Just a standard winter climb

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Our dear friend Graham Forbes (Author of Rock and Roll Mountains) wrote us a small story, reminding us of some of the adventures the Summits family had with him. Bear in mind, we stronly recomend being prepared for all your outdoor activities, no matter how compitent you are! Here is how Graham remebers a trip out with Alex, Vicki and Justin Mayes:

I’d just got back to Scotland (finally). I’d been in America for about half the year, wearing tee-shirts and sandals from September to Christmas Eve, finishing my new book and playing the guitar in steamy downtown bars with wailing blues bands. I was jet-lagged and weary but grinning ­– glad to be back, even if it meant swapping outdoor coffee in hot sunshine for damp, freezing streets. There are no hills anywhere near Florida, but so many within a short drive of Glasgow.

The turkey was eaten, the family board games played, the don’t-talk-abouts dutifully avoided, well, almost. The festive season had slipped away again and high pressure had arrived in the north ­– cold, crystal clear sky over the Highlands. Time to meet up with old pals in Glen Coe.

Alex owns a few climbing shops and his van is always packed full of stock, but today not a single crampon. Ah well, we were only planning to walk up the rough path to just below the ice climbs on Stob Coire nan Lochan, the ones we’d done all those years ago, then casually stroll up the easy ridge to the summit. We could get there without crampons, or at least he could – after a very embarrassing day on Ben Lomond of all hills, I won’t even go to the supermarket without them.

Planning to get to the top in nice time for a spectacular sunset, we started at about 12.30, and by 2.00 we were at the coire, beside the little frozen lochan high above the Clachaig. Then we saw it, a thick white staircase of beautifully frozen snow all the way up Broad Gully, 492 feet of sparkling snow-ice. You don’t get it like that very often these days. We didn’t stop to think, we couldn’t resist. Like the Billy Joel song, we have been fools for lesser things.  “It’s only a Grade 1”, said Alex, “We can do it without crampons. We’ve got axes, we can cut steps, just like the old days.”

Oh, did I mention Alex’s 21 year-old daughter and 16 year-old son were with us? They’ve both spent half their lives in the mountains, Vicki is a snowboard instructor and a terrific climber, already bolder than her old dad, so the exposure was no more than a breath of fresh air to her. And I still have the pic of young Justin on top of his first winter munro all those years ago when his little rucksack almost reached his heels. They didn’t have crampons either…

At least this time Vicki had some sort of boots – as a schoolgirl she’d soloed the north buttress on the Buachaille wearing Vans with the laces undone. Teenagers like to look cool, uh, duh. Justin was wearing fabric boots. I’d have swapped him so he could use my crampons but he’s a very big lad and would never get into mine. Who am I kidding? – he was perfectly happy to climb without them.  So we got started.

Yes, yes, I know the rules and if we’d thought about it in advance, we would have brought crampons, maybe even a rope, but sometimes there are some things you just know you can do, even if the rules say you shouldn’t.

And so we did.

Vicki shot up the gully like a monkey and darted to the top of the ridge, excitedly sweeping her camera around, taking panoramic pics to email her workmates in the ski resorts of Calgary and New Zealand. I plodded after her, loving being on the ice, half a planet from hot, flat, swampy Florida. Alex, despite being solid and super-efficient on so many desperate multi-pitch epics, always likes to spice it up. This time doing so by dropping his mobile phone halfway up the route. Now, most people would cut their losses, but Alex thought he knew where the phone landed. So he borrowed the one ice-axe Justin had and left him on the frozen cut out step halfway up while he climbed back down. In fairness to him, he did manage to retrieve his always-ringing Blackberry and make it back to Justin without any more mishaps. In no time we were all at the top of the frozen white chimney, and clambering over the prehistoric boulders to the pinnacle. Time for a wee break.

The sun dropped somewhere far behind the ridge of Bidean into a dark, frozen ocean, and the sky gently flared in its final dying embers. We sat watching the glowing colours, eating the last turkey and cranberry sandwich. And would you like a wee mince pie? All around us we could see hundreds of peaks, those familiar jagged shapes pushing through a hanging sea of thick white mist, like the raised fists of champions. Munros, Corbetts, whatever you want to call them, ancient proud Scottish mountains, quite unlike anything anywhere else in the world.

Cheap airline travel has opened up the vast volcanic tundra of Iceland, floodlit snow slopes and towering fjords of Norway, winter sun and green glacial lakes of New Zealand, the pinnacles of the Dolomites, trekking and mountaineering in Asia and beyond, places that not long ago most of us could only imagine. Yet here in Scotland, within an hour or so of our bustling cities, we have the richness of the silent Highlands, a perfect balance of mountains, hills, glens, rivers, cliffs and crags. We can do a gentle hill walk and relax with a flask of hot soup surrounded by stunning views, or power up a breathing-hard sweat-fest hike from sea level all the way to top of the highest rocky peaks in the country and still be back in time for steaming haggis in front of a cosy pub fire. Or we can do dangerous things involving very steep ice.

Crampons would be a good idea, though.

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