I 'd always dreamed of climbing a big direct route up the front face of Creag an Dubh Loch's Central Gully Wall. It's an awe-inspiring place – a huge sheet of high-angled slabs, interspersed with bulges and overhangs, almost a thousand feet high.
More intriguing still was its ephemeral conditions – until this season it had only been climbed twice before, and that was on the same day, so ice on the upper pitches was clearly a pre-requisite. And then there was the chilling tale of Andy Nisbet and Sandy Allan on the first ascent of The Rattrap – 350m, VIII,8, 17 hours of climbing, a stuck haul bag, a snapped pick, hypothermia kicking in...
Fortunately this season, with snow and low temperatures of Biblical proportions, the dream came true, when Pete Macpherson and I succeeded on Super Rat (aka King Rat Direct). Eight pitches of the most sustained, varied and elegant winter climbing I've ever done, on a line where if you dropped your ice axe near the top it would pretty much land next to your rucksack. And for us the added bonus of forging a new friendship and partnership on one of the most hallowed walls in Scottish climbing history. What makes the Dubh Loch so special is that much of it isn't that steep – just smooth, blank and beguiling. Without useful snow and ice, the game's a bogey, especially as the low altitude and easterly aspect mean it's an early season venue when the daylight is so short.
As seems to be the norm on this crag, we tried the route twice before our successful ascent. First go in mid-January ended at the top of the third pitch with Pete popping off imaginary ice and falling the worst bit of twenty metres. On that occasion the route had been completely buried in semi-consolidated snow-ice – not ideal, and extremely serious. Ironically, there is a photo looking up through overhangs of myself on the first pitch on that attempt which someone on UKC referred to as 'dry tooling'! The second pitch involved climbing 15 metres from the belay on 75 degree centimetre thick ice with only a wobbly pecker for pro; and that was just to get to the crux roof!
On the second go, only a week later, an afternoon's thaw had stripped the lower half of ice, and then northerly blizzards replaced it with useless powder. Despite starting before dawn, and finding a more direct and independent crack line to avoid blank slabs on pitch 4, the darkness soon caught us. Halfway up pitch 5 and I was faced with more grade 8/9 ground, unclimbed in summer. An endless wave of spindrift choking me dry every time I looked up, I couldn't commit to going for it on a single small nut in an icy crack. My wee daughter deserved better.
By the time round three came we were beginning to choke on doubts – not so much about the difficulty, but the chances of finding conditions. Since our second attempt another two parties had tried the face (by different lines to ours) and neither had succeeded. This isn't a crag that can be brute-forced into submission. But on the third attempt we cracked it, the stars aligning above us. There was plenty of rock on show to find gear, but every groove and corner held a little god-sent strip of perfect, icy snow. Not enough to pull on, but good enough for crampons. On the crux second pitch, the ice boss under the roof had wept tears of joy down the slabs below, forming a scintillating if frightening drool of centimetre thick dream glue. We knew from that point what the outcome was going to be.
For me personally, this is the ultimate winter route – long, remote, direct, super-sustained and technically quite difficult. Super Rat is a most intoxicating mix of tenuous ice climbing and strenuous cracks, requiring diamond-tipped crampons as well as fire in the forearms. The fact that it only comes into condition once every two decades is just the icing on the cake; it doesn't get any better than that.
Photo Gallery: Super Rat IX,9
Guy Robertson is sponsored by Rab, Grivel and Podsacs