Scotland 2022, Take 2 gets off to a fantastic start when I grind the side of my car against the dreaded layby rock less than 30min after departure. After a brief stop to confirm my car is still in its usual (relative) working order, I skip up the motorway from Lancaster to Gretna to my usual last stop in Glasgow. Traffic is light and the drive is fantastic and the views so superb past Glasgow that I don’t even mind getting stuck behind someone doing 35mph on a 60pmh road for an hour… honest! The A82 almost matches my beloved stretch of the A5 in terms of wonder and the difference between the valley four months ago and the valley in June is striking. But I’m also surprised to see- Is that snow??- on the Buachaille. The difference between schlepping all my gear to the Lagangarbh in the early evening sun this time and in the night-time freezing winter rain last time is also striking(ly pleasant).
It’s another little group of us SMC folk this time around, and three of us- Harriet, Anthony and myself- make plans to do the CMD Arete up the Ben the following day, heeding the forecast of intermittent showers (which never really materialized). An earlyish start the next day allows us to make our way along the arete at a leisurely pace, popping over the edge and onto the top of the UK by 2pm. Having not been to the top before, I was glad of the opportunity to take the scenic route.
The arete is a lovely way up and along, proceeded by some unpleasant and boggy slogging up a hill. But once you are on the red rock, it’s a delightful ridge, very easy on the head in low wind, and we skip and scramble and laugh our way along it. It is quiet until the top of the Ben, where we encounter those who have come up the tourist path which zig-zags up the mountain’s back. There is a bit of a circus up there, featuring many a shirtless ‘strongman’, as well as Anthony failing magnificently to slide down a snowy slope. And there is more snow than I recall seeing from afar in February! We stop for lunch, and then make our way rapidly down the tourist path, Anthony giving dubious ETA estimates to various groups as we go. The rain starts shortly before we get to the car and we reconvene with the rest of the group by 7pm in the Lagangarbh.
The next day, everyone heads to Polldubh for some cragging. Pulling up in Glen Nevis is dreamy, hot blue skies, bubbling stream, green mountain-sides to the right, gorgeous little mica schist crags peeking out at us from the trees on the left. Polldubh is actually the name of one of these dozen-or-so crags, but the name has come to describe the whole area. Anthony and Rob split off left to tackle an HVS, which they ended up turning into a bit of an E1 by the sound of it! Emma and Al split off right to find Repton, and Harriet and I went straight up the middle in search of the Flying Dutchman- the top of which I clearly spot from the road but somehow manage to loose in the ten minute walk in… Half an hour of pratting about talking ourselves into terrible route finding and we decided instead to join Em and Al at the top of Pinnacle Ridge.
Having finally found our feet and bearings (sort of) we scrambled past the first pitch of Flying Dutchman (S) and I racked up to lead the second and feature pitch. I clambered up to the start of the slab, which is traversed in an upward leftward diagonal with little gear. I have recently become a bit notorious for favouring my bold slabs, so I enjoyed this immensely. Good gear is placed before you pull yourself over the left corner of the overhang above the slab, and you’re done. Simply comfortable, fun climbing- and the view from the belay as Harriet followed up was just indescribable and impossible to do it justice. (Go and have a look for yourself- I’ll come along- any excuse!) The rich greenery of the valley, the Mamores lofty above and the isolated feel of it all, despite being so close to tourist hotspots like the Steall Waterfall below, were remarkable. I decided it was probably the most atmospheric place I’d climbed, and a new contender for favourite crag.
Harriet finished Flying Dutchman for us, and afterward lead Three Pines. A rather magnificent slug adopted my rucksack as its new home as we lunched in the relatively midge-free shade. I gently pried it off with my nut-key, a use which, in my opinion, DMM should add to the product description.
I get the bright idea at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, dog tired and sweating in the valley heat, to try a VS 5a with optional HVS direct finish. In my head, I’m planning on the HVS finish, but my first VS 5a would be a victory, too. I’d also been trying to push myself to get off the slab and engage with climbs which necessitate placing gear while working up a steady pump… I’d also been looking for a nasty crack with good gear to fall off of again, having not taken a fall outdoors in a couple of weeks.
Whatever the outcome, I’d be a winner.
As it turns out, I got my fall- though perhaps a bigger one than I’d planned. Clapham Junction is a 10m crack of varying widths, blocky angles coming together in pinch points which- from the ground- all appear to supply bomber nut placements and solid, if a little thoughtful, laybacks. Upon closer inspection (mid climb) I found the crack to be outward sloping and the laybacks to give out half way up, at approximately the same time that the footholds give out. 3m from the top, I’ve got a couple of convincing nuts placed but run out of steam shortly past the gear. ‘Take!’ and I’m off. The two nuts are solid as I drop onto them, but everything below it pops out. Shake it out, go up again.
A metre above the gear, I’m at the crossroads between heading straight up for the HVS finish or traversing right for the VS finish. Neither looks convincing, and my forearms are fucked. I head right based solely on the grade, which I will later regret. A couple beats later and I’m halfway through the finger traverse to the finish onto the arete. I can’t find a smear, never mind anything resembling a foothold. I know I’m not going to make it, I know I can’t move backwards. Somewhere in the back of my head I know I’ve got to just fall, but that carefully evolved part of my human brain tells me to do something, anything to try to prevent it. The split-second maths we are suddenly able to do in such a situation tells me that 2 metres diagonal right from gear + 2 metres when doubled + rope stretch, on a 10m climb, 1m from the top = ending up quite close to my belayer and the floor. So I grab my smallest cam (0.3) and place it in the finger crack.
It’s absolute shit. A 0.2 might have had more luck with a deeper placement, but it’s doubtful. Either way, I clip the cam knowing it’s shit, shout ‘take’ and try to slip as gently as possible onto the cam, praying it somehow bites.
I watch the cam, it’s vivid metallic blue, rip out of the crack in slow motion. There is a snapshot of Glen Nevis tilted to the right at an unnatural angle, then the back of my helmet whacks into the ropes. The steadying of self is the work of a subconscious second. I notice I suddenly have a headache, pulse thumping against temples. I look up to the nuts above me, holding, and look below to Harriet who is now surprisingly much closer than she was a couple of seconds ago. ‘You alright?’ I ask. She laughs, ‘Are you??’ I am, and I slap the rock in annoyance, swing my legs in a huff as I study what’s above me.
I’m too beat to try again and groan at the thought of having to set up an ab to retrieve gear when, just to my delight, Anthony appears at the base of the crag as unknowing victim/volunteer to finish the climb. He bosses it and the ankle/spine/life-saving nuts are retrieved. Everyone has a go and I at least get to watch them all make it look difficult- the best ego boost! Walking back to the car, I’m jazzed to have had my long-awaited first trad whipper and debrief with myself that evening to ensure it builds rather than hurts my headgame.
The next day, Anthony, Emma and Harriet leave early to do Agags Groove up Buachaille Etive Mor straight from the hut. Rob and Al have plans to have a lie in and then cycle a portion of the West Highland Way. Feeling beat up and tired, I’d planned to take a relaxed ‘active rest day’ and go for a low-level wonder on my own. I spend the morning quizzing Rob and Al about how they got into alpine and ice climbing, gleaning that delicious advice, wisdom and the stories you only gain by catching more experienced climbers unawares, cornering them in mountain huts or outside their tents and vans in campsites, and asking questions and listening intently until you suspect they’ve had enough.
They depart and I leave the hut soon after under the premise of a ‘mellow, meandering solo walk’. Somehow, funnily enough, I find myself at the base of Great Gully on the Buachaille. I’ll just have a look, I think. It must be noted that my natural pace is a bit swift, so when I decided 10min in that I was going to practice not stopping to rest- resting on the move, controlling breathing, etc- it’s no surprise really that I was at the top of the gully 1hr6min after putting the hut key back in the lockbox. At midday, the light rock of the gully functioned like a tanner’s foil reflecting mirror, focussing the June heat in on you from all sides, and by the time I’d reached the top, I was bright red, sweating and had thrown up in my mouth a little bit. It was great fun, and I quickly moved along to the top of Stob Dearg by 1hr25min.
I gleefully settled in to await the arrival of our SMC climbing party, hoping to see their heads pop over the top out of Curved Ridge any minute now. In the end, I sat writing and eating my lunch for an hour and a half before the arrival of the ubiquitous shirtless men of a fine British summer day, playing noughties club hits out their backpacks, helped me decide it was time to descend back into the valley. Before I left, I made the most of having phone signal for a change to book a table in a Glencoe pub, where the group found themselves that evening, enjoying surprisingly fine (too fine for us, to be sure!) dining.
That evening, our last in the Lagangarbh, we laughed pint and whiskey-stoked laughs and celebrated what had been a truly lovely and successful few days back in Scotland. Murmurs about a return at the end of the summer- once the worst of the midgies had vacated- faded into yawns as we locked the hut to prevent any more curious walkers from poking their heads in again- Basic guided tour just £5! Luxury tour £10 and includes a cup of tea!- and ascended to sleeping bags left unzipped throughout the hot perpetual twilight of a Highland summer night.
The following day, I departed first at 7am, but what should have been a 7hr journey home turned into a +9hr journey home amidst growing bank holiday Sunday traffic (apparently there was a jubilee or some such thing going on back in civilization…?) and I crashed back into my new home that evening, elated and dead beat. Knowing I had one day at home before I was to head back out and on to N Wales, I frantically tried to wash out the Scottish summer sweat to make room for N Wales drizzle- and didn’t bother to unpack.