As has been the usual pattern with doing this it’s always something I’ve seemed to put off, always too busy, too tired or perhaps for a day when the weather has forced my hand and I’ve finally caught up with the mundane office stuff and this seems the very last on the list. I suppose this time it’s due to all of the above.
It’s been some Winter I tell ya!!!
It started in early December with a brief tease of a cold snap that didn’t materialise and was gone as rapidly as it appeared. The Christmas season was both a windy and damp affair….cold but nowhere near cold enough and with no promise of falling temperatures in the near foreseeable future and so we reluctantly greased O’ Learys sleazy paw and booked a RyanAir flight to Scotland…
The Winter Climbing rat needed fed and it couldn’t wait any longer…
But it wouldn’t be as simple as that…..Not a chance in hell!
Myself and my good mate Mick and been there enough to know that booking in advance was practically like throwing a dice, a spin of roulette. Our chances though far better than Kerry were still hugely stacked against us….but at least there was still a chance.
A week to departure and now at least we could start to Google conditions forecasts…
We scoured for glimmers of hope…”You want the truth?”….”You can’t handle the truth….!!!!”
Forecasts could always be worse, but man they could definitely be better. Worst start to a Scottish Winter season in years they said. First half decent snows of the season so far had just begun to consolidate but a rapid thaw had now set in. Reports of cornice collapse on the Ben could only mean one thing…Thaw. All our worst fears were coming true…And the rat didn’t like it one bit!!!
Sure we’ll just make the most eh!?! I hadn’t seen my best mate Mick in ages as he now lived in London and he hadn’t even seen a mountain in ages and was just looking forward to getting out, so what ever the weather or quality of route sure it was still gona be a cracker…
The long drive North had been fun. Time to catch up on lifes latest. Good to be back here again together and reminiscing of previous climbing trips and memorable days. We never feel we’ve arrived in Scotland proper and the adventure’s truly begun until catching sight of the mighty Buachaille…
This most majestic and imposing of summits – Buachaille Etive Mór – this grandest of all these rocky pyramids rises almost vertically from the Northern end of the level plain of Rannoch Moor and seems to guard the entrance to the Highlands. We’d finally arrived but the temperature read out on the dash was a disappointing 13 degrees in the positive. Not the side of zero we were after. I suppose the flooded roads as we’d driven North along Loch Lomond had reaffirmed this fact . We cursed the cars full of ecstatic smiley white water Kayakers as they drove past with bananas strapped to racks, willing on the dreaded melt.
We arrived at our chalet after stopping en-route and grabbing the food (and drink!) supplies for the week. Going by the forecast we probably should’ve got more drink supplies in….
Following day was expected to be an extremely wild and stormy affair and so as we were both feeling pretty exhausted and wiped out after the long spin North we decided to just take it easy, chill out and spend our first day sorting ourselves, unpacking and packing our kit and hopefully the storm would clear through rapidly with perhaps a slight break in behind. Realistically we knew this wouldn’t be the case with the MWIS forecast telling us that the next few days would have storm front after storm front sweep across from the South West with only brief lulls in the extreme winds of up to 120 MILES per hour!!!
And so chill out we did…One day down but still plenty more to go. It was a longer trip than we had normally gone for so surely it would come right!
It couldn’t be bad every day….or could it!?!
Day 3 and there was a slight respite in the constant ferocious gales forecast to last ’til early noon, so we rose before sun up and drove East to the Cairngorms with the aim of quickly snatching a route. Our thinking was we’d save valuable time by driving high up the mountain to the ski centre and hence avoid any epic walk in. The corrie from here is only a 30 minute or so easy stroll from the car with an all too easy walk off again so that way we’d be off the hill before the next front swept in. Only a handful of vehicles in the car-park when we arrive.
Shivering as I haul on the boots and a face I recognise pops out of a tasty campervan. Hey man…It’s Paul Swail…A lad I know from Belfast…sure is a small world!
Only other mad enough to be heading out in this happens to be Irish too….We chat a short while and wish each other well before shouldering heavy packs and striking off into the bitter cold wind.
The day goes well. First route of the trip ticked. Off the mountain as the cloud sweeps in. We make the return journey back to Fort William in good spirits with the tunes pumpin’. We arrive at the chalet and it’s blowing a gale…again! What transpires over the following days isn’t at all pretty. The weather really couldn’t be any worse to be honest. Day after day is spent exhaustingly slogging high up into deep corries and valleys with slim hopes of ticking off some route to sheepishly slog back out again with tails between legs. You wouldn’t put a dog out in this and yet here we are. Stress and pressure building by the hour. We’ve long since torn up our tick list. Anything will do us now. Our plan A’s scrapped as they’re not in condition. Plan B’s the same and they’re not even there…Plan F’s now. Plenty of F’s and B’s coming from our mouths as evenings are spent with noses in guide books and stressing over forecasts. At least it’s finally snowing. Winds now more Northerly. Now we have to start scrutinising avalanche reports. Slope aspects, wind direction, windward slopes, leeward slopes…Risk increases from Considerable…then up to High, and even a Very High!!! Nowhere is safe at the moment…People die regularly over here from not heeding the signs you know and remember this was supposed to be a holiday…Doesn’t feel like it now though…Need more beer in Mick!
Two days left. There’s still enough time for another….A plan is made yet again and this one would surely pay dividends.
We decide to return back East to Aviemore. That spin up to the ski centre was a god-send and the walk in would be easy even in the deep powder.
An hour or so into the journey and Mick has had enough. The stress of the driving is telling. Heavy falls of snow blind our vision. The road has long since disappeared, now replaced with the Nordic stage from Grand Turismo. Deep drifts on the verges at least stop the car from sliding off and Mick needs a moment to compose himself. Even getting moving again isn’t easy as the traction is now difficult to gain but again we continue the gripping journey. We’ve come this far and it’d be a hell of a shame to turn back now. The tunes aren’t pumping this time as full concentration is needed on this one. Epics don’t just happen on mountains you know! We arrive in Aviemore much later than expected and priority now is a caffeine fix so a quick stop at a Costa sign and the trembles subside, life’s good once again. Now the short spin up to the road ski-centre…Surely the ploughs have been busy. As we round the corner at the base of the hill we hit the stream of parked cars in the lay-by. Barrier is down, Ski-Centre closed and no cars allowed up today….WHAT!!! Is this a wind up…?!? Ski-Centre closed due to SNOW!!! WTF……
Without saying a word we both start to get ourselves ready. We’ve just gone through way too much in the last two and a half hours or so for it all to be a waste and neither of us wanting to face into the stresses of the return journey again so soon.
Slogging up the icy ski-road I feel like throwing a tantrum. Bag is aching my shoulders and Mick is way out in front now, head down in his own little bubble and hasn’t looked round in ages. I may aswell have come on my own sure. I’m definitely not feeling it today…this is crap! Why do I bother with climbing….pointless waste of energy with little or no reward. He still hasn’t turned around…I could be after dropping dead with a heart attack for God sake…We near a chicane and I decide on the shortcut. I climb the crash barrier and cut straight across as he continues along the road and slogs round the bend. I struggle up to my waist now in soft powder and feeling and looking like an complete ejit as I clamber over the higher barrier after my off-piste battle. Now I’m even further behind and I try not to allow him hear my swearing.
Finally we arrive at the ski-centre with Snow ploughs only now getting moving. I see Mick head for the toilets and pretend I’ve not seen his B-line. As I head for the trail head which leads you onto the open mountain I see him out the corner of my eye exit the loos and now up my pace. Within minutes and in view of the ski centre I soon lose the trail and in deep snow I trudge around in circles for a few minutes trying to find it again.
I hate Winter Mountaineering…I hate the cold…I hate these boots…I hate this bag….this is pure shite….I wish I was at home!
Once back on the trail I make some progress but it’s an altogether more difficult slog in today compared to this exact same one last week. Visibility is down to 10 metres or so and stiff arctic winds find chinks in our gore-tex and primaloft suits of armour. Zips begin to freeze up and as we arrive in Coire an Sneachta we are the best of friends once again. We gain some decent shelter out of the wind behind a car sized high boulder and huddle while we take in some fluids. Ice has formed in our Nalgene bottles and brain freeze gives headache as we drink. Mick earlier took pics of the route topos with his smart phone and we are forced to shed gloves to use his touch screen. Can’t bare fingers to this for too long and missing one vital page from our guide book. From our shelter stone we can’t even make out the base of the cliffs and it’s only 50 metres away.
A brief change in the shade of greyness and we pick out the start to a line. Over the whistling of the wind we can also faintly pick out the shouts of other climbers at the bottom of the face. “Climb when readyyyyy…..Climbinggggg!!!” This springs us into action. We weren’t the only ones attempting to get something….anything done.
A brief thin window in the low cloud and we spotted the other party of 3 beginning their first moves up the icy white face. They were on the route we’d planned to climb – “Hidden Chimney” and we had no ambitions to shiver in a queue behind them as we waited our turn. Everything else on that side was above our grade and we had no plans whatsoever to make this day even more difficult than it was already turning out to be. We’d spotted another half decent looking line on our previous visit here and decided that though low in the grade, something was better than nothing, the day tipping on and we still had the long journey home again ahead of us.
As we geared up at the bottom of the gully and strapped on our crampons we started to feel the psyche. This is what it was all about eh!?! Full on Scottish Winter! Best worst time you’ll have!!! Bollox…I still wish I was at home!
We tied in and just about to begin moving up when…Whoooossssshhhhhhh…… Soft powder avalanche pours down the slope enveloping us both and obscuring our views of each other. I shout out Micks name before it settles and relieved to see he’s still just below me. Nothing serious to worry about, just a tame one brought down by gravity but still increasing the levels of adrenaline. I move up some more onto a steeper slab of ice and turn to look down and check that all’s cool. Over this short ice section and powder’s now waist deep and we struggle.
Mick is starting to mutter he’s not happy and instantly I decide to call it and go down. In a split second I make one step downward but the rat tells me to snap out of it. Mick hasn’t even clicked into retreat mode and already I’m climbing again. It’ll be grand…come on man! We haven’t come all this way to bale that easy have we?!?! Higher and higher we climb, or can you really call this climbing….swimming more like, but within an hour or so we top out of the relative shelter of the confines of the gully and into the teeth of the freezing wind.
Yes boy!!!! Result… enjoyable in a Masochist kinda way! Quickly we stuff the gear away in our sacs and begin the long descent back to the car…The form is good now…we’re moving quickly and so we begin to warm. By the time we hit the ski-centre the head torches are on and the road back down to the closed barrier feels even longer than it did on the way up. Bags are thrown carelessly in the boot and Costa is back in our minds as we prepare ourselves mentally for the return Nordic rally stage…
What develops over the next few hours will be spoken about for many a trip to come! We drive through the night, light flurries turn to whiteout…passing flashing blue lights of Police cars dealing with jack knifed and immobile articulated lorries on route. In reality we were preparing ourselves mentally for a night spent sleeping in the car. We had all we needed. As we creeped slowly through one tiny village we notice the snow is now building up in peoples doorways. Then we strike it lucky. Sliding almost sideways around another corner and we tuck in behind a small line of cars following in the wake of the orange warning lights of a busy snow plough and 2 hours later we are home.
We collapse in the door of the chalet and crack open a cold one (sure everythings cold by this stage!) and toast to surviving another Adventure…Sure if it was easy everyone would be doing it. The rat is quiet now!!!
The long spin South back to London is an epic in its own right. Torrential rain and an annoying squeaky wiper blade don’t make this part of the journey any easier or less stressful but positive reports coming in from Kerry are of Wintery hills. The Reeks are covered in snow with plenty more forecast for the coming days along with Easterly cold winds. And there I was wondering why I even bother… thinking of instead taking up sport climbing….sick of the shivering and hot aches….but now I’m getting excited.
And what a simply sensational few weeks of Winter climbing it turns out to be….
To be continued…..