A decade ago, my life was very different. I’d been living in Glen Coe for just over a year, working behind the bar at the Clachaig Inn, and I spent all my spare time writing, climbing and hillwalking. Looking back now, it hardly seems real.
On the 10th of May 2009 I experienced a day in the mountains that still ranks in my top five. After climbing a Grade III ice route on the North Face of Aonach Beag, I continued up the East Ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhonach, over the CMD Arête to Ben Nevis, then down the Pony Track to arrive at the Ben Nevis Inn by lunchtime. Moving fast and efficiently over such technical terrain felt good. Climbing with a light pack felt good too. It was the end of something – my obsession with climbing and grades – but it was the start of something else.
5am. My watch alarm chirps, but I’m already awake, shivering in my one-season synthetic sleeping bag. I stir, and frost crackles on the inside of my hooped bivvy. I look out through the mesh and see my gaiters and boots crusted white outside.
Soft dawn light spreads over the shapes of the mountains. Sometimes when I’m in the hills I don’t appreciate what I’m experiencing until long afterwards, too wrapped up in the concerns of each moment, but this time it’s like a fine malt that I don’t want to gulp down all at once. Before crawling into my bivvy last night I had spent two hours sitting absolutely still on a rock, my mind clear, until I felt as if I’d become part of the mountain. The alpenglow-etched outlines of Aonach Beag and Aonach Mor followed me into my dreams that night, like an afterimage in the mind’s eye, and the sounds of wind and water formed a delicate rhythm in the background of my thoughts. The landscape itself was music. I’d never experienced anything like it before in my life.
Striking camp takes me five minutes. By the time I reach the snowline, and my crampons crunch over the frost-hardened névé, the alpenglow is back, this time painting Aonach Beag’s North Face with vivid pink light. At this time of year, I know, winter climbing is a race against the building heat of the day and I worry that I am already too late, that the delicate ice formations on the cliff will be annihilated by sunshine. This could be winter’s last chance. I want to make the most of it.
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I’ve come here with no plan and no guidebook, following my nose from Glen Nevis to Choire Bhealach with a vague idea to find a climbing route up and over Aonach Beag before traversing Carn Mor Dearg to Ben Nevis and then back down to Fort William. Winter climbing in harmony with lightweight backpacking.
There’s an obvious couloir cutting straight up the middle of the face. It looks steep in the middle, but I’m used to soloing big mountain routes, and I make a start, front-pointing up snow so good I can hardly believe it. I dagger with the picks of my ice axes. Although I’ve packed light, it still feels like a heavy burden on my back as the terrain steepens – and ahead I can see it getting steeper still.
A moment’s pause. This is hard work, and the snow is rapidly softening as heat builds. An intense glare of blue and white sears through my sunglasses. Is this Scotland or the Alps? Climbers like to say that a particular Scottish route on a particular day feels ‘Alpine’, but at this moment I think that maybe every truly great day in the hills taps into some shared universe of experience, a realm that exists outside of space and time and which has the power to briefly elevate us all above our frail human forms. Blue and white, the sharp burn of air in the lungs and lactic acid in the muscles, the rough teeth of an ice axe against my fingers, and an escalating euphoric flow state – right now there’s nothing else.
I climb on, over a bulge that makes my forearms scream as I haul on my axes, and then into a narrowing of the couloir towards an ice pitch. There is no safe escape left or right. I must climb straight over it. The ice is steeper than I’ve ever soloed before, and a few chunks shatter away as I slam the picks of my axes home, but this is genuine commitment: there is no way out for me but to climb this pitch. I must do this, and so I do. Up and over and back into the dizzying glare of the north wall as the snow steepens again towards the final cornice pitch.
I remember nothing of the cornice battle. Like sensation returning to a limb after an attack of pins and needles, consciousness creeps back to me as I lie on the perfectly flat plateau of Aonach Beag, baking in the sun. White mountains throb in heat haze on every horizon. It’s still early in the morning and I have a long way to go.