Mind Yer Fud

Mind yer fud is Scottish for “mind your . . .” but more on that later.
Over the past few months, I have been trying to answer quite a tricky question which has been essential in moving on from Everest. It is simply, “What do you do after you have achieved your dream?”
It is such a hard question to answer since for so long climbing Everest has been my goal, and everything I have done has therefore been orientated towards making the dream a reality. But in May 2012, something amazing happened when I accidently stumbled to the top of the world and achieved my wildest dream, a dream which has since left me in a state of limbo.

As always, it’s good to make a plan, and prior to Everest, any spare time I had away from the agonising reality of sourcing sponsorship and training was spent creating my action plan, and a few backups. With each subsequent plan I made, I moved closer to my final action plan, and eventually, I ended up with one action plan, fifteen backup plans to plan my course of action, and thirty-six base plans which would supplement my backup plans and go some way in outlining my action plan. As with any project of this complexity, I had completed many of my objectives before I had planned them, and indeed had climbed Everest even before I completed my action plan of getting to Nepal, which naturally is still ongoing.

All my plans for the past 4 years had therefore been focused on climbing Everest, but whilst they were detailed up until the spring of 2012, they were not sustainable afterwards; effectively, as soon as I stepped off the mountain, my plan had come to an end and I was mentally lost.
I suspect that this happens to many expeditioners, athletes and even businessmen. After the summer Olympics in London, many athletes, especially from Team GB had fulfilled their dream, and so the thought of getting back on the bike or in the boat would most likely be a tough experience after the highs and lows which would have been encountered during the intensity of the games.

So I hadn’t quite won an Olympic medal, or even competed in any such games, but I had had my own little Olympics on Everest at least, and given the size of the mountain, the comedown after the expedition was impressive.
I knew from past accounts of climbers who have tackled Everest that the period of time after the expedition is perhaps the most difficult. Huge amounts of muscle wastage and weight loss needed to be rectified after spending time in the so called ‘Death Zone’ above 8000m where the body is slowly but surely dying, and of course this means exercising and eating. One of those two comes naturally, but when considering exercise, especially after spending the past 10 weeks feeling constantly exhausted on a mountainside, it is hard to get motivated and bounce back to the previous levels of fitness. Of course having something to train for always helps, but just like many of those previous Everest climbers; I no longer had a goal with which I could truly motivate myself with. The mental side of things is an underestimated source of stress which is brought on by a combination of a reduction in brain cells caused by exposure to ultra-high altitude, and additionally exposure to an environment and situations which are so far removed from real life, your grasp on reality is constantly tested.

There is one way however which I knew would help me to refocus, and ultimately get a grip. I wanted to find closure from Everest, a way of wrapping everything up in a way which was fitting for such a mountain where I would be able to move on and consider the next challenges in life. My way of doing this has been to write. Initially I used my diaries from on the mountains to build a picture of my experiences and how an expedition grows to a point where you are in a position to summit, usually after a series of insurmountable obstacles somewhere along the way. My first idea was to simply write a book which I could keep as a record of my experience, but as the book grew, my aim has been more and more to share my experience with others, through a route not typically seen with Himalayan mountaineers. Now finished, my book which contains 125,000 words spread over 375 pages, and has taken over 151 hours to compile and edit, is ready for view. Writing the book has been a mountain in itself, and I expect that as I hunt for a publishing agent and ultimately a publisher, I will have a few more mountains to climb. For now though, I can be proud that I managed to see the project, and regardless of its success or lack of, the most important people have already read the lengthy volume which was my ultimate aim.

Incidentally, I have already received a number of reviews, mostly from obscure publications who have given praise where praise is due. Here is one such comment from The Weekly Mail:

“Like the best novels ever written this book has a front cover, a back cover, and many words of varying lengths and meanings in between. This is a book in the truest sense of the word.”
The Weekly Mail

As the book came to a close, I began to consider my options for how to follow on from Everest. The process has been difficult, and as always, some logistical nightmares are presenting themselves, but through a series of events, the next goal has been set.

After coming back from Everest and the Himalayas for the third time, I wondered to myself if I would ever go back. Kathmandu, whilst chaotic and polluted has rare addictive properties for an eastern city, and likewise, the Khumbu and surrounding valleys possess a magical property which is unique to Nepal. Still, despite this, I wasn’t quite yearning to go back to Nepal, or even think about venturing to this far flung world, and so when it was agreed that Ama Dablam would be the next goal for 2014, I was surprised to hear myself saying ‘yes’ without thinking twice.

I have stared at Ama Dablam’s beautiful lines many times whilst resting in Pangboche, and along the Khumbu trail during both the Baruntse and Everest expeditions, but despite being interested in the climb, actually making an ascent never crossed my mind, and so I almost needed someone else to make the suggestion for me, to implant the idea, maybe a logical progression from Everest.

Debbie Spencer is famous, perhaps even notorious in the Glen Coe valley, and after climbing on Baruntse together in 2011, her notoriety has now grown to encompass the Cairngorms, the Aberdeenshire sea cliffs, and even to the remote mountains of Torridon. Recently after a somewhat epic bike ride up the country and a few subsequent visits to the mountains of Aberdeenshire, Debbie made the suggestion that Ama Dablam was on in 2014. We had previously considered many options ranging from Aconcagua to Denali, but the allure of Nepal and the Matterhorn of the Himalayas has proved too hard to resist, and so an expedition to Ama Dablam, a mountain once described by Sir Edmund Hillary as ‘unclimbable’ is now on.
In between now and 2014, there are a number of hurdles to overcome which range from the financing of such a climb to the physical challenges which will be faced on Ama Dablam which stands at 6,812m high above the Khumbu Valley.

As previously described, a good plan is paramount to any large undertaking, and whilst there are many factors that we can’t control, our plan to reach the summit of Ama Dablam in the autumn of 2014 is progressing and was ceremoniously started in Aviemore on the 27th November 2012 for the start of the Scottish winter season.

Now from this point onwards, whilst this blog may seem unintentionally ambiguous with concepts which could only occur after a heady concoction of wine, whisky and pipe smoke, you will have to take my word that the following events did indeed occur and furthermore went some way in preparing both Debbie and I for life on Ama Dablam.

The journey for me began in sunny Lincolnshire which was in the process of receiving its yearly rainfall quota in a single weekend. As I have recently found however, actually getting to Scotland is a challenge in itself, and despite living near the East Coast mainline which runs from London Kings Cross to Aberdeen and regularly sends trains the full distance at just over 7 hours, I didn’t seem to be having much luck when I arrived in York station only to find that the whole mainline and indeed much of the country was underwater with widespread flooding putting paid to the notion that getting to the hills of Scotland would finally be a trouble free affair.
Gradually as we inched our way up the country, the hilarity of the situation started to increase. At the beginning of the 2 hour wait in a freezing cold York station, I couldn’t quite see the funny side, however once we were back on the move, the guard on the train informed us of the situation and it quickly became clear that he wasn’t having the best day. Hour after hour of further delays were encountered as more and more of the east coast mainline track was becoming washed away. Eventually an announcement from the guard came through. “Ladies and Gentleman, it probably comes as no surprise that we have encountered yet another delay. I have no idea when we will be moving again this time. And to make matters worse, there are no café facilities on board this train. East Coast once again apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

On leaving Edinburgh, the train hit further delays and just to inform everyone on board how crazy the situation really was, the helpful customer service Chap onboard announced that all remaining food and drink from the café was free, leading to a huge rush to find coach E whilst the train guard and driver slowly lost the will to live.
15 hours after setting off, I trundled into Montrose from which point, yet another Scottish adventure would begin.

The plan was relatively simple; we would wake at 4am the next morning, then drive to Aviemore in the Cairngorms. From Aviemore, we would go and assess the conditions in Coire an t-Sneachda, possibly attempt a route or two, and then find somewhere to park up before attempting to get as good a night as possible in the van. The next day, we would plan to walk to Corrour Bothy, spend a single night in the bothy, before returning to Aviemore and spending the rest of the week climbing. This was a pretty good way to spend the week in my books, and despite being bothy virgins, we were up for giving this new culture a good go.

4am was exactly as you would expect it to be. Quite cold, relatively dark and still a good hour away from 5am. Yet we were up, and setting off into the darkness, low on diesel but high on the thought of what was to come.
So far in Scotland, we had had quite mixed success in finding snow, an example being February 2012, a month with almost guaranteed snow cover, yet this turned out to be the hottest February on record and so February was spent bathing on the sea cliffs instead. This time however, we knew there was snow up in the mountains; all we had to do was make it to Aviemore without running out of fuel along the isolated A939 which was narrowly avoided thanks to the Ballater post man demonstrating exemplary knowledge of 24 hour fuel stations in the local area. As we passed over the Lecht and over Tomintoul pass, the thrill reached a new high when it started snowing. Fortunately no one could see our excitement, but if they had, it would have been the same excitement given out by a bus load of kids from the Serengeti seeing snow for their first time during their first skiing trip.

As we reached Aviemore, it was an amazing sight to see. A Cairngorm town with a permanent Christmassy feel; this really is the Chamonix of Scotland. And so we headed off in the direction of the Aviemore Ski Centre from where we would start the 45 minute walk-in to Coire an t-Sneachda. Of course the final 5 minutes of the journey couldn’t be smooth, and instead of heading straight up the mountain, we were stopped at the bottom of the mountain road whilst the snow plough cleared the road ahead. At this point, a helpful mountain worker advised us that we shouldn’t tailgate the car in front, and then shortly after, a second helpful worker inspected our tires before exclaiming that they were indeed summer tread, and not at all up to the conditions of the road. This was his only remark, leaving the question of carrying on up the mountain or staying put and walking up quite open ended. Taking the advice of the first worker, Debbie skilfully navigated the mountain road behind the plough, and did a generally sterling job of not crashing.

The weather in Scotland is quite infamous, and during the winter, it is estimated that 1 in every 10 days may yield clear skies and so the chances of seeing blue sky was low, but that didn’t matter, for as long as we could see the coire, then we would be able to climb. Things however weren’t looking too bright, and at only 20 metres away from the Cairngorm Ski Centre, a multi-storey building with its own funicular railway, we still couldn’t see the building or any form of life except a lone car in the car park, seemingly stranded from the previous night. All around there was just a thick gloopy mist, and even when standing right in front of the ski centre, none of the ski lifts or the funicular railway could be seen.

Clearly we would struggle to make anything of the day, and so headed straight for the café with its open fire and prospect of the first of many hot chocolates. At this point, the week wasn’t looking too bright and we were both wondering what weather was coming our way.

We wouldn’t waste the day though, and once we had plucked up the courage to get back into the “freeze your balls off baltic” air, it was time to pack up and head off into the mist in the general direction of the coire. We would be attempting to find Fiacaill Ridge, and then potentially climb it if it was in condition. Fiacaill Ridge is only a Scottish grade II however it would give us a chance to see the coire and the conditions, and perhaps more importantly, would give us a chance to get back into the crampons. It had been over six months since I stepped off Everest, and Debbie’s last winter climb, The Resurrection on Sgurr Mor Fannaich which was by all accounts a true epic, was around eleven months previous, so we were evidently in need of a gentle refresher.

As we left the Cairngorm Ski Centre which at this point had been completely swallowed up into the mist, it became obvious that any preconceptions about lack of snow would be unfounded as we waded upwards into the coire. The mist was still thick, and now we could only see vague shapes in the distance as the snow and fog blended together to make one highly disorientating concoction. After an infamous left turn, we were only following old tracks in the snow. We had no idea where we really were, and could only guess that we were walking into the mouth of the coire.

We were doing well though, no signs of rust were showing, and we were making progress in the general direction of a mountain which was encouraging. About thirty minutes into the walk-in, I thought I’d do a quick check of all the items we might need, given the severity of the conditions.

“Debs, do you have your helmet?”
“Yeah, why?”
“I left mine in the van.” (Long pause) “Do you have a compass?”
“Nope.”

A helmet is one of the absolute essentials, obviously, especially when winter climbing, and given the conditions which forced visibility down to a few feet, a compass may have also been handy. We had neither so clearly we weren’t going to have much luck in finding the correct crag, let alone actually start a climb up into the abyss.

Fortunately, when designing our plan for the week, multiple plans had been created, and so we went straight to plan G and continued to head up into the coire to see if we could at least salvage the day with a conditions report that we could use for the rest of the week. Unlike plan F, plan G dictated that we head up into the coire at all costs, regardless of the possession of a compass. And so we headed up as far as the lochan at the head of the coire, and from there, gazed out longingly into whiteness. The conditions were getting worse every minute, and fresh snow was falling which would quickly erase our tracks. Above us we could hear a single climbing team, but from our position, we couldn’t even see the walls of the coire, despite the fact we were standing in it. This, the worsening conditions, the lack of compass, and possibly the lack of helmet meant we quickly abandoned any plans of moving onto higher ground, and we made a hasty retreat back to the café. Before we could get that far however, there was the small matter of retracing our steps with a technique that would make Bear Grylls weak at the knees, and then for a final course of embarrassment, we came across a group of Navy personnel who asked us the route we had climbed. Cognitively un-functional thanks to a bitter northerly, I couldn’t quite picture the topo, and so under pressure of the question of route choice after explaining why we had abandoned the climb, I replied “just one of the buttresses”. This probably sounds reasonable, but as far as climber talk goes, this is a good indication that you don’t really have a clue.
As we walked away, our bum boards flapped around over the top of our ice axes.

Whilst not the best start to the week, we were both exhausted after an early start, and so had a chance to catch up with some sleep for the following day. We would also meet Ian in the evening and would set out a small plan for the bothy trip the following day. More sleep followed in the evening, and after a light breakfast of a double choc chip cookie, we packed up and left in the direction of Chalamain Gap. The weather had improved and it was now almost possible to see into the coire as we walked past. There was still fresh powdery snow laying everywhere, and so a few days of freezing temperatures would help to form the perfect névé that we could climb on.

The route to the Chalamain Gap was well defined, and we made good progress up to the boulder strewn gap. This presented a slight challenge, and every step was usually a step into the unknown, either the relief of a hidden rock, or the shock of plunging through a weak snow bridge into the dark world under the boulders.

It wasn’t until we reached the Lairig Ghru, one of the best known mountain passes in Scotland that we started having difficulties. The length of day was short, and since it was already 11am we only had another five hours until we would be plunged into darkness. There was one problem however that slowed us down on every step, and this was the snow. Quite simply, we were wading waist deep in soft powder, a truly exhausting experience. After an hour, we had made almost no progress, constantly breaking trail since we could see no other tracks, we crawled along at snail’s pace, often collapsing to our knees when yet another seemingly firm surface layer of snow collapsed into a four foot hole. To add to this, we were now in a whiteout, with no perspective on our orientation, the inclination or declination of the slope, or even if we were anywhere near our destination. Some hours passed when Ian finally managed to get his foot well and truly stuck under a number of boulders having previously collapsed through the soft snow. Fearing the worst after seeing Aron Ralston’s epic tale of survival in Utah, Debbie quickly prepared her hacksaw, but after much anxious pushing, pulling and excavating of snow, Ian walked away unscathed.

Further trail breaking was required for a further four hours in order to make the bothy by nightfall. Looking at his Satmap, we were relieved to hear from Ian the bothy was only another 7kms away, however after a further 2 hours of laborious effort, we had somehow only managed the measly distance of 1km which would mean we would make the bothy sometime around 1am the following morning. It later became apparent that the distance was in fact straight line distance, which explained why we had been making so little progress, but not before we realised we were on the wrong side of the River Dee forcing us to make a nifty crossing onto glacial rocks with a chilly fast flowing river beneath us.

More hours of the arduous moving continued, before eventually, and with only 900m to go, our dreams were shattered. It was now dark, and the only thing keeping us going except the threat of hypothermia was a nice, cosy bothy that we could have to ourselves for the night. A good rest would be all we needed, before the 23km slog back to the van the following day, however as we stared over towards the bothy which was now back over the other side of the River Dee, we could see the silhouettes of two people walking towards the front door. Clearly we wouldn’t have the bothy to ourselves for the evening, however our immediate thoughts could never have indicated to us the night, and indeed early morning that was to follow, as we came crashing down into bothy culture, our bothy virginity soon to be ripped away from us by an ethereal, exhaustion (and many other things) filled night.

Walking into the dark smoky room, I was quite surprised to see how small the inside was, only one bunk built into the corner, and then a small floor space in front of a wood burning stove. As we went in, there were three people inside, and we were quickly introduced to Steve, Miro and the life of the party, Mika. It took us a short while to get into the spirit of the group, and after it became clear to the three inhabitants that we were in fact new to bothy culture, they obligingly gave us a 10 hour crash course in the dark arts of bothying.

Steve was a lone trekker who had met Miro and Mika in the bothy and had discovered the miraculous and utterly outstanding show of strength that the two Czech men had shown in an effort to keep the bothy warm during the evening. Between these two men, they had carried up 20kgs of coal, a full bottle of whisky, a number of cans of lager, plus a healthy amount of food, camping gear and photographic equipment, and what is more, they had carried this for 22kms uphill from Braemar, a truly extraordinary feat. We would certainly be getting the most out of this bothy experience, and thanks to Steve’s expertise in fire lighting with a hint of paraffin, and a unique knowledge in the ‘skill’ of pipe smoking, it was set to be a night we probably wouldn’t forget.

As the night wore on, Mika was gradually becoming more and more euphoric thanks most likely to a rare strain of whatever he was smoking, and eventually, after become well and truly stoned, a whole range of phrases were thrown around in his unmistakable death metal voice which comes only after smoking pot for 30 years, apparently. Devils Point was a common repetitive chant as was Braemar, but as the tone of the evening moved along, Jimmy Savile and Thirty Years was also becoming popular. Then, thanks to some ‘bothy tunes’ and ‘top cheese’ being fired out by Debbie’s iPod, classics such as Coldplay’s Fix You and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire were given very heavy death metal covers.

Once Mika had reached another world which he exclaimed every so often was ‘beautiful man’, Steve got down to business in first teaching the art of a good coal fire, and then perhaps the darker art of pipe smoking. With bothy tunes on the go and high on whisky, wine which we had carried in, and Nutty Cut, it became a fascinating art form to watch when combined with such phrases as “a baby’s touch, a woman’s touch, and finally a man’s touch” and “give it a good tamp”. This was clearly a skilled art form, and eventually, for reasons only know to those present in the bothy, Debbie became The Kearvaig Pipe Club’s December 2012 Pipe Babe of the Month. As they say, what happens in the bothy stays in the bothy.

Later in the evening, Mika finally collapsed out of his chair, and passed out on the floor, he calmly curled up over his Pot Noodles which were now strewn across the floorboards as we chatted on as only Chaps and Babes can, and eventually at 2am, having had no dinner, we turned in for the night, but not before venturing outside for one last time to gaze up at the full moon which lit up the whole valley in spectacular fashion.

Despite waking up generally worse for wear, firstly for some at 4am, then for the rest at 7am, the return journey to Aviemore was a much easier affair thanks to the tracks laid down by Steve which greatly helped our progress, as did a few markers in the snow as a reminder of the previous night. We had all said farewell before leaving, and just as we walked through the door, Miro started taking a series of fantastic photos of the bothy and valley which I would encourage you to check out here: http://mirophotography.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/bothying-with-the-devil/#

The return journey was much quicker, but still, as we pulled up outside the Subway in Aviemore, we hadn’t properly eaten for over 18 hours, despite having travelled over 46kms through deep snow fuelled only by spirits of multiple variations.
The climbing conditions were seemingly improving all the time, and refocusing on what we had come to the area to do, which was initially to bothy, and then to climb, possibly in preparation for Ama Dablam, we assessed our options for our final two full days in Aviemore. On the way back from the bothy, we had spotted a crag with some good looking lines where there would be the potential to make a number of first winter ascents. Our first, originating from a long story, would be “Mind Yer Fud”, and four more lines could be tackled later in the season, but for now, we would keep our focus on Coire an t-Sneachda and hopefully get our first winter route of the still young season under our belts.

That evening, we spent our last night with Ian in the Winking Owl where a dog attacking a local man was the highlight of the night and indeed one of the many of the trip. An early sleep followed back in the van, and we kept our fingers crossed that a clear night would bring a hard frost to stabilise all the snow, and that perhaps, with a little luck, we would be able to at least see into the Coire this time.

Friday morning came around quickly, and as soon as we were ready, we headed back up to the ski centre and began the walk-in to the coire. The 45 minute walk-in is short by Scottish standards but having packed everything we would need this time, 45 minutes was more than adequate to get warmed up under a heavy load, despite continual blasts of spindrift.

As we moved into the coire, we had a chance to finally see what we would be climbing. Since we were still yet to get a route in, we decided to opt for the grade II Jacob’s Edge which had a number of potential variations higher up the route. We could see teams working away on the route we had in mind, and after hearing that the conditions were powdery, it was nice to know that the work of clearing the route would have been done by previous teams.

We were both eager to just start climbing considering how long we had already spent in Aviemore, and so when it came time to gear up, it was great to finally get out the crampons and tools ready for what was to come. We hadn’t bothered checking the route guide or topo since we could see climbers already on the route that we thought was Jacob’s Edge, and so quickly made our way across a slope which looked like perfect avalanche terrain given the amount of fresh snow that had accumulated, and then headed for a few metres up Jacob’s Ladder before reaching the first belay of Jacob’s Edge. At this point, the conversation blurred over into another realm, and went something like this:

“Matt, can I borrow your nuts?”
“What nuts?”
“Do you not have any nuts?”
[Long pause] “Nope”
“Do you have any gear?”
“Nope”

Whilst this may seem like a conversation from a Carry On movie, it is simply the result of a message lost in translation, where we were now about to climb with only half the gear we thought we had. But that didn’t matter, because we would soon be climbing, and once we had set up the belay, with Debbie’s nuts in the crack, she set off and up the first pitch, leading around the corner until she was out of sight, temporarily out of mind, and for the most part, out of ear shot which was bound to cause a few problems.

The first ten minutes on the belay went fine, the rope was going out smoothly, and the wind was whistling through the gully next to me. Another five minutes went by, and then after twenty minutes, the rope occasionally pulling up a few millimetres, I started to remember why I loved Scottish winter climbing so much, with spindrift flying around in a baltic northerly, and every so often the muffled cry of “Safe”, “Take In!” or “I can’t get it in the crack” coming from opposite buttresses across the coire. But from Debbie, I couldn’t hear anything, and as cold continued to creep in, the rope just sat frozen on the snow in front of me, as if it was waiting to be pulled out so that it could finally have its moment of glory up the face.

As previously agreed, I would shout up when there was about five metres of rope left at the belay, but soon we were down to four, then three, then quickly to one and a half, and then the rope just sat there and for another age, nothing happened. I shouted up but could hear no reply, and equally could hear nothing from higher up the face. The spindrift was biting and my hands were starting to seize up, but still I had to wait. Then, all of a sudden, the rope began to fly through the belay plate. Either Debbie was falling, or she had reached the second belay and was safe. I couldn’t hear any screams, so assumed it was the latter and started to dismantle the belay once I felt a few tugs on the rope which was either the indication that I could climb, or a notification that Debbie was now swinging like a pendulum over the edge of the buttress. Of course there was only one way to find out, so I started to kick a few steps into the soft, almost useless powder snow, and with a few whacks of the ice axes, rounded the corner to find Debbie comfortably at the next belay. She hadn’t been able to hear me and vice versa, but the reason for the rope slowing down towards the end of the pitch soon became clear. It wasn’t that the climbing got any harder, just that Debbie had forgotten to put any gear in, and had therefore effectively lead 45 metres unprotected with only unstable sugary snow keeping her on the mountain. A fall from that position would have given a nice 90 metre pendulum, so I was glad to eventually find a solitary placed cam which was doing a grand job of looking pretty in the verglassed fault.

Before reaching the belay, I asked a quick question regarding our route choice, which was something like: “Doesn’t the route go this way Debs?”
Jacob’s Edge takes a diagonal line across the Mess of Pottage buttress, but three quarters of the way up the first pitch, Debbie had decided to turn right and go vertically up the face; perhaps she was bored?

Her answer was simply that she was following the climbers in front, which isn’t always the best tactic, but since there were no signs of anyone carrying on along the line of Jacob’s Edge, that would mean there would be a lot of clearing to do and so I thought perhaps a wise decision had been taken.

Of course I was now my turn to lead and based upon our knowledge of the rest of the route, the following pitch could have been anything between Scottish winter grade I and a VI 7, although if you take into account the probability that we were on the wrong buttress, the following pitch could have been anything up to and including grade XI 11.
Still, the only way was up, and so after collecting some gear and with Debbie belaying, I started up the second pitch, which we innocently believed to be a grade II variation on Jacob’s Edge. It soon became clear however that this was no grade II climb, and once into the gully, the climb revealed itself as a full mixed affair which was still covered in powder. There was no ice and any snow present hadn’t yet formed useful névé, so the climbing mainly consisted of teetering around on a number of tiny ledges, and once half way up the pitch, negotiating an awkward chock stone. The stone was wedged just at the wrong height, where to go under could lead to getting stuck, but to go over meant a series of committing moves to gain a second ledge. After scratching around and much clearing, I found a few good placements and a hex left suck in a crack by a previous team that gave a strong runner. Once up and over the chock stone, the moves became more complicated thanks to loose ice simply falling away at a touch and any snow present proving useless in maintaining any position on the ledge. To gain the final ledge meant torquing the axes into a small fissure, before doing a beached whale type move onto a higher lip, and then finally reaching across to the final ledge. This series of moves took an untold length of time, but from this last ledge, I could see a good site for the next belay and thankfully, a previous team had left an Abalakov thread in situ which gave all the protection I needed for the final moves.

On reaching the final section of the gully, I decided to make a third belay instead of topping out onto Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, since I could barely pull the rope through thanks to all the rope drag, and I also thought it would be a good idea to watch Debbie on the climb since she was bound to get a shock if she still thought it was a grade II.

Not wanting to delay proceedings, I placed a single nut, and soon after, began to belay Debbie up the first section. She started in a confident manner, taking the easier ground in her stride, and gradually, as the climb steepened, the penny dropped that we might in fact be on the wrong route. The conversation started as a one way monologue such as “how did you get over the chock stone” and “how the hell did you do that” to more serious commands such as “have you got me?” and “you’ve definitely got me?”

As soon as Debbie came into view during the ‘beached whale’ move, the conversation started to flow, and gradually she inched her way up, until she reached the final ledge and the onset of every Scottish winter climbers worst nightmare began; “I’ve got the hotties!!”

We eventually scrambled out of the gully and found ourselves in yet another whiteout on the top of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda. The climb had been epic, but we still didn’t have any idea what we had just climbed, all we knew is we survived and there was now a good chance that we would get lost. This was my first time to Aviemore so I didn’t really have a clue, and except for my little contribution of “follow the skiers”, I couldn’t offer much in the way of direction finding. Debbie had been to Aviemore previously, however hadn’t climbed on the Mess of Pottage buttress, and so neither of us had a clue. We decided we would just follow the climber in front, but they soon became shrouded in the fog, and so all we could do was follow the tracks until we came across a budding climber.

We did just that at the 1141 spot height, and after meeting a lone climber, decided to ask whether we were on the right track for getting back to the ski centre. We were indeed on the right track, and despite taking a small blow to our street credit, we now knew for the future. The lowering of our street credit however sadly didn’t end there, and soon enough, the obvious question came, “what route have you just climbed?”
Fortunately I didn’t retort to the “just one of the buttresses” line, but it soon became apparent that we hadn’t a clue, and all we could do was mention the number of the climb we thought we had done from the guide book; “number 13” isn’t a great line and went along way in further lowering our street credit. As soon as someone mentioned the Haston Line, we both tried to describe where our line was in comparison, but each time had to revert to the fact that we had done “13, and possibly a variation of 15 towards the top”.

We followed the climber down the ridge and back to the ski centre, and could only think to laugh at how crazy the day had been. Clearly navigating wasn’t our strong point, but we had got out of trouble with almost no aid; we couldn’t possibly imagine the dizzy heights of our brilliance if we had gone so far as to actually take the map and compass out of our bags.

As soon as we got back to the van, we got the guide book out to finally determine what route we had done. As we drove back down into Aviemore in the direction of the Winking Owl, we realised that we had in fact climbed the grade III Hidden Chimney which was somewhat of a relief, considering how difficult the loose powdery conditions had made the climb which was certainly towards the top end of the grade. Sleep soon followed that night back in the van after an unexpectedly epic adventure which is always the best kind of adventure.

The following day, the weather changed and over night, a fair amount of snow had fallen outside the van. During the course of the morning, even more snow was coming down. The first task of actually getting back up to the ski centre was a difficulty in itself and required a quick refresher course in attaching snow chains after a queue of cars and vans became stuck on the only road up the mountain.
On arrival at the ski centre, the conditions were reminiscent of the first day, but since it was Saturday, we knew we needed to leave early if we were to get any climbing in due to this being the first weekend of climbable conditions. The car park was mostly empty when we set off, and as we headed into the coire yet again, snow began to fall and we were soon shrouded in a whiteout.

Walking up into the coire, we stood at the foot of one of the buttresses, but couldn’t see a thing. Worse still, the route we had planned, the Grade IV 5 start of Hidden Chimney was only accessible via a slide prone slope that was becoming increasingly loaded. Neither of us felt happy about the conditions, and it was time to make the hardest of decisions, do we carry on or bail.

Walking off the mountain came easy, we had had the best day yesterday, and the conditions were appalling. As we descended, we passed another 20 teams who were all heading up, most going for the Mess of Pottage buttress, but many teams had no idea what route they would be climbing. Out of all the teams that did know what they were climbing however, only one team was attempting The Message, whilst every other team was aiming to attempt Hidden Chimney which confirmed our decision to bail, since we didn’t fancy attempting a route that had the potential for at least six separate teams, especially as we would have been first on the route which would have meant hours of clearing fresh snow.

As we headed back to the ski centre, we saw that the car park was now full, and on closer inspection, around 5cm of snow had built up on the van in under 2 hours which would have certainly added to the instability of the snow higher up in the coire, and possibly added to the cornices which were invisible in the whiteout conditions.
A good motto to remember in this case is: “It’s better to be a live lamb than a dead lion”, and whilst that doesn’t always apply, in this case, we certainly felt we had made the correct decision as a number of climbers re-entered the car park having also abandoned their ambitions of climbing for the day.

The drive back was just as eventful, and when we hit what felt like a full snow storm at the top of the Lecht, we were glad that we didn’t leave the drive any later which would have drastically reduced our chances of getting back home with forecasts of more heavy snow across the highlands. It was however finally nice to get into the warm van and know a warm house awaited where all the events including the bothy antics would become even more humorous than they originally were.

The start of our preparation towards Ama Dablam was certainly eventful, and perhaps some of these events are better off being classed under the wider rule, ‘”What happens in Aviemore stays in Aviemore”. There really isn’t anything quite like a Scottish winter, and regardless of whether you have a bad attack of the hotties, have brought along the wrong nuts, or have forgotten why no discernible Chap should ever use a Gourd Calabash, it’s always an unforgettable time to be had in the mountains.

There will certainly be more Scottish winter action to be had this season, and as for Debbie and I on Ama Dablam, more information will be announced shortly along with a website and expedition sponsor information once our plans become established.
For now though, you can follow both Debbie and I on Twitter:

@debsclimbing
@mattdthornton

Lastly, I would like to congratulate you if you managed to reach this point, a tremendous achievement which you should certainly consider adding to your CV, and I would also encourage you to watch the following video. Expeditions to the biggest mountains in the world force you to take another perspective, often a philosophical one on how you see life, and having been lucky enough to have ventured out to some of these mountains, I think the message in this video perfectly captures the mood brought back from some of the highest places. It is thought provoking, and truly no description is necessary.