Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The day I didn't solo S.C Gully

The one and only Stob Coire nan Lochain, Glencoe. S.C Gully is the steep central gully.

The first of two reflective pieces on my experiences of Scottish winter climbing whilst living and working at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe between 2009 and 2013.

It is near impossible to describe what it is like to spend a winter climbing season living in Glencoe. During the 4 winters I spent living at the Clachaig, my every day realities were so far removed from what can be called normal that looking back on it now is a slightly dreamlike experience. If I wasn't actually out climbing, normality would be watching avalanches from my bedroom window, checking the weather forecast ten times-a-day, strolling five minutes from the door to look at frozen waterfalls or calling out mountain rescue for yet another overdue team on the Aonach Eagach.

All my winters spent in Glencoe were unforgettable but the 2012/13 season was the big one. Good conditions could be found somewhere almost continuously between November and May, and high pressure and cold air arrived in February not to leave for weeks. The time was right to aim high and try to achieve some long held ambitions.

Of all Glencoe's winter climbs, to me SC Gully in Coire nan Lochain is the most beautiful. Arguably the finest line in the Glen, it had me hooked the first time I read W.H Murray's account in his timeless masterpiece. It had also gained quite a mean reputation at the Clachaig during my time there after two colleagues bailed off it on two seperate occasions. One amusing incident in particular springs to mind from the 2009/10 season. A group of climbers who used to frequent the Clachaig had got roaringly drunk in the Boots Bar on a saturday night, woken up profoundly hungover and proceeded to take repeated falls off the crux of SC Gully onto a dodgy peg. They staggered into the bar later that day to be greeted by my brother Alex who was still working there at the time. "What can I get for you?" asked Alex. "Got any valium?", they replied.

February 2013, Glencoe
A year of focused hillrunning in the glen had brought my fitness to a totally new level. I could happily do a swift ascent of Ben Nevis and the CMD Arete, run the Aonach Eagach immediately afterwards, and wake up the next morning fresh as a daisy. I could summit the Buachaille in 50 minutes via a climbing route, and comfortably run up Munros in a 3 hour break in an 11 hour shift. Running up Glencoe's steepest corries became an almost daily occurance, and with time I felt like I could float uphill with an ease that at times almost frightened me.

I was on the form of my life that winter, on-sight soloing Grade III's all over the place, often on no sleep or after yet another wild party in the Clachaig staff bothy. Everything felt so smooth, and I felt able to move through the mountains almost effortlessly. Ice climbing conditions were amazing and everyone seemed to be having their best ever season. I was going to near ridiculous lengths to climb the routes I wanted, on occasions driving 200 mile round trips to go climbing before a 3pm shift in the pub. The time arrived when I realised I was going to attempt to solo SC Gully.

A normal day for February 2013.

The idea, once seeded, grew to have deep significance for me. I weighted the idea with a label - my abilities would be measured by whether or not I could solo that route. Would climbing SC Gully, solo and on-sight, somehow put me more at peace? Would it quench that irrepressible thirst I had to be climbing everything all the time? Would it prove me to be who I wanted to be? I believed that it would. It would be the big one to top off everything else.

27th February 2013
Another freezing dawn, another cloudless sky, and another time trudging up that bloody path into Coire nan Lochain. It could have been one of dozens of winter mornings I'd had on that path, but things were very different this time. I had run up that path more often than I could remember, walked up it with a heavy sack to more days on Bidean than I can recall. It was part of my every day existence. Yet that morning it felt a bit like I was walking towards the most important test of my life.

I glanced at the streak of ice flowing down the classic rock route Quiver Rib, thinking of the first time I'd done it, 4am one summer solstice morning. I felt like a different person this morning, serious and grim. Why could I not get in the right frame of mind? The fear of turning around empty-handed was worse than the fear of what would happen if I messed up on the route. I wanted it so badly.

Looking towards S.C Gully at dawn. The left hand gully.

The corrie bowl opened out around me, the temperature notably dropped and everything became much brighter- the same way it always does up there. I stopped to put on my helmet before I could actually see into the gully, afraid I'd see it and want to turn around.

Five minutes later and the pit in my stomach was becoming a bottomless hole. There's something about that unusual kink in the ice in SC Gully which makes it intimidating. But I set about it, and charged into the first pitch. It felt steep, steeper than I was liking. I started to shake, but not from muscle pump. My arms felt clumsy somehow, my axes unusual in my hands. My crampon points bit into the sticky ice but didn't convince me as they should. I stopped in the tiny bay before the crux ramp and looked upwards with the inevitable dawning on me. Rarely have I felt so tormented as I did right then. 

I had undoubtably soloed harder pitches in winter, in worse weather and in more serious situations. The route was in better than perfect condition and was there for the taking. But there and then, in the moment I knew I'd measure myself by, I could not justify it. All the thoughts that you have to not think to survive as a soloist came at me at once.

Looking up S.C Gully in perfect conditions.

Downclimbing the first pitch, I felt a numbness I'd not known before in the mountains. This was everything I'd feared. Almost without feeling, I went on to climb Langsam on Summit Buttress, and the possible second ascent of Odyssey (II/III*) on Bidean nam Bian. Not a breath of wind touched the summits and the sky was the deepest blue, and it was one of those days that many mountaineers will never witness in years of climbing in Scotland. 

Dawn light on the Ben, seen from beneath the route.

A few days later Isi Oakley and Roddy Murray climbed the route as a team, and told me that the way the ice had formed meant the pitch I'd climbed was in fact the crux, not the ramp above as usual. The hardest bit was behind me when I decided to retreat.

They climbed it the same day that I soloed Taxus (III***), the classic ice gully of the Southern Highlands and the same grade as SC Gully. My lasting impression of that ascent is one of calm and peacefulness, of enjoying great climbing in a beautiful place. Fear hadn't come into it. As Isi and Roddy told me about their day, surprisingly I can honestly say that I didn't feel the slightest envy.

So what did I learn from all this? Very little, at the time. My winter season continued for another 6 weeks and I rarely gave thought to anything apart from what what I was going to climb next. My failure was soon swept under the carpet and forgotten while I hungrily ate up a rare banquet of winter routes that seemed to just keep on coming.

I soloed about 150 winter climbs in the 5 years I lived in the Highlands, and it still didn't seem like enough. I'd done most of the big summer mountaineering routes and the majority of the Munros in a 2 year period, many of which numerous times. Now, 6 months since leaving the mountains, the perspective brought about by distance is very different. It is not the fleeting glory of climbing successes that I miss nor the adrenaline rush of pulling through the hard bits. The freezing silent dawns, the glisten of first light on snow, the otherworldly beauty of the sun rising over a cloud inversion - these are the things that come to me in daydreams now. I miss the perfect starscapes and the wild views, the beauty and the vastness of it all. Would anything have been different if I had continued to the top of S.C Gully? Not a thing, at least not anything that matters. I place more value now on the times I stopped and stared, than on any day when ambition got me to the top of a climb but turned me blind in the process.


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