Meeting The Godfather
by Es Tresidder
I had teamed up with Guy Robertson and Pete Benson, me enjoying mid-week days off and them taking the now familiar 'last-minute flexi'. Our optimism had brought us further north and further west than usual, and 1am found us pitching our tent under the stars in Glen Brittle. I smiled, the expectation of a big new route in the Cuillin keeping me awake a while longer than usual. Three hours later the noise of our alarm woke us, soon switched off and replaced with a more insistent noise: rain drumming on taught tent fabric.
“Fuck”, Guy sums up our situation succinctly. Lying between them, I feel like the net in the tennis match of their decision-making process: Stay? Relocate? Back to Aberdeen for a day at work? I lie silently, fighting the warm seductiveness of a lie-in. Isn't that what most people do on their days off?
Taking longer to wake than usual, and letting the debate take its course, I manage to retain some warmth and sleepiness as I bundle myself back into the car, ready for the long drive back to the mainland and our new destination. I wake sometime later at the little bridge marking the start of the walk in to Beinn Bhan. There's a sea-level freeze and this is Scotland's steepest winter cliff. I start to wake up now...
For a free full resolution topo of Coire nan Fhamhair - go to this Rockfax Page
Beinn Bhan is a mountain of monstrous climbing possibilities, from classic ice routes, through moderate but spectacular ridges to turfy mixed horror shows, its many corries could keep a winter climber busy for a lifetime, conditions permitting.
But it is the steepest and most remote corrie, Coire nan Fhamhair, that really fires the imagination of anyone looking for the next level in Scottish winter climbing. The geology here forms terraces split by formidable steep walls and besides two plum Fowler gullies, all the routes involve significant traverses. In recent years, climbers have started to look at the straight up lines and wonder at what might be. For many of those in the know this is one of a handful of Scottish crags where 'the future' might be defined.
Of the three of us, I am the only one to have climbed here before. It's been a while, but I remember big-wall exposure, ice and frozen turf. I brief my partners on the possibilities:
“Well, there's this line, thin ice, mega steep, blank rock, probably no gear, possibly impossible, pure class.”
“Then there's this other, steeper, more mixed, probably impossible, world class.”
“Or we could repeat The Godfather...”
Climbing as a three nurtures confidence and it surprises me how casually I make this final suggestion almost as an afterthought. The Godfather is one of THE big routes of the north west, breaching the dizzyingly steep wall between Gully of the Gods and Great Overhanging Gully. Climbed back in 2002 by Martin Moran and Paul Tattersal and with three of the seven pitches rating technical 7, and two technical 8, this route ranks highly amongst the hardest long routes in the country.
Routes like this don't get climbed everyday. They are simply too remote, too dependent on fickle conditions, too big and too damn hard for people to try them very often. If you jump on one of these puppies the risk that you will fail and get up nothing will be high. With my well developed Scottish urge to avoid squandering good weather, the temptation to stick to established classics or gap fillers on the more reliable cliffs is strong.
I remind myself that above all trying routes like this requires embracing the possibility of failure...
Today we take a step in the other direction, accept this possibility of failure, embrace it even, knowing that if we do get lucky, the rewards can last a lifetime.
Our faff this morning has taken its toll and we don't make the base of the corrie till gone 9am. More faff to decide our line, and because of the late hour we take the 'easy option' of the Godfather. As well as confidence, climbing as a three gives us many things, firepower, conviviality, a relaxed attitude to hard and dangerous climbing, slow decisions and... more people to forget things.
Ian Parnell describes Guy Robertson
Guy Robertson is talented, strong and has a knack for picking the right place at the right time. The last ten years has seen a stream of conservatively-graded desperates on Scotland's biggest cliffs. No abbing, no summer pre-inspection, this is ground-up, full on adventure, the way it should be. Guy's climbing is an inspiration to many, but he struggles with the more mundane things in life. I once saw him take ten minutes to decipher an avalanche transceiver that had a simple arrow and a number of metres to the victim. Thankfully we were just practising.
We arrive at the base of the route and Guy discovers he has left his rope in the sack, which we left behind a boulder at the bottom of the corrie 40 minutes ago.
Team work is all about recognising each other's strengths, or at least that's what Pete and Guy would have me believe.
“You're into running. Aren't you Es...?”
I am sent to fetch Guy's rope, leaving the other two to figure out the intricacies of the first grade 7 pitch with a single half rope.
As I toil back up the hill I decide I've earned a back seat for a few pitches; Guy can earn his second lead rope. Team work is also about recognising when someone is going well I happily decide. Perhaps work has been stressful recently, or he's not been out for a while. Whatever it is, Guy is eating up grade 7 and 8 ground at a rate of knots. Pete and I let him lead three in a row, enjoying easing into the technicalities on a top rope.
As I take over the terrain changes slightly, becoming blocky with an attractive hoaring. Is it just me, or does it also steepen? After such a virtuoso performance from Guy, I feel self-conscious as I struggle with the difficulties, coaxing my mind around to an acceptance of climbing above gear, into unknown territory above. We carry no description of the route, and are following our noses based on half-remembered pictures in magazine articles.
We are consistently impressed by the complexities of the route-finding and the quality of the climbing, one of us comments that the climbing is superb “belay to belay”, to which someone helpfully adds “belay to belay, midday till dawn”, gallows humour at our imminent benightment.
Every pitch is hard but also superb, bringing warmth and fatigue to the arms and a smile as wide as the crisp blue sky framing the top of the cliff. I lead up towards a prominent corner, conspicuous from below and surely the last hard pitch. At its base I belay and bring the others up as day becomes night. Pete ties in to the ends of the rope, impatient to take his turn at the sharp end.
Above us the crux looms in the half light, a corner crack rising up in three overhanging steps, the side walls disturbingly blank. We encourage Pete with the recollection that Moran led this pitch in the dark on the first ascent. He turns his head torch on, makes his way up to the first of the steps, arranges protection and launches upwards.
We are treated to an impressive display of light dancing up the corner, accompanied with grunts, curses and the occasional crampon-shod foot reaching wide or high on the side walls. The protection is excellent, and Pete clears the first two bulges in style, recovering his strength on the ledges in-between. However conditions have been getting more and more snowy the higher up the cliff we climb, and Pete is suffering from the handles of his leashless axes becoming caked in snow and difficult to hold.
Above him looms a last steepening, and although above this the crag continues, he shouts down that he is confident this is the last section of hard climbing. As he nears the lip of the final bulge the expletives are joined by increasingly anxious shouts of “watch me”. He goes for it, committing completely. As he plants his axes above the bulge with a reassuring thud of forged steel into frozen turf we cheer his imminent success.
But it's far from over; he's still fighting, his hands failing on slippery axes, his crampons teetering on imaginary holds. He's at the tipping point, if he can get his weight six inches higher he's home and dry, but if one piece of his body-positioning puzzle fails the others are insufficient to keep him on.
He is trying desperately to rock up onto his right foot, poised high on the blank, overhanging right wall, trying to add pulling force from his crampons to the fading strength in his arms. With one more gargantuan grunt he pulls hard, dependent on his foot holding firm. Time slows down as we will him upwards, then the sound we were dreading, a shout of surprise and fear as his foot pops off the hold, his weight shock loads his exhausted arms and the slick sweat-snow mix on his gloves, the elastic lanyards from his axes to his harness tighten, then snap. Pete falls..
Nick Bullock describes Pete Benson
He doesn't fall far, perhaps ten feet, mostly on rope stretch, but his shouts continue, intensify, and are joined by angry expletives. Something is wrong. I lower him back to the belay, he hobbles the last few feet to join us on the ledge. A badly sprained ankle. As the initial pain fades Pete remembers he has just booked a ski holiday to Canada, but neglected to purchase insurance. More expletives.
So here we are, 200 metres up Scotland's steepest winter crag, the ropes snaking above us to just below what Pete assures us is the last hard move. There are in-situ holds in the form of Pete's axes just over the bulge. All the work has been done for us, surely the easiest way is up?
We hesitate; how will Pete second the pitch with an unusable and painful foot? How will we get him down from the top of the mountain? Is there really no more hard climbing above Pete's axes? It still looks steep and hard through the gloom from the belay. Guy and I are feeling intimidated and we let it influence our decision, we pull the ropes and set off down.
On the way up, our route had weaved around considerably, finding a path of relative ease between outrageously steep rock and hanging vegetation, linking the large horizontal ledges that typify the sandstone of this corrie. Abseiling down, we necessarily take a direct route. Leaving each commodious ledge we plunge into free-hanging darkness, spinning slowly on the ropes, anxious that they will reach the next ledge, but unable to see this in the dark. The ropes get stuck on one occasion and I'm sent back up to deal with the problem.
The descent draws into the night. More than once we anticipate that the next rope-length will land us on solid ground, only to be met with disappointment and another gut-wrenching drop into the abyss. As Guy reaches our second-to-last abseil point he lets out a horrified yelp, then shouts up “Wait till you see this boys!”. This route, climbed in 2002, is the first and only route on this section of the wall. As far as we knew the wall had never been tried before Moran and Tattersal made the first ascent, although several teams had designs on it. But here is the evidence staring us in the face: two rotting, rusty pegs linked by hawser-laid rope. The thought of it is nauseating, who on earth was on this wall in an era of hawser-laid abseil tat? Was it winter? Or, even worse, were they attempting this towering mass of Babylonian vegetation in summer? It is nearing midnight and our minds struggle to accept the readjustment of our self-image from cutting edge winter climbers to three guys having an epic on a cliff that someone had nearly climbed 35 years ago.
Back in the corrie my running skills are once again cited and I am sent ahead to telephone families to alleviate any building worry. Guy helps Pete down the long and rough descent to the road. The night is frigid and, unable to move fast, they both get very cold. Finally it is too much for Guy, and a few hundred metres from the road he abandons Pete and heads to the car.
It's now gone 2am and as I drag myself from the car the clear night sky sucks the heat through my jeans, here, even at sea level it must be nearly -10°C. Several hundred metres up the track I find an exhausted and freezing Pete lying in the snow.
“I nearly gave up” he explains “I got so cold, so completely exhausted”, he pauses, thinks a little
“Fucking Joe Simpson man.” He says. “Fuck that!”.
I heard that after his route Big Daddy on Sgurr a' Chaorachain, which was his hardest success, he tried a line on Godfather wall and subsequently 'retired'. I'm only assuming it was Godfather wall because I looked down from across the top of Gully of the Gods with a view to trying it myself and saw some tat. Being in such an outrageous position, it could only have been George Shields.
Andy Nisbet on mad man George Shields
I speak to him on the phone the following night:
“So Blair, how close to the top were we?”
I can hear the smirk in his voice.
“...put it this way - if Pete had got stood up on the ledge that he had his axes in, he would have had ten metres of grade IV to the top...”
I remind myself again that above all trying routes like this requires embracing the possibility of failure... but I never thought we'd get this close!
Watch a video of the attempt on The Godfather:
Paul Tattersall and I set off up the complex lower walls at 9.30am and didn't get established at the foot of the big corner in the headwall until 5.30pm.
Paul led an awkward pitch involving several tricky mantleshelves into the corner. I led through up a strenuous cracked wall on the left in darkness, where I began to feel we were in definite grade VIII territory. In other words, we had already done an awful lot of difficult climbing, were beginning to feel pretty knackered and were now faced by a definite hike in the standard.
Having struggled up one hard crack we were now faced with a fierce roof. Already I noticed that my torch was flickering and fading. By the time I had pulled over the bulge the light went completely. I hadn't brought any spare batteries. I lowered a rope loop to Paul and hauled up his torch, which was working on a high-power but short-lived halogen bulb.
Another 5 metre overhanging section reared up above with a blank right wall, a daunting prospect. There would be no real chance to place any gear in this so I got a Friend 1.5 in at the bottom and went for it, knowing that I'd take a mighty lob if I came off at the top. Prepared to take that risk I wedged and hooked blindly upwards. Twice an axe ripped leaving me hanging on one arm but I finally got my picks into the turf at the top (which we might now call the Benson fringe!). Now devoid of further strength to pull up and lock off, I swung my leg up to chest height and hooked my toe into a rock crevice on the left. With this support I placed a nut runner and then I hauled myself over the final bulge.
Hardly had I stood up in balance and placed an anchor than Paul's torch went out, suddenly and completely. The belay was completed solely by feeling for the cracks. Paul prusiked in darkness, dropping several items of kit including an axe.
I found that by warming the torch batteries next to my skin enough power was restored to light the bulb for 15 or 20 second intervals, during which Paul attempted to retrieve pegs and cams. By the time he joined me it was after midnight and the torch was no longer responding to my coaxing.
Despite a star-filled sky there wasn't so much as a single sliver of moonlight.
We could have bivouacked but we had no spare clothes and were both already at the shivering stage. The last pitch was much easier-angled but choked with powder snow. I was preparing to attempt a blind lead of this, when Paul remembered that he had a spare tungsten filament bulb with lower power threshold. We then came up with the great idea of using the light off my mobile phone display to find and change the bulb, but at that juncture made the crucial mistake of forgetting to ring our wives to tell them we were OK. Nonetheless, we got the bulbs switched and, lo and behold, the tungsten bulb offered a weak light. With no delay I thrashed and burrowed my way up the final groove and with the last vestige of torchlight floundered over the cornice.
Paul joined me at some time after 2.30am and we spent the next four hours staggering out, plunging into every grough and skidding on every ice streak that Tornapress moors could offer. We reached our car as the dawn shed some light on our nocturnal follies. Needless to say our wives were not too impressed with our failure to call and I was despatched to the vets on Skye with our ailing Labrador after half an hour in bed.
The route was the ultimate winter experience with the slenderest margin of victory. The sadness was that it would be hard to ever recapture the intensity of that ascent. I had first seen it camping in the corrie as a 17 year old in 1972, never dreaming that winter climbing could develop so far as to make it a possibility, so, for me, it was a particularly special climb.
Es Tresidder is a committed winter climber, Alpinist and fell runner. You can read more about him on his website Es-On-Ice.
He holds the current record for the traverse of the Skye Ridge - his amazing time is 3hrs 17min 28sec.
He works as a freelance environmental building consultant and his next big trip is to Patagonia in September.
His favourite routes include Suicide Wall at Cratcliffe, Tombstone at Dunkeld, The Cullinan on Lundy and anything on Beinn Eighe in winter. He describes himself as 1/3 climber, 1/3 runner and 1/3 environmentalist.
Es is sponsored by Mountain Equipment, POD and Scarpa/Grivel
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