Up until now, Scottish winter climbing has always been an spectator sport for me. Something you watch in social media from the comfort of your home, wandering what makes these keen folk get in such predicament. But I could see the appeal, it lures too many of my dear friends into it.
Last year's season was a good one but it lacked in adventure and spice. Climbing a bolted roof is good fun, but it hardly shrinks your balls when push comes to shove, and there are no consequences when you let go of your ice axes. I find that over the years I turned a little purist if you like. I find it hard to justify in my mind why I would spend my winter holidays stuck in a unsightly cave with a bolted roof for the sake of a hard grade. I did an M13 in two attempts, another M13+ in five and I'm sure I can climb M15 if I try a little. But is that really why I do winter climbing for? To chase the grades? Or is it the power of a true winter line? I certainly know the answer. But I had to explore all the avenues to find out. And that's the beauty of climbing, it means entirely different things to different people, and only you can find out what is that ticks your boxes. I love the sense of achievement, but achievement doesn't always mean grades. It might mean exploring new things, learning again, putting yourself out there and find out a little more about yourself in the process.
There are some extremely strong winter climbers out there. But it makes you wonder when someone makes the news for climbing some manufactured route with axes in the middle of the summer. I get drytooling, I love it, I do a bucket load myself. Rock, plastic, comps, the lot. But it is just training at the end of the day. A means o an end. It seems that a lot of people are missing the point of what's all about. What counts is what you do in the mountains. Exposed, out there, running it out, searching for gear, teetering on thin ice and hooking crumbling little edges. That's my opinion, and I don't expect for everyone to share it. But it's the conclusion I've got to after all these years.
In the search of trying to find my own path in winter climbing, I had enough years shying away from Scottish winter climbing. I suppose it's partly because I knew it would put me in my place. I would have to start at the bottom again and make my way up. It would require hard graft, and I knew that climbing M-silly grades would be as useful as a trapdoor in a lifeboat. This season seemed that finally the time was right, and so I thought it was about time I got involved...
... and involved I got. Looking up at the crux of Bulgy (VII) and wondering how the hell you stack two hexes, I certainly felt a bit too involved too soon. Scott had just backed off his lead and asked to pass the baton onto me. I duly declined. We bailed and lived another day. I wasn't bothered, it was first route in Scotland, it was all a bit of a novelty to me. I was just happy to finally be out in the Scottish hills and seeing what was all about for myself. Scott seemed disappointed to come empty handed, understandably, and I apologised for not pulling my weight when it came to it.
My first induction of Scottish winter climbing has been pretty eventful so far. I did have a little taster about 12 years ago, but I don't think walking up Left Twin or Goat track gully counts as climbing, really. The last three weeks have been a pretty condensed crash course on how to survive, and most importantly, how to enjoy Scottish winter climbing. Things that you learn is that you hardly carry any water or food, as you don't want to carry it up a munro for three hours. Consequently you become as dried and thin as a piece of beef jerky. Other things I've learned is that no number of gloves is large enough, you always somehow end up using them. And the last and very important, the fatter your belay jacket is, the happier the whole experience becomes. Oh and I forgot, the legs! The bigger the better!
My first day out on the hills, we had better conditions than I would have thought at the time. Scott G was my mentor for the day and I had a field day learning how to deal with slabby, rounded granite covered in snow and hoar. Being a weekend, the Coire an Lochain was packed and all the routes we had in mind had teams on them. Not that I minded, because they were all my friends. It was just like being at the White Goods meet all over again. On Scott's suggestion, we jumped on one of the only free lines, Bulgy. Only to realize an hour or so later that we might have bitten more than we could chew. If I would have know better, I would have suggested War & Peace or Proar, but hey, rookie mistake.
We had Clare and John on Savage Slit, Anna and Dougie on Fallout Corner, then Will and Joe showed up as well. I would have not wished a better crew around me for my first day venturing out on the winter hills, it certainly made me feel at ease and we all had a good laugh climbing next to each other.
John Sealey on Savage Slit. I could hear the grunts from around the corner, and I peeked just in time to snap a quick shot before returning to my business. I think my grunts where similar trying dig out the gear placements from under the snow.
A nice treat for the social walk out in the light
Knowing that I'd arranged to climb seven days straight with The Almonator (David Almond), I decided to take the Sunday off just to recover, drive west and be fresh for the schooling that was awaiting for me. Oh boy what schooling I got. He announced that we should and go and do Neardenthal VII at Lost Valley Buttress. I liked the name of Lost Valley, and I knew that my friend and all-around climbing connoisseur Lee Roberts had done the route recently, so I thought it must be good. The walk-in seemed quite epic for being my first proper one. 5am wake up call, Dave trying to recall his vague memory of a previous walk-in, breaking trail in deep snow, then the GPS flaking out and having to use map and compass for the first time. Eventually we found the cliff and found the line, and what a line it was. Soon after we got there another team joined us. Of course they set off from their cars a lot later than us and just had a leisurely stroll following our tracks. Dave asked for a tenner as a contribution, but I don't think they got his wry sense humour. Soon Dave was romping up the first pitch and brought me up to the belay. Now, you have to bear in mind that I haven't lead anything harder than say Scottish IV (first pitch of Bulgy?). So, when I looked up to pitch waiting for me, I had a slight sense of trepidation. I knew that speed was my friend, meaning that the quickly I got racked up and got involved the less time I had to think and less nervous I would get. I got up, clipped Dave high gear on the belay, and got questing. I found a fixed hexes, which turned out to be Dougie's, which inspired me with confidence knowing I wouldn't factor-2 the belay if everything went wrong. Somehow I found all the right hooks and all the right gear and in no time I was at the belay. (Photo David Almond)
My first proper Scottish belay, wet and showered by spindrift. But I loved it, under all those layers I'm actually smiling, I was buzzing from my first proper lead. Having said that, it was right up my street: steep, big pulls, good gear and good hooks.
The third pitch looked like the business. White and hoared up business. It's supposed to be the crux, so I was happy that it was Dave's lead. He romped up the pitch through improbable ground making it look straight forward. I went up as a second, slightly worried that I would have to sit on the rope. But I didn't have to worry. I found the climbing really fun and positive all the way. I tried to climb as fast a possible as I could hear Dave shouting. Once I got to the belay, Dave congratulated me with me sprint, and I enquired about the shouting. Apparently a flare had gone off in the valley and at looking down we saw a fair amount of people wondering around the Coire.
We rushed off down to see how we could help, and as soon as we got to the bags, we saw that the team climbing next to us was in trouble. Without going into much detail, what would have been a very short day, turned out to be a fairly epic day only getting back to the van at 10pm. We were glad to have helped Glencoe Mountain Rescue with getting some fellow climbers out of the hills. But being my first full day on the mountains it proved to be physically fairly overwhelming. After drying all the gear and getting some last orders at the Clachaig Inn, we still set the alarm clock again to 5am. I was glad that when it did come to get up, Dave announced that we should perhaps take the day off. Slipping back under the warm duvet never felt that good. (Photo Glencoe Mountain Rescue)
The rest day turned out to be quite active actually. Upon rising up, the quest began to find a suitable fry up breakfast. Oh boy how wrong I was assuming that every cafe in Fort William would serve English Breakfast. After all, the clue is in the name. But succeed we did, and I can't take credit for such a feat. Fed and lit up, we steered the van into the North-West direction, to a place enigmatically called Beinn Eighe. Little did I know what I was letting myself into, as little by little Dave let trickle out the details of what lay ahead. I assume it is business as usual for a seasoned Scotsman: to climb a Munro on its steep side with no established track, then down climb a gully on its backside to reach the bottom of an imposing cliff and then climb four pitches of steep ground. But to me, that sounded like my legs would die even before I got the chance to strap on my crampons. But not to be a party-pooper, I pretended that this sort of thing is what I do for breakfast.
The walk turned to be as bad as I imagined. Steep, breaking trail in deep snow, and again, trying to refresh Dave's memory of his previous visit. I made it to the summit in one piece, only just. I foolishly egged Dave on to try a route called Boogle just because it was the only route we had a picture of and the second and third pitch looked just ace. I didn't know it was an VIII, 8 that was awaiting a third ascent, but who cares about the details. I geared up to dispatch the first pitch, which after my previous success on Neadernthal, I thought I would sprint up. Oh boy, how wrong I was! I didn't find my flow, I couldn't really read the line (if there was ever one) and I took about what felt like a lifetime to get us to the bottom of the amazing looking corner. Once Dave arrived it was getting dark already. After profoundly apologising for taking this long, we decided that we didn't fancy leading grade VIII by heard torch, specially since I had to take the top pitch and I never led grade VIII before and my legs had been blown hours before.
We enjoyed watching the party next to us pushing through the darkness, which turned out to be Brenin guides. There and then I decided that next time, armed with a bit more experience, I would choose to push on into the night.
The now ubiquitous 5am alarm went off again and I shut off my brain and went through the motions. This time the walk went a lot smoother, thanks to our track and a cheeky little cairn indicating the turn off from the tourist trail. I even got to the gearing-up spot in good humour and felt ready for the day ahead! (Photo David Almond)
Once on top of the summit, the most glorious sunshine came through the clouds and Dave explain what a lucky sod I am with the weather. I reply saying that yes, I don't know why people complain so much about Scottish weather, it doesn't seem that bad to me. (Photo David Almond)
After lounging in the sun for a while and congratulating each other for the fast times we were making, we headed down to our objective for the day. We chose to scale things down a bit and have a nice day out on something not too challenging, so headed over to Shang-High. A VII, 7 I think it is and a very good one at that too.
The Far East Wall and Eastern Ramparts walls on Beinn Eighe in full glory, with some mad old bloke in the foreground. Be aware of mad old blokes, I learned.
The climb proved to be really good, fairly straight forward but interesting all the way to the top. We made good time but it was a total white out by the time we topped out. I finally had my first taste of real Scottish weather. I was appallingly surprised, having been a mountain man all my life, how bad my orientation skills where once it went all white. Thanks to Dave and is clever GPS gizmo, we easily found our way down and soon enough were sipping beer in the comfort of the van.
We decided that it would be good for us to take some time to drive back to Glencoe and for Dave to make his way back to Liverpool fresh for his wife's birthday. I had the weekend lined up with The Orange Force (Dougie Russell), so I was keen for a rest day. I met Dougie in Fort William and since there had been loads of snow we settled on climbing the Ben. Having access to the top carpark makes for a leisurely start compared to Beinn Eighe, so I complained to Dougie whether he was taking me sport climbing.
Upon arrival at the CIC hut, we saw that the slopes leading up No.3 and No.4 gullies were loaded with fresh snow. So not wanting to temp our luck, we settled on an easy day out on Cutlass, a VI, 6.
Dougie being a gent, let me have the crux corner pitch which I enjoyed very much. He dispatched the two other pitches in a swift manner and we were back at the bags by 12.45pm. I suggested lunch at the cafe and surely enough we were having yummy sarnies and coffee at Nevisport cafe in no time. (Photo Douglas Russell)
The day after Cutlass, Dougie suggested Messiah, a VII in Beinn Dorain. I heard about the route just days before and I was keen. Apparently the first pitch has a bit of a reputation and the last pitch had thin ice. Dougie kept me entertained on the first pitch with his "watch me! No... REALLY watch me!" just in time he launched himself to a bit frozen turf.
Once the entertainment was over, I took the lead for the the second shortpitch and the last pitch. We've heard the last was a very thin ice pitch and hard to protect. Sounded right up my street. Armed with two stubbies quested upwards to what turned out to be a beautiful pitch. It never really got that thin and I got loads of gear, so no dramas to recount. (Photo Douglas Russell)
A happy Team Satsuma on the summit and ready for lunch sarnies.
Having had a blast with Dougie, I thought I stick to the same brand but swapping product. I hooked up with Adam Russell, Dougie's brother, to go up again to Beinn Eighe. He suggested we go and have a look at Sundance, an VIII / 8. I had this route in my list as it was the first that stand out to me when I was flicking the guidebook at home. It looked steep, it had some ice, and it had four pitches of sustained climbing. I was psyched! And yet slightly apprehensive as my previous experience with an VIII didn't go so well. Adam dispatched the first pitch with no issues other than the precarious belay.
The second is a beauty of a pitch with all the bits you want, ice, roofs, good gear and steep pulls on bomber hooks. Just pure fun all the way! I can say that was the best pitch I climbed on this trip. The only scary moment is when I tried to replicate Dougie's technique of launching to a piece of stuck-on frozen turf. The scary bit was that I was above the belay with no gear, and that once I stuck the turf I cut loose all points and left dangling from my right arm hoping the turf wouldn't rip. I swiftly banged in a Bulldog and moved on safer ground. (Photo Adam Russell)
Adam being the pro he is just kept trucking upwards. Here just getting off the belay on pitch 3.
Pitch 3 was a lot of fun too and about the same difficulty as pitch 2. We got the pitches length slightly wrong due to reading the summer description. Adam got shortchanged a I got to climbed more ground, sorry Adam! Pitch 4 was a fun corner with frozen moss and ice. It would a horrible pitch to climb in summer, but in winter it was just so much fun. It was just so different to the mixed climbing I'm used to. (Photo Adam Russell)
On the last day we climbed a good VI / 6 called Kami-kaze and with that we called it quits. On the walk down we had the most amazing sunset peeking through the low cloud basking all the mountains with a magic orange light.
I said my farewells to Adam and decide to stay for another day on my own parked up there. It's such a magical place and it was the first time that the parking lot was empty. I enjoyed the views sipping my coffee the morning after and headed down to London for a few rest day and a much needed wash.
On my return to Scotland I joined the BMC Winter Meet folk at the Glenmore Lodge. I had a couple of days climbing with Rocio, one was decisively better than the other. On the wednesday we headed up to Lochain and did The Vagrant, a fairly interesting VII. Then the Thursday was my first taste of proper Scottish winter weather. Being the soft southerner I am, I didn't really enjoy the 80mph wind in my face and I couldn't feel my hands, let alone enjoy the climbing. To further aggravate the day, my boots start playing up and ended up with a gash in my skin on my left foot and climbing became really painful. I passed on all the leads on War & Peace to Rocio, which she put an sterling effort, but half way up the second pitch she lost her mojo too and we bailed.
That week the weather kept deteriorating but I had arranged to climb with Dougie again. So we headed up Lochain again to have a look. We got to the crag with horrible weather only to find that, to my bemusement, the crag was black. The wind was so strong that nothing was sticking to the rock. We gladly turned around and headed back to Glenmore lodge for coffee. A few of my friends tried to get up that day but I think don't anyone got anything done. We were lucky because we slept past the gates so we had the usual easy walk, but some folk had to walk all the way back for before the gates, that's keen! Feeling guilty for their slog I ended up giving a few friends a lift up to the upper parking. That same night we relocated to the Ben that evening as the forecast looked a bit more promising. And with the prospect of the magic key, the walk is quite a pleasant affair.
We had a vague plan to head up to Trident Buttress and try something like Strident Edge, The Minge or Sidewinder. But as we arrived at the foot of the cliff and pulled out my guidebook, we realized that we packed the selected one that features none of the routes we wanted to do. So looking up we started scanning the cliff for lines and trying to remember route descriptions from memory. Just ahead of us there was this obvious line that looked a lot more compelling than the rest. It looked short, a pitch or two perhaps, but it lacked in length it compensated in aesthetics. We had no idea what it was, but being such a prime line we assumed it had been climbed.
Dougie ventured up the line with the idea of splitting the route in two pitches as we couldn't see whether there was more ground above what was visible. He soon found difficulties, fairly hard climbing with poor protection. It turned out to be harder than it looked. He climbed to a high point where he next section looked like the crux. But with only a poor Terrier protecting the moves, and the gear below not being great, he announced that if I fancied a go a bulldog would be the ticket to get through.
Sure enough I took the invite. We replaced the Bulldog on the belay for an axe headed up to Dougie's high point. I soon saw why he backed off. I remembered Raph Slawinski's motto he mentioned in his talk, there's only two reasons to fail on a climb. Not brave enough, or not strong enough. I wasn't going to go for the former, specially since Dougie put such an effort just to get where he got. So I quested upwards into the unknown. We didn't know we were venturing into unclimbed ground, but I had an inkling that might be the case as the amounts of chockstones and loose rock stuck in cracks was something I hadn't come across yet. After much effort and a few sketchy moments I topped out with a smile on my face. At the time I didn't what route or grade was, but there was something about following your gut instant that is really rewarding. It turned out to be a first ascent and we call it Tangerine Dream and gave it a VII /8. Despite the route being a very small affair compared to the big rigs on the Ben, and that probably will never get a repeat, we were still really pleased and had a grand day out. It sort of encapsulated in a neat way what Scottish climbing is all about. (Photo Douglas Russell)
*This is the line if anyone feels that way inclined to go and have a look. There's an account by Dougie in www.scottishwinter.com
So it's not that I climbed anything hard on this trip, but I'm certainly full with a sense of achievement for putting myself out there. To be a rookie again and learn something new. Scottish mountains have a certain purity to them that they don't take egos for currency. But they certainly like eagerness and patience in equal measure. And it rewards those who venture into the unknown, no matter how unlikely the outcome might look. I find the true meaning of questing is perched high on those hills. You just have to go up and see for yourself.
I like to thank all the friends who took me out and shared with me their nuggets of knowledge.