Perseverance and Punterism on the Big Stone

© UKC Articles

Tim Miller writes about his and Jamie Skelton's first winter ascent of Stone Bastion (Winter) (X 10), and the mishaps that happened along the way.

In the summer of 2021 Jamie climbed Stone Bastion (E4 6a) on Shelterstone Crag. A steep, cracky E4 with the crux pitch being the seventh and final one. He thought it would be a great winter route. We were inspired and keen, but didn't think through the fact that most E4's that have been climbed in winter are X or XI, and we had never climbed anything near that grade.

Attempt 1

In early December 2021 we were making plans to meet up for our first route of the season, and in typical fashion we decided to jump straight in and head to the Shelterstone. So, at 4.30 a.m., I found myself driving down the A9 towards Aviemore. I turned off the dual carriageway onto a smaller road where overnight snow had dusted the road surface. I thought about the appointment I had at the garage next week to put winter tyres on the van and wished I could have done it earlier. 'Shame'.

I came to a T junction and applied the brakes. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. I sat, helpless, as the van glided towards the junction. A moment's relief when I saw no cars were coming was quickly quashed as the van went straight across the junction and into a bush on the far side.

I tried to reverse, but I was stuck. I went out to have a look at the damage.

Cracked headlamp, damaged metalwork, bust tyre. Moments later a 4x4 pulled up and the friendly driver offered to pull the van out. 'What luck!' Five minutes later I was out and parked on the side of the road. I called Jamie and he came to meet me. Not much we could do about the van now, we decided, might as well go and enjoy a day of climbing!

We walked into Coire an t-'Sneachda, up the Goat track, and down into the Avon basin, and we were climbing by 8 a.m. We followed the first two pitches of the winter version of The Needle to avoid the lower slab pitches which would be no fun with axes and crampons. At the first crux pitch of The Needle we deviated right to follow the summer description for Stone Bastion, which re-joins The Needle for the thin fingers crack pitch. To this point things were going smoothly and we were making good time. However, Jamie informed me that the final two pitches were where the route earned its grade.

Pitch six was down to me and involved a delicate traverse followed by a very steep section of thin cracks which climbed very nicely on axes. At the top of the crack the climbing came to a climax as I threw up a heel hook and made a satisfying rock-over move onto a small ledge. This pitch was pumpy but short lived. Looking up, what came next was similar in style but considerably more sustained. I felt a sense of relief; I had climbed all my pitches and my job was done.

By now darkness had set in and surrounded our lonely ledge. I put my jacket on ready for the long belay ahead and hoped Jamie would take us to victory. He reached a chockstone which he hooked his axe over and relaxed.

BANG! In a moment of chaos he clattered down the wall and I ducked as an axe narrowly missed my head and spun into the abyss. I lowered Jamie back to the ledge. We were both astonished to see that dangling from the end of his leash was the lower half of the axe handle. The axe must have remained momentarily hooked in the rock and the force of the fall had snapped the handle clean in half. Exhausted and a little confused, we opted to call it a day.

Four abseils through the night dropped us at the bottom of the crag where we had started that morning in what felt like a distant memory. I reached into my chest pocket to check the time, but my phone wasn't there and the zip was undone. It must have fallen out at some point in the confusion of the descent. 'At least it can't get any worse'.

Fate thought otherwise. Upon arriving to where we'd left the van, it was nowhere to be seen. How could this be happening! We phoned the police who informed us that the van had been obstructing the road and had been towed away to a garage. I would have to pick it up in the morning. Jamie made a two hour detour to drop me off in Inverness, before returning to his house in Roybridge at 2 a.m.

The following day my friend Ben drove me down to the garage in Kincraig where the van was being held. 'I need your ID before I can hand the van back', the receptionist said. 'No problem', I replied, 'my wallet is in the van, I'll just grab it'. 'No! You can't go in the van; it's a police case and we can't let you tamper with any potential evidence!'

Eventually I persuaded her to call the police, who gave her permission to get the wallet herself, after which she proudly told me that I wasn't allowed to change the wheel on site. I watched as she drove the van off their premises, further damaging it in the process. So helpful! After some back and forth between garages searching for parts, the original garage agreed to remove the wheel, change the tyre, and then reinstall the wheel. Finally, we were able to go home.

Attempt 1.5

A week passed before Jamie and I concocted a plan to return to the Shelterstone to finish our business. And so once again, at 4.30 a.m., I found myself driving down the A9 towards Aviemore.

I turned off the dual carriageway onto a smaller road, and suddenly the van began to swing violently from side to side. I slowed right down to stop, but before I could the front left side of the van dropped and the vehicle came to a horrible screeching halt. I jumped out to see what on earth had happened.

The wheel had detached itself from the van, and was spinning like a penny in the road. How could this be? This was the van's first outing since the garage had fitted the wheel! All five bolts were missing; they must have all pinged off as I drove down the A9. Thank goodness the wheel hadn't come off five minutes earlier when I was doing 70mph!

There was nothing I could do, and without a phone, I couldn't even call Jamie to tell him what had happened. He was going to have to sit it out until he realised I wasn't turning up, which, to his credit, he did, for two hours before finally heading home.

Attempt 2

By early March Jamie and I decided we had recovered enough from the trauma to try the route again. And so, at 4.30 a.m., I found myself driving down the A9 towards Aviemore, and - finally - we managed to meet in the car park without any issues.

There was a high avalanche risk that day, so we decided to walk up Coire Cas and onto the plateau via point 1141. We then walked round the top of Hell's Lum and left the bags by a boulder on the plateau in Garbh Uisge Beag, between Hell's Lum and Shelterstone crag. A huge avalanche scar from the side of Hell's Lum served as a reminder of the potential hazard.

The next ten hours went as they had previously; successfully climbing the first six pitches until we arrived at the last pitch. A couple of hours passed where we both had several attempts, inching higher each time. Jamie got through the steep crack and onto the slab where he could see easy climbing and the top of the cliff just five metres away.

In a heroic attempt, he took numerous whippers off the slab, then tried to aid out, but a lack of gear meant that wasn't possible. By now the darkness had rolled in, winds had picked up, and a storm was brewing, so once again we decided to call it a day, and began the abseil retreat.

The final abseil landed me on a steep ice slope and I down-climbed the last fifteen metres to easy ground. As Jamie approached the ends of the rope, I shouted up a warning, he acknowledged and slowed down. However, just as he was coming off the end he caught a crampon and went shooting past me into the darkness. I jogged down to find him picking himself out of the snow having miraculously missed all the boulders.

We made our way back towards the bags, but as soon as we hit the plateau we were met by the full force of the blizzard. Snow whipped into our faces and our touch beams bounced off the snowflakes, meaning we couldn't see beyond ten metres in front of us. We cursed our short-sightedness that morning where, under the calm sunrise, we had neglected to mark the exact location of the bags.

We spent the next hour criss-crossing Garbh Uisge Beag until, out of sheer luck, we stumbled upon our bags. Now we just needed to make it back across the plateau in a blizzard, late at night, without walking off a cliff or setting off an avalanche.

Hours later we arrived at point 1141 at the top of Coire Cas. As we descended the ridge, the wind blew strongest and we could only shuffle on our bums until we reached the familiarity of the ski area. With a huge relief we made it back to the cars. I arrived home very late once again where Beth and Polly had kindly left some dinner out for me.

Attempt 3

A year on and Jamie and I were making plans to meet up for our first route of the season, and in typical fashion we decided to jump straight in and head to the Shelterstone. This time, though, we agreed we couldn't face another epic beating and we just needed to know that the top slab was possible before we tried from the bottom again. We made the tough decision to walk round to the top of Shelterstone crag, where we took turns being lowered down the final pitch and top-roping back out. It felt strange to be back in this position, but this time in the daylight and with the safety of a rope above your head. It felt intimidating all the same.

Having barely made it up on my attempt, I felt dejected. Surely this wasn't going to be possible to lead after having climbed the six pitches below, and in the dark? In a way, I felt relieved that we could draw a line there and agree that it wasn't possible with our abilities.

Then Jamie had another go. He climbed it smoothly and felt much more confident than me. He told me it deserved a final attempt. I wasn't off the hook just yet.

Attempt 4

A week later, at 4.30 a.m., I found myself driving down the A9 towards Aviemore. We met at the car park and made our way up and over the plateau to the boulders below Hell's Lum where we dropped the bags and geared up.

The day was calm as we made our way up the wall, all too familiar with axe and gear placements in each pitch. We were treated to a spectacular sunset as I led the penultimate pitch, and, as darkness fell, I handed the lead over to Jamie.

I could tell he was nervous. Several previous attempts and a lot of effort all boiled down to the next thirty metres, and this time we were here to finish it. He put in an excellent effort, fighting in some fiddly gear, and making it most of the way up the overhanging section. Then suddenly he was in the air, and just as suddenly he smacked into the wall. Again, an axe went soaring over my head, the face so steep that it touched nothing on the way down. We shared a moment of silence as we noted the similarity of this attempt to our very first.

I lowered Jamie back to the belay where we shared an anxious laugh. What now? I didn't have the motivation to come back again, it was now or not at all, I had to give it a final go.

We pulled the ropes down, I tied in and set off, climbing quickly to make the most of what little energy I had left. After a big fight I arrived at the good rest before the final run-out across the slab.

Here, I spent an age arranging as much gear as I could find, then spent an even longer time finding excuses not to leave the rest. The wall above was plastered in verglas and rime, much more so than the previous week. The holds we had identified as the only possible route across the wall were hidden. I climbed up and down, searching out the next move, and clearing snow and ice, before retreating to the comfort of the rest.

Then my head torch flickered. I imagined myself at the top of the slab, run-out above my gear, and my head torch dying and plunging me into darkness. I lowered down a loop of rope to Jamie and he attached his head torch. I pulled it up and put it on.

There were no excuses now. There was nothing left but to head to the top. I teetered onwards, crampons skittering below me, my whole body tense with the anticipation of a fall. An axe pinged off, throwing me off balance, but the other axe remained fast. I was still on the wall, totally focused on the small beam of light before me.

I crept further and further from the gear, until I came to a small snowy ledge, just out of reach. I placed a shaking foot high up and, with as much control as I could muster, made a small pop up with my right axe, hoping the left would stay.

Thud! The axe landed on something firm and I frantically matched with the other. I was in something solid, and I immediately felt the tension in my body ease. I allowed myself to look back at the rope snaking below my feet to the last piece of gear, and savoured the moment. The moonlight shimmered off Loch Avon far below, a gentle breeze fluttered around me and the stars were out. I climbed the last few metres with a huge grin, and the route was done.

Once an anchor was made, I pulled one rope up, attached an axe and the remaining head torch, and lowered them down to Jamie.

I savoured the solitude of the night as Jamie climbed below me, and smiled at the absurdity of the situation. There was a strange satisfaction to having achieved something which, ultimately, held no real importance, and yet felt so significant in terms of personal challenge and experience.

Once on top we hugged and made our way back down to the bags, with a quick detour to look for Jamie's axe. We never found it. The skies cleared as we came over the plateau and descended the Goat Track, and the moon was bright enough for us to turn off our single head torch as we ran back to the car.

We graded the route X 10, as it's one grade higher than we had previously climbed, but we have no idea what it is really. Clearly we didn't climb it in the best style, but it made a great personal challenge that I'm sure future ascensionists will improve upon.

Most importantly, we had fun in the mountains with good friends. I look forward to finding some better-suited objectives in the future that we can do in good style.

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24 Mar

Brilliant read, well done.

24 Mar

Great read, thanks for taking the time to write it

24 Mar

Sounds like an amazing experience and ideal personal challenge, that that really wasn't in the bag even after checking the moves. I feel much more inspired by the spirit with which things are climbed rather than the style. Nice one for going for it. Those slab moves were insecure even in summer (and on second) :D

24 Mar

Really enjoyed this. Great determination to keep coming back!

Good stuff.

Top marks for not trying to justify the style but just telling it as it was. The reasons are (and were) obvious and it's easy for the rest of us to be critical from time to time.

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