The South East Ridge of Sgorr Bhan

© mark handford
Ballachulish Horseshoe
Snowdonia Adventures, Feb 2006
© mark handford

The following events are recorded by the survivors of an epic ascent of a virgin peak deep in the Glen Coe backcountry: Sgorr Bhan - A 33,600 inch nail of rock hammered up through some of the most extreme weather on Earth.

First Ascent: B Coombs, D Weeks, C Froud, L Pearce, I Drake and M Leeds, 2nd February 2003.

Grade: 580m, ED3+/A4, 5 pitches of Scottish IX (10)

Time: 3 ½ hours from “Dead mans point” to the pub

Equipment: Ropes, axes, crampons, ice pitons, etriers, insanity

They rose early. The stench of whisky hung heavy in the air. So they returned to bed.

Rising again some three hours later and eating what could have proved to be their last meal, the daring adventurers left base camp and boarded their trusty Ford Galaxy turbo diesel. The journey was perilous - across a flat ice sheet known as the A82. Never before has a handbrake been used in such anger.

Upon arriving in the desolate wasteland of Ballachulish, the team witnessed their objective for the first time. The air went cold and the sun disappeared behind an ominous black cloud. The mountain was angry; spindrift swirled from its lofty summit and avalanches cascaded down the central 'Couloir de Mort'. The explorers pulled on their packs, sharpened their axes and strode forward on the long approach march. Passing the Sherpa run co-operative store, they paused for some last minute supplies for their impending ordeal. They were now committed.

Negotiating the forbidden valley they came across a small Sherpa village, with a population of three and seven sheep. The inhabitants were busy sacrificing a young virgin to the mountain gods. We slipped by un-noticed, except by one - who stared at us coldly, as though he knew something we didn't.

Fear swept through the group like a bush fire as they realised their reserves of sanity were running thin, but still they pressed on. Many minutes later they arrived beneath their objective. The jagged ridge mocked them as it sliced rudely into the heavens. Little did they know of the horrors that faced them on the mountains icy flanks. They battled through dense undergrowth for what seemed like hours to arrive at 'Dead Mans Point'. Here, they strapped on their crampons and plunged their axes into deep powder.

As they set foot on the ridge for the first time the brooding skies unleashed a thunderous clap and a volley of frozen rain, a warning of what was to come.

Making slow progress, the team fixed ropes for the dangerous 'Drake Step' - a vicious 200 inch, 45 degree mod scramble over verglassed, broken rock. At 18,000 inches, the air is thin and such technical climbing is no trivial undertaking. Weeks dropped to his knees and sobbed like a small child as the rest of the team gasped for breath in the rarefied atmosphere. The smell of death now saturated the air. Upon further investigation this proved to be the corpse of a Slovakian alpinist, suspended by his ankles above the “Couloir de Mort”. Feeling sorry for the fellow mountaineer, Pearce cut the ropes, committing his body to an icy grave (But not before he'd checked his wallet and stolen his wrist watch).

Weeks pulled himself together and stormed up the ridge like a man possessed. Concerned for his safety the team hastily pursued the crazed Welshman. At 20,000 inches they entered the 'death zone'. It is well documented that such extreme altitudes tear at the very fabric of the human body. Ravaged by the altitude Coombs collapsed helplessly to the snow clutching his head and moaning from the agonising pain. Weeks piped up and said he had recently seen such devilish symptoms amongst the sheep of the Brecon Beacons. Knowing it to be cerebral oedema, the scourge of the high altitude climber, Coombs was hastily treated with a seventeen-year-old Bowmore elixir, which brought near instant recovery.

The daring alpinists continued their epic struggle through spindrift avalanches and powerful gusts of wind in excess of 50 fathoms per calendar month. All of a sudden, the foul stench of garlic filled the stale air, overwhelming even the Welshman's pungent odour. It was the notorious French alpinist Ivor Baguette. The Frenchman stomped up the mountain, snorting and grunting, axes flailing like tools of war. The seven looked at each other in despair. Could the months of training, fundraising and planning be jeopardised by this foolhardy yet bold Frenchman, whose lightning ascent threatened to beat them to the summit of their mountain. L'Amundsen to their Scott?!

Looking down the start of the rib leading to Sgorr Bhan- Ballachulish horseshoe.
© Mark Handford

As he passed, shards of ice cascading from his axe picks, he paused, turned slowly and gazed upon our heroes. “Sacre bleu” he barked, his concentration broken, “Ow dare ze Englishe scum be on my montagne”, he muttered to himself. Ahead of him, Peter was attempting the gruesome 16a crux move at the tip of a 30ft head wall. Seeing this, the dastardly Frenchman sped up the headwall, front-pointing his way up Peter's back, and placing his cramponed foot upon Peter's helmeted head to gain the sizable ledge above. Peter continued to grasp at the holds, but unfortunately the holds lost their grip on the mountain. Peter plummeted from the headwall still clutching the pieces of rock - which moments before had been his saviour. Seeing this, the Frenchman peered down from the ledge and uttered aloud, “ I av tried to climb zis motagne twize, and it az tried to kill me twize!” At that moment there was a rumble from the mountain above and the French alpinist looked up in horror as the white death surged down the slope, sweeping the garlic munching poof down the couloir of death. A cry of “MERDE!!” echoed around the massif before a deafening silence descended.

Having witnessed two deaths in as many minutes the team picked themselves up, quietly brushed off the spindrift, and stormed up the headwall above them. Upon arriving at the crux, now missing its vital handholds, the team rigged an ingenious hoisting devise from slings, a ferret and some old tent pegs. This propelled them through the sequence of complex moves Peter had pioneered before them. Another 200 metres of thin, technical “death soloing” on poor axe placements led to the sizeable bergschrund - the last of the mountains' difficulties. To negotiate this mantrap, the team were forced to rope up, and a tricky 50m section of climbing, protected only by a single size four nut

The ridge widened, and the summit was now in sight, bathed in the glow of the midday winter sun. Just as it appeared nothing could stop the intrepid six now – a massive rockfall swept down the broad Arete towards the team now stranded in the open. Once again the team stared death in the face. Only a miracle could prevent the untimely death of our plucky alpinists. Lo! A miracle did occur and the avalanche was deflected by the use of dear old Coombes rather stout umbrella but the rockfall killed 6 fat Americans, a retired German couple and a ginger housewife from Essex that day. Despite the desperate loss of life, our gallant heroes struggled onward to the summit cafe, where they celebrated their triumph with overpriced glasses of port, and pasties.

Night was now drawing in, and the team were faced with an exacting descent of the killer mountain, made harder by the fact that their ice axes had been stolen from the summit cafe by a Nike-wearing adolescent from Dudley. Scrambling down the soft, avalanche-prone slopes in the half-light, they came face to face with a terrible sight; an elementary navigational error by Weeks had led them straight into the jaws of the “couloir of death”. The seracs creaked ominously above them as they threaded their way down the gully, their frostbitten feet crying out in pain.

The team roped up and managed to get halfway down the couloir before the inevitable happened. Exhausted, and ravaged by altitude, Froud tripped over his crampons and began to accelerate towards the crevassed icefall way below. One by one, the rest of the team was plucked from the ice, until the whole party was rapidly “moving together, alpine style”. Without ice axes, self-arrest was a tricky proposition, but seconds from the first crevasse, Welshman Weeks had a flash of inspiration. Whipping out his Velcro gloves, he was able to stick to the ice, and brought half of the party to a halt mere feet from the lip of the cavernous crevasse. Unfortunately, this left Drake and Pearce hanging deep within the void, with only a pair of well worn Velcro gloves standing between them and a certain death.

Whilst Weeks, Coombs and Froud struggled to keep themselves from the hungry jaws of the crevasse, Leeds freed himself from the rope and, in a flash of inspiration, hastily prepared an improvised anchor. Leeds dug a four-foot deep T-shaped groove in the snow, tied a large sling around the torso of a nearby sheep and buried it, thus creating a solid 'buried sheep belay'. With this solid anchor in place, the team swiftly set about hoisting their comrades from the crevasse. Tired and demoralised, the team revived their spirits with finest single malt (which had been carried purely for such medicinal purposes).

With precious little light remaining, the team hurried to leave the mountain before nightfall; to risk benightment on the mountains slopes was suicide. The team continued to intricately weave their way through the dangerously crevassed snowfield. After what seemed like hours, they reached the gaping bergschrund at the glaciers outer reaches, which, although cavernously deep, was easily surmounted by with a running leap. The end was in sight. They scrambled easily down the final rocky slopes that led to the prominent sheep track back to Ballaculish.

They were tired but they were proud. They were the first. They had tamed the mountain. Tonight they would reminisce about adventures had, about friendships strengthened and of those tragically lost. They would tell tales of their adventure, daring and bravery. They would drink whisky. Tonight was theirs and, forever more, they would be known as the intrepid team that tamed the savage beast – Sgorr Bhan.

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16 Jan, 2007
16 Jan, 2007
ace stuff!
17 Jan, 2007
LOL Haaaaaaaar
17 Jan, 2007
Seriously though this buried sheep belay idea is fantastic as it saves carrying a deadman
18 Jan, 2007
and a sheep weighs less than a 'dead-man'
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