First Winter Lead Climb, Scotland 2010

But what sticks with me the most is the first winter lead I did. Dorsal Arete, a grade II lying just in Stob Coire Nan Lochan.

The above is a horrible, detestful walk in. Scotland climbs are famed for their walks in. It’s demoralizing since at this spot, you actually lose height when you leave the carpark, walk a short bit on the flat and then head into the looming pinnacles towering over you. Its sustained and brutal, my first time there made me really reevaluate my fitness!

It’s worth it though, you top out at this plateau that really messes with your head. You’ve climbed this high and now its on the flat again? It was near-whiteout conditions with visibility coming and going. Some of our party went for a snow walk but two ropes were to go for Dorsal.

Myself and Jen were to be on the first team. We’d have Andrew soloing alongside us to check our gear placement but we were still hyped. Judith and Cillian with Darach soloing would follow us up.

Myself and Jen were sort of at the same level of skill so we decided the fair thing for us to do would be to swap leads. That way we’d share in the glory. But what I remember most of all was the cold. We had driving sleet and hail most of the day with visibility poor. The wind felt like it was trying its best to flense my skin from the bone.


The crux from the final belay.

It was solid going, I was slow putting in gear but was determined to do it right. Having Andrew there helped a lot, just in case I messed up spectacularly. We pushed onward and I don’t think I can recall being warm at all that day. Doing a shuffle at the belays, staring morosely downward or else snapping into robotic jerking motions when it was my turn to climb, bones straining and my body fighting the cold.


The author struggling up and over the final hurdle.

As luck would have it, Jen got the honours of the final pitch which is an awkward rock step. For a beginner unused to rock climbing with crampons, its daunting. You place your feet down, jamming it where it’ll hold and try to get used to this awkward style that makes you feel like you’re trying to climb with high heels. You get up over the pitch and theres a drop immediately in front of you. With all the low visibility, it felt like we were on Mount Olympus and staring down into eternity. The imagination wanders when you’re cold.

The guidebook is a bit sardonic in how it notes that most climbers their first time will climb the pitch a lá cheval. I know I did. I was like a child learning to walk as I got away from the drop and pushed myself upward to continue on.

I lie, I wasn’t that graceful. It was probably a bit more akin to one of our hominid ancestors deciding to finally shove himself up and become homo erectus. Having communed with my ape brethren, I staggered onwards, grateful for the snow and not rock under my feet. Having learned to walk again, I figured making flint tools would be cramming too much into one day.


The author rediscovering he can walk on his hind legs.


Cold but exhilarated. My buff had frozen into that position.

 It was anti-climatic from there. Just a quick climb up the snow where Jen had gone and we were there. We embraced, had a quick bite to eat and packed away what we could. Being chivalrous, I offered to take the rope, forgetting it had gained significant weight from being absolute drenched. It was also half frozen. Still, make your bed, you lie in it.


The obligatory summit pose. A warm fire at the bunkhouse was all we could think about now.

We moved to the left of the route to ascend down a gully. Since front-pointing took ages, we elected to glissade. Conditions being what they were, it was a far cry from the day before with friendly soft snow that was slow to accelerate on and quick to let you arrest your motion.

This stuff had a thin layer of ice atop that meant the first time I slid, I nearly crashed into the two below me as I could barely get my axe in. I learned quick and reduced my sliding to short bursts, not allowing myself to get too much momentum up. That and keeping my axe half in the ground did wonders for my sanity and self-preservation.

We bombed it out from there on, stopping only for the odd photo.


Dorsal is the outcrop of rock on the left that my axe points to. Our descent route was further left of that.

It was a whore of a walk out but I felt myself breathe easy as we dropped past the snowline and away from the storm. Knees ached the whole way down that bloody track but I didn’t care. A pint of ale was had that night. First climb done, onward!

About Ropaire

Dia daoibh agus fáilte go dtí mo bhlag! My name's Fearghal and you can find my musings and ramblings split over and I hope you enjoy it.
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