No Blue Skies (in more ways than one.)

Bad weather was the order of the day for the last week of February. Three consecutive days of gale force winds and driving rain meant being stuck inside, champing at the bit to be back in the hills. Wednesday brought a slightly more settled forecast, so Scott and I decided to walk into Sneachda and see if anything was doable.

The warm, damp weather of the last few days had stripped all but a few lines bare, but some of the mixed routes had enough snow cover to make them just about acceptable. We opted for the aptly named No Blue Skies (VI, 7), a three pitch super technical balance-fest with a thuggish finish. The first pitch was the most hard-fought 25 metres of climbing I think either of us had ever done. Conditions were worse than we’d though – useless powder sitting on bare rock meant that our crampons found no purchase on the granite slabs, and a thin coat of verglas in the diagonal fault meant that every tool placement was super delicate, only holding when weighted in a specific direction. It was a real test of one’s mixed climbing repertoire – delicate rounded hooks, thin half-inch torques, burly stein-pulls and silently willing our crampons to allow upward progress through friction against the coarse granite alone.

Desperate first pitch of No Blue Skies. Photo: Henning Wackerhage.

The second pitch was mine, and it went slowly but steadily, cerebral climbing requiring a lot of unconventional axe-work and imaginative placing of protection. I reached the belay and brought Scott up, relieved to be handing over the lead for the exposed last pitch.

Heading off on the third pitch, Scott seemed pessimistic, muttering the classic “I guess I’ll give it a shot” as he made the first straightforward moves into the offwidth flake crack. It wasn’t long before he was out of sight, and my only indications of how it was all going came in the form of erratic play on the rope: hasty tugs upwards as gear was clipped, the limp dribble of slack back along the line as different ways to forge a path upwards were tried and abandoned. Eventually, I heard a voice through the now-increasing wind.

“Watch me, I’m going for it!”

The ropes sprung to life. I made sure to keep the lines fairly tight to minimise the distance of a potential fall. The sudden jolt of a falling leader never came, and soon I heard the shout from above. Scott was at the top. Seconding the pitch, I found out what all the fuss had been about: squirming up the awkward flake crack inch by inch gained a six-inch deep ledge running leftwards, which, after a delicate shuffle along its length, ended abruptly. Above, a hanging crack lay agonisingly close, obscured from view by a bulge in the wall. To progress, one needed to commit both axes to blind hooks, and pull through the overhang, willing the picks to retain their purchase on the rock. A few deep breaths and this crux move was dispatched, before steadier progress was made to the top. A few “bloody hells” were exchanged, ropes were coiled and a long, blowy walk down through the corrie put us back at the van.

The route was my first grade VI, and though it felt hard (really hard, in fact), it never felt impossible. One of the nicer things about winter climbing is that it tends to be quite a thoughtful process: scratching around for good hooks, trying to position your tools and your feet in such a way that you stay in balance, working out imaginative ways of using the gear at your disposal. On mixed lines such as No Blue Skies, which are hard but not enormously steep, the climbing becomes more about solving a puzzle than about pulling hard through tough moves. In a way, I almost prefer steeper, burlier ground where you have to make strong moves on solid hooks, rather than worrying about whether the thin torque you’re putting your entire bodyweight on is going to pop off unexpectedly, but it’s nice sometimes to have to think outside the box. For me, NBS represented a lot of progress, both mental and physical, and hopefully this will be a good indication of things to come.

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