Greg shaking an arm on stupidly steep terrain.
Greg Boswell made the first ascent of his yet hardest Scottish winter route, Banana Wall, Coire an Lochain, Cairngorms on 25th February 2015, as reported in his own blog post (and his official Facebook page) and in scottishwinter.com by Simon Richardson.
To my best knowledge, Greg has climbed most of the hardest Scottish winter routes, including the only two routes with the given grades of ⅩⅠ: The Hurting (ⅩⅠ,11) and Don't Die of Ignorance (ⅩⅠ,11) both by Dave MacLeod. Given that, this Banana Wall is most likely to be one of the hardest winter routes in Scotland and UK or possibly THE hardest route, and maybe even in the world for the trad-style winter routes. Greg has again pushed the boundary of Scottish or trad-protected winter climbs!
I should note that Dave MacLeod's hardest two routes, Anubis, Ben Nevis (Refs 1, 2, 3) and Castle in the Sky, Druim Shionnach (Refs 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) have not been graded, but they can well be a contender of grade ⅩⅠⅠ. Indeed Simon Richardson put the grade of Anubis to be ⅩⅠⅠ.
Banana Wall (XII, 12), Coire an Lochain climbs the centre of the overhanging buttress directly. The groove to the left is Fallout Corner (VI, 7). The prominent groove to the right is War and Peace (VII, 8), and another faint groove just left of it is Bavarinthia (IX, 9).
It was my honour to share and witness the historic moment as a climbing partner and belayer in a corner of the quiet Scottish corrie in our favourite Scottish winter weather (aka wet, cold, windy with little visibility). Here I am writing my perspective.
This winter's Scottish weather has been difficult. Norries (that is, the Northern Corries of Cairngorms) are generally one of the most reliable winter-climbing venues in Scotland, but not this year, as routes have been quite scratchy under a fair amount of powder snow with little frozen turf. The risk of avalanches has been often high.
The last week (from 22nd February) and the week before were similar. It seemed Wednesday 25th would be a bit of lull between stormy and/or snowy days, though far from the ideal. Greg was eager to take the weather window, looking for a patient belayer for his project, and I responded to the call.
It turned out it was the very right choice! The buttress of the route (No.4 Buttress) was lightly coated with snow to be definitely wintry enough, yet no need of a shovel to clear it, the rocks were fairly dry, and the temperature was just below zero with only some breezy wind but no strong gust.
I actually went to the same No.4 buttress in the same Coire an Lochain 3 days later on Saturday, and found cracks and entire face were thinly verglassed, presumably due to the freeze-thaw cycle on Thursday and Friday. And, with the current forecast the conditions will probably remain like that for some time.
So, if Greg had put it off till a later day, the climbing, let alone gear, particularly use of SLCDs (cams), would have been considerably harder than Wednesday. In that sense, the Wednesday was indeed the only chance for the climb in a couple of weeks (before and after combined)!
Before setting off, Greg passed me half of his gear to carry, saying
You may not believe, but this is honestly a half the gear…. I asked if it would be a well protected route. Greg's answer was
probably some, though there would be a runout (he had some idea about it after an abseil inspection which he had done in his last visit). It didn't sound to me like he expected he would find much gear.
Nevertheless he took a fair amount, braving the extra weight. And fortune favours the brave. It turned out the gear he took was all worth it, as he managed to find more gear than expected, and was running out of quickdraws towards the end of the crux pitch!
I am often laughed at by fellow climbers for the amount of gear I carry. Greg can be my favourite mentor?!
Climbing — first go
Greg in the intial tricky groove.
Greg at the crux of Banana Wall — Very thin yet powerful move.
Fall and swing.
The initial groove didn't look too bad. Yet, he was climbing quite slowly, going up and down, to the right and back left. Later on in my turn of seconding the route, I found why he was so cautious. It wasn't easy at all with thin moves! (ⅩⅠⅠⅠ, 9 in itself by Greg's estimate.)
Arriving at the half-way ledge, from where an overhanging section starts for the next 15 or so metres, Greg spent a long time there, again climbing up and down, placing more gear, having rests etc. Any climbing leader must know how hard it is to leave a comfort of a ledge to a hard section above, especially when they don't know what to expect. Even Greg is not an exception, apparently and understandably.
Eventually he made up his mind, shouting
I'm going for it, WATCH ME, and so did he.
The rest of this attempt was an epic. It is overhanging all the way. Yet, he managed to cling on — clearing snow off rocks, swinging an axe to search for the next placement with apparently not much luck in most of the times, placing gear, which, though essential, must sap his energy further, while shaking his arms alternatively, frantically and frequently in between.
I have lost a count of his shout of
Watch me! I was secretly chuckling, thinking he sounded like a nervous girl climber of my friend, who struggled to get rid of irrational fear in leading, and so placed much more gear than needed and shouted
Watch me! constantly. If some one had been recording just his voice, it might have sounded like her!
But this is Greg, who has been making many of the most challenging first ascents in recent years than pretty much any one else. If there was a climber that had got rid of such irrational fear, it would be him. I was keeping the closest eye on him, particularly when I heard the shout, namely very frequently, making sure there would be nothing to hinder the smooth ropework to whether pay out or take in.
In between his repeated shouts of
Watch me!, he carried on and on, if painfully slowly in terms of upward progress, but steadily.
The end of this attempt came abruptly after hours without warning. He fell off and I, being lighter than he, was dragged up in the air a little. The heavily overhanging nature of the wall meant he ended up in the middle of the air with quite a distance from the wall.
Climbing — second go
After lowered down, he decided to give it one more go, pulling the ropes down. And so did he, after some rest. One of his axes was left high up on a turf on the route, where his security leash was snapped in his fall. So he took my axes instead — it was his luck he was used to use the particular model.
This time, snow in the cracks and on footholds has been already cleared out. Moreover, he knew all the placements and moves. Equally importantly, all the runners except for the top few metres are left in-situ.
However his first attempt was a full-on fight, where he must have given everything he had got. Unsurprisingly he seemed
scarily pumped, when he was lowered down. In his own word, he
try and revive my cramping arms from their painful spasms, while resting. Can he make it this time?
I remember very well my attempt of a hard (for me) dry-tooling route First Blood in The Works, Lake District a couple of months ago. In my first attempt, I performed better than I had expected, passing the crux, but eventually fell as I got too pumped. Eventually I managed to get to the chain in the end, taking several rests on runners in between. Of course I was completely pumped by that time. Then after an hour or so rest, I gave it a second go. I could not reach even the second clip, my arms being far too tired. That was the price of my full-on fight in my first attempt.
Greg's current situation is similar, or worse. He spent longer on the wall. Being on the trad gear and in winter, he must have squeezed more out of him than I did on the bolted tooling route. And his rest was for less than an hour.
To be honest, I was rather surprised when he said he would give it another go. Belaying and closely watching him fighting hard for hours, I knew how hard the route would be even for him. Even though there were a couple of massive advantages in the second go, compared to the first go, there would be no difference in the steepness of the wall and delicateness of each placement and powerful moves. So, I didn't think he would have a chance to succeed on the day, as he must be too tired for it.
Of course I said nothing negative, but encouraged him. Partly because I knew very well that would be what little thing a climbing partner could do. But partly because I genuinely admired at him for his stubborn effort. If you try it, you may get it, but if you don't, never. We all know that, but few can follow the motto at a sharp end.
So he set off, and after some time reached the half-way ledge.
Ohh, I feel it. I am pumped! shouted Greg.
Not a surprise the slightest. But then he had only one way. Up!
The rest of this attempt was another epic. The glimps of blue sky we had seen in the morning was long gone by this time. Snow started to fall and drift. The wind was picking up. It was getting an uncomfortable job for me to look up and keep an eye on Greg in belaying in swirling snow. But then, did Greg notice such a change in the surroundings? I doubt it.
He climbed on and on, very carefully yet without hesitation. Eventually he reached his previous high point, or I estimated so — I could not see him well as he had disappeared to the less steep (comparatively!) terrain.
Yet the ropes didn't move much. Only very occasionally and only for a little. A long time passed.
Finally each rope moved considerably and separately. A good sign of reaching the belay? Sure, eventually I saw Greg with a big grin, holding an arm up with
the crunched fist, shout at me;
I made it!.
That was awesome, absolutely awesome, mate!!
Seconding and finishing the route
Now it was my turn to second this route. I did the easier first half kind of cleanly (kind of, because the ropes was kept quite tight), realising how hard it indeed was. By the time I got to the half-way ledge, I was pumped. The fact that most of the runners were pretty good and that it took a good deal of effort to take them out did not help.
The next few moves were on the steepest part with an overlap, and perhaps the crux. They were powerful and long, yet so thin and balancy. I fell off repeatedly. Just to come back on the wall after each fall was an effort as it was quite overhanging.
It would get dark before long, while Greg was belaying in cold. I gave up free-climbing and opted for whatever method to go up. That involved a fair amount of prusiking on a rope and pulling on gear. Even after the overlap, the steepness was similar, and climbing was hard. I had no choice but kept prusiking/aiding up.
Still, I needed place and pull on my axes hard to stay on the wall from time to time to take out gear. That was hard enough or even too hard, as some of the gear was too solid to take out easily. so I ended up leaving some pieces of gear (I went back to the buttress 3 days later to retrieve them by abseil, and confirmed how stubborn they were!).
Eventually I got to the belay ledge. Greg lead the next short pitch in dark in head torch and I seconded in darker, to complete the feat.
Before, I had never needed to aid, let alone prusik up, to second a winter route some one had lead. On this day, that was how I climbed for 15 metres continuously. It was a very humbling experience. Well, it is the grade ⅩⅠⅠ, I can't possibly expect I could climb.
Having said that, interestingly, I didn't feel any of the single moves on the route was utterly impossible to me, like one-armer on a little finger. If I knew each move and was fresh, I thought I could do it. Greg suggested it would be M11 in the M-grade. I have redpointed a D10 and reached the chain of a D11. In that sense, perhaps I really could? Is it a wishful thinking?
Not to mention, to link all the moves together is a very different story. To find out the moves on snow-covered rock is entirely different story. So is to find and place gear. So is to fight against the fear at a sharp end. And not knowing where to go in the first place and not knowing how difficult or safe it would be, that is, the first ascent situation, are again a completely different game. Those factors are far more important in winter climbing. The wild guess I could do a move if I knew and was fresh wouldn't taint how great Greg is the slightest.
I doubt if I will ever be good enough to consider leading Banana Wall. Nevertheless to feel a remote viability for myself of the cutting-edge difficulty was encouraging. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Certainly, the experience gave me a positive effect. 3 days later from the day I climbed Fallout Corner (VⅠ, 7). For the first time I felt none of (tech 7) moves was difficult. That was a reward I got, and I was pleased with it. If I keep trying and training, I will progress, which means I will get a step closer to the mighty Banana Wall!
Coire an Lochain in the morning during our approach. The weather was by far the best at this stage. Clouds came over by the time we go to the bottom of the route. Towards the late afternoon, the wind picked up and snow started to fall, swirling. The hardest Scottish route was deservedly established in the Scottish weather! We got back to the carpark after 9pm in pitch dark in howling wind — proper Scottish winter adventure?
Greg Boswell, you are a legend. Your hard training, jumping to a weather window, perseverance and determination, everything came together on the day and you got what you deserve to get. Massive well done!
I am looking forward to sharing another adventure!
- Anubis: Dave MacLeod's own account
- Anubis: Alpinist magazine's report
- Anubis: scottishwinter.com Report by Simon Richardson
- Castle in the Sky: Dave MacLeod's own account
- Castle in the Sky: Ruth Taylor's account (belayer)
- Castle in the Sky: Andy Turner's account (witness & photographer)
- Castle in the Sky: UKC Report
- Castle in the Sky: scottishwinter.com Report by Simon Richardson
- Banana Wall: Greg Boswell's own account
- Banana Wall: Simon Richardson's scottishwinter.com (The definitive news site for Scottish winter climbing)
- Banana Wall: "Climber" (UK-based climbing magazine)
- Banana Wall: UKClimbing.com (UKC) (UK-climbers' portal)
- Banana Wall: planetmountain.com (Italy-based climbing news site)
- Banana Wall: "Alpinist" (US-based mountaineering magazine)
- Banana Wall: Greg's interview by the BMC
- Banana Wall: Greg Boswell escala 'Banana Wall' el segundo grado XII de la historia by desnivel.com (in Spanish)
- Banana Wall: Greg Boswell zdobywa Banana Wall w Szkocji by climb.pl (in Polish)
- Banana Wall: Greg Boswell攀登XII／12难度的Banana Wall线路 by 2himalaya.com (in Mandarin Chinese)