As odd as it might sound, one of the biggest joys of living in a mountain town like Chamonix is actually getting away from it- whether that be on expedition or just a week somewhere else in the world. When you’re constantly focused on the mountains towering above your home it can get a bit stagnant. With that in mind myself and Ueli had decided to head over to Scotland at some point this winter- nothing special, just for a week of fun. I wasn’t even going to bring my SLR with me…shock horror. The priority was to climb some great routes, no matter what the grade, and focus on eating as much cake, fish and chips, and real ale as possible.
The trip started off on the right foot with a weekend of shots, late night dancing, and general Chamonix party antics with plenty of folks for the Annapurna ‘charity’ night. Feeling delicate and extremely hungover we tried our best to pack within the measly Easyjet allowances and flew out snoring like pigs on the plane to Edinburgh. After a pit stop for the Mountain Film Festival we headed north the following morning to the North West. I’ve always wanted to head to the North West, partly because it’s meant the be one of the remotest areas to climb, and partly because it’s got some amazing looking routes. The GPS showed the way and I struggled to remember to drive on the correct side of the road whilst Ueli caught up on his sending sleep from the weekend.
True to Scotland we arrived at our bunkhouse in Kinlochewe in driving rain. Above us the peaks looked white which was a good sign. The bunkhouse was sparse to say the least, and the damp that is so key to a Scottish suffer week was already starting to seep in to us. I instantly came down with a sinus infection and we sat in the cold kitchen whilst I sniffled and ate cake and drank tea. A perfect start to the trip.
The following day I managed to set the fire alarm off by turning on the gas stove to heat up the kitchen area…so we did the mature thing and legged it. The ‘mute’ button on the fire alarm panel had all but been punched through the wall to the other side with an ice axe so I don’t think we were the first ones to have set it off inadvertently.
The mountain of choice for the trip was Beinn Eighe, and the route of choice was Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. Leaving the car park we opted to walk around the whole mountain rather than go up and over- it was raining hard and thick cloud was hanging above us. Still this is what Gore-Tex was apparently made for; I never know how they get away with the slogan of ‘Guaranteed to keep you dry’ - obviously their version of what dry constitutes must include your boxers being so wet you could fill a pint glass at the end of the day. Maybe i’ll do that one day and send it over to them.
Contouring round Beinn Eighe and arriving at the base of the Triple Buttress we bumped in to an old friend from chamonix, Tom Grant. Small world. They had gone up to retrieve some kit but had been put off by the avalanche risk- we had naively concluded that the slopes around us were too small to be a threat so we pressed on up. Finding the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears was almost impossible in the whiteout and so we ended up on something else by accident. I’m not sure what real Scottish conditions are but essentially if it’s in really sh*t conditions by European standards then that seems to mean really good conditions by Scottish rules. So we inched our way up a heavily buried route which was great fun for the leader and heinous for the belayer given that it was sleeting hard most of the day. As I tied in for the third pitch I felt we were not doing too badly- the route hadn’t really matched the description but then actually following any features with this much snow was impossible. But the final pitch stung- I spent hours cleaning before feeling I was going to commit myself in to a dead end. I couldn’t really see which way was going to lead me out- wet snow covered everything and by now I was on a series of slabs rather than following an obvious crack. I was a bit sick of having to clean this thick wet snow and gave the sharp end over to Ueli who wasn’t too keen either. A few meters above my high point and it was Ueli who was coming back down to the belay- we were getting a good old Schooling in Scotland. Excellent. So we bailed.
The great thing about having no expectations is that you’re always happy with whatever you get. Even though we had no idea what we’d tried we’d still had a great day and in its buried condition it definitely proved pretty challenging both for climbing and for pro. Our prior two leads had been fully run out at the top, we tried and failed, we’d donated a centimetre of axe tip to the route, and we’d both gotten 100% soaked. Cant complain.
The next day we tried again. This time it was clear on the approach but the freezing level was way above the summit- 5 degrees at the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. Mindful of courting any winter ethics wrath in our direction by climbing when nothing is frozen we kept heading up to West Central Gully where we could see some ice. Finding a good belay cave Ueli headed on upwards without any screws- thankfully a man who has soloed numerous multipitch WI6s around the world doesn’t need any pro on ice. But yet again we found our match- the ice was pouring water from behind and completely detached from the rock. These temps were getting a little annoying now.
Our plan B (or was it C by now?) was to just go have fun on one of the Buttress routes and so we did just that. Starting up the first pitch of Piggots route on Central Buttress we bumped in to Tom again and Paul Swail. Deciding that there was plenty of buttress for everyone we took a line to the side and then directly up the top ‘headwall’ (left of Piggots route) that actually proved pretty spicy. I cleverly managed to drop an axe on the last pitch which thankfully landed on a ledge next to the belay and after a lot more digging we eventually broke out on to the summit. Bum sliding back down was maybe the highlight of the trip.
The forecast had been getting worse and worse- rain, high temps, and gale force winds. It was mainly the high temps that worried us and so the following morning saw us driving over to Lochcarron to check out a dry tooling venue there. The drive was scenic but the crag was dripping wet- this was no Le Zoo. But it did provide us with some good afternoon exercise and whilst driving back the weather did actually clear up offering us some really great vistas of what the NW costal region is all about. I’m sure when it stops raining its pretty stunning up there.
We found ourselves at a bit of a loss for what to do by now. The weather for the last two days of our trip together was really bad, or maybe just very ‘typical’- 100mph winds, rain, freezing level above the summit. Bit of an all round pain. We’d decided to leave the NW and head towards the Cairngorms- smaller, easier access, and generally faster than anything in the NW- it was worth a poke about. Ian Parnel arrived that evening though and threw a spanner in the works by wanting to head in to Beinn Eighe….what did he know that we didn’t about this weather? After umming and eering for most of the evening we stuck with plan A- abandon ship- and drove over to the Ski Car Park in the morning. After overshooting the Cairngorms entirely after nattering away incessantly about life and the future, we back tracked and arrived at a very blustery Ski Car Park. Firstly we needed a coffee- it had been a long drive. I could see Ueli wasn’t hugely keen to head in to the maelstrom but I’d just dried my gore-tex out and it was looking like it needed a little soaking. Tom and Paul arrived at the cafe just as we sat down and advised us not to go out- a millisecond later and Ueli had bolted to his feet and was getting us all more coffee and bacon sandwiches. I could see that we weren’t going to get the Gore-Tex wet today! Instead Tom and Paul convinced us to drive to Newtyle Quarry. After all this it was starting to look like we were going to be having a dry tooling holiday- after a total of 7 hours in the car we arrived at Newtyle. Local beast Greg Boswell arrived and showed us how it’s done, whilst I showed us how it’s not done. And so we headed back to Aviemore for the night where fish and chips and plenty of good ale flowed. It was a good night.
Bright, early and a little hungover Ueli left for Edinburgh airport leaving me a couple of days to catch up with local ‘Rain Man’ Will Sim. I haven’t seen much of Will since he wisely decided to leave the alps and pursue his guides training, and after a day of catching up we headed in to the Cairngorms with nothing in mind apart from just go have a play. Which was exactly what we did soloing up Doctor’s Choice, Pygmy Ridge, and quickly roping up for the easiest ascent of The Genie in history.
All in all a really fun week. Yes we didn’t do much but we did get ourselves a pretty fine holiday in and met some really fantastic people in the bunkhouse and Aviemore. Getting down and dirty and wet in the highlands was a great motivation for the Alps again and now that the first sign of good weather has arrived since 2013 it’s time to get the softshells out, the suncream on, the skis deployed, and the alpine suffering to take over.
Thanks to all who we met, shared beers with, discussed at length about Scottish independence, and generally made the trip for us.