Mark Bannan remembers some climbs with his friend Ewan Lyons, AKA Captain Solo on UKC, who died in a fall on Beinn Dearg in 2020.
It really was a case of "the blind leading the blind". I didn't know it at the time; it only dawned on me during subsequent Alpine adventures that I had much to learn during the summer of 2001.
Before we set off, I had caught a strange disease, which could possibly be known as "Matterhorn Fever"! Before we left, I must have watched "The Misfit and the Matterhorn" documentary often enough to quote the whole thing verbatim. That year, the Matterhorn was not a sensible objective for the aspiring AD leader, with much snow cover and plenty of talk of grisly fatal accidents. We then chose an equally stunning peak, the Ober Gabelhorn. It certainly didn't help when we ascended by a route only morons would have used! After inadvertently kicking off several watermelon sized blocks onto some infuriated parties below, we finally managed to climb a minor foresummit that we were wanting. Luckily the other parties raced past us, eliminating the possibility of being punched off the ridge in revenge! However, we were stopped by hard Scottish mixed III when easy UK Diff. would usually have ensued. The only way was down, but I felt inwardly gutted, with my obsession with beautiful peaks clashing with the unhelpful conditions and my incompetence! The perfect day's climbing with Captain Solo had to wait.
Later on, ambition sat more easily with ability and Ewan and I had a glut of the most wonderful days climbing, both on mountain rock and winter ice. An early high point for us was a memorable day on Stac Pollaidh in September 2006. A wonderful sunny day was accentuated by the open South-facing summit cliffs of this wonderful wee mountain. The first route, Vlad the Impaler, gave me a pitch that was tailor-made for me, with 30 metres of almost continuous hand and fist jamming and delicate bridging on the wonderfully rough Torridonian Sandstone. Stacks of superb protection added to the fun.
Ewan made short work of the easier second pitch, giving us plenty of time for a second route. I was already delighted with my crux pitch lead and content for Ewan to lead both hard pitches on the exposed and formidable Jack The Ripper. I ambled up the scruffy but relatively straightforward first pitch, from whence Ewan led off up a highly improbable slabby arete above. He positively danced up this delightful pitch, giving lovely face climbing with good gear and exhilarating exposure. Above this, Ewan truly excelled himself, gracefully tackling a series of fierce leaning corners. When it was my turn, I suspected I would have to be hauled up the pitch, but the beautiful pebble-studded rough sandstone beckoned. Although my strength gradually started to drain out of my arms in the next twenty five metres, I managed to jam, smear, squirm and heave up to him at the top. A great end to an amazing day!
Many of our finest routes were fittingly in winter on The Ben, surely the finest and most alpine of Scottish venues. The winter of 2006-7 was disappointing at most venues, but the extra thousand feet gave The Ben many promising cycles of freeze-thaw, lacking below. Indeed, the "ice-factory" was hard at work at an impressively early stage, with our enjoyable ascent of Good Friday Climb on the unlikely date of December 28 2006. The only "fly in the ointment" that day was my use of a pair of ridiculously blunt crampons, the type that a snowed-up rock junkie would have been proud of! Luckily Ewan led the crux, preventing a "brown trousers" situation on my part.
Mid-February saw Nevis conditions far more akin to mid-April, as we slogged up to the base of Indicator Wall. Great fat curtains of snow-ice adorned the cliff, giving us far more choice of routes than we could have imagined and we set off up Indicator Right-Hand. A first pitch of brilliant, euphoric first time axe and crampon placements led me to a typical - almost laughably classic - Nevis belay, on ice axes and an appalling tied-off screw. The fear factor rocketed up inside me, but Ewan was as cool as a cucumber, leading the steep crux pitch above me, amid plentiful good ice screw placements. We both revelled in the bewildering exposure, the finest I have ever had on any ice route. Seconding the crux was a truly joyous experience for me, as I was able to savour looking down at the insane plunging drop beneath me, down the full height of the face.
As a climbing partnership, we reached the absolute pinnacle in April 2007. Ewan had already had a couple of brilliant days on The Ben with other folk and we had designs on Smith's Route. However, Point Five Gully looked so good that Ewan didn't mind repeating the route with me, so long as I let him lead the left-hand variation finish. Besides, neither of us could be bothered with the extra slog up to Smith's! As a typical Scottish (or at least Scottish-based Irish!) ice climber, I had been hankering after this route ever since I first swung an axe many years before and I did not need a second invitation! Ewan shot up the first pitch and I initially found the going easy seconding the initial slab. However, a very intimidating bulge reared up, making me somewhat awkward and leaden-footed as I flailed upwards. The relief of reaching Ewan, accompanied by a welcoming bomber belay didn't last very long. As he handed me ice screws, I craned my neck to look up at the next pitch, which was my lead.
Doubts crept into me as I viewed what looked like an unremittingly steep wall of ice, easing slightly but ending in a perplexing overhang. The logical part of my brain seemed to ask me what on earth was I doing here? The first pitch was hard enough for me to second and here I was, having the impertinence to try and lead a steeper section. I must have kept the worst fear within me, partly due to Ewan being his usual relaxed self. "Och, you'll be fine, Mark!" were his reassuring words as I also attempted to get my mind in gear and "take my brain out" to lead ice! As I set off, suddenly, as if by magic, my "ice head" clicked into gear with the very first satisfying "thunk" of a bomber first time axe placement. A great sense of euphoria took over my whole being, completely neutralising the fear and reminding me that I nearly always climb better when leading, especially in winter.
This strange adrenalin-fuelled alter ego must have looked improbably smooth leading, giving Ewan the confidence to take an action photo of me in full swing! Even the improbable overhang was fine as I planted both axes solidly into the ice above the rock step and squirmed up using my knees. I later heard that no less than "Smiler" Cuthbertson had used the very same technique on that move just a week before! The pitch then eased, carrying me to a marvellously lofty eyrie below the "Rogue Pitch", complete with another stonewall bombproof belay.
Unsurprisingly, the radical steepness of the next pitch felt very tenuous and combined with the increasing exposure, my head spun as I inched my way up to reach Ewan to breathlessly congratulate him on a great lead, which he somehow contrived to make look easy. We left the parent route (Ewan avidly, I somewhat more reluctantly!), veering left to the exposed leftward finish. I was delighted for Ewan to lead the rest, as my calves started to burn hundreds of feet before the top. The transition from the vertical to the horizontal is always special on such glorious days on the Ben, with satisfied smiles and happy banter between us and the surprisingly few other successful parties on the summit. Vistas which are hardly equalled on the most spectacular summits of the Alps greeted us, followed by the customary bumslide down No. 4 gully, which ended many a great day on the Ben.
Uniquely and perhaps very appropriately, one of my most enjoyable ice routes was followed later the same month by what is still my favourite mountain rock route. Centurion, in the same glorious month of April 2007 was another very different but equally magnificent adventure. Although both of us had only been out on rock once so far that season, climbing easier routes, the weather forecast was so good as to sharpen our ambition, choosing a seven pitch monster for the first HVS of the season! Just as with Point Five, the weather was glorious, with enough snow melt in the intervening few weeks to leave a dry Centurion but plenty of snow remaining on the mountain to give a truly Alpine backdrop to this great route.
After several years of climbing together, we would have instinctively known which of the two crux pitches suited each of us, and a very easy decision was made for Ewan to lead the exposed, overlapping slab forming the second crux and I would have the great corner-crack forming the first. Ewan shot up the first pitch, making light work of climbing that some folk had previously suggested was as hard as either crux. I always climb better on the lead, so I was resigned to a lot of hard work on the second. Imagine my surprise to be greeted with a lovely crack system, giving me jam after jam and good balance for my feet! This could not have been better preparation for what I had known for years would be a superbly enjoyable lead - numerous folk I'd talked to had raved about the great corner-crack. Since jamming and bridging have always been my favourite types of climbing, I was tingling with anticipation as I loaded myself up with ironmongery before advancing into the fray. The corner started easily enough at a gentle angle and I cruised up the first ten metres or so.
As the rock steepened, the climbing became gradually more strenuous, although a profusion of solid fat wires kept the fear at bay. As I inched higher, the corner became vertical, just as I made a hard teetering move, hanging off two ripper hand jams with both feet on ripples on the right wall. I started to feel the strength draining out of my arms and just when I wondered if I would "log some flight time", I spotted a sharp thumbnail-sized nubbin on the left wall and gratefully stepped onto it. Luckily it looked OK and felt even better and I was euphoric at the prospect of getting a clean on-sight lead of this most majestic pitch. The last couple of easier moves were sheer joy, with more sinker hand and fist jams, fat bombproof cams and elegant bridging.
Having fixed a belay and told Ewan I was safe, I revelled in the stew of adrenalin and endorphins coursing through me, accentuated by the glorious deepening gulf below us, as the exposure made its presence felt. The next few pitches were much easier and we quickly made short work of them to ensconce ourselves below the intimidating second crux. As a slab addict, Ewan gracefully flowed up this pitch, smoothly working his way through the intimidating overhangs above. Although I started to tire, complacency crept into me and I started to feel that the route was "in the bag", with 175 metres dispatched in good style and just a 15 metre 4c section above for me to lead. I reached Ewan's manically grinning mug and we wholeheartedly agreed on the outstanding quality of this fine pitch, hardly sparing a thought for what was to come.
After again festooning myself with our truck-load of gear, I absent-mindedly hauled up the spiky arête, only to be stopped by a fearsome bulge. What a rude shock! I was absolutely shattered by this point, with arms about as strong as a limp lettuce. Cramping up and fearing that I would increase my "air miles", I somehow managed to slap a good sling on and pounce up to a good handhold with my last reserves of strength, certainly feeling this "sting in the tail"! With a massive sense of relief, I topped out. The brilliance of the route lent a surreal air to the descent, especially having to climb down a Grade I snow gully in rock shoes, but thankfully this was easier than we'd feared! We were still smiling weeks later!
From then on, Ewan's standard accelerated inexorably away from mine, being the great climber he is, while I descended into the world of overweight bumblydom! Of our later experiences, there's no doubt that a superlative day in Coire Lagan in 2008 really took the cake. However, I will always remember the last day we climbed. Bucking the trend, my standard briefly flickered upwards a few years ago and we had an exciting but enjoyable ascent of the immaculate bold slab of "A Likely Story" on Eagle's Rock, in the middle of the summer of 2015. Ewan always loved bold slabs and it was great that I was able to enjoy my lead without "shedding my load"! Our last day together in the mountains is a fitting memory to a great mate, true gentleman and gifted climber who was cruelly taken away from us many decades before his time.