Normally, summertime is my slow season. I like to do just about all the disciplines in climbing and the cool seasons are generally good for any one, at any random time. In fact it’s a bit of a joke to say we have season changes here at all. It all happens in a big jumble and you never know what the conditions will be good for next. Going with the flow is the answer, and knowing lots of crags that stay dry in the rain.
Sky Pilot is one of those everdry crags that keeps a Scottish climber from going quite insane during the rainy season (NB. In Scotland, their are four rainy seasons per annum). So I have been getting to know the place well this summer.
My goal for the summer was to climb a stunning, but super hard and rather uncomfortably dangerous arête on the north face of Ben Nevis called Echo Wall. Requirements for this were at least 9a sport climbing fitness, a willingness to die young and a double helping of bottomless patience. I could just about manage the latter two, but the former was hard to keep up when I was spending the whole time just walking in and out of the north face all the time, watching my legs get bigger and forearms shrink. CLICK HERE to read more about the Echo WallMacLeod Leads Hardest Headpoint Yet
The rainy season (spring edition) decided not to arrive this year in Scotland and instead we had the driest, sunniest spring in my lifetime. That was cool, except that approximately 1000 odd tonnes of snow banked neatly above my Echo Wall project was well poised to hand the last laugh to The Ben. All that training, and I was going to get stumped by a three month long dribble down the one piece of rock I wanted to climb, when every other crag in the highlands was bone dry. I could almost laugh at the irony.
I was, shall we say, quite dissatisfied with this situation and something had to give. The ice had to be moved. Seven days of spadework later, the ice was piled up in the gully 200 feet below, the route was dry, and my biceps were looking healthier than before. It was also a nice break from the normal climbing routine of greasy food elimination. I ate 5000 calories a day for a week straight. And Claire makes a fine gingerbread.
Anyway, (sorry I got distracted for a moment there!) after one further distraction of being offered a job mixing concrete for the rebuilding of the CIC hut (Ben Nevis’ mountain hut) on account of my high altitude spadework prowess, I got down to business.
I worked moves, got cold, found a way to hang upside down just before the crux and generally made exciting progress. But less progress was made in finding a decent runner on the thing. There were four wires under the roof right before the first crux, all in these weird down-pointing teeth of rock. I had convinced myself they were pretty good, but on returning to the climb, one of the placements had broken off and disappeared all of it’s own accord. I wondered if the others may emulate this behavior with the weight of my earthward hurtling body applied to them? The final piece here was quite amusing, the largest camalot, in a super shallow slot. The idea was that it would actually hold, but the slightest movement seemed to make it fall right out of the slot. Shame really, because it was the first runner on the rope, and well placed to KO my belayer right when I really wanted them to be fairly responsive.
None of this really mattered. The route was all about the top crux. I fell several times here trying to link it on the toprope — just too pumped. This was well out of range of any gear that would hold a fall. So for me, a lead would be do or die, nice and simple.
With the progress I was making I was anticipating the day might arrive sometime in late June, But as soon as May was out, the spring and summer editions of the rainy season arrived right on top of each other. I camped out under Sky Pilot for the whole of June and most of July, getting fit, frustrated and then fed up.
But a nice trip to Lander, Wyoming to give a climbing talk was just the ticket. I ate big steaks, met lots of great people, and got time away from the box I’d put myself in. So by the time I got home, was chomping at the bit to jump right back in.
Despite the big steaks and pancakes, I was light and fit when I returned from the US and Canada and another few days on the route brought the lead day around. I’d spent a lot of time getting ready to lead the route, mainly justifying the risk of it to myself. To climb such a special route in one of my favorite and most inspiring places in the world was indeed worth a risk. What was the alternative? Pass up the opportunity because of the risk of something going wrong. You only get one life.
The only thing that was really hard to square was the fact that Claire would be there filming the lead for the film we were making about the route and the whole preparation and concept of it. The thought of messing up in that situation was pretty gut wrenching. I figured all I could do was climb it perfectly and not settle for anything less. And so that’s what I did. That sounds a bit far fetched, but that’s how it was for me - I knew I was going to climb it, but the thought of that pain that would be caused to someone you are close gives you a level of effort and strength you wouldn’t otherwise have. I made sure I had it, and used it, and it gave me perfect focus on the crux. I felt like nothing could stop me getting the next hold all the way to that thank god jug halfway up the pitch.
For the rest of it, I just soaked up the amazing position climbing this huge bottomless arete so far above the gully floor, with nothing but my own ability and a couple of bits of gear to get me to the top. A powerful feeling.
All I need to do is find more of it…
If you want to see the film we made of Echo Wall, you can get it HERE (Yes, we have NTSC for folks in the US).