Its day 2 and I'm perched in a more precarious place than I had hoped, with a couple of steel points on each foot and an ice axe in each hand. I hold myself close. I am unroped, and through my legs I can see flat ground 150m below. Oh and Hartley's grinning face. He seems to be enjoying this at least. In terms of technicality there is none, just your bog standard Grade 1 winter gully; but the unaccustomed mind can exaggerate things. I feel exposed, vulnerable to my own lack of winter climbing experience. The other two are fine, they are real climbers with a back catalogue of gnarly routes on Welsh rhyolite and Northern grit. I was just a wannabe, a walker with a handful of airy scrambles and an intense fear of falling. As we reach 200m the top is in sight and progress slows to a snails pace as the snowpack starts to deteriorate; our slime a long line of churned up slush. Troy tentatively cuts steps to ease our progress until eventually we realise that we are in avalanche country. A downclimb is the only option. Distraught, I begin to lower myself, crampons blindly kicking. My ice axe tears at lose chunks of rock and soil that our ascent has exposed. The snow was melting and so was my courage. My clothes wet with cold sweat. My mouth dry. The eternal fall beckons.
And so I began to think. Why was I doing this?
The snow-capped peak
Ahhh, is there anything better than the alpine mountain? What was once held in fear and with great suspicion has developed into a metaphorical symbol for the best, the highest, the greatest, and it has become a recent and at times egotistical obsession for man to ascend it. It represents a physical challenge, a mental barrier to overcome and the chance to share a hugely personal and spiritual experience in an environmentally positive way. Unfortunately in this country our mountains lose their snow in summer and so for me the winter trip is an exciting prospect of a landscape transformed; a hilltop of grass and rock reconstructed into a lifeless place of rime and ice. Climbers are attracted to what is essentially an idealised lump of stone and snow; personifying its very nature to provide context for their risk: to tame the untamed.
A change in perspective
The banalities and stresses of modern life become insignificant here. It doesn't matter who you are, how much money you earn, your position on the career ladder (Everest aside). The mountain can defeat you. The mountain can make you feel small, insignificant and in turn humble in the presence of natures vastness and brutal capacity. We are but a grain of sand. It is this feeling of mortality that keeps mountaineers coming back to indulge in this risk-filled activity; albeit with a highly romanticised memory of last years experience. As I made contact with flat ground after 2 hours of downclimbing I began to notice and appreciate the little things. I felt thankful to be alive in this vibrant world and my senses were heightened to the landscape and the experience. The meltwater gushed in channels beneath the snow. A minuscule spider walked, somehow alive in the snowfield. The sweet warmth of my hot Ribena touched my lips, providing comfort. The cold evening breeze bit upon our rosy cheeks as the sun began to set, purple and crimson. I felt mortal.
The level of each person's will to suffer is a very subjective thing. For some the trodden route is wild enough; a stroll to the top and back in time for tea. But for others the prospect of suffering in the hills is alluring, an almost intensely primal experience where you pit your wits against the elements. And when the going gets tough there are certain things like adverse weather conditions or a monstrous rucksack that are just shit for moral. Your scared, your tired, your shoulders hurt, your hungry. Embrace it. Embrace the suck. We like to blame other factors for our own problems but you can only learn when you hold yourself to account. Assess your own actions, learn from your own performance. This is how you become mentally astute to the conditions and the current situation. The severity of these are heightened in winter by exposure to the cold, the chance of avalanche, the potential lack of features to navigate from and in turn a certain level of anxiety is constructive for survival. Always go with your gut feeling. Once you see these aspects of backcountry travel as a challenge the suffering can even, at times become fun. Yes fun.
Witihin half an hour of safely touching ground the 3 of us were descending back into Glencoe, already revelling and romanticising the events of the day. We had been searching for the fine line of life and death that is winter mountaineering and in doing so had got slightly more than we bargained for.
Why do you think humankind is attracted to the winter mountains? Please leave your comments in the box below and in the meantime get out and brave the cold! You wont regret it :)