Monday, 21 January 2013

The wind doth blow...

Malcolm on the initial icy groove
Three years ago I took my first leap of faith down Beinn Eighe's West Central Wall with Graham Briffett, intent on finding and climbing "Mistral", a summer E1 5b that saw its first winter ascent by the ubiquitous Davidson & Nisbet partnership in 1991. Our interest had been piqued by the relatively amenable grade proferred by the first ascentionists (VII 7) and that, to our knowledge, it remained unrepeated. A few weeks before our own sortee, another local team had drawn a blank under a large overhang, high on the third (crux) pitch. Graeme and I faired no better, following the same line but being unable to fit it to the guidebook description. I've thought about this route on and off over the proceeding seasons. After all, there are not too many routes that are of exceptionally high quality, are often in condition, but have not seen a second ascent after more than 20 years! 

Malcolm Bass and I had this weekend marked in our diaries for some time. Like me, Malcolm doesn't have the flexibility of climbing mid-week and so, with everything crossed, we made plans. The preceeding week had been stellar but, typically, as our play-date drew nigh, the weather forecast provided reason to be concerned. Gale force south easterlies are not necessarily a winter climber's best friend! We opted for West Central Gully and, as anticipated, it offered full respite from the icy wind scouring the summit plateau. On a wall where route names have traditionally paid homage to wind, it seemed fitting that I was heading back to "Mistral". 

Jim approaching the first belay

Malcolm gaining the fabulous belay ledge after pitch 2
Our ascent epitomized the dogged persistance often needed to claim the winter prize. A 5am start into an icy gale and a wayward ascent of Beinn Eighe's southern slope saw us reach the summit plateau almost opposite West Central Gully, with weary legs and a day lit sky which belied our early start. Inevitably our ropes then got stuck on the heart-in-mouth abseil down the dog-legged last pitch of Blood Sweat and Fozen Tears, requiring some jiggery-pokery to set them free. At last, by late morning, and having experienced highs and lows in equal measure, we were stood beneath the initial icy groove of Mistral. Following success or failure, this particular episode would have a moon-lit finale!

Jim starting the crux pitch 3
An efficient couple of pitches brought us to the fabulous belay ledge beneath the crux 35m third pitch on which I had failed three years previous. This time I took a more direct line slightly further right, heading for the smaller of two capping roofs with the final V groove clearly visible beyond. This was it! 

Jim high on the crux pitch aiming for the small V notch in the sky-line
The pitch was steep, often tenuous and hard won.I have to say it was the most sustained winter pitch I have ever climbed. What a belter! Pulling into the V groove belay was a particularly joyous moment for me. I even let out a feable squeal in celebration which is particularly unusual for this quiet man! As darkness enveloped us Malcolm displayed steely determination in seconding the pitch, even climbing one of the crux sections twice having dropped, then retrieved, his head-torch.

The happy couple at 9pm
We topped out at 9pm having finished up the Wall of the Winds chimney as per the first ascent (note - the V groove of Mistral still awaits a winter ascent).

As Malcolm later said, according to the new Yorkshire winter grading system the crux pitch was "reet 'ard" but, going with convention, we will suggest "very sustained VII 8" with the route definitely worthy of three stars. A memorable day!



No comments:

Post a Comment