Climbing Clouds by Dan Sharpe
As I looked up at the ridge, it seemed incomprehensible that we would make that
climb. In reality, the route was largely invisible with dense cloud shrouding the
upper two thirds of the Corrie and a light snow was just starting to touch my
With my mind focussing again I noticed our guide was already roping up, and
with a double and triple check of our knots we began the gradually steepening
ascent. This was my first true attempt at ice climbing, and it looked as though the
Cairngorms would give me a baptism of fire.
I was assured the route was not technical, but physically demanding nonetheless.
With crampons starting to take hold, and ice axe becoming increasingly relevant,
the slope steepened and the real climbing began. We hadn’t ascended far before
we were in the cloud and conditions were poor. It was bitter, with ice and snow
drifting in what little breeze there was. Visibility was as little as ten metres above
and below, and as we ascended the narrow crack on the face of the Corrie the
conditions gave the feeling of complete isolation.
When visibility is such that you cannot see the floor of the Corrie, nor the peak, it
gives you a surreal sense of suspension. You have no reference point of how high
you are or what lies around the next crest. We paused at what must have been
mid-point on the climb. I was breathless, but feeling good.
As we rested, two other climbers passed us and continued on their way. We
allowed some time before following in their tracks, but we had little chance of
seeing them in the cloud. Fatigue began to set in as we continued our ascent, and
the climber below me shouted up to break and recover. I relayed the message,
looking vertically up into the white abyss to communicate with our guide.
Whatever happened in that moment, instinct told me to look down. In a split
second, ice was raining from above and no sooner had my head dropped than a
large fragment impacted the top of my helmet. The noise shocked me,
particularly in the otherwise dampened environment from within the cloud, but I
was unharmed. I stabilised myself, removed a glove and inspected my helmet. It
seemed structurally intact at least, which is more than would have been said for
my face if I were still looking up.
The ice must have been from the climbers above, but no shout was given and we
were not even sure of which route they were taking up the face. It was both lucky
and unlucky at the same time, and could have been a whole lot worse.
The rest of the climb was spent in silence. We summited on the ridge not long
after and saw no evidence of the other two. It was still a whiteout, but we
perched on the narrow ledge to refuel and I tried to stretch out the cramp that
had developed in both my forearms and calves. I was still a little rocked, but as we traversed, the ridge began to widen and the cloud dissipated. We were left with a breath-taking view over the surrounding hills and as we descended back into the fog below, all was forgotten about the incident on the climb. Both the weather conditions and the climbing was a harsh lesson to a novice, but one that shows you should never get complacent in the mountains.