THE ALPINE PRINCESS: Zoe Hart learns the rules of mixed climbing in Scotland
Before Max and I leave for Scotland, various ex-pat Brits and Scots stop by our apartment with concerned looks on their faces, wondering if I know what I’m getting myself into: terrifying cornices, Specters hammered into frozen mud, bashing Hexentrics into flared cracks, vertical snow, spicy run-outs, double layers of waterproof clothing, and gloves so sopping wet that days later they still refuse to dry out. Our friends, who long ago forwent ephemeral Scottish conditions to live in the Mecca of Chamonix, France, can’t believe we would travel for the gamble. All of their warnings seem a bit overly dramatic really, as I lust over guidebooks and photos of the sharp andecite edges and breaks, feathery hoar plastering the rock. Scotland looks like a veritable winter wonderland for climbing.
The following week, I meet my Scottish climbing partner at the Glenmore Lodge, Simon Richardson. He warns me of the fickle nature of conditions in Scotland as we drive—in the rain—to the Northern Corries, a local crag. He says the temperatures have risen, the hoar has thawed; there is no climbing to be had.
“But aren’t there still cracks to climb?” I ask Simon, showcasing my North American ignorance. “Why can’t we just go mixed climb those?”
As the windshield is peppered by huge drops of rain, the wipers swiping back and forth at medium speed, Simon explains the rules of the game: “We only climb ground-up, onsight,” he says “and you can only climb when the rock is white with hoar or snow and the turf is frozen. Originally it was to protect the rock from getting scratched and the turf from getting trashed.”
“But your crampons will still scrape up the rock even if there is a dusting of snow,” I offer.
“Yes, that’s true, but it’s the ambiance,” Simon evenly counters. “You have to look harder for the cracks… and your crampons stick to the ledges on verglas… and you can swing into the turf… and it’s just more beautiful… and challenging.”
“So basically the rules are you can’t climb it when it’s easy?”
“Well, kind of, but you won’t understand it until you see it.”
Hmmm… It seems like I would have to play by the rules, even though they didn’t make sense to me.
With our hoods pulled tight, the fabric flapping loudly in our ears, we leave the parking lot headed for the climbing. I’m more than just a little skeptical—there is no way this brown dripping rock will be icy any time soon. Rules are rules here in Scotland and I don’t see any way we’ll be climbing today. Simon is far more inspired and hopeful than I, as we hike up in the disorienting mist. “The temperatures might be freezing up higher,” he proclaims, desperate to show me the beauty of Scottish winter climbing. Simon’s 30-plus years of Scottish winter climbing and his adventurous mind keep him ever-buzzing with excitement. I squint up towards the higher elevations, hoping for snow, hoping for the rules, the ethics, to be fulfilled, hoping that the long walk from the parking lot isn’t going to be in vain.
We battle the winds and the sideways gropel until, just as Simon had forecasted, the rain begins freezing, the rock begins turning white. The wet snow lashes my cheeks, gusts of wind batter me right and left. The flakes continue to get wetter and larger, but ultimately they are freezing. At the base of the gully a gaping moat has formed below Grade 3 ice that is pissing with water. In any other place I would have headed home immediately. I look at Simon flaking out the rope for a belay and chortle: “Your lead. I had my vertical snow lead yesterday.”
As Simon gets ready I change into my second pair of gloves; my first pair are already soaked through. Normally I take two pairs of gloves with me, but heeding my friends’ warnings, I’ve brought with three. Simon pulls out seven pairs from his pack. You never know, he says, sometimes you need one for each pitch, one for the approach, and a last pair for the descent.
Simon, seasoned as any in the art of Scottish suffer climbing, laughs as he wades through his vertical snow lead. I look at the long ice screws hanging from my gear loops, knowing there is no way these will be useful today. Simon disappears around the corner and a short while later the rope comes tight. I climb up to Simon’s belay, finding small vertical steps, torquing my tools and burying the picks in recently frozen turf. I am entranced by the hoar on the rock; I can almost see it growing. A little window of understanding is beginning to open.
Meeting Simon at the belay, I take the half dozen pins and Hexentrics and head around a blind corner fumbling the icy rock with my hands.
“Use your tools!” Simon encourages. “Swing into the turf!”
I reach around the corner, hook my pick blindly in a crack and swing my other tool securely into glorified frozen mud, trust it and pull my body around the buttress into a ramping ice choked corner with fun mixed steps. Two more meandering rope lengths and we are on the summit in a total whiteout. A wave of excitement flows: Scottish climbing takes much more than technical strength; the gear was challenging to find and place. The climbing was bold, tenuous, psychological—and stellar. I am beginning to understand the rules, why it all has to be frozen, where the lore comes from. I’m already looking forward to Simon’s Plan B for tomorrow, and hoping the rock stays white.
“That’s a new route,” Simon says with a smile.
“What shall we call it?” I ask while changing into my last pair of dry gloves. No question, really: The Alpine Princess.
New Jersey-native Zoe Hart lives in Chamonix, France where she works as a mountain guide (she's only the fourth woman ever to be accredited by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association). When she's not guiding she's working on renovating her apartment, climbing the endless alpine lines that surround Cham or traveling to the far corners of the globe for adventures in the high peaks.