Back in the saddle on Beinn Dearg
Hemingway stated that there are only three sports: motor racing, mountain climbing and bull fighting, all other pastimes being mere games. Mountain climbing - the only one of Hemingway's sports in which I participate - covers a huge and diverse range of endeavour, all the way from a gentle summer afternoon's hillwalking at one end to extreme alpinism at the other.
Scottish winter climbing sits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain the attractions this bizarre sport to the uninitiated. It is often uncomfortable and frightening. It always makes obscene demands on your time. A day's sport involves rising in the middle of the night, driving for several hours, then walking in to a remote coire with a heavy pack for several more hours to find yourself at the bottom of a route by 1000 hrs, if you are lucky. At this time of year that leaves six hours of daylight, so it almost inevitable that you will be completing your descent in the dark. It doesn't take too much in the way of unexpected delay - route finding difficulties or icy roads for instance - for night to fall before the technical climbing is complete. Despite- or perhaps because of - these hardships, a good winter day repays this effort and more. For a winter route is a true adventure; once committed the route fills one's awareness completely, there is a tangible feeling of memories being indelibly etched onto the consciousness, to be drawn on later in defense against the humdrum and the mundane.
|Toddy setting off on Penguin Gully, Beinn Dearg|
The trouble is that very often one is not rewarded with a good winter day. Many factors can conspire against success, but the main difficulty is in the prediction of conditions. There are few experiences more deflating than arriving in a coire to find the buttresses black and dripping, with no routes in acceptable condition. This deflation arises not just from the feeling of having wasted the physical energy expended on the day, it is also the mental energy that has been invested during the preceding weeks: poring over weather forecasts, avalanche forecasts, guidebooks and maps; scouring discussion forums and blogs; juggling work, social and family commitments so that they can be dropped at a day's notice when the the stars align. For conditions are fickle; some routes may be in condition for only a few days a season, others may be climbable only once in a decade. It is disappointing to waste energy by heading out on a poor day, but that is nothing compared to the pain of having to spend a perfect winter day at work. The stress of walking this tightrope between glory and disappointment can result in a winter angst so all-consuming that it is often a great relief when spring comes and the ice tools can be stowed away for another season.
For a variety of reasons I have drifted away from winter climbing over the last few seasons, notching up fewer and fewer routes each year. Last season I didn't even attempt to go climbing, investing my energies in ski mountaineering instead. Ski mountaineering is has many selling points: less equipment is required, reducing both bag weight and preparation time. One can move much faster, reducing the need for early starts. Skiing is not frightening. But the main advantage of taking to the hills on ski is it provides the opportunity to soak up the precious winter sun. The winter climber is perversely compelled by his thirst for ice and frozen turf to grovel in the cold shade of north-facing coires while the ski mountaineer is up on the ridges basking in sunshine. We see so little winter sun here that it seems criminally wasteful to deliberately avoid it.
|Happily leaving the ice behind for some more reassuring frozen turf|
Back in September I was inspired by Pete Macpherson's record of his previous season and decided that I would climb again this winter. On the 3rd of January I followed through on this threat, arranged a strong and highly motivated climbing partner and headed to Beinn Dearg, our sights set on Penguin Gully. We found two good ice pitches at the bottom of the gully but the snow on the easier upper section looked to be incomplete and so we traversed off to the right instead of finishing the route. The ice turned out to be quite variable, sometimes providing trustworthy placements and sometimes cleaving off in disconcerting dinner-plates.This fine day out had two effects on me. Firstly it confirmed my long-held suspicion of ice as a climbing medium, secondly it restored my urge for winter climbing. I fully intend to indulge further this season, with turfy routes in remote northwest venues and late season Nevis classics being top of the hit list..