This British climbers’ word perfectly describes the oppressive, wet, gray-black cloud that hung over the Northern Corries of Cairngorm at the start of the sixth British Mountaineering Council/Mountaineering Council of Scotland International Winter Meet.
Forty-five people from 23 countries had come to sample the famous winter climbing of the small but fierce mountains of northern Scotland.
Except there was no winter. Not much anyway. The ground was bare and it was claggy in the corries.
At Glasgow’s Queen Street station, during a long wait for a train, I saw two men in kilts and three in shorts. In February. At the Winter Meet headquarters at Glenmore Lodge, a government-owned mountaineering center near Aviemore, no snow was in sight. The same was nearly true at the parking lot for the Cairngorm ski area. But here’s the thing about Scotland: That parking lot was jammed. Die-hard skiers and snowboarders were braving rain and clag, and paying good money, for a lift to strips of snow that would be sneered at during a bad winter in Pennsylvania. And, on a day when sun-spoiled Coloradans would roll over in bed and ponder which coffee shop to visit later in the morning, hundreds of climbers were packing up for the one-hour walk to Coire An t’Sneachda and Coire An Lochain: the Northern Corries.
Days of thaw had stripped the snow from the corries’ rock buttresses and left only patches of waterlogged ice in the gullies. My partner and host for the day, a climber from outside London named Paul Seabrook, seemed to be sure we’d find something to climb—or at least we’d enjoy the trying. “That’s the thing about Scottish climbing,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to find when you walk up there, or even if you’ll get up anything at all, and so it’s that much sweeter when you do climb something.”
Our route was No. 4 of the five types of Scottish winter climbing outlined during a slide show on the opening night of the meet by Simon Richardson, a leading Scottish pioneer who is also one of the most active climbers in the Coast Ranges of British Columbia, despite living 5,000 miles away. The five are: 1) Gullies; 2) Thin snow-ice-plastered faces; 3) Steep ice falls; 4) Snowed-up rock climbs; and 5) True mixed climbs, with bits of ice, torquing in rock cracks, and, especially, frozen turf. The strict Scottish ethic requires rock climbs to be covered with snow or hoar frost before they can be climbed with ice axes and crampons. (“If you're caught climbing bare rock with your ice axes, you’ll be sent home,” a meet official joked.) Problem is, most of the routes were bare, and climbers had traveled from halfway around the world (or maybe from London) to climb. The rules seemed to be bent in the Northern Corries this day, and not just by the international guests.
The third pitch, my lead again, traversed steep snow to an ominous cornice. A party had busted through this before us, so the path was obvious, but when I started moving onto the steep snow rib beneath the lip, my footholds collapsed and I lurched sideways. The snow was too soft for picks, too wet to hold the shafts of the tools. Eventually I discovered I could punch my gloved fists straight into the snow, giving enough support to oonch sideways onto the snow rib, reach over the lip, and belly-flop onto the flat summit.
Good stuff, but I wondered about the effectiveness of the Scottish ethic for protecting the rock. The big holds on Fingers Ridge were worn and bright-colored by winter traffic; the light covering of snow and hoar frost wasn’t protecting them from tools and crampons. The frost didn’t necessarily even make climbs harder: It outlined the edges on blank-looking walls, making them easier to find. So what was the point?
Back at Glenmore Lodge for afternoon tea and cakes, I tried to get an explanation out of James Edwards, a teacher who lives near Inverness, and Steve Ashworth, a young guy from England's Lakes District who is pushing the limits of winter climbing in Britain. The two argued that, although the ethic is ineffective at preventing rock damage, it is nonetheless essential. In part it preserves “turf,” the clumps of frozen dirt, moss, and other vegetation that provide critical tool and front-point placements, and even protection points with Specters or Warthogs driven into the stuff. Many climbs have gotten harder as the turf erodes away, which happens much faster when the turf isn’t frozen. Scotland’s strict ethics (which also include no bolts and only doing ground-up, onsight ascents), along with long approaches and stormy weather, have held down standards; the hardest Scottish climbs are nowhere near as difficult technically as sport-mixed routes elsewhere. But that seems fine with most Brits. Ian Parnell said, “ The cliffs are often so short that ground-up climbs are the best way to preserve the adventure.” Said Ashworth: “It’s all about giving the cliff a chance.”
The forecast called for a cold snap on Day Three. It seemed the cliffs would have their chance.
With a good forecast for Day Three of the International Winter Meet in Scotland, more than half of the climbers at the Glenmore Lodge laid plans to climb at Ben Nevis, the highest summit in the British Isles at 4,406 feet.
The Ben is hallowed ground for Scottish winter climbers, with a history of technical climbing that dates to the 19th century and new testpieces still established almost every season. The mountain lay about an hour and a half's drive from the lodge, and so, well before dawn, we filled two 15-seater vans and a small fleet of private cars and headed west. Clouds covered the peak when we arrived at the parking lot, but we could see fresh snow not far above us, and streaks of white ice appeared to flow out of the clouds and down the black buttresses and gullies: a welcome sight after two days of rainy, warm climbing. Better still, the air was calm. A herd of amped-up climbers raced up the trail.
Although ice conditions on the upper mountain are usually very good, the weather is generally bad. Climbers carry compasses and laminated plastic cards showing the bearings for navigating off the cliff-lined summit plateau in a whiteout. Most veterans have a story or two of epic wind events. The best I heard at the Winter Meet was from a British climber whose name I didn't catch: He had topped out somewhere near Observatory Ridge in huge winds and whiteout, and he started crawling with his partner toward the summit, 500 feet away, with 15 feet of rope tied between them. Suddenly his partner vanished — he had broken through the cornice above Point Five Gully. The fellow at the meet said, “In all the blowing snow, I didn't even know where he was: I could see he'd fallen, but there was no weight on the rope. And then he was blown back onto the top by the updraft from the gully. I reeled him in like a fish.” It's possible I was being reeled in by this story, but every Brit at the meet seemed to have a similarly desperate tale from the Ben, so who knows?
I slept late on Day Four of the International Winter Meet in Scotland, waking as an intercom blared that the daily briefing would begin at 8:45, in just a few minutes.
The British Mountaineering Council’s Nick Colton didn’t have much to announce: There was a blizzard outside, avalanche conditions had jumped overnight to Category 5, the highest level, and, anyway, most climbers were too tired to contemplate another day on the hill after three days of long approaches and cold climbing. I was knackered, and other guests had done much harder days than I had. Canadian Sean Isaac and host Simon Richardson rode mountain bikes along a forest road for an hour or so, then hiked five hours to a remote crag, all to do a three-pitch new route. “That was a ridiculous amount of effort for three pitches,” Isaac said that night. “But they were damned good pitches!”
Not a few climbers were nursing hangovers from the vicious schnapps brewed by the grandmother of Slovenian Rok Zalokar (who did a very hard new route on the 7,000-meter-plus Janak Chuli with Andrej Stremfelj last year). I’d managed to avoid the schnapps but not the draft ales poured in the upstairs bar of the Glenmore Lodge, and now I was happy just to set up at a table in the dining room for a day of noodling at my computer and chatting with climbers from around the world.
In three days of climbing, I’d already shared belays with Luca Maspes from Italy, Maciej Ciesielski from Poland, Fidde Jönsson from Sweden, Jo Dotremont from Belgium, and Nitzan Auerbach from Israel, not to mention hanging out with various British hosts and my American roommates Varco and Wilkinson. In the dining room and during long, stinky van rides, there were extraordinary opportunities to share stories and half-understood jokes. (English of various degrees of fluency was the common language.) The sun poked out that afternoon, but we could see clouds flying across the ridges and there were reports of natural avalanches in the Northern Corries above the lodge. Most climbers seemed happy to chill, but one van left for a tour of a nearby distillery, and another drove about an hour and a half to a small collection of dry-tooling routes at a slate quarry near Birnham.
The next day the weather was still poor and I was still feeling the fatigue in my legs, and so I opted to join a trio headed to the roadside Birnham quarry for a little experimenting with modern dry-tooling. Newtyle Quarry is as untraditional as they come, and had challenged Scottish ethics with its aid-bolted, drilled-pocket routes (pioneered by Dave Brown, Dave MacLeod, Scott Muir, and a few others). These routes were not mixed: Ice would rarely form at this low-elevation crag. They were just for practice or training or a new sport all their own.
I visited the quarry with Nick Colton, the deputy chief executive officer of the BMC, Steve Long, head of Mountain Leader Training UK, and Cirensangzhu (“Sangzhu”) from Tibet. We reached the wet, chossy crag in just a couple of minutes’ walk from the road. In addition to its dry-tooling routes, the crag had a couple of traditional lines and a handful of sport routes. “You know, this cliff has three different grading systems!” marveled Colton.
At dinner the following night, Webb told me to pack up: I’d be going to his house for the night, along with his partner, Mikael Bo Kristiansen from Denmark; we’d pick up Edwards at his house on the way west. Before leaving, Edwards asked, cryptically, “You do know how to ride a bike, right?”
In the morning, well before dawn, we managed to load four packs full of winter gear into Webb’s small wagon, along with a disassembled bicycle; three more bikes were strapped to a rack on the back. “Keep a sharp eye out for deer,” Edwards told Mikael, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. “If you see one, yell loudly.”
“You’re being driven by a one-eyed man,” Webb explained—he had lost his right eye to stone fall on the North Face of the Eiger, many years earlier.
We made it across the country unscathed and parked by the head of Loch Broom at sea level. We unpacked the bikes, pushed them through a gate, and began riding up a muddy road toward the cloud-covered hills at the head of Gleann na Squaib. Rain squalls blew across the fields. I hadn’t ridden a bike in years, and with a 35-pound pack on my back, my quads soon were screaming. We climbed hundreds of feet above the valley, left the bikes at the end of the road, and then walked about an hour and a half along a trail that started muddy and eventually was covered with a shallow layer of snow. Our goal was Beinn Dearg, a broad ridge that topped out at about 3,400 feet above the car, with a steep escarpment that holds half a dozen routes; Edwards and Webb hoped a new line might be possible today.