Ascent Into Madness

Ascent Into Madness.

It is the last day of the Highball winter trip, and tomorrow we will pile into our cars and head home, mainly to Norwich, but also the greater districts of Norfolk and also Switzerland.  So what to do?  Mike tells us the rule is 'Last Day Go Big!'.  We try not to catch his eye, but he chases us, shouting 'Get on The Ben!' 

Therefore we look for a moderate length route, with a tiny walk-in and loads of quality stars. No contest really, Curved Ridge up Buchaille Etive Mor will do nicely.  As long as we beat the crowds!

We are walking in by half-past.  It doesn't look too busy, fuck knows what the North face of the Ben would be like with its declining avalanche risk, routes coming into condition like fruiting tomatoes and on a Saturday too.

The team is Peter Naylor, Adam Fearn, Adam 'Swiss Cheese' Alami and me, Peter Goulding.  Two Petes and two Adams.  This throws an added dimension into things: how do we pair up?  Into Team Pete and Team Adam?  or Team Pete and Adam, and Team Pete and Adam?  It sound insignificant, but could be important.  

'Safe Pete!' - 'Off Belay Adam!' - 'AAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!' splat.  Wrong Adam, Wrong Pete.  Its been a tiring week and we all laugh hysterically at the thought.

We get to the start of the route and find out that in actual fact we are not the early birds we thought.  Three ropes (pairs of climbers) are already getting established - thoroughly established, they look like they are camping on the first pitches rather than climbing them- and we are in danger of getting hemmed in by a group of old boys who look like they know what they are doing.

No problem for the Swiss Machine, he is off like Ueli Steck.  We tell the climbers in front that his surname really is Steck, and they believe us.  We trail up his footsteps, bypassing the first couple of pitches.  This is a shame, the first ice pitch looks fantastic, but time is ticking...

On we crack.  I go with Swiss Adam, because we have the same stupid sense of humour and have bonded discussing our imaginary band 'El Montaigneros', for which the world is not yet ready.  

Pete Naylor looks relieved, he has been climbing with (Swiss) Adam all week.  "I definitely think I would be less tired if I had been with anyone else.  Like, literally, anyone.'  Adam Fearn is just blissed out from the greatest week's mountaineering had by anyone anywhere and goes with the flow.
Adam Fearn tops off his week's mountaineering.

We saunter up the first few pitches, then set up belay just below a mixed rock and ice pitch that looks pretty fun.  A couple are already on it, the bloke, leading disappears out of sight, and we wait patiently for him to shout down and for her to start up.

Pete Naylor decides to further Adam's education in British customs.  

'This is just like waiting in a queue in a Post Office.'  We all nod and agree, how lucky we are to be experiencing such a queue.  'Yep.   There's always a load of grannies hanging around cashing their pensions.

The female climber, just about starting up the route and trying out a few holds looks round.

'I hope that's not me you are talking about,' she shouts.

Excellent: another great British experience - mortifying embarrassment derived form an offhand misunderstood comment.   Pete Naylor visibly shrinks, and we nearly roll off the stance laughing.

Anyway, the couple rapidly disappear, and we start yarding up, cruising it, in bright sunshine.  At the next belay, me and Alpine Adam treat the Scottish hills to an air guitar duet, and Pete Naylor accompanies with his ice-axe, mid pitch.

We have never been closer to totally cracking up.  We have had a week of early starts and the sleep-deprivation of hostel life - last night a couple had a thoroughly self-indulgent row at three in the morning, some knob was playing bongos at two on the first night, and dorm 5 was cleared by two Scottish lads snoring after a night on the lash mid-week.  Now it is taking its toll.

I step high and my shin absolutely explodes with pain. I grunt and scream, making 'aargh' noises to release the agony.  Adam thinks this is one of our games and starts roaring like a lion and giggling.  It does not help.

We come to the top of the ridge proper.  There is a snowy slope to cross before gaining the notch at the top of Ranch wall.  I am not super keen on the look of it, despite the diminishing avalanche forecast.  We stay roped and off I crack.

I am a third of the way across when I hear a thump, Adam shouts a warning - happily in English rather than French, and I see from the corner of my eye ice, dislodge and fall from the wall above.

FUCK!  I stap my axes in, get my helmet down, like a synthetic clad tortoise.

The world's tiniest flutter of snow patters down around my head.   It is not even a snowball's worth.

'Perhaps it was not so serious,' he grins.  'Your reactions were good though, you did not look up to see it.' He does an impression of a rabbit caught in the headlights.  I can't decide if I am laughing from the release of tension or the daft look on his face.

"Fuckit,' I giggle.  'Lets get across here before something more serious happens.'

The others catch up, more laughter and jokes, then I lead up to what surely must be the last belay before the exit slopes up to the summit.  Unfortunately, its a faff dragging rope through my belay plate (its one of those with the little ridges to add friction), and Adam is back in Ueli Steck Mode.  Result, slack builds up and drops into a slot between rocks.

For fuck's sake.

Ueli-fucking-Steck Adam finds it cannot simply be flicked out.  Now, this is not the first time we have seen such an occurrence this week.  Two days before, he and Pete had been behind two Russian climbers on a the Douglas Boulder. The second had been caught in a terrible situation.  Climbing on twin ropes, one rope had been slack and snagged around a lump of rock and ice, while his leader belaying had pulled him tight on the other rope.  He was totally locked in, and screamed 'NAKAMURA!  NAKAMURA! NAAAAKKKAAAMMMMUUUURRRAA!' which  means 'slack on red, dickhead'.  In Russian.

It would have been an extremely serious situation had he not been four feet off the ground.  Pete and Adam had found it very funny.
The face of Nakamura

Now, the same situation is happening to us.  We all take turns shouting "Nakamura! Naaakkaaammmuuurraaa!' around the hillside.  I am up at the belay above, so am spared the full hilarity, but nonetheless, tears of laughter run down my face, and I cannot breath properly.  Which is okay, as I have nothing else to do, apart from jiggle the rope around.

Eventually, rope freed we plod off.  Few more pitches to go?  Evidently not.  As I round the next corner I see an Irish climber strolling towards me.

Now, Swiss Adam inexplicably has a bit of a thing about the Irish.  Earlier in the week he met an Irish guide outside the CIC hut and loudly asked 'Why ees he talking in thees silly way?'  Now he turns to me after we have chatted for a few minutes.

'That man.  He is Irish?'

'Yes, well spotted.'

'I could smell it.'

All hope of peace between ostensibly neutral nations lost, we turn to admiring the view.  Scotland now looks like the Alps, there are literally hundreds of peaks we can see.  I recognise The Ben, which is easy, then pick out the Cuillin ridge over on Skye, Ben Lawers range to the south (I know it because my mate is the ranger there), and tons - tons! - more peaks.  The weather is bright sunshine and crystal clear.  Later that day Astronaut Tim Peak  posts a picture of Scotland from space showing not a cloud over it, when he should be working on space science.  I forgive him, as I think about climbing when I should be working too.

We get some other climbers to take pictures of us.  One helpfully takes the worst pictures ever confident he will never see us again.

Twats on the top.

Adam Fearn sums it all up.  He doesn't say a lot, but its worth hearing.

'This week I've done Aonach Eagach, Tower Ridge and whatever that grade V was with Serge.  This is the best day though.  The company, the crack has just made it.'

He looks down at his boots.

'And now I am absolutely knackered.' 

All that done, we head down.  On the way down, Malt Swissky Adam treats us to some demonstrations of high quality ice-axe work.  As I spot him, he explodes off and sweeps his axe through my thigh like a fucking scythe.  

As a result I let him fly down the hill, while Pete and Adam jump on him stop him going down the hill.   My hand is clamped over my thigh.  I do not want to look at it.  I can't feel blood.  I risk spreading my fingers...

It hasn't even torn my trousers.  Blunt!

Down we go, without further incident, for recovery drinks at the Clachaig.  We had a great week, we all got some amazing ticks (facial in some cases), but that was the best day - People go to the mountains for different reasons.  I go for the friendship.

Photos thanks to Peter Naylor.  If you go climbing, take a professional photographer.