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…