I stand at the bottom of the gully, looking up. It really looks pretty straight forward. Well, the five meters or so I can see does anyway, before the route sneaks up and around the corner. We huddle at the bottom of the gully, out of the sun, six of us, not sure what's going on further up except for the occasional flurry of snow kicked down from on high where a rope connects some unknown person to their belaying mate, who's fumbling with a magic plate, looking cold and shouting up for progress reports in a French accent. We're third in the 'queue'. It looks like we should have got here earlier, shaken ourselves awake from the dreams coloured by last nights display of aurora sooner, scraped the ice from the car quicker, and probably got better at winter climbing a good while ago.
I'm quarter of an hour early, somehow, and not only that but they're running late. I find an old copy of Vogue, which whilst it's a bit dog eared, still looks strangely out of kilter with the shabby waiting room. I idly wonder how the summer holiday fashions, delicate gypsy tops, strappy bejewelled sandals, fuchsia pink sparkly lip gloss, would have worked out on the trip this summer, how they would have survived the dust, the half melted brie, being dragged through the undergrowth on a wrong turning to one of the more esoteric crags. Turns out I've got another half an hour to wait. I keep reading, and, to be honest, worrying.
An hour and a half later, we're still stood there. The first party (to the best of our knowledge) have now headed on up, with second swimming around a bit on the soft snow of the lower section. There's a brief hiatus whilst the next pair decide whether to risk setting off hot on the sharp crampon-shod heels of the ledge's previous occupant. They don't wait long; the sun's shining on the top of the crag, but down here in the shade with the wind picking up, whistling round and sending eddies of snow across the corrie below, thoughts turn to whether we'll make the last gondola down (gondolas, good grief!). We see a glove roll down the slope away to the north, a black dot somersaulting towards the frozen lake down below.
Finally, just when I'm reading about an auction of Katherine Hepburn's life possessions, a call from above “Miss Smith, would you like to go up now. Just go straight in”. I walk in, apprehensive, and sit in the dentist's chair. My teeth don't hurt, really, I don't think I need a filling, what am I doing?!?
The couple in front of us don't seem to be making much progress. He's been round the corner now for at least an hour; she's not had to pay much rope out and is stood there, cold and bewildered at what's taking him so long. Several parties have come up below us, gazed up, and decided to go elsewhere, that it's not worth the wait, and another team have decided to head off up a gully round to the left. Well, we could do that, but Rich soloed it yesterday, it'd be a shame... Ten minutes later, with still no movement from within our gully save the odd flurry of snow, we head up the left hand gully. I take a look back at the belayer, who's been stood there for a good hour now, not able to move. She looks like she's slowly turning blue, the cold creeping from every extremity, huddled into her belay jacket. Rounding the corner into second choice gully, we just hear her partner shouting down that he's going to ab off, he can't stand the vertical queuing any longer, whilst round in second choice gully we're assailed by snowballs pelted unintentionally from on high. I stamp my feet and shrink into my neck warmer.
The dentist produces a needle so big it must have last been used to vaccinate cows on Vets in Practice. I cringe and close my eyes.
Established in Second Choice Gully, Jasper and I stamp out a flattish bit of snow and perch there to belay. Rich valiantly leads the main pitch, says he found it harder than when he soloed it yesterday. Jasper looks cold and unimpressed with this winter climbing lark and we take turns to head on up to join Rich at the belay, flailing in soggy snow and smacking at the refrozen ice with a lack of talent borne out of little experience and too long in the cold. Somehow I end up leading on up to face the cornice, shivering violently; I've said I'll do it just because I want to get moving again; it'll take my mind of the hot aches I guess. I flail about in the snow, wondering whether the rope is a help or a hindrance – surely I wouldn't be thinking about the drop back down the gully if it were a walking axe in my hand. I feel sick. This wasn't a good idea. Rich didn't like the cornice yesterday, how am I going to find it now? I swear. Unnecessarily and plentifully.
The drilling stops. I open my eyes. “Right, that's that” says the dentist. “I've just got to do the filling now”. Soon I'll be on my way home, puffy cheeked, wondering how long it'll take for me to regain enough feeling in my face to be able to drink a much needed cup of coffee.
All of a sudden, I'm through the cornice. Or what's left of it, most of it having been kicked down in the last twenty four hours. I crawl on to the plateau, topping out with no style whatsoever, and grin, to no one in particular, since they're all probably at the car park supping out of their flasks by now. Rich follows me up, then Jasper, we throw together the gear and run back down the ski slopes, scarcely noticing the amazing sunset over the loch, to find the place still thronged by skiers, snowboarders, sledgers and general hangers on. I dig out a bar of tooth-rotting chocolate, and wonder when I'll next be able to feel my fingers and toes.Annette has been climbing for seven years. After several years of winter hill walking, she has been strangely attracted to the opportunities for misery afforded by winter climbing. She currently works at Lancaster University researching strategic management in FE colleges.