Its cold, warm, cold then warm again, it can turn Cairngorm powder snow into bullet hard snow and ice, or a raked brown hillside in a matter of hours. Streams that run freely in the Autumn rains become locked up in ice, then break free from their frosty shackles only to be slowed down again to a viscous crawl. This is the pattern of a Scottish winter. It’s unpredictable and at times frustrating. Planning a winter’s expedition to ice climb or ski, is not a certain thing, it requires a degree of spontaneity and readiness. Waiting for a climb or hill to come into condition, is a bit like being on constant fighter pilot scramble alert. The rucksack has to remain packed ready to go, head torch working, energy bars stuffed into zipped pockets and piles of maps at hand to aid any white-out escape if necessary.
It’s been cold for few days now and after a round of phone calls on Thursday evening, a plan is made. Its Friday evening in Edinburgh and a light cold rain is falling in the city and my enthusiasm is waning. The prospect of a warm evening in front the box seems at this moment a nicer prospect than a late drive into the winter conditions of the north.
Kenny’s car predictably draws up to the tenement door. The buzzer rings and its time to man up. After a quick discussion about the onset of a mild thaw, we head north with the blind optimism of the Scottish winter climber. By Perth we have decided to head east not west, as the predicated thaw is lightly to strip out Glencoe and the Ben before the “Gorms”. The stars are bright and the moon is clear and high, it is still cold. Kenny has been doing this for 30 years, tacking a calculated risk on the conditions and weather, driving hundreds of miles weekend after weekend, hunting for new unclimbed routes and notable ascents. New routing, looking for first ascents requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cliffs and mountain of the country, a comprehension of wind direction freezing levels and a deal of luck and timing, Spence is a master. The car grinds to a halt in the Cairngorm car park at the ski lift. Is 11.30pm on Friday night and is cold and still, it looks good for tomorrow. The plan is persuade ourselves out of our sleeping bags just before sunrise and walk into Shelterstone crag giving the maximum amount of daylight on the route. At an undisclosed location I find a public toilet door open. The floor is clean and the place is warm. I rig the hand dryer so it pumps out hot air and lay down the thermarest sleeping mat. The prospect of sleeping in the car as a six-footer, is defiantly the worst of the two evils. Here I have heat, light and the mild smell of cleaning solvents, I ignore the other perfumed undertones. In the car, lays twisted in a ball, a gnarly old climber and a dry cough. Once the “room” reaches a toasty 6 degrees, I stop the hand dryer and crawl into my sleeping bag. Needs must…
Sleep is fitful, but sufficient. The sound of a reversing vehicle serves as my alarm, the sun is already up… well its not up, its just a bit lighter than the night time, I quickly dress and force on my winter climbing boots and step out into the day ready for the long cold walk in, instead of milky morning sun I find a grey mirk, its pissing down and very warm, blowing hard and quite frankly crap. We have a resigned sense of relief and disappointment but with a sense of righteous resignation. Today will be spent in the Red Squirrel café with the other winter warriors, in that famous tea and cake ritual, know to all Scottish Climbers.