Scottish VS

Dougie Borthwick’s gripping account of an ascent of the Long Climb on Ben Nevis. The photo is of the Orion face in the background and Tower ridge in the foreground.

“It will be fine Jock, it’s only a severe and it’s in Classic Rock, it should be a dawdle” was said knowing that Jock was one of the southern MRT’s finest crag rats, so I guessed that he wouldn’t be putting up too much of an argument. The heavy boots though, combined with heavy jackets and three season hill-bags all seemed to weigh heavily on the four of us. Two hours from the nearest road, with a dozen or so pitches none of which warranted grading; well under the standards he normally danced on. This was not what southern sun-baked rock was all about. Jock would soon get used to it.

“Right lads, you two tie on and lead off, and me and JP will monitor your progress” which immediately satisfied everyone, the newbies getting to show their improved rope management skills whilst ascending through the approach rocks, whilst us two got the benefits of an easy second. A gentle intro for all to reacquaint themselves again with the cold rock. A dawdle.

The route’s protagonist JHB Bell had not endeared himself to the crag rat fraternity by declaring ‘Any fool can climb good rock, but it takes craft and cunning to get up vegetatious schist and granite’ but he had sewn together the UK’s longest face climb up through the middle of the Orion Face, which he’d then assessed as ‘difficult, maybe severe’.   The Scottish gradings, though, were always something of an anomaly. Everything hard had been graded VS. The 1976 SMC Journal recorded ‘that we have extended the grading of summer rock to include Hard Very Severe’. By the following year the Journal reported that views differed; ‘some would like to see standardisation with England and Wales but some wished to retain the simple Scottish VS in all its glorious ambiguity’.  Hard Rock was first published in 1974. One couldn’t help but cry.

Cubby’s earlier write up for Newtonmore’s Creagh Dubh had been the initial E guidebook reference for some of us who were progressing with learning our rock craft from Duntelchaig and Cummingston, whilst the SMC still prevaricated. It was still very much second nature to assess all possible approach and exit points when contemplating anything graded Scottish VS, especially so in a big mountain environment, as there was no guarantee that the route being attempted was simply a VS.  Bell’s quote rang loud ’it takes craft and cunning to get up vegetatious schist’ which could of course be interpreted as ‘you’d better know your escape routes, and it’s no problem if you need to use your knees’. There was perhaps reason in the SMC’s madness, for looking directly up the middle of the Orion Face was like being in the Alps, surely not at all on the same classification grade as the 100’ routes of road-side entertainment.

Dr Bell on the first ascent of the Long Climb, Ben Nevis

The First Rib was quickly reached and its distinctive lines gave confidence that we were on the right track.  Warming up saw us approaching the basin and traversing across it; then looking up was like an amphitheatre, all dark and seriously gloomy. Seriously, seriously gloomy, for the dark walls just went up and up for ever. You could though make out the Second Rib angling up and over the basin, which then saw four lads moving up fast with much better rock harmony than when initially starting. 

Route finding though is, ahem, not always an easy skill.  Romping up and over the rock, spirits lifting with the height; and then an abrupt stop. High up on The Ben away out left and totally off route, lies a tall corner with unblemished sides. And I had sadly found it. The crack that I’d been following now petered out with another 10 metres or so of expansive corner rearing impregnable up ahead. The corner was totally blank. 

“It will be fine Jock, there appears to be a traverse line out to the left” but I could not yet discern if it was a Whillans Carnivore or a Hinterstoisser traverse that I might be attempting to emulate, albeit in wickedly heavy boots. Instructions had passed that the two youngsters were to come across when I had successfully belayed, and JP was to take up the rear. The protection would be a pendulum at the end of what at the time appeared to be quite a long rope, there being nothing on the wall to utilise. The blank wall though eventually succumbed and a wee ledge was gained. The perils of Scottish VS route finding then saw a small wedge being laid into the cracked lip of the smallest of bowls indented in the rock with the belayer having to sit low, so preventing the protection from rolling out. The two youngest then traversed quietly across. Jock was not so forgiving and the air had turned a darker shade of blue.  “It will be fine Jock, that’s the Man Trap up there and then we’ll hit Mactavish’s for a pint”.

NB. The Long Climb was originally graded as ‘possibly Difficult’ then quickly changed to Severe followed by Very Severe, then back down to Severe. It now sits properly at a respectable Scottish VS.  Climb it at your peril; Jock sought solace in a very neat ascent of Yo-Yo.