North Buttress (IV)
Buachaille Etive Mor (1022m)

Friday 8th January 2016

Weather/Conditions: Calm, dry conditions. Some wind but mostly sheltered in the cracks of the North Buttress. Emerged out onto the summit at darkness; clear conditions, with car headlights on the Moor below. Amazing!
Distance/Ascent/Time: 6km / 780m / 10h 10m
Accompanying: Iain Smith, Pete Nellist

How I wish I'd written a bit more about this at the time, when it happened. The North Buttress was my third winter climb and my first time leading anything substantial on axes. (a snow slope at the bottom of Green Gully doesn't count)

I met Iain and Pete at Tyndrum where I left my car for the day. It was a clear and cold morning: rounding the bend to the Buachaille showed a panorama of white mountains, dusted in their lower reaches.

The North Buttress was also a route I knew from the book Rock n Roll Mountains, which described it like a total white knuckle ride. And now I was to 'rock' up at the bottom of it as one of my first winter climbs. Maybe experience gives a bit of handle on these things though: I'd been on the route in summer, climbed rock far harder, and knew the protection systems well enough to know that while it was a winter climb, it was protected essentially the same as a rock climb.

We scrambled up over snow-dusted rock to the base of the route; snow and verglassed slabs. I was at a formative point on my winter climbing that I didn't feel the need to lead in favour of learing how it all worked first. Yet there's got to be a time. Someone posed the question 'so who's leading first?' and I volunteered myself. Ach well, it would be good to get going with this.

I had a good long battle leading this pitch. I had no idea how to move with tools yet, and I knew this. So every placement was deliberate, tested and then thought about again. In the absence of experience I was compensating by being over-cautious. It was particularly difficult getting out the first groove. But I kept going until I'd given out about 30m or so, then set up a rock belay and brought Iain and Pete up.

The lead had taken a long time (I'm not keen to know how long exactly!), and Iain took the next pitch up the crux grooves. It was a relaxed pace on this climb, and with two at the belay there was always conversation.

I had a good squirm seconding the second pitch alongside Pete, then Pete took the third pitch, a set of chimneys. It was possible to break out right, Pete took some line more direct and likely a bit harder. He mentioned after he was at the upper limit of his comfort zone! To add to that, darkness was almost upon us again. As Iain and I seconded he told me just to move - hurry up essentially! Fair comment, and I saet myself a pact to not allow Iain to catch me up just below.

Having finished the pitched climbing, the headtorches were on, and we were scrambling the final section to the summit in the dark, with car headlights strung out across the black moor below us. What a location, what a time and what an atmosphere! If anything I remember this moment more strongly than the climbing itself.

At the summit I thanked the guys. "Held your own", to paraphrase Pete, something that I didn't forget. After all, my first winter lead, and we all took one pitch each. Once at the summit I was quite relaxed about descent: the night was benign and I knew the way well. Worries about the Coire na Tulaich headwall were unfounded and we bumslid down the coire and back out to the road.

The day finished the best way possible: gentle contentment, sitting the warmth with a chippie and mug of tea in Tyndrum. Superb.

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 8.50am Alltnafeadh
(0.55) c. 9.45am Foot of pitched climbing
(8.45) 5.35pm Stob Dearg
(10.10) 7.00pm Alltnafeadh
Written: 2018-10-01!