Sometimes, winter climbing in Scotland is a battle. Everything seems to be set against you; the heavy rucksack, the wind, the deep snow, the short days, the spindrift, the icy ropes, the thaw. We go in to battle against everything that tries to resist our upward movement, not to defeat the elements, but to test ourselves. It's a physical challenge and there is pleasure in hard physical work. It's also a mental challenge, trying to work out the best route to climb, how to approach it, how to protect it, where the route goes, how to get down after the climb.
There's another kind of mental challenge too, one of will power. There is no point shouting at the wind, swearing at the deep unconsolidated snow, complaining that there is no anchor for a belay. You can't stop the ride and get off because you have had enough. Sitting down and sulking because you don't like it anymore does not get you back down to the comfort of your home, where you long to be. It's this test of resilience and the way we are put back in our rightful place by the total understanding that the elements do not care, that are so good for us. They build humility.
Tower Ridge was really hard today! Billy and I started in a cold, crisp morning, admiring all the fresh snow. We knew what we were letting ourselves in for, or, at least, I did, and I tried to explain it to Billy! There was a lot of wading and trench making just to get to the bottom of Douglas Boulder. We certainly did not want to go up East Gully to Douglas Gap so we went along the flank for a wee way and onto the access ledge that comes out onto the crest just above Douglas Gap. The worst of the floundering was likened to being in a rip tide, trying to swim in to the shore when the current is trying to take you out to sea. The ridge crest was topped in many places by a beautiful narrow crest of snow. It was a shame to walk through the pure lines of wind blown snow but it was also very hard work in the uncompactable snow.
Despite being on a ridge, we were very aware that the line of ascent goes across some very exposed steep slopes, and just a small avalanche could carry us off into the abyss. We protected ourselves against this with the rope and carried on digging the trench. The Eastern Traverse felt especially tenuous on soft foot steps with no hope of a hook with the picks. So, when a huge avalanche rumbled down Observatory Gully a few hundred metres beneath our feet, it made us feel even more on edge.
Billy and I topped out into rain and a strong wind from the west. We were happy to be walking down but straight away found that walking down was not going to be easy either. Knee deep, wet, dense snow slowed progress and we had to dig out more mental resilience to keep working away and to get down, despite having wet, weary limbs.
Finally, we did get back to the van, just after dark, sincerely tested and happy that we were up to the test. For me, it was a tough climb, and my back aches thinking about it again as a write this. For Billy, on his first ever winter climb and his first day in crampons, it was an amazing achievement! What a perfect day of Scottish winter climbing!
I go to the wild to be put in my place, to be battered and
embraced by wind, rain and sun;
I go to the wild to be reminded of what matters in this world;
I go to the wild to remember who I am;
I go to the wild to feel;
I go to the wild.
R. Bradley 25th April 2017
That looked like an awesome day Mike and Billy. I bet it was a tough day too. It was a long day for me in lean wet conditions a few years ago so I take my hat off to you guys doing it in those conditions.
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Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.