In the bright evening light at Carnmore bothy.climbers relax after a day on the bold famous routes above them — Fionn Buttress, Cob and Dragon — Scottish VS and HVS every inch of the way. But as they lean back against the bothy wall they see the dying sun catch the majestic architecture of Beinn Lair's north face across the other side of Fionn Loch. They half wish they could allow themselves the further uphill walk for the lowly grade of Wisdom Buttress, the most remote quality V Diff in Britain. The upper arete of this narrow tooth glows in the sun as the yearning is displaced to another trip, and recedes even further at the thought of a 14 mile walk in for a V Diff.
I was that climber four years ago when Jim Curran and I, gloating after getting up Fionn Buttress, promised ourselves Wisdom Buttress 'next year'. Well, that didn't happen and yesterday I was 'unfaithful' as Jim quaintly anticipated. Today I am lying in the heather under Wisdom Buttress gloating again. Actually I am snuggled in a bivvy bag (it is Whitsun, but this is Scotland) beside a roaring stove, doing my bit as support team for the second project of this trip — the north face of Beinn Lair is having its portrait painted.
Somewhere over the rise further back from the crag Julian Cooper has a huge canvas pegged to a peat bank, bulldog clipped to the alloy frame he carried in a ski bag round his neck. In it, along with the roll of canvas, he also carried his secret weapons — metre long brushes that could only be acquired by a special Channel Tunnel trip to Paris. You can see that for him the climb is only another kind of preparation for the real thing, which he is working at now. I'm not supposed to look while he's painting, so I'll tell you about Wisdorn Buttress in between the spitting mists that drift over these craggy teeth like bad breath, slightly smudging these words.
He's working in oils, so he's not worried.
First of all, getting here. You don't have to walk in all of those 14 miles. We now have the Letterewe Accord negotiated for us with the Letterewe Estate. `Mountain bikes are only allowed on vehicle tracks.' So you can ignore the sign on the gate, lift your bike over it, and take at least two and a half miles off the walk. It's on the way out you appreciate it most, as you free-wheel back to Poolewe. This time I left my bike hidden in the heather beyond the farm. The other good news is the new keeper, who has moved up recently from Wensleydale. He actually suggested I left it even further on, in the larch trees. Julian had declined to use the bike I'd borrowed for him after a little trial ride the evening before had left him in a ditch with a scarred face and, even worse, a bruised painting arm.
Unfortunately, tyre tracks in the moor on our walk in showed that some people cannot accept a reasonable compromise patiently negotiated on their behalf. I wish we'd met them. But there's another way to reduce the walk in to Beinn Lair. Past our camp (yes 'low impact' camping is now accepted under the Letterewe Accord) there walked a lone Scottish weekender who had walked from Kinlochewe to Letterewe House above the north shore of Loch Maree and in, through a good track over Bealach Letterewe This must be most pleasant approach and is only 10 miles.
I keep having to retreat inside this bivvy bag and zip the showers out. But I've got a whole day to write with the crag right in front of me. The climb itself is a masterpiece of route finding up this narrow soaring buttress of interlocking slabs and overhangs. It feels intimidating because in its 700ft there always seems to be an overhang above you. But the incut horizontal strata of the hornblende schist gives constant encouragement against the equally constant exposure. Right from the start there's also an overhang below. That's assuming you can find the start. So you're into Scottish route finding before you leave the ground, with a distinctly tight-lipped description from the guidebook, (Howett 1990).
I made two attempts to traverse the steep gully wall on to the undercut buttress, but I couldn't even get started: 'This isn't V Diff,' I kept saying, and 'this can't be right,' as I moved further up the gully. I was about 30ft above the chockstone in the gully before I found a traverse line left that was anything like V Diff. I see from the Climbers' Club Journal that Hamish Nicol approached Wisdom Buttress as 'a VS Scottish V Diff' and just accepted that the start was an overhanging finger traverse on rounded holds that I'd rejected.
My down-sloping footholds and series of sidepulls higher up gave entry to a huge slab of incut strata and a nut belay that was not to be missed. This route's reputation as having poor belays and little 7rotection had sunk in and so did my old Moac. A rising gale threatened to rip us from the stance. I iced on now, anxious to make up for lost time. The cruise leftwards up the slab ran out a rope length which only two runners were possible, but a belay appeared at the right moment. Then the rain struck. `Are we committed, now, to doing this in the rain?' asked Julian, remembering last year's epic scent of the Central Buttress of Beinn Eighe when the upper tier was awash and the outcome slightly uncertain.
`It does say the rock gets greasy in rain,' he added, anorak flapping in the wind.
`If we can find a route at V Diff we can do it in the rain.' I said. I was motoring on these holds that were hidden from below because they dipped so delightfully inwards.
`The rock is certainly absorbing the rain,' Julian observed, as the amalgam grey of the Wisdom tooth turned black before our eyes. Julian recognised that our luck was repeating itself as, after a fortnight of dry weather, just when it broke we were committed on a big route again. This was not a place to slip on greasy rock. Although runners did, in fact, appear before every crux, people pass beneath this crag rarely and getting a rescue team here would take a day. I looked up. I'd belayed below a small overhang on the left edge of the buttress. This was the natural place to end up since the ground to the right steepened considerably. From our little platform we looked out through the rain upon acres of unpeopled emptiness. This is the fabled Last Great Wilderness of mainland Scotland into which we'd come all this way to climb.
So I pushed on up, turning the overhang on its right (good nut here) and gaining entry to a smaller slab. As I pressed on the rain stopped, rewarding the climbing spirit. I was gaining Wisdom, slowly. Another steep step right was rewarded with a final slab capped by overhangs. I followed a weakness on its left and stopped on a ledge, feeling the need to regroup. Thank goodness I'd not been tempted to lighten my load for the walk in. A crack by my knee whispered 'my old Moac nut'. It was more than friendship it wanted. It was love at first sight. I turned away. Now I could relax.
Julian has just come over for a cup-a-soup lunch and the painting is going well apparently. Now that he's returned to work I'll tell you about this key section of the route. I was 20ft below the roof and a traverse line out right seemed possible. I called down to Julian as he was climbing to ask if he had a big overhang to his right. I sensed that this might be the crucial place to cut right between overhangs. It was. The traverse out to the edge was sheer joy. I even got a runner in early on. Side pulls and a toe ramp led up to the edge.
A look round the arete was disheartening. More overhangs. But a delicate step across to small platform above the void was again rewarded with a comfortingly solid block belay. I called round the arete to Julian: 'You've got to be bighearted to get up these Scottish crags. I can't believe there's a way through above here at V Diff'
But when it came to it, of course there was. The overhang was turned on the right once again by steep pulls on great holds on its right wall. I cut back left on to the very nose of the buttress where exposed climbing led to a huge unexpected sloping platform. Here I persuaded Julian to take the lead, not realising that this was the crux pitch. He barely paused to put in gear under another small overhang before swinging leftwards under it and romping up the crest of the ridge to which the buttress had now narrowed.
As I came up to him I looked past him and exclaimed: 'Yet another feature. This route is amazing.' The guidebook's casual 'Continue up the crest of the buttress' suggested a scramble, but here was more steep rock. The incurs kept a-coming and the position was the closest you'd get to an eagle's view, soaring over the wilderness. Heathery blocks led to the top, which could be the only reason for giving this route two stars. But that's the last memory and not typical of the route as a whole, which provides all the holds. It just keeps you guessing as to where they go. The rain is setting in, again. Can't write any more. I'm going over to look at that painting.
took 3 days, 6 Vesta meals and a 28 mile walk to make.
It was in black and white(and grey):lead white, storm black,
on a 6ft by 5ft primed canvas on an alloy frame,
bulldog clipped,carried on a rucksack rolled up with brushes in a ski bag.Two litres of turps sloshed about in the rucksack with light pegs for anchoring the whole sail on a heather bank a butt,
under the most majestic, neglected, inaccessible crag in Scotland: the north-east face of Beinn Lair. Hornblende schist gleams grey,bristling its beautiful forms: Butterfly Buttress, The Tooth.
We climbed Wisdom Buttress in the spitting teeth of a gale,
the artist's fingers feeling their way up the earth's hard core
a long way from rescue, a pint, a car, all other oil painters.
Back up next day at 11, position chosen, charcoal outline
in the frame, a wild mile of rock reduced to its incisors.
The painter does not think of commitment courage, the risk
of failure on a large scale in big mountains for out
which the later sunset down Fionn Loch would not pay for,
nor the evening rainbows above the tent and Dubh Loch because
at 3 o'clock in a deluge that painting was washed away.
Julian Cooper:Photo/Nigel Mallard-The Telegraph