Pete Ogden's memories of the first ascent of Spacewalk at Aonach Dubh, currently E5 6b.
It was 1978 and Ken Johnstone was amongst the best climbers in Scotland but also definitely the slowest.
The descents in darkness off the crags were legendary and it was essential to pack a headtorch along with sufficient food and drink for the gruelling experience of hanging off belays for hours.
Fortunately, we had climbed together for years and I was well prepared for a possible 1st ascent on the East Face of Aonach Dubh.
Training venues in those days were limited to 3 indoor walls in Glasgow being the College of Technology, Langside College and The Hub in Drumchapel all of which had chipped holds or bolted on metal brackets at the end wall of the main gym.
Crash mats did not exist nor did any rules – it was great.
Outside were the Finnieston Walls stretching along the side of a disused railway. After a few weeks of traversing there your fingertips grew big hard pads like the skin on your heels and it was great for stamina training.
Alternatively, if you were prepared to travel, then the Dumbarton boulders offered the best facilities.
There were many characters there to give advice and one of my favourites was Tam the Bam (pictured here) who is sadly no longer with us. He showed us all the existing problems and suggestions of what still needed to be done such as an aided crack line up the overhanging seaward face of Eagle Boulder.
In the 70’s there were small finger jugs inside the crack, and we tried to free this for months until Mark Worsley eventually got it and named it Supinator. No crash mats in those days and the consequence of coming off the final slopey mantle was rather daunting.
I did the second ascent and managed to remove one of the finger jugs at the start.
Over the period of the 70’s the other jugs broke off and I guess it is now more difficult than it was then.
Thanks to Brian Pollock for the use of his relatively recent photo:
So, we were fit and ready for Aonach Dubh and staying in the SMC hut at Alnafeadh which was luxury compared to dossing in a leaking barn which was our usual venue.
That morning the weather was unusually fine, so we quickly packed the sacks and remembered essentials like pork pies and headtorches.
Ken had recently bought a Honda CX500 bike from Willie Todd and we were soon at the carpark where in the distance was the seriously blank wall of the Lower Northeast Nose with not much on it according the guidebook.
However, the guidebook was published in 1965 and the only way of keeping up to date was to spend hours in the Mitchell library in Glasgow and photocopying entries from the annual SMC journal which were stuck in your trusty guidebook.We didn’t need the guidebook as we were heading for uncharted territory and eventually arrived at the base of the wall to the right of Freak Out. It was warm and Ken changed into shorts which from experience was not my choice for the day. Time for food as it was probably going to be a long day, so we consumed some pies and chocolate whilst studying the wall above. It was steep but had some cracks and features that seemed to lead to a possible traverse left to a stance just right of the Freak Out apex roof. After that there seemed to be a groove leading up to a bulge, but it looked blank – very blank.
Time to get the state-of-the-art footwear on with a nice warm pair of thick socks and off we go.
Well it started off fine with some nice gear placements, relatively sound rock, and some good edges leading up to a rest and traverse up and left.
Not much in the way of protection for that section but it didn’t feel too hard and we arrived at a some cracks that took a selection of nuts and offered something in the way of footholds that became a semi-comfortable belay.
Wow things were going well and we were both feeling positive about having this new route sorted out sooner than expected.
So off we go again with Ken in the lead up a groove towards that bulge we saw from below, but it was a BIG bulge.
Now we had climbed some big bulges before and some big roofs like Sirplum in Chee Dale that offered some very accommodating holds, but this was different.
There were no big holds and in fact there were no holds.
The obvious line was the groove in the left-hand side of the bulge which took a very small wire, but progress seemed impossible.
I suggested exploring the steeper right-hand side in the hope that Sirplum size holds would appear but that didn’t work either.
Having been stationary on the belay for over an hour I was chilling down rapidly and needed to warm up on the challenge above us.
We exchanged places and the start of the groove seemed quite easy – what was Ken playing at!
But then I arrived at the steeper section and realised it was not only strenuous to hang on but there was nothing to go for in any direction.
Down for a rest and then up again to run out of steam and no further progress. I was done, this was completely beyond us.
However, Ken is never done, and when seconding him, that is when you start questioning your decision to have taken up climbing instead of golf or snooker.
Failure was not an option, so I lowered a rope to some people who had congregated below and hauled up fresh stocks of pies and chocolate.
By now we could climb the groove blindfolded and Ken must have been up and down to the bulge 50 times making no progress whatsoever.
The famous phrase “I’ll give it one last go” must have been used 100 times and it was getting darker. I was getting fed-up and made Ken perfectly aware of this.
In desperation and frustration (probably with me) he pulled on that pathetic small wire to reach some holds and eventual progress.
The light was leaving us as was my patience in finishing off this pitch and getting from the torturous belay we had been strapped to for the best part of an afternoon.
I was losing concentration and looking at the light changing colour over the distant hills dusted with spring snow when I heard the word that I had been waiting for. “Safe”
Brain immediately engaged and belay disengaged. Boot laces tightened and arms flailing around in an attempt to get the blood circulating again.
The ropes disappeared in an upward direction as I extracted all nuts apart from one which may have been a little hasty, but it held, and I was impatient to start climbing.
The ropes went tight, and I shouted out “climbing” without waiting for any response and started up the groove once more. Visibility was deteriorating as was my desire to achieve any clean ascent of the bulge.
I grabbed the in-situ wire which appeared to be well established in a crack and launched up to the hidden holds but there were none.
Trusting Ken actually did have a belay on, I flew off into space and back down the groove.
Luckily, the rope went tight and up we go again for more slapping and groping around for some resemblance of an undercut, side pull or sloper, but none existed - at least for me.
Ken was in hauling mode and it was a case of dyno as high as possible in sync with the rope going tight.
It worked and fingers engaged with a pullable edge followed by better and better edges until his boots and belay came into view.
“How the hell did you do that Ken?” He never did answer but laughed.
We set up the ab and I insisted on going first. It was nearly free fall - arriving at the sacks in seconds. Every last piece of clothing was put on, every last piece of pie and chocolate consumed, the EB rock boots removed and a huge sigh of relief breathed into the chill Glencoe air.
On went the head torch.
It was getting darker and Ken was still hanging around his favourite groove off the ab rope trying to recover the small wire now welded solid into the East Face of Aonach Dubh.
He never did get it and I guess it rotted away in the passing 4 decades.
Back at the SMC hut there was a logbook that we were reading the previous night.
Entries from J.R. Marshall, M. Noon, J. Cunningham and D. Haston made us feel rather humble with our small contribution in comparison to what they achieved using the equipment they had and the risks they were taking.
I took the pen and started writing.
“Ken what do you want to call it”?
“Good choice” I said
Spacewalk, K Johnstone and P Ogden
“Ken, apart from the point of aid what grade would you give it”?