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The snowy breath of air

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Lockdown has been difficult for everyone, some more than most. Living and working in Cornwall, and in a Secondary School, has at times been fantastical, exciting but also challenging. We are lucky that we live in an area of outstanding natural beauty with cliff walks out and about within easy distance, an amazing opportunity given BOJO's advice that we can travel for exercise! But, we are also potentially unlucky in the sense that for this beautiful little area of Britain, near cut off and quite distant from England in both History, Culture and Ethnicity, there is only one full hospital with an ICU bed count of 6... for 500,000 people, which (in Summer when holiday makers come down) can swell to 4x that number. This summer it swelled further, with many people sadly offending local populace and abusing the Cornish sense of hospitality. This was a small minority, but it left a sour taste in many Cornish peoples mouths who found that they were becoming more and more xenophobic and nationalistic to the Cornish flag. Cornwall is a beautiful place with beautiful people, this shade of colour was not, and is not, a good look and sadly reminded me greatly of the more vitirol and xenophobic talks of Farage back in the Brexit debates. However, once again this was only a small minority, as a teacher I believe we will never know someone else's full background or what they had to put up with in lockdown, and I couldn't blame them for wanting to spend time in an area as free and beautiful as Cornwall; I could however blame their behaviour in some areas which was quite despicable at times. It was necessary, for peoples mental health to go out and explore. Except, if you were a climber, you had to balance the need to be out climbing, on the cliffs knowing full well that there are less than 100 accidents recorded a summer, to the risk to mountain rescue, RNLI and Coastguard regarding COVID. It was difficult, with many climbers hanging up their racks for what we percieved as a greater good. Out of this, ingenuity came out in the building of home climbing walls, an area I am yet to explore but have the holds for (damned COVID spending spree!).

We were allowed a few weeks of freedom and the climbing was off the charts, fresh air amidst the choking fog of summer and COVID. In a time where suspicious eyes consistently appraise you, being free on the cliff side allowed us time to be ourselves. And then we went back to school. It was a frenzy of rules, regulations, precautions and re-engaging students who hadnt been sat in a classroom for over six months. It was stiffling and daunting and often difficult to enforce the rules when students debated the efficacy of them when you often agreed. But we needed to keep on, needed to limit the potential for more spread of the virus and protect our students. I noticed a change in their behaviour, a blog I wrote discussed how COVID could have effected the pedagogy within school and it is an area of study I wish to further investigate should I take on a Masters.

We decided to go on a climbing trip, being in Tier 1 we could do this legally which was a fantastic opportunity given we had cancelled so many plans. We started the drive after a long day at school (being in PE I am often there at 0730 and leave at 1800/1830). When we started we were not sure where we could go, we could go to Wales but the forecast was not good for winter climbing, we could go to the Lakes, again the forecast was pretty abysmal and my heart was set on Scotland. Driving up, Nic Sturgeon made an announcement allowing us to drive into Scotland and so we chose to go to the Cairngorms, after I saw photos and reports from the Buchaille regarding snow fall. It takes a long time to get to Scotland from Cornwall, but totally worth it. The drive up we sang sea shanties, disney songs, slept and drove throughout the night, not stopping for fear of interacting with anyone in Tier 3! When we arrived at Cairngorm ski park, the rain was horizontal, the wind was galeforce and snowline high on the hill...not a good start as we checked conditions and I pointed out landmarks and showed the way forwards for us on the day after. We drove further down and found a place to stay for the night, enjoying an evening coffee and playing card games in the van before getting our bags ready for the day ahead, it was going to be a long one. Up the Corrie t'n sneachdta Fiacail to Ben Macdui and across to Cairngorm before down again.

We woke early, drove up in high spirits and put on waterproofs straight away, as we drove along the rain came down and we grimaced before laughing. No such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing! We all got ready and set off, the other two being military men set off on a fast pace which I thoroughly enjoyed! The going was pretty difficult, going off piste to navigate a river that had broken its banks took some route finding but overall, the gradient increased gradually, our spirits remained in good stead and we trudged on, avoiding as we could the boulders as much as possible.

We finally got to the snow line where I could teach the others some winter skills, we talked about moving in crampons, a John Wayne walk approach! Then practised cutting steps as we did not need crampons yet before practicing ice axe arrests and falls from different angles. The joyful thing about teaching, instructing and coaching is that you learn as you go and any day, any time can be a learning day. Seeing them learn these skills for the first times was fantastic, the enthusiasm and encouragement in their faces showed positive vibes and a strong positive environment! We carried on, the ridge becoming even steeper and rockier. The worst and most frustrating part of Iceland, was the consistent up and down of the Basalt rocks on the mountain, the unsteadiness of it. The hardest part of this before reaching the ridge proper was the boulder field, the constant up and down, navigating the boulders and occasionally sinking hip deep in snow in a gap between two boulders. Not only was this frustrating but offers a substantial injury risk. Being both experienced and qualified, first aid of this kind was not new or a scary thought, but it was frustrating.

We reached a point where the snow was somewhat consolidated, the wind had made it icy and snow flattened it down. When I mentioned crampons we hid behind a boulder and stuck them on, excitement building again and I looked at the other two whose eyes were gleaming in the cloudy light. We could look behind us, where we had come from, and sun was pouring down to Avidemore, reflecting of off the great Lochs. Looking ahead and the mountains were caught in a pitch of darkness and swirling snow clouds. My heart was beating like a drum and my mind flew like an eagle on the wind, I was free. Completely and evisceratingly free. The crampons helped stupendously for the time being, and we made great time rising above the clouds to the ridge proper, the rocks towering above us. I pondered and discussed whether we rope up together for the climb ahead. Three years previous, my Dad and I had climbed down the ridge un-roped together, not finding it particularly difficult but had scrambled past a roped team of MRO's from the RAF... the looks we had were not the most friendly and it is understandable, the challenge of the mountains should not be overlooked. Discussing it with the others, and knowing the grade of the climb was at least 10 below what we climb outdoors we carried on without ropes, me leading and finding the route before offering advice and help. We climbed it easily, crampons scraping against the rocks. After some time and a struggle with the crampons and a lack of ice on the ridge, we decided to descen the ridge and traverse along the snow slope, moving higher as we went. This allowed me to teach the others how to create a snow bucket belay, making it safe and when to use it. We carried on climbing up, the ground being steeper and steeper until we reached the final pitch where I let the others lead to the top and pull over. They led with confidence and excitement and I followed below, staying out from under them and any loose snow or ice. As they pulled over, the full force of the gale force winds roaring across the artic plataeu made itself known to them as they both shouted "F***K the wind!", which I barely heard as their voices were carried out across the mountains over my head. I put on my snow goggles, silently thanking them for going first in a rather selfish way!

As I pulled over I felt the wind and saw the white out ahead of us. The climb took us longer than we had anticipated, given I had taught them skills along the way and I knew we had until about 4pm before dark fell. We huddled together as I took out the map and compass, orientating it so that the compass pointed towards Ben macdui, some 3km away as the crow flies. Not far. Except in a white out, gale force winds and losing light... a lot further. Given the up and down nature of the mountains. Then we had to get back. It wasn't hard from a safety perspective to decide we needed to abandon Macdui and get back along the plateau towards the ski area and descend and in the end, it was a good thing we did. The weather worsened.

Along the way we met three Scotsmen. Those three Scotsmen didnt had waterproofs, didnt have thermals, gloves or boots proper. They were ill equipped for the mountains and desperately ill equipped for the weather. Striking up conversation they told me how they had come up through the woods and "the weather 'didnae' look so bad from down there. Famous last words that I have heard many, many times and even said myself when I was 12 going up Pen-y-fann. I stayed a while before marching on and stopping to chat to another climber on belay by Jacobs ladder. We talked about the routes, if they were in condition before carrying on. Previously, I'd said to Andy and Dan i wanted to keep an eye on the Scots, it was a good thing I did as I saw them stumble about and hide behind a Cairn. I asked what they were doing, if they knew where they were going and they replied both with no, red cheeks and worried eyes.

In this situation you have two options, rant and rage at their immaturity putting MRO's at risk and their own lives like I had seen on various Mountain Climbing pages on FB - diminishing their confidence, self esteem further and makign them feel even worse with not a workable solution or actually HELP them. They asked how to get down and I gave them a route and time estimate, like a normal person. They needed to get off the plateau and below the ridge line, out of the wind and that would solve half their problem. They thanked me profusely and went off on their way, with us moving out along to watch their progress and make our own way down the slope. We saw them make it down and ourselves pushed off, enjoying the drop in wind and singing our songs as we walked the final few km's to the van.

The first day was a roaring success with all different seasons affronting us. sorting out the kit was difficult in a small van to which I was made more aware of the need to get a bigger one! Food was incredibly glorious having not eaten or drank coffee all day and we settled in, playing cards and enjoying the views in the twilight. I showed them the route for Day 2, the walk in and where we could stash our bags or carry them on.

Day two, what a glorious morning! -3 degrees celsius, the sun reflecting on the crustal calm loch waters. It was beautiful and I stayed outside, watching the clouds move high above the mountain tops. As is all things, the first, most important part of the day is of before checking MWIS and SAIS, nothing had changed from the previous day so I was happy with the route choices!

We had coffee and porridge before setting off, you could tell he weather was ncier today as climbers were abound with their packs and axes, smiling merrily and chatting away as they began the path up and up. The walk was a mixture of snow, sleet and hail before moving to a still calm in the corrie. The groups seperated to into their own spaces so that they could sort out harnesses. We chose a sheltered spot behind a large boulder before moving along. The First to move, I was the leader with many followers, finding the path of least resistance to the mess of pottage on the corrie walls. Wwe decided to leave our packs at the base, having dug under to give them some cover and cracked on quickly. I took in 10m of rope after tying in, feeding another 10m to Dan who tied in, using an alpine butterfly, before feeding out another 10m to Andy who then took the rest in coils. Moving in a team of three was a great experience as we traversed to Jacobs Ladder, hiking up and chatting to the team above on hidden chimney. As I climbed up Andy called up "Look at that pretty snowfall" to the right. I only caught the end of what was a miniature avalanche that had come off of the right hand rock face. Seeing this, I put in small nuts, placing gear every now and again to help with protection.

Before the final pitch I set up and snow bucket belay and belayed the two up, Dan setting another up and bring up Andy. As we sat we chatted and talked about the climb and the weather, the cornice above and how we were absolutely loving the environment.

The crux, annoyingly, was the final 5 metres of climbing up through a cornice. For those who are not sure what a cornice is, it is an overhanging edge of snow on a ridge, or edge of a mountain or sides of gullies. This so happened to be the latter two. I'd wedged myself into a corner and brought in the lines for the others. Situational awareness would have dictated that we abandon this and try a separate route which would have meant a series of downclimbs or re-directed rappels down potentially unstable snow. Not great really. Bringing them up, I talked about the potential dangers and chose to go first, as I should, and make a route.

It wouldn't be exaggerating to say I was punching up to my elbow in snow and my feet were not sticking. I struck high with the ice axe to gain a semblance of friction before digging in with a hand, holding the axe close to the head. With the axe above I attached my lanyard to it, giving some support before relasing my grip and pounding away at the non compacted snow. I had an idea to switch my feet and bring my boot high onto the rock, allowing me to stabilise enough to reach higher with the adze and get into some ice before again switching feet to push further across to the right... The idea worked, and its a good thing as I pulled myself further over.

The best thing about that particular part, is that I knew the dangers, I knew I couldnt drop back and down climb. I needed to finish it and finish high, whilst maintaining a safe environment for my friends below me. I knew all of this, and I didnt get the jelly leg that I often get on rock climbs. I was calm and clear minded, thinking through my moves and completely in the moment. Something this pandemic robbed many people of. It was a breath of fresh air, nothing else mattered besides the next few moves. The clarity in the moment you very rarely get in life. No job worries, no family worries, no nagging doubts regarding finances etc. Just you and the mountain.

I finshed the climb and gazed around, the sun had come out illuminating the mountains around, sun peering through the clouds. It was amazing. I set up a two piece anchor and brought the ropes back so I could give support before hunkering down and pulling the rest up. They came up, grins amongst their shaking. It was fantastic. We were all chuffed as we looked to Cairngorm, running back down before packing up (after coffee and chocolate) and trekking to cairngorm for the final photo (with the Cornish flag proudly contrasting). Our trip was fleeting given the circumstances. But it was necessary and beautiful, filled with inspiration, motivation and a seedling to greater things. Nomads Climbing and Adventures Group is simply friends, family, aquantainces and strangers moving forwards to enjoy the outdoors together. We are born to roam and adventure, to climb and to enjoy the social aspect of these fantastic opportunities. It wont be long for the sun to rise, and we wake with sleep in our eyes as we gaze over a steaming cup of coffee over the lakes to the misty mountains ahead.

Bring on 2021. The Nomads.

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