Creme de Violette
This piece was first published on the Mountain Equipment Blog in March 2018, and describes making the second ascent of Creme de Violette (IX, 9) on Beinn Eighe with Ben Silvestre.
Driving on the left side of the road - the right side of the road - Ben and I chipped away at the everlasting drive. Slowly, very slowly, we crept north, the Sat Nav centred over Torridon. The North West Highlands: the creme de la creme of Scottish winter climbing? ‘A high pressure system’s in the area,’ Ben said with excitement. ‘It’s going to be mint. There’s so many routes to do, and I think the North West is in!’
I admitted I didn’t really know what was going on. Three days after landing back in the country, my mind was still in Canadian Time and on Canadian times. I’d only seen glimpses of the Scottish season so far. I replaced my phone’s quick links: hello again, MWIS forecasts.
‘What’s the plan, Ben?’ I asked between driving stints. The duffle shuffle between the Alps, Canada, the Lake District with Victoria, and now Scotland, had been epic - one of the best/worst I’ve done. In recent winters, Scotland’s climbing season has been found wanting, so I was keen to make up for lost time. Thankfully, Ben held everything in control: ‘Beinn Eighe tomorrow, Beinn Bhan the day after,’ he said quietly.
I’ve only tied in a few times with Ben, and they’d been enjoyable, stress-free experiences. Last summer in North Wales we dodged rain showers, Ben confirming the stories I’d heard. The strongest memory I can recall is Ben’s smooth ascent of Lord of the Flies (E6 6a). Although I’d originally agreed to climb in Scotland with Uisdean, he’d met a lady on his winter trip to Tasmania, listened to his balls and changed his flights. I sent Ben a message.
We drove north, hour after hour. It was long past my bedtime, regardless of which time zone I was in. It felt like the day had closed long ago, too. Darkness had set in, like a heavy blanket on the Scottish moorland. Rain turned to sleet, then to snow, then back to rain again.
Suddenly, the van headlights picked up a pair of ghostly grey eyes by the side of the road. ‘What the hell is that?’ my brain screamed, now wide awake. My foot instantly hovered over the brake. A second later, a Stag picked it’s way towards the roadside, fully illuminated. Just before stepping onto the tarmac it paused casually. It seemed oblivious of our impending collision, the van charging at 60 mph, and me now jumping on the brakes. Instead, the stag turned slightly as if to say… ‘get tae!’ It was good to be back to Scotland. Even the animals did whatever they cared.
Tuesday. Beinn Eighe was all to ourselves. As we punched steps up the hillside, night slowly faded, like the flicking of a dimmer switch. Instead of day breaking, we felt darkness release it’s grip, give up, allow brightness to seep into the world. Light arrived without real colour. Monochrome, lunar grey and black. Dark clouds, faint white mountains, bleak glens. But the scenery was still stunning, in it's own Scottish way, and the plateau near the summit gave us rare views of the Atlantic and the bulk of Liathach.
In between the wind, the spindrift and the bare landscape, we stood. Still. After the gusts, we snatched a moment of calm on the plateau. I breathed deeply and felt my lungs cool as I inhaled. We continued to the catchily-named, ‘West Central Gully Wall.’
The climbing on WCGW is steep and intimidating, and routes usually follow grooves and corners. You get the impression the first ascensionists searched for the obvious line, climbing the weaknesses in these fortress walls. Grooves and corners tend to be friendly, all bridging, twice the footholds, and hopefully there’s a friendly crack in the back. The luck runs out when you reach an impasse, usually a fat ‘end-of-the-line-buddy’ type of roof, and the route is forced left or right, away from the comfort of the corner, and onto an arete. Shoot the Breeze is a classic example - although I bet the first ascentionists were looking for this kind of adventure! Wild moves, the exposure suddenly at your heels, moving further and further away from gear… hopefully, though, the sanctuary of another corner is reached.
I think Ben chose Creme de Violette as our route for the day, and I enjoyed being in relative ignorance as we geared up. I recognised the name, but couldn’t remember anything about it, which - in climbing - can be a bit like going into a boxing match with an undercover heavyweight world champion. Sometimes, the stories, rumours and descriptions I hear make me more hesitant; sometimes, the hardest part is actually getting on the route. This time, however, ignorance was bliss, and I just assumed the worst: I assumed it’d be nails. ‘Oh right, cool,’ I thought. ‘I’m sure this’ll be hard, run-out and scary…’ This approach usually works, and I’m therefore usually pleasantly surprised to find gear and holds. To be honest, after a month of climbing with Marc-Andre Leclerc in Canada, E14 and M26 would feel safe and steady…
Ben did tell me something about the route, to prepare me. Nick Bullock commented on his and Tim Neill’s first ascent. Of the crux second pitch, he said, ‘carefully pull right around the roof and climb the even more committing groove above (without thinking about where the last piece of gear was or even what the last piece of gear was).’
After Ben led the first pitch, I set off up the second. Blue skies occasionally flashed overhead - a rarity for Scotland. The crag was almost ‘over-rimed,’ so I spent a lot of time searching for holds and gear, testing every placement. I hammered in kit regularly, aware of an imminent crux and run-out, but was surprised to find some bomber gear before a roof. This is the point where the comfort of a groove and corner ends - the large roof above blocking further progress. ‘Here goes,’ I thought, and started teetering towards the arete…
At the belay, 40 metres above Ben, after a long and testing pitch, I reflected on Nick’s comments. I certainly hadn’t cruised the route (at one point, Ben shouted up, ‘are you ok?!’ I was excavating a gear placement and hadn’t moved in a while). But I was pleasantly surprised not to find Nick’s ‘one tooth pick placements.’
I’ve climbed a bit with Nick, and thoroughly enjoy his company. I also respect him and his routes, and I know he holds some very strong ethics close to heart. His dedication to style - as in, alpine, onsight, integrity - are ones we should all follow. But where had he got those ideas about the climbing and gear on Creme…, I wondered?
Then I remembered. Climbing is so subjective; it’s a personal experience, and there’s no comparison or competition. And Scottish winter is perhaps the most subjective of all types of climbing. I could say, ‘the gear’s all there and the hooks are pretty good.’ But actually, my comments are pointless because my experience is only my interpretation.
Nick might’ve been a bit gripped, thinking he was on a massive sandbag of a VIII, 8 (Bruised Violet). He might’ve missed gear. It might’ve been a bit of a shock; the crack couldn’t been verglassed; there could’ve been loose rock…
I remember talking to Uisdean about The Secret. He was fresh back from Indian Creek, and described the route as ‘straightforward.’ Although he’d climbed the main pitch on second, he’d still found plenty of good jams all the way. I’d found it steady, but with spindrift constantly washing down the crag, heavy gusts and some verglassed rock, it was quite a battle at times. I was initially quick to counter Uisdean’s comments, but then again: Scottish winter climbs vary from day to day. Our experiences on the route vary minute to minute.
You might as well forget the grade, because you’ll be colder/warmer, fitter/weaker, more/less experienced and lucky/unlucky compared to everyone else that’s climbed the route. The rock might be verglassed or the cracks dug out or the rime purely cosmetic or your belayer’s doing the death shiver… In fact, you might as well forget about other people’s experiences and comments, because you’re going to have your own adventure, regardless!
Perhaps I was well prepared from a month of mixed climbing in Canada, but thankfully I found Nick’s comments didn’t match with my time on Creme… Nonetheless, he’d had the first ascent experience, and he didn’t know what he might’ve found on the other side of the roof. I think his comments don’t exactly insinuate it’s run-out or the gear’s poor, but there’s plenty of implication. But then again, who knows, and who cares - it’s just climbing!
So good effort to Nick and Tim for putting it up in the first place. I’ve been meaning to get back to Beinn Eighe for some new route ideas, but talk is cheap and I’m still not in Scotland. Besides, our ascent doesn’t count anyway. I think, looking at the photos afterwards, I belayed higher than Nick did (why didn't we look at the photos beforehand?!). We also exited a metre left of Nick and Tim’s final pitch - again, after studying their photos after our ascent. Ben tried finishing straight up, 'rapidly descended,' and then I looked round the corner…
The following day was equally rewarding, as we climbed The God Delusion (IX, 9) on Beinn Bhan, getting the ‘full’ Scottish experience… But that’s another story. Thanks for a good couple of days, Ben.