Once more I was in the pit of despondancy. Gusts of 135mph on Cairn Gorm saw Chris, Steev and I very rapidly abandoning our walk in to Coire an't Schneachda on sunday morning as teams streamed past us in similar escape. Now it was February, there had been two months of 'winter' already, and I had still only done a few routes, of which none were particularly impressive or inspiring. A Highland winter didn't seem to be getting me any more climbing than an Edinburgh one, just more failures. So, when I had three offers to go climbing this week I jumped at the chance to re-dress the balance. Two of the days clashed, so I decided to take the alluring option of meeting Duncan, Becky, Konnie and Tony at Beinn an Dothaidh bright and breezy on Tuesday morning.
Down at the farm it was warm and drizzly but Duncan and Becky were stoked to have a crack at Menage a Trois (V,6), a modern mixed classic and a route I had wanted to do for about three years, so we promptly started the bog trot up to the snowy, cloud-veiled corrie. Despite the distinct lack of a solid path the walk-in to Beinn an Dothaidh is pretty easy, and it never really feels like you're gaining that much height. Somehow you end up at about 850m above sea level, so there must be a hill in there somewhere. Despite there being so much snow, the turf was frozen and the game was on. Tony and Konnie scuttled round the corner to have a look at The Screaming (VIII,8, gulp) while we geared up at the base of the line and Duncan led off. Menage a Trois takes a line upto and then following an obvious corner, finishing either up an easy groove to the right or a harder groove to the left.
Duncs made short work of the first pitch and Becky and I joined him below a short steep wall that bars the way into the corner. My lead, and my first V,6 proper. On Red Guard last year I led the first pitch under deep powder and it was the hardest I'd led, but I wasn't really sure what grade it would be. Now it was time to discover quite what a tech 6 pitch feels like. I always love the way your head empties before you lead something testing, as you swap over the rack and sort out your gloves, eying up the line. When you get into a plane, you hand your life over to the inevitable - if something happens you just have to roll with it. I find a peculiar satisfaction in accepting your helplessness. Similarly, when it's your lead you just have to deal with whatever turns up. I love the feeling of grim acceptance and how quickly you go from cheerful and chatty to calm, resolute and ready. Maybe this is why I rarely feel scared when on the lead, there's too much to think about for that, and why seconding pitches always feels much harder. Mind you, I suspect that might change as the routes get harder and bolder.
It was one of the most enjoyable pitches I think I've ever climbed. Long and sustained, but never ball-breakingly hard. My memory of it is a series of steep steps, with small snowy ledges in between for chilling out and scratching about for placements. It was pretty buried and icy, so there wasn't a huge amount of good gear, but enough to inspire upwards progress. My semi-buried warthog and threaded icicle at the top left much to be desired, but by then I knew there was one step to go and then I was at the belay, so I was too psyched to fall off. As I sat and brought Becky and Duncan up I let the smug, warm glow wash over me. I had done it, broken a small barrier in my winter climbing. The ever-nagging doubts of "can I/can't I?" started to fade.Becky pulling through the last step of pitch 2
Duncan decided to do the V,5 variation finish which takes a steep turfy groove that eventually forces you leftwards onto easy ground and then the summit. As we chilled out and sorted gear at the top we saw through the ming that Tony had got to the top of The Screaming, his first grade VIII, and a seriously good effort, especially for someone so young (particularly in Scottish winter climbing terms). The sky is the limit for him just now.Duncan leading the V,5 variation finish
Wednesday saw Chris up from Edinburgh for his fourth attempt to get a route in this winter (at least someone was having worse luck than me). With a sunny and cold forecast we made the unrelenting pilgrimage to Stobbers and headed for Ordinary Route on the Summit Buttress (IV,5). We bumped into Tony and Sam Clarke, who were thinking of heading towards Central Grooves. Still glowing from success on Menage... I thought that Ordinary Route would be fairly straight forward, but little had I bargained for the huge, and I mean huge, accumulation of snow and rime. The first pitch looked like a straight forward series of snowy ramps and turfy grooves, but in actual fact it was a series of thickly rimed slabs and corners. Every move was hard-won, and every bit of gear (all 6 of them in 50 metres) required an age of hacking, digging, swinging, chipping and swearing. Once that was done the next problem was finding things to put your axes in, so once more, hack, dig, swing, chip, swear. In that order. After about 2(+?) hours I had run out of rope and found a vaguely solid belay of a buried axe and a good hex. Chris made his way up to me and promtly vented is distinct lack of enjoyment and healthy dose of fear. He wasn't up for leading, so we swapped his axe for mine in the belay and I slithered, sunk and squirmed up more deep powder to the start of pitch three. By the time Chris got to me it was about 15.00 so we decided that we would escape down Boomerang Gully rather than up the final pitch. We couldn't work out where it goes anyway, and although I'm sure it has some interesting climbing, the first pitch provided enough excitement for me.
Summit Buttress, Stob Coire nan Lochan
Ordinary Route: Chris seconding a very snowy pitch 1
We had a cheeky pint in the Clachaig and headed our seperate ways.
I'm in bed, watching an episode of Green Wing on my laptop and my phone rings. It's Tony. Please tell me they aren't part way up Central Grooves and in need of assistance. Fortunately not. They are in Ballahullish having broken down and need a doss. Like James Herriot on a late night call to a bad lambing, I gather myself, yawn, scratch and head out into the night.
Tony and Sam had taken a look at Chimney Route and decided that it was too snowy so did Crest Route instead. With them were Vet Tom and Anna who had abbed from Ordinary Route on Central Buttress due to very slow conditions and not quite fancying benightment.
Once again, Banff Crescent offered a fine doss and as I write they are on their way south, after a hearty Morrisons breakfast.
Now it's pouring with rain and 9 degrees in town and set to stay like this for a while. I'm just glad I got some routes in before all the snow is washed away.