Give 'Im Enough Rope

January 2016. The Scottish International Winter Meet. Perhaps just to make the international visitors appreciate the fickle nature of Scottish winter climbing, the first few days of the gathering were either too warm, too rainy or both. Rather than take our gear for a walk in the wet, windy hills, we went drytooling in the guts of Newtyle Quarry and rock climbing on the shores of the North Sea. Then a morning dawned with clear skies and below-freezing temperatures. A thousand and one teams drove up the road to the Aviemore ski area and stomped across half-frozen bogs to to the Northern Corries. 

A thick layer of hoar frost grew on the walls of Coire an Lochain. As I understood the quirky ethics of Scottish winter climbing, this was considered a good thing. Coming from the cold, dry Canadian Rockies, I was more used to waiting after a storm until wind and gravity had cleared the rock of snow, but hey, when in Rome, do as the locals do. My introduction to Scottish mixed climbing was The Vicar, a two-pitch VII, 8, Scottish winter grades being another enigma.

Dave Garry, my host for the first few days of the meet, led us up the first pitch, then it was my turn. With every surface covered in verglas, cams would've been useless and they stayed in the pack at the base. However, the wires I was fiddling instead into cracks rounded by eons of rain and snow didn't inspire confidence. I stalled below a mantle onto a foot ledge, imagining myself pitching off and ripping out every piece between me and the hopefully solid belay. Fuck it: I slotted a knifeblade into a perfect thin crack and started hammering.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but a sudden hush seemed to fall over the corrie. The only sound echoing around the walls of the amphitheatre was the rising ping, ping, ping of a solid piton going in. I realized I might've broken yet another dimly perceived taboo, but the shame of it wasn't enough to make me stop hammering. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and smashed in a couple more pins as I scratched my way up the pitch.

While Dave scrambled up a short exit pitch onto the summit plateau, another team was already coming up behind us. Tom Livingstone floated up the ropelength that had given me so much trouble. However, whatever he might've thought of my ethical transgression, he graciously clipped rather than skipped the pins I'd placed. After all, that's what we do when a friend makes a fool of himself: we cover up his embarrassment by pretending nothing untoward happened.

A few weeks ago Tom and I caught up for a Zoom conversation that ranged from Rockies' mixed climbing to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. He let me ramble on and I obliged. As the The Clash famously said, all you need to do is to give 'em enough rope. If you're interested, here's the uncut, uncensored interview on ChalkBloc.

Tom Livingstone, fluorescent outfit and all, comes up the second pitch of The Vicar.


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