Lessons: 1 - 8

There are many things I wish I knew when I started climbing: red rope on the right, conditions are important and guidebooks sometimes lie; put lots of gear in, aiding off ice axes is mad and the weather is always better at the coast. Wouldn’t it have been good to know this before?

I’ve learnt many lessons (some I wish I didn’t learn) and wanted to share these light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek short stories. They are usually attached to fond memories and I might write a few more.

#1. The Local Lingo: Dab

Dab - usually in bouldering - where your foot lightly hits the pads but you don’t fall off. Usually caused by a foot-slip or when holding a swing.”

‘Dab!’ We shout at Raphael as he traverses to the ledge. His laughter echoes round the canyon. Uisdean and I are sport climbing on our last morning in Canada. Our flight leaves this evening but we’ve sprinted up the hill one last time to join the locals for some Sunday sport. We warmed up before the sun rose and it was baltic, but now the limestone is almost hot to the touch and gleams in the morning light. There’s a great atmosphere at the crag.

We’ve been hanging out and climbing with several Canadians all month, sharing our banter and the humour in our languages. Uisdean’s ‘get tae fuck!’ is a particular highlight and they love the Scottish words. We teach them a few British climbing words - I shouted ‘dab!’ to Raphael Slawinski as he stepped a metre to his right to rest on a small ledge. ‘In the UK, you’d be off route for that!’ we joke. Raph tells me to ‘do one,’ and Kurt Ross joins in by taking the piss out of our ethics. Kurt explains an American climbing word to describe a fall: ‘wobbler: when you whip and lose your shit, and start screaming and shouting. Wobbler!’

Uisdean is high on a route (it’s sport climbing, I don’t even know the name or grade) and begins to pump out, huffing and puffing. I very nearly fell off at this point so can sympathise entirely - my elbows were skyward and I slapped wildly. The chatter and laughter at the crag is replaced by Uisdean’s shouts and grunts, until he peels off spectacularly, screaming and cursing. ‘Argh, you shitting…! Get tae…!’ There’s silence for a second, until Kurt just says, ‘wobbler!’ Suddenly the entire crag bursts into laughter, including Uisdean. Kurt explains how that was, ‘totally textbook wobbler material, man.’ Classic.

We pack up our bags at lunchtime and say our goodbyes to the Canadians. We’re incredibly grateful for the advice and friendship they’ve given us over the past month, and sad to be leaving. As we start the wall down, Kurt falls at the same place as Uisdean. 

‘Dab!’ I shout.

‘Piss off!’ comes the reply.

We’re going to miss those guys. Time spent with friends is always good fun.



Uisdean following Pitch 3 of East End Boys (5.12?) on Yamnuska, Canadian Rockies.


#2. The Jacket

Henry was belaying at the base of Main Cliff, Gogarth, one cool summer’s day. I was climbing the first pitch of The Big Groove Direct and he was hanging on a belay. All was fine until I heard a shout of rage and disgust, and I looked down in alarm.

Henry had just been completely covered in white bird poo, obviously from a passing seagull. It was a direct hit - a direct shit. He held his arms up as if to say, ‘what the hell!’ and I just burst out laughing; I couldn’t stop. He saw the funny side and chuckled a bit, but I thought it was hilarious. All I could see was Henry’s blue jacket splattered with shit. I laughed a little more, until I realised he was wearing my jacket! My humour quickly turned to rage. I could smell Henry long before he arrived at the belay. Never laugh at your own jacket getting shat on.

The jacket stank for weeks. Stupid seagulls.


#3/4/5/6/7. Sea Stack Attack

One of my best Scottish memories was with Alex Hallam, a few years ago. We took part in the Isle of Jura fell race in perfect summer weather - I can highly recommend it. The party is also pretty cheap because you’re so dehydrated, and it doesn’t take much whiskey. The next day we drove to the Old Man of Stoer, arriving late afternoon (#3 - Scotland is bigger than you think. It took us hours to drive a small distance on the map, but that could’ve been the hangover). We were disappointed to find the tyrollean already in place from another team, but quickly learnt a few lessons:

#4. More people and the proper equipment helps to keep you dry on a tyrollean. We adapted their system and helped them tighten it after Alex got pretty soaked on the way over. (It turns out static ropes do stretch!). 

#5. Rope buckets or bags are really useful on sea cliff belays. Sea stacks and Pembroke are prime places. We spent a long time uncoiling the ropes and dropping them in the sea whilst on a hanging belay. I wished we had something like the DMM Pitcher. I’ve used shopping bags before, but the handles tend to break at the worst moment…

#6. Your ropes will get wet if you abseil off a sea stack. I guess it’s inevitable - you’re surrounded by water. We pulled the ropes with a big flick, hoping they would miss the water. Instead, they dropped straight into the sea and were absolutely soaked.

#7. Always climb on your mate’s ropes. Sorry Alex.


#8. The Snowhole.

This lesson describes a winter climbing day which went slightly wrong. We finished climbing in a storm at night, and got lost on the notorious Cairngorm Plateau. I didn’t bring my map and compass, so we were forced to endure a long and cold night out. It happened several years ago, and was a fine way of getting burned (schooled/taught a lesson/frozen) without major incident. I’m glad Pete and I still climb together.

We topped out on Smokestack Lightnin’ in the dark, around 5pm. It was pitch black, with strong winds - the gusts pushed us about. They were forecast to be Westerlies, 85/90mph on the tops (‘All mobility tortuous’) but didn’t seem that strong. Visibility was poor from windblown snow. We could see perhaps 10 or 20 metres.

I topped out first. We planned to descend the Fiacaill ridge, which was approximately 30 metres to the west, or right, of us. The ridge had a distinct col on it, from where we could descend back into the Sneachda bowl, and then back to the bags and home.

Pete topped out and we coiled the ropes super-quick, keen to be home. I walked off quickly, staying about five metres back from the cliff edge. My headtorch beam was glued to the edge, waiting to see the start of the ridge. The cliff edge was quite indistinct, but we knew the ridge was close; we’d even climbed it the day before. I remembered it being obvious to locate. Temperatures were fresh and the weather was a bit grim so I set off at a good pace, ready to jump down the ridge and out of the ming. In hindsight, I think my eagerness to get out of the storm meant I rushed finding the descent, and didn’t retrace my steps when we were unsure.

We began walking uphill after about 50 metres, and even though I had my head torch glued to the edge, I still hadn’t seen the ridge line. Must be a bit further on, I thought, and pressed on, making sure Pete was still with me. Another 50m of walking uphill, and I stopped. This is too far, we should have seen it by now! my mind shouts. Things were starting to go wrong. Pete shouted up, confirming my thoughts. We’d somehow missed it, but instead or retracing our steps like a rational person, we agreed to keep going into the Lochain’s eastern corrie (essentially the next bowl along) before contouring and hitting the col. This was probably a major mistake. 

Actually, the first mistake was my fault: leaving the map and compass in our packs, at the base of the route. We’d spent the last few days in the Northern Corries, and we’d both climbed here a couple of times before then: it’s the roadside cragging venue in Scotland. The descent is easy. Top out, turn right, walk down the ridge: simple. Confidence and complacency made me leave them safely in my pack. 

We walked about 50m more, reached the cliff edge and climbed 20/30 metres straight down on easy-angled mixed ground. We then contoured back the way we’d just come; Pete went a little low and I stayed a little high, hoping to hit the col on the Fiacaill ridge. The corrie is a perfect bowl, and we traversed what felt like a big semi-circle. We were slightly sheltered from the wind and passed rock bands and steps.

Our contouring met in the middle, and we climbed diagonally upwards, reaching flat ground. At first I thought we’d topped out at the col on the ridge. When we walked forwards in the poor visibility, however, I quickly realised we were in trouble. Instead of walking straight down the other side of the col, back into Sneachda corrie, we had gone gently downhill for about 100m. This wasn’t right; where the hell were we?!

We stopped. We looked around. Is it left? No… surely it’s… right? Hang on, we’ve walked… wait… is it back the way we came? We were totally disorientated.

Alarm bells were screaming like a siren now - we’d made too many small errors, compounded into something that’s going to get messy. We tried to load Google maps on Pete’s phone. It didn’t work very well but told us to walk north (obviously). In the ming conditions we didn’t trust it, and couldn’t work out where exactly north was.

Pete suggested retracing our steps, back to the start. I was reluctant at first because I felt we should’ve been really close to the cliff edge, and therefore the packs, but since the 100m downhill section had totally fooled me, I was stumped. I agreed, so we followed our footprints. At first they were still visible, but within another minute we’d lost them. They’d been blown in by the snow. Shit, this isn’t serious - it’s just stupid and annoying!

What about walking uphill? We tried that for about 10 minutes, in what felt like a southerly direction. Wait: surely we should walk downhill? That would lead us back to the packs. Unless it leads us down onto the Cairngorm Plateau? Totally disorientated again. The storm continued to push us about.

We tried the phone again. The blue dot told us we were relatively close to the edge, but we couldn’t walk with the phone out to see if we were getting closer or further away. We went back to basics: the winds have been Westerlies all week. If we face north, the winds should be blowing from our left. New plan: walk with the winds on our left shoulder. North is good. Let’s get the hell outta here. 

We walked for about half an hour, gently downhill, with the wind on the left. Writing this now, it’s obvious we went the wrong direction, but we were convinced it was correct. The wind must’ve swirled around the corries because we probably walked south-east. We should have done five-minute walks in each direction, like a starfish, to find the edge. Poor visibility and a gently undulating terrain had messed with our heads. 

We stumbled on through the storm. The terrain changed suddenly: rocky, then deep powder, then a ridge to our left, then uphill… is that a cairn?!… We led ourselves on, walking to nowhere. Occasionally we turned off our headtorches and stared at the mysterious, large hills in the distance. It was very disorientating.

Suddenly: a path! Any path is good when you’re lost. We passed a stream and sipped icy water. The snow had been blown into big drifts next to the stream, and we joked of snow holing. We followed the path as it zig-zagged slowly into a gully/ravine. Deep down, I think we knew we were going the wrong way (how often to you go down a steep ravine after topping out on Sneachda or the Lochain?). Pete voiced his concerns about descending towards Loch Avon and the Shelter Stone.

It had now been a couple of hours since we topped out. We stopped and tried the phone one last time. It confirmed the worst: we’re off the south side of the Cairngorm Plateau and heading to Loch Avon, somewhere below Coire Raibeirt.

We explored options: 

1) Now we know which way isn’t home, we could try and walk back to the car. But we’d spent several hours wandering around the Plateau, constantly lost and disorientated. We didn’t want to risk topping out of this ravine and then getting lost again.

2) Walk to the Shelter Stone bothy. However, neither of us know where it is, and apparently it’s just a stone you shelter under (obviously). That doesn’t sound very comfortable and it’s going in the wrong direction.

3) Dig a snow hole and wait until it’s light. That just sounds like a shit idea.

Snow holing won the vote - although it’ll be grim, it’s guaranteed shelter and we’ll just shiver. We could then launch for our second attempt at freedom: ‘Escape from the Cairngorm Plateau - Take 2.’ How embarrassing.

We trudged back up the path until finding the snow drift again. We dug into the powder snow with our hands and axes, trying to get out of the storm. We took turns making the world’s shittest snow hole - it was more of a coffin. The person on the outside froze while the person inside enjoyed being sheltered. We crawled in and realised it was a bit small; neither of us could lie down fully, and the ceiling was about ten inches above our heads. Thankfully, though, we were both wearing our synthetic jackets. Top and tail, we lay on the ropes and I slowly blocked up the door, piece by piece, until a tiny hole remained. 

Initially it felt good to be out of the storm and the shock of being lost wore off. We’ll be alright, and we were still warm. To pass the time, Pete listed his ‘shittest bivvies’ in chronological order, and this gave us plenty to laugh about. ‘2008, oh yes, this was a good year!’ They all sounded rather grim but gave me confidence in Pete’s strong attitude.

The conversation died and time dragged. We began to get cold, so stamped our feet, shuffled arms and swung hands to bring small pulses of warmth into our limbs. Rubbing our hands on our legs worked well. My feet had become damp from sweat and the socks weren’t drying out. They became blocks of ice. I took my boots off and put my mitts on my feet, but they stay frozen. Eventually, slightly concerned about my numb feet, Pete let me put them on his chest to warm them up a bit. This helped a lot. Cheers.

I didn’t think I slept all night, but Pete said I snored for a bit - so I must have dozed for a few minutes. It was one of the longest nights I’ve spent in the mountains. We just lay there, freezing, rubbing ourselves for a few minutes before tiredness took over. I kept poking the air hole to stop it from blocking, and looking out at the dark sky. I kept willing to see the first hint of dawn, but nothing came. It was a long mid-winter night.

The sky was still dark when Pete announced it was 7:08 a.m., but we knew dawn would be here soon. We crawled out of the hole and back into the wind, instantly getting colder. In the light I could see the giant hill of Cairngorm to my left and the Loch Avon basin to my right. It was almost laughable how close the Northern Corries were: we must’ve been so close to the cliff edge so many times last night! I kicked myself when I saw everything in the bleak daylight.

We followed the path in the direction of Cairngorm, pushing hard, trying to re-warm frozen limbs. In a short time we’d traversed the summit of Sneachda. The wind was still strong, kicking up lots of spindrift, and thick grey cloud limited visibility. Our bags were still at the base of the route on the Fiacaill buttress, so we picked them up and headed for home.

The walk out gave me time to think. This was another ‘life experience’ but was a good way of being ‘burned’ (or frozen) without getting seriously injured. It was particularly annoying because very few crags had been in condition for the previous few days. Last night’s storm had brought the Lochain into good condition…

In summary

  1. Don’t forget your map, compass, head torch and phone.

  2. We topped out on Fiacaill Buttress and missed our descent route down the Fiacaill Ridge.

  3. We got lost on the Cairngorm plateau and wandered around for hours, without a map or compass.

  4. We eventually located ourselves: descending Coire Raibeirt and towards Loch Avon, and decided to dig a snow hole.

  5. It was fresh. Actually, it was chilly. Actually, it was baltic.

  6. Remember, do not forget your map, compass, head torch and phone!

When I go winter climbing now, I (almost) always bring my map and compass!

Tom LivingstoneComment