It Never Rains In Aberdeen
This blog details my trip to a little known country, known to a select few as Scotland. You may have heard many tales about the people from this land being kilt wearing, deep fried Mars Bar eating, Caber tossing bagpipe players. And for the most part you would be right. However there are a small minority who carry unwieldy axes and ironmongery to scale the most foreboding precipice. Just over a year ago, I wrote one of my first ‘blogs’ on my journey to Everest which detailed my first Scottish winter season, and incidentally my first time in Scotland.
I think the gist of that blog was that I had the time of my life; generally due to the expectation that I would be miserable for 6 days, soaking wet, and constantly risking quite serious exposure whilst contemplating the 2 hour walk-out. As it turned out, although some of the above is true (…well all of it if you include the rain on the first day), I am of the firm opinion that Scotland is one of the best places for sport in the UK, if not Europe. Scottish winter climbing is world class, attracting athletes like Ueli Steck on the hardest routes such as ‘The Secret’; and after experiencing the acquired tastes of Kyrgyzstan, India and Kazakhstan during 2011, I was more than looking forward to a return visit.
It is worth mentioning that in Scotland over recent years, the locals have become so disillusioned with bad weather that they have voted against it in parliament, and eventually late in 2011, a bill was passed that Scotland will no longer experience winter, and if it rains, it will only rain in Fort William. I won’t mention the weather again.
The plan was to meet back up with Debbie and Alex from the Baruntse expedition, and try to get in as much climbing as possible in an effort to prepare further for Everest.
Packing for this was easy. With the Adventure Peaks kit bag from Peak Lenin and Baruntse, I managed to pack enough kit for a week’s winter climbing, a round the world yacht race and the odd evening meal.
Getting to Scotland however, proved to be much more energetic than I had anticipated. Last year, I had driven down from Lincolnshire to London, to get on a plane and fly back past Lincolnshire to Glasgow, to then wait in a bus station for 5 hours, before driving to Fort William. This year, I decided the train was a much more sensible option.
Getting up at 5am, I raced down to the station carrying a 30kg holdall and felt slightly proud that I had been so organised. Unfortunately 5 minutes before the train was due, I realised I had forgotten to pack my rail card which would have meant buying a full return journey and paying £250 for the privilege. The best option at this time was to call mum (who had a broken arm in plaster) and attempt to cut the 15 minute walk back home to a 4 minute 59 second sprint which is no easy feat at 5 in the morning. I found this out first hand when I embarked on my 3rd train of the day in Darlington and fell into varying forms of sleep on the 6 hour journey to Aberdeen.
As a side note about this journey, I would always prefer to fly, but equally I would encourage anyone to take the East Coast Main Line from Newcastle to Aberdeen at least once. On a good day, it’s absolutely stunning.
On reaching Aberdeen, there was both good and bad news. I can’t remember what the good news was, but the bad news was that the snow would be doing 3 things… Evaporating, melting and avalanching. This on top of 16 degrees meant that any plans of winter climbing had to be rapidly exchanged which took us roughly 3 days.
In these 3 days, a lot was accomplished, but for fear of turning this small blog into one of biblical proportions, I will summarise the main points.
On the second day, we took the dogs to the beach. Roxy a rather pretty Springer Spaniel found enjoyment in terrorising a lonely beach walker who was not best pleased. Roxy’s ear was subsequently (and highly accidently) trimmed, resulting to a few trips to the vets. A few beach walks later, we embarked on a Roxy-less beach run in the morning and after thoroughly engulfing my trainers with sand and sea water over several days, a game of squash was in order.
Of course, with any Everest training plan, food is one of the most important elements as it often said you ‘eat your way up Everest’. Not keen to miss out on this vital training, after a few trips to the chip shop, a delivery pizza, and a pot of soup containing 88% of the RDA of saturated fat, I felt my training was in good order. There was also the Actifry. Everybody needs an Actifry in their lives, period. During my short trip, I tried to explain to Alex and Debs the value of ‘Aldi cake’ and hoped that perhaps some of my wisdom rubbed off when we spent the next 3 days eating pancakes and Nutella thanks to Shrove Tuesday.
Clearly, I have demonstrated the fitness and nutrition elements of an Everest training plan, but what about overtraining and rest? You’ll be pleased to hear we placed the upmost importance on ‘not overdoing it’. To accomplish this, we watched most films on Sky+, caught up with all the latest crime scene investigations, and immersed ourselves in good music. Not a regular listener of BBC Radio 2 however, this station somewhat fascinated me, and undoubtedly many others. One such programme began with a cultural debate on transsexuals, before revealing that there are 750,000 guinea pigs in the UK. Keen for more education, the following day revealed an intense dispute on ‘how many locks do you have on your front door’? The dog owners professed that a few Alsatian’s and Jack Russell’s would outweigh any locking system, however the carpenters retorted that locks must conform to British Standard BS3621 in order to validate your insurance policy. Riveting.
Another fact I learnt during my culture exchange week was that of the Haggis. The Haggis is a national delicacy in Scotland which comes from the Wild Haggis, a small mammal which has two legs shorter than the other to allow for running in circles around the hills on which they live.
So after some epic banter over the past 3 days, and with the weather constantly improving, we decided to go and get a climbing book for the Aberdeen sea cliffs and scout out some climbs for the following day. This however could not be accomplished before food was consumed, so we headed for the garden centre, and for the second time, had an awesome lunch. It was at this point that the waitress thought I was a woman with the surprising comment ‘was that okay ladies?’
However this was more than made up for with the checkout lady who thought I was Daniel Radcliffe. A good boost for the ego. “Occulus Reparo”…
The rest of Thursday was spent locating cliffs which were well hidden along the coast, sorting a cluster of kit and contemplating the next day’s climb over Nutella pancakes and CSI.
Friday dawned, and after a quick walk with the doggies, it was time for the climbing to commence. Now at this point, we were both going into a relative unknown. I had been well prepared for some Scottish winter climbing, however had not expected the sudden turn of events which now meant that sun drenched rock was the better option.
Before reading the climbing book, we were confident that we could do some sport climbs and make a good day with the safety of bolts. After reading the book however, we realised that there were no bolts to be found along almost the entire coast line.
This presented a slight problem for a number of reasons; to say that we didn’t have much trad (traditional) climbing experience between us would be a great understatement.
To put this bluntly, Debbie had only ever climbed in Glen Coe, and had had 1 experience of seconding trad, and had never led.
I had never led trad, never seconded trad, and had only ever climbed top roped indoors in Grantham… But what we lacked in experience, we made up with ambition…
So we headed for Meikle Partans, one of the most popular cliffs on the Aberdeenshire coast line and were amazed at being the only climbers seemingly along the whole coast line. The weather was simply unbelievable, with 16 degrees and sun kissed rock belying the 23rd of Feburary.
The walls were the most perfect secluded rock, which you would never have believed existed.
Putting our experience issues to one side, we quickly racked up the grades, alternating leads from moderate, through difficult and v diff, to severe. As we had only ever led on snow and ice before, neither of us had any experience with leader placed protection on rock which only added to the sense of exposure, with a high probability of ripping out our poorly placed gear with even the smallest fall; this would most likely result in a fall onto one of the many ledges 10 meters below before making a graceful entrance into the North Sea.
Eventually, we worked up to the final climb of the day which was ‘Constellation’. I had the pleasure of leading this route and promptly worked up the first half oblivious to what lay ahead. Essentially, this was a corner climb with minimal holds and awkward sloping rock. After being stuck in a familiar position for about 30 mins, and with Debs enjoying the view out to sea a bit too much, I inched up before finally lassoing the top crack with a hex and mantling up like a beached whale slightly euphoric.
Unfortunately, Debs then climbed up in 10 minutes, which made my 45 minute lead slightly excessive, but we had finished an incredible and unexpected day. All that was left was further amazement at the weather and catching a few last rays overlooking dolphins and seals on la mer du Nord.
The climbing was so good on this day that I decided to change my train to get in another day on the rock. If you’ve never tried to change a train ticket before, it’s said that the experience is only down from moving house and a car crash in stressfulness. Fortunately, Eric the happy ticket man from Aberdeen was more than happy to amend my tickets, in exchange for seemingly unlimited access to my credit card for the pleasure.
That night, we continued with our education of performance nutrition; however Alex is a fast learner and was on the ball, taking little encouragement to visit the chip shop.
For the final day, we decided as we were all over the 10m routes the previous day, 30m routes were the obvious progression, so we headed for Graymare Slabs. Again we worked up the grades and reached the final route of the trip, ‘Groovin’ High’. This was a culmination of everything we had done over the past 2 days, and in a word was insane. Debs led, giving me a good chance to look out to sea and give the occasional concerning glance up the face. The first few metres were easy, but the crux was a combination of a steeply sloped featureless slab, with no real prospect for protection, allowing the opportunity for a 20m fall onto marginal protection. As Debs was taking a while to move up, I knew it was a brutal climb, and probably exposed even when seconding. By far the most nerving moment was when most of Debs’ protection fell out beneath her, whilst teetering on the tiniest of cracks. But eventually, with much pondering about how to move a matter of 3 meters past the crux, we both managed to complete the final route.
Amazingly we survived without so much as a single fall, even with our climbing experience limited to Glen Coe and an indoor rock wall in Grantham.
As we bathed in our glory, (and of course the sun), we contemplated our next move and realised that the next logical step was either the Eiger North Face, or the Old Man of Hoy which is a modest E1 (5b) 137m route, clearly within our new found capabilities…
The rest of the trip was spent hitting pheasants, reaching the pinnacle of ready meals with an M&S chicken-red wine, revelling in amazement of the weather and our new found climbing prowess, and avoiding any opportunity to do military fitness at all costs.
Eventually, the final day dawned, and reluctantly I headed home, although not before missing the first train and waiting 2 hours before the next cross country variant which took 7 hours to reach Leeds. This was a minor hitch compared to the realisation that the train didn’t stop in my village, so at 7:30pm, I embarked on a 4 mile crawl with a 30kg kit bag, 2 litres of milk and shoes full of sand.
And that’s it. An awesome week on this majestic Island just 100 miles north of Manchester; Scotland is an enchanting place.
It is always hard to explain the magic of big expeditions such as Baruntse to those who have yet to experience such situations, however I’m of the opinion that perhaps the best outcome of these once-in-a-lifetime events are the friendships formed over truly awful and equally truly amazing experiences. I’ve met some truly special people on this long road. A big thank you to Debbie, Alex and of course Roxy, Cisco and Rocket!
Did I mention the incredible weather? It never rains in Aberdeen.
Photos courtesy of Debbie, The Mediterranean Tourist Board, and myself.