The Scotland Adventure - Part 1
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist. That is all” - Oscar Wilde
I am finally getting time to breathe after what has been one of the best starts to the year ever!
That said, the full adventure actually started on 27 November 2017, when I decided that I would pack my bags and leave London to spend the winter in snowy Scotland.
So, without any further thought, I threw my bags into the car and set off that very same day... I had a general plan [to winter in Scotland] but the specifics would be decided on a day-to-day basis...
And so it began...
Organising the diary
I was keen to share my adventures with City Mountaineering folk, so I organised weekend trips around my general whereabouts throughout the winter.
Long overdue visits to friends in the midlands and the north of England ensued, before I reached The Lake District and a weekend of scrambling fun with City Mountaineering.
I continued north, visiting more friends in the Scottish borders before meeting the next City Mountaineering group in Glasgow and whisking them away to Fort William for a scramble ascent of Ben Nevis, via it's gnarly north face.
However, there was a problem... Winter had arrived early! With Ben Nevis in full winter conditions, the trip turned in to an "Introduction to Winter Hiking" - Fully equipped with ice axes and crampons, the group had a bonus of trying this incredibly rewarding activity in conditions they wouldn't ordinarily consider.
And what stunning weather we had, too!
Next up, I had planned to meet the next group of friends in Glen Coe, followed by a few days in a beautiful cottage on the shores of Loch Torridon.
With the fresh snow came the first unplanned activities of the year... Skiing in Glen Coe before Christmas (who would've predicted that! - Well, the guy at the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub, evidently - see previous blog) and a winter traverse of Liathach.
The following is the musings of Stuart (founder of City Mountaineering) and an insight in to what he enjoys doing when not leading groups in the mountains. As you may expect, his holidays involve mountain adventures...
"These events would never happen on a City Mountaineering trip because every trip is planned to the finest of detail. City Mountaineering was setup for others to have their own adventures in the mountains, not me (it would be irresponsible of me to push my own adventure agenda whilst looking after others!).
Having criss-crossed the UK mountains so many times and, nowadays, having a duty of care and responsibility over a group, I rarely get the chance to go on these types of adventures anymore. But when I do - Oh my word, they are awesome!"
- Stuart, founder of City Mountaineering
Liathach is a grand and ancient lump of rock, acting like a guard to anyone entering the Torridon area of the highlands. It can be seen from miles around and is on many a mountaineering tick list!
My friend, Ewan, and I got up early and drove the short distance to the car park, before making our way to the foot of the hill.
We had no plan of ascent/descent - All we set out to do was traverse the ridge - We would decide which route we would take on and off the lump when we got there.
On the approach we saw a great snow/ice line in a large gully and, without guide book (we intentionally wanted to 'freestyle' the day), we made our way into the gully and, donning harnesses, ice axes and crampons, we roped together and made our way into the gully.
With cathedral height walls either side of us, we were in a committing, but manageable, position. It was either up or down from this point. The sun was soon to rise and snow was soft and deep, but had consolidated well enough for us to proceed.
The going was tough in the deep snow, but we continued regardless to an icy step. It didn't look ideal; with what looked like great water ice from below, turned out to be a thin layer of horrid rhyme ice.
We had a choice: Climb the rhyme, descend and find another route, or climb the rock to our left/right.
We climb in the summer and our original intention was to 'play on the ice' so we decided to fix an anchor and proceed on the rhyme...
Me first, leading the way. Or, as it turned out, cleaning the route!
The rhyme was thin and brittle (well, is it rhyme, after all!) as I climbed the first 3-metres and reached an impasse.
I was standing with just the front points of my crampons just a couple of millimetres into the ice on a bulging rock with nothing beyond the bulge in which to get purchase and my delicately tapping axes searching for something to grip.
I was stood there for too long. Surely the thin ice under my feet wouldn't hold for much longer. And sure enough, it finally gave way!
I had placed one axe in a decent crack ("decent" is a relative term we use in these situations... In this case it meant "the ice axe was twisted in a tiny, flaky rock crack to create a cam effect in anchoring me to the block").
My other axe was then used to find anything! a small hole in the rock, some "good" ice, some frozen turf!? Anything! - There was nothing (or, so it seemed) and with one final swish of the axe, my foot slipped and I was flying backwards through the air.
This was poor form, indeed.
As I fell through the air in slow motion I looked across to Ewan, who was rapidly taking in the slack rope and I even had time to look at my landing, which, as it happened, was a soft, deep area of snow in the gully that we had just climbed.
With a textbook landing, akin to an Olympic gymnast (Ewan's words, not mine), I stood firm with none of the 'side effects' many climbers experience with such a fall (i.e. I could still walk!).
Ewan offered to lead. I said no!
Back on the bulge I went. This time being more committing and less cautious. I found some tiny edges to sit the pick of my ice axes and precariously walked up the bulge until I was standing on top. Success! Now all I had to do was tackle the narrow waterfall and crumbling rocks and I would arrive on the deep snow of the upper gully.
This went without incident and I rushed higher to setup an anchor for Ewan to follow on...
A quick bucket seat dug in the snow and finding backup protection from a couple of fallen icicles ("bomb-proof" I say... Ewan says otherwise...), Ewan was with me in no time and proceeding up the gully to the ridge of Laithach.
We made our way along this mighty fine ridge in good time and picked our route down. We could head down the standard slope, back to the car, or we could head down another gully.
Of course we picked the gully! "Let's hope it doesn't steepen further down"...
We descended in to the broad, y-shaped gully, caused by two streams descending and meeting before gorging its way down the mountainside.
The going was easy on soft, deep snow (again!) and the slope was steep, so we sat down and slid our way off the hill, using our ice axes as a rudder and braking device.
Ewan, now 20-metres ahead of me, shouted back with a warning to "watch out for the hole" - I passed it on the left, glancing down as I glissaded faster and faster down the gully.
The hole was HUGE! - We were sliding down 8ft deep snow that was sat 2ft above the fast flowing stream below. We continued on for another 200m before I saw Ewan stop and stand up.
'It must be another hole', I thought.
I then saw Ewan leap.
'yes, it's definitely another hole', I thought
Then Ewan disappeared!
'where has Ewan gone?', I thought.
I rushed down to see what had happened and found a large hole ('yes, it was another hole' I thought) and, about 1-metre beyond the hole was another, smaller, Ewan-shaped hole in the snow.
'Shit! I hope he's ok!', I should've thought.
"Mate! are you ok?", I shouted (trying to conceal my laughter).
Ok, this could be serious.
I continued to shout with no response, until I heard a faint "Can you throw me the rope?".
"No probs, are you ok?".
"yeah, I'm fine, but I'm stuck in 10ft deep snow cave getting wet in the stream".
I never thought I'd ever have to set-up a crevasse rescue system in The UK, but that I did (insofar as I hauled him as he climbed his way out of a soggy hole).
Retrieved from the hole, we decided that we would avoid the gully for the rest of the descent and chose to descend the rocky ridge-line instead.
Safely returning to the road under torch-light, we hiked back to the car and returned home with thoughts of potential epics, the what-ifs and the maybes.
In all seriousness, we were always fine and we always had each other's back. The landing from a potential fall at the start was always calculated in the risk we were taking and the icicle anchor was setup to get a reaction from Ewan (the bucket seat was awesome! :)
But, it's adventures like these - those with capable mountaineering friends, which are unplanned and unforeseen - that I love so much.
This micro-adventure saw me to Christmas and, with the next City Mountaineering trip 2-weeks away, I had time to wander... And wander I did...