I’m here again. Another session perched on my thrown, hands shrouded in dachsteins, frozen toes swaddled with wooly socks and thrust into dripping wellies. That familiar feeling of heavy arms and numb fingers. Did I fall off last time because I was tired, or were my fingers too cold to feel the rock? Snuggled in a downy, no cold air can reach me now. I look out from under the roof, across the glen to the spike of Stob Ban and see some walkers coming down from the white coire. Not long ago I was up there, scratching about with crampons and ice tools. I recall looking down here, at this block, relishing our next date on a cold dry afternoon. Right now, my shredded fingers are relishing nothing. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve tried these moves on this piece of rock.
The Heather Hat in Glen Nevis. Almost a perfect cuboid of ancient schist sat in a bog on the slopes of Britain’s biggest peak. Tufts of moor-grass and heather stir in the breeze. The skeletons of birch trees shimmer and wave. In the distance the Water of Nevis gurgles. I silently look up. A few metres of horizontal roof jut out just above my head. A line of chalked jugs, then slopers, then jugs, then edges, then back to slopers work their way round the lip, from right to left. These small edges have entranced me for months now.
It all began in July. A new arrival in Lochaber, working for an ecological consultancy on a graduate placement, fresh faced and ready to immerse myself in an area steeped in climbing history. I cycled down the Glen after my first interview in June to see what all the fuss was about, and have been obsessed ever since. After a few weeks and a few midgie post-work sessions I had worked out the classic left-hand roof problem Maisie Gunn’s Magical Midgie Cream, the roof/arête of Theory of Relativity and numerous other gems on the Cameron Stone and was in need of a new project. The long traverse of the Heather Hat lip was the obvious choice: Midnight in a Perfect World. There was no doubt that I had set my sights high for this one, but what if….? What if…?
At first glance it didn’t look that improbable; there are jugs, and I was familiar with the finishing moves from previous problems. The problem was the bits in between the jugs, oh, and the fact that it’s a 5 metre roof. It didn’t take long to see which holds were best, but holding them was a task in itself, let alone linking them. That’s when something went wrong. Something happened to me. I found myself thinking about those holds when I was in the office. Thinking about moving from the heel hook to the sloper. Thinking about crimping the seam and crossing through to the edge. What had I become? Those few metres of undercut rock had taken me prisoner. Pathetic. A few metres of climbing had captivated me more than any long mountain routes ever had. I decided the only way to end this affair was to go all out and make a pact with myself; to have completed Midnight in a Perfect World by the end of my contract at Christmas.
Week followed week and the sequences started to become familiar. Weather permitting I would head down the Glen twice a week after work. Engrams engrained in my waking thoughts. The feeling of becoming fluid in motion became addictive, I would overcome this problem. I would. Remember to cross the right hand through before swinging into the heel hook. By late October I could traverse the lip in two overlapping halves, but I just didn’t have the beans to yard on those horrific slopers when I was slathering and shaking from the earlier two thirds. This was compounded by the pointy boulder that greets you as you come tumbling from the last desperate moves. Clearly something was going to have to change.
And change it did. The clocks changed and a Lochaber winter began. The cycle home from work became a dark, wet affair. Evenings on the Hat turned into evenings down the wall. Perfect ice-chipped edges became hand-moulded slopers on the 45 at the Ice Factor. Mountain breezes became a chalky fug. But this was all neccasary, so neccasary. Bouldering with the likes of Blair Fyffe, Donald King and Dave Macleod on the steep wall started to strengthen my fingers and teach me subtle footwork that I would never think of. Interval circuits at the Fort William wall attempted to build up my endurance - so important for a long, steep problem like Midnight... Three-finger dead hangs on the bar in the house attempted to make those moves on small edges that bit easier.Blair doing circuits on the Fort William wall
2007 passed into 2008 and still I couldn't find a time to get down the Glen during a dry spell. So much for my pact. And so, it came to February. A fat high pressure is sat over the UK and the Highlands are bathed in glorious, unseasonal warmth and sunshine. Winter seems to have taken a break. I spent the day on a train back up from Edinburgh - escaping from the Har. Surely the Hat would be dry? Pulling in to Fort William at 16:00 I hurried to the car and drove straight down the Glen. There it was, under the pale wintery blue sky, that cuboid of ancient schist. After a spell of hanging the jugs, jumping about and generally trying to get some blood into my hands I got on it.
The initial jugs soon gave way to the heel hook and bouncing between the poorest slopers, then I'm swinging around the nose. Remember the sequence. I'm still on and I'm moving between the three-finger edges. I'm on the slopers. I'm hanging above the pointed rock. It's calling for me. But, no, I'm still on and I've got the heel-hook. I'm pulling onto the final jugs. It's just a mantle away. It's done. I'm ankle deep in heather on the top of the Hat, chest heaving and fingers shaking. It's over. Midnight In A Perfect World. My first real 'project' has been dispatched and when it came to it, it felt easy.
So what am I supposed to do now?