Sometimes everything comes together; the climbing conditions, the right partner, the right day. This was one of those days.
Everything was on our side, but there were so many unknowns that it was like walking into the dark. We stepped forward cautiously, aware that we were following in some very big footsteps.
If you were playing fantasy climbing - like fantasy football, but in the world of climbing - who would be in your dream team? How about Tom Patey, Don Whillans, Chris Bonnington? Three of the most well-known names in British climbing, all legends in their own right. On the 20th of February 1969 these three came together to climb one of the best winter routes you have never heard of - the Great Gully of Garbh Bheinn. Before that, the first summer ascent was made by WH Murray and Douglas Scott in June 1946 and written about beautifully in “Undiscovered Scotland” by Murray. Read it.
"TOM PATEY, DON WHILLANS, CHRIS BONNINGTON."
"WE STEPPED FORWARD CAUTIOUSLY, VERY AWARE THAT WE WERE FOLLOWING IN SOME VERY BIG FOOTSTEPS."
Nobody I know had climbed Great Gully and I could find no up-to-date information. The guidebook description is probably from the first ascent and the winter grade of IV was very likely a hangover from the old grading system (so, pretty meaningless). It all added up to an excellent adventure into the unknown.
The winter of 2021 was peculiar for several reasons. The mountains were mostly empty due to the ongoing pandemic, and the weather and climbing conditions were off the scale. Long, cold, dry spells helped cascade ice form down to very low levels. Steall Falls froze and gave us all a very social day of climbing next to friends. Even Elliot’s Downfall in Glencoe formed and was climbed - the first time since 1996.
Seeing the opportunity, Ali and I took the ferry at Corran and walked up the short, brutal approach for sunrise. It was a stunning day. Sincerely cold, cloud free and not too windy. The snow squeaked under our boots in the way it does in the Alps where it is cold and dry. The view straight up Glencoe and over to Ben Nevis threatened to slow us down, but numb fingers kept us moving.
We walked down from the col to find where the climbing starts. Great Gully is a very obvious feature when you’re standing directly underneath it, but curiously hard to see from elsewhere. The sight of it took me back to Cogne in Italy. Cascade ice poured over chockstones and coated the rocks in the gully between sunlit rocks, all leading up to a deep blue sky. Snow fields leading into deep, dark recesses that were impossible to gauge from below. It demanded a closer look.
© Ali Rose
© Ali Rose
© Ali Rose
Two pitches of fun cascade ice climbing (always steeper than it looks) and a section of 100m-or-so of snow and easy steps brought us into a cave under a monster chockstone. Thin, tinkling ice and lots of icicles covered the exit to the cave. A peg gave us some hope but reaching the peg proved too tough, and the peg was probably 50 years old anyway.
We backtracked slightly and found a way around the cave on the right, worried that we had missed out on The Left Fork, the main event of the whole climb. Looking at it afterwards, it looks like we did something much like Murray and Scott in 1946. Another couple of pitches and another section of snow made everything come clear. The Left Fork was still above and looked suitably terrifying.
"THE VIEW STRAIGHT UP GLENCOE AND OVER TO BEN NEVIS THREATENED TO SLOW US DOWN, BUT NUMB FINGERS KEPT US MOVING."
They don’t teach you how to ‘udge’ in climbing walls. This is an opportunity missed in my opinion and I worry that udging is a dying art. Murray and Scott were expert udgers. The modern trend is towards open face climbing with beautiful, fluid moves between clean holds; ballet in the vertical plane. This was the opposite. This demanded some expert udging.
If you have enough of you in contact with something in the chimney, preferably on opposite sides, you will probably stay in place for long enough to scrape and search out what options you have for further upward progress. It takes time to work it out since the spindrift covers things almost as quickly as you clear them, and your eyebrows get weighed down with shards of ice. Everything is in the way and the thing you need is just out of reach. The hold you need is often behind you so you can’t see it anyway. And the hold that you decide is too loose to use becomes the thing you stand on, fully committing all your weight and faith to.
The chimney opens out slightly to a steeper blocky exit with some solid looking ice. Here’s the choice; stay on the blocks which are less steep but have unknown holds, or launch onto the ice, axes blazing, and hope the arms can keep going for long enough. Being an ice climber at heart I went for the ice and pulled hard.
So, we arrived at the top, to soak up the sunshine and take a moment to enjoy the view and the release from the confines of our climb. It was a little moment of bliss, when everything in the world seemed good, a momentary escape from our lockdown, a moment of profound contentment which Murray also experienced.
"EVERYTHING IS IN THE WAY AND THE THING YOU NEED IS JUST OUT OF REACH."
“Below us the supreme obstacle had been vanquished, but up above there remained all the promise of the unknown upper gully, and outwards the broad lands glowing in the paradisaic light. Here, one could have sworn, on a planet such as this there could hardly be sin or suffering, and certainly not disease. The light fell warm and glowing and the things of the earth shone in their full response. We as men, as beings one with that universal whole, and on no account making any choice for ourselves of separation, shared in the full health of its glory. Where there is union there cannot be disharmony, and where there is wholeness - there alone and to the full we have happiness.” ~ WH Murray, Undiscovered Scotland.
We walked down and journeyed back into lockdown, grateful for our short time in a different world.
The summit of Garbh Bheinn is only 885m above sea level and the climbing starts at 600m, so you really do need exceptional conditions for this to form. But, if Beinn Udlaidh is well frozen up, it might be worth a trip. Mixed climbs are starting to become popular here with the most obvious objective being The Great Ridge which is very highly recommended and much closer to the grade of IV that it gets in the guidebooks.
It’s a strange thought that Patey, Whillans and Bonnington had been there so long before, at the time of the great Himalayan expeditions, showing us what was possible with one ice axe each and all the other equipment and clothing of the time. Even with today’s gear, this is a tough climb. I would certainly add a couple of grades to the IV it was given originally.
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