Dicing with Death Feb 1990 – A winter Ascent of the Central Buttress of Beinn Eighe

This is the second of a series of 5 articles written by my pal Andy Watkins. Andy was sadly knocked of his bike many years ago and is now confined to a wheelchair. I knew Andy well he was a member of the RAF Mountain Rescue when I was in Valley North Wales and we met and climbed a lot. He moved up North at RAF Lossiemouth and was oneof a group who were pushing military climbing in the 80,s and 90’s. He travelled light on the hill never felt the cold and was always introducing many others youngsters into this crazy climbing game. His gear was basic. This is an article about a wonderful climb on that Torridon Giant Beinn Eighe. “Dicing With Death”

Intro Heavy Whalley – The Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe, located in the stunning Coire Mhic Fherchair and is one of the most impressive cliffs in Scotland. The sandstone buttresses are capped by large quartzite cliffs. There is an array of classic summer rock and steep mixed climbs as well as some long mountaineering journeys. Central Buttress (Winter) VI 7. I have climbed a few routes on Beinn Eighe in winter the classic Eastern Buttress stands out but after a long day on Central Buttress in summer it was well out of my ability. The Central Buttress was a classic of the day climbed by a formidable team of Alan Rouse and Alec MacIntyre in Feb 1978. These were folk we met a fair amount as the climbing world was a lot smaller then.

This is Andy’s Story.

The phone rang on the Thursday night. Nick Clements, my partner on this escapade, was free for the weekend. I finished at 12 o’clock, lunchtime, but Nick had to work until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It was February 1990 and we arranged to go to Beinn Eighe to do the Central Buttress of Coire Mhic Fheachair.

Beinn Eighe Central Buttress – from the classic Cold Climbs.

It was featured in cold climbs but would it be in condition? We decided to go anyway, I’d never been in to Coire Mhic  Fheachair and the walk would do us good.

After driving across to Torridon, from Morayshire, on the Friday night, we had a drink in the Loch Maree hotel, before driving a short distance down the road and turning in for the night. There was no snow by the side of the road, and our prospects looked bleak. At the time, I was driving a Lada Niva, a hopelessly unreliable beast, which insisted on overheating given half a chance. It had the advantage however of the seats folding flat so that you could use them as a bed.

We woke the next morning to find a warm wind blowing. But this is Torridon, and you walk in from sea level. It might still be frozen higher up. We decided to look, and decide when we got there. We started walking. Initially there was no snow and it was not until just below the first tier, that we encountered any, and that was melting fast. Having walked in we were loath, not to try it. Accordingly, we set out on the first pitch.

The Triple Buttress of Bheinn Eighe can be divided into two tiers. The top were covered in ice but the lower tier was bare. We roped up and started climbing. Initially the rock was bare and we climbed in boots, only putting on crampons on the second tier.  

On the first tier, I was lay backing a crack, when the whole boulder came away and, bouncing over me, fell to the screes below. Nick was sure that I had fallen, but I managed to step back onto the ledge below. It was the size of a small car and it would have crushed me if it had hit me.

At the second tier, we had to put on crampons and, as we’d hoped, ice abounded. Nick led off in the gathering gloom. The second tier is made of quartz, the water flowing out over the non-permeable rock to form a series of iced grooves.

We climbed on, dispatching this section in two long pitches. It became fully dark, and we had to put on head torches. The last tier is provided the crux. Nick led this bit and I led the last pitch to the, perfectly flat, summit.

Here there was a moon, among scudding clouds, and we didn’t need our head torches.We headed down to the Loch Maree hotel and had a well-earned drink. It was before the days of 24 hour pubs, and I seem to remember having a lock in, drinking with the guests and talking to a man, still buzzing from doing the route. He just couldn’t understand what made us do it.

Only twenty hours before, when I had pulled off the big boulder, I had asked myself the same question. Was it in full winter condition?

Decide for yourself. It was harder if anything. All I know is I’d come very close to being crushed.

Thanks Andy another great tale.

Notes My pal Ron Walker wrote this after he an incident in the Cairngorms. Tip, Tap Test.

” Unfortunately loose rock and rubble is normal on mountain routes and is to be expected even on the most solid and well travelled line, treat every handhold and foothold as if it were loose because many are or will be in the future – so take care. Tip, Tap and Test with your hands and feet as you climb, remember the three T’s!”

This Classic book was a wonderful addition to climbing at the time first published in 1983 and became a bible for many. The essays on each route are wonderful, well worth getting hold of. Great days.

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in mountain safety, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

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