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Dispatches from a Chimney

Dispatches from a Chimney

Tommy Kelly
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I’ve climbed with Mike enough times to know what's coming next when he says, "'ll love this".  What’s obvious when you climb with him is the inspiration he takes from being in the mountains.  Being a guide isn’t his job; it’s who he is.  Even if you weren’t someone who was naturally fired by wild places and mountains, you would be after a few hours in his company.


Through the condensation of the van window, I can see the moon through the trees and the pattern of stars still visible in the dawn sky.  I’m in a familiar hideaway, in a forestry block at the base of Ben Nevis, hidden away on an offshoot of a logging track.   The howling wind from the previous night is now quiet and the forest of pine stands still. 

Nevis FM goes on and the gas stove clicks into life.  Within minutes, warmth and the smell of coffee – and Gaelic sea shanties – fill the cab.  An hour later, I’m down in Fort William and linking up with Mike Pescod, the owner of Abacus Mountain Guides and also a member of Jöttnar’s Pro Team.  Although originally from the south-west of England, he’s been a Fort William resident for almost 20 years, and has an accent that sounds almost local.  Amongst other things, he’s the author of the Ben Nevis and Glencoe winter climbing guidebook, is a member of Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team and is one of the organisers of the annual Fort William Mountain Festival.  His fingers are in more than a few pies and he’s an influential and respected member of the tight-knit Fort William community. 

There’s been a lot of snow of late and the ice has still to fatten.  Big ice routes are probably not on the agenda for this week, but it’s looking good for mixed.  We opt for Glencoe and Stob Coire nan Lochan today, the choice rewarded by solitude and alpine-esque vistas as we arrive into the coire at the base of the routes.  Whilst the south of the UK is battered by Storm Imogen, up here, there’s a blocking high pressure, bringing cold air in from the east and providing blue skies and calm.  It looks set to remain for the week.  We head up Scabbard Chimney, an entertaining three pitches of delicate hooking and bridging, before topping out all too soon.  Descent is via a largely free-hanging abseil and follows the line of The Tempest, put up by Neil Gresham in 2001.  We have lunch in the snow and decide that today will be an easy introductory day, thus saving our legs and arms for the week ahead.  An hour later we’re back at the van.

Mike heading towards the base of Scabbard Chimney

Mike heading up towards Scabbard Chimney, the base of which is in line with his right elbow.

Yesterday morning, we were both wearing an unintentional matching uniform of blue top and yellow trousers.  This morning, Tuesday, to out-manouevre Mike, I opted for red on top and blue on the bottom.  He’s done the same.  This theme continued for the week.  So in our team strip, we head up the track to Ben Nevis, eventually uncoiling our ropes at the base of Lost the Place.  If you haven’t climbed this, you should do.  It’s another chimney route that culminates in a steep final pitch – an awkward 90 degree corner with an overhanging capstone atop – that requires long legs and a determined approach.  In Mike’s case this took the form of a horizontal body-brace under the overhang, with a heel hook on the left wall and a head-jam on the right wall, whilst blindly placing a screw left-handed over the bulge.  It was quite a move and so I forgave him the tsunami of ice and choss that crash-tested my helmet as I stood watching below, offering unhelpful words of encouragement.  A brilliant route and deserving of at least another star.

Mike on the steep first pitch of Lost the Place.

The next morning dawned cold and crisp.  We linked up with Stu Lade and headed back down to Glencoe, this time bound for Church Door Buttress on Bidean nam Bian.  A useful set of steps in the snow conveyed us quickly to the base of West Chimney Route, a route that none of us had done before.  The second pitch was once a famous sub-terranean smartie tube that popped you out 15 metres higher up the route, but natural movement of the mountain had now blocked this off.  The only way upwards now was via a series of overhanging steps that, although daunting from below, offered up as many bomb-proof hooks as required.  Although thuggish, it was short-lived and Stu made light work of it. 

We shortly found ourselves on a sensational ledge that sits atop two leaning blocks, these in turn sitting above a chasm of swirling snow – held in place by nothing other than mutually opposing force.  As Mike led off up the final steep pitch, Stu and I remained on the ledge, distracting ourselves with a pic-nic of frozen sandwiches, not thinking about this mountain's track record for movement.  As with Lost the Place, if you haven’t climbed West Chimney Route then you really should do.  Atmospheric, mind-blowing rock architecture and an endlessly absorbing and flowing line.  As we made our way back down to the base where we’d deposited our sacks, we saw Iain Small and Murdoch Jamieson topping out above the up-until-then unclimbed ice smear towards the upper right of the buttress.  Uisdean Hawthorne and Greg Boswell were on some equally tenuous horror show towards the bottom-left. 

Don't think about it too much.

So today, Thursday, and another chimney - but not just any chimney.  Today we’re on The Great Chimney on Ben Nevis – one of the Smith/Marshall classics.  Ice and useable nevé are apparent by their absence and in conditions like we find it today, the given grade of V,5 seems mean.  Mike has just levitated his way around and over a bulging chock-stone on the second pitch, with nothing but bare rock and occasional 10p-sized globules of ice on the adjacent chimney walls.  He disappears and the rope continues to pay out slowly.  A sudden, but prolonged flood of powder snow and ice shards tells me that he’s now tunneling.  The rope inches out.  Another salvo of snow, hard-packed this time, and in sufficient volume to indicate that it used to be part of a cornice; the acoustics of the chimney amplifying the whooomping noise as it flies past my head.  And then a woop and that phrase – “You’ll love this!  Climb when ready.”  My heart sinks.

Tommy on The Great Chimney.  Fluorescent new ropes lighting the way in the gloom.

So I climb, surmounting the chockstone with a wildly wobbling help-me-Jesus hook on what feels like nothing more than a 2mm ridge of chossy rock.  It holds and I find myself on top of the block, now looking upwards to a vertical wormhole.  It’s apparent that I won’t get through this with my sack on, so I drop this beneath me on a short sling.  I push my head into the hole and sink my teeth into the nevé on the inner wall.  This allows a degree of stability so I can bring my arms and axes above my head and excavate more.  There’s no room to swing and upwards progress is only possible via a series of rippling caterpillar-like motions.  I use my face, my teeth, my back – any part of my body that will provide any degree of friction.  My ears and mouth are full of snow, and thick rime has frozen into a visor over my eyebrows and lashes.  And Mike’s right, I do love this.  There is nowhere else I would rather be and here, in the confines of this frozen and inhospitable chimney, with no sight or sound, wriggling worm-like, my contentment and happiness are absolute.  I pause, trying to imprint this moment as indelibly as I can on my memory.   

I pop out of the tunnel, pull through the cornice, and find Mike perched atop Tower Ridge with a grin on his face.  He enjoyed this too.  Down we then go, descending the ridge and back to the world.

The Grey Man of Ben Nevis.

It’s Friday too soon, our last day, and we decide on another quest to Glencoe.  We climb Crowberry Gully and select the direct finish via the Left Fork.  We’ve caught up with Donald and Chris by this stage and attack the final pitch as a rope of four.  Donald puts in a blinding lead, dancing his way up to and around the fearsome-looking overhang that caps the final moves of the route.   We’re soon on top of the Buachaille in bright sunlight, looking north-west to Ben Nevis and east over the snow-carpeted Rannoch Moor.  We drop into to the valley via a kilometre-long bumslide down Coire na Tulaich and soon find ourselves next to an open fire in the Clachaig.  All around are framed photos of earlier generations, climbing the same routes, and who no doubt also sat here afterwards, warming themselves by this fire.  And maybe like some of them used to do, as I head south and the wildness of Rannoch Moor recedes in my rear view mirror, I do my best to hold onto this fleeting but vivid sense of aliveness that this thing, climbing, and this place combine to create.  I know it won’t last, which is why I’ll keep coming back for more.

Tommy Kelly is an ex-pat Scotsman and Jöttnar co-founder. 

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