Friday 24th August 2012
Weather/Conditions: A bit of rain and a lot of cloud. Not perfect climbing weather but the rock was dry when we got there, just a bit slimy in the chimneys. Very little wind, which was good.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 10.1km / 1150m / 8h 45m
A bit of background...
I'd been thinking about North Buttress for a while.
It started by talking to James Seaman. I stayed at his flat the morning I climbed Curved Ridge for the first time. I climbed that alone in July and was happy to find it quite easy. At the same time, James had just climbed North Buttress. It sounded like a reasonable step up in difficulty. Importantly, it is beautiful route to the top, and to think I might be able to climb that? If it's not much harder than Curved Ridge then why not have a go?
I'd thought about attempting it alone on the 9th August, but that day I'd invited my pal Tom to Glen Coe, and we walked up the normal Buachaille route instead. Probably just as well because as it turns out, in the end I was quite happy to rope up on North Buttress.
It was a Club weekend and everyone was staying in the Blackrock Cottage. My dad, keen for a drive and chance of some photography, drove me to Bridge of Orchy where, since the skies looked pretty damn grey, he just went straight home. There, I met Craig and Dougie. Dougie's plan was to walk the normal route to the Buachaille, Craig and I would do North Buttress, and (hopefully) we'd meet on the summit.
We drove to Alltnafeadh, last things were packed, I thought carefully about my rack - leave big cams, take hexes: probably more useful! (wrong). We walked up the hill, left Doug to the normal route and as rain moved across Rannoch Moor, we walked to the base of North Buttress while getting completely soaked.
The scramble to the base of the chimneys turned out to be pretty spicy, especially with a heavy rucksack on. Most of it was okay, but there was one moment at which I could have done with a rope - the fall would have been long and far. We geared up at the base of the chimneys, and I prepared to lead off. (I planned to do all the leading. Exciting)
The route marked out. Green dots = belays
The route - pitch 1
A first pitch headed up through chimneys and I recorded the ascent with a GoPro head cam. The climbing all felt fairly easy, but I learned many, many lessons while climbing. The main thing that surprised me was how quickly I ran out of rope. Craig would be shouting out the metres of left, and when there were 5 or 10m to go, I knew I'd better start looking for a belay soon. My first belay was around a block - generally all my belays were a sling around a spike - though on the Buachaille you have to be careful about these: most of them at loose.
I was also surprised at how much I ran it out without placing gear. On each pitch I'd easily run out 8-10 metres of rope between pieces, though sometimes less. And the other big thing that I learned was that hexes are pretty useless on this rock. I brought small cams but left the big ones at the car. Now I wished I hadn't: there's huge parallel cracks all the way up and I didn't have the gear to take them.
At the top of the first pitch I prepared the belay when the head cam which I didn't own, shot off my helmet and went flying down the first pitch. "F***" I screamed, and Craig thought it was rock fall. I think he was surprised to hear the tinkling of falling plastic of a £200 camera that I didn't even own. It had come off it's mount and I watched it smash into several pieces in the scree at the foot of the buttress.
More swearing and rock-punching followed, and the implications set in. Craig got me back on track "Just leave it, there's nothing you can do." I calmed down. Craig followed up the first pitch. I was gutted. That had just rained on my whole day.
The Route: Pitches 2 and 3
The second pitch brought me through a moderately technical section: a chimney protected by a couple small cams. The whole North Buttress route is graded Moderate; I think it's maybe more like Diff due to this section, another technical section above and also the vast amounts of loose rock.
A small section of easier ground followed, and I set up a belay here. The third pitch was interesting, because there seemed to be a complete lack of gear. I got some pieces in but in general the ground was easy enough I didn't have to worry about falling. If only I'd brought those big cams! The gully steepened, and I came to a section where progress looked difficult. Naturally, I looked to the right hand side of the gully: there were a load of loose blocks. They looked shaky. But I checked the route description in my pocket: they mentioned that you had to surmount these blocks. Despite a thump with the fist that gave off a hollow sound, I climbed on top (If they haven't fallen for anyone else they won't fall for me) then realised I'd pretty much ran out of rope. I scratched around for a belay. Not much: just a couple thin cracks and a loose block or two. Time was ticking; think, think...
Well... it's Joe Simpson who said sometimes you've got to make a decision, even if it isn't the right one, and stick with it. So I slung the one shallow block on offer and belayed Craig off that. When he arrived, there was barely room for two! He had a laugh at one of my slung blocks lower down in the chimney. The sling had come straight off it's block and was lying uselessly in the middle of the pitch. Only that and a a couple of cams separated me from the belay below. Additionally, when Craig arrived, I took pleasure in telling him my pish belay wouldn't take an upward force, so tread carefully!
I began the fourth pitch.
I'd climbed up a few metres above our shoogly blocks when I realised; Craig still had all the gear! But I had the slings, so I slung two spikes above and I climbed back to Craig (there on a top rope). He passed the gear, and with three slings on the route we were totally safe. The last pitch was moderately difficult, and the terrain seemed to ease to the right. When the rope drag became too much, I made a belay. Communicating with Craig, out of sight, was almost impossible but word got through and he continued up. My belay was another crap spike. He belayed me up the next section, but I realised I hadn't put in a single runner. The drag was enormous. With four pitches below us and terrain easing, what was the point in having the rope? We untied and put it away. I realised how tired I'd become; a result of being so keyed up for a couple hours. We scrambled to the summit of the Buachaille, the great void below us, but the terrain just easy enough to warrant no protection.
The phone went: Dougie was on top and we met him there five minutes later. It had been amazing route, but the GoPro, smashed up at the base of the cliff put a dampener on things. After ages on top - no rush - we headed down the misted normal path. But the GoPro was still on the hill, so at the bottom, Craig and Doug took my bag at the path junction and I marched back on up to North Buttress. I really wanted to find that camera. Even if it was broken, I wanted the SD out of it.
I regained the start of the chimneys, a place which seemed so much less adventurous than at the start of the morning. I climbed the start of the first pitch and looked down at the screes: I was pretty sure I could remember where the camera fell, so I kept that in mind and descended again. I found the camera battery immediately: I almost stood on it. But if I'd thought that was a good sign for finding the camera then I was wrong. In the end I must have searched for an hour or two, looked over a 200m² patch of ground 4 or 5 times. I turned over just about every stone that seemed likely. No GoPro. Feeling dejected and eaten by midges, I descended back to Alltnafeadh where Craig picked me up.
A great route; with one dampener. At least it's the best line to the summit of the Buachaille and for that I'm glad to have done it. It's technically pretty easy. I think Diff covers it well. The only thing stopping it being a 3 star route (imo) is the quantity of loose rock.
(0.00) 10.45am Lagangarbh car park
(1.35) 12.20pm Bottom of pitched route
(4.25) 3.10pm Top of pitched route
(4.50) 3.35pm Stob Dearg
(5.10) 3.55pm Stob Dearg (left)
(8.45) c. 7.30pm Lagangarbh car park