Keri Wallace writes about completing a self-supported link-up of Ken Wilson's 7 Classic Rock Routes in Glencoe – involving roughly 53 guidebook pitches of climbing and 22km of running (approx. 3000m ascent) starting in Glen Etive and finishing at the Clachaig Inn.
'Quality comes as much from the theatricality of a route as from its difficulty – the architecture of its crag setting, and the intricacy, variability and positioning of its pitches…Such is the power of the classic to impress… ripe for rediscovery and renewed patronage….and encrusted in history' - Ken Wilson, Classic Rock 1978 & 1997
The Classic Rock routes of Glencoe, as compiled by Ken Wilson, may have fallen out of favour with the modern climber but they are still indisputably classics. After moving to the area 10 years ago, my husband and I both became members of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. On many a dark night since, with headtorch beams bouncing off slanting rain we've been regaled with tales of calamity, narrow escapes and memorable call-outs on these infamous rock climbs in Glencoe – terrifying yarns spun by colourful characters and dab-hands whose names will never be forgotten.
And so it was that these routes became more than just a tick in a list. They were a part of our local history and the very fabric of British Climbing.
Ben and I had long been aware of the Lakes Classic Rock Round and had being pondering the viability of a Glencoe Classic Rock challenge for some time, but it wasn't until two local climbers Ali Rose and Mark Chambers, linked the Cairngorm Classic Rock routes in just 17h28mins (7 routes and 62km) that our thoughts began to turn in earnest to the challenge on our doorstep. But Glencoe is different – many of the listed climbs are adventurous and loose mountain routes that don't lend themselves to soloing, down-climbing or other such antics used to speed-up the linking of routes. We asked ourselves would it be too dangerous to climb these esoteric pitches tired or in darkness? Maybe. It was clear from the outset that we would need a solid plan.
After some recces and lots of deliberation we decided on a route and put together an ambitious schedule for the day, which came in at 23hrs. We agreed that the key to keeping safe was not to climb fast or take risks, but instead to be slick with our ropework and transitions, taking good lines between routes. We agreed that Ben would lead throughout instead of swinging leads, since I am comparatively slower and less confident on the sharp end. At first I struggled with my role as second but soon made my peace with our need to move as quickly as possible as a team.
A recce of Crypt Route revealed a disappointingly long snow slope on the approach, so although it seemed a bit ugly, we positioned a drop-bag (with boots and axe) in the coire the day before, to avoid unnecessary risk-taking. Other than this, we set-out to complete the link-up on foot from Glen Etive road to the Clachaig Inn, carrying all our climbing equipment with us from start to finish.
We opted to start with the Chasm at 15:30 so as to hit the popular classics on the Buachaille and Aonach Dubh in the dark, and avoid possible queuing.
THE CHASM (450m Very Severe – 16 guidebook pitches)
'The accidental marriage of geological faulting and high rainfall has provided Scotland with a rich endowment of gullies, and Glencoe has the lion's share…for length, quality and scenery, together with a crescendo-like finish, few would dispute the regal position of the Chasm of Buachaille Etive Mor' – Ken Crocket, Classic Rock.
Somewhat fittingly, the fist ascent of the Chasm was by Mr & Mrs N. E. Odell, a husband-and-wife team climbing together with R. F Stobart in April 1920, after the Great War.
We had climbed the Chasm together ten years earlier and it felt strange to be heading back into its depths two children later, different people but in some ways the same. As we approached the route, we talked about the many climbing trips we had shared together around the world (from Yosemite to Morocco), and what at first sounded like a crazy idea, started to seem like a natural progression. We had to pinch ourselves that good weather and childcare had come together to give us this opportunity!
The gully was bone dry (except the Red Slab pitch) and the climbing enjoyable throughout. The rock is mostly solid and with steep sides, rattling boulders and mighty chockstones, The Chasm is an atmospheric place to be - looking out at the sliver of sunny hillside opposite, through a dark gash in the mountain. Due to the adventurous nature of the route, we chose not to solo anything, climbing in alpine style (shortening the rope with coils) and climbing lots of short, quick pitches. On occasion we moved-together with the added safety of a Micro-Traxion.
The Hundred-foot pitch is excellent fun – the best pitch in the gully in my view.
Soon we were ticking-off pitches quickly and making good progress. The impressive but somewhat claustrophobic Devil's Cauldron is a super finale, and we exited via the South Wall.
Topping-out in 4hrs (from the road) we found ourselves 1h up on our schedule. We quickly swapped rock-shoes for fell shoes and packed away the rack. On such a hot day it was nice to be in the shade for our sneaky traverse round to the top of Curved Ridge. We then descended (solo) the full-length of Curved Ridge and traversed back underneath to reach the bottom of North Face Route.
NORTH FACE ROUTE (220m Severe – 8 guidebook pitches)
North Face Route starts in a fairly non-descript fashion, nice climbing but nothing too special. But as you reach the Heather Ledge and climb around the edge of the buttress, you begin to appreciate your position, high above the floor of the glen, with the wide sweep to Rannoch Moor far beneath your feet.
Again we pitched the whole route but ran two of the rope-lengths together with a micro-traxion device.
The link-up with Rannoch Wall is clearly described in Classic Rock and takes you back across to Curved Ridge (briefly) before dropping off its west side to reach the bottom of Agag's Groove.
The schedule said we had gained a further 15 minutes…
AGAG'S GROOVE (100m, Very Difficult – 4 guidebook pitches).
It's easy to see why Agag's Groove is the most popular of Glencoe's classic rock routes. Two easy pitches on massive holds, ascending quickly to a fine position. But it's not all plain-sailing – some of the blocks are pretty loose now and with darkness setting in rapidly, we were cautious to test all the holds and place just enough gear.
We popped-on our headtorches at the top of Rannoch Wall (1h15m up on schedule), and clambered quickly up to Crowberry Tower, before tiptoeing under the 'levitating block' to reach the summit of Buachaille Etive Mor.
We had contemplated descending Curved Ridge (again) but in the end opted for a night-run down the many steps of Coire na Tulaich to give our tired brains a rest. It felt great to be moving and soon we were at the mouth of the coire. We descended the left bank of the Allt Coire na Tulaich then cut directly across to the Lairig Gartain car park (aka Paraffin Lizzie's).
To save on time and wet feet (the roadside trail is very boggy), we ran down the main road for <2km before joining the General Wade's Road trail past The Study. We stopped here briefly for some scran and coffee before dinking down the last bit of road and on to the trail up towards Coire nan Lochan. Thankfully the road was very quiet at this time of night!
LONG CRACK (90m Severe – 2 guidebook pitches)
The slog up to the foot of Aonach Dubh felt pretty brutal with a stomach full of potatoes and coffee, but spotting the eyes of curious deer glinting in the darkness proved a useful distraction. It was actually quite blowy at the foot of Weeping Wall and we layered up a bit for the night (over trousers and thin belay jacket). Personally, I'm not really a fan of climbing in the dark, and I was suddenly less than thrilled on the blustery, exposed wall, directing my beam with deliberation at possible foot and hand-holds. I felt clunky, climbing without the benefit of peripheral vision but Ben was in his element and loving every minute of it!
There are some trickier moves off the belay for the second pitch and as I neared Ben's light I was quite glad to be pulling up onto the grassy terrace (with the aid of some pretty solid handfuls of heather).
Caffeine energy gel please!
ARCHER RIDGE (70m Severe – 3 guidebook pitches).
This route was a delight – a blunt arete that narrows to an airy rib with plenty of route choice. I don't think Ben and I ever went the same way between spaced runners! I found the rock to be much more solid than it sounds in the original Classic Rock description. Flowing climbing for a couple of long pitches and we were soon putting the fell shoes back on.
Is it just me or is that daylight creeping into the sky?
The summit of Aonach Dubh seemed inexplicably far away as we weaved through outcrops and tussocks to gain the ridge. But thankfully any grumpiness was dispelled by a sudden orange-streaked sky and uplifting sunrise as we reached the top (we should have factored in time for photos!)
Next we cut across the western flank of Stob Coire nan Lochan and traversed above the impressive buttresses to reach the coire below Church Door Buttress. It was a deeply satisfying line across the hill that seemed to take no time at all (well worth the recce). Still up on the schedule, we were soon crossing the final stretch of blocky scree to reach the flat ground of the coire floor and our drop-bag.
CRYPT ROUTE (135m Very Difficult – 4 guidebook pitches).
After stashing our rock shoes and packs, we started up the snow slope wearing boots and using our axes. Kicking steps we gained height, noting that if we slipped, the slide would have been a long one with a rocky finish!
Higher up, the snow ramp had receded since the previous recce, meaning that we had to get the rope on earlier than planned to pass the initial giant chockstone in the gully, and ascend to the foot of the first pitch. We left axes behind (to be collected later) and climbed the route with just our climbing gear.
You know you're in trouble when the route description warns of 'complete darkness' and a feature known only as 'Hell'! Crypt route is renowned for its subterranean passages and '45cm hole' which requires climbers to remove their bag, gear and sometimes helmet in order to get through.
(Hell is an even more apt description when some thoughtful 'person' has thought it acceptable to leave a poo on the small belay ledge INSIDE the chamber. Seriously!)
'Stones of Old in high immortal verse, of dire chimneys and enchanted isles And rifted rocks whose entrance leads, to Hell' – John Milton (as quoted by John MacKenzie to describe Crypt Route in Classic Rock).
The first pitch is good old-fashioned back-and-footing, but once you enter the first chamber things get pretty weird. Ben shouted useful instructions at me through the darkness such as 'just udge up' and 'you need to thrutch a bit!' It was extremely tight.
Despite being only 4 pitches, you can lose a lot of time here if you're not familiar with this caving-style oddity. It's not clear which passageway is the right one to take and the options all seem completely unfeasible!
'Seekers of new sensations (provided that they are slim) should try the tunnel route….taking a narrow passage with torches aglow.…calling for awkward wriggles to gain the sunlight and welcome freedom' - John MacKenzie, Classic Rock.
I actually quite enjoyed the contortionist antics of Crypt Route and felt secure in the grimy darkness. I didn't however, enjoy the exposed tumbling-down pitch that followed, leading to a stance on top of The Arch. [Note – due rock fall in West Chimney this section now feels somewhat precarious].
In the interests of time, we decided not to bag the actual summit of Bidean nam Bian and skirted back to the col with Stob Coire nan Lochan, before dropping back into the coire to collect our stuff.
This is where the schedule fell apart a bit. We took a great line down to and out of Stob Coire nam Beith but we had significantly underestimated how long it would take. We descended through 'the gate' and crossed the Allt Coire nam Beithach, heading off-trail to cut-out the many stone steps down to the road. As we jogged along the Clachaig Road we realised we had lost some of the buffer we had gained on our original schedule, but were still ahead of time.
We stopped by the roadside for another quick hit of food (this time rice pudding and pork pies!) and then continued along to the pub.
CLACHAIG GULLY (520m Severe – est. 16 guidebook pitches)
By now the temperature was soaring and the sun beat down on us as we started the stiff walk-in for Clachaig Gully – definitely flagging now.
Suddenly we spied two people ahead, carrying bags that looked distinctly like climbing packs. Surely we wouldn't come up behind another climbing party on the very last route of the challenge - and in Clachaig Gully of all places!
Sure enough they were heading for the route. Thankfully though it was their first time and they were grateful for someone to follow.
In some ways, the sketchy descent into Clachaig Gully is the worst part of the route – narrow, loose and highly consequential! With care we scuttled down, being mindful that our legs were more tired than the last time we were here.
Clachaig Gully sees far fewer ascents today than it did 50 years ago, when it was frequented in all manner of weather and conditions. I remembered a tale that John Grieve (the first Glencoe MRT team leader) told me on a rescue once, of how he had climbed the gully on a winter rescue and used an antler instead of an axe because he didn't have one with him! Today the gully has a certain air of neglect about it, overgrown, chossy and loose in places but it is still a very cool place to be. Looming high above the Clachaig Inn, the gully feels imposing and committing.
Taking coils we climbed the route in lots of small pitches using a short length of rope – it seemed never-ending!
Care is needed on the Jericho Wall pitch (looser than it first looks) and despite very dry conditions, we still needed to climb fully in the waterfall at the Red Wall pitch where the gully narrows.
'I would climb as far as I could in the water, and then lean out backwards, take some gulps of air and plough on' – Allan Austin
With squelchy shoes and a heavy rope we proceeded to tick-off pitch after pitch. There are a few steeper sections towards the very top of the gully but then suddenly we were done, skirting out onto the descent path.
We had decided to stop the clock at the road, so we started down with cheery hearts. It was going to happen – we were nearly finished! We agreed that it would be a great shame to trip at this late stage and fall into the gully, so we took the descent steadily and only started to run as we left the scree behind…
Stop. The. Clock. – 22h29mins.
Only one thing left to do now; a pint and some chips in the sunshine, before going home to the kids.