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Friday, March 16, 2007


One of the many wonderful things about winter climbing in Scotland is the amazingly long history of technical climbing there. As early as the late 1800s, Scottish climbers were doing the first ascents of Grade IV ice and snow climbs, equivalent to about WI 3 in North America. They wore nailed boots (no crampons), chopped steps with a single wooden ice axe, and had only wool and silk for clothing. The rope offered only the illusion of safety to the leaders. In this photo, courtesy of Roger Webb from Inverness, Hamish Irvine shows how it was done. Irvine leading is leading the steepest pitch of Green Gully (IV, 4) last April on the 100th anniversary of the first ascent by the great Harold Raeburn; the second ascent was not completed until 1937.

Actually, Irvine is cheating a bit: He couldn't find nailed boots for the 2006 ascent, so he's wearing crampons. But he is leading with an old hawser he found somewhere, and he placed no protection for the lead. John Lyall and Roger Webb led the other pitches of Green Gully, and Webb said he was happy to have modern gear for the belay anchors and to place pro on his 19th-century-style lead. "You should try this, as it’s a lot of fun and very scary and certainly adds grades to the route," he said. "The trick to doing this sort of thing without fear is to get yourself a Hamish. I was quite struck by the way that he had perfect balance and completely outclassed John and me in this kind of climbing, whereas with modern gear we would both expect to reverse the position. I guess Hamish was just unlucky to be born a century too late."

All three followed their pitches "in style," Webb said, "although I wore a helmet and John Lyall looked rather more like a 19th century Greek bandit than a British gentleman," as evident in this photo from the summit. (Webb, on the left, lost his right eye to rock fall on the Eiger in 1991.) The summit photo, he added, was taken by "a disappointingly unfazed youth who’d just done Point 5 Gully and seemed to find old guys in tweed quite normal."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

About a decade or two ago, Chris Bonington filmed a TV series for BBC. Each episode he dressed up in the gear of the era and repeated a classic climb. Fun stuff. I think Neptune's had copy of some but they were in PAL and never got translated.