So, after six unexpected weeks of summer – which for me amounted to a half dozen wonderful days on storm-washed, bird-free sea cliffs, and an impeccable day climbing into the night in a T-shirt high on the Dubh loch – WINTER IS BACK! I kind of knew it would happen, but perhaps not with quite so much gusto. But then it’s been a particularly climatologically bizarre winter season in so many ways. I was very lucky to squeeze three perfect days in my old haunt of Glencoe, and one perfect new route on my home turf of Lochnagar, before what was basically a completely crap season gave way to sustained warmth and sunshine. And now here we are again – all the rock jocks off down the climbing wall or at home on their power boards, with only a very few of us passionate winter climbing souls chomping at the bit to make the most of what wild adventure the Scottish hills have to offer.
Perhaps Scotland’s undisputed Champion Passionate Winter Climbing Soul is Simon Richardson, and luckily for me he lives in Aberdeen. After seeing the weather change dramatically a few weeks back, and casting my mind to thoughts of what lucky punter I might chance to persuade for a day out on the white stuff, Simon sprung immediately to mind. His enthusiasm for winter climbing is evervescent – just the way I like it. If you could persuade Simon (aka ‘The Judge’) that there was a storm in a tea cup, he’d have his ‘poons and axes packed before you could say Jack Frost. He’s into his fifties now, and despite the passing into domestic stasis of most of his regular partners, he’s still pushing it out.
So last Sunday we hummed and hawed and eventually decided to keep it close to home to avoid any wasted journeys (always a worry so late in the season) and opted for the high corries of big bad Beinn a’ Bhuird. Sitting in splendid isolation to the east of the main Cairngorm massif (and the 4th highest top in Britain) this hill is very reliable, very beautiful, and very remote and very wild. More to the point there are loads of options in terms of altitude and aspect, and plenty of scope for exploration. A major worry was that even though the forecast was cold, the strength of a Spring sun would soon strip anything cvatching its glare. As it was this was very much the case, and on reaching the sun-kissed and slowly stripping east-facing cliffs of choire naciche we turned due north and kept on walking. This must have been particularly pleasing to our third man “Polish” Pete Wishtal, who wan on only his second proper winter day out – we had already been more than two hours from the car just to reach that point!
An hour later and we rounded the broad shoulder into choire nan dubh lochain, looking pleasingly white, wild and wintry. The wind whipped snow devils around with a viscous bite, adding further pain to our sun-blinded eyes. The ground underfoot felt re-assuringly frozen solid. With very little discussion (our both being quite familiar with the cliff and it’s potential) Simon and I agreed that the obscure but fine-looking “Sniffer Buttress” was a suitable objective. About 70m long and way up over the 1000m contour, the buttress stands proud from the neighbouring Bloodhound Buttress and has only one recorded summer line, skirting the main frontal steepness by a loose line close to the gully on the left. We quickly assessed and recognised the potential for a more direct and unclimbed line up cracks on the front face of the buttress. It looked tricky, but reasonable, and a grand wee opportunity.
I set off with gusto, revelling in that unique feeling of power in adversity; torquing, Stein-pulling and thwacking upward with confidence and zeal, despite the two months out of practice. ”Legalised violence” an eloquent Australian mate of mine had once called it. After 15m metres or so of sustained tech 7 and good gear I landed on a ledge which seemed a good place to belay. However, with another 10m of twin thin, rounded cracks above, and only a couple of RP’s available at this juncture, I decided it prudent to press on – not particularly attractive it has to be said, but better than a potential fall straight onto a weak belay.
The next 10m were pivotal – what had appaeared to be good cracks at a reasonable angle (i.e. nae bother) were in fact blind, gritty seams apparently devoid of sound hooks or protection. the angle was enough to ensure that each step up became committing, and with no promise of safety or respite. Some deep breaths and a healthy dose of faith most definitely required. After a few more moves a perfect nut appeard from knowhere, and a decent stick a couple of feet above this (for decent read more than one tooth of a pick). However, at this point the left hand crack I had opted to start up went completely blind, and a tantalising ledge at shoulder height to my right revealed its true colours as a heinous sloping shelf. In climbing, as with everything else in life, you make the most of what you’ve got, I whispered internally. And so, after various contorted probings to lever my right foot above my right shoulder – palms, knees, warts and all – I found myself precariously poised on the shelf, faced pressed against the frosted rock, well above the good nut now and with imaginary hooks for stabilisation. It was one of those scenarios where, in the blink of an eye, relaxation becomes swamped by urgency. I was totally committed – going down now meant jumping off.
The next 40 minutes or so were spent alchemising three runners from the blank, rounded cracks – none of them anywhere near perfect, but at least one – a small Pecker – convincing me that I could at least weight it should I require. And so with picks balanced creatively on crystal rugosities, no margin for error, my feet scrattled hopefully up the right hand seam until a long reach gained frozen turf. Thankfully.
Above this, Simon’s lead, a short leaning crack and wild swing left linking easy slabs to an even easier exit gully and top. The clouds kindly parted, the sun shone, revealing sparkling glimpses of the white bounty in the main massif to our west.
The gasping Polish man’s eyes were on stalks, but he seemed happy, despite his ‘newborn giraffe’ style exploits. The lad had done well under the circumstances – some real Old Skool gnarly skittering. And he was now Baptised with a keen practical awareness that Scottish winter climbing is as much about mind over matter (and using your legs) as it is about physical prowess.
“Sh*t man, you need a wide skill set for this stuff!” he quipped. To which the old man Richardson wisely retorted ”Yeah, the most important being the ability to leave your brain at home!”
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