Femme Fatale, E8 6c, for Ferdia Earle

© Ferdia Earle

Ferdia Earle has made what is thought to be the sixth ascent of Dave Cuthbertson's classic E8, Femme Fatale (E8 6c), at Whale Rock, Glen Nevis, Scotland.

Her ascent, which comes thirty-eight years after Cubby's, is the first female ascent of the route, and Ferdia's second repeat at E8, having made the fourth ascent of The Rising Son (E8 6c) at Clogwyn y Grochan just over a year ago.

Ferdia wrote down some thoughts for us earlier in the week about her time on the route, its history, and its first ascensionist, which you can read below:

I'm really proud of this one and will always have good memories of my time trying it. I found it really hard. But it's special because, even when I wasn't sure I could do it, I always enjoyed the climbing and never regretted a moment I spent up at Whale Rock. It's a magical spot and I've got to experience it in so many seasons and weathers over the course of the last six years. I've been there every month from March to September; in three degrees, twenty-five degrees, wind, sun and rain. And what started off as a solitary activity has evolved into a small community of partners new and old, rekindled friendships with people nearby, and getting to know Cubby, who did the first ascent.

Cubby below Femme Fatale  © Ferdia Earle
Cubby below Femme Fatale
© Ferdia Earle

I first tried the route on my way home from climbing Skye Wall years ago. I nipped into Glen Nevis and spent a couple of hours messing about on a shunt at Whale Rock. I didn't know anything about Femme Fatale, which is neighboured by Just a Little Tease (E5 6b), made famous on the cover of Extreme Rock, and Jules' E10 Hold Fast, Hold True (E10 7a). I only tried it from after the first bulge as my rope didn't quite reach the ground. Looking down I could see crimps and didn't think it looked too bad – I didn't realise this was the crux. The upper section is much easier – maybe E6 on its own – and climbs beautifully, so I came away thinking this was a route I wanted to return to.

The following summer, Andy and I met up with Cubby there for the first time. Femme would have been one of the hardest climbs he put up during his legendary climbing career, and therefore one of the hardest climbs in the country in 1986 until The Indian Face was climbed a few months later. He is particularly proud of the line, which links a series of unusual features on perfect schist. The crag and the rock are beautiful, especially in low evening light when the shadows of nearby branches dance on its curves. The names of both this route and Just a Little Tease come from the song Femme Fatale by the Velvet Underground. I would later meet the woman who partly inspired these names – thankfully life unfolded such that she and Cubby reconnected decades later.

My first few sessions on the crux, mostly on my own over three years, I couldn't touch it. It is basic crimping for four or five moves over a barrel with poor feet. There are crimps all over the place, and a couple of possible footholds, but I rapidly went through my skin trying different sequences, all of which seemed very hard. On top of this, it looked like the boulder was barely protected by the gear placed from the ground to either side. You would hit the starting ledge if you fell off. Cubby had mentioned practising the fall a few times and it being ok – but he also mentioned being able to downclimb the crux! I would clearly not have as much in hand as someone who remembers burning Malcom Smith off on Malcolm's own board!

The rest of the climbing flows really nicely. From a scoop above the initial bulge you make a balancey step right into another scoop, then move up into a groove where you get a kneebar. A final bulge lands you in a crack. From the floor to here – maybe fifteen metres constituting the hardest climbing – the placements are good but mostly tiny; sky hooks and brass nuts 1-3. You also get a medium cam in a smooth flared placement where Cubby had two pegs (these have rotted away now), which feels like your main protection through the mid-section. From the crack, the route eases further to the top.

Ferdia on the crux bulge of Femme Fatale  © Ferdia Earle
Ferdia on the crux bulge of Femme Fatale
© Ferdia Earle

The style in which Cubby put up his trad routes (and highballs) is so impressive. He observed an almost exclusively ground up ethic whilst applying his significant bouldering and sport prowess to groundbreaking routes like Requiem (E8 6c) and Femme Fatale. He was one of the world's top climbers at the time, being close to climbing 8c+ in the early 90s with Ring of Steall (8c+), also in Glen Nevis. There were only a couple of other routes at the grade worldwide then. Not many people realise that not only was Requiem the UK's first E8, it was also the first trad route featuring climbing of sport 8a difficulty at a time when the first sport 8a routes were only just appearing... and it was forged ground up except for the last hard move! In the end, Cubby checked out this one move on a rope, to give him the conviction to push on up there in a runout position. Now that's 'ard! Creating these routes in the best style that he could gave Cubby an immense sense of purpose, and he set the bar so high that no one's really matched it since.

From Cubby, I learned that Femme Fatale had been put up in similar style. After abbing the route to clean it and place the pegs, he worked the climbing including the crux ground up. Cubby doesn't remember ever falling off this, only jumping off to test the fall. After placing the sky hook in the first scoop, he downclimbed to tension it off himself. He did opt to practice placing the brass nuts that protect the step right into the second scoop, as these looked a little blind. Interestingly, he found these moves just as hard as the crux, which demonstrates just how strong he was at basic crimping, and also the strengths of different climbers. I find these moves off-balance, and they were going to feel spooky on lead with the possibility of a ground fall. But the moves themselves I could do straightaway, whereas it has taken me years to link the crux, which Cubby reckons is only a 7B boulder. Maybe that's Scottish 7B! It feels harder than any 7B or 7B+ boulder I've done.

A couple of years ago, Franco Cookson gave me some more insight into the route's history. He was trying Hold Fast, Hold True and pointed out that this had had as many lead attempts as Femme despite being two grades harder. I learned that Femme had only seen repeats by the likes of Dave Macleod, Dave Birkett and Iain Small, all of whom had headpointed it. Iain actually soloed it as mental preparation for Hold Fast, Hold True and considers the crux moves on Femme Fatale harder. I later learned it had also been climbed by local Ewan Rodgers. That's possibly only four repeats in nearly forty years. Did this mean it was really hard? Or just that it was unfairly overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbours? Either way, I was glad I hadn't known this sooner as it might have discouraged me from getting on it.

Evening light on Femme Fatale  © Ferdia Earle
Evening light on Femme Fatale
© Ferdia Earle

By now, I was pretty locked into seeing if I could link the last one or two crux moves. The femme fatale had me firmly under her spell. It was evident stronger fingers would help. The holds were there, I just couldn't use them! Over the next two winters, I followed training plans by Neil Gresham with routes like Femme Fatale and The Rising Son in mind.

Last Spring, my friend Tony Stone joined me on the route, which was a game changer. He found it as hard as I did, but also loved it as much as I did, both of which made me feel a bit less crazy for returning year after year. We focused exclusively on the crux, which was much easier to work on toprope with a partner. And with two minds in the mix, progress was steady. We finally settled on a sequence, but could only manage less than a handful of quality goes each day before skin rolled and fingers fatigued. We spent a lot of time figuring out the initial gear and ground anchors, including a pad for the starting ledge and deciding to have the belayer tension down the sky hook once placed.

On our third day, we linked most of the boulder, before it was time to go home. "The more I try this route, the harder I realise it is," said Tony, which summed it up. Not only was the crux hard, skin and conditions dependent; now that I was strong enough to hold the holds, the moves were proving knacky too.

Cubby and Tony discussing beta  © Ferdia Earle
Cubby and Tony discussing beta
© Ferdia Earle

We made plans to come back this Spring. I trained all winter again, this time focused exclusively on Femme Fatale. A chance look at the forecast for the glen in early March led to a last minute trip. It looked dry but would feel like three degree temperatures in the thirty mile an hour winds. As we drove north my confidence evaporated. How many more trips could I justify? How much more carbon was I going to burn for this route? Did I really think I could do it? Given it could have been too cold to be climbable, I made sure to lower my expectations, so that even being able to warm up and get on a rope on the first day felt like a win. Feeling stronger on the holds was a bonus. I was wrapped up in all my layers with handwarmers in my gloves, boots and chalkbag. It could have been miserable, but spirits were high – particularly when Cubby chanced upon us.

Ferdia and Cubby below Femme Fatale  © Ferdia Earle
Ferdia and Cubby below Femme Fatale
© Ferdia Earle

By late afternoon, the light in the glen was the most ethereal I'd ever seen. The rock looked like filigree silver. As usual, all doubt receded. Why would I ever not want to be here? I decided I didn't mind if I never did the route if it meant I could keep coming to this magical place. "It's so nice you're spending so much time on the route," said Cubby, "You're getting to build a real relationship with it. I did it so quickly!" Cheeky, but I knew what he meant! I should have been more careful what I wished for though, as a couple of weeks later I ended up in A&E with a sprained ankle, nearly putting paid to this season.

I think both Cubby and I have got to enjoy the route doubly by experiencing it through the other. I know that this is an important motivation for his photography. His enthusiasm for my efforts on the route kept me coming back when my own self-belief was low. Time and space could do interesting things as we chatted away up there – was it 1986 or 2024? Was it my broken heart or his? I wondered was the femme fatale the route, the certain special someone Cubby introduced me to beneath the crag one day… or was I the femme who'd come here to climb the route? The crag – the glen itself – all seemed to merge with Cubby himself at times. They have personalities of their own, as do the trees on the top. I would make sure to go up and greet the Scots pines up there at the start of each visit. Such trials and adventures they must have witnessed on that crag over the years: lost love, broken necks, broken ankles, ground falls. I thought my arboreal visits were probably a bit eccentric until that day when I heard Cubby say he was heading up to see the trees...

That evening, Tony found the original edition of Climber magazine reporting on Cubby's ascent of Femme Fatale. There's a black and white image of him styling that ever-so-familiar streaked pillow of rock and a brief write up.

Image of Cubby on Femme Fatale in a 1986 edition of Climber mag  © Ferdia Earle
Image of Cubby on Femme Fatale in a 1986 edition of Climber mag
© Ferdia Earle

He gave it E6 6c! Cubby still wonders if the route might be hard E7, but I think he's the only one. Even Dave Macleod thinks E8, so I'm told. All I know is that the crux is the single hardest piece of climbing I've done, so it's pretty cool that it's on a route.

Next day, Tony and I both linked the crux for the first time. I was ecstatic! It felt like an even bigger moment than doing the route. After that, we broke the mental barriers of getting on lead and falling from the crux moves. We each had the last hold in our grip a couple of times, but couldn't stick it. It was probably just as well as we'd been battling seepage in the groove above. We'd achieved much more than we'd expected.

Ferdia taking a break from working the route  © Tony Stone
Ferdia taking a break from working the route
© Tony Stone

I listened to Femme Fatale on loop most of the way home with everything suddenly feeling possible.

Then I sprained my ankle. The wet Spring meant a return to Glen Nevis got pushed further and further back, which was good for recovery. With climbing off the cards, I took the chance to do some last minute mental preparation and gear acquisition – I got into character by organising a diva-themed birthday party and purchasing the most femme fatale heels that I could find! At least if I didn't do the route, I'd have an amazing party afterwards!

Four weeks post-injury, my ankle still didn't like being landed on, but thanks to physio support from Tim Peck I had most of my balance back and could stand on small holds. Getting back on a familiar project with a padded landing didn't seem completely unreasonable. Unfortunately, Tony couldn't make it, but Andy was able to come up with me. We had a great week staying with a friend's family in Fort William. There wasn't often enough breeze for me to get far on the crux, and I was climbing too tensely, but Andy enjoyed doing other routes around the glen, which is beautiful at this time of year.

On my birthday, we had cake with our friends and their kids, and all went climbing together before heading up to Whale Rock mid-afternoon. It felt too still again and I was leaving greaseprints on the crux holds, so expectations were low. I felt like I was just going through the motions warming up and drying the seepage, with this probably being my last day on the route this season.

But then the breeze got up. It must have only lasted twenty minutes or so, but it was enough. I had a first go, noticing that I was feeling much more relaxed and that getting high on the crux had stopped being such a novelty. Instead of feeling like an imposter, I was getting tired of not doing something I knew I could do. Next go, I told myself I was just rehearsing moves I knew really well. This time I stuck the hold.

Ferdia high on Femme Fatale
© Ferdia Earle

Then, I completely messed up the skyhook placement – forgetting to clip myself in to it, one foot popping off a hold then another, dropping the wrong rope to retrieve the rack – an utter shambles. I'd only practised that bit once in six years! You'd think I'd have found time to practice it more than that. As a result, I climbed the top part of the route completely flash pumped. It was not a scenario I'd ever anticipated and so I hadn't even warmed up my forearms. It was a textbook example of how different a route can feel on lead compared to toprope and I found myself in onsight battle mode, clawing at good holds and feeling like I was off on the last tricky moves.

At this point, my last two pieces of gear were size 1 brass nuts and I didn't really want to fall on them – I have snapped gear that size before. My plan had been to grab one and clip in directly to reduce the force through them if I thought I was off. But there was no way I was letting go when I found myself up there so it was all a bit 'a muerte'! I tried to recover so that I could enjoy the top of the route. But in the end I wobbled to the top feeling a bit sick and just sat there in a haze. I had a little cry from the physical effort but also I suppose all the route had given me over the years. She'd been a real touchstone during a tumultuous few years.

Ferdia shortly after climbing Femme Fatale  © Ferdia Earle
Ferdia shortly after climbing Femme Fatale
© Ferdia Earle

"Well done!" said Andy when I finally tottered down, his hand on his chest from watching me nearly blow it. "You made a right pig's ear of that!"

I guess you can't get entangled with a femme fatale and expect to get away unscathed, even on your birthday. Most importantly, my ankle was good enough to be able to wear my new heels for at least ten minutes the following weekend!

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17 May

That's a fantastic write up: obsession, deep respect for those who went before, and a beautiful appreciation of a beautiful place.

Well done Ferdia. An amazing looking climb and a really fitting write up.

17 May

Well that was a really great read…well done Ferdia, on the route and the writing.

17 May

Ferdia is one of the best we have, such a undercover crusher (maybe not so much undercover anymore)

17 May

Stonking effort AND write up!

17 May

Great effort Ferdia. And cool write up. made me want to do it even more, and I have wanted to go and try it for years!

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