Giant’s Head Chimney (The Joy of Pegs) by Billy Burnside
Giant’s Head Chimney was a route that had somehow wormed its way into my mind. It was something to do with the name, the route’s first ascent (mid-fifties like me) and that I had somewhere once seen a picture of someone climbing it with the biggest, most satisfied-looking grin on their face you can imagine.
Conditions were generally good on Lochnagar in this covid-restricted year and there were some impressive cornices building up at the top of most of the big gully lines. However, a flanking motion from the rescue box gave a clear view of the route and the way seemed fairly clear. We soloed to the foot of the starting chimney up an icy slope studded with interesting cracks and holes, one of which swallowed the youth’s new axe which slowed him down a bit. Either that or he wasn’t fancying the first pitch and was playing the game. Arriving first I started the ritual hunt for a belay, scraping and clearing the rock for several body lengths in all directions to no real avail. Eventually I uncovered one of those typical granite half-cracks and managed to get a knife-blade most of the way in quickly followed by my prized lost-arrow a little further down. I was just linking them together with a long sling when he arrived. He was looking at me as if I had lost the plot somehow.
“What’re you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“I’m not really sure….what’re those things you’ve hammered in that crack?”
“They’re pitons wee man….that’s pegs to you. Best thing since sliced bread.” I could tell he’d never had un-sliced bread.
The initial chimney, from which I assume the route gets its name, started off easily enough with some reasonable ice that took axes and feet well but was not of the kind to accept any of the shiny ice-screws that hung decoratively from my waist. In fact, these ice-screws saw no action whatsoever on the route and probably added a whole grade to the expedition. I’d gotten myself one of those new-fangled clipper devices to make life easier but in my haste had positioned it on my harness in such a way that every time I had to make a high step the screws poked me in the scrotum. This was nowhere near as much fun as it sounds. Progress was steady if not well protected until at the top of the chimney where the exit onto the crucial traverse ledge was barred by a significant bulge of rotten snow. After twenty minutes of digging I uncovered a vintage peg which I was able to hook with an axe tip thus enabling me to perform a belly-roll onto the ledge which was overhung considerably. A quick crawl on hands and knees saw me at the belay…two more vintage pegs connected by the lacy remnants of a skinny sling, which I probably should have replaced with the tat I always carry for this job but never seem to use. A good wee nut backed everything up.
Upon his arrival it was clear that the youth was not happy. Apparently, I should have explained better how to get the pegs out and saved him from breaking his fingernails or some-such nonsense. He declined to lead through so I set off to traverse a high angled snowbank which would lead into an icy chute described in the book as an excellent pitch. Except that upon arrival at the chute’s foot it was clear that the ice was the same as the stuff below, great to climb on but the devil to protect. If in doubt bang in a peg….this time it was a short channel peg that went into a horizontal crack under a wee roof…might be difficult to remove….not my problem. A deep breath and into the chute, axes…feet…axes…feet…a good rhythm and a cool head…cracks up there on the right for protection. No joy…blind cracks…incipient cracks….cracks in name only…even pegs fail to grip…my lost arrow bounces off down the chute…keep going…going….going…until…salvation in the shape of a sling draped over a flat topped block and my smallest nut hammered into a perfect pegging crack. Safe at last.
The youth arrived looking a bit strung out, but he was at least clutching my channel peg in his gore-tex-gloved hand, the extraction of which had left him feeling a bit weary. The final pitch and a bit was fairly straightforward and after a bit of a fankle when the rope ran out we managed to avoid all cornice difficulties and were soon on the top celebrating with a wee sip from my hip flask, another first for him this drinking on the hill. Crampons remained on for the descent of a very icy and unforgiving Ladder to the col where my new strategy came into play, trainers and an energy drink stashed under a boulder on the way in were retrieved. This was for me the high point of the day… and I found myself wondering why I had never thought of it before.
And then I remembered….I’d never been this old before.
Blog by Billy Burnside