as I found myself perched on my crampon points a few minutes later, this morning’s commitment to non-committed climbing seemed to have evaporated somewhere along the way. Never mind that across the mountains of Scotland better climbers than me were cruising harder problems effortlessly; this was my problem, my chance at my own internal ‘Piolet d’Or’ on a crux that would be laughably easy for others, a chance for an exploration into the internal workings of Neil Pratt: Punter Climber. Somehow, there is the awareness that, at this precise point, you exist in a quantum state; two possible Neils go on from this point; the one who steps back down and retreats, or the Neil who makes it to the top. Only one can exist; whatever happens, one Neil dies at this point – no way of knowing which would be the better husband, brother, friend…

“so, the question you have to ask yourself is; do you feel lucky punk? Well, do ya?”

Sron Na Creise: What Goes Up, Must Come Down…

Waking up at 5.00am to the sound of wind rattling the bins outside is never that great a motivator for a winter day, especially when it requires you to leave the comforting warmth of your wife snuggled up beside you and get dressed in a house a full 90mins before the central heating kicks in. Given the weather, and avalanche, forecast for the day were both pretty crap, I was strongly tempted to roll over and snooze for an hour or so before sending the “sorry, I slept in” text, which is roughly the winter climbing equivalent of “I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me”; it might ease your conscience a bit, but it’s fooling no one.

Self-discipline, and vague guilt, got me out of bed, and I actually ended up being first to arrive at the Green Welly in Tyndrum, where we’d arranged to eat breakfast and make a final decision about where we’d head for the day. There was a general air of pessimism about the conditions we were likely to encounter; winds gusting to 75mph were forecast meant lots of blowing snow to reduce visibility higher up. More worryingly, it also meant lots of fresh windslab sitting on top of old hard snow, which is a perfect recipe for avalanches. With that in mind, we put a pen through all the gully options, and settled on going for a look at Sron Na Creise, a grade II winter buttress route that offers lots of variations to make things harder or easier. It also had the option of a descent route to the SE, which was being reported by the SAIS as the safest direction of travel. Fortified by a bacon roll and a coffee, we set off for the Glen Coe ski centre.

Andy on the lower ice step

Andy on the lower ice step

Things started to look up when we parked at the ski centre, as the lower slopes were holding a lot less snow than we’d feared, meaning that our approach to the base of the Sron Na Creise ridge was likely to be fairly straightforward. A 30 min walk round to the base of the route confirmed this assessment, and we were able to pick our way quickly upwards on increasingly well frozen ground that was mercifully free of deep snow. More interestingly yet, the rock at the base of the route had a generous covering of ice, which offered a considerably more engaging route upwards than the snow slope to the left. We opted to solo our way up the first section, finding our way past sections of hollow crumbly crud and making good time up solid clear ice which offered secure placements for our axes. There were two or three ice steps, with flatter snow sections between, which eventually led us to a point where we had to choose between a section of snowed up, slabby rock or a ropey looking snow field. We opted for the rock, and made our way across balancing on front points and using a mix of small positive handholds and friction for hands.

Dropping off the back of this outcrop, we found ourselves gingerly crossing a short, narrow section of soft slabby snow which increased the ‘pucker factor’ no end, and I was extremely grateful to hear the sound of my crampons scraping rock when we reached the other side. From there, we worked our way up a firmer snow slope which was well scoured and safe, before arriving at the last few rock steps before the summit.

There were a couple of route options, one of which meant climbing a short snow slope and up a little icy runnel onto safe ground, and another which had a short rocky step which was technically harder but safer in the event of a mishap. Michael had a look at the rock step, decided it was a bit ‘thin’ and opted for the easier, but more exposed option on the right. For some reason I decided that I could tackle the rock step, despite Mr T being a considerably better rock climber than me. I had ample opportunity to reflect on the stupidity of this choice a few minutes later, while picking myself up and checking myself for injuries having ‘decked out’ after the first couple of moves. I revised my option to ‘thin’ and followed Michael’s route out to the right. Andy had decided that he didn’t fancy soloing this section, so I led up the little runnel and belayed him up off a handy spike at the top.

We had a short section of easy angled ground to cover, and then we found ourselves on the main ridge and out in the full force of the wind. None of us had any burning desire to hang around so we sorted out kit and reviewed our options for getting back down. Option A had been a descent down the easier ground to one side of the Sron Na Creise, but we’d seen enough of the snow conditions on the way up to know that was a non-starter. Our next option was descending off the east side of the summit about 750m away, so we set off in that direction. My helmet was beginning to interfere with my goggles and I opted to pause to take it off, but made the mistake of laying it on the ground as I opened my rucksack and was treated to the sight of my helmet disappearing off towards Buachaille Etive Mor. We arrived at the summit, had a look down the slope at option B and all agreed that it was pretty uninviting, which left us with option C; a long slog up and over the munro Creise, then descending to find the little ridge that ran off east towards Meall a Bhuiridh and the top of the ski centre. It was a long way home, but it was also the most likely option for actually making it home, so off we went.

By the time we made it over Creise, we were well above the cloud base, which made finding the top of the ridge in the murk and spindrift an interesting exercise in micro navigation. Eventually, Michael picked up the start of the ridge, and we made our way down and across the little saddle just in time for the clouds to part and reveal the steep narrow ridge that led up to Meall a Bhuiridh. We were all struggling to find the energy to get up the hill, but acutely aware we were running out of daylight as we laboured up along a narrow band of soft corniced snow which made the going purgatorial. The summit marker of Meall a Bhuiridh is a pretty anti-climactic wooden fence post, but I’d have happily kissed it when it eventually appeared out of the gloom.   A quick check of the map and compass took us over to the top of the ski tows, and from there it was a straightforward, but long 3km slog down the hill  and back to the car.

By the time we got there, darkness had fallen, and I was about as hungry as I can ever recall being, as I’d neglected to grab my lunch from the fridge in the morning and had fuelled my endeavours during the day on a packet of mixed nuts that was supposed to be my emergency backup.  None of that mattered now though, because we were back at the car, and the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum was only about 20 minutes drive away. If you’ve never eaten there, then there is a tragic gap in your life – they serve, amongst other things, the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted, along with a selection of gorgeous home baking and arriving there at the end of a hard day on the hill is like finding Xanadu. You can imagine the sense of real, tangible grief I experienced when I pulled into the car park at 8.23pm, staggered across to the front door on stiff, tired limbs, and discovered it shuts at 8.00pm in winter. At that precise point in time, I’m not sure I could have felt any worse emotionally if Catriona had rung to say the she was leaving me and taking the dogs. I was left with no option but to cross over to the garage at the Green Welly just before they shut as well, and fork out for stale cheese roll and a bag of crisps. It was a broken man who drove back past the Real Food Cafe, still tantalisingly illuminated in the dark, and the start of the long journey home.

Thankfully, Catriona phoned not long after, not to tell me that she and the dogs were off, but to let me know that she had a chicken Rogan Josh, with carrot, ginger and almond salad and some flatbreads waiting for me at home – sorry Real Food Cafe; you had your chance, but it looks like I’ll be hanging my harness somewhere else tonight.

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