A Memorable Winter in Scotland
Story by Ian Parnell April 2009
As I type this the snows are still falling across the Scottish Highlands, it's been a long and at times hard winter. But through the false starts, the failed attempts and the long list of crazy mishaps it's been one of the most memorable winter seasons I've had in the mountains. Here in the UK we don't have anything that would be classed beyond foothills in most other countries. But these petite mountains can give the grandest of adventures, comparable with anything in the Rockies or Himalaya. This season my goal was a big new route ideally in the Torridon area in the North West, in my mind the most extraordinary peaks in Scotland. I wanted something that would push me further than I had been before. My mantra to cope with failure was that if you got up first time then it wasn't challenging enough, little did I know how much effort it would take.
Several teams had been out earlier in the month but I wanted to wait till proper "full conditions". We certainly got that having to wade in through deep snow on the approach and then descend by Braille through a whiteout of horizontal snow. Rather than starting with a gentle warm up Jon Winter and I opt for the savage test piece of Daddy Longlegs and pay the price for such early season over ambition with deep cramps in my arms. The good news is that at least the couple of short falls I take blow away the summer cobwebs.
More trail breaking, this time up to Ben Nevis, our highest mountain at a staggering 4000ft. With this amount of snow so early in the season it looking like its setting up to be a special winter this year. The last month of ice axe pull-ups seem to have bolstered confidence as well and Pete Benson and I manage the first winter ascent of the steep E1 (5.10) of Devastation. It's a neat little route but far too tame to satisfy this season's big new route ambition.
Jon and I head up to the North West gunning for a new line on the triple buttress of Ben Eighe. It's some of the steepest rock in Scotland that regularly comes into winter nick and I've got my eye on a line that will fulfil all my requirements for something big and new. 12 hours later I find myself abseiling off after getting stalled in a maze of blind un-protectable shallow grooves. We traverse in the dark along the half height ledge eventually reaching an easy escape gully dubbed Fuselage Wall. I find out why when 400ft up I find myself crawling through the remains of a World War II bomber plane. 50feet higher and the whole gully suddenly avalanches. I have only 1 thought I must hit the plane. Eventually the battering of snow finishes and I find myself wrapped around the 8foot long propeller blades. My back is torn and my left arm will eventually turn purple along its full length but pain has never felt so good.
Jon wrote off his car last week on black ice whilst on the winter quest. This time we make it 8 and a half hours into the 9 hour drive before we pile the courtesy car from his insurance policy into an already dead deer slumped in the middle of the road. Nissan Micra versus 400 pounds of Venison meat, no prizes for guessing who won? Hitching to our hostel at 1 am in the middle of Ranoch Moor should have been a set up scene for a horror movie but a friendly doctor pulls in an by 2am we're in our beds. By 5am I'm up again for a crack at the Glen Coe test piece The Duel. It's a legendary route that took first ascencionists Rab Anderson and Cubby 5 visits over 3 years before success Despite my lack of sleep and my bruised arm I somehow fight my way up it only to discover at the end of the crux pitch that I've completely snapped my axe in two just above the hand grip. It really is turning out to be a strange winter.
Winter conditions have descended down the UK as far South as Wales; a real rarity these modern days of global warming. It's also a third of the car drive to Scotland so I seize the opportunity to make a second ascent of Scott Report one of Chris Parkin's many unrepeated prize lines at the Black Ladders. All goes well until I notice that I've broken another axe in two!
I feel like I'm up to full steam ready to grab THE big line but the dice doesn't seem to be falling. First I join up with winter maestro Guy Robertson and get the conditions but not the breaks on an outrageous project at Creag an Dubh Loch. This ends when I rip out a bolt placed in 1970 and almost squash the belayer. Secondly I join up with everything-climbing maestro Dave Macleod but that ends up half way up the hill in warm rain trying for a return match with the Eighe line. Later in the same week I fail again to make it to the base of a Scottish cliff getting blown over in 100 mile an hour winds.
There's supposed to have been great conditions last week, but now 40 guests have travelled from around the world for the BMC International Meet the big thaw has set in. It's a sad, embarrassing wash out.
I'm back in the Eighe car park after another solo 9 hour drive. But there's no sign of my partner for tomorrow Andy Turner. Eventually he calls at 9pm to tell me he's on top of Ben Nevis having made the first winter ascent of Sassenach, one of the big prizes around. He promises he won't let me down and true to his word he rolls into the car park just after 1am. After 2 hours sleep we're on the go, my buzzing motivation keeping Andy's weary legs going.
My guess on the abseil is pretty much spot on this time although I'm shocked at how steep this section of the cliff is and am forced to put intermediate runners to keep in touch with the rock. The good news is that storm conditions have coated the under sides of the roofs with hoar frost. This is it. This is my chance. I'm in the right place, with the right partner with plenty of daylight to go.
Following Andy's big effort yesterday I'll be doing the bulk of the leading, which suits me as I've rarely been more psyched. I quickly follow the same first pitch as back in December but this time opt to carry on straight up. The ground is much steeper, peppered with roofs but at least there are cracks. Gear still has to be fought for and often I'm forced to run it out for 10 or 15 feet before I can fiddle something in. This pitch culminates in an almost unbelievable traverse on the lip of one of the biggest roofs which takes me many tentative attempts before I finally commit.
Thankfully Andy takes over for a short but alarmingly steep pitch. We're over halfway up the wall now and I'm beginning to believe this thing might actually really be feasible. An hour later and the mood has changed. I'm spent having battled away up a shallow groove with shoddy gear only for the line to blank out. Down climbing my arms begin to meltdown and now I'm faced with only one option; the bulging wall directly above the belay.
The fact that I'm now operating on vapours is brought slam back home when 30feet up I drop an axe and have to haul up one of Andy's. I'm struggling even to hold my axes and above me the way is blocked by another bulging overlap. It's Kamikaze time. I'd rather fail going for it screaming, than limply lower off. Shouting I lock off deep, more noise and I snag the top of a flake, the power screams become gurgled sobs as I stab my feet over the lip and ram in a hand jam followed by my knee. Through the daze of hyper-ventilation I begin to realise we might be there.
A short wall and I can belay and bring Andy up, but not before hand-mind coordination beaks down in the lactic acid and I drop my head torch. No matter there's a full moon and I'm so made up I could probably fly down blind. The big-line is in the bag. I settle on the name Bruised Violet in commemoration of the violent but beautiful struggle Eighe has put up in relinquishing its most outrageous route to date. All in all it's been quite a winter.