Sunday, 18 December 2011

Breaching The Citadel

I won't lie. My heart sank when I woke, peered through the frosted window, and saw that snow was falling heavily on the Cairngorm ski car park. I had really hoped for a perfect blue sky day and just enough snow to ease, not hinder, our planned assault on the great bastion of the Shelterstone. Alas, the early signs showed that this wouldn't be an easy won battle and so it was proved.

We had heard that conditons on the Shelterstone were good. News had broken of Greg Boswell and Will Simm's repeat of the awesome Stone Temple Pilots (X 9) two days before and a dramatic failed attempt on the Citadel had been reported earlier in the week. I had also heard rumours that Murdoch Jamieson and Martin Moran were on the Needle (VIII 8). Said rumour was confirmed when I was awoken by the succesful duo stumbling back into the ski car park in the early hours of Saturday morning. Martin has since blogged on their impressive ascent.

Our own drama was to be played out on the Citadel (VII 8). An established hard classic often referred to as one of the most sought after winter routes in the Cairngorms. Modern gear and improved climbing standards may have opened this route up to the masses. But with infrequent favourable conditions and hard, sustained, climbing on a big cliff, success has to be earned and is still something to be savoured and celebrated.

On this occasion I was climbing with Neil and, as I've become accustomed, Neil does like to pack alot into a weekend. He arrived at the ski car park at about half past midnight, having first enjoyed his staff Christmas party. When we sorted gear in the morning, he told me he also had plans to climb with Any Inglis on Sunday on Beinn a Bhuird. Hmm I thought...

The usual 2.5 - 3 hr trek across to the Shelterstone took 4 hrs as we misjudgingly followed the eratic trail presumably left by Mssrs Jamieson and Moran several hours earlier, so it was a late 9.30 am when we got to the base of the route. Being mid December it would be dark by 4pm. I've never liked climbing in the dark, but on a climb of this scale and at this time of year it is inevitable. Head torches packed? Double check!

Jim on the Lower Crux (Photo: Neil Adams)

The early pitches passed without incident, but perhaps more slowly than would be ideal due to vast amounts of unconsolidated snow. I led the excellent peg protected lower crux on perfect hooks and, so that Neil could have the upper crux, I led through to the atmospheric aerie stance below the impressive flake. No sooner had I called for Neil to follow, then the last light faded and we were left with a star spangled sky. Two thoughts crossed my mind as my head torch reilluminated the immediate world around me: I don't like climbing in the dark and I'm glad Neil has got the hardest pitch on the route.

Now, I think it's fair to say that from here-on time appears to have advanced at double pace. Neil calmly led the upper crux, as my chilled body stiffened and my toes became numb. I turned my head torch off for a minute as my conscience reasoned I should conserve battery power. In that one minute I have never felt more alone and vulnerable. I quickly turned my torch back on and regained some connection with my surroundings as I intermittently paid the ropes out. I don't mind saying that I found the pitch hard to second. I was losing energy, enthusiasm and warmth quickly and I pulled on every piece of gear Neil had placed to ease upward progress. At the stance I felt in no fit state to lead on. "Neil, I feel really bad about this, but you'll have to take this pitch as well". To his credit and my relief he moved off without challenge.

After several aborted sortees in various directions, we agreed that we could not locate the crack that is supposed to continue from the crux pitch. Did we belay in the right place? Is the crack in the powder covered slab above us? We just didn't know and, to be honest, we just wanted to get the hell out. I wanted to be anywhere but here. Neil traversed out left a short way across more powder covered slabs to a small snow bay, from which rose an open-book corner. "Will it go Neil?" I called. "Not sure yet" came the reply. All I could see was the flickering torchlight around the corner which was gradually gaining height as I paid out the rope. Some time passed and then I heard the call for me to follow. I was now struggling to handle any gear at all with my numb hands and, regretfully, I lost some in the process. But I got to the corner and, as before, simply hauled my way up using the protection Neil had placed.

Before too long I spied Neil belaying above. He was on the top of the Shelterstone, shivering uncontrollably in the biting wind and my first thought was that he was having a fit! It really was time to be off the hill.

Having meekly shook hands, coiled the icy ropes and located our sacks just away from the summit I looked at my watch that I had left behind. It was 11.55pm and we just couldn't believe it!

For the next hour we walked and stumbled on a compass bearing across the Cairngorm plateau and with immense relief we emerged at the mass footsteps marking the Goat Track. Down we went headlong into a maelstrom that was giving us "ice cream" headaches, until we were once again sheltered within the Coire. Another couple of hours on a compass bearing and we saw the welcoming glow of the ski centre. It was 3.15am when I unlocked the van, threw my wet kit in the back and put on a brew. It had been an epic 22 hour day. We were both exhausted, but what a prize! And, yes, we would do it all again!


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