A perfect day: Crowberry Gully

Before the crux, Crowberry Gully © Bill Maxwell

Ignoring a stream of real and imagined females and bizarre situations in which they are to be found in the fantasies of a middle aged mind here is a day about as close to perfect as it gets.

A winter's day in Scotland a few years back, the last day of a good week mainly spent in Glencoe. It is a cold and clear day, high cloud and no wind to speak of. I have been climbing all week with the usual suspects while my mate Big Game has been on a course with Kimber being run ragged on The Ben. We arrange to meet to do Comb Gully but he is sick of the site of the Alt a Mhullin so we head to the Buachaille and Crowberry Gully which is in just about perfect nick, if a bit thin. We park up and get sorted at Lagangarbh and off we go. Even the walk in is easy despite the soft snow. The chat helps: Big Game on The Curtain and Comb Gully, me on Twisting, North East Buttress of the Buachaille. The week is recounted. At the big snow fan we gear up for the gully and move together into the jaws of the gully proper.

Moving is easy, neither slow nor fast, rhythmical and natural. Unusual for two guys who have never climbed together before, we could have soloed most of it but pitched it. This gave more time for the banter to flow up and down the gully and allowed the fine day to be taken in to the full. Belays are either illusory or marginal:

"Are you ready Horse?"
"Yep, on way."
"Good, belayed on 2 blades of grass and Mars wrapper, if you go can I have the car?"
"No worries, take the house and misses as well if you want"
"No thanks, not big on commitment."
"Well you better bloody get some because I know what's coming up."

This goes on for several pitches of easy snow with the odd ice step to put a temporary end to the piss taking and jokery. The last two pitches are the action, short but steep sections of ice rearing up to test us. Big Game gets the first of these, the belay is a couple of threaded slings to hang a bus off. Now Big Game has never led steep ice, that's why he went on the course, to get belief. I am hanging there as he comes up and I have had a good look at what is to come. A thin section of steep ice hangs down from a narrow gap, well used and thin looking. Big Game has to go out on a rightwards traverse; I suggest that he heads down and across before heading up. This is the test. He either moves through the belay and does it or the course was for nought, in silence we both know this.

A final laugh and fiddle with gear and off the blank face goes. A bit wooden at first, nervous on the thin moves down on the ice, not a good place to stand around and wonder what the hell he is doing there; I say nothing in silent encouragement, rope tight, watching every move. Then he is flowing up through the narrows for a rest and then the rope moves out at an even pace. Easier ground the whole rope goes out, stops, goes tight and it is my turn. I go straight up, surprised after the narrows at the sustained easier angle ice above. Where the bloody hell is Big Game, the rope just disappears from view high above. Puffing and panting I pull over a snow wall and flop into a cave, there lurking in the back is the lad beaming from ear to ear.

Phat-thin conditions on Crowberry Gully © Chris McDaid

"Good effort mate, my turn now and it looks steep from here."
"Piece a cake to a mountain man like you, pass me another sling and I'll make this into a passable anchor just in case you turn out to be a big bloody girl with all the gear and no idea"
"Rumbled again."

Then off, step up on the snow wall. The stuff is vertical all right and almost pushing me down hill. Time for a screw, in it goes to the hilt.

"Right mate lets get on with it, this is steep, the screw is good so I'm not hanging around. Keep the rope moving because much as I appreciate your company I have no desire to be pulled by you into this cave."

Sound belayer is Big Game and the rope is just right as I make two or three very steep moves to an easier slope. It's all relative.

"Oi mate, can you hear me."
"Loud and clear, my dearest"
"It's all over bar the drinking I can see the top, hopefully run this rope out and the jobs done."

Steady grade three, rest on the axe heads and look out over Glencoe in the afternoon sun. The higher one went the more came into view, the Aonach Eagach, The Ben and the CMD arête, The Aonachs and we have it all to ourselves. Just where the gully meets the summit ridge the rope runs out. So sitting astride the ridge I sort an axe belay, hang it and bring up the conquering hero and the while drinking in the view down the gully and out beyond its narrow upper confines. He is in awe of the route, the view and the whole day and he gets to lead it out to the summit and bring up the "useless old fart". He's done his first "real" ice climb and the week was not for nought.

The summit is cold but the clear skies give such great views it is a shame to leave, which we have to do after a brew and a chew. Conditions are superb and soon we have crunched our way to the top of the descent gully. The head wall is banked out in steep hard snow and Big Game looks less than enthusiastic about down climbing it;

"But you are an ice-man now so no problems. Anyway, trust me if you slip you'll be at the bottom in no time wondering why I am taking so long".

With that I disappear over the lip before he gets any ideas of roping up again. In a few metres the angle eases and we are into a rapid bum slide descent down to the boulders. All that remains is a gentle amble out the car swapping war stories and plans for the future. In no time we are back at the car in daylight and can look back up at the scene of the days adventure.

After Crowberry Gully
© Chris McDaid

Harold Andrew Raeburn

The Scottish climber and mountaineer Harold Andrew Raeburn (1865 - 1926) made the first ascent of Crowberry Gully on Buachaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe, in both summer and winter conditions (in 1909). Eleven years later in 1920 he made the first winter ascent of Observatory Ridge. You can read more about this great climber at the SMC.

Thinking of climbing this route? Ask a question on the forums or follow this thread about Crowberry Gully where Jamie B said, "Hasn't formed all that often in recent years, and an ascent is complicated by the avalanche-prone nature of the approach. It should be climbable at some point most seasons, but as always opportunism is the name of the game. February and the first half of March tend to be the best months for this type of route, but it will undoubtedly have been done at all times. Suspect it can be desperate if thin, or a fairly steady III if there's been a good build-up and steady cold conditions. It got a good few ascents at one spell last year, although it did get quite hacked latterly."

You can find further details about this climb at the database which includes the latest weather reports and the current guidebook. if you've done this route don't forget to record it at UKC's logbook. You can find a great map and details about the Lagangarbh Hut at the Scottish Mountaineering website.

Graham Gedge is a 44 year old father of two boys who has been climbing for over twenty years. He lives in Warwickshire, works as a consultant metallurgist, rides a 2001 Triumph Daytona 955i, and loves a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord. He rope climbs, mainly trad, boulders, and ice climbs.

You can read an interview with Graham here.

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12 Jan, 2006
Nice article but 'the Buckle' ? arrrrgh
12 Jan, 2006
I just sent Mick a mail suggesting we change that, too late!
12 Jan, 2006
-) I guess it changes a lot with conditions but sounds as if it was different when you climbed it from what I remember - from memory (going back to the late 70s) I only found two real pitches, a steep steep some 2 -3 metres high and the 'junction pitch which was 'mixed' with thin ice with rock showing through here & there. Memorable as it was my first winter route on the mountain & the first time I'd soloed anything as long/serious
12 Jan, 2006
I think it does vary. The day we were on it the conditions were just about perfect all the way up the snow was nicely frozen and no doubt one could have run it it in about an hour. We took a more leisurely pace, had a right laugh and generally enjoyed ourselves. There were only two real pitches and both were quite short and although a bit lean and well used there were no rocks poking through the ice. For us bumbling mid grade climbers they were enough to make the really worthwhile. I found it quite an atmospheric route passing through some good scenery and as you get higher up the vista outside the gully comes into play. This is most notable on the top pitches when you can see out of the gully and look over to see all the high peaks. Fantastic day out but we were blessed with perfect conditions, I wouldn't want to be in the thing in fresh snow or when the wind was pouring spindrift down it.
12 Jan, 2006
Too late? Wot with modern tecknollogy? Chris
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