Papillons Arête

Current best estimate is that we were on the Papillons Arête on the Aiguille du Peigne on the 13th August, but the date is a bit uncertain as it tends to rely on the sequence in which I’ve numbered my slides. But as I was using two different cameras on the trip, and took heavier or lighter camera depending on the situation, I can’t always tell how interleaved the sequences are.

In the lead is Dave, with Graham in the pink pants, and Mary on the crack to the left.

I’m pretty sure we were climbing as two ropes of two, but we were not very efficient and only got about two thirds of the way up the route before it became prudent to abseil an escape route down to the right

A long weekend in Arran

At Easter 1976, I visited Arran for a week’s field course in geology, during which I had one morning free to explore the fells. On this brief jaunt up Goat Fell, I resolved to return to climb the other peaks and perhaps to do some rock climbing.

A mere nine years later, Mayday weekend saw a mainly Pennine party driving north for a long weekend and my resolution was finally fulfilled. Phone enquiries had suggested that the ferry was fully booked, so we made a bivouac on the quayside at Ardrossan to ensure we would be first in the “Unbooked” queue for the 7 am ferry on Friday. We were a little surprised to find the car deck less than half full ! Our early start however ensured that we had time to set up camp in Glen Sannox and have breakfast and still get onto the fells at an hour unheard of in Greenclose.

Andy and Wiggy were intent on climbing, while Doug and Sarah went ridge walking above them on Cioch na h’Oige. The climbers’ first route was a “recommended” VS: ‘Midnight ridge direct’. As an introduction to remote Scottish climbing, it may be fair enough, but as a climb it left much to be desired. The first 250′ led up crumbly rotting granite and rampant heather, offering no protection and few real holds, to the base of some real rock. Here the guide book, true to Scottish form, was no help at all, so Wiggy led up the only practical route we could find, to get back to the ridge above the supposed “quality” pitch. There is some good rock hereabouts, which might go at Hard VS, but is hardly worth the approach. Above, Andy led off up the ridge, which was now mere scrambling.

Tidemark, a route high on the crag, and visible from several miles away, was the real object of the mission. Having found it, however, 50% of the party thought that it must be some kind of sick joke. It was obviously at least E2 ! A delicate traverse across a steep, holdless wall led out over the sort of exposure that only big Scottish crags can support, to continue up a ridiculous ramp girdling the buttress. While the 50% that was wittering refused to go anywhere near the route, the other 50% decided that it would be OK once we got closer to it and scrambled up to the start:

“Look ! Its easy, there’s a hold.”
“OK, so its not as steep as it looked, and there is a hold, but its wet ! Can we go home now ?”
“Tie on here, hold this rope, and stop whingeing !”
“But I’m too young to die.”
“There’s lots of ‘pro’, and loads of friction, and..” (faintly) “I’m at the stance… Taking in !”

I teetered delicately across the slab, finding that I was too high to use the only ‘hold’. Luckily, the friction approached Skye Gabbro standards and I soon joined the grinning Wigglesworth on the stance. The next pitch looked more sensible, but was the sort of place where you could drop a krab, bivouac overnight, and wake to hear it crash to the ground next morning.

“Exposure city, Arizona !”
“Yeah, go for it Wiggy !”

A flake, which would have made a better belay than the one I had, hung out over the drop, beyond the reach of small, frightened animals. Wiggy used it for a runner. Round the corner, Wiggy frantically searched for somewhere to stuff a small ‘Friend’, but found only conventional nut placements, and plenty of them. So much for gear-freaks. Out of sight, he soon reached a good stance, and advised me not to wear my glasses. My turn to climb, and the pitch flowed like poetry. Small but positive holds and superb friction, with the Devil’s Punchbowl yawning only inches away to the left. Why can’t all routes be like this ? Confidence restored, I led through onto the final, short pitch, Wiggy neglecting to remind me that I still had the rucksack. I soon found out when I tried to sit back after discovering that my last runner was merely hooked on a tiny heather root. The next move was a sensational step over a gap which plunged almost to the sea. Beyond it, all difficulties ended and I found a nice perch to photograph Wiggy. He soon reached my ‘interesting’ runner and made the step across:

“You led this on that ?!”

Sometimes I think Wiggy likes gear more than rock.

We had lost the sun earlier, and there was food and beer on the coast, so we skirted our next route to reach the top via a heathery ledge, then a rapid descent to the camp.

Saturday brought more members to the expedition, and another split into walking and climbing parties. The climbers (six of us this time) headed up Glen Sannox to the col and over into Glen Rosa where we contoured to the bottom of Cir Mhor’s South ridge. Six people should have worked out nicely at three ropes of two, but even the best laid plans… Wiggy decided to solo Sou’wester slabs, leaving Doug and Clive to climb “Caliban’s creep”, a fine, exposed ridge route. This left a team of three with two rucksacks to climb Sou’wester slabs, a recipe for disaster ?

Gail led the first three guidebook pitches as one run-out, to reach the stance at the bottom of the fourth pitch of “Fourth Wall”. Sarah followed, and then Andy, who had some difficulty on the crux with Sarah’s frame rucksack (!) Now, the first three pitches come to 160 feet in the guide, so assuming we had only done two, Andy led straight up, to be greeted by a party who corrected his error. While reversing the fifty foot run out (which he hadn’t bothered to protect), a rope of two overtook, and then four solo climbers arrived. They were obviously moving fast, so we felt we should let them pass. Eventually, Andy started to lead the superb “parallel cracks pitch”, which must be one of the finest V.Diff. pitches around (especially since it is only about Diff. at this point). Half-way up the next pitch, the rope ran out, so a stance was taken back at the corner, where, at least, sack-hauling should be easier. So much easier, in fact, that we had all three bodies and two sacks up this second pitch less than three hours after starting the route. Inefficiency was the order of the day, with everyone getting a little cold, and Andy soloing the next pitch with a sack to avoid boredom (and the dark). We followed Sarah’s lead up the final chimney to finish the 340 foot route in under four and a half hours (just). We even got back to camp before dark. Luckily, Scottish hotels don’t close till midnight.

The weather on Sunday didn’t look fit for climbing, so two teams set off from Sannox and Brodick to do the long ridge walk over Cir Mhor and A’Chir. The ‘A’ team, (Andies Waddington and Nichols, Jill and Sally) left Sannox and burnt (or at least smouldered) up Suidhe Fhearghas at the north of the ridge. On top, the wind howled in from the east, and eventually even Andy Nichols had to admit that shirt sleeves were a little inadequate. The pinnacle of Ceum na Caillich looks out onto a steep 150 foot drop into the Witches Step, and we were easily able to descend all the way… to the abseil sling. A reascent soon established us on the skulkers’ route to the West side. The pitch didn’t look so bad from below. The only difficulties now encountered on the way to Caisteal Abhail were the driving sleet, and the gusts of wind screaming out of the mist, a pleasant Scottish summer afternoon.

On the summit of Caisteal Abhail, the view ahead cleared, and we could see the ridge sweeping over a long col to Cir Mhor, a fine summit. From here the ridge dropped to another long col, and then started the increasingly technical reascent to A’Chir. This ridge has a lot in common with parts of the Cuillin in Skye: its rough granite is far less polished than the Aonach Eagach ridge above Glencoe and the whole ridge is longer and wilder. The summit of A’Chir is an improbable boulder perched atop an exposed and windswept platform. It is gained by a jump and mantleshelf, which was only accomplished by Andy Nichols from the ‘A’ team, though the ‘B’ team, whom we met on A’Chir, claimed some success. There are fewer technicalities south of A’Chir, but interest is maintained for some way, before the long drag up to Beinn Tarsuinn. This was relieved primarily by AN looking for the Old Man of Tarsuinn, so he could photograph it. He found it at last, and got his photograph from the conventional angle, while Jill found a view which gave the name ‘Old man’ a different slant !

South from Beinn Tarsuinn, the path meanders gently to Beinn Nuis and the end of the ridge. The descent to Glen Rosa was less boggy than expected, but the Rosa path was long and hard back into Brodick and the car, and beer…

Monday was spent dropping people onto ferries and generally touring round the island, dodging showers. On Tuesday, since we were leaving, the weather improved miraculously, giving clear views of the island from the ferry back.

An ascent of the Trisselwand

The Trisselwand is an imposing two thousand foot limestone face, which dominates the view across Altausseer See, next to which Cambridge caving expeditions have camped for several years. The sight of this apparently sheer face over the lake has been a challenge for some time – a challenge which Wiggy and myself finally took up during this year’s expedition. The weather was generally poor, restricting caving activities, but allowing a reccy to the bottom of the crag during a break in the rain. The guidebook gives our chosen route a III+ grade (around Hard V. Diff.), but describes 500m of climbing in one short paragraph in German, so route finding looked like being the major problem. The advance inspection showed the crag to be more complex, but less vertical, than first thought, and we decided on an early start on the first clear day.

A few days later the sun came out, and our ‘early’ start got us on the rock at 11am. The first couple of pitches were easy scrambling, though poorly protected, and we set out confident that the guidebook time of four hours was reasonable. More easy climbing ( but no more runners ) led to a big ledge which took us into the ‘Hauptschlucht’ or main gully. From a distance this had looked like a steep corner, but once inside, it proved to be a fine clean-washed gully with – sheer luxury – both shady stances and reliable belays. Wiggy led a pitch of excellent bridging to a belay below a huge chockstone – a welcome relief from the now blistering heat. We had managed to pick the hottest day of the entire trip to climb the dazzling white, South-facing rock. The next pitch went out onto the face to the right, becoming suddenly very exposed, and having avoided the direct line with a fixed peg, I became a trifle concerned with the large quantity of unattached rope dragging behind me. I reached for a piton. Since we had forgotten the peg-hammer ( too heavy anyway ), I pulled off a convenient handhold with which to bash in a peg. Any peg. Any crack. Please ! After what seemed an age, one very tinny and insecure piton boosted my confidence enough to step up on small, vaguely portable-looking holds to a better traverse line above. Another peg went in, ostensibly to protect Wiggy as he climbed up to the traverse, but quite good for my confidence too. The next pitch was easy angled – a good job in view of its general mobility, but much looser rock would follow.

The guidebook says to go left for three ropelengths over ‘Plättige Schrofen’, at which stage my dictionary gave up. We assumed it was some sort of ledge system, but hadn’t quite appreciated the amount of loose rock that can accumulate on a five hundred foot long ledge ! I led ten feet up rock, and the rest of the ropelength on scree to a dubious boulder. No other belay for at least a hundred feet, so the boulder it had to be. Wiggy arrived, found somewhere safish for the sack, and led another ropelength across scree to an even more imaginary belay.

At this stage the guide says ‘don’t go too high !’, but there was real rock up there, so up we went. That this was an error became apparent when I reached a steep headwall and had to reverse 140′ down a runnerless slab to Wiggy, who was attached to one of the more esoteric pieces of modern climbing hardware – a Friend – in an even more esoteric ‘crack’. Suffice it to say that we wasted about two hours getting across the ensuing slabs. The fact that it got cooler as the sun went behind the rock didn’t ease the nagging feeling that it was later than it should be at this stage.

Somewhere on the traverse we must have joined the right route again – I found some litter by a belay in a crack with the peculiar feature of a strong outward draught. A bit tight for a dig perhaps, but intriguing nonetheless. Off to our left the world seemed to end, while above was impossibly steep. We knew that round the corner was a steep ramp that would lead us to the summit ridge, but where to go to reach it ? Wiggy thought I should drop down to a notch in the corner, but I could see that this led to thin air, so I tied myself to a rock and directed him upwards. A steep crack provided Wiggy with perhaps the hardest lead on the route, but also with more protection than we had had thus far. At the top were two fixed pegs, and a downward view to infinity, or perhaps a little beyond. I found Wiggy seated comfortably on the stance, and grinning as he pointed out an obvious line out over the drop. To gain the ramp required either a long traverse out to the left, or the ascent of an equally exposed steep little wall. I found a runner placement below the wall which made my mind up. Above the step was easier ground and more fixed pegs.

Route finding on the ramp was a lot easier than below, and fixed pegs made the exposure less unnerving. On the other hand, the pretty pink tinge in the sky suggested that speed would be an asset. Three pitches up the ramp led to a steep looking little headwall, but at the top was the summit ridge. The headwall proved easy, but the ridge was a shock – the wall must only be a few feet thick ! With three thousand feet of space each side, we were glad that the four rope lengths of summit ridge were only a scramble. The final step across to the summit overhangs our route lower down, and makes an impressive finale. We hurriedly signed the summit book as the last rays of sunlight left the sky.

Having taken almost nine hours to climb the route, on the hottest day of the trip, with just two litres of orange juice between us, we now felt suitably knackered. The evening was hot and close, and the steep walk down from the summit soon turned into an epic, with one light failed, and the other absorbed by the inky blackness of the forest lower down. Seldom has a litre of grapefruit juice vanished so fast as when we reached the campsite – and it didn’t spoil our appetite for beer !

Summary: ——– Phil Wigglesworth and Andy Waddington climbed “Stügerweg”, a 500m grade III+ route on the Trisselwand, a limestone face some 50 miles East of Salzburg in Austria. The route was technically no more than Severe but exposed and lacking in protection, and with loose rock in parts. The ascent took almost nine hours – more than twice the guidebook time, but this was mainly due to routefinding problems. The upper part of the route is very fine, with impressive situations.

Adapted from an article first published in Cambridge Underground, 1985.