Winter Climbing with 'Rad'by Al Siddons (Astral Highway) Feb/2009
This article has been read 6,327 times
'Rad' Butts and Creagan Beaulay are two British climbers who describe themselves as 'riding the wind.' Here, Creagan looks back to the time he first met Rad and reflects on his first outdoor climb, a winter route in the northern Cairngorms.
Read Creagan's next UKC Feature here: Aphrodite
From the moment I caught sight of 'Rad', all I wanted was to climb as hard as he did.
I was down the wall with a bit of time to kill before for my very first beginner's session.
Rad was on this vertical panel. First he was doing fine, but then he had to tackle an overhanging section. It looked really out there.
Rad tried one way after another. After a few attempts, he started shouting when he fell off. Soon, he was completely drenched in sweat, but he still wouldn't give up. Finally, after letting out a huge roar and slapping the wall so hard it obviously hurt, he managed to get to the next bit. 'Motherfucker!' he shouted, then 'take!' I didn't know want that meant, but he grabbed a carabiner to steady his balance. It was way cool.
After my sixth session, Rad and his mates started bouldering on the wall where I was randomly standing and thinking what to do next. I asked him how I could get into outdoor climbing and he suggested we talk it over during a drink or two. The following week, he emailed me some video clips of people climbing frozen waterfalls, mostly in Norway. And there were some really wild falling sequences. 'Yeah, you can't really hurt yourself,' said Rad. The vids were from YouTube, but when I emailed Rad back, he couldn't remember if he was in them or not. 'It all gets a bit blurred after your 500th ascent, lol,' he wrote.
The following week I told Rad I wanted to try that kind of climbing. 'Awesome,' he said, with a glint in his eye, 'I've been looking to get up to Scotland for a bit of a poke around in the snow. ' I didn't realise at the time that this was experienced winter climber's code for doing some really out-there climbing.
Obviously I quizzed Rad on the safety side of things: I'd be a fool not to. He told me not to worry because I wouldn't need to make any decisions. He would take care of equipment and safety.
One evening after climbing, Rad showed me a couple of tubular ice-screws that he'd just bought from the climbing wall shop. They were long enough to do serious damage. 'You wanted protection,' he said, 'well, you've got it. These will protect you against practically any winter climbing situation.' Later, he told me that he carried one of these things around with him at work for a week before any hard climb. He kept taking the red cap off the end and looking at the teeth. It was like a kind of talisman to Rad, an ice-screw.
Before I knew it, we were ready for the long drive up from London. But at the last minute, we flew to Inverness and hired a car instead. We didn't have time to waste.
Suddenly, we were there, in this ski car-park full of coaches and outdoor activity centre minibuses. I knew that because of Rad's level of knowledge, we were several levels above these people. 'Bumblies' is what Rad called them.
1000: Gearing up
Rad had told me all about layers, so I was wearing a thermal vest, and immediately over that, a wetsuit jacket. Rad told me that this was a good way to keep warm under any conditions. Over the top of that I had this soft-shell that my girlfriend bought me for my birthday.
I shouldn't tell anyone this, but I also had tights on my legs, which is an old military tip. I heard it from the friend of someone whose dad's brother was in the SAS, who told him this is normal for infantry soldiers in cold conditions. So that was good enough for me. Of course I had another two layers on top, including some ancient Buffalo trousers that Rad's brother lent me because he used to be into kayaking.
I had my ski boots on and Rad slipped a pair of battle-seasoned crampons onto them. They were a bit floppy so he tightened them up a bit with a multi-tool. He also produced some green wire that gardeners use, the genius. He wrapped it round a few times and got me to jump up and down and then gave me the thumbs up. He was going to take them off but then said: 'Leave them on to get used to them for a bit.' Finally, he gave me an ice axe with wooden shaft. It came up to my waist height from the ground, and I'm quite tall. 'Hickory,' said Rad, 'strong as anything.'
He also gave me another axe that sounded like 'Terrordaktil'. This axe was much shorter. Obviously Rad had more professional axes as he might have to make tough decisions out there.
1040: Ready for the off
Rad fastened his three Camelbak systems, complete with six litres of isotonic drink. I looked a bit surprised, because I only had one can of Red Bull on me.
We were finally moving. We walked behind some ski tows for a bit and then went up a kind of rounded ridge that just went on and on. As far as I was concerned, it was like climbing Everest. It was really windy and cold and my gloves didn't keep my hands warm. I signalled to Rad to stop: time to put on those beefier over-mitts. But a gust of wind caught one of them as I was about to put it on and before I could blink, it was scuttling across the icy snow and was off in the distance. There was no way I could get it back. Forty quid down the pan, and I was going to have a very cold hand indeed. We trudged on. I was already feeling a bit out of my depth, but then I thought of the huge reserve of experience that Rad obviously had.
We probably stopped around ten times because Rad said it was important to keep to just the right temperature. Actually, I was way hot. But whenever we stopped, it was just wind chill city in minutes. Where was this place? It wasn't made for humans.
1250: Corrie-Anne's Nectar
We arrived at the extreme winter climbing venue, Corrie-Anne's Nectar. Rad set to work straight away. He pulled the rope out, and some other stuff spilled onto the snow with it. There was a Zippo lighter, a big bar of chocolate, a book about advanced rope techniques, and something that looked like a firework.
'That's a rocket, in case you get injured or something. I can fire it to attract attention and get help.'
Now Rad was studiously looking through the book on advanced rope techniques. 'Not sure how good these guys are', he said, tapping the cover. 'I'll try out some of this shit and let you know later.'
Wow. I hadn't realised that Rad was at the cutting edge of climbing. Not only that, but I was about to help him basically evaluate a book, on my very first outdoor climbing trip.
Rad had a pee, uncoiled the rope, wrapped the rocket in a bin liner and strapped it to his rucksack. It was great to see that we were prepared for anything. He adjusted his goggles, looked at the guidebook and went off to check a few things out, measuring distances with paces. He finally came back and said: 'I think this is the best option for you: Aladdin's Couloir.' Rad told me it was a grade one, which means basically anything can happen.
1350: The master at work
Rad checked something in his book, then put two slings round me, one between my legs and one round my waist, and tied a rope into them. The wind was whipping-up the snow and hurting my eyes. I could hear other climbers' shouts and clanking from the fissure in the frightening cliff that we were about to climb.
Rad gave me this metal contraption called a belay device and told me to pull it if he fell off. 'Laters,' he said, with a cheeky smile. And off he went, into the snow, up what he later told me was a 'benchmark ice climb'. There was a line of steps in snow in the middle of it, but after a metre of climbing he avoided the steps and made a new pattern in the snow. 'Rank amateurs,' he said.
After a twenty minutes, he stopped climbing. He was about three metres up the couloir. Rad felt the back of his harness and took off one of his ice-screws. He carefully held it in his teeth and then stepped to the side of the couloir and tried to find some ice, but all I could see were these blind cracks in the rock. Rad tried to put the ice-screw back, but it wouldn't go, so he threw it into the snow at my feet. He looked down at his chest and tugged at a sling that he had wrapped round his shoulder. 'Yeah,' he whispered, 'go Rad.'
Rad stared up at the side of the couloir again. Suddenly, he looked really psyched. He held up both ice-axes, looked down at me, nodded and unleashed a wild war-cry. Then he lunged upwards from the hard surface, clawing the air with his axes. One of them struck rock, sending sparks into the air. Now he was at full stretch with his crampon points just touching a rock poking out of the snow. His left axe was hooked over a rock feature. Rad farted.
I could see that Rad was really strong in his upper body from doing press-ups and other preparatory exercises that he'd told me about, so it was no problem for him to hook his other axe over the edge, too.
Then, shouting 'Ter-min-ator!' Rad pulled himself up bodily until his crampon tips got a grip on the rock. After a few minutes, he was standing on a narrow ledge, clawing around in the rocks for a purchase. He had just done some really extreme climbing, and he was now easily six feet above the point where he'd started from.
Rad put his arms round a rock pinnacle and hugged it for a minute, catching his breath, his cheek pressed against the rock. Then precariously, he took off a sling and wrapped it round the rock. He slipped a carabiner onto the sling and clipped the rope in. Now, without warning, he turned round and jumped down into the deep snow of the couloir again. This was a real stunt move, so it wasn't surprising that he lost his balance and landed pretty much level with my feet. 'Yay' he said, smirking.
1510: Darkness from nowhere
After a bit of hydration and a quick glance at the ordnance survey map, Rad carried on climbing. He went past his previous high point and after about 40 minutes, he had climbed four body lengths. Suddenly, Rad shouted through cupped hands, 'It's getting dark. Change of plan!'
I was so close to Rad that I could practically see every thought process. For a novice like me, it was just incredible to be so close to a master completely in charge of an unexpectedly tricky situation like approaching darkness.
Rad whacked one of his axes into the snow, draped a sling round it and clipped it to his harness. Then he took off his rucksack and removed a collapsible shovel from the back. He kicked a shelf in the snow, and then started digging a snow hole in the middle of the gully. I wasn't sure whether to keep holding the rope, so I did.
Snow was avalanching down onto my neck, but this was a small price to pay for the privilege of watching how to do things the proper way.
It was now completely dark. Rad had been working away with a head torch, but I didn't have one. It was really cold, and I kept putting the hand with only one glove into my sleeve, even though it meant letting go of the rope. But I'm sure Rad didn't notice.
Rad was still digging. My jaw and my eyeballs were so cold I couldn't even think properly. I had a pee and got piss down my tights.
The digging stopped. Rad crawled into the entrance of the snow hole to check it out. Only his torch beam penetrated the darkness. Then even that disappeared.
The rope went really tight. Rad was tugging at it, and I remembered that I should climb when that happened. So I clawed my way up the couloir in the pitch dark until I was level with our shelter.
1751: Safe for the night
Hooray! I was suddenly level with the entrance of the snow hole and could see the rope stretching out and then dropping down towards my makeshift harness. I crawled through the entrance, and found Rad lying down on the opposite side. He'd got out a kind of inflatable mat and a sleeping bag, which he had already climbed inside. But he'd cleverly left the zip open so he could belay me lying down.
'Yeah, well done man,' said Rad, sounding as if he was smoking a huge spliff.
I didn't have a sleeping bag or a mat, but I put my rucksack down on the snow and spread the rope out on my side of the snow hole. That was my bed for the night, but I wasn't ready to settle down yet. Fortunately, Rad had various tasks for me to do, like getting a stove out, melting water, making pasta and washing up. 'It's traditional for apprentice climbers to help out the lead climber', said Rad. To be honest, I could see that he needed to keep his strength for the tough challenges that lay ahead.
Rad, exhausted, had crashed out. It was a bit cold for me to sleep, so I peered out into the night. Fortunately the wind had mostly died down and the sky looked clear. But it did feel slightly weird being up here.
I don't know what time I first got to sleep, but it wasn't for many hours. Until then, it was just me and the stars. After that, I probably slept for twenty minutes at a time, but it was no hardship to me.
'Ah, breakfast,' said Rad. 'Let's get some carbs in, then.' I put a pan on the stove and it was soon boiling away merrily. Within minutes, we were eating sugared mugs of porridge. Suddenly, Rad stopped eating. 'What's up?' I asked. He coughed. 'You've just made porridge with a bowlful of my piss,' he said, 'I used that in the night and forgot to empty it out. Sorreeee...'
After breakfast, Rad looked a bit subdued. Then suddenly, his face lit up. 'Are you ready for a challenge?' he asked. I nodded enthusiastically. 'Sound. Here's the plan. Go out, and just basically keep climbing up until you can't go any further,' he said.
0845: Me, at the sharp end!
So off I went. I wasn't sure how the rope was supposed to stop me from falling, so I just climbed a bit carefully. I was still cold through.
As Rad was belaying me from his sleeping bag and couldn't see me, I used the deep steps going straight up the middle of the gully above our snow hole. It felt great until the rope started cutting through the roof of the snow hole, which made progress a bit arduous. But after 15 minutes I was near the top of the climb. Suddenly it really steep and the rope was just stretching on and on below me. I waited and waited, but nothing happened.
Rad didn't show up the whole day. I only realised that he'd changed his plans when I tugged at the rope and found it had been untied. Eventually, a couple of climbers came up past me and told me my mate had headed back 'because he was worried the car wouldn't start in the cold conditions.'
That last bit of the cliff where I was waiting was steeper than the rest, with soft, loose, snow and a big shelf of icier snow above my head. It was all getting really dodgy. I was terrified, but fortunately, another team of climbers clipped a rope and carabiner onto my home-made harness and basically hauled me onto the plateau. Conditions were a bit wild up there.
I followed these kind folk off the plateau, and then they looked after me every step of the way as I clumsily tagged on all the way back to the car park, falling continually with my inept handling of this unfamiliar terrain. When we got to the car park, it was nine at night. I saw that Rad had texted me. 'Taken car 2 Avmr 2 scope food. Laters dude.'
He was always just one step ahead. But I got a lift easily enough, so it was no bother to me to catch up.
Finally, over a curry, we celebrated our first climb together.
And before we'd finished our fourth pint, we were making a toast. 'To the next adventure!'
Rad. Awesome bloke.
© Al Siddons - all rights reserved. No duplication on any other media without permission from the author.
Al Siddons is a freelance writer. He works in content production and editorial trouble-shooting for a variety of organisations.