Sunday, 4 January 2009

Welcome Back

New year, new fun and games. The post Hogmanay hangover depression has been banished and energy levels are high after two weeks of festive exuberance.

Steve finishing the crux corner of a very burried The Message

So, what has been happening in the world of Soft Rock? I hear you cry. Well, since last bloggage I’ve enjoyed traditional Scottish powder on The Message (IV 6***) in Coire an’t Schneachda with my landlord Steve, several short trips to very cold crags in Englandshire over the festive season, namely The Roaches, Baldstones, and Somerset’s jewel (ahem) Uphill Quarry, a fair bit of running, including a 6 mile circuit with my bro on Christmas Day (the beginnings of a fine tradition perchance?) and eventually saluted my return to the Highlands with a full day on Braeriach yesterday. The gaps between all this were filled with copious bouts of food and liquor consumption, dog petting, familial camaraderie, and oh, did I mention spending time with Jones?

Temperature inversion at the Roaches Skyline (Photo: S. Jones)

That’s right, Jones returned for three weeks from her saintly work in Madagascar (you can follow her adventures HERE) and we spent most of my two weeks off work together. When she was in Madagascar she kept saying how she missed the sensation of feeling cold, and couldn’t wait to come up to Aviemore and experience the Highland winter once again. Well, as we all know, the grass is always greener, and within minutes of stepping off the train she had had her fill of the cold. Sadly, it has remained pretty parky all over the country for quite a while, so the poor lass has been be-scarfed, be-hatted, be-gloved and be-everything elsed for weeks. Not long now until she ships off to top up the tan though. The plan is for me to go out to Madagascar to visit her in March, so I’m starting to make plans. Muchos excitement.

Anyway, you didn’t come here to read about domestic bliss. You want fear and loathing and gibbering miles above the last dodgy ice-screw. And so, back to yesterday on Braeriach. Sam, Konnie and I made the long (12 or so kilometers) trudge into the truly remote and beautiful Garbh Coire Mor via the Lairig Ghru at dark-o’clock yesterday morning under a clear sky and frosty ground, eventually getting to our chosen route, Vulcan (V 4***), a long, long time later. From below we beheld thinly iced grooves and stellar neve so decided to have a pop. Somehow, luckily for me, it was my lead, so I promptly began battling upwards, spurred on by a couple of rather poor tied off ice-screws and small wires teased into the side walls. Anyway, fortunately my lead went pretty smoothly, despite having to gird my loins a time or two.

Konnie entering Garbh Coire Mor, Braeriach.
Vulcan takes the central line in the buttress right of the obvious gully

From above my rather uncomfortable, and potentially psychological, belay I could see the sidewalls shy away to leave a steep groove capped by a cornice that appeared Patagonian in style. Oh, what larks. On his arrival at the belay Konnie slumped under the power some utterly heinous sounding hot-aches, coughing, wimpering and groaning into the snow, and all the time being ‘papped’ by Sam and his new video camera. So after several sessions of swearing by Konnie and laughing by Sam and I, Sam started up the final pitch. He made pretty steady work until the final five or so metres of the route, at which point the day took a decidedly dark tone. The sticky ice and neve that we had been enjoying seemed to run out and morph into almost vertical sugar powder. Axe placements no longer existed and the last joke runner was over five metres below Sam’s feet. He started to make noises. And not, happy, happy, joy, joy noises. More OH FUCK THIS IS SERIOUS I MIGHT BE ABOUT TO DIE noises, and at this point I started to look at the one (hopefully) solid anchor of my three anchor belay, and started to think OH FUCK THIS IS SERIOUS I MIGHT BE ABOUT TO DIE. The sickly grin I shared with Konnie told me he was in on the impending peril theme too. Even the weather seemed to join in, and a clear blue sky and glistening coire was replaced by swirling grey cloud as far as we could see.
Sam heading towards the cornice on pitch 2 of Vulcan
A wee bit later: Sam in Patagonian mode

Eventually Sam started caving, digging into the sugar-snow, burrowing into the cornice and slowly, slowly making upwards and inwards progress. The more he dug, the more the situation seemed to diffuse, until, with the inventive solution of burying sections of his walking poles as runners, he flopped over the top and disappeared from view onto the plateau. Thank fuck for that. Before long Konnie and I followed him into the mirk, shared the ‘we’re still here’ moment, and made the long, long way back down to the car.

Hello 2009, I’m alive.

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