Passing the baton (Scottish winter climbing)

Fiddlers Nose

Fiddlers Nose

I think back over my development as a climber and wonder how I came to be here, seven pitches up the Fhidhleir’s Nose, in winter and with darkness descending. With my dad.

“Dad, have you got some prusiks?”

Silence. Did he not hear me or is he just thinking? The last ten years have seen an increasingly ridiculous “you’re deaf/you mumble” argument between us that was finally resolved when the doctor diagnosed industrial deafness six months ago. Despite the calm weather, 40m proves too far for two-way communication. Finally a shout comes up;

“Tie off the blue rope and continue to take in on the orange.”

Over the past three days we’ve done a lot of climbing, always with me leading. I’ve always respected my dad’s achievements in the mountains, he’s done a lot of hard climbing in his time: the north face of the Eiger, hard new routes in the Himalaya and countless alpine seasons. But like many English climbers, his Scottish winter experience has been centred around ice routes in the honeypots of Glencoe, Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms. Because of this, and because he thinks he is too old, I lead pretty much everything these days.

On this trip I was keen to show him two of my great loves – the North West Highlands and mixed climbing. Something big, spectacular and historic is what I wanted. Hard enough to be challenging but easy enough for us to have a good chance of climbing the route clean. Beinn Eighe’s Central Buttress tops the list. But this week it seems a whole winter’s quota of snow has fallen in three wild days and in such conditions Beinn Eighe’s long approach rules it out.

I racked my brains for a similar quality alternative. I settled on the Direct Nose Route on Sgurr an Fhidleir as an objective: low and close enough to the sea to maintain some hope that the snow would be more than just bottomless powder. The walk-in looked short and Guy Robertson’s comment that it was the best route in Scotland sealed my decision. We parked the car in a snowdrift, put a traffic cone on top for protection and pitched the tent. Just before bed the snow cleared and the Fhidhleirs Nose loomed proud in the moonlight at the head of the valley.

We left at 6 a.m. and for the whole knee-deep three-hour sufferfest of the approach I had pondered what I was getting us in to. So far this week dad had coped impressively with any mixed climbing we’d come across. It seemed to matter little if it was technical 4 or 6, he seemed to cruise it all while professing to find it desperate. Did I really think that just because he’d been cruising technical 6 that he’d handle grade 8? Had my sneaky ambition got the better of me? The end of the season was drawing near and I had precious few hard routes to show for it. I questioned my desire for a route that would be challenging for us both. Was it because I appreciate hard climbing more than anything? Or was it that I wanted my dad to see me in my element? For him to feel that he had coached me well, that I was doing something worthwhile with the skills he had given me?

For someone who grew up with the perfect opportunity to climb – an active father and living in the Peak District – I didn’t take to it well. I found it frightening and perplexing for a long time. I remember one particular visit to Black Rocks, our local crag, subsequently immortalised by the film Hard Grit. Black Rocks is an interesting place to take a beginner, featuring as it does jam cracks, sloping hand holds and delicate smears. The place is distinctly lacking in anything a novice might call a hold. I remember hanging perplexed on the end of the rope feeling a failure while my dad tried to persuade me that hand jamming didn’t hurt if you did it properly. I decided I didn’t much like climbing. I still went out occasionally with dad, but I progressed sporadically. I focussed more on fell running through my teenage years.

While my enthusiasm for climbing faltered, dad helped nurture my sense of adventure and self reliance by taking me on multiday walking or biking trips in northern England. Often he would allow me to plan the trips myself. By the time I was thirteen, if I wasn’t off adventuring with friends I could usually be found poring over maps to far-off places on the living room floor. Today, in my mid twenties, this sense of adventure defines me more than any climbing. One could be given up at will, the other will always be there. Background music to the rest of my life.

My dad’s motivation for hard climbing unfortunately missed mine by about five years. When I was fifteen and dad was off ticking north faces in the Alps, I was still obsessing over 30-minute running races up small hills in the Lake District. By the time my motivation for hard climbing arrived, around the age of twenty, dad’s had waned considerably, and our few trips together to the Alps were virtually devoid of success. We were slow – any decision-making complicated by the fact that the more experienced member of the team was no longer the fittest or most able. It must also have been worrying for him watching me lead, wanting me to push myself but at the same time consumed by paternal worry. I remember him once arriving at a belay and reminding me sternly that he had my mother to answer to if anything went wrong. These memories churn around in my brain as I shiver at the belay at the top of the seventh pitch. It dawns on me that this will be by far the longest day I’ve ever had in the hills with my dad. I have no idea how he will cope. It is clear that we will be benighted, that we will face a long and tortuous walk out. More worryingly, above where we are now is several hundred metres of easier climbing: impractical to pitch at this hour, but is dad fresh enough to move safely up it? I have no idea.

I resolve to trust his judgement, he has had enough days in the hills to know when enough is enough. I compute the options and as he arrives at the belay I put it to him bluntly:

“Dad, I can get us down from here in five abseils; we can leave only slings; I will do all the work.”

Beinn an Dothaidh - Dad

Beinn an Dothaidh – Dad

He looks at me from behind hollow eyes;

“No, I think it’s best if we carry on, if that’s OK by you?”

He consults the guidebook.

“The next pitch is 5a. Are you happy with this, Es?”

I realise what a daunting enterprise this must seem to my dad. HVS 5a, for his generation a grade to be feared in summer, and here we are in the middle of winter below the crux pitch and it is covered in snow. Five years of mixed climbing have taught me that the summer grade often means little in winter conditions, and what matters more is what you see before you. I see a perfect crack, and know I can climb it.

“Trust me.”

I launch into a series of strenuous torques, my cramponed feet shaking directly above dad’s head as I warm up, those two words echoing in my head until I get some good gear in.

As I pull over from the steep ground I shout down that I have reached the end of the hard climbing, only to be met with a steep icy wall five metres higher. With only a small wire to protect me I climb carefully. I am in charge of our safety here, and I cannot afford to fail.

Dad seconds the pitch with a combination of pulling on the rope and pulling on gear. He is exhausted, and 20m of pulling up on one arm takes its toll. One rope is locked off while the other creeps through my belay plate; 20cm here, another half a metre there, always with long pauses in between. The wind has picked up now so I can’t hear it, but I imagine him gasping for breath after each burst of effort. Finally a brilliant white light appears over the lip of the crag and dad plods up the final few metres to my belay.

“Time to switch modes, dad. Just start climbing when the rope goes tight.”

He looks at me with a puzzled look on his face and fiddles with his headtorch. As I climb away from him I realise he didn’t hear me properly and thought I was telling him to adjust his head torch.

With darkness comes an acceptance and an end to the rush. I relax and enjoy climbing up the easier ground, a sea change from what lay below. Some way up the final slopes to the top of Sgur an Fhidhleir I realise that I am climbing pretty much as fast as I can and the rope isn’t going tight. Climbers my own age often hold me back on easy ground. Dad’s endurance and experience shine through and tonight I suffer no such hindrances.

The walk out is made marginally easier by our tracks from the morning. We reach the tent just as the weather breaks and collapse into a deep and satisfied sleep.

The following weekend is my parents’ joint 60th birthday. Dad seems to have made a full recovery.

I’m just glad for a weekend off.