Mat Wright has made the first ascent of a new route at Polldubh Crags, Glen Nevis. He has named the route Black Thistle, and has graded it E10 7a.
The route is Mat's third at E10 and above, and his second FA at the grade this year, after establishing Magical Thinking (E10 7a) just last month. Last year, Mat skipped E10 and went straight to E11 when making the fourth ascent of Neil Gresham's Lexicon (E11 7a) at Pavey Ark.
We spoke to Mat to find out more about Black Thistle, a route he describes as his 'hardest trad line yet'.
Congratulations on Black Thistle, your second E10 7a first ascent in as many months! Can you describe the route for us?
Thanks so much Xa! Black Thistle is different to any trad route I've previously done. It's around fifteen to twenty metres in length but despite this, it's still a very much a cruxy route.
The route is situated immediately right of Misadventure (E8 6c), in the heart of the most popular area of Glen Nevis, which - because of its beauty and style - is one of my all-time favourite climbing areas. And just as a bonus, it's also on the slopes of Ben Nevis, one of my favourite mountains for obvious reasons!
The route starts with an easy corner system that takes you up to a small ledge at around seven metres. From here, the route steepens with an impressive black prow, hanging directly above the narrow corner. To me, it feels around French 8b+, and has the potential to be dangerous.
From the ledge, the difficulty ramps up with a desperately hard, runout, and insecure boulder problem (around f8A). The gear beneath is good, but the area to fall into is tight. I realised that if I was to fall perfectly downwards, it'd just about okay. But any loss of control sideways or outwards and you're guaranteed to hit things on the way down. I felt like falling off wasn't an option personally.
Above the boulder, the climbing eases and is well protected, but it's still maybe a f6C boulder, quite fun, and with some delightful exposure.
You said the route is just to the right of Misadventure E8 6c, one of Dave MacLeod's many hard Scottish routes! Does it share any climbing with the route? Do you know whether Dave ever spent any time on the line that became Black Thistle?
I never actually intended on discovering this project, it kind of happened by mistake! I planned to try Misadventure but I immediately noticed that it was way harder than E8, even by Dave Mac's standards! I really liked the climbing though and continued trying the line for a few sessions. I of course quickly discovered that I wasn't actually trying Misadventure, but instead a project that would ultimately end up inspiring me above any other trad route in the area.
The line is completely independent to Misadventure, it shares no gear or holds, but the lines are strangely parallel. I find it odd that they're so close to one another, and yet seemingly so different. Both share similar qualities in that they're essentially characterised by a short, bold section of hard climbing, on an inspiring buttress of clean rock. They're both excellent lines if I say so myself!
I tried to do some outreach on who may have tried the line. I spoke to Dave and he seemed to know nothing about it which I found surprising. Other than Dave, I'm not aware of many people in the area who are into bold bouldery routes like this.
You described Black Thistle as your 'hardest trad line yet', what is it about the route that means that it's a step beyond your other first ascents?
I do honestly believe this is more challenging than any other trad route that I've done. This is mostly due to the difficulty of the moves in relation to the no fall zone. For me, it's the first time that I've honestly thought there's a chance that I could mess myself up by attempting to lead a route. I never felt completely ready, but I think that's just the nature of hard headpointing sometimes. I've spent more time on this route than any other route that I've led.
I've been hesitant to grade Black Thistle - the moves suit me incredible well, and I tried whatever I could to find an easier way. It's just off vertical, which is always a difficult angle to grade. I wasn't going to grade it but after a few days of thought, I just decided to go with my gut. I think E10 7a is fair.
First ascents are always going to feel a little tougher than repetitions of established routes, but how would you say Black Thistle compares to some of the hard repeats you've done in recent years?
First of all, for me, the climbing's harder than Lexicon (E11 7a), and any other trad route I've done for that matter. But the thing with Lexicon is that if you were to mess anything up at the very top, you're almost guaranteed to be out for good. It's got a much bigger fall.
Black Thistle isn't really a route you could die on, but it's very likely that you'll be seriously injured if you have any loss of control. I think this is the first time I've been close to my physical limit whilst in a serious position.
You mentioned a f8A crux - above a very nasty fall - can you break this section of climbing down for us?
The main difficulties of the route start immediately after leaving the ledge. There's a nest of gear to your left, and initially the route is fairly safe. Some fairly steady moves on undercuts and good feet lead to the start of the boulder problem.
Each move only gets harder from here on, the eighth move is by far the hardest; a bunched and tricky drop knee was the only way I could do this move. I wondered whether this could get English 7B. It took me around three days to figure out, but once I found the knack, I could do it fairly consistently in isolation.
After this, it gets slightly physically easier but very technical and insecure; each move is still English 6C and contributes towards the overall difficulty… not to mention the gear and corner system is a good few meters below your feet at this point, so I was very much aware that falling off wasn't really an option. Fight or flight response definitely kicks in here.
What's the gear like on the route?
All of the gear is large cams and solid nuts in clean, horizontal breaks. However, there's no option for protecting the upper half of the boulder problem where you're almost certainly going to be injured should you fall. Above the boulder is a horizontal crack that takes some excellent gear before the final, much easier boulder.
How many sessions in total did it take you, and what was your approach to working the route?
I lost count of how many sessions I had on the project. I actually thought it was going to take me much longer, but the time was ticking if I wanted this to be part of my Britrock film with Al Lee!
I couldn't believe I did it in the end. I led the route on my first try, but it took me a while to link the whole route in one whilst self belaying before that. I love those quiet sessions alone, just messing about on a gri-gri.
Talk us through the successful attempt, did it all go to plan?
The lead attempt went well! But moments before I felt stressed to say the least. I didn't feel ready, but I'd already signed myself up for it.
Everybody was super supportive in that moment: Alastair Lee and Alfred Reed were there to film, and my fiancée, Anna Taylor, was there holding my ropes. The route was wet at the bottom and I had to keep drying the route before each attempt.
I was tied in, ready to go, cameramen in place and ready for action. Admittedly feeling way out of my depth but psyched to tackle the bull by it's horns. Only to have to keep stopping to dry the footholds.
I eventually plucked the courage and decided to give it a go. It all went surprisingly smoothly and after climbing through the first six moves, I took a quick glance down to check whether my shoes were still dry. They were… and I felt physically amazing, light and strong.
That made it much easier for me to commit to the hardest part. Move seven, the crux drop knee, felt the best it's ever felt and the rest of the climbing couldn't have gone any better.
The top of the route is just gorgeous, the exposure is really quite something and you know you've got it in the bag. Topping out, you arrive at this large terrace with a lone Caledonian Pine. It's a great place to just sit and take in the experience you've just had whilst looking out over the neighbouring mountains. What a place.
What does this route mean to you?
From a young age, I've been fascinated by the thought of becoming an outdoors professional. I grew up on a council estate just on the outskirts of one of the four boroughs that make up the Black Country. I had a poor education and whilst my dad was in the army, my mum had a tough time raising me and my three brothers on her own. Because of this, and many other reasons, starting climbing had to wait until I was old enough to take my own path at sixteen.
Whilst trying to avoid a sob story, it's been tough, and I've had to fight hard to try to fulfil the legacy that I've always dreamed of. So, discovering this new route in the heart of the Scottish Highlands (symbolised by the Scottish thistle), felt somewhat like a full circle moment.
I would love to thank Freddy Mead for helping me come up with a name and Anna Taylor for the endless support. It's so much easier to pull things off when you've got great people around you.
A film about Mat's numerous hard ascents called 'Hard Git' will feature in this year's BritRock Film Tour, live venues and online screening premiere 7th November.