This morning I was determined to be on the ball: weather, wind and avalanche forecasts were at my fingertips; pack all sorted early; by the requisite 8am I was ready to rumble! Rob suggested a route with more walking than climbing, but then we hadn’t talked about me having previous climbing experience. The weather looked glorious, temperatures of (only) -2 to -4. I was confident now about my layers: one merino top, a hardshell and a padded jacket just in case. Sunglasses, gloves, and most essential of all… flapjack!
Back in the pass of Glencoe we travelled up the valley on a gradual slope. Lots of slippy ice and snow patches underfoot. The river was sufficiently frozen that we donned crampons for the crossings as we zig zagged our way to the mountain foot.
The pace was steady. I had said during the briefing “I cannot walk at your pace”. Rob seemed to clock this and the beginning of the day felt less rushed.
We reached the base of the ridge that was planned for today, walking up Lairig Eilde to a long steep ridge that took us up to the cornice and from there we could gain the munro some 1072m above the road height.
It was proper climbing! Rob led the first pitch and I seconded him up, waiting at the bottom unsure of how much communication would take place and what was taking so long for him to create a safe pitch. Finally, he called down “safe” which means he was now tied in to something solid up above, I responded with “Off belay” which means that I was no longer protecting him. He shouted “Climb when ready”; my signal to remove myself from the piece of metal holding me onto the hillside and when I’m ready start moving up the ridge.
Using crampons on a mixed surface of ice, snow and rock was a new sensation. At times, I found footholds that felt more secure than toes through a rubber climbing shoe. Sometimes I was considerably less stable. The massive advantage of using an ice axe was that it gave me another 55cm of reach. Amazing! If there was nothing much that I wanted to grab hold of, I could extend my axe and hook it over a ledge, into a cranny. Height was no issue! Brilliant 😀
When I reappeared, grinning, next to Rob we chatted about the climbing process. Running through the communication drills. He generously passed over his nuts, slings, and spare gear. My turn to lead.
The grade of climbing wasn’t an issue; on a summer’s day you probably wouldn’t have bothered with rope or traditional climbing gear. But this was a new terrain for me and the reassurance of taking up nuts and slings and creating a secure belay at the top was welcome. The route was lovely; lots of positive hand and foot holds; good ice; a nice manoeuvre over one ridge edge to another that Rob didn’t want to make on second which surprised me. Lovely, lovely, lovely!
We had made several hundred metres of good snow or rock. My energy levels were slipping and each time I thought we approached the pinnacle there was another level beyond. Our route moved round to the right to the final two pitches of seven. The penultimate section involved a short thin ledge across a 20m space; a short down climb and at the end, one shard of rock on to which to set up the belay. Rob led this and I watched his progress with care, feeding rope and relating the amount of spare remaining. The sun had been shining all day and now at 1:30, it was warm. The ice edges were starting to melt. Below us on either side of this thin walkway were sheer drops, with just rocky outcrops that might, or might not delay a fall.
Rob secured a belay position and I prepared to follow, moving downwards from my solid foot space to a crumbly ledge below. I fail to hook my axe over the nearest piece of rock, focusing instead on where my feet were on the slush beneath me. Suddenly, they weren’t beneath me any more and I was slipping. In a panic, I turned toward my axe which was above my head, not where it should be, close to my chest where I could use my body weight to slow me down… Ahhgh…
The axe bit and my crampons found purchase. My heart thudding, I remembered to inhale.
In total, I had slipped about six inches. In emotional terms, I had fallen several hundred feet. And I was on belay, so in reality I could only ever have fallen five or six feet. On wobbly legs I got vertical, looked for secure foot placements and steadied myself. Phew…
Across the remainder of the ledge and up to Robs belay point, He asked if I’d enjoyed the pitch. I said it had it’s moments and related my fall. We prepared to move on. There was a long steep section to finish the climb. 45 degrees of softening snow and a new rhythm. Ice axe in, toe push, toe push, steady. Over again: axe, toe, toe, steady…
On top of the ridge it was stunning. Beneath a perfect sky was a huge vista of snow-peaks. Sitting near the edge and looking behind to our left, there is the summit of Stob Corrie, a long gradual rise away. Leaving that pristine height we walked beyond our point of ascent to the lowest point from where we could descend to the valley floor.
At the point where we needed to drop over the the ridge edge, my stomach was lurching again. From a horizontal surface the hillside fell away at 45 degrees once more. I paused. Not one single fibre in my whole being wanted to go over that edge and onto the slope. Rob looked over at me in surprise.
“Are you really concerned about this, after the last few days?”
I looked back at him and thought:
No shit sherlock, what sane human being wouldn’t be nervous about throwing themselves off the edge of a precipice relying on 20 small bits of metal to keep them from plunging to the bottom of the mountain…?
What I actually said was:
“Well, there’s only one way down and I’ll do it one step at a time” My face moved in an approximation of a smile. Off we set. One foot at a time. Back to yesterday’s routine: pole, axe, step, step, steady; pole, axe, step, step, steady. All the way down…
Walking back through the uneven ice, grass, rocks and ahead was a herd of deer. One large stag, maybe ten does and younger fawns. All perfectly colour co-ordinated with the brown-yellow scrub that we were travelling over. They watched us and our progress through the valley, unconcerned, nibbling at the semi-frozen stalks as we left them by.
It had been a great day. I had done my first two leads on snow and ice, wearing crampons. It was my first multi-pitch experience. I had walked along snow-ridges and had images in my head that rivalled any climbing experience before. Most of all, I had conquered my fear of the cold. It’s all just about gear. I have gear. I know better how to use it now.
Back at the hotel, after farewells Rob drove home and I was absolutely done. An enormous effort meant that I could stay awake for supper, but ideas of sitting in the bar with the treat of a second glass of wine were hopeless. With a happy, satisfied but exhausted smile. I bid goodnight to the warm and friendly staff and finished the trip lying in bed thinking…
Well, that was wonderful… what next?!
A new day, sunshine, an additional guide and even more importantly – another pair of boots! I’ve gone down half a size and the ‘new’ boots feel a lot better. Still a bit too much room, but my feet don’t rotate each time I walk and my heels don’t leave the boots behind, so we’re onto a winner.
Plus (and it’s a biggy…) as we were on our way out, my huge blue pack towering above me, Chris suggested that I ask Andy if I could use his bag instead. He may have been joking, but like a drowning girl, I grabbed at this straw. Andy, to his eternal credit, paused (it was his new, lovely bag, used only once by himself and set up for his eventual trek round the Himalayas) said “of course…”. I hugged him; couldn’t help myself. Thank you, thank you thank you… Andy disappeared to empty his bag of his own things and presented me with his sack, compeed plasters, just in case, additional sets of hand warmers and his emergency bivvy-bag. Hard to imagine how he could have been any kinder.
So, the day started with a bacon sandwich, boots that rubbed less and a bag that was only slightly too big for me… could it get any better?!
Yes, as it happens, it could, but then….
During the briefing we met Tom, our new guide. He watched as Rob briefed us for the day Had any of us checked weather and avalanche reports? I had checked the weather. Ok…
Rob’s irritation at our lack of proactivity is not unreasonable. The aim of this course is to leave us reasonably self-sufficient in terms of making sensible and safe choices in winter mountain conditions. We can’t afford to be passive about the elements and Rob was trying to get us to take responsibility for our future activities. The rest of the briefing covered route, quizzing us about likely risks, avalanche likelihood, wind speed and direction and so on… We were doing a grade I winter scramble, using ropes and would ascend the nearest munro if time allowed.
At the start of the day’s adventure the split of the group was clear. Rob would take the ‘better’ group (Alex and Duncan), Tom had me and Chris. In other circumstances, I might have been insulted to so clearly be labelled as ‘less than’; today I was delighted. After yesterday’s emotionally and body-bruising experience, I no longer cared where I stood in the rankings, I just didn’t want to chase up another mountain side feeling like a vague irritation.
We (obviously) weren’t doing the “normal route” (i.e. footpath for tourists),. So instead of taking a gentle rise, we headed up a frozen waterfall in order to quickly gain the 500m height that would take us to the start of our winter scramble. Half way up and my base layer (nylon tights) and wardrobe malfunction (failed elastic in my walking trousers) were combining to leave me somewhat exposed. I stopped, ordered all five blokes to look the other way, stripped off, removed the tights and used Andy’s rucksack waistband-strap to loop through my trousers so that they would stay approximately around my waist. Finally, on day 3, I could walk without impediment – wonderful!
Then an hour of ‘up, up, up?!
We paused, at the bottom of the snow line, crampons on at the base of our first buttress of rock. The climbing had started.
Tom roped us up. Tom first – then me – then Chris. 2.5m of rope between us. Chris’ job was to maintain the distance between me and him, so that we could avoid a shock-load if he slipped. For those of you who haven’t climbed; avoiding a shock load in a rope system is one of the key elements of climbing safely outdoors. The rope is dynamic (i.e. it stretches a bit if you fall off). This is a good thing, it provides ‘give’ in the system and reduces the risk of serious injury. However, having that safety lag depends on the system (the people attached to each other) having a little bit of tension in the rope. Imagine driving a car: you can feel the pressure on the acceleration pedal, so that if you put your foot down, the car’s engine is already working with you and can accelerate in response to you lowering your foot. If you were stationary at a red light, tried to put the car into 5th and pull away, the engine would stall.
In rope terms, the stall means that whoever’s at the front of the system hasn’t had a chance to prepare and at best they’re struggling to hold you if you take a slip or fall. At worst, you’ve yanked your lead climber off their feet and you’re both off the mountain, free-falling the hundreds of metres to the bottom of the valley. Sometimes, a bit of tension is a marvellous thing…
But this was Chris’ first time on rock. In his head he was trying to keep up, so the notion of staying back and having a bit of stretch on the top between us must have seemed foreign. However, we progressed easily. Our pace wasn’t much behind the other group (a few minutes?) but the going was easier, Chris under instruction not to apologise for stopping, Tom was very relaxed, cheerful company. And, because we were well within my comfort zone, for the first time this trip, I could enjoy the cloudless deep blue sky, crisp white snowy peaks and miles and miles of visibility. Stunning: mountains behind mountains all the way into the distance…
And then we were on rock. Lovely, lovely, positive holds, foot ledges where I could jam my crampons into cracks and gain secure spaces to move up from. Crisp, icy snow between crags; each toe thrust held and the front of my crampons bit into the ice, making me feel stable and safe. My ice axe either dug into the snow or served as an additional 55cm of height. So I could always find something to grab hold of. It was… delicious….
Chris did brilliantly. As I finished one scrambling section, I looked back and watched him reach around a precipice, feel for and find a hand-hold. Then came his head, and his left foot. Finally, he hoisted himself onto his left leg, bringing round right hand and foot until he had swivelled in the air and traversed a corner. He was awesome. Go Chris. Below him was a 500m drop and he didn’t flinch for a second. Coming up to meet me (oh, well, never mind the shock-load) he stood beside me – we giggled for pure joy. Look where we were and what we were doing. This is what climbing is all about
Eventually, we neared the summit (boo, too soon). The others, maybe 5 minutes ahead of us, were eating and taking on fluids. We took pictures, shared congratulations, smiled and relaxed in the sunshine. There was only the descent now to finish the day…
Ah yes, the down bit…
Of all the ways down, this was not the route I expected. Rather than following the slope further down the ridge, we turned a sharp right, down a corrie at least 45 degrees in slope.
Seriously? It was as steep as a 90m ski-jump slope, but five times as long. You’ve got to be joking… I only put on these crampons for the first time 40 hours ago…
Rob is calm and implacable. “If you fall, it’s a very icy surface; you will struggle to do an ice arrest. So don’t fall…”
With my stomach somewhere around my knees I follow Tom and Alex over the edge and onto this impossible slope. One tentative step at a time. I stab my crampon spikes into the snow. Trekking pole down next, ice axe plunged into the surface above me. Left foot down at the same angle as the slope. Right foot follows. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. With each move I listen intently for the crunch. Did all points engage? Did the surface shift at all? Am I stable? Then repeat. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check. Each repetition gains me 3 feet forwards and 2 feet drop in altitude. It is a slow and laborious process. I am utterly focused on the task at hand.
Tom’s voice intrudes on my concentration. He points out the route we need to take and how to zigzag down the slope. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check.
Then I hear Chris’ voice above me. “Rob, my knee has gone”. I check for stability and then look behind and above me. Chris is sitting in the snow, collapsed on his injured left knee. He’s only made it four feet from the top.
Rob moves back towards Chris, Tom is alarmed and annoyed. In his opinion it wasn’t fair to let Chris make this call; that’s the job of the guide. Chris had struggled with his knee on the ascent, it wasn’t a surprise that the descent was more difficult. Tom stays with me, Duncan and Alex; it becomes his job to see us down. Rob will find an alternative route that Chris’ poor knee can tolerate.
Pole, axe, step, step, check. We continue downhill. Alex and I find a rhythm and move more easily.
Duncan falls, he slips and calls out. I watch him slide a few metres down the mountain.
We watch Tom run to his aid some 50m above us. Duncan is caught by an exposed patch of heather. Both men wait, catch their breath. I start to breath again too.
Tom helps Duncan regain his feet and shows him how to take toe-steps down, facing onto the hillside. It is an exhausting way to retreat, but has the comfort of staying close to the ice surface with your ice axe permanently engaged in the snow.
Deep breath. Pole, axe, step, step, check…
The four of us drop to base of the snow line and stop to remove crampons and climbing gear. No sign of Chris or Rob. We continue down on surfaces that are unpredictable. Sometimes frozen and slippy, other times boggy and sinking, other times again, full of roots that catch on our boots. We have a mile in distance and 300m of descent through this terrain. Each of us slips and falls at some point. Poor Duncan does a full 360, Tom at his side, he steadies D and then helps him locate his glasses. Alex and I pause, check that no serious injury has occurred, then we all continue down.
I’ve enjoyed conversation with all my companions, but perhaps had most to chat about with Alex. This time our route down is less hurried. So when I need to take off a layer he waits for me to get going again rather than needing to rush on by. The lack of pressure is a relief and I appreciate his patience.
Suddenly behind, there are Chris and Rob. Yahoo! Chris is moving. Slowly. Clearly in pain. Rob is some 50m or so ahead of him. I watch, i move down a few feet, then pause and recollect. It’s the same as yesterday. Chris brought his car to the base of the route, so in theory he could be left on the mountainside. I cannot be left behind. There is no way that I’m going to let Chris be subjected to the lonely and miserable experience that I had the day before.
I pause, let chat briefly with Rob, but let him pass by and wait for Chris. We talk for a bit and then Chris says “On you go Julie”
“No” I reply “I’m behind you”
Poor bugger is in too much pain to argue. He sets off. On occasions we chat, often we’re in silence. But I will not pass in front of him and I will not let him descend alone. As a result he speeds up a little, and we make a companionable route to the base.
Eventually, we make the car park beside the school that gave our route it’s name: The School House Ridge. Chris collects email addresses, but I don’t have his. I will set up a Dropbox file and sharing our digital memories, I need to get his email at some point to do this. We share a companionable hug farewell.
Chris sets off for Edinburgh and home. The rest of us go back to the hotel. I return Andy’s bag and go to Fort William to purchase an alternative that will see me though tomorrow’s adventure with Rob. The evening is spent with the lovely Jo, who’s event managed a team of 10 Jewish fundraisers ascending Ben Nevis, a new mountaineer doing a course with my company and one of their guides. It’s a cheerful evening, but I’m too tired to keep up conversation long after dinner. By 9:45 I need to be in bed and just manage to haul myself up the two flights of stairs to my room.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring but the last thing I do before I sleep is check the weather forecast – tomorrow should be lovely…
I got down early for breakfast, hoping to write up the blog, but was joined by Andy. He was sad but resolute, no climbing for him today. He recognised the signs of pleurisy and wanted to get to the nearest A&E for treatment. Chris appeared and he, too, was signing out. His knee hadn’t recovered overnight and he was going to hunt for a new brace.
That left me, Duncan and Alex for the second training session: rope skills and snow safety. Our day started with the briefing: had we checked the day’s sheets? We mumbled that we hadn’t. Rob said naught…
Then map out, avalanche and weather forecasts were compared with the suggested direction of travel. Which of our slopes (north, south, east or west) would be most at avalanche risk? Where would the wind be coming from? What other hazards could we anticipate between the map and the forecasts? A gentle drilling in being mountain aware, considering our options and their inherent dangers. All aimed at inculcating us with decision making processes that we might rely on in the future.
Rob had obviously been listening to my fears about the cold. He presented me with a pair of mitts to borrow. These were his wife’s and had been all the way to Antarctica. I’m honoured and worried – can’t afford to lose one of these babies then. They are deliciously warm.
The minibus ride took us to the start of a footpath up to Stob Ban. On the slippy, icy way we halted in a small, snow-filled corrie, happily sheltered from most of the wind that was forecast for 30-40mph today. We started with digging a snow belay – a hole in the snow in which to sit to belay a climbing partner. But not just any old hole. Ours must each be big enough for ourselves and our packs, deep enough that we sunk up to the back of our knees; undercut so that the front ledge pinned us in and gave us maximum possible security. Then an axe anchor behind the hold. Next, belay techniques and a few knots that I found familiar. I team taught with Rob, showing Alex the belay routine whilst Rob worked with Duncan who found rope management less natural.
More lessons, creating a snow bank to abseil down from, general snow safety, judging the ice pack, it’s dangers and likelihood of stability. Rob’s instructions were patient, detailed and clear. Everything we learnt was geared to safety, safety, safety. Lots of questions; he asked us to think out our answers as well as take additional information on board. He linked back today’s new chunks to yesterday’s and this morning’s. The training section of the day went quickly and we adjusted to grabbing mouthfuls of food when the opportunity arose.
Five freezing hours after leaving the minibus, Rob suggested that we “step up” and do the ascent of Stob Ban, an hour’s climb away. If he’d suggested that we go home for a cup of tea and hot shower before dinner I’d have readily agreed with him…
My legs were still aching from the day before but Duncan and Alex seemed unaffected, marching effortlessly behind our Leader. The further ahead they got the harder it was to maintain motivation. As for yesterday, the guys were moving at Rob’s Everest-ready pace. Alex is just phenomenally fit and ate up what each day offered him. Duncan I think found the going more difficult but simply refused to be left behind. Occasionally they paused and I caught up. By the time I reached them, they were rested and ready to move. This cycle worsened as we progressed.
Eventually, I decided that I’d just have to walk for myself. There was NO way that I would be giving in, or giving up, but I simply couldn’t chase them up this mountain. On one occasion, I got to them as they were inspecting the ice pack so I walked on past. It helped to be ahead, if only for a short distance. I maintained this lead for as long as I could, such a relief not to feel like I was being abandoned at the rear of the line. But as the gradient steepened towards 40 degrees near it’s summit, I inevitably fell back once more.
It didn’t matter if I walked left-side up, toes in first or right-side leading, muscles were lactic-heavy and reluctant. Plus my bag was so big that I couldn’t raise my head to see where I was going. It was also excruciating to wear. If I had the belt where it was supposed to be, it cut off the blood supply to my legs. If I hoisted it to the top of my ribs I could walk but with restricted breathing. If I loosened the belt and held it up, I could mitigate both issues, but then had no way to use my ice-axe, which I needed. In addition, my boots were a size too big and so my foot rotated when walking up the slope and changing foot direction.
I felt my emotions rising, and when I paused, pushed back my sack and looked up, the guys were further ahead than ever; disappearing over one high, steep ridge after another. When we were just 100m from the summit, I found them waiting on a ledge for me. I didn’t take the rest, but went forwards. Rob seemed to approve and said “Good”. But it wasn’t good, it was desperation. We were not on Everest, we did not need to race. This was one of the most miserable days I’d ever had out on any mountain.
The top, at last the top. The boys were shaking hands and all happy. I tried to match their sense of achievement, but could have easily growled. So I kept quiet and smiled for the pictures.
And down we go…
More of the same, them ahead, me behind, feet, back, bag, legs, emotions.
When we reached the end of the snow line, it was time to remove harnesses, helmets, crampons. I fumbled and was so slow that Rob sent the others on ahead and came over, unceremoniously stuffing my bag with the things around me. He gave me a deeply reproachful look. What did he think I was doing, going for a Sunday ramble? Then we were back on catch-up…
I won’t repeat the woes above; you can fill in the blanks. Feeling like a hindrance was mixing with a whole bunch of unrelated emotions that I’d been carrying around for a while. My self esteem resembled a pre-packed block of Wensleydale; in it’s packaging it appears whole and firm but peel off the wrapper and it soon starts to crumble. Tired, with the others miles ahead, I turned into a rebellious teenager.
“Sod the lot of you.”
Unless they were going to drive off without me, all their rushing was pointless, they would have to wait at the bottom. So in a state of mutiny, I reduced my speed, not to a recalcitrant crawl; I wanted to get back too; but not doing the break-neck pace over loose rocks and black ice, so that I could be more sure of my footing.
Eventually, the final gate at the bottom appeared in view. Rob must be in a hurry. I saw him get in the van, start to move when poor Duncan appeared from the right, struggling with his trousers and running to get to the van as Rob drove off in my direction. I walked to the centre of the road, the bugger would have to stop or run me over. Duncan opened the side door and I was commanded to get in. I wanted to get in. My bag needed to come off first though. At the repetition of the order I agreed and said “I’m taking off my pack”. Silence emanated from the driver’s seat.
I climbed in the rear and Rob threw the van round corners. My stomach lurched. I’m not a good traveller in the back of cars, so the combination of the day’s exertion and being tossed around in a minibus was threatening to have dire consequences. I stayed quiet for as long as I dared, but after a particularly jostling bend I had to speak up. Could I come and sit in the front, next to Alex? If not, I might just vomit.
Unsurprisingly, Rob screeched to a halt and we played musical minibus seats. Rob constrained his speed and we trundled back towards the hotel.
“What time is your dinner at the hotel?”
“Not til 7-7.30, we have plenty of time. Do you have a timetable you’re working to?”
“I said I’d be back for dinner at 6”
The dashboard clock said 18:37.
There we had it. It was domestic issues that had us running up and down the bloody hillsides. Because of course, Rob wouldn’t get to just drop us off. There were ropes to sort and gear to stash and then he had a 20 minute drive back to Fort William. When in charge of his own environment, Rob was calm, focused, and his level of experience meant that we could have absolute faith in his ability. But at the wrong end of the day, when he was late for family routines and well past the 8am-5pm daily timeframe, then he got tetchy.
When we pulled into the hotel car park, I staggered into the reception area, pulled off my big, painful boots and slowly wound my way upstairs to my room. I had no energy to bid friendly farewells and needed to get horizontal before something dramatic happened.
I just got into my room in time. Lying down didn’t help and very shortly I was leaning over the loo getting reacquainted with my ham and mustard sandwich. Then a lie down and a chance to let my system settle.
I was not in the mood to be sociable; didn’t want to eat. But tomorrow was another full day. I needed to replenish energy stores. So I gingerly crept downstairs and into the bar where there was much joviality. Andy had received wonderful NHS Scotland treatment and was buzzing on a cocktail of relief, antibiotics and steroids. Chris had found an adjustable knee brace and was also full of medication. Duncan and Alex, like myself, were wiped from 10 hours of effort, but it was.a cheery meal, with lots of chat and I was considerably brighter by the time I crawled back upstairs at 9:30pm.
Just before I’d retired to my room, Alex called me back: Oh, Julie, before he left, Rob said to tell you well done”. I managed to smile in response.
Tomorrow we would have an extra guide, and split the group. Andy couldn’t take part. The others were all leaving that day and Andy wanted to start the long drive back at 3pm, taking Duncan with him. So I would vote to be in the short-day group and try to recapture some strength before my final day on Tuesday when it would be just me and Rob…
Oh My Goodness!
But I digress…
I met up with Duncan and Andy, who had been at supper last night. It was great to have friendly faces this morning. Added to our group were Chris, who’s driven over from Edinburgh, and like Me, Andy and Duncan, he appears well past worrying about a 40th birthday. Then Alex, (29 and going to Island Peak, Himalayas this year) who thought he should know how to put on crampons. Good move, I would say. With our guide, Rob, there’s me, five blokes and a surprising lack of testosterone (e.g. I’ve climbed this high; I’m really good at this; What, you’ve only done that?) which is a bit of a relief, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Rob gave us a briefing, which included a kit check (my layers should be enough), a long talk about staying warm, how the body’s core temperature falls; tell tale signs – cold hands are often an indication of a cold core, so put on more layers. Lots on avalanche and weather warnings, how to read the avalanche reports (of which there are two daily for this area); general danger signs.
Feeling duly cautioned, we go out to the minibus which will take us to today’s playground. I faff with my gear a lot. Can’t get my sac comfy, fumble with the straps, feel slow. I’m frequently the last to get sorted and when we walk it’s me and Andy, who’s struggling with asthma, at the back.
But this weather is wicked… Visibility ranges between 3 and 300 metres, often changing at a moments notice. At it’s calmest the wind blows a steady and constant 20-30 miles an hour. Gusts are 40-ish miles an hour. Rob judges the wind speed by how likely he is to be blown over. A really strong force of wind and snow stops us in our tracks. That was 40-ish says Rob – it had him rocking. When it’s too strong we should drop to the ground as it will make us more stable, or grab someone else. Apparently two unstable people are less likely to be felled than one.
As we trail the others, Andy and I agree that Rob will probably pull us off the mountain in these conditions. But this is a WINTER mountaineering course. We’re here to learn how to do precisely this – cope in winter. And Rob is completely unperturbed. Only once did our skills session pause; Rob was facing into the wind, a huge gust carrying all sorts of nastiness blew straight in his face. It simply wasn’t possible for him to speak. He waited for the gust to pass and then continued precisely from where had left off. We moved onto using ice axes to cut footsteps in the ice/snow, making progress up and down the mountainside.
So the day continued, past morning (no break), past lunch (no break), to early afternoon(no break); too chilly to stop for more than a few moments to grab a mouthful of sandwich and swig down liquids. Colder and colder, -20 with windchill. Frostbite will attack exposed skin at -26. My gear was fine! The combination of layers was working. I found an easy set of adjustments for when we did heavier exertion and I needed to let out steam, covering back up quickly when the wind surged over us and body temperatures plummeted again.
We’d covered most of the skills that Rob had planned for us today; no chance of rope work in these conditions. So our leader announced that we may as well do the nearest Munro and get the ascent whilst we were here. It was three o’clock’ but there should be time…
Suddenly those crampon and ice axe skills were for real. We were travelling up a steep slope of snow and ice, wind strength and height increasing simultaneously. As I walked I sensed as much as heard my crampons biting into the icy snow surface with a reassuring crunch. The going was tough on quads, calves, knees, and chest as I gasped for breath through the wind. Feet sideways, rocked downwards to the slope so that all 10 teeth of the crampons connected with the snow surface, increasing stability. Ice axe held into the snow above me, always with the axe blade pointing behind in case of a slip and needing to ice-arrest. When fatigue cramped muscles, I carefully turned to face the hillside, climbing straight up. Each step involved a kick into the white so that the front of my footwear broke the surface and gained a secure toe-hold. But not for long, calves screaming, I turn to the side again, and let my feet rock over apologising silently to my complaining ankle joints.
Just 30m from the summit Andy’s asthma kicks in properly; he’s pink in the face but has white/blue lips. He sets himself in a rock nook, as protected as he can be, the rest of us struggle upwards. Chris has already paused. Knee issues and lack of energy and hydration. We continue: up, up, up.
Blow, Blow, GUST, WHOOMP, I can stand still and stay upright, but dare not move for fear of destabilising. Suddenly a tall blue-clad figure is beside me; Rob has reached over and grabbed my pack, not taking weight or guiding me, just preventing me from blowing off the ridge. And we’re back to inching our way onwards. Up, up, up. Chest dragging in air, quads filling up with lactic acid. Step, crunch, kick other foot forward. Step, crunch, kick other foot forward…
Then we’re there… up! The top is too blowy to have a visual record of our first achievement, none of us have the energy to remove packs, fish out phones and battle the storm around us. As we stand there momentarily, I take the offer of Young Alex’s arm just to stay stationary. So it’s a short sharing of victorious smiles before we turn and trudge down the steep, icy, slippy descent, picking up Chris and Andy on our way.
Up is so much easier.
But down has us learning a new skill – plunge steps – on a soft deep snow section we goose-step, pounding our heels into the snow and feeling the glorious soft powder collapse beneath our feet and cushion each footfall. It’s the best bit of the return journey. Leaning back slightly and throwing ridiculous moves in the fabulous white stuff, we make great progress and I laugh as we go. Then back to ice: step, crunch, kick, step, crunch, kick, step…
At different points during our descent Andy and Chris put a foot through the snow, dropping thigh deep through the surface, whilst the rest of their frame moves forwards. Knees are badly jarred. For Andy, this is an insult to the injury of his unhappy lungs. Both guys are stoic, but clearly in discomfort. Despite his challenges, Andy is always the one to ask if others are ok. Chris takes another fall and uses his ice axe to stop his slide. Back in the minibus, we give him the “Ice-Arrest of The Day” award, for his use of technical equipment. I think he’s a bit non- plussed by the honour…
So, Julie who was terrified of the cold, need not have been. My gear was great – too warm on occasions. From Rob, I’ve learnt new ways of using what I have to better effect (Down layers on top of hard shell; very effective for quickly restoring core temperatures). I didn’t get mittens for this trip and they would have been good for today, but my gloves were still good and on occasions too hot. I’ve more of a sense of how to function and move in this environment and lost my fear of snow and wind blowing; it’s quite possible if not pleasant, to move and make progress is truly horrid weather. If you have to. I am a little euphoric about this change of perspective. If I can do the rest of this course, then…
Over dinner, we chat bout the day, re-live our funny points, share consternations and how they were overcome. Andy and Duncan reliably inform me that the wind speed at the top gusted at 50+ miles an hour. I have no way of judging; once it gets over 30mph, I focused on staying on the mountain. Strong enough to blow you off is all I need to know.
Then bed and in theory write up the day, in practice turn out the lights and feel the aches and strains of unnatural muscle-use slowly wear away.
Where did we go?
On the image attached are the car park in a red circle, where we did our skills training (blue circle) and then in the black circle, the ascent we did after our 4 hours of skills training! Access the car park on the road from Fort William through the Pass of Glencoe.
In my head, there’s an iconic picture of me, in helmet, sun glasses, bright coloured snow gear, at the tip of a snow-covered peak surrounded by other (lower) white-tipped peaks in the distance; with just a couple of pairs of footprints behind me and whoever I’m climbing with, in the snow, along the ridge to summit success…. I’d be at the top of Montblanc, or some other easily recognised gorgeous Alpine height. And I would be grinning, from ear to ear, high on achievement.
There’s only one problem (apart from the complete lack of snow/ice technical knowledge): I am terrified of the cold. I don’t mean “I don’t like the cold” or “I hate feeling cold”. I mean that I have no resilience against it whatsoever. I have been known to turn blue beside others sunbathing on a beach in Spain, start becoming hypothermic on a crag in summer-time Italy, and to keep on a cardigan in St Lucia because although it was around 32 degrees’s, there was a cool wind coming off the sea…
I don’t know how to do cold. I have numerous synthetic, technical pieces of gear to keep out the cold. I have gloves, glove liners, thermal hats with thermal liners. I know what to wear. What I don’t know, is how to withstand the cold itself.
Which is a bit of a bummer, because to be at the top (and return safely to the base) of an Alpine mountain, I need to walk and climb in cold temperatures.
I have tried to organise various informal trips to the snow and ice with friends or local climbing groups, but to no avail, so returning to my maxim “we’re only here once” I’ve booked a formal course, Scotland. Yes, I aim to learn technical climbing skills. More importantly though, I need to know if I can do this. Can I go out in these temperatures (forecast for tomorrow is -7 including windchill) and function…?
I am in The Onich Hotel, with nine other intrepid cold-doers, who have planned various guided/taught expeditions. My group has four gents (two of whom I shared the table at dinner) and two others seen across the room, but not really met. Duncan and Andy, were sat on the other side of the large dining room, and seemed chatty; various others were sat eating too but not making eye contact or conversation. The waitresses told me that the first night was always like this, conversation started properly on the second evening when every one had a day’s outing under their belts. I took the plunge and walked the length of the room to say hello. the guys were friendly, are chatty and I think it was a relief to us all to break the ice. I was glad I’d asked…
Which is something I should have done a better job of earlier today.
I have long held that questions are much more powerful than statements. Either in terms of avoiding assumptions and clarifying situations first or because answering a question creates a neural pathway that makes for much more impactful learning and insights.
I was on my second of what should have been four trains, heading towards Edinburgh and I showed the guard my ticket, enquiring about where I should catch the next train to Glasgow. She was very helpful. Alight at Haymarket and get the next train to Glasgow as it’s quicker and it’ll avoid a hurried change/missing the connection. What I didn’t ask was “How long do I have between trains?” So when she said breezily, you have plenty of time to get the 12:21, I didn’t confirm that the 12:21 was leaving from Glasgow, not Edinburgh.
We pulled into Edinburgh Haymarket, I thought I had plenty of time, so nipped to the loo and whilst having a leisurely sit on the pot, was vaguely aware of a train to. Glasgow being announced, arriving and departing in short measure. I emerged, wandering along the platform towards the notice board and then noticed the problem – the next Glasgow train wasn’t for AGES. Oh no….?
A very nice guard eventually stopped walking briskly away from me, examined my ticked, the schedule and sympathetically said “Sorry, you were here at the station, you could have caught the train”. He moved on and I looked, bewildered, at the board again – there were two trains for Glasgow coming up; one slow, the other slower. Which was which?
Laura and her colleague Steve were much more helpful; even trying to persuade the duty manager at Glasgow to hold the next departure but it was no good. My train from Glasgow to Fort William left at 12:21; the faster train to Glasgow arrived at 12:22. “Stand at the front of the train and RUN” advised Laura. And I did.
Which put me at Buchanen Bus Station, nearly three hours later, getting onto the 3pm bus to Fort William which, as it happened, stopped at Onich on the way through.
As I boarded at 14:45, the bus was already quite full and worried about getting travel sick, I saw that an extra leg room seat was available just two rows from the front of the bus. The window seat was occupied by a lady in her 60’s or 70’s who was clearly hoping to keep it that way. She very graciously smiled as I lumped down, sorting my stuff and settled in.
Conversation over the next 3 and 1/2 hours was wonderful. Margaret has always been a keen walker, having stomped the West Highland Way and Great Glen walks for years. We plotted how I would entice (entrap?) M into doing the Highland Way, starting at at the end of Loch Lomaond and walking from there to Fort William (72 lovely miles and only one real hill to speak of… honest…). Her knowledge plotted not only the route, but the over night stops, one B&B at a time! Conversation went all over the place, either of us empowered to deflect from uncomfortable topics (Nicola Sturgeon, Brexit…etc) and then talking about children, grandchildren (hers) and life in general.
So I got to ride along Loch Lomond, with views of a storm-torn vista that would have been missed by the train route set in the trees. After my train trials, I arrived at Hotel Onich, on the Loch-side just half an hour later than I might have done, but I was much the richer for my travel deviation: thank you Margaret!
Checking in, fellow travellers, food and “issues” will need to wait for tomorrow, save that the kit list they’ve given us tonight suggests you should have 3-4 spare warm jackets to take on the mountain. In total (spares included) I have just two…