Hit and Miss but Always Stunning in Torridon

18 Feb

The West Buttress (IV, 4) rematch was on! Conditions were good, the forecast excellent and schemes were hatched – we would arrive on Thursday night, blitz Beinn Eighe Friday and enjoy two leisurely days of Liathach ice over the weekend. West Buttress, a modest mountaineering route, easy even, well within our abilities. We were fit, psyched, overflowing with beta from our conditions-thwarted attempt in November, unstoppable. We even had a Harrison with us. It was basically in the bag. Except it wasn’t…

Looking north from the entrance to West Central Gully

Looking north from the entrance to West Central Gully

 

A rope length off the deck and thrilled at the prospect of what's to come - it's basically in the bag, right?

A rope length off the deck and thrilled at the prospect of what’s to come – how hard can it possibly be, right?

 

A cold, breezy but beautiful walk was the prelude to a rapid ascent of the first part of West Central Gully. An incredible amphitheatre of steep quartzite loomed above, festooned with icicles and rime. Deep soft snow did nothing to hinder us and the mire of sketchy unfrozen crud from November was transformed into a straight-forward ascent.

Breathtaking surroundings on the West Central Gully start

Breathtaking surroundings on the West Central Gully start

 

Andy negotiates deep soft snow on the way to the famous cave belay

Andy negotiates deep soft snow on the way to the famous cave belay

 

Andy belaying attentively and looking thrilled to bits to be in such a spectacular place

Andy belaying attentively and looking thrilled to bits to be in such a spectacular place

 

Perched in our eyrie, sheltered from the wind, Andy and I shot the breeze while Debs raced across the quartzite to join the crest of the buttress. Another rope length followed, we were flying.

And then we weren’t. Stood below an improbable-looking wall we began to stall. I headed up a steep ramp, making for a crack in the top of the wall. It was doable, but hard and another team had found a way around. I reversed and we traversed right searching for weaknesses – the cliff band above giving us nothing. I eventually settled on a balancy rising traverse to gain a steep chimney. From below it looked amenable but in reality was physical and technical. By the time we regained the correct line we had lost two and a half hours.

No matter. We had plenty of daylight, straightforward climbing above and despite the worsening weather we pushed on to the final tier. Andy took the reigns – having been here before he knew exactly where to lead us. A big traverse right, a ramp to the left and then we were heading straight up to glory, the top a mere 40m above. What a pitch I thought, outrageous for the grade in fact…

Andy embarks on what we now know to be the Direct Finish as the light begins to fade and the wind picks up

Andy embarks on what we now know to be the Direct Finish (V, 6) as the light begins to fade and the wind picks up

 

Another view of the same section and about the time we realized this wasn't a grade IV pitch...

Another view of the same section and about the time we realized this wasn’t a grade IV pitch…

 

Hours later, in the dark, the wind howled and the spindrift stung our eyes. We could find the start of the normal finish, climb it, navigate off and descend in the maelstrom or do three long abseils and traverse into and down Fuselage Gully (II) to face bitter defeat and the long walk out. We chose the latter.

Debs and I reluctantly rested on Saturday but we were determined to salvage the weekend by climbing an easy classic on Sunday. George (III, 4) was just the ticket – a deep gully that we had wanted to do for years, set in the back of a stunning coire on my favourite hill.

The pink light of daybreak hits the tops of Beinn Alligin

The pink light of daybreak hits the tops of Beinn Alligin

 

Mesmerizing views on the way up to Corie Dubh Mor - looking north through Torridon to Loch Maree

Mesmerizing views on the way up to Corie Dubh Mor – looking north through Torridon to Loch Maree

 

Debs on the approach to the stunning Coire Dubh Mor. The line of George takes the deep gully on the right hand side of the crag

Debs on the approach to the stunning Coire Dubh Mor. The line of George takes the deep gully on the right hand side of the crag

 

The south flank of Beinn Eighe bathed in serene early morning light

The south flank of Beinn Eighe bathed in serene early morning light

 

Thin but getting there! Poachers Fall on the right around to Umbrella Fall on the left

Thin, but all there! Poachers Fall (V, 5) on the right around to Umbrella Falls (V, 5) on the left. Andy and Joe gearing up below.

 

Close-up of the brilliant Poachers Fall and Salmon Leap. Poachers looking a little thinner then when I last climbed it but certainly all there!

Close-up of the brilliant Poachers Fall and Salmon Leap. Poachers looking a little thinner than when I last climbed it in 2014.

 

Whilst it was indeed fantastic, George wasn’t exactly what I was expecting! There was no real ice to climb and all the cruxes were mixed – steep pulls over chockstones and wedged blocks.

Debs leads off on the first bit of climbing in the lower gully of George. We should have soloed to this section as the other teams did - the ground was easy and protection basically non-existent

Debs leads off on the first bit of climbing in the lower gully of George. We should have soloed to this section as the other teams did – the ground was easy and protection basically non-existent

 

A team behind surmounts the tricky new chockstone section

A team behind surmounts the tricky new chockstone section

 

We topped out in the early afternoon to be met with amazing views of the coires and Main Ridge of Liathach (II), where ant-like climbers could be seen traversing the pinnacles.

Mrs Riley in her element - beautiful views into Coire na Caime and on to Beinn Alligin

Mrs Riley in her element – beautiful views into Coire na Caime and on to Beinn Alligin

 

A party on the traverse reaches the top of Am Fasarinen

A party on the traverse reaches the top of Am Fasarinen

 

Am Fasarinen to Mullach an Rathain on the Liathach Main Ridge Traverse

Am Fasarinen to Mullach an Rathain on the Liathach Main Ridge Traverse

 

We made a non-trivial descent down the North Ridge of Spidean (I) and returned to the glen happy to have had such an adventurous weekend in a truly stunning place! West Buttress round 3 anyone?

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