If point Five was just another Grade 5 gully climb, we all would have climbed it long ago.
The amount of folk law and mythology surrounding the climb builds an image in your mind which bares little relation to reality. The reason it takes so many people so long to achieve this tick has nothing to do with difficulty or conditions. Its actually in climbable condition pretty often but getting all the components to come together at just the right time is tricky.
1. Going well enough to enjoy the experience.
2. Being first on the route.
3. Getting to Scotland while conditions are fair.
4. Being first on the route.
5. Getting there with the right partner.
6. Being first on the route.
7. Hoping its not going to be an anti climax after all this buildup.
8. and oh...being first on the route
you don't want to get it wrong, after all this is Point 5 and you only ever climb it on sight once! So its best to be there first!
Luckily all the ingredients came together on Sat 29th Jan. As Dom, Derek, Mark and myself headed north on the Friday night, I had one route in mind and I knew this was going to be my best shot, I'd been climbing well and I had no doubt we'd get up the thing.....who knows what next seasons going to bring and none of us is getting any younger.
Our one problem was going to be ... getting on the route first. ( have I mentioned that was on our minds?)A problem which had obviously vexed Derek for the last 20 years. We'd actually been talking the week before about climbing it late in the day and into the night! just to try and beat the cues! I'd resigned myself that we were never going to be first on it and once I had accepted that there seemed no other excuses left.
A 4am wakeup from our bivi in the North Face car park seemed a reasonable compromise. Not too early to appear desperate, but hopefully early enough to get us a place high in the cue.
Our optimism took a knock when 4 lads passed us by the CIC hut casually letting it be known they had just taken 35 mins to walk in!! ( The Psychological warfare was already underway - we deployed countermeasures...pretending to not be impressed!)
The usual 5 min breather at the CIC was dispensed with and on we trudged. At least we had our secret weapon - Dom! Dom was our climbing equivalent of Stig ....and we were about to unleash him. Dom had climbed the thing about 7 times...surely he'd be able to find the start in this pea soup of a black morning...maybe we could be first!
Its now that the critical decision was made. The day can hinge on such small details.. , completely out of character ...and we may never know why....., Derek and I stopped to put crampons on before anyone else. This meant that when everyone else decided to stop and gear up, we didn't and pressed on into the gloom. It would mean leaving the Stig behind but we threw the dice...we took our chance.
I'd marked the base of the climb in my GPS and was pushing on up, keeping the pace high, hoping to break the will of anyone who followed our lead. ( winter climbing is a lot like bike racing in this respect.....obviously its not like it in a lot of other very obvious ways!)
Was it possible we were now the first? My optimism took another knock when I saw lights up ahead. Fortunately they were stood still studying the map in the gloom, looking slightly unsure. I sensed my opportunity and skipped past with a casual " morning" trying to look as if I was confident of my whereabouts and where I was going. Trying to conceal my gasps for breath and the burning in my calfs......... my body language was lying....."to compete for the lead would be futile.....I’m only in 2nd gear here" ............and it worked..they surrendered the lead.
It worked so well, we were stood in the gloom 100m from the start of the route, with not a head torch in sight....starting to think its we who had been given the slip. Derek had already convinced himself we had missed it some how and everyone else was now at the start of point 5....might as well do something else...we'll not be first on the route now!
The seed of doubt began to grow in my brain. I dropped down again for a better look in the gloom and saw a procession of head torches heading our way. Shit we are first! The race was on again.
A couple of figures below looked familiar . I shouted down to Dom and Mark...they headed our way.
The ground was now getting steep and the snow hard. Both axes out, daggering up the slope, you would not want to fall here.....my little voice was telling me...no you would not.
I heard a shout from below and turned to see Derek dusting himself off, saying in a mater of fact way " just slipped" .
"OK" I said continuing on, thinking nothing of it. ( it turns out he'd gone a fair way and had to ice axe arrest to stop his slide turning into a plummet on these notorious approach slopes )
This obviously influenced our decision to gear up and get the ropes out before we reached the first belay and it was here that we lost our lead to Dom who soloed up to the belay ahead. (at least we lost it to one of our own!...so in a way we were still first!)
In fact I thought in his enthusiasm, Dom had soloed the first pitch....and for a moment I think...........so did Mark!
Derek with a straight face said " he didn't really know how many pitches there where or which were the best, but fancied the first."
I though ,........ really hadn’t studied the guide !!
(even when I have read it I forget what I just read!......most of my life is done this way .......on sight!!)
I also hadn't been waiting 20 years to do it.
But even in my comparative ignorance, I knew this would mean he got two of the three pitches and the rogue pitch to boot! I also knew it would mean more to him than me and I wasn't about to argue.
We let the A team steam ahead and began to focus on the job in hand.
Derek lead the first pitch in that steady, methodical business like way where he makes everything look the same grade.....i.e easy........even when its desperate. This however wasn't desperate. The ice was perfect plastic neve ice. From the first few swings I knew this wasn't going to involve sketching about on fragile ice...this was whack, whack, thunck, thunck and the only way you were going to come off this was if your forearms got fried.
( which by the way was not out of the question...don't get me wrong ....its steep.
This however just made the whole climb more enjoyable, you could relax and enjoy the atmosphere of the place whilst trying not to think too much about how long ago you'd put in the last runner !
When a guide book says " good belays" assume that’s positive spin for " cos there's
F$@K all in between!!! After pitch 3 there weren’t even any belays!!
They say you should learn from others mistakes. Well I don’t even seem capable of learning from my own! How many times have I taken over the lead and taken some gear from Derek to here the time honoured words...”you've got plenty there...just run it out to the top!” I always stop and think " yeh your right, plenty...doesn't look that hard!"
This time I had plenty....plenty of nuts and Hexes. However I was now running it out...moving together ....for the next 300m with not a single crack in sight and with Derek 60m below with all the screws still on his harness.
I resolved to "not fall off"...and hoped it had occurred to Derek to do the same....pushed on and aimed for the top. A couple of steeper steps helped focus the mind...as did the cornice and the potential 60m whipper I'd take onto Derek’s non existent belay.
Topping out from Point 5 is almost a surreal experience. You flop into the sunshine within meters of the summit and all the usual sandwich munching and photo posing that takes place there. Your little protective bubble is burst...and suddenly your back in the real world were time runs at normal speeds and every move may not be your last......and strangely...a little bit of you kinda wishes the bubble could have lasted a little bit longer!
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