When Morons Do Moronic Things!

23:45pm Sunday evening.

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No quite El Cap

No explanation except boredom has taken its toll. When there’s really nothing else to do, why not get the portaledge up on the home wall?

On the up side, having a play about has really upped my psyche to start planning a trip to somewhere I can justify taking this beast…somewhere with slightly bigger walls than ours.

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A Distant Memory

I took Stevie up Beinn An Dothaidh for his first winter climbing day out on Monday. Having had plenty of trad experience and being a strong climber already we headed for Taxus ice fall variation (iv,4), something hard enough to get a good feel for the climbing but not so hard to scare him away from returning again!

We started the walk-in moaning that it didn’t feel very cold and with the crag being hidden from sight from the car park we had no idea if the recent thaw would have stripped the route of the needed ice and frozen turf and if we were walking in to be disappointed. Five minutes into the walk the rain started, quickly turning to hailstones as we gained altitude and by the time we’d reached the base of the route we were soaked through from being consistently battered by the falling heavy snow. Last weeks sunshine and blue skies now just a distant memory.

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Heading up the easy first pitch

After kitting up, putting on some much-needed layers and suffering through the dreaded hot aches we started kicking steps up the approach slopes, finding harder more compacted snow than we thought would be about. Getting the ropes out and tying in at the first belay we realised the temperature drop after having climbed through the freezing fog, noticing all the rime on all the surrounding cliffs beginning to grow. It’s amazing the difference one or two degrees can make, the difference between a days climbing and day of returning empty-handed.

I started up the first pitch and started to get to grips with ‘swimming’ rather than climbing through the deep powder snow on the route. As I climbed up through the narrow gully between the two rock buttresses I was right in the firing line for the prevailing spindrift avalanches (powder snow blown over the cliff edge that flows like water over the more compacted snow, creating rivers of snow down the route) that would submerge me in their ten second torrents, covering me head to toe, filling my hood and jacket full of snow only stopping for enough time to make a few feet of progress before once again being hit by another cascade. Only a Scottish winter climber will know the misery of such an experience.

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Me on ‘death belay’ before the steeper section

We got another purely Scottish winter climbing experience further up the route when I had run out of rope before finding an appropriate position to belay from, forcing me to dig away to find protection to secure myself to the wall. Resorting to two wobbly stoppers crammed into a flaring crack, backed up by clipping myself directly into my axes that were buried into the snow above me. Not ideal. I convinced myself it was adequate and after shouting down to Stevie, explaining falling off probably wasn’t a good idea he started up his first winter pitch, only truly understanding what I’d meant about the debatable security of the belay after seeing it first hand.

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Stevie getting to grips with the term ‘caked’

After a few pitches of more enjoyable ice climbing and a decent belay, I headed up the last pitch towards the monster cornice (The accumulation of snow where the top of a route meets the ridge that can overhang, creating a false cliff edge purely made of snow) and prepared for the inevitable struggle to break out of the gully and onto the top of the mountain. With nothing but a tied off ice-screw 20m below me I had no option but to start cutting my way through. By repeatedly filling cut steps with more snow I was able to raise myself a little higher every time and I finally mantled onto the ridge with the grace of a beached whale, the mountain congratulating my success not with a spectacular view but with a barrage of 70mph gusts and a white out, Typical!

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Sunshine and blue skies a distant memory

All in all the day was truly miserable but brilliant at the same time. We’d had every season in one day but still pushed through to get a route done in what can only be classed as classic Scottish winter conditions. Stevie had got a harsh induction into winter climbing but we’d managed to complete his first route. Although leaving battered and cold we returned to the car with a smile on our faces knowing we’d prevailed when many others would have turned back, the sign of a good day.

Cold Blue Ice

Dashed up to Beinn Udlaidh early on Friday morning to meet up with Martin and Sean who were in the middle of using some of their time off on a trip around the highlands to get in some climbing with the remaining good weather. With a 5.a.m start from Glasgow We met up and kitted up with the sun still not risen, the dark mornings proving to hold out as we go into February.

With the kit split between our packs we marched up the beginning steep section as fast as we could noticing several other cars arriving as we left the road, wanting to avoid any queues over first routes. We originally were heading for ‘Quartzvein Scoop’ a four star classic grade 4 on the far left of the crag but changed our mind after spotting another team that must have started especially early for the route already one pitch up.

We pulled out the guidebook and quickly I set my sights on the slightly steeper route of ‘Peter Pan Direct’ (V,5). With the line being so well-formed and being a real spectacle of perfect blue vertical ice it seemed like the obvious choice and as I started up the first few feet of the route I was actually glad we’d changed our minds.

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Me on Peter Pan Direct

With the route being grade five and a pure ice route it made a huge difference to how I felt on the lead compared to the hard mixed routes that I’ve been trying to push myself on recently. It’s easy to get stressed out and forget to enjoy the climbing when you’re pushing it at you limit (especially when there’s no gear!) The natural rhythm of my axes striking the ice started to kick in and I felt perfectly comfortable running it out above my ice screws. With a flawless clear sky above me, perfectly relaxed, I took a second to have a look around me, take in the moment and really appreciate how much enjoyment can be brought from the movement of climbing. Easy to do on such a quality route that is well within your comfort zone but something I fear many of us often forget to do.

We spent the rest of the day pottering around the venue and up a few other easy routes including the atmospheric ‘South Gully Of The Black Wall’ which after having a little trouble trying to retrieve an axe left in the ice after Martin took a fall on the second (The perils of falling without leashes) the guys enjoyed a little more due to the slightly easier grade and refueled energy levels after a stop for lunch.

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Beinn Udlaidh

We topped out as the sun dropped just below the horizon and a layer of mist crept into the lower parts of the glen. The light scorched the skyline with a blazing orange that reflected off of every snow-capped peak giving the surrounding cliffs an aura of warmth as the cloud inversion sheltered it from the dark world below. A pretty dramatic and appropriate final view to end such a successful day on the hill. Even with the temperatures supposedly rising as we go further into the week I’m positive the crag will stay in good form even with some melt as the cold nights continue to refreeze the routes. Hopefully I’ll make it back next week to give some of the harder routes a try and possibly even give some of the potential first ascents on unclimbed routes an attempt.

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Summit!