The day I enjoyed on An Teallach with Doug, Jack and the others was one of the best hill days I’d ever had. More than that; it was, in retrospect, the beginning of one of best years of my life. A year during which I grew more in confidence and ability than any other. Not just as far as climbing and mountaineering were concerned either; it was a time when I began to feel I knew exactly who I wanted to become as a person.
Doing adventurous things outdoors was core to the identity I was shaping. The friendships I had made among the hills drew me out of my shell. The strength and fitness I had built through regular climbing gave me a faith in the abilities of my own body I had never imagined as an asthmatic and anxious teen. I enjoyed being noticed among people, and felt as comfortable in the centre of attention as I did alone on a mountain.
In the months after An Teallach my climbing continued to progress. I began lead climbing – where you have to take a much higher risk of falling as you attach protection to the rock as you climb, rather than having a rope above you all the way. But I loved it. It was like solving a puzzle in the rock – a perfect combination of brain and body. In the summer that year I worked as an outdoor instructor for the first time, giving kids some thrills at an outdoor centre in Perthshire. I also took up a new sport in white water kayaking, and I could easily fill another blog with the stories from that sport alone. But this tale is about the mountains and me, so it will have to wait for later.
Later on in the year Alex and I went back to the Cobbler, and together we climbed a classic rock route. My leading of the first pitch was memorable. I couldn’t find anywhere to place protection in the dense schist, so by the time I eventually found a place to build a belay I had essentially soloed the whole first pitch. This was a testament both to my lack of craft (the route in question is not known for being ‘sparse’) but also my boldness. Despite having no protection I simply kept pushing on, sure I would find something higher up. I had felt comfortable with it and secure in the strength of my own fingers. It was possibly just a hint of things to come.
Then it was back to uni and the mountaineering club. More days spent at crags and in the hills. Winter came again and I took full advantage of the club calendar of weekend trips. We had more adventures back to Skye and the Cuillin, then the Mamores beside Fort William. Finally the season was topped off with a return to the Cairngorms where I benefited from some proper instruction on a winter skills course.
But there was one place I was especially keen to return. Having had such a blast last year at Dundonnell, I was first to put my name down for the trip this April. I was going back to An Teallach.
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
March in Dundonnell last year had been sunny, dry and warm. April this year was cold and very snowy. It was clear from the forecast that we would not be strolling across An Teallach in t-shirts again. This time it was going to be winter. To me that meant one thing. Winter climbing. I felt ready to step things up a notch. Time to do something real.
It was a much smaller group of us who visited the northwest that year, as we were staying at an even smaller bothy in the tiny crofting township of Badrallach. Just across the water from An Teallach itself, reached by 8 snowy miles of winding single track road across hill and moor, it was one of those tiny Highland communities where the elements of weather and landscape are never far from the attention.
The elements were certainly not far from our attention as we drove down the road again in the morning. A sledge might have been more appropriate than the slippery, slithery wheels of Mum’s old Fiat Punto (the original, not the fancy kind that came later). The day was stormy. Low cloud blotted out all sight of the hills, and flurries of snow blasted through the branches of pine and un-leafed birch. Every road sign, bollard and tree had a windward layer of snow.
What would the mountain itself be like? My thoughts turned to Cairngorm, and the windy, cloudy nightmare that had become. But it seemed we could at least depend on the fact that the snow would not be melting as we climbed, if we climbed. It was certainly cold.
We started our walk in from Dundonnell, quickly clambering up through the woods alongside one of the many Highland burns named Garbh Allt – rough burn. The going was extremely muddy and, weighed down by our heavy bags full of climbing gear, it was an absolute slog.
My companion for this adventure was a chap named Toby, and honestly I couldn’t have been happier to have him along. Despite being an infrequent face at the club meets (he was a final year student and probably gave an undue amount of his attention to studying rather than mountaineering), he was one of those people who were obviously very experienced and competent. But, at the same time, he wasn’t elitist as some people in the club could be. Those who climbed the hardest routes tended to keep a very tight circle of peers. It was one downside to the club dynamic, as it meant that people looking to progress often had to figure things out for themselves unless they were able to somehow break into that circle.
So, I had a pretty high opinion of Toby from the start simply because he was happy to go climbing with me, and apparently knew what he was doing. That was good, because although I knew I had come on leaps and bounds in the last twelve months, this was still only going to be my second ever winter climb.
We slogged our way up into the wide expanse of Coir a Ghuibhsachain on the east flank of An Teallach. Not the way I had come last year, but then we weren’t trying to get straight at the peaks this time. We were trying to get at the steep coire walls where ancient glaciers had carved out enticingly vertical and massive cliff faces.
We got stuck for a bit searching for a way to cross the deep and fast river that blocked our way. Some brilliant navigation on our part had put us on the wrong side. Eventually we found a place we could leap across, and then continued to slog uphill for several hundred more metres through bog and snow.
Things were not looking terribly promising as we finally arrived in the coire of Glas Tholl, a pair of tiny dots in a world of snowy grey. Beside us the huge and snow plastered walls of Glas Meall Liath presumably soared majestically into the heavens, showing us a winter climbing paradise. If only we could see it. Instead we could see a few scree slopes and the base of a few dark buttresses, streaked by the occasional white gully, peeking out from underneath a solid grey curtain of cloud.
The night before we had discussed our route options, both wanting to choose something easier than a Grade 1 (basically a steep walk in our opinion), but not too challenging for my second climb. We had chosen a route named The Alley, which the guidebook assured us was Grade 2, with a short Grade 3 crux. Ideal. Steep enough for real climbing. Not so hard it would be terrifying.
The guidebook also included a very helpful sketch of the route, which now would be crucial in identifying the start and finding the right line, since we couldn’t see the crag. Or would have been, if only we hadn’t left it lying on the kitchen table back in Badrallach.
Toby and I talked it over. We were both certain that we could see the start of three separate gullies, and we were confident that the first one on the left was an easy Grade 1. The safest choice would be to just go and do that one.
But I don’t think either of us felt like making the safe choice. We wanted a climb.
The third gully from the left, we were fairly sure, was the start of the correct route. The bottom consisted of a huge cone of scree, covered in snow, leading up into a narrowing chimney before it disappeared in the clag. We reasoned that it would be reasonable enough to rope up, and go have a look. If the route above us looked super scary, then we could just walk back down.
And that is why, in a moment that nobody planned, we decided to go to all the effort of tying a rope between ourselves, putting on our crampons and taking our axes in our hands, but leaving the rest of the heavy stuff in our rucksacks. The heavy stuff consisted of ‘the rack’ – i.e all the odd shaped bits of gear that you place in the rock and ice, then attach the rope to in order to protect a fall. Normally you attach these things to your harness, so that they are to hand when you need them. But we didn’t want to faff around with it at this stage, and if we reached a point where we thought we’d need it, then we’d get it out then. So we reasoned.
Well, I obviously still had some experience to gain. But at least some things had improved since that day on the Cobbler some years ago. Gone were the old army surplus DPM trousers and rucksack. Gone was the idiotic cotton sock/glove substitute. Some students spend their student loan on alcohol; mine went on climbing gear. I had a proper pair of winter boots on my feet. I was dressed in effective layers that kept me warm and dry, plus I had a waterproof down jacket in my new rucksack in case I got stuck on a cold belay again. Warm gloves on my hands, warm hat beneath my helmet, with goggles ready and secure on the helmet itself. Energy rich food in the bag, with a map, compass and headtorch with spare batteries. First aid kit and emergency shelter. I was about as ready as I’d ever been.
We set off and quickly ascended the scree slope, entering the cloud. Above us the gully rose into the grey, as if we were looking up from the bottom of an immense, steep chute. A white line through the black rock. It reared above us, almost seeming to overhang; an effect I’ve often noticed beneath a big crag. From below it looks much steeper than it really is.
The gully looked invitingly easy. It looked like this was indeed the right climb. So we didn’t stop at the top of the scree. Toby, ahead of me, turned and looked over his shoulder with a thumbs up and a big grin. I responded with the same. That was as much decision as we needed to commit.
Coming to grips with the steeper snow of the gully, I discovered that it was immaculate for climbing. Soft enough that it yielded to every footstep with a satisfying crunch, but firm enough to swing in an ice-axe and pull on it. Not that we needed to yet. The ground was not yet so steep that we couldn’t hold each axe by the top, one in each hand, and use both the pick and the base for grip. Legs pumping, arms working, we were practically running up the first pitch.
It was not long before we lost sight of the ground in the cloud. The world contracted again, like it had on Cairngorm. Faced by a wall of snow, flanked by walls of bare rock. Behind was a nothingness, grey and mysterious. But the air was calm, with hardly any wind.
Before we knew it we had climbed almost a hundred metres of the wonderful, easy snow. The climbing was perfect when it steepened. We climbed classic style – moving one limb at a time.
Swing in an axe above your head.
Test it. It holds. Swing in the other.
It holds. Raise a foot and kick.
Step up and kick in the other.
I was lost in the beauty of the climbing rythmn, totally focused on the here-and-now. We were climbing so fast, so easily, it seemed incredible. It was a world away from the experience James and I had endured on Cairngorm. The gully just kept coming down toward me, and my limbs just ate it. I had never, ever, felt so completely in control of my own body.
The climbing was wonderful. But, objectively speaking, we had already done something very very stupid. Toby and I were still tied together by the rope, but the rest of the gear was still in the bottom of my rucksack. And I was the one climbing second. So even if we wanted to get the gear out now, it was going to be difficult at best. We were soloing this route. Soloing it together, because having tied ourselves to one another, it meant that if one fell then both fell.
We knew that. Of course we knew that. And yet it did not concern me in the slightest. By the time we reached the middle of the climb I knew that we would climb the whole way like this. More than that, I knew that it was simply not possible that we would fall off.
It was of course a fallacy, looking back. A false feeling of control. But it seemed so real, so strong, so powerful. I felt in that moment that I had absolute and total power over my own destiny. I knew, in a detached sort of way, that I was risking my life. But I also felt, with a passion I can not describe, a fierce and terrible joy in the knowledge that it was mine to risk.
I was young and male, taking a risk. But I don’t dismiss that. Young men in every human culture that ever was take risks at that age. It is not just a phase. It is a vital experience and moment in your life. Cultures who understand this ritualise the experience. They guide young men through it. It is the moment that you truly come of age – the realisation of your own incredible potential. Before your peers, and before the men whom you aspire to, a task is undertaken that proves your worth – a test of pain, or boldness, skill, or athleticism. In cultures that lack such ritual, or address it weakly, young men create their own.
I had no idea that was what we were doing at the time, but it is how I have come to understand the hour that followed.
As we reached the halfway point of the climb I paused to take a look around. The gully slanted down from above, still lost in the cloud both above and below. The gully was deep here – a chimney slicing deep into the stone of the coire. My grip on the snow before me was perfect, but my mind imagined what it would be like to try and grip that bare rock to the side with pick and crampon. To traverse out above the open air onto the face of the rock, where it was truly vertical above that vast and infinite drop…
Now that was a scary thought. The exposure out there on the open face menaced my mind. Better to stay here in this nice cosy, secure gully, and follow it to the top. And so we continued. But after a few more dozen metres we reached the crux of our route. ‘Crux’ is a word that signifies the hardest section. It generally means that if you can do that bit, then you can do the whole thing.
The rope in front of me went suddenly slack; Toby had stopped climbing, so I stopped too. Looking upward I could see him standing just beneath a steeper section, the steepest we had yet encountered. Not just that, but the snow cover there thinned out completely, leaving just pure water ice across the bare, black stone. This was going to be a bit trickier than the obliging snow.
Toby called me up, and managed the rope as I came up to him. We studied the rock above together, and decided it looked passable. Toby went first, while I watched. There was nothing I could do to help him. Climbing with great care and skill, he made it into easy snow again after about ten metres, and secured himself in as solid a stance as possible for me to take my turn.
Oh boy. Here we go.
I swung up an axe, and felt a reassuringly solid placement. The next one went in fine too, and I stepped up onto the thin bit. About half of it was bare rock, while the other half was covered in inch thick water-ice, clear and hard. The rock was solid but tricky to hang on to with an axe-tip or scratchy crampon point. The ice took the points well, but it was thin, and the last thing I wanted was to risk pulling it off the rock.
Delicately, carefully, I took a few more steps up. I was halfway through the crux when I reached the hard part. The rock was very steep, and the ice terribly thin. I could actually see liquid water running in drops and globules behind it. Not a good sign.
With absolute care I hooked the tip of the axe on a tiny ledge of rock. Then, sighting carefully, I aimed the other axe at the thickest bit of ice I could see, and swung the blade in as neatly as possible. I did not want to strike twice here. Both tips held, and I pulled on both arms as smoothly and statically as I could, trying at all costs to avoid placing any dynamic load on the thin ice that held my weight.
I raised my right foot and scratched the crampon down the rock. It found nothing. I raised it higher, awkwardly high beside my hip, and it found a hold. A little hold where the ice had bulged over a swelling in the rock. I pressed upward on the foot and pulled with my hands, bringing them back to chest level, the axes in front of my face.
My left foot could find nothing. I looked down. No good. Nothing to put it on. I wasn’t about to kick this sliver of ice with it. For a moment I felt the weight of the foot on the end of my leg, dangling in the air. Then I took control of it, and swung it out to the left, using it to counterbalance as I took my right axe out of the ice, and reached up again. It was the moment of greatest risk.
I breathed in, and breathed out.
‘You’ve got this.’
‘You’ve got this.’
‘You’ve got this.’
I swung the axe, and it crunched into thick snow with a satisfying release of tension. It was well placed. Carefully, I swapped my feet on the little rock nubbin, and stepped up again, past the end of the rock and into good snow once more.
Toby was waiting for me.
‘Fancy some chocolate?’
‘Ooh, yes please!’
The rest of the gully was an absolute romp. Once again we had total confidence, and we climbed fast. It’s amazing how fast you can climb when you are not taking the time to place protection, build belays, and climb each bit one by one. In a short while the gully was suddenly leaning back, receding, opening up as we reached the top, three hundred metres higher than when we started.
Overwhelming delight flooded through me. This was better than the Cobbler, better than Cairngorm, better than the Cuillin even. Not even the last time I stood on this mountain could compare to this moment. We had done a real climb.
At the top I had one nervous moment before we reached the summit, as we crossed a slope that slanted down to the cliff edge we had just surmounted. Covered by a layer of fresh snow above the hard stuff that had supported us in the gully, I immediately saw its potential for avalanche. Even then I was well aware of the phenomenon that is called ‘death on easy ground’; where the climbers have finished the hard bit and stop concentrating when the going gets easier. I emphatically did not fancy being carried back down the gully we had just successfully ascended.
With care we negotiated this sting in the tail, treading only on bare solid rock. Our crampons screeched and scratched horribly, making me shudder. But in a short while we were atop the ridge proper, on safe terrain, and could take our crampons off.
As we reached the summit cairn the weather gods gave us our reward. The thick cloud opened and lifted. After so long with nothing but snow, rock and cloud to look at we were suddenly treated to one of the most inspiring views imaginable in Scotland. An Teallach, in its winter majesty; billion year old rock in layer upon layer. Stone carved, ice scultped, snow painted and storm decorated. Heart-stoppingly beautiful, and we were there to see it. To live it.
At the top we tucked into all the sandwiches and treats that had been hiding in the depths of our bags, and made a wry comment or two as we pulled out the rack to reorganise bag contents. But we were up. That’s climbing. We also finally had a view of what we had just climbed – the sensational, plummeting side of the mountain. Looking at it from above I could hardly believe that we had been there. That line of footprints was us.
Getting down was still the half of the day that lay ahead. However, as things turned out this in itself became one of the most enjoyable episodes I’d ever have in the hills. Not fun in the serious, grandiose and life affirming way of the climb we’d done. Fun in the way that laughing is fun.
Our route was straightforward, almost literally so, down the east slope of Glas Meall Liath back to the way we’d walked up. But, being a snow covered slope around 1 kilometre in length, pitched at 45 degrees, it afforded us a superb chance to glissade. ‘Glissade’ is a word that attempts to suggest that there is technique involved in sliding on your arse down snow. Maybe there is, but not much. You just need to keep an eye on where you are going and use an ice axe to control your speed.
We glissaded for hundreds and hundreds of metres, pausing now and again to negotiate a rockier section, or a steeper part of the slope. The view ahead of us was never anything less than sensational. The beautiful low cliff face of Coir a Ghiubhsachain ahead of us, and then layer on layer of unspeakably gorgeous horseback brown hills, graced by white snow and blue shadows. Then in the distance, snow blanketed and glowing in sunlight, the distant Munro peaks of Inverlael. It was a view and a colour palette for the soul, enjoyed at high speed as I wizzed down the hill on my backside.
By the time we reached the bottom and started walking again we had enjoyed one of the best and fastest days on a mountain either of us could remember. Winter climbing in Scotland is known for its pre-dawn starts and dark finishes, but the sun was still high in the sky as we headed out. Of course it was April, so that added a lot of daylight. But still, we had climbed and descended so quickly that when we finally got back to Badralach the others assumed we must have made a wise decision and not climbed at all.
How wrong they were.
When we reached the car again Toby and I shook hands and agreed it had been an excellent day. One to remember. I never climbed with him again.