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updated 18 Dec 2018

A Day Out with the Climbers

By Neil Reid

From the BFMC Journal 3, September 1988


Shattered Crack and Hangmanís Crack, Buachaille Etive Mor, August 29, 1987

ďWhat are you doing today, Neil?Ē

That was Johnís first mistake, for before he knew it he had offered to let me climb with Jim and himself as a threesome. Worse Ė I said yes.

It was an informal meet at Glen Coe: I had camped at Coupall Bridge beside John and Jim Mitchell, Gavin Swinton and Derek Arnot. My plans, in the absence of a climbing partner, had involved nothing more than a wander up Curved Ridge, but Johnís offer put a new light on things.

ďWhat are you planning on doing then?Ē

ďA couple of VSs on the East Wall of the North Buttress,Ē responded John casually.

Oops! Iíd top-roped a short VS at Aberdour, but that was my limit Ė and very nearly beyond it. At the prospect of two Very Severe routes on the Buachaille I decided Curved Ridge was a good idea after all.

However several minutes later John repeated his offer, pointing out, quite guilelessly but with devastating effect, that if I thought the route looked too hard I could always traverse to Curved Ridge from the foot.

How could I argue? I didnít know it Ė or at least admit it to myself Ė but I had just committed myself to two of the hardest, yet most rewarding routes of my all too short climbing career.

Despite a warm sun the dreaded Glen Coe midges ensured a brisk, if somewhat sweaty, walk-in and we were soon roping up on the Terrace.

Gavin and Derek started on Brevity Crack (VS), while John led off on Shattered Crack, forbiddingly steep but with good holds on the first pitch, belaying in the sentry box of Shackle Route.

I followed, without too much difficulty, then Jim led through to the next pitch, containing the crux: a series of block overhangs split by a wide crack. Jim led splendidly and John followed, removing all the protection to ease the way for me. Sparse and awkward holds required strong fingers and superglue on the sole of one boot, but after a few desperate moments I was up and the rock eased back to allow more relaxed climbing to the top.

I managed so well I surprised myself. True, Iíd been glad of a tight rope at the crux, but if this was VS then I was ready for whatever was coming Ė or so I thought.

We had joined Gavin and Derek at the top and crossed Green Gully to the foot of the next climb: Hangmanís Crack.

Hangmanís Crack looks easy: a steep, right-angled corner with a crack of varying width at the back, leading up to a short traverse onto the right wall and one dodgy-looking move getting past a widely split overhanging block at the top.

Gavin leads off and by this time Iím so cocky I wonder whatís taking him so long. There does seem to be some problem with adequate protection, and as the plea comes down for a Number 2 Friend I decide it would be more tactful not to mention I have one in the boot of my car.

He reaches a flake, which inexplicably brings him to a halt. It looks so easy. After some hesitation he surmounts the obstacle and makes his way on to an awkward-looking mantelshelf move. It does look precarious, and Gavinís nervousness as he creeps upward is no secret. Heís already muttered dire curses on all mantelshelves while climbing the start of Brevity.

Much time passes before he finally reaches the top and, as Derek starts up, we get ourselves prepared.

Itís Johnís turn to lead, but immediately there are problems. The very first move off the ground seems to have him stumped and after a few attempts he relinquishes the lead to Jim, who manages to find the right sequence and carries on, barely any faster than Gavin. But itís so easy!

Just before the overhanging block the campaign looks in danger of foundering and, risking all, Jim shouts to Gavin for a t*p r*p* (Deletions at the insistence of the Presidentís hit squad) [The present editor presumes Jim Mitchell was president at this time]

The response is something to behold. Looking down through the split in the block is a grin like the Cheshire Cat.

ďIs that a t*p r*p* youíre asking for?Ē he asks, with a truly pitiful attempt at an innocent expression. If that grin was any wider the club could set up a caving section, and itís with rather unseemly glee he drops the t*p r*p*.

Unwilling to concede total defeat, Jim uses it only as a handhold for one move, but Gavin later reports, with another of his unseemly grins, that when he tries to lift it away it is snatched in a grip described as Ďvice-likeí.

Our leader up, John goes second, again stripping the route of protection. I wait impatiently. The blue sky is long gone now, and the cloud is lowering around us: itís getting rather chilly sitting down here.

At last I start Ö at last I start Ö at last Ö

Dammit! This is hard. I juggle my feet around several times before finding the key to start. From there to the flake is only nearly impossible and Iím cursing the seemingly ever-tightening rope from Jim, but the flake Ė ah, at the flake the rope canít be tight enough.

I take it all back, Gavin: with all the holds in the wrong places it requires an awkward move placing inordinate trust in the stability of a very unattached-looking flake.

No time for complacency though, for now itís that mantelshelf, only four inches or so wide and far too steep for comfort. Stretching up for barely usable holds Ė one a vertical rib and the other a flat fingers job on greasy rock Ė I lift myself inch by inch, toes desperately scrabbling on the smooth rock in a vain search for friction, eventually edging one foot onto the shelf and precariously balancing my way upright. Phew!

Thatís supposed to be the crux, but the difficulties are far from over as all the semi-reasonable holds in the crack are rendered useless by a greasy slime. Fingers rapidly losing both feeling and strength, the barest wrinkles have to be used and even though the rope is so tight by now Iíd probably fall upwards if I come off, itís nerve-wracking in the extreme. Gavin and Jim led this?

By the time I reach good holds under the overhang Iím trembling and gasping for air. But no rest. Jim has no mercy and, adding force to his argument by continued pulling on the rope, he advises on the next move. It looked hard from below and is even harder. The split is too wide for jamming and too narrow to chimney, so itís out to the left and a frantic scramble over the top, using everything but my teeth to gain purchase.

And itís done!

I sit at the top gasping for breath, shaking all over and almost laughing with relief. Nursed up on a rope tight enough to play tunes on, I may have been Ė but what a climb! Even a twisted neck (only now was the pain coming through) which kept me out of action for a fortnight couldnít detract from it. Thanks guys.