Asked in a recent competition why Mike Pescod describes Scotland as a 'tough playground', Claire Roff correctly stated: "Winter climbing here is such a great mix of physical and mental challenge demanding the full range of mountaineering skills as well as climbing technique. You never quite master the dark art of judging the climbing conditions but when you get it right the reward is great."
Freshly back from her week up in Lochaber with Mike, here's Claire's account of this dark art and the rewards within.
Being the fortunate winner of a five-day one-on-one winter climbing package with Mike Pescod of Abacus Mountain Guides, courtesy of Jöttnar, the week approached with much anticipation. Mike had contacted me a few weeks beforehand to find out, given ideal conditions, what sort of things I might like to do. Having only done a handful of winter climbs before the list was endless – try out mixed climbing, become more savvy and independent in winter, do some leading, a traverse of the Skye ridge … Amazingly given that conditions were not ideal Mike somehow managed to work in a bit of everything (but not quite the Skye Ridge this time)!
As the week got closer the weather got warmer and a balmy 17 degrees in London found me packing up my cold weather kit wondering if there was going to be any snow or ice left. Mike came to pick me up from Bank St Lodge at 8am. He had a few possible options planned for the day starting with walking up toward Coire na Ciste to check out the conditions. On the walk-in we discussed the effects of the ongoing thaw and what to look out for - particularly concerning was the potential for rock fall. After crossing (quickly) the avalanche debris from No. 5 gully and reaching the lochan we were just having a little chat about the pros and cons of carrying avalanche safety gear when we heard a big cornice collapse over towards our right. That along with the almost continuous rock fall coming from the Tower Ridge side was making us a little jumpy and having hung around for long enough retreated to our next option – Castle Ridge. This turned out to be a brilliant decision. The route was very enjoyable, we were able to look at placing protection and a few different belay setups and I had a lot of fun learning to trust my feet on wet slippery rock.
Still raining and still thawing so Mike's suggestion was to set off for Buchaille Etive Mor and do Curved Ridge and Crowberry Tower. This was to be a leading day for me and we used a variety of techniques from walking the rope to moving together to pitched sections. I was having so much fun I hardly noticed the rain and although a little less happy on the traversing sections, Mike's gentle encouragement saw me through. Walking off the top to the head of Coire na Tulaich we saw an enormous crown wall from a recent avalanche with more cracks appearing at the cornice edge. This meant abandoning the idea of making a lucky horseshoe to abseil into the Coire and so walked further round on the ridge where Mike found an interesting 'bergschrund' like feature for us to cross onto the snow slopes. A bit of coaching on footwork down steep snow slopes followed and then a new descent technique - bum sliding - deliberate of course! Little did I know how important this was to become later on in the week.
Winds up to 100mph saw us taking refuge in the Ice Factor. Mike gave me some excellent coaching in ice-climbing technique and movement skills and we played a variety of games to enhance the feel and learning experience - climbing routes without axes, competing against each other to see who could get to the top with the fewest placements, moving one axe at a time and having to get your feet as high as possible in between, and only hooking – no swings allowed. Mike’s teaching style is really positive and he is very skilled at finding what you do naturally and then modifying and building on it. We then moved on to the abseil station where we looked at how to retreat from a route and a few more ways of setting up belays. For the afternoon we spent some time dry-tooling under Ballachulish Bridge – a first for me and highly addictive!
Hooray, it's finally starting to get a bit colder. As on the first day we were keen to go up towards the Ben and see how the routes had fared after the heavy thaw. Walking up in heavy rain - a consistent feature of the week - we called in at the CIC hut for a cup of tea and some beta. Tempting as it was to stay and chat for longer we made a decision to check out North East Buttress, however on nearing the buttress it became apparent the winds would be very strong so Mike suggested we make our way up towards Coire na Ciste and have a look there. It turned out to be a really good decision and we managed to do Thompson’s route - our first proper winter climb of the week. The Scottish weather was really showing off giving us rain, snow, hail, high winds and just a little sunshine on the way down. After getting over the initial shock of the spindrift on the first pitch the second pitch was ace and yesterday's coaching session at the Ice Factor and dry-tooling had been time well spent - when Mike yelled down to use the cracks in the rock on the side and bridge with my feet I knew exactly what to do. Topping out was also superb.
The homework from last night was to look through Mike's guidebook and choose a route for today. Mike had pointed me in the direction of a few that he thought I'd enjoy and with the weather promising to be the best of the week I came up with Orion Direct. We set off with high hopes, in the dry for once but it didn't last long. By the time we reached the CIC hut it was snowing heavily with strong winds. We had a look at Orion Direct and also Observatory Buttress but it wasn’t to be and so decided to return to the area we had been in yesterday and turn our attention to Mercury.
Keeping out of avalanche prone terrain we approached the bottom of the route from the left up a steep slope. Mike climbed the first pitch on ice that was breaking off down to the rock and brought me up to join him. The condition of the ice along with two big avalanches from No. 3 and No. 4 gully made us feel that perhaps it was the right moment to put to the test the retreating off routes practice we had done at the Ice Factor. Making a lucky horseshoe Mike lowered me down, and then abseiled himself but it soon became apparent that we would have to continue our descent down heavily loaded slopes. This is when I found out my bum sliding training from earlier in the week was going to come into use. I was going to be an ‘avalanche poodle’ and slide 120m down the slope while Mike belayed me on a stomper belay from above. The idea being that I would spread my weight as much as possible but also if the slope was going to go I would trigger it but still be on the end of the rope! Fortunately it didn't go and we both walked out without incident. So a big learning day (climbing is not just about getting to the top) and another useful technique to know for when things get a little sticky.
Many, many thanks go to Jöttnar and of course to Mike Pescod for providing such an amazing experience in a testing week in terms of weather and conditions. It’s been a brilliant five days, full of interesting challenges and much learning along the way, and a lot of fun too. It's a real privilege to be out climbing with someone who has such knowledge, skill and experience.
Big thanks to Claire Roff for the story and to Mike Pescod for the images.