A Winter's Tale - New Year Special with Rad Butts

© Nick Smith - Climbers

Rad Butts and Creagan Beaulay are two leading all-round climbers who describe themselves as 'riding the wind.'  The pair have an astonishing CV, including the first winter ascent of Aphrodite (UKC article) and the World's hardest boulder problem; Park Front - Font 9A (UKC News). Both these feats remain unrepeated.

Here Creagan Beaulay describes the pair's recent astonishing ascent of a classic on Aonach Mor, using new-wave ethics.

Storm getting up on Aonach Mor  © Sean Kelly
Storm getting up on Aonach Mor
© Sean Kelly

A Winter's Tale

Rad's a Rollodex guy in an I-Touch world.  He might not have the latest apps, but the batteries are never going to fail.  He might take a few knocks here and there, but he's never going to wipe out altogether.  Even total immersion doesn't destroy him.  It just blurs the index cards. Put him next to the radiator overnight and the next morning, he's good to spin.

2009 was one of the toughest years on record.  Rad did have to sell his house when he lost his day job, but just a month later, he seemed quite happy living out of a deserted Ministry of Defence building on a cliff in the middle of nowhere.  He said he had enough money in the bank to keep him going for a decade. I had my doubts about that, but I didn't tell him.

At the end of last winter season, Rad was ready for the next great challenge.  But what was left? He'd already nailed the FWA of Aphrodite, with its astonishing overall grade of XVI, described by Ian Parnell as 'a last great problem.'

Slammers of doom

We're in front of the Calor gas stove at Rad's hideaway one evening, drinking Jägermeister and vodka slammers and eating cold kebabs. Soon Rad starts wondering aloud just what big route to aim for. But this time, there's no sudden flash of genius from the great man.

And inside me, there's this horrible feeling of doubt.  The more I watch the flames, the stronger it grows. The stronger it grows, the more I drink.  Soon, I'm an empty, hopeless thing, and all I can smell is old piss.

After my fifth double shot, I reach into my pocket and hold out a newspaper cutting that I've been carrying around for a few weeks, waiting for my moment.  I tell Rad that the writing is on the wall for winter climbing in Britain.   'I reckon we've got fifteen, twenty years and the whole thing will be over', I say. Rad pushes the cutting away and taps out a rhythm with a dangerous-looking piece of glass from the concrete floor where he's sitting.  A squally wind is driving rain into a broken window on the other side of the room.

'What's it say?' he asks, coolly.

'Okay, here's the deal', I say.  'Basically, we're going to be paying more for petrol.  Plus, we're looking at pay-per-mile road pricing schemes throughout Britain.  This pundit reckons a quid a mile.  Then you're looking at car park pricing at theme-park prices. Oh, and did I mention climate change?'

Rad downs another slammer, as if to show that there's absolutely no doubt in his mind that I'm talking a load of bullshite. But I carry on. 'Rad, we're fucked.  It's going to cost us over £1000 for a weekend of climbing.'


Let's burn some rubber!

I'm prepared for Rad to agree that the whole thing is pointless, that we might as well give up now.  

But I needn't have worried. Rad bounds across the room, and as he does, a scurrying rodent rattles an old tin can at his feet. 'Fifteen years! We've got fifteen years, dude. Let's burn some rubber,' Rad shouts.  And this time I'm the one who pours out the next double shot, and the next, and the one after that. It's next generation's problem, not ours.

A Christmas journey

Rad made it through the year without further misfortune.  After all, he still had what mattered to him:  my friendship, a 12 year old Lada Riva and a roof over his head.

The day before Christmas Eve, Rad drove up to see me.  I heard the familiar whine of the Lada outside, and then he was hammering at the door. 'Come on,' he said.  'Let's burn some rubber!'

It was 9.40 at night. I finished my chips and without even throwing the wrapper away, wiped my hands on my trousers and picked up my pre-packed winter rucksack.  Just a few minutes later, we were driving up towards the Highlands.

A journey that should have taken nine hours took 13. We'd been towing a heavy trailer with a tarp lashed down over the top, but however much I probed, Rad just wouldn't tell me what was in there. 'Rock artist's materials,' he said, with a deadly serious look on his face.

Rad finally pulled up at Leanachan.  I jumped out and pulled off the tarp as quickly as I could.

I couldn't believe my eyes.  There, right in front of me, was a whole outdoor shop's worth of leashless ice-axes, each with a distinctive orange grip. I counted, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12...20.  And then I realised: under the top layer was yet another tightly-packed arrangement of axes.  And beneath that, another.

'Sixty,' said Rad, with obvious pride. 'They did me a deal for sixty axes.'  And before I could ask anything, Rad was on his mobile, making shapes in the night air with a roll-up.  He was cooking something good, but for once, I was completely in the dark about what he had in mind. 

I sniffed the night air and looked up at the stars.   'Drive up that track as far as you can and wait for me,' said Rad. 

I steered the Lada with difficulty to the end of a steadily rising forest track.  After an hour, another car had followed behind, and then another. Inside the last car was Rad.  The others, I assumed, were the usual hired helpers.

At midday on Christmas Day, I was at the foot of the outstanding winter climb named Stirling Bridge (VI, 7) on Aonach Mor. 

I looked up at the work that had taken seven of us most of the previous day and all morning to complete. 

The formidable-looking corner that characterises the climb was transformed into something beyond surreal by the addition of every single axe we'd dragged into the coire with us. 

By abseil, we'd hammered each leashless axe as far as it would go into the best cracks. We'd left the axes cemented to the best hooks we could find.  Some shafts pointed up the crag, some downwards, others at jaunty intermediate angles.  But all 60 axes stood out bright orange against the rime and plastered snow of the buttress.  In cases where the climber would normally have to torque, we'd narrowed the crack with a suitable peg placement in parallel with the blade of the axe. The results were bomber.

At the overlap where the main crack runs out, we'd embedded two axes together. The leftwards transition onto the snowy rock above was now beguiling: two prominent handles showed the way.

All in all, there wasn't much more than a metre of climbing out of reach of the next axe.   We'd made a lurid sculpture out of that climb. It was a work of art.

Stairway to Heaven

Rad was nearly ready for one of the biggest moments of his climbing career.  He told me that even before we headed up here, he'd sent a press release to TV and radio, newspapers and the climbing press. 'The coire is going to be rammed when those guys turn up,' he said. I wanted to say something about news desks going quiet over Christmas, but I knew better than to mistrust Rad's judgement. 'Expect some downdraught from the chopper with the TV cameras,' he counselled.

Looking down across the coire and towards the forest, I saw that we were completely alone for now.  But the media could start arriving any minute now.  We had to work fast.

Just a couple of hours later, Rad had assumed his critical position on the crag, and here's how.

I had abseiled most of the way down the cliff with him, and then, well, unleashed him. Rad unclipped from the rope and took up the one relatively comfortable bridged position that can be found across the corner.  He was now holding onto two of the best pre-made axe placements that have ever existed.

I jumared back up to a less visible stance above and gave a signal to the team below. 

All at once, two portable halogen lights twinkled gently into life beneath us while Rad, primed for action in the crack below, listened out for his starting signal.

On the coire floor far below us, our huge PA system came to life. In the windless afternoon, the coire walls tinkled with the arpeggiated guitars and dulcet flutes that gently start Stairway to Heaven. Rad was shaking out a leg, looking psyched to power up the corner.

Five minutes and 56 seconds later, Rad's moment had arrived.  From the start of the big vocals and guitar riff, he now had exactly two minutes to bust out of his position and rock-n' roll his way along the line of pre-placed axes to the top of the climb.

But he didn't.

The music finished and Rad still hadn't moved.  I abbed down to him. He signalled to clip him to my harness, and we returned to the foot of the climb.


Dude, you touched genius today

'See,' said Rad, shivering for some reason, 'when these journalists turn up, it makes much more sense if I'm around to answer questions,' he told me.  'So let's swap. You climb and pretend to be me, and I'll handle the questions.' 

And that's exactly what we did.  Rad stayed at the foot of the climb, while I followed the line of pre-placed axe-shafts to the top.  I can't say I sprinted up the route: after all, I was soloing - admittedly in a contrived way - but soloing very technical ground all the same.   Getting started was tense. I completely forgot about my feet and was soon scuffling about and terrifying myself.

Things felt a lot better once I realised that even if I could really pull to my heart's content on those pre-placed axes, it made better sense to enjoy a technical climb with as much precision as possible. Somehow, I found the critical foot placements, made it in one piece and topped out with a lung-emptying 'YE-E-ESSSS!!!'

In the end, it didn't matter to either of us that nobody turned up to see the show.  By acting as Rad's body double, I had, for a moment, felt what it was like to be a greater person than I really was.

Suddenly, the truth came home to me. For a few minutes, I had become Rad.  'Dude, you touched genius today,' he said.

© Al Siddons.  All rights reserved. No duplication on any other media without permission from the author. 

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Astral Highway

6 Jan, 2010
6 Jan, 2010
ahhhh, read the previous adventures and all becomes clear ;)
6 Jan, 2010
Is it even a true story?
6 Jan, 2010
I get the 'hilarious' humour of the article, i'm just interested as to whether them actually did hire a load of axes out. I'm guessing not as anybody who has time-enough to concoct such a well written piece, surely can't climb very much.
6 Jan, 2010
Rad Butts and Creagan Beaulay do climb a lot Franco, more than you and they are far far better. Your day will come if you follow the bible of climbing according to Rad Butts. Keep it real Franco.
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