December 2011, a few nights before the solstice: I am all but asleep at the wheel on the M80 between Stirling and Glasgow. It’s 3 a.m., and I am beyond the help of loud music or a blast of cold air from an open window. White lines and cats’ eyes roll endlessly out of the dark. There is nothing left but a continuous fight against the smother of sleep. Idiotic. Just stop. Stop. But I don’t stop, because I will only have to start again. My head jerks up and eyes blink wide as I feel myself going under. Over, and over, again.
I hadn’t planned to be so late, but nothing much had gone to plan in the last few hours. We had picked a long route on a short day, but as is usually the case when things go wrong, one dubious decision was then compounded by several more.
I have always had a complicated relationship with Scottish winter climbing. It’s at the hard edge of the abusive relationship I mentioned before, not so much love/hate as hate/keep coming back for more. But like an arranged marriage that begins with antipathy, then gradually mellows into cooperation, we have come to a cautious understanding of how to get along. In retrospect, it isn’t hard to see why it started badly, though what it hard to fathom is how people who must have had similar teething pains to me seemed to fall head over heels right away.
I was a student in Edinburgh, drunk and vulnerable to the psyche pandemic that erupts across the Scottish climbing world when the first buds of rime appear on the hills. Older club members, seasoned heroes that they were to me, would talk about routes and places pregnant with the dark fascination of things unknown. I still occasionally dab from the pot of that intoxicant feeling, though since I have made so much of it known, my hand barely fits in now. Social media had not fully fledged in 2007, so I caught by the coat tails a shade of the earthy experience of generations past, of inspiration delivered over a pint or a bothy fire, and not just a predictable flow of pre-formatted captions on a white screen.
Like most students, I was as ill-equipped as I was clueless and keen. My first winter climbs were on old borrowed axes and crampons, which was fine, but with rubbish clothing and nutritional nous, which was less fine. Bad, stressed sleep before alpine starts, a struggle to put some breakfast away, to sit feeling queasy in the back of a car for 3 hours, then a bonk from lack of food while walking in too fast, to feel sweaty then too cold, then crucified by hot aches, spindrift down the neck, and all the rest of it. The early starts were the worst, though I have always had a hard time with being cold too. I guess no one likes being cold, but some people seem either not to feel it much, or simply to be well hard.
Clearly something kept me coming back. I would like to think it was more than the collective influence of other people, a kind of mob fever where the robust psyche of a few sweeps up the brittle psyche of many into a momentum greater than the sum of its parts. Though it is telling, maybe, that for several years most of my routes were climbed early in the season, before the initial excitement was ground down by the suffering, and I peeled off south to get scared soloing on the golden waves of Bowden and Kyloe instead. I did cotton on quickly to the fact that experiencing the awesome beauty of the Highlands under snow did not actually require being strung by a mass of jangling gear to a freezing north face. But I was a climber – what else was I going to do, go walking?
In the winter of 2011/12, the game changed. I was living in the Highlands, with the Cairngorms on the doorstep and a different brand of psyche in the room to replenish my motivation – that of the Professional Mountaineer (henceforth and always described as ProMos). Living at Glenmore Lodge the horror of the 3 hour drive was removed, and a warm shower, tea and cake awaited as soon as I got off the hill. With this arrangement, the Northern Corries became virtually cragging – I could get a route done when I finished work at midday. I had also taken uncertain first steps on the path to becoming a ProMo myself, due to start on the Nightwatch scheme in the spring. “Are you going to become an instructor by accident, Andy?” The question privately narked me at the time, as if I wasn’t taking it seriously enough. I was uneasily aware that apart from being a safe call because I had been around in the kitchen for six months and the staff knew they could get along with me, my only sell was having a relative heap of climbing experience. While I had something to prove in terms of commitment to ProMo-dom, the climbing part was supposed to be sewn up. Easy to kid myself that with a few seasons behind me, and having climbed up to grade VI, I know what I’m doing.
White lines and cats’ eyes roll endlessly out of the dark. The lights of Glasgow are a thin lifeline to pull me out of my drowning, stimulus enough to break the hypnosis. I will live, but not because I’ve done anything right.
James Dunn and I had decided to climb Sticil Face, which as the classic route of one of Scotland’s best crags, is a must for the moderately competent winter climber. Greg Boswell and Will Sim were also going to the Shelterstone to try something hard. I think they initially had Needle or Steeple in mind, but in the explosive reaction of two very psyched people coming together, they decided to try Stone Temple Pilots, the directissima of the crag, instead. It had first been climbed the previous season and was graded X, so cutting that in half to make V, the length of our route relative to the shortness of daylight was clearly no excuse.
There is however a nuance here, that belies the simple halving of the grade. The main bastion of the Shelterstone is steep, so holds little snow, whereas Sticil Face traces the left side of the Central Slabs and is cruxy, so most of the route is not at all steep. As such it holds a lot of snow. Greg and Will were already a couple of pitches up the lower corners of their route when we began wading up the initial ramps. Witness the poor decisions compounding, compounding like the snow we bash down with our axes swung sideways, and swim upwards on our elbows and knees…
James leads the ice corner, and the first scratches are revealed in the veneer of my competence when I fail to remove a bulldog. James exudes competence. He has a homemade adze fixed to his Nomics, and very brightly coloured trousers. Clearly, he has thought this winter thing through, and is not, like me, a rock climber in second hand boots. I have never actually removed a bulldog before, but I don’t let on.
]My turn for the technical crux chimney above. It proves awkward with a rucksack, so I drop it down to the belay with the intention of pulling it up afterwards. After my routine wittering of doubts and verbalising the precise problems facing me to my belayer, I make the moves, crawl into the snow above, put everything on hold for an emergency poo, and pull the rucksacks up. The flustered feeling I always get when things are not going smoothly is making me rush and do everything badly. James is sure to clock me for a muppet soon, if he hasn’t already. As I move out rightwards searching for a belay, a slab of snow shelves off worryingly under my feet.
James swims off up the ramps leading right above the Central Slabs, a 90 metre concave sweep of granite unbroken by ledges or cracks, the preserve of hard and serious rock climbs. Jules Lines’ Icon of Lust still unrepeated, no wonder. I see the photo of him teetering beneath an overlap on Realm of the Senses, a world removed from this ungainly bashing and stamping. This is the worst of mixed climbing, ground that isn’t technically difficult but feels constantly insecure, grovelling onto ledges on uncertain pick placements. Up and right a couple of rope lengths away, the exit chimneys look completely choked with useless, and possibly unstable, snow.
How wise of us, to climb a long traverse pitch before discussing the possibility of retreat. It is getting late, and the appearance of the top of the route is worrying. I know the final chimney has a reputation as a sting in the tail, but today it is also corniced, and what we have seen so far suggests that snow banked at such a steep angle might collapse in a bad way, taking us with it. It turns out to be one of the rare occasions when a geek’s knowledge of routes I have not climbed offers some practical benefit. I know there is a fixed abseil point at the top of The Pin, the summer E2 that comes up the right edge of the Slabs. It should be just down there somewhere – I gesticulate vaguely into the hidden steepness below.
The next hour or so is spent in a quest to minimise the amount of gear we will have to abandon to abseil safely off. Digging out blocks – is this actually solid? – tapping in nuts – we can’t just go off that – until it is nearly dark. Perhaps we should have just tried to top out…
Abseiling diagonally into the gloom, sweeping my headtorch side to side, there is no sign of any abseil tat. Will I even see it under the snow? Prussiks are at the ready, in case this roll of the dice comes to nothing. Each step down is steeper, the ledges growing smaller, until I see the final snow lip where my light trips and disappears into deep space. Where the Loch Avon Basin is usually filled with the roar of the Garbh Uisge tumbling over slabs, under a firm freeze there is only silence. The clock of picks and occasional shout come down from the pair on the main bastion, two skittering lights on a dark tower.
Finally, on the edge of nothing, I spot the abseil, a tangle of hoary cord. Relief. I call happily to James to come down. We’re sorted now.
I slide down the rope again. The Pin is so called because of the directness of the line, so finding the second abseil to take us to the bottom of the route should be no problem. The ends of the ropes come into view, curled onto some small ledges. The abseil station must be there. On reaching the ledges, however, nothing appears. I flick the remaining rope off and look down. The ends dangle uselessly in the middle of a slab.
“Uh…I can’t find the tat! I must have abseiled past it!”
A pause. James’ headtorch a tiny point of light in the darkness.
“OK…Do you want to come back up?”
“Might be easier if you come down! And look really carefully to either side!”
I fiddle in a small nut, so I can safely take my weight off the rope. The nut is less than ideal, fine for bodyweight maybe. Then suddenly, without warning, my torch beam dims to a faint glimmer.
“Shit! My light’s gone!”
“That’s not good! Do you have spare batteries?”
“Er…no!” For sure, he knows that I’m a muppet now. That should not be of greater concern to me than the immediacy of my predicament, but it puffs its chest out and takes a perch on my ego nonetheless. Stood on a small ledge in the dark, in the middle of a big wintry cliff, secured by only a dubious nut, things have begun to feel a bit serious. I give a thought to the possibility, if James can’t find the abseil, of Mountain Rescue. Do I even have phone signal? Probably not. No, it’s not a rescue situation yet. We get ourselves out of this.
James finds the abseil, some way off to the left. Thank god.
“Can I pull the ropes?” he calls down.
“Yes, I’m off the rope. Go for it. You’ll have to swing past me on the way down so I can get back on!”
“Yeah, no worries.” He starts to pull. Thirty seconds later, another call. “The rope’s stuck!”
“Yeah, really stuck. Was there a knot in the end?”
And there it is, the grisly carcass at the end of the trail of blood spots. The final misplaced block that sends the Jenga tower clattering down. The situation is fucked now. Mountain Rescue?
“I guess there was. I didn’t take one out.”
“Me neither. I couldn’t reach!”
“I couldn’t see!”
A pause. Should I be the first to suggest Mountain Rescue?
“We still have one of the ropes,” James calls down. “What do you reckon? Can we get down on 30 metres?”
Got to try.
30 metres including the diversion required to collect me from my marooned stance. James swings past on the way down. I grab the ropes above his belay device. It’s some effort to hold them with his weight on, but if I let go, Mountain Rescue will be the only way off this crag alive. I don’t dare clip them to the nut, in case it pings out.
Presently, James shouts that he has made it to easier ground. I clip the rope through my device by feel, and swing off into the night. Although off the Slabs, we have not quite escaped yet. We have to break trail downclimbing grade 2 steps across the slanting terrace at the base of the routes, with the 50 metre lower tier still snapping jaws below us. And I can’t see. I just kick the snow, test the foot and step backwards, turning over in neutral through rising fatigue.
The moon has risen over Beinn Mheadhoin by the time we are stood on ground that can’t kill us. At least it is a calm and clear night. Beautiful in fact, though I am too fixated on reaching the car and hot food to appreciate it as I might. Somewhere way up in the darkness, a whoop announces that Greg and Will have topped out Stone Temple Pilots. Fair play.
As a final slap, instead of traversing out across the plateau, we now have to slog all the way out of the Loch Avon Basin. If it’s been enough of a school day already, this is detention.
Misjudged swings of a pick into rock, distress blunts with time. Firmer shapes endure memory’s thaw, rocks rising from the melting snow; nuggets of fact that hang in when the rest has become slush. The kernels of truth that form into stories and soundbites: The car thermometer reading -16 on the way to Beinn an Dothaidh, Ferdia’s frozen face lit by a sunset river of spindrift. Soloing out the top of Point Five Gully, my arms clutching snow crust on the summit plateau where people are throwing bread crust to the snow buntings, while through the hole in the cornice between my legs I can see all the way to the CIC. Both axes shredding their placements on Neanderthal, and avoiding a hideous fall by the pure luck of one pick catching itself.
Much becomes gist. One hundred hotaches, the fiery tingles through the all-consuming. Tranquil dawn on Quinag or An Teallach or Beinn Eighe, shot to the heart that makes sense of the thing. Fuzzy memories can mean more than the ones enshrined in photographs and stories, like the sensation stirred up by association with a piece of music, blunted every time you listen again in a grasp for that first feeling. While I’ve learned better tactics, better clothing, better food, part of me is possibly still reaching, compulsively, for the pot of that feeling, the unknown beyond the starfield in the headlights of a minibus, northbound from Edinburgh on a Friday night.
And stories about my own mistakes are my favourite ones to tell, but I’m not sure if that is a good thing.