Cold Mountain’s full of strange sights Men who go there end by being scared. Water glints and gleams in the moon, Grasses sigh and sing in the wind. The bare plum blooms again with snow, Naked branches have clouds for leaves. When it rains, the mountain shines – In bad weather you’ll not make this climb. - Han Shan, Cold Mountain
The mountains were covered in a wet snow that sagged into the hollows between boulders, and clogged our boots with huge soggy blocks of ice. We trudged. The path was buried under the deep, wet blanket, so we followed the pockmarked trail of footsteps that led up into the northern coires of Cairngorm. Trudged really is the only word for such movement. Slow, heavy, snow-clinging at-your-feet-just-get-on-with-it wearying steps. It was early morning and we did not feel much humour in us yet – feeling the effects of the 4am start and the 3 hour drive north to be here early in the winter day. The brightening sky showed us that we walked towards ragged grey clouds that whipped across the tops of the hills like the sprays of a witch’s broomstick. The wind buffeted us and roared on the hill so loud and fierce you could hear the noise from over a mile away. It was all completely brilliant.
Being young and stupid has a way of making worrying scenarios completely brilliant, and inexperience does not so much affect your judgement, as it means that judgement is completely absent; in my case, at least. A few months since the superb adventure among the rocks and snow of the Black Cuillin, and I was desperate for more. I wanted to step things up again. So here we were, 4 of us trudging up into the Cairngorms to go ice climbing. I felt heroic with a pair of aggressive looking climbing axes strapped to my old military surplus rucksack. An unused pair of crampons lay in wait within, poking holes in my sandwiches.
I barely even knew what hills these were. ‘The Cairngorms.’ That name was literally the only thing I knew about them, save the fact that they might hold the promise of a good climb. ‘The Gorms’ was a term I’d heard thrown around often in the mountaineering club, especially in tales of winter climbing, so of course I had said yes when I was asked if I wanted to head north at the weekend and get something done. Once again I was happy just to put my faith in the rest of the team who were more experienced. So here we were, gradually working our way up into an amphitheatre of snow, rock and howling wind.
Alex was with us again, and I knew that to him this was a familiar spot. We also had Ambrose with us, our friend from Hong Kong who was one of the strongest rock climbers in the club. He had a relentlessly cheerful expression all the time, until he came to grips with the rock. Then he’d put on his ‘serious face,’ and demonstrate his impressive skills. Ambrose did not possess the long, gangly frame of some climbers – he was compact – but he was incredibly strong and flexible, and it was always fascinating to watch him glide his way up the hardest graded routes. Winter climbing was new to him too, but with his skillset no-one had any doubts that he would take to it easily.
Next was James, and it would be a disservice to say he was anything less than one of the biggest characters in the club. He and Alex had partnered before on many winter climbs, and he was undoubtedly one of the strongest winter climbers. A speccy but sturdy Yorkshireman who had a talent for absolutely outrageous humour and gaffe, many of the most funny and ridiculous stories in the club seemed to involve James. But the nature of some of those stories did raise a question – was he simply confident, or was he a bit too comfortable with risk?
And again, there was me. By this point I’d found that as a climber I was hardly without aptitude. I was climbing regularly, and I performed well on rock and indoors. I was eager to progress in the real mountains, too. It was just building experience and skill that I needed.
So the four of us trudged in the snow toward what I hoped would be my first genuine winter climb. At first glance from the carpark, I honestly didn’t think this hill looked all that promising for climbing. Nothing like the Cuillins with their dramatic peaks and vast acres of bare rock. The slopes of these mountains seemed quite moderate. The views toward Loch Morlich were pretty, but not impressive, I thought. So, while I did not doubt that some crag lay in store up the hill out of sight, I expected it would be a little disappointing in scale compared to the likes of the Cobbler and the Cuillin.
As we trudged I went through the snow up to my waist at one point, and found myself briefly stuck among the hollows of snow covered boulders that lay beneath. I managed to extract myself with a lot of humour but no dignity whatsoever. As I brushed myself off I looked back down the trail. Behind us a line of people wearing yellow and black seemed to be catching up. Thinking them a school or outdoor-ed group on an adventurous outing, our pride as actual mountaineers required that we press on hard and outpace them. We drove on, drenching ourselves in sweat, throwing glances of consternation over our shoulders as the party of yellow-blob supposed teenagers caught us up. In short order we realised our error, as what was evidently in fact the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team out for a training day overtook us and vanished again into the distance, leaving us huffing and puffing, but unfortunately not much humbled.
After a long slog through the snow we finally reached the coire and began to don our climbing kit. Above us reared a wall of rock, its top only just visible in the cloud. It was pure black and white – no colour whatsoever. A dark raven’s wing of bare black rock striped with gullies of wet, dripping snow. Looking at it I could see black dots in the white gullies – other climbing teams. Yet it seemed very manageable. Big but not that big. This was not like the soaring walls of Coire Lagan, it seemed like a slightly bigger version of a roadside crag, offering just enough verticality to make it real climbing, but not quite enough to make it something worth boasting about. A good place to learn and practice before moving onto taller goals, maybe. So thought my inexperienced self
We pulled on harnesses, strapped on crampons, and brandished our axes with maniacal warrior expressions. One of the rescue team who had overtaken us earlier was nearby. He cast a critical eye over me as we messed around, and pointed out I had the crampons on the wrong feet. An eyebrow ascended his craggy face. “Going up?’ he asked, no doubt laying the odds in his mind that in short order he’d be coming up too, to bring this wrong-footed idiot in crampons back down. Or maybe thinking along the lines of the famous Don Whillan quote: “You may be going a lot higher than you think.”
We chatted for a few minutes and he left us to it. Helmeted and harnessed we roped into our climbing pairs. I was paired with James while Alex and Ambrose made the other pair. I don’t recall exactly how we decided who would climb with whom, but I suspect I didn’t want to climb second to Alex. It was a younger-brother thing; not always wanting to be second best, wanting to make a different path. Since two of us here were experienced, and the other two inexperienced, that only left one option. Alex would lead Ambrose, and James would lead me.
We started up the steep entrance slope to one of the gullies in the middle of the crag. The vast ramp of the gully mouth seemed like a chute that would suck us up into the cloud where it blended itself to the mountain. As we approached the base of our climb the whole cliff face seemed to rear up above us and lean forward, as if it had just become much steeper. There seemed to be an unexpectedly large quantity of water coming down, considering it was ice climbing we had in mind.
The first rope length, or pitch, was tremendous fun. Easy ground, there was no need to use your hands to do any more than steady yourself, but I showed off to myself anyway, and gave my climbing axes a hefty swing at everything I could as I climbed up to meet James who had already climbed ahead. When I reached his stance I clipped myself in and started to belay as he set off again, up the second and much steeper pitch, leaving me alone. I stamped my feet, smacking down the snow into a more satisfyingly flat ledge. Just under the bottom of the cloud now, I surveyed the barren coire as if it was my new domain. There was not much to see except whiteness and space.
I paid out the rope bit by bit as James climbed, and buried my mouth into the collar of my jacket for warmth. I kept busy, just waiting for him to get on with the job of leading until I could have a go again. Stamp stamp. Pay out the rope. Stamp stamp. Pay out the rope. Man, it was really quite cold actually, wasn’t it? The melting snow said that it must be warmer than it had been on Skye, but it felt much colder. It was the wetness that did it. I had thought everything would be frozen as we got higher, but the water was only freezing in name, and it was dripping everywhere. My hands and gloves were soaked from plunging them into the snow as I climbed the first pitch. The rope I held also dragged through the snow and was soaked. I was squeezing it out as it levitated upward like some charmed purple snake. My hands were cold, and wet fingers were probing down my neck. The wind wasn’t helping, and further above us I could hear the deep roaring as the air scraped itself across the top of the hill. It sounded pretty intimidating up there, and I started to have a slight misgiving about climbing up higher into the storm. It was still fun, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable. The energy of initial enthusiasm was starting to fade and I began to suspect that maybe there might be a better day for this.
A few minutes later I had company once again as Alex arrived beside me, having just climbed the first pitch. I offered him some space on my ledge where he could safely build a belay beside ours. But Alex pursed his lips and cast a critical eye around the gully at the melting snow, then raised his eyes into the grey, roaring clouds above, where James had disappeared.
Then he said:
‘I don’t think that this is the day for this.’
Right away I felt a degree of relief. It was ok to choose discretion as the better part of valour. We could turn around, head back down, and have another go when conditions were better. Then, as Alex said see-you-later and started down again, I realised the problem. James was already climbing, and he was completely out of earshot.
‘You’ll just need to go up and tell him, then downclimb both pitches’ Alex suggested, the top of his helmet disappearing beneath. ‘See you soon!’
He was right. There was nothing I could do here. There was no way to communicate with James, so I’d just have to climb up and tell him the others had turned around and we should too. I waited around a while longer, feeling lonely, but finally the rope gave 3 definite tugs – the signal that James had secured himself above and I no longer needed to control this end of the rope. I could take him off belay, he’d pull up the slack, and then belay me in my turn as I climbed.
I readied myself, gave the rope a sharp tug, and it went tight. James had me ‘on’. I reached up with an axe, hooked it on a rock, and pulled. Kick in with a crampon, swing the other axe, and repeat. Despite my misgivings of a moment ago the phyisciality was engaging as I got higher, and it became fun again. Now that I knew we were turning around, I gave myself over to enjoying this part as much as I could. The metal tips of my axes opened wounds in the snow, exposing the rock below. Crampon points scratched against rock as my feet sought holds, once again giving me a nails-on-blackboard shudder. My fingers on the handles of the ice-axes were in and out of the snow with every upward step, soaking my gloves all over again. Then suddenly I climbed into the wind. It came from below, blowing hard and carrying with it every drop of water that had already hit me on the way down. So now I was getting soaked from both ends, and my relief at the decision to descend was confirmed.
I climbed up to James, and told him that the others had gone back. James nodded and agreed these conditions were rubbish. Relieved, I expected we would decide now whether to climb back down, or to lower ourselves off with the rope, but James had other ideas.
‘There’s only one more pitch. We might as well just finish it off then make a run for it.’
I looked at him, thinking. It was true that we were closer to the top now than the bottom. And, generally, climbing up is usually preferable to abseiling or downclimbing. It’s hard to see good holds when you’re climbing feet first. And abseiling, with the rope attached to the rock and you dangling from it, is one of the few times in climbing when you really put all your eggs in one basket. It was a good point.
But the hammering spray of water from above and below, the void like greyness of the clouds, and the ever greater noise of the wind, made me think twice. The climbing so far hadn’t been hard by any means. I didn’t feel like it was anything we couldn’t climb down again pretty safely. Surely better to choose the ground you knew, with the promise of shelter?
‘Ok. Let’s climb.’
We sorted out the rope and James set off again on pitch number 3. I stamped my feet, paid out the rope, and huddled into the snow to hide from the inescapable and soaking wind. My humour had gone now, evaporated since the wind got the water up my back. I wanted to get this over with. The rope went up, I stamped my feet. I shivered and wondered if my hands would warm up again. God they were cold. But it shouldn’t be too long. We did the first two pitches quickly enough.
The rope goes up, the rope goes up, the rope goes up… the rope… stops.
James must have been at the top. I waited for the tugs that would tell me he was secure and that I could climb. But nothing happened. I waited. Nothing continued to happen, and I continued to wait.
When you go climbing with someone, there is something meaningful about joining yourself to someone else with a rope. It is a moment of implicit trust, of promise and of shared experience. When things are difficult, there is something that tangibly joins you to another soul and tells you they are nearby. But it’s remarkable how far away fifty metres can feel.
Somewhere up there above was James. But he was totally unreachable. The rope just lay there in my hands. Not a twitch of movement. I scraped back a sleeve and looked at my watch. Ten minutes since it had stopped. I was cold, and a few metres above my head the rope led into a dark grey void. But I couldn’t look up for long, into the cascade of flying droplets. We were ice climbing on a melting mountain. It wasn’t quite how I imagined it.
Below was nothing but a swirling fog of cloud, and the mushed up snow that marked where I had climbed. The whole world had vanished. There was nothing above or below. The world was only here in front of me, a gully of snow on one side. At the back nothing but scary, menacing air and the empty, unsympathetic moan of the wind.
I looked at my watch again. Twenty minutes since the rope had moved. It felt like twenty hours. What was going on up there? What had happened to James? I tried shouting. My words fell into an abyss of wind and snow, vanishing instantly. I gave the rope a little tug. Nothing too hard, just enough to see if I got a response. Nothing.
Twenty five minutes. No time at all in most circumstances, but here? Wherever the hell ‘here’ was, I grumbled. Stamp my feet. The rope stayed still. Shiver. The rope stays still. Scream into the wind for a while. The rope stays still. Shiver again. Try to stop. Try to hold steady.
Fifty minutes had now passed, and without the warmth of movement I was shuddering in the soaking, semi freezing gale. Yet I couldn’t let go of this damn rope. Whatever is going on with James, if he should fall then I have to hold him. That’s how this works. But I’m starting to realise that I can’t stay here. Im getting far too cold, and there’s nothing I can do about it. For the first time I’m beginning to feel worried. Catastrophic ideas enter my mind. Something has happened to James up there. He’s unconscious. No, he’s dead. I’m going to die too. No. I’m not going to die, don’t be stupid. But I’m going to need rescued. That rescue guy is going to have to come and get me after all, and I’m going to be on the news. ‘Moron nearly freezes to death in storm on Cairngoms’ the headlines will say. I scream up at James with everything I’ve got to bloody well do something. No response but grey wind and water. This is the most alone I’ve ever been. For the first time in my life I am utterly unable to contact any other living thing. There’s just me, and this mountain that I don’t even know.
An hour, and suddenly without warning the rope is dragging itself up through the slush. I’m more angry than relieved at this point. What the hell has taken so long? With words of vengeance and retribution I kick my cramponed feet viciously at the unhelpful ‘snow’. The wind blasts my ass with water as I wriggle and writhe my way upward through a chimney that no fire would ever warm. The rock narrows around me and encloses me, but the gully is little more than a channel for meltwater now. The dark rocks offer no sympathy, and I climbed as hard and as fast as I can, trying to drive warmth back into myself, trying to get it finished as soon as possible.
I came to the end of the gully, and suddenly found James, sitting in the steep snow where the angle of the slope eased off just a bit. I reached him, and he yelled over the wind ‘Sorrrrry! Noooott muucch prooooteeeec-shunnn uuupp heeeere!’ And then I realised that he was belaying me off nothing more than an ice axe optimistically deposited in the snow. Now, in good conditions a well built axe belay is perfectly acceptable and strong. On this sagging slope of limpid crud it’s grimly laughable. Never mind. We’re up. That’s climbing for you.
James yelled at me to carry on up, over the last tiny bit to the top. I was shouting questions to James asking where we were now, and he was shouting back at me to try and explain just what a Cairngorm Plateau was, when the wind finally hit me for real. It took a firm grip on my shoulders, and body-slammed me into the ground like a wrestler. The force of it was shocking, overwhelming in its might. Here, where the wind was focused over the lip of the mountain, it’s turned from gale force to hurricane force.
I clambered over the last lip of the climb and onto ground that was more or less level. The weird vertical world was gone, and had been replaced by a weird flat one. The cruddy snow was nowhere to be seen up here. Just black rocks, bullets of rime ice clinging to stone, and the air filled with flying bits of gravel and ice. I realised that goggles are normally packed for the winter hills for a reason. Another lesson about proper equipment. I struggled around to sit on my backside, looking for James, who appeared at that moment over the edge of the crag. A moment later he was blown onto his hands and knees beside me.
Forward progress by foot was impossible. I tried to get back to my feet, and leaned into the wind, but I took a step and the wind caught me, twisted me, put me back on the ground with a bruising slam dunk. Neither James nor I could keep our feet, but this was apparently fine. He dragged himself over and yelled in my ear:
‘It’s nooooooooot faaaaaaaaar toooooo craaaaaaaaaaawl!’
We set off on our hands and knees. The hard gritty stones of the plateau dug into my kneecaps, and I kept my head down to avoid getting eyes full of blown snow and grit. I was seriously considering using the ice axes to hang on to a rock if I needed. This was ridiculous, and with that knowledge a little bit of the fun came back. The sheer bizarreness of the situation was absurdly exciting. We’re not really in any danger; we’re just crawling across a Scottish mountain top in the darkening winter afternoon in a hurricane with slight hypothermia. What could go wrong? So we set out hand by knee, the wind lashing us into a kind of hysterical humour.
Then, just for a few moments, the cloud tore open. The wind was as strong as ever but we were granted a short vista of one of the most desolate landscapes I had ever seen. I cupped my hands around my eyes, looking around. I had brief glimpses of a mountainscape on a scale I’d never seen. It seemed this mountain was infinite – extending in every direction I looked, with crags and gullies plunging downward from deceitfully rounded summits. It was something like how I imagined the moon – alien and stark, devoid of comfort. Here and there it rose to a top, and in two places I could see it plunged into great trench-like chasms. Rock walls and boulders clustered on the steepest parts, and above it all was the ghostly grey light, trimmed with the barest hint of a red glow. Somewhere the sun was going down on this short winter day, and it was time for us to leave. I hoped like hell that James knew the way off. It would be just like him to have no idea.
We reached an easier-angled slope and bit by bit worked our way down. First by bum-shuffling from rock to rock, then once we were further down we finally returned to our feet. At last we got out of the wind, and picked our weary way down a steep hillside between two huge buttresses of stone. James told me that this was the ‘goat track’ that led back to where we started the climb. At least another hour had gone by since we topped out, and we both felt we’d had plenty of cobwebs blown out. But the experience was now known, done. It would always be a part of our story now, a thing that had happened, no longer happening. We would soon be back at the car, in the warmth and the comfort of familiar human surroundings. But as we headed out again from the vast bowl of the coire, I think we both have a backward glance or two.
It seemed we were the last people on the mountain, and the long night was starting. James stomped on ahead at a fast pace I couldn’t match, leaving me by myself once again as I trudged back through the quickly darkening evening. The wind roared at my back, and I realised just how dumb I’d been. This place was more Mountain than anywhere I’d ever been. And it had given me a good spanking.
Someone snapped a photo of me as we got back to the car to find Alex and Ambrose; drenched, knackered, disbelieving what had just happened. Hands apart with emotive emphasis. But smiling. Now I’d be one of the people in the mountaineering club with an epic tale of my own to tell.
Ambrose asked us how it had been, and of course there was some macho downplaying of the situation. Things had been a bit average. We’d had to have a few little sit downs now and again. That was what we told the others. Internally though, it was a different matter. The truth was obvious. Today I had been a twenty year old fool in crampons with grand notions of adventure. I was lucky to get away with it, for it’s a rare year that these hills don’t take the life of some poor soul unfortunate enough to have walked the hills clothed in ignorance. As I discovered that day on my belay ledge, they are not sympathetic, and do not suffer fools lightly. They let me get away with it.
I wondered, and I still wonder, whether we made the right call. Was two thirds of the way up too late to call it quits? Should we have just gone down, or would it actually have been a greater risk? I’ll never know, but at the time I was quite sure that going down was the better choice. But then I let myself be talked into a course of action I didn’t agree with, because I thought James was in a better position to make the call. I knew, then and there, that I’d never outsource my decision making in the hills ever again.
And yet, everyone starts their journey somewhere. Some of us are led to the wild places by those who know and some of us have to survive our own mistakes enough times until we too know. In my case, I wish I had received more of the former, but I wonder if the knowing would have been as deep, as personal as it has become, without so much of the latter.