Sunday, 11 January 2015

Maybe it was peace at last, who knew?

… time to feel alive. Braced by the left axe behind the pillar of blue ice, with my left foot high on the back wall, crampon smearing on a smooth ramp of rock, I reached high with my right hand and swung my axe into the softer ice on the front of the pillar. Not trusting in the first time placement I swung again, this time it had to be good - I had to move, I couldn’t hang around. The climbing was feeling steep already, I was committed before I let myself realise it. My left shoulder was fatigued from the 6 attempts to place the left axe in the brittle ice in the rear of the pillar. I wiggled and twisted the axe to remove it from the ice. Pulling round, my right foot now committed to the ice as well, my left foot came away from the rock smear and hooked around the back of the pillar to pull me in, to hold me on. What? What is this? I’m heel hooking, but I’m ice climbing, and I’m heel hooking, and it’s working! The plastic quick-release lever on the back of my crampon was hooked round a rib of ice. What a cool position. Bumping my right foot up the edge of the pillar, breathe, keep focussed, keep moving. The drips of water, my saving grace, they made the recently formed ice soft enough to climb, but also my adversary; my gloves and arms were getting soaked. I pull up, still hooking my left foot and swing my right axe higher, not wanting to risk the first placement I swing again, this time the reassuring feel and noise of a good placement ease my heart rate slightly. Extricating my hooked crampon and stabbing it into the front of the pillar instantly made the climbing feel a lot steeper. A couple more strenuous, balancy pulls up the steep ice and the angle eased. Thankfully finding some reasonable névé above allowed me to pause for a moment at the top of the steepness and compose myself. A glorious sprint up the final iced slabs and round the small cornice lead to the windless plateau, the horizontal world was welcomed with a euphoric feeling and a long needed celebratory sandwich. I sat on a flat rock atop Hell’s Lum Crag looking across at the Loch Avon basin, taking in my surroundings feeling content to have soloed such a cool wee route.

I was late to arrive at the Cairngorm carpark that morning, my first objective was get up onto the Cairngorm plateau, via a route in Coire an t’Sneachda. I would then head across to Hell’s Lum Crag and see how I was feeling and what I fancied the look of. I was optimistic that I would be able to set a good pace into the corrie thanks to my purchase earlier that morning.  There were other teams still making their way into the winter wonderland. I glided past a couple, we exchanged hello’s, the women commented on my pace, I smiled, wished them a good day and cruised on. Now almost in the corrie it felt like I was flying along, the purchase of my new walking poles had shown their worth already. I was now wondering why it had taken me so long to get a pair!?

Sneachda was a hubbub of activity with parties all over the crags. This wasn’t what I was psyched for, I was keen to make a swift escape to the solitude of the plateau. So I opted for a direct and easy route that I would be able to climb quickly. The Runnel went without issue, although I felt slightly guilty overtaking a team that were hidden out of sight from below, but they seemed to be enjoying the route and weather. Emerging onto the plateau, into the sun, sans wind, I was psyched. I packed away my crampons, axes, extended the new poles and started trotting across to the Loch Avon Basin. A friendly Ptarmigan gargled and cheered me on, I smiled, wished him a good day and cruised on.

Hells Lum Crag was pleasantly quiet with only one other team on the crag, on the classic Deep Cut Chimney. The whole crag was attractively covered in smears of ice, psyche was high. I moved round to the base of my ambitious objective, the snow slope gradually steepening and changing character into crunchy, difficult névé mess. An ease in angle allowed a pause to consider the pillars of ice looming above. The first pillar held some steep moves, some cruddy snow/ice and some helpful bridging opportunities. The steep moves were a good warm up for the main event. I moved steadily up the steep snow/ névé between the first and second ice pillars, keeping composure and keeping an eye on the way ahead.

I tentatively moved round to the left hand side of the upper pillar of blue ice, the crux, kicking a step in a slight easing in the angle of the slope I gazed up at the pillar, contemplation. I checked below me, all clear, I then knocked off a few brittle icicles, crash, crunch, they tumbled down, down, down, well past the base of the crag. I gulped, and didn’t think about the exposure or the potential of taking the same tumble as the icicle, unthinkable. Time to focus, I moved across to the edge of the pillar, time to breathe, I reached high and placed an axe high on the back of the pillar, time to live…

On Boxing Day 2014 I onsight soloed The Chancer (V, 6) on Hell’s Lum Crag, amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland, on a day of some of the best weather I’ve ever experienced in winter. It is some of the most physically and mentally hardest ice climbing I’ve ever done.

Finishing the day off with a jaunt over the Cairn Gorm summit with the crystal clear views and no wind was peaceful, and allowed a moment to reflect on such a rare and perfect day. Love for the mountains is off the scale!

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