Sunday 2 March 2014

Third Time Lucky

Andy and I have got history with Unicorn. I did a lot of my early winter climbing in Stob Coire an Lochain and remember looking across to this big obvious corner, clearly the line of the crag, never thinking that I'd be good enough to have a crack at it. Several years later we went for our first attempt. We didn't get very far, but it only increased by desire to get on the route.

We had another rematch at the end of last year. Andy took a couple of falls on P1 and backed off. I wasn't feeling in great form but set off up it anyway. My very ambitious goal was to get up to the fixed gear so I could lower off & get our gear back. Because of my low expectations, I headed up without any food or, crucially, a head torch. By some miracle I managed to climb the first pitch (taking something like 3.5 hours on lead!) but by the time Andy had led the second, it was dark and we were both frozen and exhausted so we abbed off.

This unfinished business had been on my mind ever since. Thankfully Andy agreed to humour me one more time and come back for a rematch.

Here we go again

As we approached, I was feeling confident - The route looked in great condition, I'd led the first pitch before and had succeeded on some hard routes recently, so surely this time it would go.

An hour later, I was about 10m up the route and struggling. The route was every bit as hard and awkward as I remembered. The gear was OK, although I wasn't sure I wanted to test it. I committed to the crux, one pick in the crack, one on a tiny thin hook and a leg bar across the flare. Then, disaster! The axe in the crack ripped and I came tumbling down just as I had a couple of years previously. This was not the plan!

Andy seconding the horrendous flare
I lowered back to the ground to eat, drink and chill out for a minute. Suitably refreshed, I headed up again and this time, pulled through OK. However the section above proved to be a lot harder than I remembered. Where previously there was some useful ice, this time there was just crud. I teetered upwards, making slow but steady progress. My frozen hands and soaked gloves fumbled gear, dropping the small nuts, but I pressed on and made it to the stance. I eventually managed to contrive a belay with the remaining gear and brought Andy up.

Don't fall now!

Andy headed on up, linking P2 and P3 to bring us to the end of the main corner. From here, there are two options: head left into the final chimney of Tilt (as per the first winter ascent) or head right and up (as for the summer route). We chose the easier Tilt option and topped out with daylight to spare.

The end is in sight

I'm delighted to get the route done at last. It felt harder than any of the other VIIIs we've done this year, and miles harder than Centurion a couple of weeks before. I'm glad I don't need to do that first pitch again!


Jim Higgins has retired from winter climbing, or so we all thought. So you can imagine my surprise when I got a text saying he fancied getting out for one day only, and was I up for Centurion?

I climbed this route in summer 5 or 6 years ago. Even back then, I remember thinking it would make an amazing winter climb. It was clearly out of my league at the time, but I've had the ambition to do it ever since. This was the first time that my abilities, climbing conditions, weather forecast and psyched partner had coincided so I jumped at the chance.

Jim on P1
And the didn't disappoint! Never desperate but constantly interesting, and what a line! Definitely one of the best winter routes I've ever done. If there was ever a route worth coming out of retirement for, it's this!

Me on the thin traverse on P3 (Photo - Jim Higgins)

Thursday 27 February 2014

BMC Winter Meet

The BMC meet was definitely the highlight of my winter so far. Held up at Glenmore Lodge a couple of weeks ago (yes, I know, I've been a bit slow in writing about it), it brought together about 45 visiting climbers from 26 countries and a similar number of local hosts to experience Scottish winter.

Inevitably, the Scottish weather lived up to its reputation! The first day was particularly wild, and even Coire an t-Sneachda felt like quite an adventure!

A little different to Spanish climbing
I teamed up with Felix from Spain. To avoid the loaded approach slopes, we went up the Fiacail ridge then abseiled in to Fiacail buttress. The wind was so wild, just we ran up Invernookie and headed back to Glenmore.

The next day was forecast to be better in the west so Neyc Marcic and I hopped on the minibus to Glencoe. We did East Face Direct Direct ion Stob Coire nan Lochain. It's a deceptive route - it looks about grade IV from below, but very variable snow & ice conditions made it challenging and it warranted its VII,7 grade on the day. I led P1 & P2 in one long pitch and Neyc cruised the awkward top pitch in great style.

Neyc seconding the long first pitch of East Faced Direct Direct

Good Scottish conditions on the top pitch

The next day, Andy and I took our respective Slovenians to Beinn Eighe. This is one of my favourite mountains anywhere, and it didn't disappoint! Despite a strong wind on the walk-in, we were treated to shelter and great conditions in the coire - we even saw some sun! Neyc and I did The Sting on the Far East Wall, which is possibly the second ascent. After me enthusing about how positive and helpful quartzite is on the approach, the first two pitches turned out to be surprisingly bold and technical but after that, we were back to good, steep, positive hooking and torqueing up perfect rock.

Neyc starting up P1 of The Sting

Look - a view!
 We switched partners that night and for the rest of the week, I was paired up with a very strong Japanese climber named Kenro. He had had a bit of an epic on West Buttress Directissima the day before, so I took pity on him and suggested a shorter day. Auricle was a bit of a swim / wade in places but a good route all the same.

Kenro on the crux pitch of Auricle
The weather was terrible the next day, which I was secretly delighted about as it meant I could have a rest! The next and final day was forecast to be better the further north and west you went, to Kenro and I headed up to An Teallach along with Susan Jensen and partner. The weather was glorious on the walk-in, and hopefully restored Kenro's faith that it is sunny in Scotland occasionally!

A beautiful morning and a beautiful mountain
 We'd been planning to do Hayfork (three-start VI,7) but spotted a great-looking, obvious line on the side of Major Rib which wasn't in the guide so decided to have a go at that instead. It turned out to be a great and varied route. P1 followed a bold icy corner, P2 up thinly iced slabs and flakes, P3 (crux) up a steep corner past a roof and P4 up a chimney onto the crest of Minor Rib. We called the route Last Orders (which we had been afraid of missing back at Glenmore!) and there's a route description here for anyone who fancies repeating it.

Me on pitch 1 of Last Orders - photo Kenro Nakajima
Many thanks to Becky McGovern and Nick Colton the BMC for organising this fantastic event. I hope to see you all at the next one in two years' time!

Monday 24 February 2014

Emptiness: Saas Fee Ice Climbing World Cup and West Central Gully

Two recent new experiences, both on Friday holidays from the 9-5 of office work, separated by two weeks. They both provided interesting and unique experiences for me, near typifying the spectrum of experiences available to people who like to use ice axes, although neither were exactly fun at the time. Classic examples of Type 2 fun! ;-)

Emptiness: Saas Fee Ice Climbing World Cup and West Central Gully (Beinn Eighe)

Emptiness.... the mind accustomed to experiences, strong and painful, now just devoid of emotion, no wait, disappointment. The end swallows me up before my time. But why? Hollow congratulations and pained smiles stain the crowd and my team mates. The first bitter taste of experience, all the sweeter with company. A freezing car park in southern Switzerland set amid beautiful and alluring peaks and faces, so this is high level competitive ice climbing? Safe, exceptionally hard, timed, yes timed, designed to separate and measure ability in a single effort, identical conditions for each competitor, sanitised and scrutinised, separating the starlets from the also–ran’s.

Sweat clings to my neck. Heavy pumped arms hang limply from my axe handles. Terror subsides, but unquestionably I can’t belay here and relinquish the fear, I have to carry on. I heave air into my lungs and check the view back down into the void. The rope hangs unblemished by gear or protection back down out of sight into the abyss. A spacious foothold provides sanctuary amid the vertical and overhanging ice. Another roof looms above me guarded by hanging ice daggers reminiscent of castle gates and an unwise path. But above I know I can climb. Another 15 metres of vertical ice show the path to safety, a bold path, but a test of the mind. The ice will be good, and gear will appear. A test of the mind. Hell The Fowler climbed this with straight shafts and balls the size of watermelon’s decades ago! Modern tools and occasional training, this should be easy.

Craning my neck upwards I survey the route, analysing the moves I know I won’t have a chance to try. Fellow competitors jostle for space, arms fly skyward as the moves are rehearsed. I scribble down a few notes and peer through binoculars at the tiny holds scattered across the wooden boards. Sequences are conjured up, clipping positions evaluated, all with best endeavours to commit to memory, while knowing the pressure and stress will empty my mind and simple tasks will become near impossible. Where will I fall? The oppressive Thunderdome awaits, but first the nervous tension of the isolation room, like the minutes immediately prior to that crucial exam that you haven’t fully prepared for….. except drawn out for hours, and just like the exam you can walk away at any time, only knowing that all those hours of focus and dedication are for nothing. You must stay and suffer.

The nest of optimistic gear looks pleasing on the eye. A solid tiny nut off to the side provides confidence. The world is a better place. My solitary blunt stubby screw still hangs from my harness after a few desperate attempts at placing from the most strenuous of positions in the void below. I am glad as I’m sure I will be able to place it on the ice above. All in the mind the optimist comforts.

I seek solace in a beer. I came I saw I conquered, ha as if! The optimist inside me measures and analyses the plus points in my performance, while the realist savours the taste of the cold beer and banter with friends and team mates. Food, wine, shared anecdotes and stories, the mind at peace in a familiar and happy place. Thoughts of competing drift back into the ether to be replaced by the sense of being part of something more. An experience not to be forgotten.

The nest of gear is long gone, hidden nearly twenty metres below by another roof, and the ice is poor. My stubby still hangs limply, apologetically from my harness. My axe planted to the shaft pulls an inch as I swing again to try and find a half decent placement in the steep snow ice, the good water-ice a distant memory. I can almost reach out and touch the crack. Protection at last, so close. My nerves and reserves depleted, replaced only by tension and fear, the volume turned up loud. I check the fall zone and hope I don’t reach Duncan, who I visualise happily chilling out on the expansive snow ledge in the void, oblivious to my terrifying position. The axe lands with a more reassuring thud and my heart slows. A few more moves and a satisfactory belay appears. I am near empty. Ecstatic but too tired for elation. The beast is tamed, just. Ferocious, demanding, questioning, the gully will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Pulling hard in Saas Fee (Credit Chris Prescott)

Starting up the crux pitch of WCG (Credit Duncan Hodgson)

Fully engaged in the crux (Credit Duncan Hodgson)

Duncan emerging from the void