Back in November, the most boring month of the year, Lee and I had decided to take a week’s holiday in February to pop back home to the UK and do some Scottish winter climbing. I hadn’t foreseen how confusing this would be to pretty much everyone we know, and found myself explaining many times over how climbing ice in Norway was actually quite different to climbing iced-up rocks and frozen turf in Scotland, although I usually left out the bit about how much worse the weather is in Scotland. We chose the second week of February and booked up, choosing all the most cancellable options. If the weather decided not to co-operate, we could just go ice-climbing in Norway somewhere. Thus followed an incredibly warm and unstable winter with mostly plus degrees across the country, until at the last minute it suddenly turned and winter conditions arrived to much rejoicing.
Flying in late Friday night, we set off from Edinburgh on Saturday morning aiming for Aviemore, as the northern Cairngorms looked to have the best conditions. We arrived at Mess of Pottage at about midday, an exceptionally late start but did mean that we had a good choice of routes, as everyone who’d started at a reasonable time was nearly at the top now.
Lee on the first pitch of Hidden Chimney Direct
Depite having racked up a fair few ice climbs in the last couple of years, I’ve only done a handful of routes in Scotland so it was back to feeling like a total beginner for me. I was happy to let Lee set off to lead the crux first pitch of Hidden Chimney Direct (IV,5), and in fact I fell off it on my first go. With a bit of rope stretch I was back to my belay spot, so we called it a ground-up and I managed - eventually - to get up second go. The second pitch was an easy traverse, although the fresh powder snow made it feel kind of delicate, and in classic Scottish style, ‘easy’ here meant ‘gearless’. Lee romped up the third and final pitch, and we topped out in the dark.
Start late, finish late
Sunday morning we set off for Fiacaill Butress to climb The Seam (IV,5). As we approached the cloud cover cleared and I think I saw blue sky for the first time ever in Scotland. The first pitch was mine, although I got completely bamboozled by a smooth slabby corner and ended up dodging the whole thing to the right. In the same style as the day before, my pitch was the easy one, made slightly more tense by being buried in loose snow and somewhat sparse for gear.
Fiacaill Butress and blue skies!
The second pitch was more to move the belay than anything, but consisted of a couple of hard moves over a bad landing, and I was happy to be seconding. Lee made a fine job of the crux top pitch, and it was seriously good fun to climb it afterwards - steep with bomber hooks all the way.
Lee on pitches 2 and 3
The weather had deteriorated throughout the day and I was a little anxious about the descent, but as I scrambled over the exit boulder field I got chatting to a couple of guys who’d just come up from the valley, and their footprints down made dropping back into the Sneachda basin pretty easy.
The next day we’d earmarked as a rest day due to crazy high winds, but as it turned out I was ill. I’d had some random virus that was going round the office the week before, and I thought I’d shaken it in time but I guess standing about on cold wet belays let it get going again. I spent the afternoon whinging about having a temperature, and went to bed feeling pretty awful… and somehow woke up feeling ok. Well enough to try climbing at least.
Walking in to Sneachda
We decided to go back to Mess of Pottage, partially for the short walk-in, and partially as we were a bit dubious about the avalanche potential in Lochain and Loch Avon after the high winds the day before. On the menu was Pot of Gold (V,6), though we knew we’d have to be out sharpish as the first pitch is shared by The Message and at least a couple more routes, so can be a bit of a bottleneck. We arrived at the gearing-up spot just after a friendly woman and guide aiming for The Message, but they raced up the first pitch and were out of sight by the time I was ready to go.
Me on the first pitch (photo by Lee Harrison)
This time my easy pitch was actually great, a well-protected IV with some fun moves over solid gear. I brought Lee up and he set out right to traverse round a corner and up a thin slab. During his pitch a woman led up below me, but as I had ‘the’ belay spot she had to wait and eventually set up belay a few meters down. Her partner came up and decided to improvise to the left rather than wait, and for about a half an hour we made smalltalk and listened to the slightly worrying noises of scratching on rock and grunting coming from our respective partners, out of sight both sides. I managed to fall off the second pitch when it was my turn, having stacked both my axes on a hook that blew (note to self: don’t do that again). Lee got pitch three because it was the crux, and it was tough - tricky moves hidden under heaps of snow. I was supposed to do the exit top pitch but it was getting dark and I was feeling slow, cold, and ill, so I acquiesced, to my shame.
Lee working his way up pitch three
We topped out in the classic Cairngorm blizzard, and I tried to play it cool whilst trying not to think about that time I had that massive epic in a snowstorm. But having come down from the same crag two days before I was relatively sure where I was, GPS confirmed it, and we picked up a highway of footsteps in the snow after a few minutes that brought us easily down to the ski slopes and the carpark.
The next day we decided to move location, and decided to take a drive over towards the west coast to see if the low freezing levels had made anything climbable in that direction. We got most of the way to Applecross before having to abandon the idea, the air was cold but the sun was out and any snow that had fallen was all cleared, so we decided to head to Fort William instead.
The gorgeous scenary of west Scotland
The avalanche forecast was high the next day so we made plans to do a route on Douglas Boulder below Ben Nevis, but the long day of driving the day before was definitely not what the doctor ordered, and I had to stop after the first hour of the approach. I was super disappointed to have to stop, I’ve never climbed on Ben Nevis and the weather was great. But at the same time it was a long and committing route on a mountain, and I felt like the margin of safety was going to be too small. I spent the rest of the day trying to feel less ill, less frustrated and less guilty.
This is as close as we got to Ben Nevis…
Friday morning we get up early to get the climbers’ lift up to Aonoch Mor, thus making a nice short approach for me. The weather was incredible - blue skies and no wind. Not Scottish at all! Plus I’ve never seen so much rime, it was inches deep on every surface.
That one time we were in Antarctica, oh wait, Aonoch Mor
I’d picked a route called Nid Arete (IV,5), just one star but the guidebook described it as “good and well-protected”. Lee got the first pitch and decided to do the direct start (V,5). This turned out to be bold and delicate, with one fun move and the rest rather worrying for both of us. By the time I got to the belay I’d lost most of my enthusiasm for the route, and the second pitch looked to be the same and thus way out of my league. I let Lee lead on, then on second managed to lose a tricam in a crack and get one of my ropes stuck so had to untie it and come up on just one. We threw the gear into the bags and ran down the hill, but managed to miss the last lift down by a couple of minutes. Argh! Some days just don’t go right. Once we’d missed the lift we chilled out a bit and took a leisurely stroll down a MTB track back to the carpark at dusk. It was pretty beautiful actually.
Lee on Nid Arete Direct. Not recommended
Saturday was our last climbable day, and being slightly limited by my virusy-coldy thing that I was barely keeping at bay, we settled on something long and easy. We settled on Curved Ridge (II/III,3) on Buachaille Etive Mor, which was pretty popular but fun nonetheless. We got caught between climbing parties, and after a couple of failed attempts to dodge past, we decided to just chill out and stay in line, everyone was going quick enough anyway. We’d planned on moving together, but being forced to stop where other people were belaying mean we ended up pitching too. Nevertheless, it was a fun route and we topped out in glorious sunshine (and a biting wind) about lunchtime. The descent sounded a bit sketchy in the book, but turned out to be excellent - a broad ridge followed by a long axe-controlled bumslide. We got to the pub for mid-afternoon, the earliest all week by a number of hours.
And that was it, we flew home Sunday morning. Apart from the being-ill thing (which totally floored me when I got back home), it’d been a great week. It was a bit hard on the ego to be such a noobie again, and I was disappointed that I’d not managed any particularly hard leads, but we did some really fun routes and were super lucky with conditions - about four days later it was all gone. I’d slightly forgotten how gnarly the weather can be there! -2C and driving rain in Scotland feels way colder than -20C and calm here in Norway. But the quality and variety of the climbing is definitely worth it!
Buachaille Etive Mor