Day 4 – The Final Countdown

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!

And on…

And on…

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?!


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