Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Good, the Good and the Ugly

Back north to the grim wastes of the wintry Highlands and a few shenanigans to report. Shenanigans might not be the right word, maybe epic mega shit-storm would be more suitable. But I digress.

Friday was one of those perfect winter days, cold, crisp and still with a bright sun pulsing down on the white hills and fields, making Aviemore look like just another day in the Alps. I took myself off to the Laggan boulders to continue the exploration and hopefully succeed on a problem I'd failed on before. Lone days of bouldering like this are perfect for me - a chance to really take my time to enjoy the place, the rocks, their shapes and the humbling landscape laid out before me. I warmed up slowly, taking regular warming gulps from the flask and stuffing my shoes down my top to thaw them between tries, my tarp under my mat acting as a lubricating layer on the snow, constantly trying to surf me down hill into the fence. Finally, sufficiently warmed and stretched I spent some time on the problem I was after and saw it off. Happy and relieved I broke out the last of the Christmas chocolates to celebrate. It's great up at these boulders, it's such a beautiful spot, and nicely accessible from Aviemore. There's a bit of work to do to get them properly cleaned and spic and span but I'm psyched to put the effort in and unleash some new gems for the Highland boulderers (all 2 of us).

Steep dry rock, snow and blue sky. What more could you ask for? The Cairngorms lurk beyond the steep face of one of the Laggan boulders.

The next day I joined Richie at Brin for another cold, crisp day on the rock. Heavy snow in Aviemore gave way to beautiful sun in Strath Nairn and we played for a few hours. I had a try on The Scientist, which I can only describe as excitingly hard. I did the easiest two of the four hard moves, which is something, I guess. Could do with access to a campus board... We then went for a look at the Farr Boulder as the sun set.

Richie confronting the snow on the Farr Boulder.

Then it was Sunday and time for my first winter climbing trip of the season. Sam came up on Saturday night and we left in good time on Sunday morning, skating up the snowy Bealach na Ba in Applecross to climb Blue Pillar on Meall Gorm. Being only 15 minutes from the car you'd think it wasn't going to be an epic day, but when Sam pulled a big chockstone out of a shallow chimney high on the route and took a backwards plummet onto ledges below that all changed. Out of sight, round the corner and pulled tight against my belay I didn't know what to think. Sam was silent. "Sam, speak to me!" I yelled into the approaching gloom. Eventually he called back. He was OK but his ankle was badly hurt. It had only been a fall of a few metres, but with that chockstone involved, things could be messy. Slowly he emerged groaning back onto the ledge beside me, his headtorch swinging loose from his helmet before his ashen face and thousand-mile eyes. "We're going down", he confirmed my thoughts. And so we started our descent into the inky darkness, I lowered Sam to our previous belay and then abbed down to join him. But then, of course, the ropes jammed when we tried to pull them through. No matter which way or how hard I pulled - nothing. Then we made our error, we still had 30 or so metres of rope so we abseiled as far as we could onto the next big ledge in the hope that the ropes would pull from this different angle. I should have climbed back up the ropes to free them, but hind-sight is no use now. By now it was pitch black and we worked in the twin white cocoons of our torch beams. From this new ledge we could escape into Lobster Gully, and down-climb it as far as possible, which we did until a steep step loomed out of the blackness below. And there we were, stranded only 60 odd metres up, no ropes. Shit.

We'd now abbed too far for me to climb back up the ropes and free them so I cast about on the other side of the ridge to find a way off but just found dead ends and bottomless drops so came back to Sam, who was now in a fair bit of pain, sitting quietly, stoically in the snow. There was nothing left for it but to make the call to mountain rescue - our time had finally come to become rescue statistics. Hours passed, messages were relayed back and forth and we started to get cold, then colder and then colder still. Our conversation started to falter and it was alarming how quickly the silence grew and bore down on our pitiful position. I tried hard to make small talk with Sam but it wasn't up to much and I could tell he was starting to get cold and depressed. The quiet calm night turned dim as the clouds dropped and then the snow started to fall, heavier and heavier on the rising wind. Through the murk we could see the rescue teams vehicles on the road, up and down, stopping and going again, but nothing was happening, no processions of torches coming up the hill.

The first rule of having an epic is to take lots of photos. Here's Sam when our predicament was still fairly novel. Smiles rapidly dissapeared shortly afterwards.

After another hour or so we realised that no helicopters would be flying in these conditions and any rescue from the team would take forever as they'd have to rig about 130 metres of abseil to reach us. I decided to have another look at the step in Lobster Gully that was stopping us. Leaving Sam to bear his pain alone I went for a look, desperate to have a good go at down climbing it if it looked half do-able - it was our only way off. And thankfully, it was. Once I committed to the first few metres I found that it was OK, 10 metres of fairly steep but useful turf and snow-ice. I raced back up to Sam to tell him and he was game to try, although neither of us were sure how he'd do it with a damaged ankle. With lots of swearing and scraping he did it though, hard bastard, and we were back into the gully. Only to be stopped by another shorter but steeper step below. No surely not after all our efforts! Keeping moving, I left Sam and hunted across the other side of the ridge again, finally finding a ledge that led off into the left hand easy gully. Back up to Sam again and I told him I thought I'd found our salvation. Following on behind me, sliding on one foot and his tools, Sam braved the narrow ledge round into the gully and bum-slid down behind me into the valley floor, free at last.

The rescue team were still in their vehicles and had obviously seen our torches moving and making our way toward them as a couple of torches came out into the darkness and started to approach. By now Sam was leaning on me and hobbling badly. When we reached the rescuers - of which the first we met was local legend Martin Moran - they looked as relieved as we were that we'd made it off by ourselves; it would have been a huge epic and taken a long long time for them to reach us, by which time we would probably have been hypothermic and in a bad state. They took Sam off to check he was OK and made sure I was fine to reach my car through the blizzard.

Then it was just a case of not crashing or falling asleep at the wheel for the next three hours of heavy snow and terrible roads back to Aviemore.

I heard from Sam today and it turns out that he's chipped and fractured his talus bone and is now in plaster so that's his winter season put on hold. As for me, well I'm not sure, but that might be the end of my winter too.


steve said...

Epic story gaz, just saw sam last night, he's sounding positive still. Though don't let that bad experience put you off winter altogether. Will have to rehabilitate you on a blue sky and fat ice day soon...

Gaz Marshall said...

Cheers Steve.

Aye, I could probably be tempted out by the notion of blue sky and fat ice but can't help but feel my psyche for mixed has gone. Hey ho, horses for courses...
I hear you're headed back south soe time soon?