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Book of the month: Cold Climbs

Friday, 2 December 2016

Already read all the books on our stocking fillers list? This month we're bringing you a snippet from one of Vertebrate's most iconic titles, Cold Climbs – a crash course in the history of British winter climbing that depicts the hostile yet magnificent environments in which snow and ice climbers hone their craft. The book provides a tick list of now-classic winter climbs to try out this December. With superb photography and compelling narratives, this book would make a great addition to any climber's bookshelf this Christmas. 

In this extract, Paul Nunn relives his precarious ascent of Polyphemus Gully on the North-East Corrie of Lochnagar.

In the Alps 6 a.m. jars the senses, but if it is bright and clear the pleasure soon takes over. Crouching on a Scottish bothy as the wind wails and the snow sifts through the door is quite another sensation.

Somehow a pan gets to the primus, bacon sizzles, more bodies stir and groan. Long before the real awakening (there is the secret) it is a long plod by the snow-drifted path towards Lochnager. Mound upon mound of boring heather. Mile upon mile it seems, always with clouds holding back the dawn. How can it be barely freezing when the wind buffets so hard? There is a temptation to go back, but what has Ballater, or even Royal Braemar to offer the likes of us, still half-city-slickers from Manchester, Britain's counter-capital?

Wet-warm at the col, the wind comes from the south-west, a hot winter gale from somewhere in the Canaries. Still it seems to press, for any other approach achieves nothing in the north. A little frost from a mid-week freeze remains as incentive. Will it be enough?

The great chute of Raeburn's Gully is barely visible in a driving mist. Not knowing the cliff well we use it to locate Polyphemus. A swathe of ice droops in from the left out of some unseen recess behind. That must be it. Despite forgotten complex descriptions the way looks obvious, as far as we can see, which is not beyond the first 100 feet or so of steepish ice. More worrying is a trickle of water emerging from under the ice. The southwesterly is at work already. Companions go different ways. Some go back.

I sort out a belay below the ice and Bob Toogood sets off up an ice chute and then by a delicately carved traverse right to an upper fall. An overlap steepens it all. A solitary ice piton gives a hint of security but Bob prefers to trust his workshop-made hammer, a ferocious tomahawk-like object that bites firmly despite the melt. Leader and rope disappear in murk. The waiting game leads to cold feet, hands and a shiver or two. A duvet would have been nice. ‘Have we anything to eat?’ ‘Not much.’ Melt water soaks through a porous old anorak. He stops, obviously taking his time to engineer a thorough belay. Then the slack rope goes out quickly and without a call. It is my time to go.

The melting ice crunches a little under the crampons. The new slightly curved implements seem to work, but lack security. They have too few teeth or is it the lack of angle? After all, they are ten years old – it’s hard to tell. The pitch is not too steep, but there are awkward steps and some traversing. At the stance Bob is well satisfied, grinning in elfish pleasure.

Some easier stuff follows, nice but unremarkable. Then the gully rears and Bob takes a stance out on the right wall. A wind howls above but only sends the occasional whumph of spindrift upon us. No problem on easy ground. But Bob does not like his belay. It’s solid but I weigh thirteen stones to his nine. The prospect ahead concentrates the mind wonderfully as the upper gully tilts into sight twenty-five feet above; a hanging gutter. Some rocks between us are steep and almost devoid of snow or ice. Black and naked, short but mean. Our investigations reveal no outflanking move, so up it is. Grade 4/5, like any other, can mask a multitude of sins, especially of omission.

A very long Lost Arrow piton materialises in my left hand, brought for just such circumstances. I beat it into a crack at face-level. It sinks in as far as the very finely engineered little eye. In goes Bob’s rope for a belay and mine on an extra karabiner as a runner. Things look better. Stiffly I move up into a corner. I’m icing up with the wet and cold, building up for a rheumy old age. A few little rock ledges take crampons and five or six feet are won. There’s nothing much for the implements. Scraping up carefully in a bridge position allows a long left-hand reach with an axe. The pick swings upwards and lodges in God-knows-what, but it holds, though the spindrift makes it hard to see what is going on. Bob huddles into his hood. It is a familiar scene. It is now a question of using the axe and bridging to gain a little more height. Then the hammer should go in too and all should be well. With luck.

Carefully feet are worked up on precious little, front-points splayed wide on rock. Then the right hand freed to make a longish swing with the hammer, the target safely a foot or two above the axe. The right wall is in the way and it is awkward. The hammer fails to lodge. Feet are braced harder, axe grip tightens and another hammer-blow at a different target area. As the hammer swings something shifts. The axe! Whoops! It’s too late. The axe parts company from a bit of ice to which it had feigned attachment. Straddled legs remain momentarily frozen in position and my body tips over backwards before crampons skate off the rock walls and the gully below approaches at speed. One unfortunate foot catches the wall and is yanked round, splaying crampon points in all directions.

‘Anything broken?’ enquires Bob as I hang there. ‘Maybe.’ Is all that I could manage in reply. Fortunately Toogood is a cool customer, and for him climbing only gets interesting when he is totally committed. This was not yet the case. It was evident that the top was near and as the light was short, up might be the quickest way. I struggled back one-footedly to the belay, feeling painfully sick and dependent, and remembering a broken leg on Monte Civetta. We had got out of that, so why not this? ‘Good thing about the peg,’ we agreed. It winks, unmoved, as Bob prepares to lead. Darkness looms and I am glad he is a potholer.

After swapping ropes he moves up into the corner a little rustily, working up his concentration and brandishing the great, black, Sheffield tomahawk. His wiry legs stick out precariously in much the same position that I had achieved. Shivering with shock I grip the rope. There is no messing. The tomahawk whips backwards and slams into the ice, then Bob follows as if attached to it by a string. I sign with relief despite the pain and the dark. There is little to see above, but the ropes keep going out until Bob camps under a biggish cornice to belay. With a tight rope I wobble, mostly on one foot, up the steep section, leaving my beloved piton behind, half hoping that some future sufferer might also find it useful.

The cornice takes no time. Bob digs and shovels and ferrets a way into the arm-deep slops before moving into the maelstrom above. It is a cold thaw and a whiteout, and about six, late in January. A compass helps the way down, but a bent ankle does little to aid judgement, and for hours we seem to plod trackless wind-blown snow. Just as we are convinced that we have lost the route we hit the path to Glen Muick. Long after midnight, on the motorable path below the Loch, I go to sleep until Bob gets back with the red van. At the bothy Ted Howard adds insult to injury, regaling us with tales of booze and dance in Ballater:

‘One of the best Saturday nights the lads have ever had.’

Click HERE to read more about Cold Climbs.

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