Dave looked up, scoping out the climbing above. He tilted his head and, without warning, his orange helmet rolled backwards, falling straight off. It bounced onto the steep slab and then tumbled out of sight. We were both speechless - how had that just happened? His head torch was still attached and we were on the fifth pitch of Centurion, a classic VIII, 8 on the Ben. It would be dark in 90 minutes and we still had over 100 metres of climbing left. ‘This just got interesting!’ I thought.
You might never hear it but the beat is always playing. Scottish winter climbing is filled with noise, repetitive sounds, rhythms. It might go unheard for months, but as soon as I set my sights on Scotland I could tell the beat was back.
Our drive north through the cold night was only the beginning; a re-awakening, the volume slowly cranking up. Familiar road signs passed in the glare of headlights. Falling snow made a hypnotic tunnel, eyes mesmerised by a thousand falling snowflakes that never start or finish. The drumming of wheels on tarmac was a comforting rhythm, a constant hum.
We walked up to Church Door Buttress on Tuesday, seeking refuge from a fresh storm ploughing off the Atlantic. Dave’s new toys were put to good use: his new 19-million-lumen headtorch was capable of lighting up the entire mountain and the GPS watch performed well. We left a breadcrumb trail as we zigzagged up: ‘Water,’ ‘Camp 1,’ ‘Meadow.’ The beat grew louder, a low thud, thud, thud,matching my footsteps as I kicked into the snow. I grew nervous with anticipation, the tempo rising higher.
Un Poco Loco (VII,7) is a fantastic four-pitch route taking an improbable line up the centre of the buttress. A giant, shattered arch hung overhead as I scrabbled around, trying to find my feet. Dave hunkered on the belay below, his feet going stamp, stamp, stamp, trying to ward off the cold. My heart thumped, beating wildly as I found tenuous hooks and laybacked off parallel cracks. Howling winds, waves of spindrift, verglas: why am I here again? Why am I listening to this uncomfortable noise? Pulling onto the belay ledge brought relief and the internal chatter began to quieten. Another track finished, I pulled on my belay jacket and tried to tune out the storm, keeping company with the familiar swing, swing, swing of cold hands.
The following morning the beat had changed. I had found myself thoroughly enjoying the Poco Loco experience, as I knew I would. Today the 5am alarm was a welcome sound and we walked into the Ben with Centurion in mind.
Within 50 metres of the CIC hut my boot sank through a snowdrift and plunged into a stream, soaking my foot. The only consolation was that Carn Deag Buttress looked black and we wouldn’t be going anywhere near Centurion. I cursed as I dried my boots, socks and insoles over the fire in the hut and we scratched around for an alternative objective. Coire nan Ciste was too avalanche-prone, the lower buttresses were black, a storm was due to slam into Scotland at 6pm that evening and it was already 10:30am… how many lemons does it take for an epic?
We settled for Strident Edge (VI,7) on the Trident Buttress with Dave Keogh coming along for the ride (an Irishman staying at the CIC). We avoided triggering any slides on the wade up and I started climbing the main pitch around 1pm. It looked icy, covered in verglas and had waves of spindrift rinsing down. I could hear the beat increase, pushing up to the redline, each hook doubtful and gear placement dubious.
I soon settled into a rhythm, however, and the music returned. Hook, kick, hook, kick; scratch, scrape, pull, clip. From below came the familiar sound of stamp, stamp, stamp as the Daves kept warm. Again I reached the belay with a smile on my face, relief changing to satisfaction.
Dave and Dave came up steadily and I kept warm with punch, punch, swing, swing. We topped out in darkness with worsening weather. By the time we were down-climbing back into the Ciste the winds were horrific: blowing us about like puppets, making us hunch over ice axes. The straightforward descent turned into a bit of a Weston-Super-Mare. The beat was totally screwed, bouncing all over the place and smashing out 20,000 bpm. Irish Dave dropped his head torch but we found it 100 metres lower - lucky man.
After a long walk back to the hut (why isn’t there an outside light that comes on at night?!) we finally re-packed and headed down to Fort William.
I don’t think Irish Dave knew what he was letting himself in for, but hats off for rolling with it and staying strong when the storm hit!
Friday morning and we were stood beneath Centurion again, this time lucky enough to have it in decent winter conditions. I could hear the Romans marching, the bass of the drum sounding. The fight was about to begin. Dave climbed the first pitch by headtorch, dispatching the tricky and technical moves in style. He was obviously on some weight-loss mission when he got to the belay, as a Scotch egg and Twix bar flew past my head!
I launched into the second pitch - an impressive overhanging corner system with nearly 40 metres of climbing. As it says in the guidebook, the holds just keep coming and the gear keeps on giving. It felt amazing to be stemming wide with loads of air beneath my feet, the belay in sight and the beat of Centurion pulsing through my arms.
I belayed Dave using a large hex for a belay plate, since it had become detached from his harness during the stormy bum-slide descent from Strident Edge. I had a smile on my face and the tune was mellow, cruising, floating on my high. I barely needed to swing my arms to keep warm and we flowed through the route until pitch five…
When Dave’s helmet fell off his head, I definitely skipped a beat. It’s certainly one of the least expected things to happen to your partner as they climb. He had loosened the straps to make it more comfortable, but perhaps a bit too much.
Thankfully Dave’s head is pretty hard and he led the pitch fine, sans helmet and headtorch. When I reached his belay at the junction with Route II, I figured it would be dark in an hour, we still had 100m of climbing to go and we didn’t know how hard it was. However, Dave wanted to continue so I obliged and we sprinted for the top. We pulled it off just in time, topping out in near-darkness and descending Ledge Route in a giddy, schoolboy ‘just-got-away-with-it’ haze.
The beat of Centurion had pushed us, pulsing and testing and challenging. The deep bass of the drumbeat had accompanied me at each belay, booming out a familiar rhythm. I had started the week slightly nervous, unfamiliar with the pace of Scottish winter climbing but finished with a contented, satisfied tune, humming along to the music. I recognised the track and turned up the volume. More, please!
At 5:15am last Saturday morning I finally pulled into the Plas y Brenin car park and cut the engine. I’d been awake for over 24 hours and after Centurion on the Ben and driving for nine hours straight, I was ready for bed. The beat had faded into a soft murmur, subsiding deep into the subconscious… until next time.
Dave, thanks for a great week and for choosing ‘up’.
A concise version of this piece was kindly published by Simon Richardson on the Scottish Winter website/blog.