Words by Callum Johnson. Images by Hamish Frost.
Probably my favourite mountain crag - every trip to Creag an Dubh Loch, summer or winter, has been memorable. I saw a weather window aligning with my mid-week days off, an opportunity not to be missed. Hamish was keen for both days, Tom was only free on the Thursday so would come and join us there.
The Origin of Species occupied my thoughts, a route I had wanted to climb for a long time. A three pitch E6 6b that cuts directly up the atmospheric Central Gully Wall. The middle crux pitch follows a blunt arete with technical bold moves above small wires with loads of exposure. With numerous trips to the Dubh Loch over the years I have become more familiar with the intricacies of the climbing and movement.
The route is of course named after the pivotal writings on Charles Darwin "The Origin of Species is a humane and inspirational vision of ecological interrelatedness, revealing the complex natural interdependencies between animal and plant life, climate and physical environment, and - by implication - the human world." - Jeff Wallace
To me, climbing is an expression of all of our interactions with nature distilled into intense experiences. Jules Lines describes the route perfectly - "The blunt arete cuts chillingly through the air that in turn tests both skill and bravery harmoniously.... The climbing is as good as mountain granite gets."
I abseil the line - I wasn't expecting the route to need much cleaning so I was only armed with a small soft brush. I was quite wrong! After a couple of hours the route was ready, but I was knackered! Mossy cracks unearthed and granite smears scrubbed. Blunting my nutkey and breaking the brush in the process, it was just enough. I check the gear and moves, linking small sequences to feel the positions, I make my way up to the ab point and descend.
My toes ache, and my body tired - I stash the ropes and gear then return to the tents at the head of the loch. My head hurts from dehydration, I gulp water from the stream and click the stove on for multiple cups of tea.
"How was it?" Hamish asks.
"It's amazing; hard, bold, just enough gear. It's definitely not a sure thing, but I'm psyched to give it a go."
We stand on the beach in the late evening sun, the loch is flat clam, reflecting the crag in its inky depths. Concentric circles begin to appear, spreading from their source, multiplying, hundreds of little fish jump frantically to catch flies. They breach the smooth surface of the loch and splash back beneath, I wonder what their success rate is? The evening feast - the midgies are out - and summon the frenzy of fish flying. I wish their success rate was higher, then we might be saved from the midge feasting on us.
It's 10pm, the late summer sun catches the highest rocks of the crag, an orange glow in the air, it will still be light for another hour yet, the sun sets reluctantly this time of year. I look back up, my eyes drawn to the Central Gully and it's eponymous wall of overlapping granite slabs and devious grooves, a mecca of extreme rock climbing.
Lying in my tent, the long summer day still bright, I cover my eyes with the hood of my sleeping bag. My head spins with the route; moves, sequences, gear, positions, rock, weather, exposure. Sleep comes slowly.
7am, the warm sun already making the crag glow. I've been up since 6 to prepare, I know I need to warm up and stretch my tired muscles. Tom arrives, I'm grateful for his motivation to get an early start and make the most of the good weather. Leaving the lochside we weave our way up heathery slopes, around patches of blaeberry and cloudberry. We skirt rightwards around the talus slope, the entrance to the gully, the exit for many fallen rocks.
We sit amongst the boulders looking at the route, I point out the line. Visualising sequences in my head, describing some sections aloud. Tom gears up for the first pitch, a nice E1 5b pitch up a groove, it's good to get moving on the rock. The sun feels warm already, it can't be long after 8am. I arrive at the belay already slightly dry mouthed. I pop my heels out of my shoes and rack up.
The initial moves up the groove and flake flow, although still a little mossy, the gear is good. A little foothold crumbles, I change my sequence, gaining a good break I place some small wires above, moves rightwards to the arete put you in an impressively exposed position. A skyhook on the right, with a long extender, at least it keeps the ropes looking neat. I pause here to compose myself, knowing that from here to the top there's no backing off.
I was on the edge, rubber and rock in friction, fingertips only for balance, more pushing than pulling to make upwards progress, it is a subtle scale, equilibrium must be maintained. "A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die..." - Charles Darwin.
I won't go into too much detail and ruin your onsight. Suffice to say, small wires were fiddled into shallow cracks, technical committing sequences flowed, I'm through the crux, but I know that this is far from success. I rock onto the slab of the Extreme Rock classic The Naked Ape, Jules described the next section perfectly: "climb on in bold oblivion to gain RPs 6m higher" This is it, just keep a steady pace, purposeful precise movement.
My mouth is dry, I gasp for breath, pressing toes on ripples, finger tips claw at tiny edges, I stretch rightwards for the arete. Stepping up to the final groove, much steeper than anything else on the route, it does yield some good gear but also provides a big sting in the tail. 40 metres of rope drags below as I mantle onto the final slab, a good amount of involuntary 'try hard' noises echo around the gully, not wanting to blow it now I over-grip my way up the slab. I reach the 'belay', but it's not a ledge I can belly flop onto and celebrate - it is semi hanging. Grappling with some wires I hastily place one in the crack, and clip it, reaching higher - a small cam. I sag onto them and gasp for breath, unable to shout excitedly or celebrate, I almost cannot believe it. A huge experience. I place another wire and equalise the pieces, then shout down to Tom that I'm safe. My mind is buzzing. Unable to express my emotions. Tom follows the pitch then takes on the nippy top pitch to the ab point. We descend to the gully. I think I’m still smiling now.
I remember first looking at the line years ago, inspired by a photo of Jules on it in the SMC Cairngorms guidebook; the route was aspirational at the time. I read stories of epics to complete the first ascent, hard, technical and bold climbing, crucial gear and how to place it, and a friend taking a huge fall from the final heart-breaking moves.
This route, and the whole experience exceeded all my hopes and expectations, it will live long in my memory.