The full Scottish experience greeted Tom Livingstone and friend of the brand Ben Silvestre as they climbed the now legendary Scottish mixed climbing route, The God Delusion IX, 9 on Beinn Bhan in Applecross earlier this year. Blasted by fierce 80mph winds on the seven-pitch route, the duo completed the route in less-than-ideal conditions, but can add one of the most sought-after routes onto their already accomplished list. Read Ben’s account of the route below:
Words by Ben Silvestre
The first rays of light begin to pierce through blanket cloud as we enter the corrie. Above us, a mass of frozen turf and frosted stone hangs proud, silhouetted still in the night sky. Well frozen bogs granted us a smooth passage, and the ease of approach has allowed anticipation to turn my stomach, as I wonder what the day will bring. I have wanted to return here for a long time, to feel the solitude of this unique and remote mountain crag. But it is with trepidation, rather than excitement, that I arrive here.
It is strange to stand once again in Coire an Fhamhair – the giants corrie. Me, a tiny morsel of flesh, ready to have my bones ground to make the giant’s bread. Why am I here? I am somehow less intimidated than the last time, when Uisdean Hawthorn and I climbed the Godfather. That was a classic example of reputation getting the better of us, a day spent climbing beneath the weight of tales, tales that told of broken ankles metres below the summit. Nonetheless, I am intimidated by the steepness of this cliff, even though I know more or less what to expect. The climbing on Beinn Bhan is amongst the most rewarding I’ve ever done, and I mean that literally. Steep cracks tend to yield good protection, and on every pitch, just as the arms begin to scream for relief, bomber turf allows you to relax, before pulling onto a ledge. As the dawn yawns a toothy smile, I tell myself that this route, the God Delusion, will be the same. Delusion indeed.
Wind lashes at my face, whipping around my hood, freezing my eyelids shut. Tom’s requests for me to ‘keep an eye’ on him are met with a sadistic laugh, as I pull my hood higher over my eyes, trying to conceal any exposed flesh. This is quickly becoming one of the worst belays that I have had to endure. Our stellar forecast soon proved itself to be far from right, but we continued nonetheless, in relative shelter between continuous overhangs. But here, I am exposed to the full force of the weather, as it whips down Gully of the Gods, and across the cliff to where I am stood.
What is it that keeps on making me come to these places, to stand in these storms and take these beatings? A desire for a simpler existence? An urge to take responsibility for my own life, and to make decisions with real consequences? Perhaps. I certainly struggle with all of the red tape and restrictions that exists in the world I live in, but I value the principles that put them there, and would not want for them to be abolished altogether. Nonetheless, it is perhaps useful to step away from them from time to time.
And yet… that explanation feels too simplistic. There is something that I find here, something that I experience, that draws me to these places. It is not the storm itself, nor the perfect bluebird days, not even the climbing, or the walking, or the mountains themselves. It is something in between.
Stood at the boulders beneath the crag, we rack up quickly, paying little attention to the strengthening winds. Soon, we are stomping up the final slopes towards the base of the route. Tom sets off with gusto, and links into the second pitch, pausing only momentarily to figure out the intricacies of a peculiar mantel. I take over to lead a twenty metre pitch, which lands me about five metres from the belay. Route finding on this cliff is complex, the pitch requiring a long traverse left, before traversing back right. A cluster of good gear protects a technical step down, and I belay below more steep cracks. Tying myself to the rock, I realise that it has begin to snow quite heavily whilst I was climbing. A few flurries were forecast, but nothing this bad. I put on my belay jacket and hunker down, pleased that I got Mountain Equipment to send me a bigger jacket. It occurs to me that I might be going soft, but I don’t care – I’m warm.
As Tom seconds, I slowly begin to grow aware of a roaring sound. It sounds like jet engines, but the sound is too close, too loud. The wind was supposed to pick up at night fall, but it is barely noon. It seems the weather has come in earlier than expected, and I resign myself to the sufferfest which this will undoubtedly become.
Tom arrives at the belay, and sorts the rack quickly. He’s about to set off, but all of a sudden there is a huge cracking sound, and a mass of snow falls just to our side. Stunned, we spend a while deliberating whether or not to continue. The cracking sound was so loud, that we wonder whether a stone fell and dislodged a wind slab. There is clearly some loading happening above, though I can’t think where – the girdle ledge is hardly big enough. Protected by overhangs, we decide to climb another pitch and assess the situation, and Tom sets off. As he climbs, several more loads free themselves from various points along the length of the cliff. Thankfully, we are well sheltered, and Tom’s pitch leads to a solid belay below huge roofs.
An hour into the belay, and Tom is above the crux, on a large ledge, wondering which corner he is supposed to be climbing. I steal occasional glances from the safety of my hood, but the relentless wind means that I am soon staring into the red material of my belay jacket again. During one glance I notice, with some disappointment, that my jacket is getting rather wet. Not only is the weather getting worse – its getting warmer too. At least we’re not climbing ice.
With nothing to look at but my hood, memories swirl around my consciousness. I remember the early days of my climbing career, before I really had any idea why I wanted to do it. They were dark years, years during which I walked beside a deep and black abyss, and only by climbing up did I stop myself from falling in. I headed to the mountains, and somewhere in the journey from valley to mountain top, I found life… or perhaps it was life that found me.
In the years that followed I became gripped by a fever of climbing. Soloing on the grit, I frequently escaped by the skin of my teeth, and gradually I began to see how important life really is. I travelled to the USA, to Patagonia and Alaska, in search of meaning. Along the way, I tripped over delusions of grandeur, not a few times. But I was on the road back towards myself, even if it required leaving behind all that I thought I knew.
I have never wanted to run away, though I have always been searching for a place within me to call home. And yet, I wonder if there exists in all people a desire to disappear, not as a means of escape, but as a means of experiencing something bigger, something insurmountably huge, and incomprehensible by its very nature. In city life, it is often easy to feel squashed into a corner, compartmentalised, meaningless. The macrocosm of society supersedes the individual until he is unsure of himself, and is left clawing for a voice, or his corner of a room. He feels something inexplicably complex crawling about within him, around his heart, squeezing him where it hurts. He is told that all can be explained, but why can no one explain to him why he hurts so much?
I remember the first times that I headed out into the mountains. That feeling of space, both around me and within me, was a refreshing contrast to the pressure of city living. Something about it reminded me of the inside of old cathedrals and monasteries that I visited with my parents, when I was younger. It is a feeling that is incredibly human, and somehow… not so.
A feeling which grounds me in myself, and connects the next man and I, like the rope I feed to Tom. Perhaps these routes, forged with iron tools, climbed with a lifetime of accumulated skill, are not so different from those buildings that were built with a skill and precision of their own – to bind man and woman, men to each other, and each to their self. Or something like that.
As I lead out from beneath the overhang, and round a corner, the wind begins to hit me. Spindrift billows down from the top of the cliff, and fills my hood. I traverse left until I reach a junction with the Godfather, at the base of a short and fierce corner. Steadily, I hook upwards, breathing deep, staying calm. Heavy gusts threaten to knock me off balance, but I stay relaxed, and between a good wire or two, and a decent pecker, I manage to protect myself enough to make steep pulls onto the girdle ledge.
On the girdle ledge, I spend some time walking around, trying to discern where I aught to belay. The crag above me is heavy with rime, and spindrift prevents me from getting a proper look. I try to remember the picture in ‘Great Mountain Crags of Scotland’, and after a long while, decide that I am in the right place. I belay off a large block, and Tom begins to second. Soon he is setting off up the crux, and I prepare for a lengthy belay, with nothing but my thoughts for company.
Although my motivations have changed, I sometimes wonder if I would ever have got close to climbing routes like these if I hadn’t entertained those old delusions of grandeur. For a time, I used my successes in climbing to veil the hurt that I felt in not being able to love myself. I can think of so many times when I lied to myself, or told myself half truths, only to wind up cursing my past self for getting me in such a mess. But I don’t regret it, these experiences have been so meaningful to me, so powerful. And I hope that they have hurt no one but me. Nonetheless, I wonder how often I do this outside of climbing. How many of these veils exist in my daily life? I am sure that they must exist.
It is so obvious, and so hurtful, when we are lied to by others. I can think of no greater guilt than hurting those who are dearest to me, through an inability to face my own shortcomings. And so I must find a way to see through the veil that protects me from the world. Thankfully, in climbing, veils tend to have a short half life – generally, any pretenses that I am holding onto are blown from my grasp, as I am palpably rocked by gusts that cut across the cliff.
In a storm, or on a freezing bivy ledge, or in the yawning darkness of a crevasse, it is hard not to see my true reflection looking back at me. I see a human face, not the face of a hero; a human heart, not a heart of stone. It hurts and it bleeds, but it keeps on beating – and it grows stronger by the year. And when the storm dies, and the sun rises, and I shake off the frosts of night… I see that I have a place in the world. I move to and fro, I rise and I fall. Some days I am my best, others I am my worst. I recognize all of this in myself, and in others, and I try not to expect anything more or less from anyone. Because I have walked beside the dark abyss, and peered into its depths; I have climbed to the brightest heights, and seen the world bathed in brightest light. And I feel both of these worlds in everything.
I do no want this feeling explained to me. I do not want it reduced to a calculation, or a formula, or a theory. Nor do I want to call it God. It is not a delusion, but not a discernible truth, either.
This thing… I want to feel it, and so I go to where it lives. Within myself, and without.
Two hours into the belay, the storm begins to calm somewhat, and in contrast to my usual experience of such belays, I grow more comfortable as time goes on. Tom is past the hardest climbing, but struggles to find an anchor, so he keeps on climbing, keeps searching. I shout to him to let him know that there is only ten meters of rope left. Half an hour later, I shout again, letting him know that I am starting to climb. As I approach the first big roof, I pray that he will find an anchor before I make the first desperate pulls.
Thankfully, he does, and I pull through the roof on a tight belay. The moves are at the absolute limit of my capabilities, and I scrabble desperately on thin torques and poor feet. In the past, I’ve climbed grade VIII routes by maintaining rock fitness from the summer, but a steep grade IX like this is a different beast, and I make a mental note to do some pull ups.
Above, strenuous moves next to poor gear lead to exploding forearms on overhanging turf. There is no sanctuary here, no thank God placements, and I barely manage to mantle onto a ledge, glad that I am seconding. It was my idea to come here, but in my current state of fitness, I couldn’t have got up this pitch without Tom up front. I am more than happy to accept that, and I chuckle at how easily I deceived myself about the difficulty of this route.
Having allowed my arms to recover, I pull out onto an arête, in an astoundingly exposed position. Cloud and spindrift whip around me in the dying light, and I am filled with the sensation that I am on another planet. There is no above, no below, only here. I climb on, spacewalking – thankfully on better hooks – and eventually reach the belay in darkness.
I tell Tom well done, and take over, climbing a final pitch to the plateau. We are elated to have made it, but it isn’t over. The storm reintroduces itself with vigor, and we are blasted with 80mph gusts. We stumble down to the descent slopes, rising temperatures meaning that snow soon turns to rain. By the time we get back at our bags we are totally soaked… the Scottish forecast predictably worse than predicted. But is it helpful to head into the hills with that attitude? Where the Scottish weather is concerned, it certainly helps to have a veil protecting us from reality.