This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 240 (February 2017).
A dark winter’s morning in Scotland, 4 a.m. As I waited outside Buzz’s apartment, a figure approached the car.
“Buzz?” I asked. “Is that you?”
I opened the door to let the figure inside, but a man in dirty rags jumped forward, trying to shove in. In shock I slammed the door, accelerated and drove away.
The second attempt at picking Buzz up was more successful. No homeless man jumped for the door, only my climbing partner of 10 years. Neill “Buzz” Busby, age 38 and more experienced than I (age 26 and more of a rock climber), were heading to the Highlands from Edinburgh for our first day’s climbing of 2016. We drove two and a half hours through a thick white-mist blizzard. The roads were white, and the car tires skidded, but we made it up the icy road to the Cairngorm Ski Centre car park.
The blizzard was outrageous. Leaving the car at about 6 a.m., we broke track through waist-deep snow. I had no goggles and could barely see a few feet in front of me. The approach is supposed to be around two hours, but felt a lot longer that day.
“Where are we going?” I screamed to Buzz.
“Up the goat track and over that hill!” he screamed back.
I looked up at the steep, snowy mound ahead. This short cut was supposed to cut the approach down by half an hour, but we were slowed when my crampon got stuck in the snow and fell off my boot—I was 300 feet further before noticing. I retraced my steps and saw the glint of green poking out of the snow in one of my waist-deep footprints. That was lucky!
We’d hiked about five minutes more when, 100 feet below and completely unbeknownst to us, the 600-foot hillside avalanched. We only found out about the 100-foot-wide slide a day later from some climbers who had attempted to follow us, but stopped in their tracks when they saw it go, 20 feet in front of them.
After another 40 minutes of blasting through whiteout we reached Hell’s Lum, a 2,700-foot peak in the Cairngorms. Our route was the classic Deep Cut Chimney (4 IV)—usually three pitches and an “easy” day out.
In the conditions, the climbing was more a swim through fluffy powder than ascending rock and ice. Buzz led an extra first section, more of a steep wade than a climb, but we pitched it out, as nothing felt secure. He brought me up on second, and I looked hesitantly up at the next pitch.
“You want to take this one, dude?” I asked hopefully.
“Sure, you want the next one?” Buzz asked.
I replied with sparse enthusiasm, “Aye … why not.” Inside my head I was trying to figure out a way of getting around leading it.
The second pitch was the start of the real climbing, up a steep groove and into the gully. Absolutely zero ice had formed on the wall; powdery snow alone lightly covered the dark granite. Our tools would not bite, and the gear was horrifyingly sparse.
The third pitch was the chimney. Once again I managed to convince Buzz to lead while I sat frozen to the wall. Inside the deep cut of the mountain, the snow had barely been able to clasp onto the rock, and what lay before us was essentially a dry-tooling experience with bad gear inside a tight granite
coffin with nothing but a sea of white below. I seconded with extreme difficulty, puffing, panting and hacking my axes into the white fluff in the
hope of purchase in some frozen turf.
“Aghh, stick into something!” I screamed at my axes.
Darkness descended, and the blizzard raged on. I was hungry! I was starving! I’d had a bowl of porridge for breakfast and scarfed my energy bar after the approach, maybe 10 hours ago.
Buzz topped out on the last pitch, but I couldn’t hear him.
“Am I on belay?” I yelled.
The rope had snagged in some rock above; there was 30 feet of slack out.
“Climbing! Take in the rope!”
I climbed on through the steep finale without knowing if I was even on belay, a huge loop of slack falling deep into the blow-y depths of the hole I was emerging from.
Buzz hunched on top, saying only, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We navigated for an hour to find the descent, barely able to see each other, let alone a way out. The blizzard raged on with gusts of 90 m.p.h. We trudged on to the upper slopes, searching for the way over and down the mountain, roped up and side-by-side, separated by about 30 feet, alongside a huge cornice. Buzz navigated the outside while I scanned the inside of the cornice to make sure we didn’t fall through any pits. After about an hour and a half of searching, we finally found a descent gully and began to follow it to the valley floor. The map showed a boulder field below, but after another hour of walking I felt we’d missed something, as the boulders we had expected to see didn’t seem to be there.
We could only wade onward and hope that the terrain became more recognizable the longer we went. I became very aware of the growing risk of not finding our way. A story of two climbers in this valley, called Coire an t-Sneachda, came back to me. They had gotten lost on the way back to the car park and frozen to death. They were found the next day only 60 feet from their car: They just hadn’t seen it. I didn’t want to be that story.
At around 10 p.m., I saw lights. What were they? Buzz saw them, too. We followed the lights.
We continued pushing through the storm, but the lights never got any brighter or more apparent. Every time I topped a rise, I expected to see the car park, but to no avail. My legs were numb with the cold.
Buzz, though, said, “We’re there! I can see the car lights!”
“No, mate, those aren’t the car lights.”
“Yeah, that’s it there. We’ve got to walk towards that!”
They weren’t the lights from the car park; they were the lights from a town miles away in the wrong direction.
By this point I was practically crawling. My hunger was deep; my throat so dry it felt cut, my energy gone. Every yard felt like a mountain, but I saw something built by man and knew if we could just get there we’d figure the rest out.
A barn rose up before us, and a snowy trail showed tire tracks near it. The blizzard had worn off now, and we walked under a hazy red night sky with snowflakes falling lightly around us. Finally, we no longer had to dig a trench to move.
After about 10 minutes walking down the trail we found the car, covered in snow, at 11 p.m. It’s amazing how you can go from feeling completely helpless in a wild place, to suddenly being safe and back in normalcy. We had been going in roughly the right direction all along, but the boulders I’d expected to see must have been hidden under snow, throwing us in doubt for hours.
We stopped for an MSG-dripping stir-fry from the Highland Chinese takeaway—the workers were closing but must have taken pity on us, and certainly we devoured it in only moments. I drove for an hour, stopped, drove for half an hour, stopped, drove for 15 minutes, stopped. We reached Buzz’s flat, and I drove home and slid into my bed. My eyelids closed heavily, and my heartbeat pulsated inside my brain like the world’s deepest drum. Inside my cocoon of covers I lay immoveable. I played the last 24 hours over in my mind and vowed that my axes would never again see the light of day.
And yet winter is coming!
Robbie Phillips, of Edinburgh, Scotland, travels the world, but when he’s back home he occasionally has epics doing things he’s not good at, such as Scottish winter climbing.