Scotland & the Slovenian Exchange
From the 12th to the 19th February 2017, I took part in a week of 'proper' Scottish winter climbing, as part of an exchange with eight Slovenian climbers. We enjoyed great mixed climbing and alpine-style ridges at the start of the week, and then witnessed winter disappear due to rising temperatures. We resorted to scrambles, runs and walks in the second half of the week. This seems like the ‘real' Scottish experience; a week of perfect conditions wouldn’t have felt like Scotland at all!
The week was organised by Ian Parnell, Nick Colton and the BMC, and we’re very grateful for their help and support. The visiting Slovenians, mentored by Marko Prezelj, were all part of the Slovenian Alpine Team. They taught us their swear words and we taught them the weirdness of Scottish winter climbing.
We based ourselves near Fort William, and all climbed at Stob Coire nan Lochain on the first day. This was great fun, with teams enjoying Crest Route (V, 6), Raeburn’s Route (IV, 4), Scabbard Chimney (V, 6), Central Grooves (VII, 7), and East Face Direct Direct (VII, 7) amongst others. In hindsight this turned out to be the best day of the week.
The following days, teams visited SCNL again, Church Door Buttress, Lost Valley Buttress, and Ben Nevis. Although conditions had deteriorated, Will Harris and Andrej Jez found the goods and climbed Neanderthal (VII, 7). Several teams climbed on Ben Nevis, but we were forced to stick to ridges and gullies due to the buttresses being out of condition (‘black’). The freezing levels slowly crept above the summit each day, and most snow was stripped from the mountain.
A team ascent of the Aonach Eagach ridge was great fun - even though it was virtually summer - and the lunchtime Clachaig pint in the sunshine topped off a great morning.
The intention is to visit Slovenia and meet up with our new-found friends again next year. We look forward to enjoying some of their crazy, loose, run-out mixed climbing on alpine north faces. Thanks again to the organisers and the BMC, the Slovenians for coming over, and Marko for his wisdom and humour.
The week before, I came up to Scotland and had a good couple of days - thanks to Murdo, Guy and Iain for letting me tag along. The first day was quite stormy and with high avalanche risk, so we opted for ‘Burning and Looting’ on Sneachda. The second day was calm and - incredibly - Murdo, Iain and I climbed in the sunshine!
The third day was spent with Will Harris on Unicorn (VIII,8) on SCNL. The first pitch has a bit of a reputation for being awkward, difficult, and occasionally fallen off. I took a couple of hours to lead this pitch, finding the climbing to be exactly as described, and with very thin footholds. The second, third and fourth pitches were absolutely fantastic, however, and reminded me of Centurion on Ben Nevis, or Central Grooves on SCNL. I thoroughly enjoyed Unicorn (except the first pitch!) and, as it turns out, I guess that was the highlight of my short Scottish winter season. It’s certainly been a very mild and rare winter. Thanks for a great route, Will.
The visiting Slovenians, mentored by Marko Prezelj, were all part of the Slovenian Alpine Team, a three-year program which creates safer, more knowledgeable and experienced alpinists. It’s been running for a few years now, and almost all expenses are covered by the membership-led Slovenian Alpine Association. Mentees are typically between 19 and 27 years old, and must have some alpine climbing experience already. The emphasis is on the mentees - they are not guided, simply mentored. Marko prefers to let them make their own mistakes. He occasionally directs their energy, or pushes the mentees when they need it, and is on hand when they need advice. The program is already a great success - Luka Lindic was in the first batch of the program, and he’s no slouch. Mentees must organise everything - from how many trips they want to go on each year, to organising the team budget, logistics, objectives and even the post-trip report. The group size is around five to ten mentees, and destinations range from the Slovenian and European Alps in the first year, to a major expedition to the Himalayas in the third and final year.
During many rest days days in 2015 and 2016, Uisdean Hawthorn and I lamented the lack of a British alpine program. America, New Zealand, France, Italy, Slovenia (and several other countries) all have multi-year programs which mentor and encourage young alpine climbers. Why does Britain not one? Is it because we’re not an ‘alpine’ nation? The number of world-class British alpinists would suggest otherwise.
After speaking to Ian Parnell about this, we organised a fact-finding weekend in Autumn 2016, and asked young British alpinists: what support would you like (if any)? The results are still coming in, and range from a multi-year, subsidised mentor program similar to those already in existence, to simply having better information on planning an expedition and improved access to previous expedition reports.
I would like a multi-year mentor program. I used to wonder: am I being a spoilt child by asking for a program? Do older alpinists think, ‘he just needs a kick up the arse’? I wonder if I’m simply being lazy by asking for mentorship.
Then I think again. Steve House, Marko Prezelj and many other world-class alpinists have recognised that a mentorship program really helped their climbing, or would have helped their climbing further. They wish to pass on some advice to young alpinists, who are playing a dangerous and expensive game. I’d really like to have a mentor, or even a more experienced climbing partner, to consult and share ideas with. I’m not asking for someone to hold my hand or give me amazing unclimbed objectives… but a bit of advice, once in a while, would be greatly appreciated.
At the fact-finding weekend in 2016, many climbers expressed interest in a multi-year mentorship program. However, when it came down to it, some would be unable to commit: houses, jobs, partners and lifestyles all get in the way. I respect this; there’s more to life than climbing, and some people don’t want to go to the mountains all the time. I often envy other people’s job security, so I think it works both ways - some people envy how much time off I have. But in some ways, a multi-year mentorship program would come down to the commitment of the mentees.
However, with some support, dedication and commitment, I’m sure we could make something of this. I appreciate there are huge obstacles: where will the money come from? Can we find suitable insurance? What if there’s an accident? Who would be willing to act as a mentor? How many mentees are willing, and at what age and ability? These are all valid questions, but they can be answered - just as many other countries have done. I hope we can create a program which helps young British alpinists, to some degree.