With permission from: Scottish Mountaineering Journal, May 1948, p.21-24
During the winter of 1946-47 my work gave me an opportunity for serious climbing, and I was peculiarly fortunate in entering the land of "ice-crowned castles" with W. H. Murray, a master of ice-craft and a patient teacher, as my guide. My debt to him may be repayed in part by encouraging others to venture on our Scottish hills in winter, there to know the intense joy and satisfaction of climbing on snow and ice.
One misty December day found us on Stob Coire nan Lochan at the top of S-C Gully. The steep, smooth rocks were encased in an armour of fog crystals, and overhung by tottering cornices left unstable by a recent thaw. From above it seemed that the visible part of the gully verged on the impossible, but I was assured that the main difficulties were hidden in the mist below. My companion's reminder that S-C was on our winter's schedule of climbs was frankly terrifying.
Two months later Kenneth Dunn, Murray and I laboured through deep, soft snow to Coire nan Lochan. From the corrie S-C looked sensational indeed; to me the 70-foot pitch was clearly on the wrong side of the vertical. When once we were in the gully, however, the first pitch appeared to be set at quite a reasonable angle. My companions dug in, and with, " Well, Donald, it's all yours!" I was commissioned to "have a crack at it." By hard experience I have found that, although I may overestimate the angle of an ice-pitch while I am on it, I invariably underestimate the angle when below. The first pitch in S-C was no exception; half-way up, the ice actually bulged and cling-handholds had to be cut.
Cutting above the head is an occupation which tests the power of both body and will. Accurate placing of the steps is vital. Well-placed steps enable the cutter to stand easily in balance while he fashions the steps beyond. Poor steps initiate a vicious circle; the cutter is forced to move on before adequately constructing the steps above, and the tendency to move faster than one cuts is much easier to be aware of than to check. Even although cutting in relays, we took two hours to surmount that first pitch; as time did not permit us to continue, we resolved to return to the assault the following week-end. But south-west wind and thaw during the next week meant that S-C became impracticable.
On Saturday evening Murray and I halted at Alltnafeadh and debated the relative merits of Lagangarbh with a fire and a high camp on Bidean. Although the night was anything but promising we chose the latter. It was a dark night with no wind, and toiling up Coire nam Beith was hot work; shirts were opened and sleeves rolled up. The cliffs were felt rather than seen. High on the mountain the snow became hard and we had to cut.
A chill wind swept over the summit as we pitched the tent beside the cairn. For a brief moment the peak rose into the clear frosty sky.
"... at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still ocean and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched,
In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic."
The stars flashed bright in the absence of the moon. How small a summit for so large a mountain! A cloud- wave broke coldly over the summit, and with a shudder we dived into the warmth of the tent. It may be remarked that winter camping (with a high-altitude tent) is by no means uncomfortable, provided that ground insulation is achieved. On this occasion the tent fabric was rapidly sealed by a wind-proof layer of ice; outside, the ice-axes were thickly encrusted with delicate fog crystals. Once we were comfortably settled in our sleeping-bags, the crackling of the ice-skin as the wind shook the canvas and the strangely soothing noise of drifting snow were delightful to listen to; they kept us reminded of our airy situation. The morrow was a grand day of rolling mists and warm colours; a day that effectively dispels the common illusion that winter colours are only black and white. They were, in fact, more rich and varied than those of summer.
After a week of frost I rejoiced at the prospect of a further attempt on S-C, and the following week-end joined Murray and Dunn at Lagangarbh. We went to Coire nan Lochan that night in order to get an early start in the gully. The frozen loch, covered with snow, made an excellent camping site. The night was still. Through breaks in the grey sky streamers of aurora were flickering. The towering cliffs seemed infinitely remote and awesome in their grandeur; their details were outlined in ice. He would be insensitive indeed who, looking on that scene, failed to understand why Byron asked:
" Are not the mountains, waves, and skies a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them ?"
That night, however, the weather broke; a blizzard came up from the east. S-C had to wait for another day. In the morning we saw the gully; the lower 250 feet was continuous ice:
" Between those hanging rocks, that shock yet please the soul.
Charming the eye with dread . . .
A fortnight later H. W. Tilman, who had come north to lecture on Nanda Devi, joined Murray and myself. We made an early start from Lagangarbh. The hills were in a happy mood ; white clouds were herded peace- fully by the west wind, and in S-C we were sheltered. Murray avoided the first ice-pitch by very difficult rocks on the left, and a further run-out took him to the rock-belay'below the 70-foot pitch. Tilman and I joined him and prepared for a long wait. Above us Murray traversed right, on to the ice-pitch, and looked up. A pause, and he cut up out of sight, using the short axe.
The gully walls rose steeply to imprison us. Ice-chips raced in a steady stream down the ribbon of ice and disappeared over the lip of the pitch below. They made a pleasant, tinkling, swishing sound as they went. The mist opened. The sun shone on the white crest of the Aonach Eagach, the lower slopes of which were rich brown. Cloud shadows moved leisurely. How pleasing was the blue of the sky above the white pitch and the black rock walls! A fleecy cloud rushed over the top, and, watching it, I nearly overbalanced. The mist closed in again, and we were conscious only of the pitch. For a long time the ice-chips still sped downwards; intermittently the rope ran out a few more inches.
The crux was at the very top of the pitch where an ice-bulge had to be removed before the staircase could be continued. The strain must have been cruel after so much one-armed cutting, but it is characteristic of great ice-pitches that they must be "forced."
Of another place Tilman wrote: "I will not guess at the angle for fear of being called a liar, but it seemed to me that a man with a long nose, standing upright, could have wiped it on the snow." I myself can affirm that on this pitch my nose did touch the snow, but whether this was due to the excessive angle of the pitch or length of my nose, I know not; one unkind critic has even suggested that perhaps I didn't stand quite upright. The ice-pitch surmounted, we moved together up to the cornice, which was small and gave no trouble.
What a joy to tread on the level summit! No longer now the need to place the feet precisely. After the confines of the gully, how vast the expanse of sky! The shades of blue and green in Loch Linnhe were superbly delicate, and lower Glencoe was bathed in warm and kindly colours. For long, hard hours the mountain had kept us, body and mind, to one single task. Released, we found our senses keener and our vision widened; we perceived new subtle harmonies in common things. The mountain had been gracious. We stood, not conquerors but by permission, on the summit; and we had tasted true joy – for surely to climb a mountain is to serve it.