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.
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.
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.
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!
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.