Winter Roundup

True to form, I’ve been nowhere near proactive enough with updating this blog… I’d had grand dreams of being able to provide detailed accounts of nearly all my days out on the hill over the winter season, but I realise now that that would be ludicrously time consuming and also quite dull (for you and me.)

So, somehow, it’s May. Late May, in fact. How did that happen? I’m now firmly in the ‘warm rock’ mindset, and have been relishing the opportunity to climb in a t-shirt over the last few weeks, even if finding a regular partner has proved something of a nightmare. But three and a half months ago I was leaving for Scotland – nervous, but giddy with excitement about how my winter season would shape up. Looking back on it now, it was far and away the best winter season I’ve had. Mileage, classics, progression, new partners – and more importantly, friends – and a re-kindled love for the Scottish Highlands.

On an early season hit to Aviemore back in December, having only left Chamonix two months prior, I worried that, for me, the Highlands had lost their spark: the mountains weren’t high enough; the skylines didn’t snarl like the jagged mouth of the Chamonix Aiguilles; the classic faces didn’t stretch into the void, cold and austere like the alpine nordwands. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that I was very, very wrong. The mountains of the Highlands might be small and blunt by European standards, but they pack an inordinately weighty punch. The weather, the walk-ins, the locations, the route-finding – they can all be ferocious. Add to this a zealously ethical (but incredibly friendly) climbing scene and you get a destination like no other. It’s no wonder that even alpine wizards like Godefroy Perroux have been coming to the Highlands to climb for years now.

There’s something about the Scottish Highlands that feels deeply, almost inexplicably elemental – far more so than other mountain ranges I’ve visited – and it feels very much a privilege to climb in such an environment.

Anyway, enough of the pseudo-spiritual babble. Here are a few highlights from my winter season.

1. Point Five Gully & Hadrian’s Wall Direct

I’ve already covered this fantastic couple of days’ climbing in a previous post, but this was a cracking way to start the season. I’d not really climbed with Caspian before, but we were a pretty good team, and I felt we moved pretty efficiently. I started up Point Five, my first grade V, expecting it to be on a par with something like Nye Vemorkfoss, a WI5 that I’d lead in Rjukan back in January. It wasn’t, it was more like a soft WI4, and sufficiently steady that you can just enjoy the amazing atmosphere of the Ben.

Caspian on Point Five

Hadrian’s was another fantastic day out, and the first pitch is out of this world. It’s long and lonely and saves the crux for last. Brilliant.

Lost in a sea of ice.

2. Sticil Face

This one was a long time coming. I’ve lost track of how many times I’d read all the UKC logbook entries, flicked through the photos of the crux ice pillar thinking “bloody hell” and “that’d probably go” in turn. I was surprised at myself when I bit the bullet and floated the idea to Scott, who was keen for it.
We pretty much ran the approach, as there were two groups who’d left the car park before us. Only by virtue of Scott hurling himself to the bottom of the Loch Avon basin, we pipped them to the route. It wasn’t very sporting and I felt awful about it, for all of about 10 metres, until I realised I was on Sticil Face and it looked freaking mega.

3. Gargoyle Wall

Gargoyle Wall was the route that I’d ummed and ahhed about all season. I wanted to do it, but it looked scary. It was grade VI. That was really hard, wasn’t it? Rab Carrington put it up, and he was a wad. But then Scott and I went and ticked No Blue Skies and suddenly it seemed within my grasp. Then I met Frazer and he told me he was keen for some ‘techy 6 mixed’, and I knew it was on.
The long slog up to Coire na Ciste absolutely sucked, but my god was it worth it. Easily the route of the season for me. Short and punchy, the crux headwall was my favourite (and best) winter lead to date, and it felt that much more exciting being round the corner from your partner, alone, with only the rusty birdbeak halfway up for company. Sublime.
Dancing between blobs of ice on the wild direct start
Frazer cruising the final pitch
4. Norries Integrale
The forecast looked crap and I’d talked Joe out of doing Indicator Wall because I thought it would be wet and melty (and I was also knackered from mine and Frazer’s abortive attempt on Orion Face the previous day). So I felt like a bad person when I awoke to glorious sunshine all over the Highlands on Saturday morning. We’d left it too late to go for the Ben, but Joe suggested a mileage day in the Norries. ‘Why not?’ I thought. Good Alps training.
So we ambled into Coire an Lochain at about 10:30, soloed Y-Gully Right Branch, dropped down The Couloir, roped up for the crux pitch of The Vent, then dropped into Sneachda and simul-climbed Red Gully and Broken Gully, before soloing The Runnel to finish. We were back at the van by 17:00, exhausted but content. Nothing was technically difficult but it was good to get so much ascent in in a single day, and worth it just to see the faces of the Saturday crowds as you told them this was your 6th route of the day.
5. Orion Face Direct & Astral Highway
I’ll lump these two together as they’re so close to one another and I did them five days apart. Orion is the line on the Ben. It’s a monster – 450m long (longer really, with a bit of windy route-finding) and while there’s nothing particularly challenging on it, it’s a big, serious day out, more akin to an alpine route than your standard Scottish offering.
Jack and I raced up the lower icefalls, moved together across the mid-way snowfield and then I was up for the crux – the famous rising traverse. It would probably have been a little easier if there was some proper ice on it, but instead I made do with cruddy, hollow lumps of snow-ice. There wasn’t even the consolation of gear, as the compact rock of the Ben, as usual, resisted my futile attempts to insert anything resembling protection. Slow and steady was the name of the game, and before long we’d reached the upper ramps, topping out in the late afternoon.
Jack, somewhere about halfway up the face.
A few days later I was back, this time with John, a trainee mountain guide. We’d set our sights on Astral Highway, which I was psyched about, having seen Graham McGrath hanging out on it when we were on Orion.
The weather was mental from the off, and I was all but ready to sack it, but John, in a mind-boggling display of opportunist psyche, suggested we walk in in the driving rain and give it a bash. Halfway to the CIC we realised we’d managed to forget half the rack, so John took one for the team and went for a leisurely jog in his Spantiks to retrieve it from the van. When we finally did reach the route, we opted to start up the first few pitches of Orion Directissimma, which was laughably thin, generously allowing me the grand total of one tied off stubby on the 60 metre second pitch. Fortunately, the climbing was straightforward – just don’t think about coming off!
It wasn’t long before we were at the mid-way snowfield and broke left to join our route. A strong lead by John saw us through the demented crux, and after some winter warfare on the top section, common with North East Buttress, we were on the top. We struggled back down the zigzags in a whiteout, wearing every layer we had, until we reached the Allt a’Mhuilinn and the track back to the car.
Now you see him… John rope-guns his way up to the crux icicle (top left).
Now you don’t… Wooo Scotland!
So here we are. For most of us, winter is in the past now (though some are still ticking classic ice on the Ben!) and the pain of hot aches and wild spindrift slowly fades from memory. The focus now, as I have said, is on warm rock and summer alpinism. I’m moving to Chamonix in June for five months, and I’m hoping that I find a decent job and can stay longer – maybe to learn to ski properly and sample the delights that winter in the Alps has to offer.
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