Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Fiddlers Nose

It was dark. The air was still and empty. The only thing to see was the outline of the mountains set against the wisps of high clouds obscuring blotches of an otherwise starry sky. We knew it was going to be a long day, so we were up early. No cars, no people, no morning chorus. Just the persistent babbling of burn somewhere far off on the other side of the Glen. The forecast for the day was supposed to be okay until the onset of an approaching front in early evening. But then again, what good is an hourly estimated forecast up here anyway?

We stood on the verge, gear and maps strewn across the road in preparation for the day ahead. We were parked at the eastern end of Loch Lurgainn on the road from Ullapool to Reiff. It's such a remote place. Mountains, moorland, bog and not much else. Such isolation can't help but make you feel apprehensive.

The objective was the much sought after Direct (Nose) Route on Sgurr an Fhidlier (peak of the fiddler). The route provides over 200m of climbing located nearly 6 miles from the road in central Cogiach. As I threw my pack over my shoulder I couldn't help but wonder if this was the right decision. The barmaid from The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool said this was the wettest summer she'd ever known. But then again it hadn't rained properly in the 4 days we'd been there so maybe at least the rock would be dry? Swallowing these thoughts we set off through the gloom along the vague stalkers path across the Glen.

The going was rough wading through knee-deep heather across endless rocky knolls, each of these interspersed with deep, black and acrid smelling bogs. It was relief when dawn finally broke, but the summits retained their cloudy veils, as if they were refusing to be awakened. Given the terrain it was going to be at least another hour before we reached the base of the climb anyway. We can worry about the clouds then, we're here now and we're not turning back.  

On the approach to Sgurr an Fhidlier from Lochan Lurgainn deep in the heart of Coigach in the North West Highlands
Thankfully we were greeted in the upper Glen by a fortuitous parting of the clouds. This meant the route could be seen in its full profile, towering straight up out of the moor like the prow of a ship. It almost looked as if long ago the mountain had collided with the moor slicing through bog, heather and lochan. I stood in awe of the route. The ridge rose gently at first in a series of dripping wet overlapping slabs before rearing up into the final tower hiding the upper sections from view. I had been thinking about doing this climb for so long and now I was finally here it looked everything I was hoping for. As we stood at the base looking up and pondering on what the day would bring, the first midge landed on my hand. The sound of me wiping the wee beastie from existence was drowned out by the roar of a million tiny beating wings. This clearly wasn't going to be a day for lingering. 

Rafe won the toss so he geared up and set off climbing quickly to escape the midges. We swapped leads as we went with wet slabs quickly turning into steep grass filled grooves. A bit of background reading had revealed that both the SMC and the Gary Latter route descriptions were both useless on this route and this was quickly confirmed in the field. Reading both seemed to make everything more confusing and we had no accurate topo to delineate where the right line was. Both mentioned a cave - so we aimed for there, only to find two caves leading to yet more confusion. 

Starting out on the lower grassy grooves of Direct Nose Rose (HVS 5b)

Endless towers of perfect Torridonian Sandstone with the upper pitches disappearing into the clouds high above
We'd decided to follow a series of steep grassy grooves and corners up the prow of the nose as a 'direct approach' seemed to be the obvious option given the name of the route. The descriptions both agree that a traverse below 'a pale slab' was required before you reached 'the hansom cab stance'. We had a slab to our left. So agreed that must be the traverse. Two Aberdeen climbers had been following us and caught us up at this stance. They were convinced we were at the wrong cave and opted to climb up through a groove on the right rather than traverse. In hindsight they were probably correct to follow the groove but ignorant to the crampon scratches they had seen we set out across the face. 

As it was his turn, Rafe led off onto the traverse. Standing on the in-cut, 10cm wide grassy ledge he shuffled along leaning his body onto the blank slab for balance before disappearing round the corner and out of sight. He gave a shout and I followed him round, opting to peddle my feet on the wet wall below and yard on a fist full of turf rather than balance on that disgusting ledge. 

Rafe seconding up one of the many grass filled groove pitches below 'the cave belay'

Rafe making an unnerving traverse away from the 'cave belay'. We should have continued up as this took us off-route for 3 pitches. Hindsight is a wonderful thing really. 

I eventually joined him and stood on a tiny ledge above the void. We silently looked up at the next section with the ridges final towers leaning over us high above. 'Climb easy ground and up cracks to large ledges' - The route didn't make any sense at all - we were most certainly off route at this point. All I saw was mossy wet corners and unrelentingly steep slabs.  Not wanting to repeat the traverse, I led on and up a wet corner to a semi-hanging stance on a slab about 35m below what looked like a good ledge.  

Between us and that ledge was large shattered slab riddled with small overlaps. Rafe led tentatively up negotiating flared cracks and sloping holds until a large cheer confirmed we had at long last reached a good ledge! In fact we were now at the 'hansom cab stance' - which turns out to be a large triangular ledge on the arete - great for consuming bits of crunched pie from the rucksack. Apparently it's from this point onward the real climbing starts and it had only taken us 6 hours of climbing to get to this point. I hastily lead the next pitch up a precarious hanging arete to a wild stance below a roof. It was now 17:00 and Rafes lead. It was here that a breeze started up, blowing the midge cloud around my head out of bite range making visible the showers pouring in across Sutherland to our north. Time to go.

Climbing steep wet corners - we were most definitely off-route at this point (R)

Back on-route climbing up the final towers after the 'hansom cab stance'

Looking back down the nose from the top of the towers with all of Coigach beneath our feet. (R)
Once again the route description didn't do much to help find the way. Rafe ended up linking two pitches together into one mega long 50m pitch up the tower to a fantastically positioned ledge. It felt like the whole of the northwest highlands was beneath our feet. We had one final tricky corner pitch to tackle before we broke out onto the easier angled upper ridge. From here 150m of scrambling led to the top. We celebrated in the fading light with another pie and a kitkat. 

With the hardest part of the day done we started the long scramble down occasionally glancing up at the ridge through the gloom wondering if the last 12 hours had actually happened. By the time we descended the corrie to below the route it was pitch black. Stumbling over more bog and heather following compass bearings and hand-railing burns we eventually made it back through the maze to the road and by 22:00 and collapsed on the floor by the car. The mountain was still silent. The Glen was still empty. The midges had gone. The rain was coming. And we were going to the pub. 

Top of the climb with all the major difficulties done. Stac Pollaidh and the other Sutherland giants can be seen behind. Not a bad view!  

The summit of Sgurr an Fhidlier in the fading light. Time for the pub!
I have listed below what I think would be a more appropriate description for the route (including our variation!!!). However take it with a pinch of salt - after all it's your adventure.

The route starts just left of the main ridge arete below a slab bounded by a roof and on the by a crack. Generally you are aiming to get to the obvious grassy groove running down the apex of the ridge before reaching the cave. 

Start on the left of the slab..

P1 (~55m) - 4b - Make an awkward step up onto the slab and climb boldly up rightwards and round a small rib to a groove/corner. Climb the corner to a slab above and belay on a large boulder in the middle of the ridge. 

P2 (~60m) - 4a - Walk up over grass for about 20m to the right of a large pinnacle and climb the mossy groove above on its right hand side. Continue up grass afterwards and climb a short steep corner stepping right after ~10m to belay on a ledge on the right below a diagonal crack. 

P3 (~50m) - 4c - Climb the crack and groove above and then stepping left into the main groove line after ~20m. Climb up this passing a cave on the right to the steep corner above. Surmount this and step right to a ledge with a thread belay (tat). 

P4 (~45m) - 4c - Climb past the thread and over a small slab to rejoin the grassy groove line. Yard up unpleasently on grassy ledges to join a rib on the right. Climb the rib/groove to a block belay below a large roof (SMC cave stance?).

At this point we incorrectly went left. The true line climbs rightwards through the roof following the odd crampon scratch to a stance and then making a 'belly button' traverse below the first pale slab to the 'hansom cab stance'. This description is available in the SMC route guide and states that the cave belay (P4 above) can be reached in 2x 50m pitches which is incorrect.

P5 (~15m) - 4a - Traverse the grassy ledge left along the base of the slab passing a block to belay in a crack on a sloping ledge.

P6 (~20m) - 4c/5a - Make an awkward step up left to a small ledge and climb up to the corner above. Make strenuous moves through the corner to a slab above and take a semi hanging belay in a thin crack.

P7 (~25m) - 5a/5b - Climb rightwards to an obvious crack on the arete and continue boldly upwards trending left then back right to the 'hansom cab stance'.

Normal route re-gained at this point.

P8 (~15m) - 4b/4c - Step left into the bottomless groove and climb the arete on the left past a block to a grassy ledge below an overhang. Belay here on good wires in an outrageous position. 

P9 (~50m) - 5a/5b - Surmount the overhang using the crack (peg on the right) to easier ground (possible belay?) before trending rightwards to a huge slab. Climb this on fantastic holds to a small ledge (another possible belay?) before launching up the final ridge arete finishing with an awkward mantel onto a large ledge.

P10 (~15m) - 4b/4c - Climb the final corner to belay well back on blocks.

The ridge is then scrambled for the remaining ~150m to the top with difficulties probably avoidable on the left if required. Some of the photos used here are Rafe's (R) - Thanks for letting me use them!

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