Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Red Dragon

Approaching the crux on the first ascent of Red Dragon VIII,9, Ben Nevis. Photo: Helen Rennard

Helen Rennard and myself were getting a bit fed up with waiting for a break in the stormy weather on the mountains, so we went up Ben Nevis on a blustery morning. There had been a very brief overnight thaw which we hoped would firm up the dangerous approach slopes. But as it got light it appeared to have stripped our possible new route objective. I also fell through a snowbridge on the path and went up to my knees in water. So we sat in the CIC hut for a while drying my boots and figuring out where to go. 

We opted for the steep walls right of Echo Wall which have few routes and we thought it might be relatively sheltered from the heavy snow shower rattling in from the west. On the way up Observatory Gully we passed a string of goggled-up climbers descending from their route objectives in the blizzard. They optimistically wished us luck as we hid in our hoods and pressed on.

Helen and myself heading up Observatory Gully towards Echo Wall (in cloud). Photo: Blair Fyffe

At the foot of the wall there was relative shelter and and we uncoiled the ropes below an overhanging crack feature soaring up the walls above. Helen had been here previously, but her partner had got very pumped and fallen from the first few metres, with a projected grade of 9 for this section. 

I managed to get over this first overhanging section without taking too much time, mainly because I didn’t want to hang about with poor gear in the extremely verglassed crack. On the following section I carried on with care, in the hope I’d get at least one solid runner, but I couldn't seem to get that. Eventually I arrived at an uncomfortable overhung slot below a very steep bulge in the crack above. I spent a very long time here.

I fiddled for ages, going up and down with some fear, trying in vain to get a good runner. Eventually, two very good hooks in the overhang persuaded me to move higher and I got a Spectre in. After a retreat to the slot, this runner provided the security to push a bit higher. A second Spectre went in and I now had enough protection to probe upwards with more commitment. Unfortunately I was by now getting pretty tired and was aware that Helen had been suffering the blizzard for some time without moving. She must have been freezing. On the other hand, I’d put in a fair bit of work and seemed to be only a few moves away from unlocking the pitch. So I committed upwards with a few heart pumping moments and burning forearms to an uncomfortable rest standing on one foot on the lip of the overhang.

I limped onwards to the belay, rather mentally exhausted and went through some savage hot aches before constructing a belay. Helen did a fine job of following the pitch from what must have been a very cold start. Understandably, she asked if I would lead on. The main problem on the final pitch was warming my freezing hands. It seems to me that your brain must shut out the memory of how bad hot aches can be. After descending Tower Ridge, we still had to don the goggles to walk down the Allt a Mhuillin!

We thought it would only be VIII,9 if the crack wasn't verglassed and would accept cams. It was a fine winter adventure - it does sometime pay off nicely if you press on through all the hurdles that Ben Nevis throws at you. But only with your wits about you at all times.

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