Young Canadian alpinist Marc-Andre Leclerc recently visited Scotland for the first time as part of a strong Canadian group alongside Paul McSorley, Ian Welsted, Michelle Kadatz and Paul Bride, sampling Scottish winter and coming away with a ticklist that can only be described as "Nae too shabby." Refusing to hang around on a belay for too long, Marc-Andre also managed some impressive solo ascents - undeterred by slab avalanches, unrelenting winds and torrential rain.
Just like whisky, haggis and Irn-Bru, Scottish winter climbing can be an acquired taste. Though with multiple hard Patagonian first ascents to his name - including the first ascent of the Reverse Torre Traverse and the first solo of The Corkscrew - it's perhaps no surprise that Marc-Andre dealt with the complexity of Scottish winter better than most. We caught up with Marc-Andre to find out what he thought of what Scotland had to offer...
How did your trip to Scotland come about, and how long did you stay?
The trip came about for me in a superbly appropriate manner for a Scottish winter trip. In mid November I ran into photographer Paul Bride at a heavily whiskey fuelled, post slide-show event in Squamish and he told me about the trip. From what I recollect I said I couldn't go due to not having any money but Paul responded that he would try to get some extra budget for the trip to bring me along. It was classic whiskey banter and I didn't think too much of it until two weeks later when I heard we were approved and I was going to Scotland. I didn't even know in what month we were supposed to leave! It turned out to be a two week trip from late Jan through the first week of Feb.
Had you been before? If not, what was your prior impression of Scottish Winter climbing?
I had never been to Scotland but when I was only 11 I read Dougal Haston's book In High Places where he recollects some of his early adventures with Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith. I was very keen to tread some of the same historic ground as some of my own inspirational figures! My mum is from Liverpool and has always told me about the hardiness of the Scots and the atrocious weather so I expected gnarly, character building conditions and threw the clear goggles into the tool kit.
Did the reality match up to your expectations?!
The reality certainly matched up to all I had heard although I did expect it to be colder in valley bottoms. I had no idea that one starts in the rain then walks up to the freezing level. Being from a coastal region myself I should've known better! As far as the climbing goes, it has a reputation for being scary due to a lack of bolts. Luckily I first learned how to mixed climb by just encountering snowy rock in the Canadian mountains and proceeding to carefully solo it, or by questing up new routes with no gear, so I think I was well prepared for the actual climbing.
What were your objectives? What did you get done? You also chose to solo some routes - tell us about those too?
At the start of the trip conditions were abysmal but we eventually made it to the Ben where I climbed a couple of easy routes with Mcsorley as well as Sioux Wall VIII in really gnarly weather. As conditions improved slightly I made it to Stob Coire Nan Lochan and soloed Central Buttress VII with goggles on. The next day the soloing binge really kicked off as we were a group of five climbers and I was not keen on long belays as a team of three. That day we returned to Stob Coire and I soloed:
Scabbard Chimney V, Tilt (Winter) VI, Chimney Route VI, a harder variation of Twisting Grooves into Moonshadow(?) and Spectre. A fun link up!
Then we returned to the Ben in a rough storm and I again donned goggles and soloed:
Tower Ridge IV, Thompson's Route IV, downclimbed from the last few metres of Winter Chimney V, up the ice smear right of Winter Chimney, Gargoyle Wall, Green Gully and The Banshee.
The next day I figured I ought to just keep the momentum so I did:
Point Five Gully V, Hadrian's Wall Direct V, Smith's Route V, Minus Two Buttress V into Northeast Buttress, Italian Right-Hand IV into Tower Ridge and at the end of the day I started up Darth Vader VII (without my trusty bail cord quite stupidly) and ended up having Mcsorley and the others toss me a line as I sat in the belay cave under the crux roof. It was a slightly embarrassing end to a fantastic day.
Jon Walsh and I climbed Happy Tyroleans IX in the Cairngorms on the last day. The weather was terrible but it was good to climb something a bit more technical at last!
What was your most memorable Scottish winter route/experience?
All of the climbing was quite memorable. I really loved soloing all those routes and glissading down gullies to link them together. I would say that the part that will always stick with me would be questing along the summit plateau of the Ben in whiteout conditions with ski goggles on, searching for the correct gully to slide down. With the rime everywhere, and the blowing snow I felt like I was in some sort of adventure video game, I was loving it.
How were the conditions?
Towards the end of the trip I thought conditions were great! People at the hut told me that most of the ice routes I soloed were 'too thin' but I thought they were fine. Too thin to protect I guess but no problem to climb. The Scottish ice is very soft and pliable and compared to ice in the Canadian Rockies extremely easy to climb - almost always one swing!
In terms of exposure and conditions, how did the climbing compare to routes you have done in Canada and Patagonia, for example?
As I mentioned the ice in Scotland is much friendlier than in Canada, however the weather is much worse than the Rockies where clear skies are fairly normal. The weather in Patagonia can definitely kill you equally fast or even faster than in Scotland, especially in the Patagonian Winter where -20 degree air temps can be coupled with hurricane force wind coming in supercooled from the icecap. The big difference is that when the weather is bad in Patagonia you run away and hide! Whereas in Scotland you actually go climb in the bad weather. So because of that Scotland had the worst weather I had ever enthusiastically gone climbing in. I went through a stint of storm climbing here in Canada while trying to become better prepared for these kind of things, I think it was good practice!
What makes Scottish Winter climbing special, in your opinion?
I found that there was a lot of enthusiasm and great energy surrounding Scottish winter climbing which I thought was amazing! In North America people are generally too wimpy to go out in bad weather and climb snowy rock without bolts. It was so great to see so many people keen on a clearly not 'dummed-down' version of the activity. I met a number of young guys around my age who are just tearing it up out there and totally getting after it, which I basically never see back at home where I feel like a total anomaly. I also found the possibility for enchainments amazing! It is so easy to slide down the gullies and keep doing laps with a 'why stop now?' kind of attitude.
What is your opinion on the ethics of Scottish winter?
The ethics around Scottish winter climbing are great. I think other places could adopt some of this and protect the mountains a bit more. The lack of bolts certainly doesn't stop anyone out there. I'm not against bolts here and there on a quality logical line that would be a death route without them, but I think closely spaced grid bolting or unneeded bolts/rappel routes in the mountains ought to be done away with everywhere.
Tell us about the avalanche that knocked Paul McSorley off his feet.
The avalanche that Paul triggered was extremely small and not dangerous on its own, but it was a definite confirmation to our concerns that the danger was increasing rapidly.
Will you be coming back? What's next for you, any trips planned?
I would be psyched to come back although I have some obsessive winter projects back home and I don't know when I will find the time to head back over. But I think it is safe to say I will be back at some point.
I will be heading to Baffin Island this year, and hopefully make another trip to Patagonia in winter if I can! I am also really motivated to free climb on El Cap again as my last experience there was mind blowing.
Visit Marc-Andre's Facebook Athlete Page.
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