Four Star Glen Nevis

After a couple of weeks of chasing the sun and dodging showers (not to mention gale force winds) on our Scottish tour, we were rewarded for our tenacity by a fab forecast for the Jubilee weekend. Lochaber was looking like being the epicentre of the sunny spell and perhaps the best spot in Britain let alone Scotland. If that wasn’t enough cause for joy, the glorious weather would coincide with the Rucksack Club’s week-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of the purchase of Craigallan – our hut in Ballachulish, and thanks to a late cancellation there was room to squeeze us in!

Costa-Craigallan – not a bad spot to park the van for a few days!

By the time we were settled we had a fairly short window before needing to be scrubbed up for the anniversary dinner at the Ballachulish Hotel. The easy access crags in Glen Nevis were the obvious destination and we picked Phantom Slab on Pandora’s Buttress on Polldubh on the southern flank of Ben Nevis. This gets the 4* treatment in the definitive SMC guide (confusingly titled Highland Outcrops South) and we’ve never been disappointed by a 4* route.

Polldubh is a series of Mica Schist crags dotted along a mile or so stretch about 5 miles along the Glen Nevis road. Beyond the narrow bridge the road turns to single track with passing places. Each of these is studiously signposted, and every one includes an additional NO PARKING sign, except three! These are the traditional climber’s parking spots, and parking seems to be allowed / tolerated. If you look carefully there’s even a very discrete P parking sign

Pandora’s is accessed following a good path (the only one with stone flags leading up from the central lay-by) heading straight up passing between the burn on the left and Pinnacle Ridge on the right until just beyond the top of Pinnacle Ridge.  A side trod leaves the main path here to traverse left under Renton Buttress on the left,  to reach Pandora’s (largely hidden further left again) in about 10 minutes from the road. You can make out the slim tongue of rock which forms the first pitch of Phantom Slab from the branching off point on the main path. Helen led the first pitch, which is shared with Pandora:

… then I strung the next two together, including the thin, airy, upper slab. Spicy for 4c and you’d imagine quite intimidating for a VS leader. Excellent!

Our 4* success prompted a bit of web research as to the other 4* routes in the area, and there’s a handy ticklist on UKC which lists all 159 in Scotland – if you click “view on map” you can see where they are, and there are 7 in Glen Nevis. We’d previously done Edgehog E3/4 5c/6a

Wave Buttress, Steall Meadows Crags, Glen Nevis

… and Storm, HVS 5a

Poldubh Crags, Glen Nevis

… so with Phantom Slab in the bag, and recognising that Hold Fast, Hold True, E10 7a, was a bit beyond our pay grade, we had another three to do to tick the set. The agenda for the next few days was taking shape…

Styx Buttress is on the middle tier of crags, following the same Pinnacle Ridge path but continuing upwards for another 5mins to reach a hidden grassy meadow – The Alp. Styx is the farthest crag in the shot below, with Pine Wall in the foreground on the left.

Damnation, our 4* target, takes steep territory on the front of the buttress, including a stiff pull through a roof – unlikely looking for a VS – followed by a thin slab.

Resurrection (another 4* contender, though I guess you couldn’t have two on one buttress) takes the tapering ramp up the left of the crag – delicate and technical; a complete contrast.

Pine Wall Crag is easily spotted by its pine tree and the continuous line of traffic up The Gutter. We were able to get on to the eponymous Pine Wall, Hard Severe which gives a long, enjoyable 3-pitch outing.

Pitch 1 of Pine Wall, HS

A change of scene, but still in Glen Nevis, Steall Gorge Crag is accessed from the parking area right at the end of the road. It also serves the hugely popular tourist walk to Steall Meadows and the Upper Falls. Over the Jubilee weekend, the parking and driving situation in the Glen was carnage (or CAR-nage) with numerous drivers unused to single track roads complemented by motorhome renters wielding their 8m juggernauts. Luckily we managed to squeeze in a little further down the road and without abusing any passing places.

There are a bunch of fine lines but Plague of Blazes, E2 5b, gets the 4* gong. It takes a line of discontinuous cracks up the steep slab of the west wall before crux moves around and over a bulge. The wall can be seepy so we’d left it a few days since the rain earlier in the week, but as we arrived at the crag it was obvious we had more pressing conditions concerns – it was absolutely scorchio! Abandoning any thoughts of a warm up, I geared up before the sun came round. The initial thin cracks are straightforward to a half-height flake at which point a bulge forces a 10ft traverse leftwards. A nest of tiny brass can be arranged here, most likely of purely psychological value, before another 10ft of tenuous moves over the bulge. Fairly steady climbing but not somewhere you’d want to fluff it! A couple of tiny wires protect a few more moves before some bomber gear lowers the pulse. The final wall is billed as “steep but on good holds” but unfortunately the good holds were soaking – “steep on not such good holds” had to suffice. Top route!

Helen following the initial cracks
… and pulling through the final wall
A nest of tiny brass (thumb for scale)

Over on the south face it was positively toasty, and quite an effort to haul ourselves up the wildly overhanging corner of All Our Yesterdays, E1 5b. What a contrast!

Back to the hut for chilled beers

… and a stupendous BBQ….

… topped off with a fabulous sunset.

The last of the 4* routes is back on Polldubh on Secretaries’ Buttress. This is on the upper tier of crags, accessed from a slightly boggy path from the first (westmost) lay-by which initially leads to Cavalry Crack. You head left around Dundee Buttress (effectively reversing the Cavalry Crack descent route) and then head up and slightly left until Secretaries’ comes into view. Like most of the crags, you get no idea of the extent of the climbing from below.

Here’s a view of the slabbier south face from near the foot of the Direct Route – there’s 3 pitches and about 80m of climbing up there!

Pitch 1 takes the obvious left slanting groove around mid-height in the photo above (not a giveaway for Severe!)

Pitch 2 follows a tenuous crack up a quartz-crusted slab, and is probably the pick of the bunch.

Pitch 3 is a long, slabby ramble with just one tricky move and a sumptuous backdrop!

Not content with The Direct, we followed up with The Super Direct, E1 5a (or HVS 5a or E1 5b depending which source). The first 4c pitch across a hanging slab looks intimidating, but there are a couple of bomber wires and the climbing is steady.

There’s not much of a stance so it seemed to make sense to run this straight into the second pitch to avoid a potentially huge factor 2 fall onto the belay. This pitch IS intimidating! After stuffing a flake crack with a couple of medium cams you pull onto the upper slab and tiptoe on next to nothing for at least 20ft until you finally reach a “thank god” hold and resume breathing – no idea how this could be HVS; it’s a candidate for E2 5a if that even exists. Anyway, very fine climbing.

At the “thank god!” hold

Here’s a bit of an overview of the crags to help with navigation:

A great few days of convenience cragging in a fabulous setting, not to mention brilliant weather and even better company with The Rucksack Club – Raise a glass to those with the foresight and gumption to pull off the acquisition of Craigallan (especially Roger and Gordon) and those who do such a splendid job of keeping it in such great shape (thank you John and Pam!) Cheers!

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