Sunday was an amazing and memorable day on Ben Nevis with Joe French, John Sutherland and Claire. On Saturday afternoon I had that gut feeling that Sunday was ‘the day’ that I would have the best possible chance to finally free climb Don’t Die of Ignorance. The weather was doing all the right things (slight thaw with a fine but cold day forecast ahead), I was rested and the challenges of the route were fresh in my mind from Friday’s battles on it with Donald.
I called everyone, but noone could climb with me. Rope solo? Maybe. On a last ditch I texted Joe who by chance had a free day and came bouncing round to the house overflowing with enthusiasm at the prospect of a major adventure and the chance to get some awesome footage. Little did he know what he was letting himself in for.
At 6am the next morning we began our familiar pilgrimage into the north face. By 10am I was back once again, staring at that grim undercut crack disappearing round the prow into no man’s land. Just like Friday I desperately struggled to seat my axe in the crux tin opener. I screamed to Joe to expect a fall and released my left axe, cutting loose onto one arm. The axe slid and jerked a centimetre. My heart missed a beat and the jolt nearly made me fall, my hand sliding down the upside down axe to the head and rolling onto three fingers. I dynamic match and kung fu allowed one foot to swing onto the wall to the right and up to the peg I got in on Friday. The vertical wall above was climbed in an utterly ‘go for broke’ style, axes ripping , dropping onto one hand and gasping with pump and shrieking for slack. All a bit full on.
But finally, I made it into those upper grooves! Some VII led to a belay and I took in the ropes. It was Joe’s turn to have a gripper. The plan was for Joe to aid as far as he could into the crux and then jumar one rope to the belay. At the start of the traverse he hooked a cam on the lip of the roof but cut loose violently onto it, his wrist loop tightening leaving him completely stuffed – about to lose a hand and unable to do anything about it. On the belay, I could do nothing (too much stretch in the rope) but listen to him screaming in pain and fear. Quick thinking and one handed application of the jumar meant he could at least free the hand and drop into space. Totally gripped up, Joe struggled for nearly two hours to right himself, sort out the rope mess and jug to the belay. By the time he arrived, I was in a bit of a state myself. I had to half my rack and drop two clothing layers to lose enough weight to get me through the crux pitch. I knew it would mean suffering at the belay. But after three hours I was worried that I’d gone through feeling aweful and despite shivering uncontrollably, I no longer felt cold. The worst thing was seeing Joe’s face when he looked at me! “Dave, mate, your lips are blue!” Joe rubbed my legs furiously as I sorted the ropes and got motoring, We had a lot of climbing still to do in the short time before dark.
A tighter view of the upper grooves on Don’t Die of Ignorance. Photo: Claire MacLeod
But first I had to abseil back down the crux pitch to retrieve all the gear that Joe couldn’t get (he had to untie from the rope that had all the runners on because it went way off to one side and he was unable to swing to it). After another big amazing pitch of neve grooves, the pace got faster still and the next two pitches of V or VI mixed were led with continuous movement and one runner to back up the belay.
In the last of the dim evening light I popped out onto the broad shelf at the very apex of the pyramidal Comb Buttress. I dreamed of topping out here – it was amazing. But I worried about Joe seconding up. Then something brilliant happened. The clouds opened above me and a bright moon lit up the whole corrie and instantly made the final two pitches a foregone conclusion. What a moment! All that was left was to whoop our way up the neve encrusted crest of the Comb to the plateau taking in the unbelievable beauty of the moon, stars and gently lit white cliffs. Is it possible to have a more satisfying or exhilarating top out on a climb?
Last night we sat in Joe’s and watched the footage. I laughed at my footless sketching on the crux, but all of us sat up in silence watching the image of Joe dangling by one axe screaming and legs waving in the middle of a huge icy face. It had quite an impact and I must say It was an incredible effort from Joe to regain his composure so well to deal with the upper pitches. I was also in awe of Claire who was there, a tiny dot on the corrie floor filming in the cold for 7 hours. She told me later that she almost had to leave because she could bare to watch the situation as Joe hung in space and we screamed at each other trying to communicate. I feel strange having climbed it because although it was me who actually climbed the moves, the task was only possible because of several people who were up for holding the ropes and the prospect of having to try and second a complex and desperate piece of climbing with total commitment.
Anyway, I’m sure I’ll write a bit more about this elsewhere because we had such a big adventure. But right now I have to go out and make the most of the awesome conditions in Lochaber for bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing and winter mountaineering. Dry, sunny, 9 degrees at sea level every day, and new routes to do everywhere. I’m glad I moved to Fort William!!!!!!!!!
Don’t Die of Ignorance XI, 11 275m Dave MacLeod, Joe French March 16th 2008
A free ascent based on the 1987 aid route by Andy Cave and Simon Yates, taking a more direct line at the crux. Climbed ground up, onsight, 6th attempt. Start on the left side of the Comb at the start of the huge diagonal shelf/crack system.
1. 30m Follow the easy snow and ice ramps to a belay before the ledge runs out.
2. 30m Step down into the wide undercut crack and tin opener tenuously to the arête (cams, bulldog). A foot off tin opener move gains access to the rib on the right (peg). The aid route continues along the crack. Quit the crack and climb leftwards on the tenuous wall above to gain a ledge. Go right beneath a steep groove and move round it’s base to gain a thin crack in an open slab. Climb this to a belay below a chimney.
3. 55m Step up and right from the belay to gain the huge open groove of Don’t Die and follow this with sustained interest to a hanging belay on the right at a large block.
4. 25m Step left and follow the crest, moving left again across a fault to a ledge and good belay at a flake.
5. 20m Mantel the flake and step right to regain the crest which is followed to the snow crest on the apex of the buttress (good spike belay).
6. 60m Climb the easy snow crest to a steepening.
7. 40m Climb snow grooves in the buttress crest to a flat knife edge leading to the plateau.
8. 15m The knife edge leads easily to the plateau.
PS: Apologies if you’ve tried to get in touch with me over the past few days. I’ll get through my inbox shortly!!!