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updated 18 Dec 2018

My Zero Gully Affair
 Robert McMurray

 To be honest I was thoroughly pissed off and jealous to boot. I had just come of the phone to one Colin McGregor, and sitting back down to my computer the phrases “best ice conditions on the Ben in a decade”, and “three consecutive weekends of perfect weather” were ringing in my ears.

It was the final year of my university degree and I had a dissertation to write. Whilst most sensible people will allow themselves to use a fair amount of the twelve months given to complete the twenty thousand-word assignment, myself in characteristic fashion, had allocated just four weeks. Unfortunately, for me these four weeks just happened to coincide with the best four weeks of an otherwise poor winter.

Ironically, whilst I certainly wasn’t getting in on any of the action, my dissertation was entitled ‘Delictual Liability in Mountaineering’, and so as usual, climbing was constantly on my mind. However, whilst I had been able to avoid the temptation thus far, this phone call had changed everything. I wanted in on the action.

The 2001/2002 winter hadn’t started out great. The highlight so far, being an exiting day out climbing the North East Ridge of Aonach Beag. A day in which we managed to give the other Steall Hut residents a fright by arriving back well after dark …

Consequently, I had hardly done any climbing this winter and my last day of exercise had been at least a month previously. Nevertheless, not to be undeterred by anything silly like that, I had great faith in Colin and therefore, a plan was to be hatched.

The choice of route was never really in question, though we did speak in whispers for a while. I wasn’t up for Orion Direct, Smiths was too steep, Colin had done everything else and so Zero it had to be. This choice was also helped by Andy Nisbet’s Scotland Online site, which assured that Zero was ‘fat’.

So I left my computer screen one Friday night in early April and began the predictable drive up to the Fort, full of thoughts of the morrow. The journey was uneventful, except for being stopped by the police in Methven. Whilst normally this routine check would be okay, only two days previously my dad had forced me to replace the two bald tyres and expired road tax, which I had been studiously avoiding for a while. I secretly thanked God.

I emerged in the Nevi-Sport bar and quickly located Colin, his bright red down-jacket clearly indicating his presence. Ken, a club member, asked my plans for tomorrow and I couldn’t truthfully reply, as if to do so would be to break the spell. I could only answer, “something big”, which I suspect had the same effect.

Colin was quick to dispel the hesitation when he told me, in no uncertain terms, what I would be doing. I was secretly relieved, as it really was going to happen but also apprehensive, as we still had to climb the route. Nonetheless, I took inspiration from my hero Walter Bonatti, whose portrait adorned the wall of the bar.

As it was near closing I only had time for a quick pint, before the drive to the car park at Torlundy. To say it was busy would be an understatement, as in fact the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn would appear quiet in comparison. Bodies lay everywhere and soon we were to do the same. Although, unlike most I just couldn’t sleep. Emerging from my bivi-bag at 4am I can honestly say I didn’t get a wink. Something which would come back to avenge me later.

Purgatory probably best describes the path up the Allt a’ Mhuillin and this morning was to be no different. Colin, fit from the previous weekends exertions, almost seemed to float, or so I thought. However, any perspiration on my part was more than made up for by the weather, which was truly glorious.

It was the type of morning where the mountains and the men who like to inhabit them, become alive and the early morning start, for once, seemed worth it. It was an amazing scene. The brilliant early morning light, making the ephemeral ice almost translucent in quality.

With little snow and brilliant runnels of climbable ice clinging ubiquitously to impenetrable rock walls, you would have been forgiven for thinking that you were somewhere else, other than Scotland. The only factor bringing you back to reality was the numerous black dots already sticking, quite literally, to the ice.

It is about now that I should mention my climbing boots for the day, most kindly donated to me by Colin. Earlier in the winter my own plastic boots, ironically purchased from Colin when I first joined the mountaineering club, had decided to self-destruct whilst on an abortive attempt to climb Quartzvien Edge on Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan in the Cairngorms. Gaffer tape from the climbing shop in Braemar had saved that weekend, but given that it coincided with the most snow anyone had seen in ages it didn’t make that much difference really.

Anyway, the boots were fine but my feet are normally a ten and a half and these were a full size smaller. Strangely enough I had no real problems on the way in, apart from them feeling a bit tight, and for climbing they were perfect. But the descent, well that’s another story.

The CIC hut past like an old friend, and I turned to salute another one, the superlative Carn Dearg Buttress. From there a slog with the legions brought us to the right-most side of the Orion Face, and the base of the fabled Zero Gully.

I heard it said recently that Zero Gully is a contender for the worlds most famous ice climb, even more than Point Five perhaps. And I think most will be aware of the legendary stories in the race for its first ascent, immortalised forever in Tom Patey’s celebrated essay, The Zero Gully Affair. Therefore, to stand at its base and to contemplate the climb is both exiting and unnerving.

It did look awesome and very steep, with an introductory icefall and then seemingly overhanging bulges out to the right, barring the way ahead. We did have the benefit of a party in front leading the way, but unfortunately they didn’t make the climbing look any easier.

Like many hard climbs the introduction was easy and with the benefit of hindsight, should have been soloed. I gladly led this though and belayed at the base of the first main pitch. Colin then took over and battled his way gracefully up the steep funnel of ice above.

It was soon becoming apparent why Zero is graded V,4 and so is technically easy for the grade but a serious climb nonetheless. The protection was very poor, and Colin’s belay was non-existent. I seconded the pitch, which was very steep and very bold for the lack of gear. I was careful not to fall, as on an earlier enquiry as to the quality of the belay, Colin had replied with, “It’s okay, but don’t fuckin fall off!”

It was whilst seconding this pitch that strangely enough, I won a bet. Earlier we had agreed that the first person to see Andy Nisbet, was to buy the other a pint. I had noticed him, or at least his beard, soloing up the face to the left. The pint was mine, but so was the next pitch.

In fairness, Colin got all the hard pitches that day, but nevertheless, traversing out from the belay it seemed hard enough. I can’t honestly remember if I placed much or any gear on that pitch, but after the initial traverse, a steep and hemmed in gully above terminated in a wall with another steep and deteriorating icefall to the right. Time for another belay I thought, the only problem was finding one. Eventually, I think I had two pegs inserted about a centimetre each into the wall and therefore, it was another no fall situation.

Colin came up and led through. The icefall was starting to fall to bits but there was enough, though not enough gear. Colin made short work of it though and disappeared out of view. It was about now that I started to feel something wasn’t right and my eyes were beginning to close. Sleep was catching up on me.

Shit I was struggling, and I honestly didn’t think I could stay awake. A couple of times I nearly did dose off.  The emergence of a climber coming up behind, and the shout “climb when your ready” from above, did the trick momentarily, but the next few pitches were a bit of a battle.

I began repeating the pitch and was shocked at how tired my arms had become. Very quickly, I was losing strength and thought I was off. At this moment I didn’t know the state of Colin’s belay, but the exposure was at it’s most awesome, and looking down on at least 250 feet near vertical ice, I hung on with all my strength.

A piece of ice gave way, and suddenly a foot popped which momentarily left me hanging off my ice axes. In a trouser filling second, I regained composure and thanked my axes for maintaining theirs. I carried on with the delicacy of a cat, carefully clawing my way up the ice, but with rapidly weakening arms.

I surmounted the icefall just, and entered an easier gully but with a small but very steep bulge at its top. This was short but turned out to be the steepest part of the climb and Colin reckoned getting on for technical 5. Fortunately for him, for the only time on the route there was a bomber wire just below the bulge. But for me though, it took absolutely everything I had to surmount it and I emerged at the belay in a bedraggled state, still fighting sleep deprivation and with arms of mush.

It’s amazing how quickly the body can recover when you have no choice, and alternating the leads on the next two pitches of about grade 3/4, the climb went smoothly. Both the climbing and ice was excellent and felt contrastingly more relaxed to the much harder climbing below.

By now though, we were faced with the easier upper part of the gully. It was an amazing place to be, suspended high on the face and emerging from the shadows of the lower gully back into the dazzling sunlight of the early afternoon. But unfortunately, the upper gully is solid grade 2 all the way and must go on for about 200 metres at least. In addition, there are no belays, and therefore climbing together with no runners is the only way to go. Consequently, it was excitement all the way to the top and the nervous tension was nearly overpowering.

Like any climb, Zero Gully had to end somewhere and watching Colin surmount the easy cornice was relief personified. When it was my turn, I was relieved to say the least and still in disbelief at what we had just done. It was a milestone for me. I thanked Colin for a great climb and we slumped down in the sunshine and lay for almost an hour embracing the now almost snow-less view to the east.

All I had to do now was get down Britain’s highest mountain in those boots and believe me, by the time I reached the half-way lochan I was ready to commence the rest of the descent in my socks. Had it not been for the bum slide down the Red Burn, this decision may have come sooner. I eventually reached a compromise by using just my inner socks inside my boots and painfully wobbled on down. I didn’t care though, I had just climbed Zero Gully.

Upon reaching the dam and looking up to the great cliffs I was in contemplative mood. Excellent day I thought, brilliant climb, but just another Nevis day really.