Just before Christmas I spent around 12 hours sat in a car on the off chance that some crystals of ice had formed on a certain HVS. As it turned out the crystals had not formed and the only reward I got for my driving efforts was a few hours walking in horizontal rain. But for some reason this did not feel at all like a waste of time…
Eight years ago when I first started winter climbing Thursday at mid-day was make or break time. Why mid-day on a Thursday? Well mid-day on a Thursday is when the new mwis comes out covering the coming weekend. The simple tabular format is far too familiar. Hours spent staring between the black columns searching for hope. If you stare at it long enough you can eventually convince your self that it’s good. Phrases such as “all mobility tortuous” can be hard to cover with the blanket of mindless optimism. Once I’d managed to convince myself, which I always would. Next came the real crux. Trying to convince three other fools that it would be a good idea to fill their weekend with 14+ hours cramped into a ford fiesta combined, two sleep deprived nights camping in a damp windy car park and been either cold scared or both the rest of the time. Somehow I usually managed to find takers.
The drive up north is nostalgically familiar these days. Fuelled by a combination pounding techno and caffeinated beverages the bright lights of Glasgow pass soon enough. Then over the foreskin bridge and foot to the floor passed Firkin Point. Often wondering what it was by this stage. Then hold on tight for the Loch Lomond Scalextric track. The Green Wellystop passes in a blur, then over Rannoch moor. As “the big bend” approaches brake down to 50 then squeeze the accelerator as hard as you dare as you fly round the apex. Then rearing out of the moonlight night the bastion of Buachaille Etive Mor welcomes you. And before we knew it we where there.
To the well experienced climbing in bad weather in Scotland in winter can start to feel almost “day to day.” But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being trashed around when uninitiated.
I’ll never forget the intensity of some of first ice routes I did. And it’s not a type of intensity I’ll ever get again climbing I don’t think. The feeling of no idea what your doing. On a completely unknown medium.
“It’s all just frozen water! All the holds are in frozen water and all my protection and the belay is in frozen water!”
There is nothing that can take you quite out of your comfort zone like having your life hanging from a something so unfamiliar.
Standing below the steep imposing Far East Wall on Beinn Eighe I feel far from engaging in an unknown medium. The setting and emotions are all very familiar. But looking up at the route we are about to attempt. I can’t help but think:
“Really! Are we going up there? Surly not”
The massive corner above looks ludicrously steep for a winter route. It seems highly improbably that we are going to climb it. John leads the first pitch in style. It looks about grade IV compared with what lies above but turns out to be around a VII. As I stare up from the first belay my arms whimper at the prospect. The four coffees I had for breakfast have started to ware off and I feel more like having a nap than leading a sustained tech 8 pitch. But I leave the belay with a “give it a go” attitude. Getting to the first rest point is a good enough goal for now. No need to think about the rest of the pitch. A short run out above the belay successfully breaks through my drowsiness and after a stiff pull onto a sod of turf I can shake out and contemplate the rest of the pitch. Spying the rest points and breaking the task down into sections. The rest of the pitch passes like a mixed climbing dream. Steep powerful moves, small positive edges for the feet and picks finding “hero hooks” just when you really need them. I reach the belay a mind filled with euphoria and a body filled with lactic acid.
John follows with equal enthusiasm. Superlatives echoing across the coire. The next pitch looks equally as outrageous and climbs equally as well. Two roofs are passed with weeps of hanging ice, more “hero hooks” and exhilarating exposure.
Darkness falls as I rack up to lead the final pitch. The first ascensionists described this pitch as being bold, but with sufficient digging and nest creating it turns out to be not too bad.
The night is still and clear. Moonlit white fairytale mountains rise out of the dark sea of tundra. The sort of mountains a child would draw. Today has certainly been one of my best and I’m struck by the natural beauty of my surroundings. Sat near belayed the summit of Beinn Eighe I contemplate my relationship with the Scottish mountains.
With climbing, like with many things in life, I find it’s often the case that you only get out what you put in. And with Scottish winter climbing you have to put in a lot. I have spent countless hours driving up and down to Scotland. Sometimes only to get thrown around by the weather sometimes not even to make it out of the car. But when it all comes together: being in the right place at the right time with the right partner. The rewards more than makes up for all the effort. And in many ways it wouldn’t be half as special if we could have it good all the time. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why it can lead certain individuals (of which I am one) into such obsessive tendencies. The want and desire to make your dreams happen when they are available combined with an overarching fear of missing out.
I have climbed many world class destinations such as Yosemite, Patagonia and Chamonix. But if asked whether they were better than climbing in the Scottish mountains in winter. My answer would almost certainly be no.