Scotland the (not so) brave…

For almost 20 years I have climbed in the Scottish Mountains during winter. They hold a magical place in the history of Mountaineering and many pioneering climbs were done here before people moved to tackle peaks across the world. I have just returned from the Cairngorms where conditions were typically Scottish. When I say that I mean, nature bringing everything from beautiful sunshine to blasting blizzards in a day! I spent a week with two climbing friends in the Northern Corries climbing exposed ridges and snow gullies in very different conditions…

We opened the week on the Faicaill Ridge in a howling wind with spindrift blasting us and visibility poor. Some people might think it a bit mad to cross a ridge in such weather, but it was fine and we sheltered away from much of the wind by traversing the right hand side of the exposed rocks. As guide Martin Moran once said when I asked him about the horrible weather as we climbed in Torridon – “Challenging Conditions!”

The weather cleared and brought some of the most beautiful skies I have ever seen in the hills. Bright sunshine, creamy white snows and not a breath of wind. We could see mountains for miles and were treated to a beautiful sunset as we climbed off Aladdin’s Buttress. I could have stayed there all evening, staring into the distance, but the clear skies were bringing with them a bitterly cold night.

The wonderful thing about winter climbing is that one season is never the same as another. What can be an easy, snow laden climb one year can be exposed ice the next. A clear example is Goat Track Gully – a simple enough Grade I climb (usually) was heavily corniced and needed skill and bravery to exit safely. A group had attempted the climb and got stuck under what I can only describe as a huge dollop of cream teetering over their heads. Luckily for them a group of climbers was walking across the top of the route and had dropped a rope down to help their safe exit. It just goes to show what winter can do…

The Cairngorm Ranger Base posts excellent weather and climbing information, but I feel few people take note of it and their free route card service is disappointingly underused (in my opinion). We heard that in less than a week there had been five avalanche related injuries in the corries alone.  The Scottish Avalanche Information Service is an invaluable resource for winter mountaineering in the Highlands.

Though a sharp wind had blown up midweek, we entered Fluted Butress for a gully climb, but were met with a well know Cairngorm conundrum – numbers. What I mean is that people head in droves for certain routes and it really is first come, first served. The last thing you need is someone above you kicking blocks of ice down onto your head. I’ve been there many times and elected to move left and climb the much emptier Central Gulley. There was good ice exposed on much of the three pitches lifting it to grade II. The plateau was blasted by freezing winds which turned my moustache to ice in moments. Thankfully the skies were clear and our road home easy. I say that, but going downhill without toes is still one of the most painful things I do. When I finally eased my boots off, I was confronted with blistered and sore feet.

High winds and thawing ice put the end to any further climbing. The ice was melting faster than the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz and what had seems solid only two days before, was falling apart. Running water could be heard pouring off the faces and we could do nothing but head for home. Risks are something we manage in the mountains and this was not one I was willing to take.  Bravery can be useful, but never confuse it with stupidity.  Others did climb on the ice as I left and it broke away in dinner plate sized pieces, but we all have our own perceptions…

And so another trip to Scotland is over.  Time to dry kit and sharpen the ice axes for the next time.

Big thanks to Jamie and Clare for their wonderful friendship and company…

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