In this exclusive account Nick Bullock looks back on one of the most significant winter routes of the season. The bold and technically challenging Nevermore, X,10, takes a central line up Lochnagar's Tough-Brown Face - a 'last great problem' that's preoccupied a number of leading climbers. Previously (and repeatedly) tried by Guy Robertson, Pete Macpherson and Pete Benson, the route eventually succumbed to the combined talents of Robertson and Bullock on 8th April with much of the key 5th pitch being climbed onsight. The route is probably the closest thing yet to a true onsight first ascent at the grade.
Driving south on the M6 heading for North Wales the winter sun was weak, but it felt warm through the van windscreen. Cars flowed in the opposite direction – shining boxes, windscreens glaring, drivers hidden, lives going somewhere, anywhere, nowhere; what for? Another winter over. Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears on Beinn Eighe with Tim Neill and Keith Ball had lived up to its reputation and I was sated. I was ready for rock. My life moved on?
'This is the new Mort' he spat
Then the phone spoke – a text message. It was from Pete Benson saying that Guy Robertson, Pete Macpherson and he had yet again bailed from their 'last great problem' on Lochnagar. I texted back and told Pete he needed to move forward. This had been the third time they had walked in to try this climb. The first attempt ended with Pete Macpherson lowering off the second pitch and Pete Benson climbing it with several rests. The second attempt ended before it started, the avalanche conditions were great and they didn't reach the climb. The third attempt by the team was a breakthrough; Benson climbed the second pitch clean and the team reached the belay beneath the roof with the fifth pitch left to climb. But then temperatures increased, meltdown occurred and they bailed once again.
When Pete texted back he said the climb was so good and so difficult it would be worth the effort when it went. Having returned only once to a climb in winter, I wasn't so sure there was enough time in life to spend on one climb.
It's not that I can't see the worth of putting in the effort to do something really difficult; it's more that it doesn't really sit with my attitude. I'd much prefer to give everything on the first go. Life is short. It's also the mystique of entering the unknown, fighting the voices that shout back off. This is what winter climbing in Britain is about for me, and I suppose it is also for me what life is about.
Pete Benson, Robbo and I walked in to Lochnagar. I couldn't believe I had been drawn into their obsession, but a part of me was intrigued. Just how difficult was this climb? The route in question was a relatively obscure E2 on the Tough/Brown Face Called Nevermore, first put up in the early 1980s and only infrequently done since. It started up Mort and pulled left around an overhanging nose into a steep niche that didn't give much away.
'With the increase in technicalities came a decrease in gear...'
From the top of the groove, legs welded to the surrounding walls to take weight from the arms, a deep lock and a long reach above the roof finds – hopefully – a crack. Smeared knees and body tension establishes you over the roof and then a technical, not-so-well protected crack follows for another ten metres.
An easy traverse leads to beneath a wide moss filled overhanging v-groove and then after the v-groove... well, Pete and Guy didn't know as this was their highpoint, but the second pitch, what both Pete and Guy were calling the crux, had never been on-sighted.
Mort was the climb Guy, Greg Boswell and I had done earlier in the winter, a climb I had serious reservations about as this was the first time ever, in winter, I had not led a single move, and as we walked the two hours back to the car, I beat myself like I had not beaten myself in a long time.
The psychology behind what makes some people tick is deep and some climbing appears to dig as deep as anything; maybe it's the action, maybe it's the practitioners? At one time in my life I could really punish myself if I thought I had not given everything, not just in climbing but in life – but with time, age, experience, and I suppose a whole load of experiences, I had left most of these feelings behind. Now they simmered under control - mostly. Maybe this is a natural part of finding oneself, maybe this is what all driven people suffer for their passion, I'm not sure, but I knew I didn't like the return of this feeling. I knew I would be leading my fair share in the future.
'This is the new Mort.' Robbo spat the words, the spiky Scottish vernacular chafing the soft of my inner ear. I wondered if his throat was Teflon coated.
Pete Benson swung about above us. Knee-bars, tremors, sweat and desperation. He battled, but after time faltered at the roof. 'TAKE.' Very little training and climbing since fatherhood had taken the edge, but he said he was happy he had given it everything he had to give: 'You'd better get up there Bullhorn, the on-sight is yours.'
Pete had laced the pitch and because I had the gear in place I was soon at his high point. Thrutching, jammed legs beneath the roof, pushing thighs against rock, I pulled and locked, shaking with effort, shaking with the fear of what might come next if I did find the crack and pull-up. That was it though wasn't it, that was life – what if, what next, dare I, can I? Consequences. I pull before my power leaves my body and my mind talks me out of the immediate.
Bracing – tension tremors vibrate through my body – the wind gusts and snow-powder floats across the surface of the rock like some kind of opposing magnetic forces were in action. Lasers, my eyes were lasers locked to the pick and the axe from which I now hung. Smeared knees ground into rock. Constituted meat. Higher, I jump a foot to a deformity. But the difficult wasn't over – if anything it had increased, and with the increase in technicalities came a decrease in gear. At least now there were blobs of turf to aim for, and with each turf island I landed my life enhanced. At last I pulled onto a ledge covered with deep snow. Game on.
Pete and Guy seconded the pitch and pulled onto the ledge before quickly climbing down, to the left, and setting up a belay beneath an overhanging v-groove. Pete led the groove digging tons of snow, pounding both Robbo and me. I moaned and shouted, but still he dug until he stood on another snow ledge beneath the large roof of the last pitch. Unknown to us at the time, this pitch was the actual crux of the climb.
The coldest March day for twenty-five years, the radio told me as I drove across the snow covered moors later that night. The van heater pumped warm and I was still numb – numb from the cold, numb from having abseiled from the climb without finishing that final pitch.
The hare, white fur with flecks of brown, stood still, balancing on the crest of a snowdrift at the side of the road. 'Don't do it'. The breeze caught, ruffling soft fur. The hare's timing was perfect. Perfect that is for ending it all. Large dark eyes, long limbs, long ears like a victory sign. Bump. A loud thud resonated through the floor of my van. One less life.
I continued to drive the Lecht road but felt sad. The moon grabbed angular man-made shapes built along the roadside - signs, gates, fences, white and orange snow-wands - lengthy shadows pointed the way. Who decides when that's it, time to die, game over? It certainly shouldn't be someone in a red van!
'I wanted to say, I'm going rock climbing and I don't want to break my legs. But instead I heard myself saying OK, give me the gear, let's have this bastard'
The dark had beaten us, that's what we told ourselves, but really the climbing had beaten us. Robbo had set off on the fifth pitch, attempting to pull the roof but he couldn't commit – no gear, no really positive hooks, diminishing light, frozen to the marrow. He passed the lead to me and with a really bad feeling I set off. My head screamed at me, it was crying out for total commitment, strength, boldness. Panic poured through my veins, my arteries; it penetrated my brain. It was affecting how I climbed. I was rushing, desperately throwing myself at moves, desperate to stand up. Then another voice screamed, and this voice screamed louder. It said back off.
The voices murmured as we plodded away from the cliff, but thankfully not that much.
8th April 2013
On Monday the 8th, Guy and I returned to Lochnagar. The cliffs were covered in deep white and I thought of avalanches. A pair of crows dive bombed a Peregrine, the Peregrine screamed and dived; I imagined the vapour trail from its wing tips. The wind threw snow into our faces and numbed fingers. Clouds – grey-sky, blue-sky – sun-overcast-sun. The hills all around were plastered.
'This is crazy, it's bloody April.'
Robbo led the first pitch and I climbed the second once again, but this time placed all of the gear on lead. This pitch is the closest in traditional winter climbing I think I have ever come to making moves that are strenuous and feel similar to an M-grade winter sport climb. Both Guy and I thought that the grade of this pitch on its own would merit IX/10.
Guy led the short traverse pitch and I led the reasonably easy overhanging groove. My work was done; I pulled the belay jacket on, ate a bit of flapjack and sat back expecting Robbo to take us to the top. Unfortunately in life things often don't turn out how you expect. Or do they? I don't really expect the expected to happen, so when the unexpected happens instead does that make it the expected?
Robertson stein-pulled from beneath the roof; laybacked; hooked a small tuft of moss; placed a pick higher into a flaring crack; found another poor layback; and pulled like a train. There were no footholds, just smears. The gear was beneath the roof and there was no sign of gear to come.
'The technicalities were brain-ache inducing, stomach churning. The prospect of falling slowed me; terror was the tang of battery terminals licked'
A move higher, and then another move – one higher than on the previous attempt when we were shut down. Cruddy snow had to be cleaned. Millimetres of thin ice kept Robertson balanced – balanced for a second – and then in another second he exploded as if someone had turned on the electric. A loop on one of the tethers securing his axe tore and if I had been looking, which I wasn't as I had dived for cover, I would have seen an axe arcing through the air.
Robertson looked harrowed:
'OK, that's my on-sight gone, your turn Bullhorn...'
I wanted to say to Guy that I didn't mind his on-sight leaving him; I wanted to say I've done my leading, get on with it Robbo. I wanted to say, I'm going rock climbing and I don't want to break my legs. But instead I heard myself saying, OK, give me the gear, let's have this bastard.
I had decided it wasn't going to happen again, we were not going to retreat, not this time. It wasn't the four hours of remaining daylight that gave me confidence; it was my determination – it was the thought of failure, the voices, the fear of not being good enough. Backing off this route didn't suit me, much the same as not leading a pitch on Mort hadn't. Several weeks had passed since we had climbed Mort and four had passed since my first attempt on Nevermore, and in between I had trained – I had trained hard, and while I trained I had seen this climb.
Reaching the same sheen of ice that Guy had exploded from, I hooked a dribble, and then another. I had dropped a hook into a poor pick placement - the only gear above the roof. Re-adjusting my body position, terrified that the slightest outward pull would result in a helicopter ride, inching higher beneath the second overlap, hunting for gear – the snow, the rock, the spindrift, the white hills surrounding, spoke to me: 'Why are you here, what do you get from this?' But the answer was with me, it had been with me for a long time – intensity, challenge, personal boundaries, self-worth – pushing made that other stuff good; I knew I was a better person for experiencing this.
The climbing difficulties above the second overlap increased. There was no more gear until the pitch and the angle eased. I took a long time as the technicalities were brain-ache inducing, stomach churning – the prospect of falling slowed me – terror was the tang of battery terminals licked. But life moves on and if we don't move with it, what then? The battery fades, the light dims and all we have is darkness.
At last I pulled into Trail of Tears and belayed. That was it; I knew my winter was at an end.
Credit: Pete Benson has to be given credit for this route as his vision and drive to return to try this climb repeatedly was what fired me up to have a look. I'm sorry that when it went Pete wasn't with us to share the experience.