Anyone who climbs with me regularly will know that (a) I'm a bit of a coward, and (b) I'm crap on ice. It will probably come as a surprise to hear that I went for a bit of an ice soloing trip at the weekend.
I've had the idea of soloing Zero Gully at the back of my mind for a couple of years. It famously has little gear and poor belays, so soloing it is almost safer than climbing it on a rope. Since none of my regular partners were around at the weekend, and this was probably my last chance to get out this winter, I decided now was the time to give it a try.
Despite a fairly early start from Glasgow and a quick march to the crag (the benefits of a light pack), I arrived at the base of Zero to find two teams ahead of me. I really didn't want to be following people up the route, pushing past people or waiting around, so a plan B was required. Soloing grade V is a scary enough prospect for me, so I'm not quite sure what inspired me to look up at Slav Route. But as I did, friends' stories of climbing it came back to me - "pretty straight-forward..." "it felt about grade IV..." "we just moved together most of the way...". I could also see that the crux was in good, fat condition and that it was low enough to effect a retreat with the minimal gear I'd brought (30m of rope, 2 screws, some tat and a threader). I half-joked to the party at the back of the Zero queue that I'd probably be down-climbing again in a minute, and set off up the route.
The first section up icy slabs was quite straight-forward, and I could feel my confidence building. My the time I reached the icicle, I was feeling good. I considered getting the rope out and rigging a back-rope to the in-situ pegs, but decided that I was better staying 100% focused on the climbing. I spent a minute or two psyching myself up, then started upwards. The route had seen some traffic so the steepest section had a few convenient hooks, and before I knew it, I was established on the slabs above. This was both a relief and a worry, as retreat from here would be interesting to say the least!
More easy ground followed above, and I made fairly rapid progress up the face. My regular partners will confirm that speed is not my forte, but soloing allows for much more constant and flowing movement. Clouds came and went, and in the clearer spells, I judged my progress by picking out the familiar features of Tower Ridge to my right. Reaching a point level with the Great Tower, I knew that the vast majority of the height gain was done, but was still nervous about the tricky-sounding exit pitch. When that section finally came into view, I knew I had been right to be nervous! 3 options presented themselves: a steep, snow-encrusted rib, an awkward-looking icy chimney and a similarly awkward-looking corner. None looked particularly appealing, but I was well and truly committed now so had a look at the least bad option, the left-hand corner. This had some good torques in rock to counteract the cruddier sections of ice, and after a bit of a gibber, I pulled over the top onto the crest of North-East Buttress, relieved and delighted.
After a celebratory bagel at the summit shelter, I looked at my watch. 11am - probably too early to just drive home again! But those two teams on Zero should be well up the route by now - maybe I could go and do Plan A as well? I set off down the Carn Mor Dearg arête in minimal visibility, dropped into the coire and traversed across towards the base of NE Buttress. Of course, in the poor visibility, I made the classic mistake of traversing too high and ending up above the highest rock band at the base of the buttress. However, I soon realised where I was, downclimbed, and coaxed reluctant legs to break trail back up towards Zero again.
The weather cleared a little at this point, and I could see a team seemingly in the distance near the top of the route. I stopped for another bite to eat whilst watching to check there wasn't a torrent of debris coming down the steeper section. Suitably refuelled, I set off. The route was so hooked out, I barely had to swing a tool! I've never seen ice like it in Scotland. However, this meant that again, I was moving quite quickly and, to my surprise, I was barely 150m up the route when I spotted another team not far in front. This was the same team of 3 that had been gearing up at the base of Zero when I'd arrived three hours earlier. They'd been held up waiting for the team in front to get up the first couple of pitches, then going through the inevitable faff of climbing as a 3, but I still felt a little sheepish as I passed them. Even more surprisingly, I then passed the pair in front about 100m short of the top.
I topped out around 1:30 into another pea-souper on the plateau and wandered back over towards the shelter, where I met a group of boys who'd just arrived on the summit. They asked me to take their photo, which I was happy to do, although I didn't realise at first that they were planning to strip to their boxers for the shoot! Fortunately, clothes were put back on before any serious frostbite could take hold...
I was pretty tired by this point, but thought I could probably manage one more route as long as it was shorter & easier than what had gone before. Green Gully seemed like a good option, so I descended No 4 and traversed across to the base. I couldn't see anyone above, but this turned out to be mainly due to the continuing clag, and I passed another team about 100m up it. Again, the crux was very hooked out, making for reassuringly secure climbing, and before long, I was on the plateau for a third time. By this time, I was out of food and water, and feeling mentally and physically pretty drained, so descended No 4 and walked out.
The feeling of confidence and comfort on ice is one I thought I'd never experience. Because of the clag, the camera didn't come out of my bag all day. But soloing 1000m of classic Scottish ice in a day will live long in my memory.