The winter months are always the season in which I put myself the most at risk, so at this time of year I often find it an important exercise to take a look at my own motivations and mind-set when it comes to risk-taking.
I climb solo nowadays, almost without exception. The last 50 mountain routes I have climbed have been without a rope, and nearly all of them without any company. Soloing in winter is in general the riskiest type of climbing out there. So…why do it?
I first discovered soloing as a very effective coping mechanism for the mental repercussions of a severe personal trauma during 2008. I'd finally found something that totally focused my mind away from the things I couldn't block out of my head any other way.
It started with that, but then I started to enjoy the same sensation for its own sake. The feeling of total and utter concentration….living more intensely with every ice axe placement than you do in an entire week of ordinary life. Nothing else matters but your mental and physical ability to get yourself up a climb and down safely, and when you carry it off on a climb close to your limit the feeling of achievement is hard to surpass.
In the last year or so I have deliberately set about to transform myself entirely into a soloist. I wanted to make soloing the discipline at which I am most comfortable. But this is where it becomes complicated. I don't climb hard by modern standards - I prefer long mountain routes to short technical stuff. But I am soloing close to my current uppermost abilities, not with a safety margin of a few grades.
At first glance this seems irresponsible, to be climbing close to my limit with no rope or safety system at all. Perhaps it is…But I do it with a mind-set that I've developed over the last year or so which makes it justifiable to me.
I have very few challenges in my day to day working life. Living in Glencoe is a wonderfully simple existence. But I believe we must constantly challenge ourselves in order to live a fulfilling existence. If we don't have the rollercoaster of failure and success to ride then we just live a straight line.
So for me soloing routes I'll find hard is how I ride that rollercoaster. I train to make sure I'm fitter than I realistically actually need to be, and I've learned that "can't be arsed" moments are when it's most important to get out. If I were to give up easily when it comes to things involving no risk, how could I expect to perform when my mental strength could determine whether I top out of a route or not? Every time I set out on a route I know that I must be on my best form, and razor-sharp awareness of your own ability is just as important as actual talent. And if you aren't "feeling it", you don't set out.
It's a risky business, and I've become very aware of the risks and the rewards. I've been lucky enough to experience both extreme fear and incredible highs whilst soloing, and in the last year I've had some of the most intense moments of my life - good and bad.
It's a dangerous rollercoaster, but one for me which is worth riding.