Scotland was my first international trip with the OPC and its here I first learned to use crampons and ice axes. As well as lead my first winter routes! We lived in the middle of the highlands outside the metropolis of Fort William. It was my first time getting to put stuff into practice, I learned alot. Whether it was about the cold, my layering system, my attitude, it helped. We summitted Ben Nevis in filthy weather, we were also lucky to get some training on the Ballachulish Horseshoe by our guide Darach. I led my first winter route and I got very, very drunk.
So where did we go?
Anyone remember the big freeze back in Ireland around that time? The country slamming to a halt since we saw snow and ice in quantity? I remember huddling in my sleeping bag in my college house, praying to whatever deity would show favour, beseeching them to let the heating work again.
It didn’t. So I was grateful to be on the minibus with a dozen other people with questionable sanity, driving north to Belfast to get the ferry over. With all our kit it was cramped but I can sleep just about anywhere. I spent our time in Belfast ferryport sleeping on the back with Mac to my left and Jen to his left. Our legs criss-crossed at a myriad mixture of heights and angles in the effort to allow us to stretch out as much as possible.
The drive up was quite cool, I can still remember espying Buachille Etive for the first time as we neared Glen Coe. Pretty much anything onwards from the Bridge of Orchy was mind-blowing. I’m from Kerry which is pretty mountainous but its a small area in comparison to the wilds of the highlands.
When a guy’s gotta go, he’s gotta go!
We stayed in Onich, a small village south of Fort William. The bunkhouse was small, cramped but everything we wanted. The kitchen area is roughly comparable with a shower in size. The communal area is surrounded on three sides by bunks and it can be mildly anarchic when theres a crowd there.
In the first days the author struggled to comprehend the appeal of frozen water scattered everywhere.
Training was fun, albeit cold. We’d been given a talk on avalanches (one that had me paranoid anytime we were below a slope) and spent two days getting used to snow work, walking in our crampons and axes, digging bucket belays, learning about the cold. Our guide Darach got us used to frontpointing and daggering as well, a technique you can use to ascend/descend steeper ice or snow. I also learned about walk-ins.
See, Scotland is famous for the quality of its mountains and the condition of its climbs. The problem is that they’re all in hard to reach areas necessitating a walk-in of usually 1-3 hours from a road to get you to the beginning of the route. You’re also generally up before dawn so you can be prepared and setting off as the light wakes up. Sometimes if conditions merit it, you might even start walking in while its dark. This all makes sense when you realize it could be potentially dark by 1600. A Scottish mountain in winter is not fun to be caught out on in the dark, not if you’re still on a tricky bit. I’ve learned this the hard way.
The author learning how uncomfortable it can be to abseil with a rope harness!
Days off we either went swimming or to do some indoor climbing at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven. I did my first indoor lead there, I was so pathetically excited when I think about it now though it was nothing too noteworthy. Still everyone starts somewhere and for me at 18, being in the club less than four months, it was a big deal.
The author trying it in commando fashion. I nearly fell off doing this.
Nevis Day was rough. We were blown off it our first attempt so we spent the day practising our skills and doing a bit of frontpoint work. It was probably for the best even if in the end we went up the tourist track. All I know was that that walk into the CIC hut is an ungodly one in the early hours of the morning! Still at least we did something for the day and got to play around in the snow.
Modern Warfare 2 had come out two months previously. Give a teenager some ice axes, he thinks hes Soap MacTavish!
So then on the second attempt, we got up at 0500 to head up the zig-zags, the simplest path up Ben Nevis. It was cold, wet, miserable. Walking along a ridge I can remember suffering from stomach cramps (too much Weetabix. As usual) and nervously watching the two stags that had shadowed us for a quarter mile.
Walk-ins. You never really get the appeal, especially not when you’re stumbling through ice and snow at dawn.
The white-out closed in probably at 800m elevation. We were on the track so we just made sure our compasses would be handy and we were psyched for the final turn off. Wind was gusting bad and I had my buff tucked up so not one part of me was exposed. Taking our bearings for the cairns, we were extremely wary of wandering off too far and going into Five Finger Gully. The cairns truly were a sight, the rime seemed to be a permanent fixture of it and was swept in the direction with the wind. It was almost like wandering into the castle of the Snow-Witch.
The author with Darragh. It was bloody cold that day.
The slog finally terminated as the vague outlines of a shelter appeared. I won’t lie, I’d hoped for something more spectacular but the fog cover ensured I wouldn’t. We hung around probably less than twenty minutes at the top, stuffing some food down our faces and savouring the moment. I took a piss, a tradition which seems to have afflicted my mountaineering career on summits since! With the wind the way it was, we tore out the flags, took the pics and then bailed off.
The wind sorta snatched the Jagermeister flag to lord it over both our club and Irish flag. Maybe the mountain gods were telling us something.
Fort William itself isn’t too exciting. Theres outdoor shops there as well as bars, a swimming pool, several different denominations of churches and a few charity shops. I probably didn’t get the best opinion of it since it was the midst of winter and quite miserable weather.
I was lucky to get to go climbing on the Ballachulish Horseshoe with a couple of the older guys to be shown a few of the ropes. Gear opportunities weren’t great but the views over Loch Leven and the loch stretching to Fort William were spectacular.
The next day, I led my first proper winter route, Dorsal Arete, a Grade II Scottish winter climb. And for the last day we went up to Glen Coe to chill out by playing in the snow, it was almost akin to a family trip to the beach. We rigged up a top rope over some ice, practiced taking avalanche tests and also worked on a snow hut!
Mac, Jen and Cillian inside the igloo.
All too soon, it was time to head back. Ten days was not enough though it was interesting to arrive down the night of college starting back and parts of the neighbourhood resembling a warzone. I learned a lot in Scotland and think it really gave me the climbing bug. Its probably back where it all started for me and it seemed to some of my friends, an eccentric fantasy. Whatever else, it was worth the hungover drive back to Limerick. Its only in writing this that I’ve remembered truly how much fun I had. Hope you liked it.