The problem with winter is, that it’s really freakin cold. Actually, that’s not really the problem. I can handle the cold. It’s not too bad. I think my problem is the instability of the weather. You can trust in forecasts all you want, the only thing you can be sure of, is that you won’t be fully prepared for the weather. Whatever it is.
With this in mind, I recently got up at some ungodly hour in the morning, ate some porridge, packed up my backpack (throwing a slackline in the bottom, I planned to set it up on the hill and get some nice pictures) and left for an early start with Zach, an ex-STAUMC president who I know to be dependable and prepared for anything and Sam. A PhD candidate I’d met the night before, but he seemed like he knew what he was doing.
We were staying at Glenbrittle. A lovely hut just West of the infamous coullin ridge on the south west of skye. The mountains are well known for their high density of ferromagnetic rocks. For the non-scientific, just imagine a mountain range where North is wherever the nearest rock is. You navigate by gut and map reading alone. It sounds more hardcore than it actually is. Especially when you get benighted in a blizzard. But we’ll come to that later.
The walk in was maybe 5 miles uphill. Easy enough going until we hit the snowline. Sam was huffing and puffing a little. He seemed pretty happy, but his legs weren’t as young as they had obviously once been.
At this point, our main worry was the snow. There didn’t appear to be all that much. We were aiming to do a winter ascent of the inaccessible pinnacle. And for that sort of thing, you really need snow. As we headed higher up we were checking out a few choice ascent routes. We didn’t want to walk up, we rather fancied some of the gulleys, find some Grade II/III climbing and warm ourselves up for the ascent. We ended up choosing what seemed a reasonably easy route onto the ridge that slowly got more and more silly as it funnelled us into a difficult looking gulley. It also led to us finally deciding to put on our crampons while we were halfway up a frozen stream. Sam, holding up the rear, had spotted the silly move Zach was attempting and managed to go round the side. I, stuck on a small ledge, decided to go for it.
Generally, I’m reasonable new to winter climbing. But I’m not new enough that the realisation of the stupidity of my situation was a familiar one. Here I am, in a precarious position, holding two not quite sharp enough pickaxes and trying to climb up a rock that happens to be frozen. My feet have sharp spikes attached to them that I don’t quite trust as much as I’m meant to and I’m not convinced my gloves won’t just slip off my axes. All of these things combined means that I don’t really trust any one of my four limbs. Now, climb!
I got up, with a bit of wriggling and we kept heading up the mixed, scramble until we hit the ridge. Walking in crampons was coming back to me and I felt a little bit more confident than previously. Zach was bumbling along, content as ever, and Sam seemed happy enough to be away from it all for the first time in a while. Zach was heard to utter the rather introspective phrase “nothing really matters, does it?” as we took a moment to appreciate the wild landscape spread out before us.
Finding ourselves opposite the pinnacle, we spotted two of our friends halfway up on an attempted ascent. Annie and Huw had left 20 minutes before us, but had taken a much more direct line to the pinnacle in a bid to be up and off before we even arrived. But the weather over the ridge was a little worse than anyone had expected, with strong winds and a lot of snow, and the pinnacle is very exposed. While they continued their attempt, we sat down in a Bivvy to have our lunch and discuss tactics.
Discussing which of the three of us would lead, it quickly became clear that I was the least experienced. And, knowing that itr was a 2 pitch route, Zach offered to lead the second pitch if Sam took the first. Sam was a little hesitant. He’d lead enough times on solid ice, but these Scottish mixed conditions were a little alien to him and he wasn’t certain of success. I offered to give it a go, but promised I’d be slow. And luckily for me, (though I didn’t know it at the time) Sam agreed to go for it.
Annie and Huw sadly abandoned their attempt. The winds were really picking up and the exposure on the pinnacle was pretty hellish. We decided to go for it anyway. though I cursed my decision to leave my goggles back at the hut uttering the well known phrase of ‘There’s no way I’ll need them today’.
It was the least I could do to offer to belay Sam. And as he headed on up, he made slow, but steady progress. Right up until he vanished in the poor visibility. I was still giving out rope though. In fact, I’d given out nearly 40m! He was meant to set up a belay station after about 30. But he hadn’t stopped. Sam ended up leading nearly the entire route and setting up a belay only 10m from the top, not long before he ran out of rope. I concluded that Zach had in some way upset him, as Sam had managed to take all the glory of leading the route for himself.
I headed up third, trying to work some life back into my legs as I’d been standing still for well over an hour. But I was barely into the first move when both my legs began to cramp up. It was horrible! I couldn’t move! I was stuck, my belayer couldn’t hear me as he was somewhere above me in a snowstorm and I suddenly realised I was in WAY over my head. The storm was worse on the route, and I had to keep my head facing right down to stop the hail blinding me. Somehow, I managed to complete move after move. Dropping my ice axes halfway up and having to descend to get them. Lashing them to me via a sling, I kept climbing with sore everything and half blind until I pulled around one boulder and saw Zach and Sam staring down at me, waving with massive grins on their faces. Never had I let quite so many expletives form in quite a line before in my life.
Scrambling onto the belay station, I attached myself and relaxed a little. Zach made a couple of jokes at my expense, Sam explained that he’d gotten a little mixed up as to how far he was meant to go and had just kept going until the found this rather nice belay position. We sorted our ropes out and Zach headed off to find the top. He wasn’t long away before I went second, feeling a little more steady with some more practice under me. But considering how thin the ridge was at that point, I was mainly just pleased to have one foot either side and happy to trot along in the least gracious manner possible, on my arse. I found Zach, sheltered behind a large rock on top of the Inn Pinn, pretty happy to have at least led the last section and realised that maybe, just maybe, all of the had been worth it.
The abseil off took a bit longer than expected, the ropes had tangled beyond belief and on top of that were frozen. They would have been useless if not for the dry treatment. Finally down off the summit, we noted the darkening skies and realised the experience had taken all of the afternoon we had left. We packed up, fast, and began a fast descent, trying to get as far down as possible while we could still see.
It didn’t work. Benighted above the snowline, in a blizzard, our pace slowed to a crawl as we tried to make out the easiest descent route below us. Finally ending up in a scree field, we slid down to find ourselves in front of a small lochin that we found on the map. We were the next valley over from where we had walked in, as we were meant to be. But the ‘path’ out was somewhere under all the snow. Removing the crampons and glad that hail had turned to rain, we slipped and slid our way down the rocks between the ridgeline and the river. Zach was moving slow. His glasses had fogged up and he could barely see. We found something that resembled a path, lost it, found it, lost it again, and finally came onto a real path a couple of miles later. The walk out wasn’t especially interesting, the visibility slowly improved as we lost more and more height and the snow dissipated as well. Tired, worn down, but pretty pleased with ourselves, we ended our 13 hour day on the hill by arriving back at the hut to friends, some haggis and a rather pleasant bottle of Scotch. The only thing was, I’d totally forgotten about my slackline!