Scratch & Win
The parting line in my last blog was that my elbow injury seemed to be on the mend. Well, since then I acquired another elbow injury on the other arm which has proven to be even worse. So my plans for training rock this winter were shelved until further notice. I was a bit lost on what to do climbing wise looking ahead, until a wet weekend in the late autumn forced us to go dry tooling. To my surprise both elbows seemed to react well to ice axes, it seems the pain it’s only really bad when using slopers or crimps, but seemingly tolerable holding a big handle. By the end of the session I might have looked quite psyched because Rich Kendrick asked me if I’d be interested in a trip to trad winter mixed-climbing in Senja Norway. That certainly perked my interest, but I said I’d have to think about it. Two days later, I'dsigned up.
I soon realised I was in no shape to do any decent mixed climbing, so I put a few plans in the diary with the aim of regaining some fitness as to not making a complete fool of myself on the trip. We visited Mannod a few times in an attempt to catch up and after a spout of bad weather, a last minute hit up to Scotland with Rich was organised. We drew up a plan to hit two of the test pieces we were gagging for in the Cairngorms, The Gathering and Pic’n’mix, both originally graded at Scottish IX but now settled on grade VIII.
We woke on Saturday to some of the best weather I’ve ever had during a Scottish winter, blue skies, no wind and relatively mild. We were like kids on a sugar rush, even I managed to make the walk in in just under 50min (which is my Usain Bolt speed). On seeing the fully plastered crag, the psyche went off the charts. We discussed who would take the crux pitch of The Gathering and suggested Rich should take it as my confidence on a clean onsight was low being my first pitch of the season and a stiff grade VIII is perhaps not the best warm up.
Rich inched his way up, not without some struggle, but eventually reached to belay with some smooth climbing. My turn came around and I certainly felt under gunned not having trained properly. When it came to a powerful lock-off at the crux I just found I couldn’t. Resorting to technique instead, laybacks, heel-toe cams and some determination I managed to do the move clean and restore some hope. The top pitch, my lead now, looked hoarded up with thick hard rime. I got to work, only to turn around the corner and see an awful off-width crack that had to be climbed to gain easier ground. After some too-ing and fro-ing I committed to the off-width, making use of a well jammed boot, I reached the chock-stone and the difficulties were over. I topped out into the sunshine and with great elation: what a first route of the season. The top pitch seemed to be about grade VI/7 perhaps. We retreated back to the van, drank tea and complimented each other for a great day out.
Sunday dawned with high winds and snow. As soon as we start walking up the crag I realised that this wasn’t going to be the stroll of the previous day, and anxious in the knowledge that it was my turn to lead the crux, which on Pic’n’mix would be harder than The Gathering. Rich set off onto first pitch, which is no push over. I could tell by the pace that Rich was struggling with the gear and thin tenuous climbing, but eventually got to what seemed the hardest move of the pitch, a blind traverse to the right with some long reaches. Rich is not the tallest of men, so after a few tries he finally committed to a full-stretch hook with no feet and let go of the other placement, swinging wildly but ultimately nailing it.
Now was my turn to show some grit and set off on the crux pitch. Not having a topo for the route and the line not being in the guidebook, I was confused as to where to go as soon as I turned the corner. From a pumpy position I tried to go directly up, hacking at the thick rime above me. After a good half hour of not finding hooks or gear I concluded this might be the dead end of the summer line that Pete McPherson tried a while back (p.s: it was much higher up where he got halted apparently). I tried to turn another corner but it seemed impossible again. Meanwhile it’s blowing a hoolie and it’s snowing and my hands are blocks of ice.
Soon running out of juice and psyche I turned to Rich to ask if he fancies to have a go before I blow the onsight, but then I thought I wouldn’t forgive myself if at least I didn’t try to push on. I kept looking for a way through and finally found the tiniest of hook on the arete and so I placed the one tooth of the pick, keeping my body low, I managed to go around the corner delicately. Once I got established I saw I a corner above and rationalise to myself this must be the line. I went up without too much trouble and ended up topping out in horrible weather, but elated at having pulled it off. It was only later on back in the van looking at some pictures of previous ascents that we realised that I didn’t actually climb the proper line. Oh well, I guess I’ll need go back to do it properly, but I was still pleased with the effort as the climbing was still hard and it was a good pitch.
Quick hit concluded and with the weather looking to worsen I drove south to London to resume my office life for a few more days before heading out Senja. The whole weekend was 20 hrs round trip of driving but both routes were totally worth the effort and great addition to my Scottish winter climbing apprenticeship.