The BMC International meet is held every winter. It's a fantastic event bringing together climbers of all abilities from around the world to experience some of Scotland's finest Mixed and Ice climbing. When I found out about it in August 2013, I was particularly keen to attend on NZ's behalf as I was preparing to immigrate to the UK. I did hesitate, however, as I was effectively bed ridden at the time with a broken pelvis. Eventually, I reasoned it would be pretty much healed by then, so I should be able to climb 'something'. I downgraded my mixed and WI abilities accordingly and sent off my application.
Four months later, I begin getting nervous. It's not my pelvis which is 'good to go'. No it's tales of Scotland’s winter weather that are sending shivers up my spine. The last few days pass in a blur as I cycle around Cambridge in a panic buying gloves, hats and anything else I think might keep me warm and dry in the maelstrom I am imagining.
The meet is held in Glenmore lodge at the base of the Northern Cairngorms. We arrive Sunday evening and are greeted with an excellent talk by Simon Richardson 'An Introduction to Scottish Winter Climbing'. We are also assigned a host to climb with. Mine is Simon. Conditions are tricky with strong SE winds, which have left significant loading on North and West facing slopes. Simon asks what I think about climbing somewhere a little 'unusual'. I am intrigued.
It dawns gray and blustery as predicted. We drive to the lower Cairngorm car park then walk to the South East facing Creag na h-Iolaire. At 60 – 100m in height it was dismissed by the hard men of the 60's at not worth the bother, but as time has gone by tastes have changed. Simon thought it would be in good condition, and it is. We climb the central buttress (FA) and the right buttress both at III 4. Its great to be mixed climbing again! We return to Glenmore just in time for dinner through a substantially stronger head wind.
Simon suggested we head west of Fort William to a perhaps unknown Crag up Glen Finnan. After an early start, we still only reach the card base at noon after a long drive and walk in. Disappointingly the turf is decidedly unfrozen so we bail to the obvious line up the central buttress. This provides increasingly entertaining climbing, and Rolly Polly Finish (FA) comes in at III 4. Despite being unable to climb our initial objective, I relish the afternoons solitude. A respite from the ever crowded British Isles.
Tuesday night we interoperate the weather forecast to give stable conditions about Ben Nevis. Eight hours later as we strip off our soaked layers in the snow and wind outside the CIS hut, we lament the weather and Simon's forgotten key. But we were there, so we would climb. Simon had his eye on a 1908 summer line up the East ridge of the Douglas Boulder. Soon, I was braced against the wind belaying as Simon happily climbed up to a prominent notch. From there, I set off up over two steep but well protected corners before reaching the top of the 'Boulder' IV 5. As Simon put it 'A good route of a stormy day'. I am still looking forward to my first view of the Ben.
My time with Simon had come to an end; I was traded to Mark Stevenson. He was keen to climb the West Ridge of Ben Eighe (300m IV 4), so we joined the flocks heading to Torridon. The weather was great and Ben Eighe was crawling with climbers. The west ridge was no exception with three parties climbing up the wide open first two pitches simultaneously. A few pitches on we had an entertaining poke up the stunning corner system that forms the direct finish before abseiling back down to our spot in line. It was a great route in great condition.
The forecast looked grim, and so it was. We joined a van heading NW to the dry tolling Crag, Lochcarron. Its bursting with climbers when we arrive. Here Mark and Patrick Cooke proved to be an entertaining if not slightly terrifying double act. First, Mark caught Patrick's 5m fall on a 6m route. Next route and Mark is on belay again. This time he is tied down. Patrick's tool falls arching viciously toward Mark, who somehow manages to catch it and keep Patrick on belay. There are relieved smiles all round when Patrick eventually returns to the ground.
The weather was unsettled, but we decided to take a gamble. Mark, Patrick, Martin Cooper and myself set off early for Torridon. We arrived in heavy rain at 6:30. There were already a few other cars idling in the car-park, but they soon buzzed off disheartened. The rain lessened and turned to sleet as we set off. We turned off the track to Coire Dubh Mor on Liathach at dawn as the snow finally stopped, and we were at the base of poachers Ice Fall (V 5) at 9am. On the way up Mark asked about my ice climbing experience. My response of '… I've done two leads: WI 3 and WI3+' must have been less than inspiring. We decide he'd lead the first pitch, and I'd lead the second if I was up to it. Ah hour later, I sit in the belay cave drinking the offered hot cordial and gathering my courage. My pitch is great, but our 50m ropes were shorter than we thought. It's only after 9 ice screws, some rope stretch and a tiny bit of simul-climbing that I reach the 60m belay ledge. From here Mark charges up to the easy summit slopes before we sidle to the decent gully in white-out missing the clear summit views Patrick and Martin enjoyed 30 minutes prior. We all agreed this was a stunning end to a great week.
"Scotland’s vigorous weather adds to the overall satisfaction of climbing here" (Paraphrased from Simon Richardson)
"Little Mountains, Big adventures" (Simon Yearsly)
"Often you don't know if a route is in condition till you rub your nose up against it" (Paraphrased from Simon Yearsly)
- Strong winds can produce significant rope drag.
- Dancing at belays helps keep the circulation flowing in ones fingers and toes.
- If the wind if from the east, head west.