My last blog post was partly a reflection on the nature of ‘commitment creep’; that strange psychological phenomenon whereby a firm resolve to stay well within “Neil’s fluffy circle of comfort”, which initially appears to be shared by your companions, somehow erodes away as the day goes on and usually results in a least one brief moment of sphincter-clenching fear. Given my previous outing involved an exploration of the outer limits of “Neil’s fluffy circle of comfort” on a grade II climb, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the suggestion we head up a grade IV a few days later would have triggered an immediate lockdown of the commitment levels. Sadly, a hard-earned ability to say “no” in other areas of life doesn’t seem to have translated over to my renewed enthusiasm for the great outdoors, so I duly found myself plodding uphill towards the cliffs of Beinn Dorain en route to tackle ‘Kickstart’, a grade IV climb which was not only a grade up from anything I’d tackled before, but also had the distinction of attracting a ‘tech grade’ of 4, meaning that the hardest section of the climb; the ‘crux’, was worthy of special mention!
This time round, I was out as part of a team from Falkirk Community Trust again, so the responsibility for heading up first lay with John, who heads up the Trust’s ‘High Tops’ team. The third member of our climbing team was another Neil, making things nice and straightforward in terms of communication. Before making a final decision about Kickstart, we had a look at a couple of alternatives, but nothing else was in particularly good condition, and we duly made our way over to the starting point for our climb. John led off up the first section, and pretty soon we heard the familiar sounds of thumping and banging from above indicated that he had arrived at a suitable site for the next belay point. A few years ago, I remember chatting with an orthopaedic surgeon who suggested that the physical nature of his speciality meant he probably had more in common with a joiner than some of his colleagues who were involved with keyhole surgery and the like. The reason I mention this is that I’m pretty sure orthopaedic surgeons would feel right at home winter climbing; where summer climbing involves delicate and precise placements of gear in thin slots and cracks, Scottish winter climbing dispenses with many of the more discrete forms of protection in favour of a wicked-looking selection of spikes, hollow metal screws, pitons and so on that are hammered into turf, ground into ice and battered into cracks and fissures in the rock. If you imagine carrying out joinery work with hand tools only, while freezing cold and balancing on precarious footholds on the metal spikes on your boots, then you have a reasonable snapshot of the appeal of winter climbing. If you want the full experience, then get someone to stand above you with buckets of snow and empty one onto you periodically.
After a few minutes the banging and clattering above our heads ceased, and a faint cry of ‘safe‘ was followed by a tug on the rope to indicate that we were good to go. The first section of the route was fairly straightforward climbing, with lots of good frozen snowy turf, but any sense that this was ‘in the bag’ was obliterated moments later when we arrived at the little ledge on which John was perched. There wasn’t room for me, so I had to wait downslope while John got ready to head up the next section. Looking above us, a narrow runnel with dribs and drabs of snow and turf gradually narrowed until it became a wide crack on an otherwise blank wall. The slightly hollow feeling in my stomach bloomed as I watched John scratch and scrabble his way up the blank wall until he could get his axes into some solid turf at the top and haul his way up and over onto easier ground again. As I was last to head up, it fell to me to collect the various bits of protection John had set up along the way. As I perched myself on the lower section of the blank wall and retrieved some kit from the deep crack beside me, I tried to manage the mental multi-tasking involved in simultaneously controlling the desire to panic and focusing on the good technique which would make the job in hand considerably easier. I fought down the impulse to scrabble about with my feet, instead looking around for places to put them and the rock which had looked featureless from below began to yield up little irregularities which would serve as footholds. My right boot wedged into the crack, my left crampon points hooked onto a little ledge, an ice axe slammed reassuringly into frozen snow and turf and, after tentatively weighting the axe to test the security it offered, I pushed/pulled up and got a knee above the blank step, rocked my weight onto the knee, axe 2 hammered into hard snow slightly further on and I was up courtesy of a fairly inelegant belly flop. In reality, John had me on a tight rope all the way through the process, so the objective danger was fairly minimal this time round, but that didn’t stop me feeling my adrenaline surge as the sense of danger receded.
I resisted the urge to rush up the section of easy ground that led to the next belay point, concentrating on proper technique and letting my heart rate subside and my breathing return to normal. The was probably just as well, as directly above this belay point was another problem which offered the previous one a serious challenge as ‘crux’ of the route. A vertical chimney in the rock face about 2 feet wide and around 6 feet deep led to a ceiling which sealed the crack at the top. The crack itself had lots of little ledges and steps and it was the sort of problem with a summer climber in sticky rock shoes could breeze up with ease. The problem was that we were wearing heavy boots and crampons, and Glasgow Climbing Centre has a problem which looks just like this, which I’ve tried to climb several times, and failed on each occasion. John made his way up first, followed by Neil, and then it was my turn. It was fairly straightforward getting to the ‘ceiling’, where a deep fissure in the rock offered a reassuring place to jam my fist into. Climbers often talk about the ‘headgames’ involved in making upward progress, and the next movement was the ‘headgame’ here, requiring me to leave the security of the walls of the chimney and come out far enough to allow me to get up and over the edge of the ceiling. I tried a couple of times, and each time the sense that I was about to lose my balance drove me back into the safety of the chimney. I had a look around at the options for hands and feet, and manage to alter my position so that I could reach a reasonably reassuring handhold above me on the top of the ceiling. I swung out again and this time felt balanced enough to let my hand leave the crack on the ceiling and reposition itself on another hold on the outside wall. I’d holstered my axes in my harness for safe keeping at the bottom of the chimney, and now had to delicately retrieve one, hook it round my neck and adjust my grip to the bottom of the shaft, then drive the pick into the turf on the top of the ceiling. With the axe offering a solid handhold, I could now walk my feet up the cracks and ledges on the outside of the chimney and reach easier ground again. We were now near the top of the route and a bulging rock that neccessitated a slightly awkward shimmy round it was the only impediment to the gently sloping ground above the crag.
We made our way over the rocky upper slopes until the crag below us merged into a gently angled snow slope that offered a quick route back down to the floor of the corrie. On the way back to the minibus, we chatted about the day’s proceedings, and John suggested that the route might merit an increase in it’s technical grading from 4 to 5. Either way, it represented a considerable step up in challenge from anything else I’ve done this year, and I found myself wondering about the significance of this for my own progress as a climber. Back in December, I’d set out with the aim of completing a few grade I and II climbs, and maybe be back leading a grade I by the end of the season. I’ve far exceeded those initial expectations, leading or solo-ing grade II/III ground, and now seconding a grade IV with a technical grade of 4 or 5. While I felt justifiably satisfied with that achievement, I couldn’t help wondering if the Peter Principle had some application here; that at some point, I was going to find myself the David Brent of winter climbing, trapped, perhaps literally, in a situation that cruelly exposed my incompetence for all to see as the star segment on Highland Emergency or, even worse, as ammunition for another of Dorothy-Grace Elder’s incoherent rantings. Thankfully, before I succumbed to an episode of angst-ridden introspection worthy of a Twilight heroine, I remembered that the actual reason I’d gotten back into this was because I wanted to have some fun; thoughts about grades and so on had provided the vague framework for an attempt to calibrate where I might get maximum enjoyment from the inevitable episodes of suffering that typify Scottish winter climbing. In the 1990s Alex Lowe was widely regarded as the finest climber of his generation but, when he was asked about it in an interview, famously responded that “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!”. In that light, concerns about grades achieved become secondary to the question “how big was my grin at the top?”. I’ve noticed one of my climbing buddies; Michael Thomson, favours the term ‘spicy’ to indicate when things on a route are getting a little stretching – it was uttered on several occasions on Sron na Creise the other week, and it occurred to me that it might serve as the basis for an alternative grading system for routes, based on their ‘spicyness’, with grade I becoming a “Korma” and the top end being “the Widower”; a curry so hot it’s claimed some people have been left “sweating, crying, shaking and vomiting”. I love a good curry, but I’ve never had any desire to be emotionally scarred by the experience of eating one, so I’m content to be a solid ‘Rogan Josh’ punter, savouring the flavours and textures but without the need to refrigerate a toilet roll for the morning after – it might make a good story for your mates, but who really wants to be reduced to tears by a session in the toilet?
In the meantime, I have a range of guidebooks to start writing, based around the Lowe/Thomson scale of spicy fun – look out for the chilli rating coming to a bookstore near you.