Friday, 13 November 2015

Ulysses...anatomy of a first ascent

The Poisoned Glen-Donegal.
The Castle is the big buttress just left of Bearnas Gap in the Poisoned Glen (see 1955-’56 journal)* Its left-hand edge, overlooking Green Grass Gully, forms an attractive but formidable line which was first seriously tackled by Harold and Neville Drasdo in 1954, after notable pioneering routes in the neighbourhood. They started from the bed of the gully, and climbed a short wall to get onto the edge of the rib. This was followed with slight difficulty to a ledge at about 40 feet. Above this the rib becomes very steep, with an overhang or two to increase the effect. So they looked out onto the face to the right. A horizontal traverse leads right to the base of an overhanging corner which is hopeless, though almost every subsequent party got into it. 

More inviting were two steep gangways slanting, one above the other, from the ledge and passing above the overhanging corner towards a large grassy ledge in the centre of the face. The lower gangway is easy to start, but almost immediately becomes holdless. So the second shelf was chosen. This proved hard to start, but then led up with comparative ease for 30 feet where a serious bulge broke its continuity. A retreat was made from here.

The next attempt was made later that year by Paul Hill and myself, not knowing of the previous attempt. We took the same first pitch to the ledge on the rib, and we also chose the upper gangway as the most likely route. Soon after starting this I found signs of gardening. Then I came to the bulge. I was able to reach a small, sloping hold at the top of the bulge. It appeared to have been gardened out, and so I was encouraged to continue. The hold was muddy, however, and the rock around was wet from recent rain, so I placed a piton–unfortunately right under the bulge. The hold was still too slimy, but a handkerchief over it gave enough friction for the pull-up. A few hectic moves followed, and then a stance was reached.

Winter Guide Book topo of The Castle
I should have taken Paul to here, because the friction of the rope through the badly-placed piton was already considerable. But the grass ledge was only 30 feet away, so I took off my boots and started on a hand-traverse. At first this was on a good flake–I got a runner on here–but then continued by finger- holds on a vertical wall. I had to cling with one hand at intervals to pull the rope through the piton. This left me with just enough strength to grab for the last hold, and when this broke I had nothing in reserve. The runner near at hand slowed the fall, but Paul assumed that I had arrived on easy ground and paid out the rope until he saw me descending the overhanging corner on his right in spider-like fashion. When he stopped me I climbed the lower shelf with the aid of the rope from the runner and belayed on the steep grass ledge.

Paul then came up and found an easier variation by traversing under the bulge, but did not take his boots off for the hand-traverse. Dismayed by the wetness of the rock and the weight of the rucksack and my boots, he gave up half-way and disappeared down the overhanging corner before I could stop him. The haul up the overhang was discouraging, so we abseiled off.

The next attempt was made in the following summer by Betty Healy, Harold Drasdo and myself. Again everything was wet when we started, but it rapidly dried out and we were able to climb the whole way in vibrams. This time the first two pitches went uneventfully. Following Paul’s variations, we traversed under the bulge–a couple of airy but reasonable moves. This took much of the sting out of this pitch, though the hand-traverse was still a very interesting exercise. We then ascended to the top of the grass ledge. Above this a steep and high wall runs right across the centre of the buttress, and to the left the rib rises uncompromisingly. Between the two lies the weakness–a steep groove ending in an overhang. I went up this to see what would happen. Below the overhang a nice rock mushroom appeared on the edge to the left.

By swinging out and mantelshelfing onto this I was able to peer over the overhang. The slab above was steep and smooth, and eventually I had to put a piton in a small crack and use it to pull over the overhang. I scurried up the rest of the slab and half-way up a chimney above before I had time to feel frightened. The rest of the chimney, fortunately, was easy, but the pull out at the top had to be done on poor vegetation. The party then reassembled and considered how to continue. 

We felt that the main difficulties were past, but there was still a lot of rock above and careful route-finding was required. When planning the route from the ground we had seen two prominent grooves and we were making for these. We could not see them now, but from memory they were directly above. An interesting passion-pink wall and a series of broken steps were climbed, and sure enough we found ourselves at the base of the first groove. The groove was climbed, easily at first, but it became thin after about forty feet, so we traversed out to the right and ascended a short wall to the base of a slab. The slab would have been sheer delight in rubbers, but my clumsiness in vibrams enabled it to leave an impression on my nerves. The second groove now lay above and seemed rather fierce. We looked at it with doubtful eyes and then lazily moved right and found an easier series of walls. Then the buttress suddenly relaxed, leaving us to scramble for the last couple of hundred feet.

Donegal Pioneers: Neville Drasdo belayed by brother Harold climbing on Craig Rhiw Goch in north Wales.

I have written about this climb, which we called Ulysses, and which is in the Hard Severes, partly because my earlier attempt illustrates some of the things which it is wiser not to do, and partly because it was a problem mainly in route-finding, which I enjoy. It still is a problem in route-finding–a very strong English party tried to find it this summer. After the first pitch the sling that Paul and I had abseiled from drew them into the overhanging corner which defeated even them. Having a totally wrong impression of our standards of climbing, they assumed that the climb was just too hard and retreated. 

Frank Winder: * First Published in the Irish Mountaineering Club Journal: 1956/57.