Exercising a demon

Ben Lui in the evening sun looked SUPERB.’

That was that, then. Decision made.

With an absolutely superb weather forecast for the Friday, Andrew’s description of Ben Lui on Thursday evening was too tempting to pass up. Even though it meant a re-planning of the Glen Etive triumvirate that neither of us had done before, we opted to go up Ben Lui anyway. You couldn’t blame us. With winter up until then failing to deliver the goods in terms of snow-fall, the Etive hills we talked about climbing were bereft of the snow that we both so much desired. They just didn’t cut it. Ben Lui, on the other hand, had enough of the white stuff to make it an interesting day.

Of course, we weren’t going to do it the easy way. Oh no. Andrew had it in his head that he fancied a bit of sport. If I’m honest, so did I. Too often had I wimped out of easy(ish) routes on account of being a poltroon. When there’s two of you doing something, however, it makes the decisions easier. Seeing someone else doing something encourages you to come out from under your comfort blanket. I was determined that on this day I would do something I’d never done before.

Central Gully is always an option,’ I said, even though part of me dreaded it. Despite spending more time on snow in the hills than most, I’d never done a grade 1 winter route before. For those not versed in winter grading nomenclature, 1 is easy. I mean, really easy. In mountaineering terms it’s the equivalent of walking the dog before breakfast. Most mountaineers wouldn’t get out of bed for it. For me, however, it was giving some consternation even as I suggested it. Andrew was game. Central Gully it was, then.

We met at the car park on Friday morning just after sunrise. It was cold but glorious. Not a cloud was in the sky. Normally a route like this wouldn’t be possible for Andrew because of his now world-famous dogs. With Olive and Mabel at his house in England we were free to attempt this more adventurous route, unencumbered and un-dogbiscuited.

As anyone who’s done the walk in from Dalrigh will tell you, the road to get to the start of the Ben Lui climb is long. We were half-tempted to stick our thumbs out to the passing 4x4s that were heading to the new Cononish gold mine. But since comments on the desirability of such developments had been voiced I would have felt like a massive hypocrite for availing myself of a lift in the back of a miner’s Toyota Hilux. Fortunately, the four vehicles’ drivers who passed us were all miserable and didn’t stop, so the moral quandary never arose.

In the end the walk in wasn’t as bad as remembered, largely because we had a good pace on. Soon afterwards we were up at the snowline in Coire Gaothach — the windy corrie — and getting our crampons on. It was at this point that Andrew decided to divest himself of several hundred pounds’ worth of jacket by leaving a Rab waterproof unweighted in the aptly named windy corrie. Just as it looked like it would take off and sail over the ridge, the jacket caught on a rock, about 200 metres away. A lung-bursting descent and re-ascent made sure his red blood cells were sufficiently oxygenated for the upwards climb that was now before us.

The going was good, though. With firm snow under our boots, they scarcely made a dent in it. Climbing upwards on such good névé was a joy; much preferred and far less energy-sapping than post-holing one’s way up freshly fallen snow. We were gaining altitude very quickly. The views, too, were opening up with each upward step. I noticed at this point the old avalanche debris that littered the bottom half of the corrie, but it didn’t concern me. Yes, it did look a little worrying, but the snow was, by now, well consolidated and the avalanche risk minimal. We wouldn’t have gone near it were the risk not so low.

After we had been climbing for about 10 minutes, the gully constricted markedly and steepened by a couple of degrees. Both my ice axes were out now, and I noticed that I had pulled slightly ahead of Andrew. This was pure adrenaline. I don’t mind admitting that I was nervous and felt out of my depth. It was exhilarating, that said. Thrilling, even.

Up and up I went, becoming more nervous with every step. As I neared the narrowest and — as it turned out — the steepest part of the gully, the snow hardened again. Even with crampons on I had to kick steps. Never have I been so glad of having two ice axes. They were absolutely necessary. (Of the two I was using, one was found on Ben Nevis just a few months before. I thought just then what a nightmare the guy must have had when he dropped it.)

And, then, the crux.

The gully steepened again, and narrowed to just a few metres wide. The snow (sorry, bulletproof ice) required several kicks with the crampons to get any purchase. Luckily, though, the trusty ice axes were a saviour. Sinking each of the two deep into the snow I felt I could have swung like Tarzan from them. It gave me the confidence to keep going. As I looked back I could see Andrew taking some pictures about 50 metres below me. He seemed to be taking it in his stride. Just to make sure he wasn’t enjoying himself too much I sent some icy projectiles his way (inadvertently, of course).

With each kicked step upwards after the crux the going got easier. I was by now a matter of metres from the top. Luckily there was little in the way of a cornice to negotiate, so topping out looked simple enough. And, indeed, it was. As I clambered, sweating, over it I was met with a refreshing breeze and some of the most magnificent winter scenery it is possible to see in the Southern Highlands. Wispy cloud danced around the summit cairn, the blue sky azure beyond. White peaks everywhere glowed in the late morning sun. To the west, the sea shimmered. It could not have been better. I was shaking with excitement at the view and the thrill of the climb.

I glanced back down and saw Andrew at the crux. He seemed to negotiate it more deftly than I did, and before long he came to the topping-out point, having followed my boot-steps.

As he came over the edge he let out a yelp of excitement at what we’d just climbed. We shook hands with beaming smiles as the rush of what we’d done sank in. In Scottish mountaineering terms this was nothing, but to us it was everything. To top it all off we had the views that now surrounded us. Nothing could have been finer.

On the long, winding walk back to the car we took in another two hills: Beinn Oss and Beinn Dubhchraig. Both are respectable and bonny hills in their own right. It was a pleasant enough circuit, but the day belonged to Central Gully. It was a day of days.

POSTSCRIPT

I doubt I would have attempted this climb on my own. Although I enjoy walking solo, it is sometimes good (essential?) to have another person of similar ability there to push the other along; to take them a step further than they’d do ordinarily if alone. There is no question this was such a day.

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