I walked through Glenmore Lodge’s double doors on Sunday evening and immediately sucked the thick with-anticipation-air. It clung to the wood and the nice chairs and the reception counter, it filled my nostrils, crawled through my body. I sensed expectation.
Having attended two summer meets but never a winter meet, I knew what to expect, but winter climbing is so much more involved than summer cragging in Wales and the thought of being strapped to a wad for a week of rain took more courage than I had possessed in the past. In the weeks running up to the meet I had found myself getting nervous, I dreaded my international partner saying the words, “Take me to the Shelterstone.” I imagined some superstar and I walking lost, souls in Dante’s inferno on the Carngorm Platue and I imagined the universal internet lynching of a supposed competent mountaineer. To top this, I was sure I would be strapped to someone who could actually climb a bit and when it all came out in the open that I was actually pretty average, I would be called a fraud and ostracised and sent to the dark lonely place that pretenders go.
“We’ve put you for the week with a New England, East Coast American Nick.” Said Becky.
“RESULT” Thought I, he will speak English, well of a kind and would no doubt know my friends Freddie Wilkinson and Kev Mahonie, two very talented but super chilled climbers from New Hampshire, who at the drop of a hat will forgo climbing for drinking and debauchery. Brilliant, I thought, one quick route each day in the Northern Corries and then the bar. No chance to get him… and myself lost. Maybe I could hold it together on one short route not to give the game away about my average climbing ability.
I shook Bayard Russell’s hand, my partner for the coming week, he had a firm grip and his stature resembled a powerful freight train, but relief, he had that New Hampshire laid back whine the same as Freddie and Kev – this could work!
Walking into the Northern Corries on day one didn’t go to plan. Floundering about in a whiteout I appeared to have lost the Lochain, the easiest place in Scotland to find, well, apart from the chip shop. Bayard was talking and laughing, and I quietly stressed as the Corrie didn’t look like a corrie. The cloud thinned for a second and I spotted a spur. “Right let’s look over there.” Relief was the sound of someone shouting and the clank of a hex just over the misty white way.
“Wow, it’s out of condition hey?”
“Well dude, it’s all white and covered in snow.”
“Yeah, that’s how it should be.”
“WHAT… Really … Man, that’s rad.
Ok, I thought, I might stand a chance.
Once we found the climbing the next thing to do was find a climb. The Lochain was swarming with bods from the meet; they looked surprised when I asked them where Pic and Mix was. Their surprise I felt was not because of the route I sought, but more because I didn’t know where it was. But once pointed in the direction of the climb, I front-pointed toward a huge finger pinnacle materialising from the mist.
All around me were folk I knew already strapped to climbs. Dave Garry was on The Hoarmaster and Si Frost was climbing Hookers Corner. Perfect, both had climbed Pic and Mix so I yawped and asked them where it went. Other climbers looked aghast that I appeared to know nothing about the climb. And they would be right, I didn’t even know the grade, but in the fog of my mind I remembered Tim Emmett thrashing away in some film with Ian Parnell looking up and laughing his demented laugh. Someone had also told me it was all on good hooks and had gear… Perfect.
Bayard cruised the first pitch, which was good, one more pitch and we could go drink beer and be awesome.
Dave yelled across from his climb, “When you leave the belay, pull into the crack and if you want to, go straight up, it’s never been done; the original goes around to the right.”
Always looking for simple, I thanked Dave and left the belay. Yes, there was a crack and it looked ok. A few moves in and I had turned from the bumbly who couldn’t find the crag into Ueli Steck, well in my mind anyway. God I was good, it was easy. What was Tim thinking on the first ascent going around the corner and not finishing the job? He must have been having a bad day. A few more moves and the verglas increased, along with the wind, the hoar and the steepness. Its ok, I’m Ueli. A few more moves and still no gear. Perched high on the front face of the pinnacle the wind buffeted and wafted my body like a flag, I locked and fiddled with a nut, a cam, a bigger cam, a bigger nut, but eventually I dropped a hook into the hole made by my pick. And then I dropped another hook into another hole and continued up. Bayard a long way below was huddled in his jacket thinking this was normal. I flapped and swung and attempted to find a good torque, good feet, but in a few short metres my Ueli Steck bubble had burst, I felt more like Uma Thurman. The crack my left pick was in repeatedly pulled, feet sketched, I brushed big ears of hoar, I looked wistfully to a sloping ledge to my left. I had to move, but there was nothing for feet and it also meant leaving my one good hook and I didn’t want to leave it, it felt like home, a place I trusted. Bayard looked up, “Go on, send it Dude.” But the only thing I was going to send if I blew this was for a helicopter!
A head popped over the top of the crag, “Hey Nick, I’m just going to set up and film.” It was James Dunn the camera man for the meet. Great I thought, now my ineptitude at climbing, followed by my blood curdling scream ending in a messy death is going to be watched by millions and they would all sit together in the theatre saying stuff like, ‘It doesn’t look that hard to me.’
I leaned left and fished and hooked nothing. In desperation I dragged the pick down the sloping top and it caught on what I can only imaging was a slight ripple in the uniform slab. Swap feet, right pick into bad placement, flag left leg… Holy s#it, what am I doing here. James above me looked happy. No, actually he looked ecstatic, I could see the £ signs in his eyes. It was on the tip of my lips, I nearly said it, those immortal words, ‘Throw me a rope.’ But suddenly I was pulling up on the left when the right pick blew. My body barn doored, my good foothold popped. I was twisting, pivoting on a smear and a ripple. Flashing a glance, I looked at the air that I would no-doubt be tasting and it looked dirty. Holding the barn door, hyperventilating, I replaced the right pick, the right foot, leaned and matched both picks on the ripple. Inside my head there was the sound of scavengers pecking at my corpse. I pulled up, smeared a foot and threw a leg on top of the sloping ledge and my left pick blew. “ARGH!” Taking as much weight with my leg I fished above for a pick placement in the roof of a small groove. There was none. I pulled anyway. James filming turned away, even he had lost the stomach. The upside down pick held and I kneeled on the ledge, nearly dry heaving, my lungs on fire, breathing and sucking.
“Dude, that was rowdy.”
The meet continued in a slightly more controlled way after that. I followed Jen Olsen and Bayard up Daddy Long Legs the following day and we took a rest the day after. Lochnagar and Trail of Tears the day after that, which as normal I knew nothing about but discovered our ascent was possibly the fourth and in the past the climb had taken a whole load of prisoners.
We rested on Friday in anticipation of a big finale on Saturday when Bayard and I would be teaming up with the bundle of psyche known as Guy Robertson. I emailed Guy to ask the plan and the response was a tad disturbing. “Nick, I’ve been training hard and climbing easy routes and I’m getting nervous and jittery and I’m borderline ANGRY! We will go to the Buachaille”
Walking in the dark on Saturday morning past Lagangarbh, over iced puddles, we look up and like a vision from a dream there is a white wave running down The Slime Wall. Robbo turned to me, “It’s on, it’s on, my God, ITS ON!” As Guy had not actually said what the plan was, I could only guess that whatever it was, was on.
Needless to say, I had always dreamed of climbing the mythical, Guerdon Grooves, first climbed by Dave Cuthbertson and Arthur Paul in 1986 and not having had a second ascent. Climbers whispered when they spoke of it. At the start of each winter internet forums always had a long thread guessing the grade and asking would it ever be climbed. Guerdon was a fable, a dream, it was magical. And with every step up the hill, the anticipation increased.
We started to climb at approximately 10am and with each move, the anticipation and history and myth increased. The crux of this climb was coping with the folklore that threatened to weigh us down. I could see Cubby teetering and run out, creeping snow covered slabs. I could see Di Lampard trudging up the approach slopes four times, I could see McInnis and Bonnington and Patey just across the way in Raven’s Gully.
At six pm, all three of us stood on the top, the route was climbed. Robbo’s anger was quelled, Bayard, knowing nothing about the history of the climb thought it had been ‘an awesome outing dude’, but I could tell it was a little lost on him, and for me – well, I thought I could give up winter climbing now.
But I didn’t and on Monday, I found myself sketching it out on some wild mantleshelf move, quite high above my runners with a large ledge looming and with Robbo and Pete MacPherson yelling encouragement.
The first winter ascent of Satyr had only been last year by Andy Nelson and Donald King and after a fall and splitting the climb over two days they had been criticised by the internet pundits so returned to climb the whole thing in a day. After climbing the very bold, first pitch, I can honestly say I would not have returned. At the time Andy had told me I would romp the route and down grade it. Well after completing the route, the consensus of opinion from my very well-travelled and experienced friends is the route grade should be increased to IX/10. Respect.
All in all, what a brilliant week of climbing, and how good was the BMC meet, well in the words of “Bayard, it was awesome dudes!” The international visitors all went away beaming and chatty having experienced what it is to climb on our little cliffs that at times feel very big and very rewarding. Long may this event continue.