Scottish winter play hurts. I should know this.
I remembered this when I was peering up through murky cloud at Goat Track Gully.
I know this.
But I’d forgotten the discomfort and the pain.
I know the drill. Early start; stuff stomach full of slow-release porridge; stuff so many items into a rucksack it takes a groan to pick it up and sling over the shoulders, wrap up like a mummy and stomp up a hill for an hour or so with it all to Coire an t-Sneachda. The snow is deep but the way is a furrow to follow. The sun is skittering between clouds and the air is too warm to be a mummy. I sweat.
I’d forgotten the sauna effect.
As we near the snow bowl the sun remembers it has business elsewhere – like the Alps – and leaves. Wind and cloud take its place. We can just make out the smudges of rock that are the beginning of the gullies. Their entrances are littered with dark figures. We should have got up earlier. Goat Track Gully seems to only have one team on it so we head towards it.
I’d forgotten how steep snow slopes can be. The snow is too soft and deep for ice axe handle comfort. When we get there the wind shows how Scottish it can be and then it starts to snow thin snow that creeps into everything.
I’d forgotten how quickly a Scottish wind can freeze your blood and make your cheek bones ache.
Dave is quick to start but he’s gone long enough for me to remember that I’d forgotten to bring googles and my best gloves – the ones that can undo a carabiner.
The memories flood in as I follow Dave. Some brilliant shining ones and some dirty black ones. The lovely sound of the ice axe hitting thick ice; the ache of recoil when it finds stone instead. The heat moving through the veins as the activity intensifies; the exquisite pain of the hot aches and numbing toes. The grandeur of the rime ice; iced-up eye lashes.
Begging the loan of sensible gloves I lead the next pitch, wondering why I’d offered as it’s been 2 years that I last did this strange activity. Things I’d forgotten: watch out for that rope between your clawed feet; the scarcity of gear placements; the difficulty of doing anything with gloves on, even sensible ones; the pure pleasure that kicking, hitting, pushing and pulling on snow and ice gives.
Finding a re-assuring block I throw a sling over it, fumble to make a belay and bring up the other two while trying to stop the wind blowing my hood off and to see what is in front of me. The wind tries to find a weak spot and it does. The snow trickles like sharp sand over my clothing, sticking to the seams of my clothes and hair that isn’t confined by my hat. I am rimed.
Extreme sport. Extreme conditions. Extreme discomfort. Extreme exhilaration. Extreme views.
I love it and I hate it.
I want to do this again.
I never want to do this again.
I am not alone in this conflicted state. Scottish winters bite and try to bring you down. They are cruel, yet we keep going back again and again to play there. A form of Stockholm syndrome perhaps? The worse it treats us the more we feel we should return to it. Maybe it brings up extreme emotions we don’t usually have, and like an abused lover we just keep coming back for more.
At the top the extreme conditions sharpen. We walk back in a white-out against a fierce Northerly that contains needles – at least that’s what my eyeballs experience. Some kind soul sees my blindness and lends me theirs (thanks Rob). We follow the compass point and it gets us to a place where we can relax, breathe deep and remember – how great the day has been.