This article was first published on UKClimbing.com in November 2017.
Shoot the Breeze, P1. Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn
'Tom searched for adventure in Scotland’s wild North-West. On two consecutive days, he found a rare moment of calm on the remote summit plateau of Beinn Eighe. Between storms and hot-aches, the sweet rewards of Scottish winter climbing are worth the wait.'
What am I searching for?
Near the wintry summit plateau of Beinn Eighe, I slowly turn and take in the view. I could be the only person on Earth. To the west, the Atlantic ocean lies dark and cold, but rays of sunlight threatens to break through the cloud, like searchlights from above.
To the south stands the white pyramid of Liathach, twin corries spilling down into Highland glens. I love it here; I never want to forget this view. The wild North West of Scotland is even more remote and beautiful in winter. In this moment, it is all mine. I feel content.
Silence… there’s a strange calm in the mountains; the wind has stopped howling, no chink of hexes to be heard. It’s quiet for a brief moment, as if the world is pausing, about to draw breath. No storm to blast across the plateau, no spindrift to sting the cheeks. Rare days like these must be treasured: I’m elated to be free near the top of the mountain.
Paul Pritchard said it best: the feeling of knowing you’ve done the route, climbed the hardest section, and you’re running up the last few metres of easy ground to the top. The climb is almost finished but you can enjoy the freedom of movement, knowing nothing can stop you now. Success and relief and elation.
I kick into the snow, searching for a belay. Heavy, iced ropes want to pull me to the cliffs below - I feel dragged down by steel cables. With battered gloves, I clip the cables into frozen carabiners. Each snap as the carabiner gate closes makes me relax… again and again. I begin to match the calm of the mountains. As they pause to breathe, so do I. The fight from the route below has finished, and I can inhale. There is so much emotion in Scottish winter climbing.
My partner is still below, tied to the vertical. The cliffs of Beinn Eighe are a folded frontier line, running for hundreds of metres. A jagged sword has sliced the north west face of the mountain, cutting it short. Snow from my footsteps tumbles down the slope and bounces over the edge, free-falling into space; but the steepness of the wall doesn’t intimidate me now. The route no longer holds menace. I feel my heart rate calming, shattered nerves reforming, wet jackets drying.
A call rises from the second belay of Sundance (VIII, 8). My partner and I have climbed 50 metres of steep rock and turf to get there, pulling through bulges and thrutching up chimneys. Axes slotted into cracks, picks biting, teeth grinding. I crunch my teeth in nervous anticipation as the axe wobbles. The grate and squeak of metal against rock, fear winds tighter. We’d stood beneath the route in the early morning light and gulped. Had we brought enough gear? Should we have brought six hexes, rather than four?
Near the top of the pitch, I swing the axe and it gives a reassuring thud as it bites into frozen turf. Relief… The exposure of so much air beneath our crampons reminded me of yesterday’s route: Shoot the Breeze (IX, 8).
Shoot the Breeze P2. Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn
At the belay, I nervously rack the gear - cams on the left, wires on the right, as always. OCD - me? I cinch my harness tight and check my knots again and again. ‘Watch me here, mate,’ I said, tentatively balancing away from the safety of the belay.
Thin cracks took my picks, leading me to an overhang, and I was glad to arrange gear. I allowed a moment’s respite, then bridged wide and swung my legs out across the emptiness, feeling the arms begin to burn with the steepness. In such a wild position I let out a laugh at the absurdity - this is sheer enjoyment, and the tension in my stomach bubbles into laughter.
Once past the overhang, my forearms pulsing, I return to thin hooks and torque to reach a stubby fang of ice. Well above the belay and with such pleasurable climbing, I’m enjoying the situation. Each time I feel my grip tighten and my stomach tense with a thin hook or delicate foothold, I spy a crack or placement and unclench my fingers as the pick slotted in. The final metres beneath the summit snow slope pass quickly, the cliff top in sight and I’m in my Paul Pritchard moment. Only when I pull onto the snow do I stop... wait... listen... and take in my view.
My emotions should have been more controlled when I was climbing, but in truth I was still a little strung out from yesterday’s route. Shoot the Breeze had pushed us much further than today’s climb. We had left the car when the mountain was still dark; our thoughts had started darkly, too. ‘Would it go?’
We had stomped up the side of Beinn Eighe, consumed by our own thoughts and the hypnosis of the headtorch. I felt so much anticipation: ‘can we climb it?’ My first route on the mountain - an Englishman, on unfamiliar ground - but aware of it’s reputation. This place is the source of so many tales: ‘you’ve got to go to Beinn Eighe!’ people would say, eyes lighting up and stories flowing. The inky pre-dawn view from the plateau was worth the walk-in, let alone the route.
The ‘IX, 8’ grade made me think of being high on the wall and run-out, far above my gear. I’d heard of a lonely arête and ‘Dolomitic’ positions. But again, thankfully, we met the demands of the route and enjoyed three pitches of sustained, forearm-bursting, nerve-shattering climbing. Sweat stung in my eyes as I seconded the final pitch in the dark, listening to the roar of the wind across the plateau. I’d been close to shivering on the belay; it felt like I was standing in a walk-in freezer.
As I came up to Uisdean’s belay in darkness and congratulated him on his lead, he raved of the quality and difficulty of the pitch. Small roofs pushed him further and further out from the belay, with some ‘junk pro’ for protection. The route had certainly tested us and we had taken all day - and some of the night - to climb it. We walked down the mountain, wasted and starving.
But we’d done it, and success tasted sweet. It was worth the fight. Our shouts echoed into the calm night air.
Winter climbing is always a battle. It’s a fight to control your emotions in the mountains. But this is what we’re searching for: to find peace in battle.