The Winds of Change

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve refused to do this move. Again, I fail to commit, and step back down to the non-rest I’ve become stuck at. This pitch is relentless, I think, endless. Every single move is hard, the hooks are less than heroic, the angle and exposure maddening. At least the gear is pretty good, I can’t complain about that, even if I’ve placed most of the big stuff.

Trying to shake out, I contemplate the first ascent, and my respect for Andy Nisbet is renewed. How on earth he could have thought this deserved VII, 7 is beyond me. There’s barely a move that isn’t 7, and more than a few moves of 8. I’ve rarely used footwork like this before, matching mono points on tiny edges to create the correct angles on the torques. A total sandbag it is, the only reason I haven’t fallen off being that I can’t bear the thought of doing any of it again. Sheer willpower for it to be over is pulling me through.

I’m not feeling the magic today, despite the Alpine weather. I don’t want to be here. I want to be at home, in the warm, with Tess. It’s been a good week and I’ve done some great routes, some dream ones even. We got on this one for an easier ride, but that’s gone out the window, I wasn’t prepared to try so hard and it’s taking its toll. If we weren’t filming the ascent for a film I’m making with the guys at Coldhouse Collective, I’d lower off in an instant. It isn’t bold, but I just can’t be fucked. And besides, our bags are at the top. We need to top out to go home.

I snap back into the moment, and edge my feet higher. Reaching up and scraping with my axe, the pick slips into a seam. Using my other axe to sink it, it feels good, and I commit. One move closer to the belay.

It’s Monday and I’ve just gotten off the phone to Matt Pycroft. A year or so ago he commissioned me to do write a voiceover for a short film he’s been wanting to make. The vision was shared, and the writing happened. At last, we’re going to get the footage, and we’re both super excited. I’m climbing with Rocio Thursday through Saturday, so Matt and I will drive up on Tuesday night to film some pretty stuff before the main event.

The excitement makes me want to move, and the sun is shining, so I decide to go on a run. I’ve heard rumours of dry stone, and figure a run around the limestone dales would be perfect. Low intensity, medium distance, a chance to scope the crags. Once out, however, it’s so nice that I get carried away, and arriving back at the van 15 miles later my calves burn. Never mind though, I’ll have a rest tomorrow.

I get back to my house at around 3.30pm and log into Facebook. There’s a message waiting from Uisdean. “Are you free the next few days,” it says, “the weather looks good in the Northwest.” My legs are knackered, and I know that with the week ahead, it would be daft to climb before meeting Rocio. But from somewhere between my chest and throat, a small yet forceful voice speaks up.

Beinn Bhan, it says, Beinn Bhan.

Uisdean has mentioned nothing of Beinn Bhan in his message, but to climb the Godfather was one of my biggest ambitions for the season, and time is running out. I might not get another chance.

Malcolm Bass just climbed a new route near the Godfather wall, it’s probably still frozen. You could climb on the Godfather wall, you could go to Beinn Bhan too. You’ve never been there, and you really want to. If you don’t, Uisdean will find someone else.

And with those final words, the voice of FOMO seals the deal. I call Uisdean and tell him I’m driving up right away. We’ll meet in Aviemore and drive to the Northwest early Tuesday morning for a small day, before doing an undecided ‘something bigger’ on Wednesday.

We pull into the carpark in Achnashellach at around 8am, with plans to Tango in the Night. It’s a late start but I needed to get some sleep, and we’re hoping to climb the route in far fewer pitches than described. On the walk in my calves are stiff, but they soon loosen a bit. We talk about the coming week, and before I have a chance to mention my designs on the Godfather wall, Uisdean pipes up and tells me that he is thinking of asking some friends if they want to climb it.

“I’d love to climb the Godfather,” I reply, hopeful.
“We could try it tomorrow.”

There’s no escaping it now. At the back of my mind is the rest of the week, but far more important than that is the fact that finally, I’m going to try and climb a route on the Godfather wall. Yes, the Godfather wall, the almighty Godfather wall, all two hundred metres of it, with all its turf and steepness and difficulty. We’re going to climb the Godfather wall and then I’m going to meet Rocio and climb Sundance and probably some other hard routes, without a day for rest…

Shit.
What have I got myself in for?

Tango goes quickly in two pitches, and we’re back at the vans before dark, soon racing down the road towards the Beinn Bhan carpark. My legs are sore and I text Rocio, telling her the ice on Liatch is supposedly in good nick, desperately hopeful that she’ll agree to an easy day. As I lie in bed the weather closes in, and I can’t help but anticipate the epically long day to come, the little to no sleep the following night, and the endless suffering which will detail the rest of the week.

Thankfully we rise to a star filled sky, and get moving without much ado. My legs feel like they’ve been through a meat grinder, but I swallow the pain like a dose of medicine and walk in as fast as my flagging limbs will carry me. The snowpack is good and as we enter the corrie the rising sun refracts through broken clouds, lighting up the Godfather corner. It sits there beckoning, the biggest feature on a wall of total chaos. As the wall grows, my balls shrink.

 

 

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Approaching the godfather, the corner beckoning. (Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn)

As we get closer, I remember the stories. Pete Benson broke his ankle on the top corner. He fell off the final move, a total epic ensued. Doing some quick maths I work it out. Six pitches, that means if I go first, Uisdean will have to lead the corner. I offer to take the warm up pitch, remembering as I rack up that we decided to try and link pitches four and five.

Bastard. The corner is mine.

The first pitch feels like it takes forever. It takes me a long time to commit to the first section of outrageous steepness, but soon I realise that big efforts here are rewarded with bomber turf, just as the need for something solid becomes desperate. This becomes the rule of the cliff, and soon we are swarming upwards, moving fast, by Scottish mixed standards anyway. It feels good to be moving quickly in such an insane place. The cliff is truly made for mixed climbing, and the quality never fails to impress. Stretching out behind us the alpine Northwest repeatedly takes our breath away, and sitting to our left, the unclimbed face between Gully of the Gods and Die Riesenwand is a constant inspiration, a reminder that the limit has barely been found.

Soon, I’m belaying Uisdean on the link pitch before the corner proper. The weather closes in, and I move inwards with it. With the knowledge that the corner is next, I do my best to ignore the stories, but the reputation hangs heavy. Better climbers than you have failed, squeals the voice. The voice is always a coward when push comes to shove.

Above me, Uisdean lets out a small shout of relief, and pulls on to the belay ledge. Before long I’m seconding the crack, and am shocked at it’s difficulty. If the corner is harder than this, I’m fucked.

Thankfully it’s no more technical, if not slightly more pumpy, and with cramping forearms I pull through the succession of roofs to find myself belayed below the cornice. It is done, the route is below us, and only the sunset waits to greet us at the top. Before too long we’re back at the bags, and so ends one of my best ever mountain days.

Barely a few hours later, Rocio and I are walking in to climb Poachers fall on Liatch. Thankfully she’s agreed to an easy day, and even better, some friendly Irish lads walked in before us and left a fresh trail. My legs by this point have gone beyond pain, but I’m flagging still, and I struggle to keep up with Rocio on the walk in.

We get there eventually though and the route climbs well. Warm, plastic ice welcomes axes kindly, and we move up the route a pitch behind the Irish lads, enjoying the social. It’s nice to climb some ice for a change, and especially good not to get cold on belays. The route is over fast and we’re back at the vans long before dark.

We’d planned to climb Sundance the following day, but I’m exhausted, so I suggest to Rocio that we climb Mistral instead. I know nothing about it, but the easier grade makes it seem a much better proposition. And besides, we need to film it; Mistral will be far easier to film than Sundance.

A slow walk in up the back of Beinn Eighe eventually brings us to the Blood, Sweat abseils, and by 11.30am, the base of the route. A super fun albeit run out ice runnel marks the start of the first pitch, and a couple of roofs in a chimney mark the continuation. I belay after a sketchy traverse and Rocio leads off, putting in a superb effort on the verglassed offwidth above. Moving left, she belays below another shallow chimney, and above that, a wall off staggering steepness.

Setting off, it’s hard straight away. I arrange some decent gear, and after a bit of up and down, I somehow contrive a few mega thin moves to pull onto a ledge, suddenly realising we belayed too low. Never mind, I think, the next section looks easier, and that would explain why the first bit was so hard. Of course, it isn’t any easier, and what follows takes everything I have.

I wasn’t prepared for this level of difficulty, and the sheer effort required to keep it together threatens at every instant to overcome me. The week of effort is all too evident now and my whole body aches, even my thighs are getting pumped. Gradually though I make progress, the camera capturing my meltdowns, the will for it to be over egging me on. At last I’m at the belay, and I strap myself in, barely able to get my head round what just happened.

Seconding, Rocio confirms my suspicions that the pitch is a total sandbag, and we agree that it is one of the wildest pitches we’ve climbed, by far the most sustained we’ve climbed in winter. She leads off up the exit chimney, and in the stillness of night I’m glad that she’s moving reasonably fast, for I have no patience left for this.

Eventually we get back to the cars, and decide not to climb the following day. I wonder if the others can hear the joy screaming from my legs. Waking up late, we go for a fry up in Kinlochewe, glad to sit a while in front of a fire. At last, saying my goodbyes, I get up and drive home, totally exhausted.

It took me a while to digest what happened on Mistral, to be fair I’m still digesting. Unprepared for such difficulty, it took every scrap of willpower I had in me to complete the pitch, but now I’m beginning to see it in a new light. I’ve had a good season, led some difficult pitches, for me at least. The Godfather, as well as being the best winter route I’ve climbed, opened my eyes to the possibility of moving quickly, on a long and difficult mixed route.

But Mistral, unexpectedly, has opened my eyes to what difficulty actually is. For me, it was totally new ground, in as much as the relentlessness of that pitch is concerned. I’ve done harder moves, but they’re usually surrounded by much easier ones, or at least the odd ledge to stand on. That pitch however had no real rests and no easy moves, just 30+ metres of constant battle, with enough gear to keep you going. It opened my eyes to what is possible, and I want more.

It’s a tricky one to grade, too. If there was no tech 8 I’d suggest VIII, 7 – but there is. After their second ascent in 2013, Jim Higgins and Malcolm Bass suggested extremely sustained VII, 8. This is probably correct, as there is only one tech 8 pitch, but what an absolutely astounding pitch. Either way, it deserves to become a classic, and in my opinion is worth all the stars. A truly memorable, and unexpectedly difficult route.

Hats off to Davidson and Nisbet, who climbed it first in winter way back in ’91!

 

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Matt Pycroft above Mistral after a cold day filming. Big respect to any film makers committed enough to do it in winter. It’s another level. (Photo: Tom Carr-Griffin)

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