Unfortunately, John was directly below me. I felt a bump as one of my flailing crampons passed his leg. I ground to an ignominious halt. I was mortified. It’s not often that you get a chance to climb with someone of such vast, high-standard mountaineering experience; it rather blots your copybook to spear his ankles in a careless tyro’s tumble.
Luckily, John was neither damaged nor perturbed. I must have just given the most glancing blow to his boot as I passed. We continued our descent...
I’d been both delighted and surprised when the redoubtable John Allen had e-mailed me with a telephoto picture of The Ben, and suggested a late season outing there. Many Ochils MC members will remember John from his excellent slideshow “Ten Alpine Routes to do Before You Die”. I jumped at the invitation, and dug the ice gear out from the back of the cupboard. John booked two places at the CIC Hut for the Sunday night, which was simple given his membership of the Scottish Mountaineering Club; yet requiring of a certain persistence to contact the elusive Hut Custodian. After a slightly delayed start, we’d headed north on the sun-bleached A82, busy with motorbikes and speed traps. The walk up to the CIC had been a delight on a wonderful spring evening; the mountain looked in fantastic icy condition, and our hut companions for the evening had been both loquacious and entertaining. John and I plotted our itinerary for the morrow, aware that the forecast was suggesting deterioration in the weather. I set the alarm for 6:30.
Soon John joined me, and invited me to lead on, explaining that the previous time he’d climbed the pitch he’d found the easiest line on the left up a little nose; and that the belay was, unfortunately, only on snow. He wondered aloud about taking some pictures of me on this photogenic section.
I set off up some excellent ice, and again got a good early ice-screw placement. I moved up onto rather steeper ground. There appeared to be a thick solid drool of ice on the right of this little groove, but appearances were deceptive, and it was hollow. With now burning calves I removed the screw and replaced it in what looked like shallower ice in front of me. The placement was good, and I was relieved to be able to get some upward movement to reduce the ache in my calves. I’d now come to an area where the ice seemed aerated and surface chunks were breaking off beneath my axe placements. As the area beneath the nose seemed to be most affected by this cruddy ice, I resolved to head directly up the steeper groove, where hard, clear water ice was in evidence. A few steep pulls had me on a little resting ledge, where yet another good ice-screw placement boosted my confidence for the last few steep feet to the top. I had a little frisson of excitement on the very lip at the top of the difficulties as my “leashless” attachment cord snagged on some ice, preventing me from getting a proper swing of my tools. Some dry-mouthed fumbling and fretting soon had me untangled. All that was left to do was scamper up the snow bank above and set up a snow belay. This seemed a time consuming job with technical axes, and by the time it was sorted the weather had deteriorated. When John climbed the pitch he had to contend with proper Scottish winter conditions: whirling snow and poor visibility. It didn’t seem to faze him, and he despatched the steep top section with some aplomb, and joined me for a well-earned breather at the stance. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and soon he toddled onward for a rope’s length up snow.
I dithered about on the belay, but eventually joined him. The squall had turned nasty and we resolved to quit while we were ahead of the game. Good Friday Climb could wait for another day. He suggested we take coils, and in poor visibility we found our way back into the floor of the huge groove of Observatory Gully. About half way down we stopped at a flat section to rest our calves, drink coffee, put the rope away, and enjoy the fact that the weather had relented, the squall vanishing as quickly as it had come.
A second pair of climbers was now on Tower Scoop: of only six humans in this great amphitheatre, four had chosen the same route! At least the leader would not need to dig a bucket seat and axe belay slots at the top, I mused.
It was shortly after leaving our coffee stop that I tripped over my own big feet, but luckily we completed the rest of our descent to the hut without incident.