Friday, February 13, 2015

Not quite what we had planned!

Well it was more erudite compatriot than I that composed the following:

"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!"

And so it was that Guy and my winter weekend didn't go quite to plan on the first weekend in February.

The plan was simple, a I stated in the first post. It started off superbly with the train running on time, a hearty breakfast before picking up the car and arriving at Inveruglas by 10.30 ready to go.

Ben Vorlich was resplendent in winter sunshine and the snow was a lovely texture - perfect for hiking in fact. As soon as I got up to the snow line I had to put on my goggles as the glare was so profound. As I approached the final pull to the summit ice axe had to be pulled out, but I had no need of crampons yet. Once on the summit it was clear as you could ever wish for. In fact I commented to the only other two people I saw that many people wait a lifetime and never get conditions like those.

One thing I was pleased to discover was that the strength work I have been doing with Gary Nisbet has had a profound impact on my performance. In a little over 12 months I have gone from pretty much being the identical pace as Guy, to being able to put half an hour between us in what was a 5 hour trip - we were both astonished and I am profoundly grateful to Gary for his efforts to date and having just received phase 4 of my programme look forward to continued improvement both in this field and on the squash court.

The way back down was fun as I managed a couple of good glissades (a posh way of saying sliding down on your butt!) for good measure. Once back on the floor of the Glen we were treated to some spectacular light and cloud formations.

And so it was we travelled onwards to our billet at the rather fabulous Clachaig Inn with plenty of time to spare to watch the rugby and have a hearty meal of haggis, neeps and tatties and sample a few of the beers available in their beer festival. Guy was pleased with the result, albeit the picture quality left something to be desired. The other downside was the lateness of breakfast (8.15) far too late for most climbers who make up the majority of clientele in winter so we had to make do with a continental affair before meeting our guide for the day, Max.

Meeting in the car park to do a gear check was where our grand plans came slightly apart. You don't need to be a rocket scientist or an expert mountaineer to know that THE most critical piece of equipment is the rope. Imagine my horror discovering that the rope I had purchase a year or so ago was not fit for purpose!!! I won't bore you with the details but I had been badly advised and ended up with what is called a half rope as opposed to a whole rope. It had no impact on the day as Max had all we needed, however, it did mean that our plan to repeat Saturday on the Sunday was now a non-starter as the rope was still effectively in it's packaging and I should get a good price for it (and then purchase a whole rope!) I ought to point out that a half rope is not what it seems to imply.....

So off we headed with our aim being to tackle Twisting Gully

As we approached we could hear loads of cries and Max explained that the cliffs were ahead of us but the cloud was so low we couldn't see them and it was climbers communicating to each other. We were less than 50 metres away when suddenly the cloud lifted and we could see our target.  I say our target, but it was questionable whether we would get on it as there were so many people there. In all my time in the hills only on the tourist path up Ben Nevis have I seen so many people on a hillside. It was an eye-opener to see the jockeying, between guides especially, to "claim a route".

Soon we were roped up and underway and in no time making good progress. Max was a superb teacher having understood what our current skill levels were and giving us the tools we needed to be safe for future expeditions.

I think it was on the third pitch that we approached the crux (which is the Grade IV part of a generally Grade III climb) and it was tough. Whilst I may be a bit quicker and a bit stronger than Guy, he is unquestionably a better climber having devoted more practice time at the new Vauxhall Climbing Wall I followed Max up EVENTUALLY and Guy was summoned to follow. I had every confidence in Guy making it both due to his better technique and being taller so when I heard him call, "I'm stuck!" and Max queried what had been said I lied saying I didn't think that was what he had said!!! Sure enough my faith was not misplaced as he popped over the rocks.

The remainder was comparatively uneventful until we reached the very top where dangerous cornices existed - thankfully someone had cleared a route through and we topped out to amazing views of surrounding mountains including Ben Nevis in the distance.

Me topping out

Max and I
Me and Guy (note the hat at a jaunty angle)

The magnificent Ben Nevis in the distance

A lovely trek back to the car and even got back to The Clachaig in time for most of the rugby! Sadly the result wasn't quite what I had hoped for, but there was consolation in the shape of another hearty meal and some more interesting brews.

In light of the rope disaster we reviewed our plans and decided to tackle Ban Vane instead as it looked a step up from Ben Vorlich, but with no need of a rope. Given the resultant extra time we indulged in a Clachaig Full Hog breakfast and so we set off with very full stomachs.

Our initial thoughts were borne out and it wasn't long before the ice axes and crampons were needed.
Guy in the distance
The cloud was a lot lower so there were no views from the top and a surprising number of other walkers were also on the hill. Aside from the many false tops the walk itself was generally uneventful except when I caught up with a fellow walker. When confronted with a steep gully to shorten the route I was confident enough to tackle it after the day with Max whereas my "companion" took a more circuitous route to the summit. He got his own back on the way down as he confidently glissaded large parts of the return leg.

The final wrinkle came when I got back to the car to discover I had left my glasses at The Clachaig, an hour's drive away. When I told Guy my faux pas and our need to return his reply was, "You know what, I am struggling to think of anything I care less about!" Of all the things that could have gone wrong over the weekend it was indeed trivial. And it did give us an excuse to squeeze and extra pint!

Then it was back to London and the culture shock of getting off the sleeper straight onto the Victoria Line during rush hour - welcome home!

When all is said and done the aims of this trip were met, nae exceeded and when Max told Guy, "There is nothing on The Matterhorn that is as tricky as that (crux) move", it gave us a huge boost. We are both confident that we can do the challenge, we now have to get some practice at a long mountain expedition and one more winter expedition, unguided, and engage a guide for our Matterhorn trip.....

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