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Q&A 

Gully Learning

12 August 2021

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Hi Andy,

Wanted to let you know that your book Down helped me a lot on a recent climb I attempted.

My friend Ewan and I decided we were going to attempt the Clachaig Gully last week after a recent heatwave. We were met with waterfalls and wet slimy rock and felt the weather was too good to spend the day doing this so decided to descend back down the gully in search of better rock for the afternoon.

We had 4 fairly long, loose, wet waterfall abseils to do to get to a point where we could climb out back onto the approach path. The first abseil was a good laugh as we couldn’t quite believe what we were about to do. We abseiled straight down a waterfall getting soaked right through but spirits were still high and the sun was shining. The second abseil was a bit more serious as we had to abseil over a roof and straight down another waterfall. Due to your book Down I always use a prusik now, something I did not always use in the past, and on the abseil, it probably saved my life. I was trying to get over the bulging roof with the waterfall pouring down onto me, my foot slipped and naturally, I let go of the rope to stop me from smashing into the wet wall in front of me. My prusik caught me.

Feeling a bit shaken up after getting back down to the ground I was eager to get out of the gully but still had a few more abseils to do. The system I was using was a 60cm sling with an overhand knot in the middle, belay clipped to that and prusik clipped to my belay loop. Whilst setting up the anchor I somehow managed to drop my belay plate. It did not help it was a pale green colour making it impossible to find in all of the grass and bushes that are in the gully. With two abseils to go, I had no option but to use the techniques I picked up from your book. I used 4 crabs to make a carabiner brake to get down the next to abseils.

Had I not read your book, this day could have been very different. It would have either been a call out from the Glencoe MRT or worse. I am sure you get stories all the time where your books have helped folk but just thought I would use the opportunity to make you aware of the impact it had and my story.

The day ended with us having to rush through to Fort William to get a new belay for climbing the following day.

Looking forward to the return of the podcast and your Substacks.

Blair

Hi Blair!

That’s a great story and glad you’re still in one piece! What’s best about it is how you’re able to identify what you’re learning and see how it works in the real world, its benefits etc (ie you didn’t break both your legs). It’s also good to take the things you learn and mix them up with what you know, to mix and tweak and adjust and make them your own (and o course to pass them on to other people when you can, especially the Prusik backup).

I suspect you dropped your belay device due to missing a few tips in the book, such as putting your back up on the rope first, so it holds the ropes in place (like an extra hand). You can also reduce the chances of dropping a device by feeding the ropes into the device before you unclip it, and clipping in a spare HMS in place the one it’s racked on.

Routes like Clachaig gully are great places to make life hard for yourself, as it’s way out of the comfort zone of most climbers, being wet, slimy, loose etc, which although counter-intuitive to attempt, always pays dividends later on, when you find yourself forced to deal with a pitch or route that’s wet, slimy and loose (“at least this isn’t as bad as Clachaig gully!).

I once went up to climb Clachaig gully with a bunch of friends, including my mate Dick, who’d climbed most of the big North faces in Winter. When we arrived at the first pitch he just took one look at it and said “fuck that” and went down to the pub! This was another lesson, in that although wet and dank gullies are type 2 fun, they’re not something you want to become too good at as they’re the climbing equivalent of S&M!

Best

Andy

Update

I had an email pointing out that a back-up should not be used in a waterfall, due to the risk of the climber becoming stuck. Here’s my response:

Yes this is a tricky subject and really does cross over into canyoneering/caving, but I’m guessing Blair knows less about canyoneering and caving than climbing, and perhaps the proof of the pudding is although he let go of the rope he didn’t end up as another MR stat or headline (“Young climber dies in Glencoe death gully”).

I suppose he could equally have been another stat or headline (“Young climber drowns in a freak accident in Glencoe death gully”), but that’s how it goes sometimes, you just have to best employ some kind of methodology that has been proved effective to others and run with it.

Have you ever seen this video? It demonstrates what happens if you don’t use a back-up when descending a waterfall, although in this case he did have a back-up, only it was not set correctly (I’m guessing it was too long).

Cheers

Andy

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