“Echoes” seams the most appropriate word to describe a story that took place three years ago (in 2012) in Scotland. The events, people I met, experiences and emotions keep resounding in me and my daily life as echoes.
Already then, when I was reading the description and viewing the photos of the previous festival organized by British Mountaineering Council (BMC) in 2010, I could feel excitement rushing down my spine. The impressive photos of rock blocks hardened by blizzards and equally serious faces of climbers performing in conditions as off-putting as possible inspired me and made me wish to experience it all first hand.
Almost all I had heard about climbing in the rough Scottish winter resembled epic folktales, like the ones about Vikings or Kurshi. A quotation from a climbers’ internet portal was stuck in my memory: “There is only one place on earth, where climbers are celebrating arrival of next snowstorm it’s Scotland”. I used this quotation to make a handful of the local Brits smile under their beards and silently sob in contentment, thinking about the world-renowned unique climbing conditions in this corner of Great Britain.
Great! I have received an approval of my participation in this alpinism symposium from Latvian Alpinists Association (LAA) and in few weeks I’m already sitting in an airplane next to Mikhail. At first, it seams a bit strange to go climbing with a complete stranger. Yes, we both come from this alpinism Mecca, Latvia, where finding common acquaintances with anyone takes no more than 2 minutes and doing the same in the miniature subculture of climbers takes even less. Mikhail is one of us and we exist in the same frequency.
Our flight takes us to Inverness with a connection in London where we spot potential climbing buddies roaming around the airport. It is quite easy to recognize a climber, because he wears some of his gear not only in the mountains, but also in his everyday life. It is nice to hear that in the week of our arrival the wind in the area has reached impressive 180 km/h.
The climbers are sharpening their weapons and preparing, there is a pleasant tension in the air, because everyone is looking forward to swinging their tools and getting slapped with a wind whip. The participants have gathered from 26 countries from around the globe and each of them has a local host assigned, who will help them stay out of trouble and get an in-depth grasp of the local climbing traditions. My partner is Gary Kinsey, a guy with 30 years’ worth of climbing experience and a juicy British sense of humor. Gary knows all of the routes and on the next morning explains to me the categories of difficulty and their classification. To be honest, today I don’t remember much of it, but I guess it is not that important to the story.
On the first day, we take “Hidden chimney” and “Hidden chimney direct” routes which give me a good insight into the local climbing characteristics. I vividly remember one of them – Gary’s protection gear “skyhook” which is an atypically huge hook with a solid beak. “Look!” he shouted and with a well-aimed swing blasted the hook into a frozen patch of grass, moss and dirt. “It’s holding great,” Gary said with satisfaction and used a big nut to create a anchor. “That’s a bomb!” I thought and threw myself into a frosty and windblown rock chimney. I tried to climb as fast as I could without making a foolish mistake. In general, on the first day the climbers evaluate each other, observing and noting the strengths and skills of other participants. Of course, our gang is not without its stars – we have Simon Richardson, Nick Bullock, Nick Colton, Jennifer Olson, Greg Boswell, Will Sim and Urban Novak.
After the first day the feelings are high and during dinner with Gary we realize that maybe I shouldn’t switch hosts every day, as it was planned, and instead should continue climbing with Gary the whole week, to perfect our collaboration and devise a plan for a step-by-step increase of route difficulty. Ok, our plan gets accepted by Colton, a live alpinism legend who is responsible for all of the hosts of this event. The structure of our daily agenda is more or less the same – breakfast, climbing, dinner, climbers’ presentations, stories, bar, and bed.
When we go to the route on the next morning, the wind speed is approx. 50 km/h and the visibility is bad, so the host decides to skip the planned “Hell’s Lum” and take the “Fluted Buttress Direct” instead. The routes here are not long, only a couple of ropes, each gear placement has be grinded and hoed free of ice, so the time gets blown away faster than one could expect.
I stop on the plateau and, as I am waiting for Gary, I listen to the wind playing heavy metal in the pipes of inner corners of the ice cold rock. My partner uses a compass to determine the direction to “Hell’s Lum” and points his finger at a white cloud of snow not 10 meters ahead. “So, let’s go there!” I urge him, but he only chuckles at me and gets back to planning our descent. A great day, a bit reddish face, and tons of excellent British humor.
Hmm.. Could it be that the wind in Scottish mountains can be too strong? Yes it can! On the next day, even the locals hang white flag and a bus takes us to the drytooling place an hour’s ride away. Today it is “wettooling”, because the rocks are wet because of a drizzling rain that comes and goes as it pleases. Some of us can climb in a huge cave that provides a shelter from the rain, but this overhanging climbing is not for me. As the commentator Jēkabsons would say – we don’t need this kind of hockey!
I start with some easier line, but in the end of the day get to the dessert – a vertical wall with microscopic holes, an M7 route as lead climbing for the first time. That is the real deal!
The morning brings a pleasant surprise. “AT LAST!” I scream and shout to myself, because finally it is as cold and windy, and “Scottish”, as I have heard in the stories.
We are near Ben Nevis, in the Aonach Mor sector. The weather report promised a wind of approx. 5 m/s, but instead we get a 25 m/s wind that sends snow whirls in all directions and shakes us like it means it. I am hanging in the belay, and the Gary, climbing up above me, is constantly reminding of himself with snow and ice chippings falling on my head. Strangely enough, this is the moment when I realize how much I like being here, in this whirlpool, this comfort zone, and I truly enjoy it.
January 27 comes with a new episode of the series “When was your last first time?”. For me it was today, because newer before I had been forced to retreat because of a poor route condition. The day starts like a dream, with clear blue skies above Ben Nevis, which is a rare sight. We have planned a classical route known to every British climber – “Point Five Gully”. I am over excited and not at all puzzled about the fact that in the first 50 m I could finde only one (!!!) place for gear. I notice that the quality of ice is bad – when I swing my tool and put load on it, the pick cuts at least half a meter down into the upper layer of snow and ice. The belay is good enough – old, rusty pegs tied together with worn-down ropes of different quality look reliable and even catches Garys fall, as he crawls up after me. When Gary reaches me, he has some strong and convincing arguments about ice quality and protection points and alludes that we should “pack our bags”.
It is hard to argue with a local who has climbing experience longer that my life experience and who has climbed this route solo. I don’t want to accept the defeat just jet, so I propose that I could climb the whole route on lead and, if Gary can’t get up, he can use my ropeman. Gary notes, that climbing “Point Five Gully” with a ropeman would be cheating, so the party is over and we retreat.
At that moment I could not appreciate how important it is to experience retreat, so that the next time, when it will be the only solution (with J. Brūveris in the December of 2013 climbing Petit Dru in North Couloir), I could keep it cool and make the right decision.
For a full emotional spectrum, as the final climb of the Scottish winter course we choose a more demanding route (VI, 6, 60 m) with more difficult securing and a particularly indicative name – “Head Hunter”. When viewed form the access location, the route seams easy enough. We read the description providing only limited information about the crux places, and Gary puts on a warmer jacket, because it will be a long wait in the belay. As he says, “They don’t give grade six for nothing.”
I start to climb and after just a few meters realize that this is for real. The places for gear hast to be scraped-out, and there are places where you just can’t put in nut or friend.
It is one of the key places – an oblique inner corner with a vertical wall on the left side without even a micro-crack, providing only pea-sized bumps. The plane in front of me is a steep, positive-angled rock covered in snow. In a naive hope to find any horizontal, ok, even vertical would do, crack I clear the snow revealing only a thin glazing of ice. Unfortunately, it is too thin and I can’t claw-in my crampons and get a solid hold. It becomes clear that my partner in this tense date will be a narrow, only a few millimeters deep crack between these walls. Of course, I know that my pick can’t cut through rock, yet I try to get at least some grip in the narrow crack. I got it! I’m a true gentleman – I strike my evening partner a few times with the dull end of my free tool, to secure the hack caught in the crack. I pull myself up and put a load on – yes, it’s good! I use the same catch to hook the other pick on the one already in the crack, providing a good grip. I hold myself only with my hands, because I can’t get any solid foot-hold. I’m not sure how I manage to find a micro-something for my crampons, because the view below me reveals no cracks, no bumps, nothing. I guess I have stepped on this “nothing” and I continue to crawl higher. I am 4 meters above the previous gear, so it seems a good idea to secure myself against a possible fall that hasn’t come yet only because of some kind of a miracle. I am in a particularly unpleasant spot – my frontpoints slide on the surgically smooth surface and I can’t get a grip. I know that I have to get past it, but I am stuck and can’t get even a millimeter further. I look for the next catch – a frozen patch of grass or moss, a layer of ice, anything that could get me further. I scratch with my pick and try to claw-in a bit higher… I feel a tug and then I am flying…. Whoop! I am falling upside-down with my legs flapping in the air, my back hits the rock… Peace… I’m lucky – no broken bones! (video)
I think to myself that I really, really don’t want to get back to the same spot with equally high prospects of repeating this 8 meter downfall, but I don’t see any other options, so I am back in no time. I try again and this time I manage to get past the spot, I still don’t know how. For the remaining length of the route there is no easing-off, and I reach the plateau with a fantastic feeling of satisfaction. Gary is in raptures and, when we shake our hands on the plateau, he says: “That was outstanding!”
When we descend the couloir to the start point of this route, we find out that one of our fellow adventurers has caught a bad luck – also a fall, but even longer, approx. 10 meters, and a painful landing on the back on a ledge. I can’t believe it, but it has happened with one of the best ice-climbers in the world, Jen Olson from Canada. We join others to help her.
Together we organize getting her down to the slope of snow and cutting-out a ledge for placing the stretcher used for victim transportation, so everything is ready for when the rescue helicopter comes.
Jen is strong. We try to keep her spirits up with jokes and one of her favorite phrases about herself: “Everyone I know is getting married or pregnant, I'm just getting more awesome!” The rescue operation is done and Jen is taken to the hospital. The others return to Glenmorlodge base where in the evening we receive good news – no bones are broken and everything will be OK! The evening continues with joy, party, dancing, talks of the next climbs – it’s an absolute come together!
It has been an exciting week and I thank BMC and LAA for it.
It seems that this thanks for the opportunity to experience Scottish winter would be an appropriate ending of this story, but the echoes just don’t stop and continue to resound. Till the BMC’s symposium, nothing had moved my in this way, shaking my fundamental views of everyday work, social life and the life in general I had led before. In a fraction of a second a question pops up – have I really lived? Is the life that I am getting back to in Riga what I really want? The answer was clear and my fear of this answer was even clearer. It seemed that I had met some kind of a ferry-character in Scotland – the kind that I had only read about in Mesner’s and Kamerlander’s books. People who led their everyday life in the mountains, from one climb to the next. People who led their everyday life, following their heart. Damn-it! They were real, alive, the same as me! Maybe stronger? They were not afraid of their path and choices.
A few months after this gathering of climbers, I received a book in my post-box. It was “Echoes: One Climber's Hard Road to Freedom” by Nick Bullock. Nick also shared his experience in one of the evening presentations in Glenmor Lodge. I got inspired by the story of his life – for 17 years he worked as a prison officer, to pay off his mortgage, and then he rented his house, to live in a van and climb, climb without stopping. A quote from the book: “Climbing was not a conventional sport, a place on podium, something to do instead of yoga or aerobics to lose weight, those were people, who needed to climb to survive.” All of this shook me so strongly that the question kept and kept popping up in my head – what do I want from the bottom of my heart? How and where am I going? The book consists of 256 pages that I read as slow as possible, because on some level I already knew what decision I will make when I will turn the back cover. Now I am sure that these echoes were necessary for me to make the decision to go on a life-long adventure.
Kārlis Bardelis, January 2015, Nepal, Pokhara.