Just another day out on the Ben

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Priorities and attitudes change everyday through out ones life... Perhaps this is already starting to sound like I could have, should have, would have but for whatever reason Scottish Winter is a climbing division that I had always shunned. Athletic focus was something I had already lost through the summer of 2002, Hubble wasn't falling anytime soon... It was no surprise that I went back in search the vitality I had found in the climbing of my youth.

On October 17th 2002 I went winter climbing!


The Lamp IV,5 Coire an t-Sneachda


Every adventure has its moment of realization when the mind perhaps chooses to acknowledge the fact that something distinctly different is going down. For me it was during the walk in sitting eating a frosted crisp sandwich at 7.30am that I'd lovingly prepared for breakfast. Even junk food can be gourmet, you just have to get the location right...

Strange that Mike Tweedley who had so openly rejected the Winter Game in previous years was to be my guide. He led with confidence up The Lamp, certainly I would have too placing protection as superior as that.

The moment of truth was upon me, I checked everything of and lifted my axes to the skies and set off...

Progress was slow, perhaps I've watched to many films, but hitting things as hard as I could was not having the desired effect. After the first 5m I had managed to remove every piece of snow and ice from the initial groove. Some how I had made progress but how? The pointy things on hands and feet were resolved not to stick to anything slopey and granite. Some how etching their way about they had hooked into a crack, that was the way forward.

Mikes confidence was now understandable, that gear wasn't moving. I felt a bit stupid saying I had forgotten my nut key. I had two tools in my hands that did a better job, but Mikes gear had a Pile Driven placement to it, it wasn't moving...

I was later sent along the next pitch, my confidence wasn't up to much as I crawled along a gradually more narrow and slopping ledge on hands and knees with no gear. Confidence finally buckled and we backed off. Later that day while frolicking with my first cornice atop Jacobs Ladder we watched someone being airlifted from The Message, a humbling moment after my earlier retreat, dignity restored I returned to my cornice digging...

The Seam IV,5 Coire an t-Sneachda


The drive to the mountains is always a surreal experience, there's something distinctly unsafe about a driver full of caffeine after having only 3 hours sleep. The transition from home to Corie always seems so uncontrollable, dreamlike. Anyway, enough excuses, so I overshot Aviemore by a few miles, say perhaps as far as Inverness, who's counting...

I led the first pitch of Invernookie to take us up to the base of The Seam. Mike led again, this time I was surprised as the climbing felt easy. I was surprised it had taken Mike so long to complete, but I had not yet L.E.D. (Learnt to Evade Death!) ...

We mused ourselves with the 'Punters' on Invernookie and I remembered why it was I opted for desperates all the time, I don't %^&*ing Queue. This was to be the most irritating thing I was to find out about Scottish Winter Climbing, its just so dam popular. Corie an t-Sneachda is the roadside of Cories, perhaps it would be better named Raven's Sneachda or Corie Cove, because its as easy to get to and the 'generally' well protected granite makes it as safe as a sport venue.

Original Route III,4 Stob Coire nan Lochan


Dubbed Corie an walk-in, this ones a long one, surprisingly cliffs seen from the road. Although it looked good from the road there was only a shy dusting of snow and some hoar. We decided Original was a good option.

Martin protested as I declared I was leading, especially since I'd made him solo the first 15m to advance ahead of a second party who'd joined us, a factor that was to irritate me the rest of the season. I led up the chimney pitch easily. Objections came from below when I stood on a ledge, meanwhile insults tore down as I declared a mountains not a "%$^ing eliminate!

Later Al Cools face popped round the corner over on Central Grooves, I shouted hey. After some confusion he stated that the sight of me here had to be seen to be believed, this was no place for a sport climber, someone once mused that I even had it written on my socks... Martin and I made alternating leads to the summit only thwarted by the fact that the turf was a joke, axes sparked in disgust as it was 95% gravel. We topped out into fine views toward Loch Leven.

Chimney Route V,6 The Cobbler


January had fulfilled its promise of freezing temperatures to sea level, snow was however slim on the ground. The face of centre peak was significantly hoarded with frost and wind blown snow to allow some sport. Ian Taylor wasn't a man known to me for Olympic standard climbing performance, but given a set of ice axes I was starting to think otherwise as he confidently led each pitch. Seconding the corner pitch I couldn't help feel how I would perform in comparison. My dog on roller skates composure was starting to wear, unfortunately I hit dead stop at the sniff of a grade 6 crux.

I was in a position where I could no longer proceed, my first instinct was to sit on the bolt... But this felt like no sport to me... And I continue to hang on sketching about with various torques and hooks, the latter of which is of no particular comfort on Mica-Schist. I resolved my predicament by doing what is a natural way of gaining height for any infant, I stood up!

I decided that perhaps I should not do any hard winter leading after all, perhaps not this season anyways.

Cool Riders IV,5 (N.R.) Creag Coire an Dothaidh


Dave MacLeod's never a man I'd have thought myself Winter Climbing with, but through an email conversation we ended up deciding to search for some new lines.

Disappointingly a strong northerly wind had blown all the snow and hoar from our target Ben Dorain. The adjacent massive wasn't as spectacular but Dave eyed out some steepness on the left.

We were presented with a line of double roofs with a large snow bay in between. We decided the initial sections were a bit too ambitious so I shot of up the gully on the left to traverse right into the snow bay.

After a considerable time follying with a small mixed section I decided I was unable to proceed, it was Dave's turn. I was keen to see him tackle this section and give me a top rope, but to my amazement he dropped and dangled off the belay ledge by my feet and shot of rightward across the bay and up to the next roof.

What was that someone said to me about line?

I followed via some ace steep turfed ledge dangling, to meet him at the belay. The next challenge was the steep groove above, the only weakness in the roof system. Dave jested my lead, I accepted! This left Dave in a very venerable position directly under his fledgling winter leaders crampons. I managed to climb up the large flakes and place a couple of wires, happily protected from the forbidding abyss below I began to work out what to do. The ledges some meter above me were heavily verglassed, not thick enough to tool however. I managed to scrape the ice of a good flaked pinch to my right, it seemed that was all there was for me to use. I began to change legs as my calves steadily pumped, Dave was not amused as I shook my legs off in his face...

Remembering something from along time ago about standing up I decided I wanted my feet on the flake to the left. Using a sort of offside cross through mantle of the icy pinch I gained the necessary height to swing at some turf and complete the crux. Next I led through a body trap corner that was interesting, there are some places ice axes just shouldn't go... Anyway, we summited.

As we headed down I mused with Dave over how place an axe in ice, he explained the trick of finding the edge between neve and ice, this was the place to hit. I shrugged and went back to smashing around at the turf satisfying my psychotic urges...

Convoy III,3 (N.R.) Glen Ogle


Good intentions went to waste as we sat in a Traffic Convoy at 6am having blanked 20 odd signs along the A9 northbound that the road was in fact closed. We paid dearly waiting till 9.30am for confirmation if the road was to open or not after a 4am start. As the Police Land Rover departed I assumed the best and led the 50 odd cars behind me North out of Blair Athol. Only to be stopped 2 miles further along the road by a Constable asking me why the $%^& had I moved. I was told the road was not open, how I had ^&%$ed up his morning and asked how he was going to sort out the neatly queued cars stacked behind me. I turned the car and headed for Glen Ogle on the whim that there might be some ice.

Although we did find ice, it was melting and unworthy of our attention that day, the heavy snow and freezing temperatures continued as we climbed further over the hill.

We found something to climb consisting of a stepped diagonal chimney line. Good effort to Damien, he pulled of the FA of a wee gem of a grade III.

Cascade Route V,5 Ben Nevis


So the day was upon me, this is what all the preparation was for, an Ice Route on Ben Nevis. As we rounded the Allt a' Mhuilinn Carn Dearg was completely bare, disappointment was short lived as Tower Ridge and Corie Ciste came into view like a white Snow Goddess. We quickened the pace toward the Comb Gully area, at this time I was aware of the collective of people heading in the general direction, I did not come here to go marathon running up a Corie at 8am for first dibs on a route.

We resided to try something else as the masses headed for Green/Comb Gully. A shorter section on Ice lay to the left of Number Two Gully Buttress, we decided to head up, a bit let down that we were going to climb a 50m section of ice having walked 1000m up a mountain. As we set up another party joined us, why did they insist on doing the same route? Why did they not wait their turn? Being nervous over my first all out ice lead I cowered up and rightward to find a weakness to get underway, as I pulled onto the face I was aware of the commitment I had made. The ice wasn't very thick, I had stopped to put a screw in, it stopped after an inch, I tried again somewhere else to the same effect it would have to do. I progressed each time moving upward getting terrified then finding a wee inset to stop, place another %$^ screw, and try to patch my confidence. "Breath your ok, your ok..."

My axe placements were a sham, I had no feel... I remembered what Dave told me... The first strike at neve felt sticky, I trusted it. On the plasticy ice I did not. Although it went in solid I wasn't convinced, I struck again causing the sheet to dinner plate off in a bowl shaped chunk, tumbling down my fall line into the gully below...

This shattered my confidence, I would not trust the first strike anymore... The second always sheared... and the 4,5,6th made a hole to the rock... At least I felt confident with it by then.

At this point the neighbouring party who I assumed were on route were ahead and diagonally crossing the runnel above me. There efforts were dislodging small slabs of snow that came falling down hitting me on the head each time knocking me of balance a bit, the trailing ropes caused a trail of spin drift to fall down the face. Ducking it only managed to deposit increasing amounts down my neck. I was bloody furious, $^&%*%*%, ^%&%*%, I yelled and yelled at the selfish, ignorant, inconsiderate, pompous, ^$%$% that had past me and put me in this position.

I tried to continue on to a resting place higher up but as I place my crampon one of my 9mm ropes locked in my left crampon, I could not stand up. A rescue helicopter then turned the corner assessing the progress of parties on Tower Ridge. If I fell, they would already be on the their way back to base.

My eyes welled up I could not carry on, there was nothing to lower from...
I had really gotten myself in the shit this time!
Judgment past...

My shaking won the rope free somehow... I carried on up and right back to where the line crossed a steep bulge onto the runnel. Meanwhile a second party also climbed the runnel, same process repeated, I could do nothing but grin and bear it. By the time the second had past it was time to move Manuel stated it was 3pm I'd been on route for 3.30 hours and climbed 30m... The ice moving left was again thin most of which I had removed to the bare rock underneath with my thrashing a 2m section remained to be crossed. My protection in completing the section below was sin, a half in screw, a half in warthog in some neve, and two tied of icicles approx a half inch in diameter, this was slow down pro only, if i fell I'd go the distance, I was %^$&ing scared now.

After a lot of soul searching I managed to make the move left onto the runnel, I padded up the excellent sticky substance known as neve and headed up. A rather cold Manuel seconded, not to angry since he only wanted to do a grade 2...

We summitted, and returned safe, just another day out on the Ben...

Pateys Route IV,5 Coire an t-Sneachda


Having decided to delay my next visit to the ice for a while I was happy to shift down a gear and return to Corie an t-Sneachda for my second day on...

Conditions in the East were cold, clear and windy, this didn't work to our advantage however as most of the snow had been blown from the all the routes. We decided to tackle Patey's Route, quoted in the guide as an ice route, it didn't look likely it ever formed outside the 1980's, we conceded to do it mixed. The route contained 3 bulges, the initial section Damien tackled with ease. I led through the mid-way roof which was steep, very thin after the bulge but had a couple of bits of in-situ tat which I appreciated. Damien followed up then took the next short pitch up an ice groove. I followed after some hacking about in disgust... Damien commented that I wanted to hook the existing placements, I conceded to my bashing with renewed vigour to take destroy every piece of ice I could find on the mountain. It was my lead through the supposed crux, the slab laid bare it hooks to me, both of which felt secure, a bit to much perhaps as I didn't bother checking the integrity of the in-situ peg which was foolish. Still a hooked up off sided wobble led me to the turf and out of danger.

As we retreated back into the Corie basin in the dark I was delighted to remember back to that first day on The Lamp, how far my confidence had come in a short time.

Returning home I now understood my own motivation for climbing a little better, its all about contentment level. After a day on the hill I can sit through an episode of Eastenders no problem, my tea tastes sweeter than before, my bed softer, sleep beckons, safely home once more, the nightmares pass once again...

I'd like to openly thank those who got me through my first Scottish Winter Season in 2002-3. I learned something vital from each of them, technique, patience, determination, risk and ambition. In no particular order thanks to Manuel Perez, Damien Mchutchen, Ian Taylor, Dave MacLeod and Michael Tweedley.

Update: After a long head dive down Corie Snechtda early season 2004 (a John Woo moment, but no harm done!) Dave has now reverted back to the confides of his sport climbing adventures, watch this space.

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