Thursday, 11 April 2013

An extraordinary winter

"Normal" conditions for winter 2012/13. Untouched perfection on the top-out from "Ceannacroc Couloir", Sgurr nan Conbhairean.

On the 18th February I soloed "Pioneer Gully" (III*) in Glenshiel on perfect ice under a cloudless sky. I topped out into bright sunshine and smiled at the privilege…even if I were to have no more days this great for the rest of the winter, I would be happy.

I had no idea…I couldn't possibly have hoped for what came next. The following 6 weeks were the single most extraordinary period of perfect weather and climbing conditions I've ever seen. Continuous sunshine, perfect nevé everywhere, styrofoam ice - these often rare components of Scottish winter climbing became the norm for an unbroken period of almost ridiculous length.

The day after being in Glenshiel I soloed the ultra-classic Staghorn Gully (III***) on Creag Meagaidh, and thought that having two such perfect days in a row would be enough to satisfy my itch for a while. But it very quickly became clear that a remarkable climbing season was unfolding…why limit myself when my fitness and motivation were at an all time high?

The knowledge that this winter would be the end of my 4 year spell in Glencoe was always going to mean that I was going to try and make the most of it. Combine this with exceptional climbing conditions over a long period, and it was unthinkable to do anything else but really go for it this time. All my other past winter seasons suddenly seemed to be leading up to this one.

So there I was, in an exasperating situation. I'd never been that happy soloing ice before, always being more comfortable climbing alone on buttresses. Yet some of the best ice climbing conditions in recent years had appeared and were here to stay across the Highlands. Twitter, facebook and UKC bombarded me daily with photos of climbers enjoying ice routes in perfect nick from Eilde Canyon to the Orion Face….could I face my demons when it came to soloing ice?

Long before the 6-week nevé-fest started, I'd already had my most successful ever winter. I'd broken some formidable mental barriers with my solos of "Archies' Ridge" (III,4*) and "Devil's Rib" (III*) and was becoming clearer than ever on what actually makes me tick when it comes to climbing.

So why not try ice? Being open-minded as a soloist…dangerous and liberating at the same time. For months I've been treading a fairly delicate path between ambition and realism, with the pressure of perfect conditions constantly there. On occasions it has been hard to tread that path…but when you climb alone for a while winter, you simply have to get it right.

And despite so many preconceptions and doubts about some routes, I can't remember how many times this winter I've turned up at a route, which I've previously rejected as a solo, and found myself cruising up it and wondering what all the fuss was about. The fact that most of them were under blue skies and on perfect ice is a bonus that I have never taken for granted.

The 20 minutes I spent climbing "Nutcracker" on Stob Coire Beith sum it all up for me perfectly. A beautiful, twisting ribbon of grade III ice tucked behind a ship's prow buttress…white and untouched, almost unheard of. The most plastic and enjoyable ice I have ever climbed, every single placement solid first-time.

When you live somewhere like this for a while, it's easy to lose perspective on just how special a day like that is. But multiply that over 32 winter routes on 10 new winter cliffs, and that is my winter. Beinn Udlaidh on the last day of March? Aonach Dubh's West face in April? Preconceptions out the window this winter.

Looking back on the last 5 and a half months, I'm suddenly quite tired. I have never been so continuously psyched for such a long period before, and I've never had to think so deeply about my motivations and the risks and rewards of repeated winter soloing.

I dare say I might get one or two more late-season routes done, but me for now it's over for a while. A thaw is finally on the way, and the closely-knit and super-motivated climbers of Lochaber are all gradually winding down. I think many of them will agree that it is no exaggeration to say that this will be remembered as one of the best winters ever.

The deep cleft of South Castle Gully (II*)

 Soloing "West Gully" (III*), Beinn Udlaidh

The East face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, Glencoe.

 Soloing "Taxus" (III***), the classic ice gully of the Southern Highlands

The view from Ben Nevis.

 Inverlael Gully (II*), Beinn Dearg, Wester Ross

"Nutcracker" (II/III*), Stob Coire nam Beith, the narrow ice ribbon directly in centre.

The view from topping out from Pioneer Gully (III*), Coire an-t Slugain, Glenshiel

A perfect morning to solo "Staghorn Gully" (III***), Creag Meagaidh.

Alpenglow on the Post Face Creag Meagaidh

"Devil's Rib" (III*), Sgurr a'Mhaim West face.

Views into Knoydart from Glenshiel.

Fogbow on Aonach Mor.

Soloing "Stairway to Heaven" (III*), Beinn an Dothaidh.

 Soloing Archie's Ridge (III,4*), Aonach Dubh West Face
Ice pillars in the Central Couloir of the East face, Stob Coire Sgreamhach

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