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The Revelation of Scottish Winter Climbing

The Revelation of Scottish Winter Climbing

Daniel Wildey
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Nobody told me the A82 was so beautiful.  So after a full day of work, four and a half hours driving, including an hour stuck in Glasgow traffic, I wasn’t expecting to be suddenly excited.  I’ve never really understood the whole fascination with ‘the road’ despite being a travel photographer, and I’ve never clamoured to visit Highway 61, never mind revisit it, like Bob Dylan did. But this quaint and quiet little road in Scotland has turned me around on the subject.

driving through scotland, photography, landscape

It’s not the road itself of course, but the landscape, the promise, the unknown, the experience that draws people down it.  For me it was, as ever, the mountains.  I was on my way to photograph a couple of climbers sponsored by new British company, Jöttnar, and it was my first time in the West Highlands.

I admit I’ve become a little blasé about UK mountains after living in the Alps, and I think a part of everyone doubts that their own country can impress them.  Maybe it was the evening light, or the excitement of the upcoming photoshoot, the deliriousness of such a long drive or the prospect of imminently getting into bed.  But only half an hour short of Fort William, my ultimate destination, I had to pull up and bask in the tranquillity of the glens.  Far from the strung out traveller, I was that floaty tourist from the Visit Scotland adverts, who absurdly seems to have the whole of the Highlands to themselves….

scotland, photography, landscape, mountain

There was barely a car on the road, but there was snow on the mountain-tops and sun on my face, so I waited there as the sun went down.

What a start to my Scottish climbing adventure; the journey was supposed to be the hard part.  I arrived a little late, but unusually refreshed for a visitor from England, and ventured out to meet my client, Tommy Kelly, waiting in his VW campervan full of climbing gear.  This was a daunting job for me; visually describing a brand that plans to take on the likes of Arc’teryx requires an assured eye, and as a mountain lover I just want this brand to succeed.  An hour with Tommy put me right at ease, and suddenly the only thing I had to worry about was my 4am alarm clock.

Nobody told me that Ben Nevis involved such a walk-in.  We were with Mike Pescod of Abacus Mountain Guides, so luckily had the key to the gate above the North Face car park.  Less lucky was a fallen tree blocking the track 100 metres on, so we walked.  And walked.  I’m prone to moaning about walk-ins at the best of times, but as a photographer I think I’m entitled to.  I was carrying two mid-sized DSLR bodies, three lenses and two flashes, with the usual accessories.  I’d say about 5kg of camera kit, and that’s on top of the standard Scottish winter climbing gear.  There was also the incalculable weight of trying to keep up with a professional mountain guide and a former Royal Marine…

Ben Nevis approach, photography, scotland

But there’s always something that pushes you onwards and that morning I had many of those things; perfect winter conditions, two expert mountaineers for company, an exciting photographic brief, and my first Scottish winter route coming into view.

As the night sky turned into a perfectly cloudless blue, Mike accusingly told me “you haven’t even earned your spurs…”  People have probably climbed in Scotland for years without ever seeing the elusive blue above their heads, and the insinuation was that I should feel extremely lucky.  Any other day I would, and on most other photoshoots I’d be praying for sunshine, but not today.  We’d been hoping for brooding, dark clouds and atmosphere.  And I felt terribly ungrateful…

From the start of the walk Ben Nevis didn’t look very big.  But that’s because I didn’t realise how far away it was!  Gearing up at the CIC hut, the scale becomes very apparent.  And scale was what I needed; “man against mountain” were Tommy’s words.

minus three gully, ben nevis, scotland, climbing, photography

Climbing photography, and especially ice climbing photography, is a question of balance and compromise.  As we stood at the bottom of the route – Minus Three Gully – I realised I’d better not try to carry everything.  The short, thin, diagonal crack we’d seen from below, was now a long, steep, long, cold, and erm, long gully.  I sacrificed the flashes and some clothing, and climbed with two SLRs slung around my neck like a Mexican bandito in totally the wrong setting!

minus three gully, ben nevis, scotland, climbing, photography

I made the right choice; at the top of the first pitch is a cave, offering views over seemingly  all of Scotland, with some magnificent ice formations to be negotiated as you climb back onto the face.  It would have been good with flash in the cave – but it would have been nothing without an ultra-wide lens, which is why I’d brought the second body.  I got some of my favourite shots of the day, and then managed some of my favourite winter moves of all time as I wrapped my arms around a pillar of ice, axes hooked in opposing directions, and lunged off balance out of the cave and back above thin air, grateful I wasn’t on lead.  It was one of those moves you don’t have much choice about, no working out to do, just a matter of commitment.  Since I was focussed on the photography and looking cool in front of great climbers, the fear had no time to collect and I made the move clean and managed a smile.

minus three gully, ben nevis, scotland, climbing, photography

The rest of Minus Three Gully was sustained but relatively easy with a short, tasty sequence of moves on each pitch – but the cave was definitely the highlight.  For imagery, the next great scene came as we descended, walking out on top of a huge buttress to find an abseil, with the great glen spread out below.  If ever you want to make a man appear small, stand him on Ben Nevis in winter; even on a blue sky day you can feel that your existence is fleeting and the wind could flick you away on a whim.

minus three gully, ben nevis, scotland, climbing, photography

We got what we came for; a humbling experience in a beautifully inhospitable place.

Thanks to Daniel Wildey for slogging his way up to the Frozen North and delighted that his first foray into Scottish winter climbing proved such a success.  It was a day to remember.

You can see the original version of this story on his own blog, here.

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