I did the 3 Peaks Challenge and all I got was this lousy fish…

Over the weekend I was helping out with the guiding of a Three Peaks Challenge.

Beautiful views to Fort William from the flank of Ben Nevis in between the showers and cloud

It was my first Challenge, and not all went to plan.

Sleep deprivation was a bit of an issue, having driven from Derby to Fort William to start in the early hours of the next morning, but more for the drive back South at the end. The main problem was that floods had caused a landslide, closing the A82, so a detour via Stirling meant that the start was delayed, and inevitably the rest of the Challenge. However, I was only helping with the first two legs, leaving Snowdon.

Conditions on Ben Nevis were not too bad – low cloud and light, scattered showers – but the group were not accustomed to the long haul up the Tourist Track and the arduous broken ground. Conditions on Scafell Pike were worse, with higher winds and the onset of darkness, so we reached the screes above the Woolworth Boulder before turning round, to ensure the group had a good chance to complete Snowdon the following day.

I must have been slightly delusional with the affects of sleep deprivation and the fact that the Challenge was so different to what I normally do, so the enduring memory of the day was a dead, half-eaten and mouldering fish wedged under a rock by the summit trig point!

The eponymous fish…


Redemption on Smith’s Route

James had sufficiently recovered today to make a return visit to Ben Nevis, and as it was our last day of climbing, we felt we had unfinished business on Smith’s Route, V,5.

We made an early start to avoid poor conditions which would set in later in the day. Fresh legs made a difference on the walk in and trudge up Observatory Gully. Windslab was being put down thick and fast, but we reached the start of the route in good time.

I took the first pitch, which went smoothly, although I cut my nose open with my adze, leaving a trail of blood for James. I found placing ice screws with big gloves awkward, but was encouraged by my lead. It was then James’ turn to lead, and with renewed confidence of the route, he stepped out on the initial steep ice, which forms the crux. He was slightly nervous, but with good footwork and some shake-outs, was soon over the icicle.

Thankfully, the gear we left at the belay was still in place, so I collected that and made my way up the crux, which deserves its description in the guidebook as ‘a serious pitch’. It was definitely ‘out there’, but again, I was encouraged for future climbing that it was not too technically difficult, just requiring a steady head and courageous approach.

I then romped up the third pitch and topped out in a blizzard. We quickly took in the summit and then made our way off via the Red Burn, wet through, but very happy.

As we took more of a business-like approach today, we did not take any photos. However, you can get an idea of the route from the gallery on UKClimbing.

Big, bad world of winter climbing on The Ben

After a successful first day of climbing

Over the last few days, James, Chris and I have been out on Ben Nevis for some winter climbing, following the mountaineering in the High Atlas and skills course in the Cairngorms.

This has been my first taste of Scotland winter climbing proper, and first acquaintance with Ben Nevis, and it has been full on. The sheer physicality of a winter climbing day took me by surprise: big walk-ins and -outs, huge snow slopes, towering cliffs, steep ice and cold belays.

You really have to be a fighter if you want to be a winter climber in Scotland, and it is probably wise to ease into it, as the demands on the body are so great.

Leading on Thompson's Route, IV,4 (pitch one)Well, rather than take my own advice, we went for two routes on Monday, Central Gully Right-Hand (IV, 4) and Thompson’s Route (IV, 4). I took my first Grade IV lead on the first pitch of Thompson’s, which was not quite in the best condition, requiring a slightly delicate traverse out left from the initial chimney. Both routes contained great ice and were highly atmospheric, but by the time I got home I was on my last legs.

On Tuesday we upped the ante and had a crack at Smith’s Route, an iconic Grade V. It was climbed in 1960 using the traditional step-cutting technique, which is more akin to skills courses these days than climbing, but is testimony to the courage and skill of the early pioneers. The first pitch went smoothly, but thereafter we encountered problems. James got off route and took a fall after an axe popped. Plus, we did not have enough ice screws to safely negotiate the pitch. We ended up abseiling off a screw and peg, sacrificing some kit, frustratingly.

James on Smith's Route, V,5 (pitch two)

It is all part of the game, though, and it was helpful to go through a real, live problem-solving process to get down safely. James was unhurt, but received a nasty bruise on his hip, which ruled out yesterday, leaving today for a winter walking day. The weather was awful and I got up into the North Face before calling it a day in wet, windy and mild conditions.

Live for the Day, but Live to Fight Another One too

Two years ago today climber and mountaineer, Will Wilkinson, died in an avalanche on Ben Nevis. This is the second year I have chosen to mark the occasion, and I explained my reasons for doing so last year.

Sometimes this time of year becomes bogged down with self-reflection and analysis. I found a fellow-blogger’s take on it refreshing: ‘No analysis. No predictions. No resolutions.’ McAlisterium

However, as a father with a small family set to increase, I increasingly find myself reflecting on the consequences of danger and risk on the mountain. Also, as it is more difficult to find time to get out with more responsibility, but when I do, I really savour it. Surprisingly enough, I also find myself missing my little family fairly quickly! This is nothing new, but a healthy way to approach mountain activities.

Live for the day, but live to fight another one too.

When I was writing a recent post about Remembrance Day, I came across an article in The Guardian. An interview of children left fatherless by the First World War. One young boy, now an old man, was thrust forward to become the head of the household after his father was killed, but it left him emotionally scarred. Standing at his father’s grave in 2007, he said:

‘I’m an old man, I am supposed to be tough. I thought I was hard, but I’m not. He’s my dad. I miss him. I missed him as a boy and I miss him as an old man. It is very important that I have come back. I feel closer now than I have ever been. That time he carried me to bed was the last time and this is the next time.’

This is more a note to myself than anything. Have fun, enjoy the wide, open spaces, especially when they are wild, and your time has been hard fought. Also, stay safe and remember the ones who you leave behind. Little girls and boys need their fathers.


Will Wilkinson’s Tales from the Hills

Scottish avalanche victim named

Last year’s post

McAlisterium post

Guardian article

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