" SO COME ON AND LET ME KNOW..SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO ? "

Almost 3 weeks had passed since my abortive trip to Scotland. I'd flown over from the Alps to meet with Nick Bullock for 2 weeks of action only to be closed down by an unexpected melt only a day in. With flights and hire car paid for to cover the whole period and the cost of extra flights to get out, only one route in the can and 750€ lighter, it was an expensive melt. Not only for the mountains but also for my pocket!

The following weeks passed with warm and windy weather in the Highlands, bringing hardly any decent mixed climbing conditions. The Alps were similar, very mild and not much snow and the mountains dry of ice but still there were a few good days out on the skis with clients to be had. It was a good period to guide and train. Countless sessions in the "pain cave" hang boarding and down at the wall pulling laps on a power endurance circuit I'd worked out that had become the winter indoor project for many for much of the season. It's nice to work out moves for others to enjoy. I can see how route setters get some satisfaction from this. As well as indoor sessions, it was warm enough to climb on the rock which is always good for early season fitness...

Keeping a close eye on the forecast in Scotland, it looked as if conditions would turn for the better from the 27th February with temperatures dropping, high wind, low wind, snow but then maybe no snow...ah should I stay or should i go ?  However, nothing is for certain in Scottish winter mixed climbing and the call to book flights and a car were left until less than 24 hours before departure. To be spontaneous is key! Thanks to Cath and the team at SAIS for your forecasting and images on the blog. Your knowledge becomes our power!. My trusty partner Jon Bracey managed to pull some time out for himself to give us 4 days of possible product on a quick hit. Looked like game on!!!

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Landing in Edinburgh it felt like t-shirt temperatures as the rain bounced off the runway. We collected our gear and headed straight to Ratho wall for a few routes at this fantastic venue. Plan was to go for a "light" session but for sure we got a little carried away and spent hours there getting spanked. (Thats pumped, or trashed, or beasted my U.S and European friends and not spanked as in "spanked" ok!!). We then headed west for a few days with open plans and minds. The rain came down hard as we drove over Rannoch Moor with hardly any snow in sight!  Fingers crossed for the morning then...

Thankfully we awoke to snow down to low levels and decided to head up to Glen Coe and slap up to Stob Coire Nan Lochan. Not knowing conditions, we somehow ended up on "Unicorn" VIII/8. With the rock well rimed and the cracks verglassed, the first pitch was as hard, confusing and bold as I had heard. Very "fall off-able" in those conditions but thankfully I managed to somehow stay put in the corner without a fall. I really didn't fancy the look of my gear too much to test it !  Jon followed and climbed through to the second pitch, still giving hard and sustained climbing but brilliant. I then took us to the top on yet another verglassed "un-fun" section with a steep pull to finish, topping out in beautiful evening light with stunning views before heading down to the Clachaig for a good feed in front of the fire.

After a nice work out on "Unicorn" we decided to climb a classic route that we've both always wanted to do, mainly because it has a cool name. "Neanderthal" VII/7 is on Bidean Nam Bian on Lost Valley Buttresses at the head of the Lost Valley. A long approach through old woodland and waterfalls brings you up to a plateau like valley, steep sided but a beautiful place to be. We waded in deep snow to the buttress. A steady 1st pitch gave way to 2 excellent pitches. Again the crag was heavily rimed once we pulled out from the cave so time had to be taken in cleaning the rime off rocks to give way to hooks and gear. We thought back to the first ascent in 1987 by R.Anderson and G.Nicoll, climbing with Terrordactyl axe ices back then, a fine effort that.

We topped out to the most amazing views that I think I've ever experienced in Scotland. It's hard not to be blown away by the beauty of the Highlands at this time of year when the suns out!. Late afternoon light is almost bronze in colour and really worth all the effort when conditions finally come good. 

Day 3 for a change of scene we headed to the Cairngorms. The early morning start from Roy Bridge for me felt savage but for Jon I think it was still a lie in, not having his kids around to wake him up. Besides which, I'm not the best morning person. We walked into Coire an Lochain and headed up for another classic we both had on our wish list.  "The Vicar" VII/8 on No.3 Buttress. Again the crag was well rimed up and a little verglassed. Jon gave me a belay to cross the Y Branch gully in case of windslab. I continued up the first pitch, which was steady but still ground that I had to take my time on. Jon then continued through and climbed the short but pokey 2nd pitch, doing well to dig out the hooks on a deep lock off to pull into the belay.

I climbed the 3rd pitch. Steep to start but on good hooks, then pulled out left into cracks all of which were again buried. It took time to find the good gear and hooks. At the top the guide book mentions to pull back right to the arete to continue to the top but I got lost and went direct up this loose, verglassed, gear less, nasty off width,  which almost took longer than the harder moves below as I was trying hard to not take a monster lop onto a distant hex below. Scary stuff...

We met Graeme Ettle in the bar afterwards. He assessed me in my Scottish winter guides test 10 years ago. Now a friend, first winter ascentionist of "The Vicar" and total sand bagger,  he told us a good story of that ascent back in 1992, saying it was easy and was given 7 in the "old" grading system at the time. Don't listen to him, it felt more like VIII/8 to me. 

With one of my heals ripped to bits by my boots, a windy forecast and with both of us feeling a little jaded we head back into Coire an Lochain on day 4. With the wind in our face the walk in felt for me like a bit of an effort especially with my heal getting further ripped to bits but listening to the  Clash on my iPod got me in.

We headed for "War and Peace" VII/8. Jon took the first lead up the slabby but unpositive corner with me taking the 2nd pitch through some steep overlaps. Jon continued up a nice hanging corner till I came though on easy ground to the top. Given the conditions, we got out as quick as possible back to Glen Mor Lodge for a cheeky coffee and cake !

So the trip gamble paid off this time. If conditions stay in I will be back at the weekend. It's hard to beat this place when conditions are working with you.....