Christmas Comes but Once a Year
2020 has not been a good year for winter climbing conditions, particularly here on Skye. December was tropical and January’s storms rolled wildly from hot to cold and back again, right on through into February without taking a breath. At last, word on the frustrated ice-warrior grapevine was that Thursday might, just might, be windless, cold and still snowy. Surely there must be some amazing ice left after so much precipitation, wind and fluctuating temperatures…..
Lucy is quite possibly the keenest Cuillin climber in the world, even though she lives in Fife. Last minute plans need this level of commitment and my part of the bargain was to head out and check conditions on the ground. By Wednesday lunchtime Storm Ciara was in her death-throws.
There was heaps of snow visible but steep rocks looked brown and dry, right to the tops. Beautiful though it was, I was feeling pretty pessimistic about finding us a big new route.
Lucy was on her way and my head was exploding with a mix of optimism and terror. The terror at this stage was more about making the right shout and finding a good option; physical fear could wait until we find a line. At the same time I was like a kid in a candy shop with so many amazing existing climbs that we could go for if my lines turned out to be blank; but that’s not the new-routing “game”.
Top of my list was a route first climbed in 1911. I went for a look back in December with Steve Worth but the blanket of wet snow wasn’t even remotely frozen.
Excitedly we kitted up with the pressure of a big route and many hours of work if we were going to succeed; and then disaster. I’d left my crampons behind. Chucking everything on the snow in a fit of frustration a set of micro-spikes miraculously appeared but they weren’t going to be much good with no front-points. Lucy didn’t skip a beat as she whipped off the crampons and pointed me at the sharp end; she wasn’t going to let a wee problem like this stop our fun!I didn’t share her optimism and set up a belay immediately above the initial ice so I could pass down the crampons but she insisted on giving the micro-spikes a go first. I kept the rope tight but smooth and steadily Lucy joined me with the usual big grin and the route ahead opening up.
The ice was definitely not going to be taking screws and the sheathed rock bands looked very compact. I played out some major head games before committing to this pitch but the ease with which Lucy climbed had removed my main excuse to run away. I finally got into the zone and was rewarded with a juicy big cam placement from beneath the continuous white canvas 5 metres higher.
The climbing was superb; never too technical or sustained but a thoroughly absorbing mental game of delicate footwork and imaginative axe-work, wonderfully interspersed with regular dollops of bomber ice. Lucy cruised steadily upward and I was able to admire some super-imaginative foot, knee and Dachstein work as she got closer-
The amphitheatre above didn’t have an obvious line but logic said follow the fattest ice for the easiest way. A footless pull-up to knee-jam was probably the technical crux and the angle began to fall back as the rope ran out. A final pitch where the ice was finally fat enough for a screw and then the end was in sight.
We fed, watered and drank in the views before a bum-slide and comparatively short walk out then home for tea, biscuits and whisky 🙂
High Crag Sgurr nan Gillean. Christmas Comes but Once a Year, IV,4 165m *** ML and Lucy Spark, 13/02/20