Living on the Edge
By Neil Reid
An account of a winter ascent by Colin McGregor and Neil Reid of Quartzvein Edge in the Cairngorms, in March 2002.
I was sure Colin was going to fall. I was so sure that I’d picked out the line he would fall; how the rope would whip my legs from under me and – assuming the belay held – pin them against the wall; how I should have enough rope to lower him to a ledge. After that it would depend on whether he was conscious whether I would be able to ab down to him, whether I would be able to lower him to the bottom of the cliff. Whether, whether, whether. Too many whethers, but I knew he was going to fall.
Later he confessed he’d been equally sure and had worked out much the same calculations, but even had I known that then it would have made no difference: I knew it and I was resigned. It was just a matter of waiting.
It had all started, as these things do, lightly enough, with a walk in to Bob Scott’s Bothy on the Friday night and a convivial evening with some guys we’d met there before. Morning came with sunshine and the walk up Glen Derry was pleasant if, as usual, tiring under heavy winter climbing sacks. We were headed for Creagan a Choire Etchachan, with a choice of routes to be made once we were there, and as we approached the Hutchison Hut in Coire Etchachan we could see the cliff was well plastered with white stuff. Even if there was a lot of fresh stuff in the glen floor, making progress laborious in places, it was looking good.
Arriving at the bothy, though, we got the bad news from two climbers in residence: yesterday the cliff had been almost bare – all the white we saw there had fallen overnight. Even so, it wasn’t too much of a blow to our plans, for one of the options had always been Quartzvein Edge, a 120 metre Grade III on the leftmost boundary of the cliff which was said by the guidebook to be possible under most conditions. Colin was certainly happy enough with it, and my usual pre-climb trepidation was considerably tempered by the fact it was a route I wanted to do, and had already done in summer, when it was graded Moderate – which meant there were rock holds.
Getting to the foot of the route was a trial, climbing snow which was both steep and worryingly deep and unconsolidated, and once there we noted that, by contrast, the rock seemed fairly bare of snow, but I knew there would be white stuff lying on the ledges, invisible from below, and repeated to myself that, at worst, it would be a moderate rock climb. For Colin’s part… well, there he was in front of a climb: he could do nothing but climb it.
A belay arranged, he set off upwards, acting true to form by choosing a steep line up rock, involving much scraping of axes and teetering of crampons, but I had my eye on a snow ramp to the left, which led back right to the top of the steep section. The fact that Colin had found no protection on the rocks meant I could take my variation when it came time to follow, but it was no cakewalk: the snow was a thin covering over slabs and grit and, if the angle was less, I still scraped and teetered – a process which continued up to Colin’s belay, with the snow less than ideal. Not quite the moderate I’d imagined.
The next pitch was mine, and started well up an easy angled groove, with snow that would take kicked steps, but any relief I felt was short lived.
At a poor piece of protection I was faced with a choice of routes. One, which we reckoned later was the proper route, looked easier, but it led round out of sight into who knew what sort of terrain. The other was the route I’d taken on that summer ascent some years earlier, up steep, stepped slabs into a corner by a false tower.
On Colin’s urging (sensible under the circumstances) I took this route, but after the first couple of moves it became apparent I was in trouble. What had been easy, flat footholds in summer became hugely more precarious in big boots and crampons, and the flat, steadying handholds which had served for balance in summer provided none of the positive placements I could haul myself up on in winter.
The nature of the rock meant progress was by great lurches from step to step, greater than I could make on balance alone, but with nothing to nail an axe in for support. Mitts off and axes dangling, I scraped wet snow from rock to find handholds I knew would not take my weight if I slipped, got my balance as well adjusted as I could, and heaved a foot up onto the next step. Then scrape it around to get it secure so it wouldn’t slip when I moved my weight upwards. Check handholds again, search for better, settle for what I had. Then a slight rock backwards and lurch upwards, straightening the leg and trying not to let the foot move; finding a hold for the other foot.
Then it was a gasping for breath from the effort and the nervous strain – and time to do it all again, and again.
Colin was later to come up this section hooking and whooping with delight, but it was the hardest winter climbing I’d done, made worse by the fact I could find no protection. Even reaching the corner didn’t reveal any placements, but a hopeful site beckoned a few feet above and with some desperately insecure moves I heaved myself up the steeper corner to half a stance at the top.
The placement, of course, wasn’t, and I had to footer about for a while arranging a dubious piece of protection which would only hold an upward fall, draping a sling over a knob of rock to convert it for the more conventional type of fall – as long as the sling didn’t slip off! – before looking ahead.
And it was horrible.
One look convinced me I was going no further: a steep, holdless groove with only a light dusting of snow. I was mentally and physically shattered and decided that, come what my, I had to convert that shaky runner into a belay. Much scraping around uncovered a crack which took a passable nut, but it still wasn’t very confidence inspiring. Then I found the crack: a beautiful sharp-edged crack just asking for a piton. I didn’t have a piton, but a warthog was pressed into service and hammered home until it was welded to the rock. Solid.
My stance was another matter. I described it earlier as half a stance, for that’s what it was: one good foothold that would take almost the whole of my left foot, a choice of two other smaller footholds neither of which could be used for longer than a few minutes before they became uncomfortable, and a wall I could lean against to relive my left leg at the expense of tiring my right. I was to become very familiar with each of these and long to get away from them.
Colin, as mentioned, came whooping up the pitch, relieved to be moving again after the time I had taken, but as he made himself secure just above me even he took pause for thought at the sight of what lay ahead.
Gear swapped over he made a tentative start, gently probing through surface snow to reveal nothing usable underneath, exploring possible hooks with the tips of his picks, trying vague possibilities of footholds with his feet, and when none of that produced nothing you could call a positive hold, one that might have taken his weight on its own, he edged out anyway on friction and balance, inching up the rock, shifting his weight slowly and carefully before moving a limb, feeling for each new hold with a vital delicacy to avoid disturbing his other points of contact.
It was like trying to climb on the Etive Slabs, but with crampons and axes instead of rock boots and hands, and as he moved so painfully slowly I let out the minimum of slack, careful not to let the rope tighten either, as that would have been enough to pull him off, but holding the rope always in a position more convenient for taking in rapidly than letting out, for it was here I was afraid, then was sure, he was going to fall.
He said later that, technically, it was the hardest winter route he’d done, but he did it proud, making the most of whatever faint hint of a hold there was: a wobbling hook here, a tuft of poorly adhering moss there, a scrape of that sandy turf that refuses to freeze or take a pick. Slowly, slowly he made his way across to a last bulge before what looked like easier ground, and there he had to make a downward step onto bare slab, pausing long to search for alternatives before committing himself to the purest friction moves yet. Nerves taut, he went for it: a slow motion creep up nothingness with empty space beneath his heels…
Then shouts of joy! Holds, axe placements, a flat spot for his feet – the first piece of protection since leaving the belay. Even a chockstone-filled groove ahead that promised climbing of a saner variety.
It took a few minutes more to reach a belay, and time to set it up, but with that move he had it cracked.
By this time the light was getting dim and I was frozen to the core, alternating between shivering fit to shake myself off my stance and struggling to keep my eyes from closing, but as I derigged the belay (abandoning the warthog, which would have required a pneumatic drill to remove it) I stuffed a half packet of Dextrosol tablets into my mouth and crunched them down dryly, trying for a sugar rush to kickstart me into the pitch.
As I climbed it was as thin and tenuous as it had looked, and because the first part of the pitch was a rising traverse I could only occasionally make the traditional request for a tight rope and the prospect of a long swing off the slab and into space ever beckoned. By the time of the crux bulge, however, the rope was at a fine angle and, abandoning all vestiges of pride I called on Colin to haul like mad as I scraped and scrabbled my way up to the chockstone-filled groove, where I was able once more to climb with dignity and even some pleasure.
And that was it. A final pitch up easier ground and a final snow fan (mercifully of beautifully firm neve), and we were out on the open hillside. Pitch dark by now, of course, and a long, weary walk down the glen, but we stopped in by the Hutchison and were treated to a half-litre mug of hot tea from the two climbers there, who had returned just ahead of us, and that helped us on the way.
Then it was ‘home’ to Bob Scott’s and another welcome from a by now quite worried Angus, who we’d shared the hut with on Friday night, before spending a traditionally alcoholic Luibeg night.
Got off with it again.
Footnote: For anyone contemplating this route themselves, subsequent study of a more detailed description in the original guidebook indicated we should have taken the lower shelf, which would have led round to a steeper but apparently easier ascent to where Colin belayed after our crux pitch. The current guidebook, with references to the false tower, implies the route we took, but it’s hard to see how this would ever go at Grade III unless particularly well banked out with neve.