Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Jones Rips It Up, and Other Stories.

It’s all change for Jones just now. Not only has she moved away from the black-hole of Edinburgh (so-named because once you live there you’ll never leave), but she’s also becoming that rare beast – a female Scottish winter climber. The move should do wonders for her mountain going tendencies as she is now stationed in Munlochy on the Black Isle.

We made use of her proximity to the snow on Sunday and I met her in the Coire Cas car park. The forecast was for a bit of a breeze, blue skies and a few snow showers, however, it was totally clagged in and dumping snow when we arrived, so we paired down the rack, dumped a rope and changed our plans from a grade IV in Coire an Lochan to the classic guides day of the Twin Ribs and Fiachaill Ridge. This gave Jones a chance to continue honing her skills on the sharp end, which she did with aplomb, and to work on her confidence when soloing and moving together. I think one of the keys to winter climbing is being quick and efficient and this often means you need to move quickly over exposed but easy ground. If you pitch everything and expect to be able to stop every five metres to place gear you’re going to end up climbing in the dark. Being able to do this just comes with having confidence in your ability to move safely – the key to all climbing: trusting your footwork.

Jones throwing crazy mixed climbing shapes

Jones made short work of the tricky section on the ribs and we moved together to the top. We then soloed the ridge, pitching the short steeper section at the end, and dropped down the Goat Track into Coire an’t Schneachda. The clouds were coming in and out all day, at times affording the prized view across the plateau to the Shelterstone and Carn Etchechan in the Loch Avon basin, and at others affording the luxury of the 20 metres in front of you. Down in the Coire I felt a bit annoyed that I hadn’t packed that second rope as we could have easily nipped up a route in good time but as it was we pointed down hill to the car and Aviemore. Next stop – Cairngorm Mountain Sports café.

Yesterday I teamed up with Blair Fyffe and we headed up the Ben. The forecast was for almost no wind, blue skies and cold temperatures, and this time it seemed about right. Blair used his avalanche skills in exchange for use of the forestry key – a much coveted gem that allows vehicle access to the top car park, rather than a walk from sea level – so he texted a conditions report to the SAIS forecaster. A bargain, I’d say. We ummed and arrr’d for a bit, trying to decide which route to do. A good covering of snow made everything look white and icy, but on closer inspection conditions were’nt as good as we had hoped. We thought about some icy mixed lines on Observatory Buttress, and had a peek round the corner at a very white Indicator Wall (white with snow, not ice I’m afraid), but in the end plumped for the fattest looking bit of ice around – Hadrian’s Wall Direct. Neither of us had done this classic V,5 so after spudding for the lead, a victorious Fairy Wife set off.

Blair on pitch 1 of Hadrians Wall Direct

The ice was pretty cruddy, making the climbing easy but quite bold. As I toiled away on second I felt fairly grateful for the ropes trailing upwards. The steepest section was also the cruddiest, and with only one suspect ice screw below it was a good lead. Mind you, Blair isn’t exactly a rookie. Like many of the routes on this part of the Ben, the first few pitches are the hardest, then there’s a lot of easier ground to move over before breaking through the headwall onto the plateau.

No matter how many times I seem to do it, topping out on the Ben on a good day is always a real joy. I guess it’s partly because it normally happens after climbing a great route, but I think it’s mainly because of those endless views. As we stood and took it all in – Skye, Rum, the Mamores, the Grey Corries, Torridon, Applecross, Ardnamurchan, and on and on into the horizon, the sun reflected in Loch Lihnne, and I couldn’t help but feel smug about living up here.

Enduring the horrors of the plateau

After most of the days I’ve been out this winter – wet, windy and with no views to speak of – I felt like I had earned the good weather, the views and the shorter walk-in and out, not to mention the brew in the CIC Hut. Who said Scottish winter was about suffering?

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