Ulog 16 – Curved Ridge: feeling the fear and doing it anyway!August 24, 2018
Just a few days ago I had my scariest, most challenging as well as most exhilarating and exciting mountain day ever!
Under guidance, I climbed Curved Ridge of Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe/Glen Etive, Scotland, descending via Great Gully Buttress.
If you’ve read my Aonach Eagach and Bidean nam Bian posts, you will no doubt think I’m an adrenaline junkie, constantly chasing new thrills. And while I do enjoy an adrenaline rush, I don’t think I’m really a thrill-seeker. My motivation for participating in this recent expedition was actually to learn more about outdoor climbing techniques that could make me and my hillwalking friends safer in the mountains.
I wanted to learn how to use ropes – if needed – to secure myself and others during hillwalks where we might encounter steep, rocky terrain. Or for if there was a section that I felt confident walking over, but others didn’t.
Having said that, this all helps me to get even more enjoyment from the great outdoors, and to climb exciting mountain ridges, and that does bring out the thrill-seeker in me!
An opportunity to try outdoor climbing
It all started several months ago, when one of the organisers in a climbing Meetup I belong to circulated a message saying that in order to qualify for his MIC (Mountain Instructor Certificate), a man called Kieran was looking for volunteers to take two days’ climbing instruction.
When I contacted Kieran, he asked me what kind of climbing I’d be interested in learning, and I told him I wanted to learn how to use ropes to make myself and others more secure in rocky terrain.
Kieran needed to train people in pairs, so I invited another climbing friend to join us. (For complex reasons, she prefers to remain anonymous.)
Kieran was quite flexible on locations, and only suggested doing Curved Ridge a couple of days before the event. This is a popular scrambling route up one of Scotland’s most iconic mountains, Buachaille Etive Mor.
Buachaille Etive Mor (pronounced “Bookle Etive Mor”) means the Great Shepherd of Glen Etive. I can imagine that in the days before road transport and good maps, this beacon of a mountain must have been a welcome sight to many a weary traveller who’d lost their bearings in the glens.
I was very enthusiastic and a little nervous about it. I’d heard that Curved Ridge involved Grade 3 scrambling (Grade 1 is the easiest grade, and the Aonach Eagach is a Grade 2 scramble). I’ve done a bit of Grade 3 scrambling on Creise, a mountain adjacent to Buachaille Etive Mor, but on this scramble we weren’t “committed” – in other words, if it looked too difficult or scary, there was a much easier alternative way up.
On Curved Ridge, if you don’t like what’s up ahead, your only alternative is to go back down, and downclimbing those bits you’ve just climbed up would be a hairy task! That’s why it’s a good idea to take helmets, ropes and slings with you, although many people climb it without any of this protection.
My friend was much more nervous than I was, and she seriously wondered if she would be able to do this climb. She climbs regularly indoors, as I do, but she has only done one outdoor climb and has little experience of scrambling. I have walked with her before, and I know that her fitness is good and that although her scrambling experience is limited, she is a confident scrambler. Also, Kieran was there to instruct us, so I assured her that we would be in good hands and that he wouldn’t make us do anything that we were not competent to do.
When we arrived at the car park at 8.30am, there was a lot of low cloud. The weather forecast was good, so I was hoping it was a “heat haze”.
As we began our walk, the cloud soon started to lift, revealing some of the rocks we’d be scrambling over.
Kieran stopped at a river to fill his water bottle with fresh mountain water. I just took photos!
But we were soon being feasted on by hundreds of hungry midges, so I thought it was time to move onwards and upwards. The rocky scramble doesn’t start till an elevation of about 550m, so the path was quite straightforward for a while. We paced ourselves and took time to admire the views, saving our energy for the climb ahead.
Now the scrambling began. The rocks of Buachaille Etive Mor are beautiful, in grey and pinky-reddish tones. They are mostly quite grippy, though they have a tendency to break off, so you have to test each hand and foothold very carefully when scrambling.
The views got better the higher we climbed. The photo below shows Beinn a’Chrulaiste, a mountain just across the A82 from the “Bookle”. It has a section of pink-hued rock known as the “pink rib” which is a great easy scramble.
We donned helmets and harnesses and Kieran started to show us the ropes.
It was a long way down, so we weren’t taking any chances.
Kieran attached the rope to each of us and then anchored it to a stable piece of rock using a sling and a carabiner.
He then climbed nimbly up the tricky section, having asked us to unclip the sling from the rock as we climbed up.
The climbing got trickier as we climbed higher, but to be honest, it wasn’t anything that we couldn’t handle. The exposure is the biggest challenge on this route. For much of the way up, you can’t afford to put a hand or a foot wrong!
But we were safely roped up, with Kieran continually leaping on ahead to anchor the rope.
After this, it was just a short scramble until we reached a small cairn marking the end of Curved Ridge. We were partly elated to have done it and partly disappointed that it was all over!
Now it was just a case of getting to the summit, Stob Dearg, to bag Munro number 87!
One slight disappointment is that we were unable to climb Crowberry Tower, a steep rocky protrusion that crowns the top of Curved Ridge. Kieran told us that a large boulder at the top of it had been found to be unstable – it may have become dislodged over the winter, and he felt it was unsafe.
I would not have wanted to put that theory to the test!
One short, enjoyable scramble later, and we were at the summit of Stob Dearg, (1021m), one of two Munros on Buachaille Etive Mor. We decided not to “bag” the other one. This is one mountain I will look forward to climbing again and again – sometimes, but not always, via Curved Ridge.
The day had turned out to be warm and sunny, and there were quite a few people on the summit, as well as quite a few midges! The other people had come up via the more straightforward, popular route. We hadn’t seen anyone else on Curved Ridge.
The views at the top were spectacular.
After lunching at the summit, Kieran gave us a choice of returning via the popular route or going back via Great Gully Buttress, which would involve more scrambling, downclimbing and abseiling!
At the mention of abseiling, my heart lurched. This was out of my comfort zone! Despite the fact that I happily do a type of abseiling several times a week when I go to the climbing centre, and I’ve done it when outdoor climbing too, I knew this would be much more scary. In fact, just the idea of descending via one of these buttresses gave me the fear.
We both voted to do that route anyway. We might never get another chance!
When Kieran described the route to us, I said “Right…” in a way that my friend thought was hilarious. She perceived my trepidation – and she wasn’t as nervous as I was.
We scrambled our way down the steep bit until we reached some sheer slabs. It was time to abseil. I braced myself. I was to go at the bottom of the rope with my friend attached further up, while Kieran belayed us down.
I was confident that our guide knew what he was doing, but communicating that to my subconscious was another matter. It had spent decades training me not to launch myself backwards over cliff faces!
As Kieran started to lower us down, I squealed quite a lot! My friend thought it was very funny. She was used to me being the adventurous one. I managed to shout up to her, “Everyone has a particular fear, and this is mine!”
By the time we reached stable ground (ie a platform about four metres wide) my heart was racing! The photo below shows the cliffs we had just abseiled down, with Kieran still at the top. I didn’t even notice how he got down.
We then scrambled for a bit, doing some tricky downclimbs, which seemed so easy and comfortable in comparison to the abseil! I even managed to take a photo of the lovely view.
Then, more big slabs appeared. My heart sank. But it had to be done! This time, my friend got a bit tangled up in the rope on the way down, but with some shouting and colourful language we managed to make it down to the next “safe” ledge in one piece.
Kieran remained calm and unflappable throughout, and once we were safely down, he nimbly trotted down a groove in the slabs, tossing the rope aside as he went.
By the third abseil I was starting to feel a little calmer about the process. After that the scrambling got a bit easier too. We were certainly being put through our paces!
By the time we reached level ground, I had a feeling of exhilaration. I had conquered a big beast, and a few fears!
My friend and I were both in awe of what we’d just accomplished, with Kieran’s assistance.
We had one more instruction day ahead of us, after a rest day. It was to be slightly lower key. What did Kieran have planned for us? I couldn’t wait to find out.