Monday 8 March 2010

Tempest in a teacup

The Tempest, onsight. All photos: Steven Gordon. More photos on Steven’s blog

About 9 years ago I was struggling my way up Crest Route in Glen Coe. Stopping to fiddle with gear in iced up cracks and shiver on belays, I was transfixed my the sight across the Coire on Summit Buttress. I was watching Neil Gresham toprope practicing what was to become The Tempest M9. It looked amazing seeing him in the distance swinging from hook to hook, dangling about working moves before lowering down to the comfort of a belay jacket.
Shortly afterwards Neil’s redpoint lead on pre-placed gear was announced. As is normal for doing anything that stands out in Scottish winter climbing, he was in the firing line of some serious flak for the style of ascent. But Neil had the courage not only to do the ascent, but to defend his own vision that for world class standard winter routes to get done in Scotland, this would the style that would bring them. 

Predictions on the future of climbing never quite work out. As it happened, the standard of winter routes in Scotland rose by a good bit in the intervening nine years without redpointing, although by climbers gaining their fitness with plenty of redpointing in other disciplines. And it rose firmly holding onto it’s place as the home of many of the hardest mixed climbs on the planet. While the redpointed routes of Haston and Bubu’s era were repeated often, graduates of M12 and M13 redpoint would still find Scottish IX ground up a considerably harder proposition.
So things move on. And the obvious challenge was to make at attempt at The Tempest in more traditional style. Along comes Andy Turner, with lats that eclipse the low winter sun and the kind of confidence of a trad leader up to the job. The big problem with the Tempest though, was the rotting fixed gear left behind by the redpoint action years earlier. Andy was forced to abseil down and remove as much of the melted in wires as he could. Then, after a couple of sessions wandering about on the open wall, fiddling in wires in verglassy cracks, he committed to the thin overhanging ice finish, heart in mouth no doubt and took the tempest a step closer to the grade X,9 that Neil projected for an onsight ascent.
After Andy broke down the aura of going on the wall without working moves, and proved it was possible to place the gear on lead. I was pretty keen, no, desperate to go for an onsight attempt. And so I set off, washing vast quantities of rime off the wall with my hands to excavate the crack underneath.
After 2.5 hours, I was 6 metres from the top, but had run out of gear. I’d managed to take plenty of gear I didn’t need and not nearly enough of what I did. I didn’t fancy a major peel from the final moves without gear but was desperate not to lose the onsight either. Solution? Downclimb the whole thing taking the gear back out and come back after a rest. A day later I was stuck for a partner but an emergency Tweet and gracious response from Iain set me up with Matt and Nic to finish the job. After the alpine sun of the last month, it was Scottish business as usual, getting lost in the Coire for an hour just trying to find the route through the mist and snow. Various rubbish wires were found underneath the ice smear, as I waited for the constant dousing in spindrift avalanches to let up for just a bloody minute and allow me to gasp through the final moves.
A fantastic battle, the greatest winter of the century rolls on...


  1. Great write up Dave.

  2. Patrick Roman08 March, 2010

    I like the headline! Well done Dave, another terrific effort, and one that reveals your character in the wake of recent criticisms. Your decision to downclimb, and your ability to do it successfully, is equally as impressive as the ascent itself.

    PS. Comforting to know that at one time you struggled on Crest Route too :-)

  3. love it, its like bonatti saying "screw you" by doing his talking on the mountain.

  4. Job well done David - good one!:-)

  5. What an achievement and process! Very well done, Dave!
    In downclimbing, did you remember every single sequence (moves and holds) and reverse it, or just make up as you down-climb? I can only guess, whether climbing up or down, it has to be extremely precise at this grade...

  6. One of the things that has always impressed me the most about you, Dave, is the way that you handle 'ethics'.

    By that I don't mean that you're the most ethical climber around. It's just the way that you, quite sensibly in my opinion, rationalise the ethics you apply in a given situation (and are honest about them!). Of course, at your level there will always be people who are quick to shoot you down for not doing it 'their way'.

    A note to the detractors of headpointing in the UK, nicely highlighted by this ascent: How how will the trad wonder-kids of the future onsight E10, 11, 12 or 13 if those lines haven't been established on headpoint? In just the same way - while we're here applauding Dave's onsight lead of this, let us remember Neil. I wasn't on the scene, but I imagine he took all sorts of sh#t for his 'lack of ethics' - but he opened up a brilliant line, suggested a grade and confirmed that it was, for the gnarly, a 'safe' and climbable proposition.

    Who in their right minds would set off up a line like this, Anubis or Echo Wall in a pure attempt to establish a new route, ground up, onsight. Only the suicidal, I'd suggest.

    For all of the sh#t you read on UKC you'd think the Scottish trad crags are heaving with trad-superstars with only the purest of ethics. Yet, whenever I head out into the hills I'm usually the only person at the crag. Bouldering seems to be popular, though, above multiple mats.


  7. Congratulations dave, very impressive indeed.

    BTW. for what its worth, i think you should put grades to your recent ascents and not be imtimidated into keeping quiet by the media and negative people. I appreciate there are issues with first ascentionist not knowing exactly what grade their routes are (its always been the same, but that doesn't stop most other people giving grades to their routes), and also that the grade is not everything (far from it), but the majority of people understand you are an honest and thoughtful guy and you should feel proud to asign the correct grade to your routes. To hell with the people who can't handle it.

  8. You said you saw neil working some of the moves from across the way, so doesn't that mean you can't claim an onsight? ;-)

    (just incase people are wondering that was a joke, good work Mr McCleod!!)

  9. Grant Wallace

    Well done Dave. Again u impress me no end. You're an inspiration to us all!

    Good to see some other climbers helping u out also. Well done Matt and Nic!

  10. Awesome! I miss some mixed action on the alpine walls...

  11. Thanks everyone for the comments

    As for the comment about grading. I'm not intimidated by anyone else into grading or not grading my routes. The difference with hard trad routes from other climbing levels and disciplines is the lack of routes at a similar level to make comparisons. There are very few people climbing above grade IX in winter and E10 in summer and very few routes at these grades. And there is no hurry to grade them, from me anyway, because it's not important. It's enough to say a route feels like the hardest you've done. Everyone knows what routes you've done, so a deduction that a route like Echo Wall or Anubis is hard is all you need really.

  12. Hi Dave, great ascent !
    There'a another "tempest in a teacup" going wild on the forum on weather or not it was an onsight. It would be interesting to read your comments on the subject.;post=2300622