rough feels good
Not for the faint-hearted, as Charly and Matthias find out braving the elements and the tough conditions. Despite having plenty of alpine experience, Scottish mixed climbing demands a little bit more from the Austrians. Find out how they cope in the land of no bolts, questionable protection and rime-covered rock where snow, rain and hail come in horizontally.
Coire an Lochain, Scotland_02:17 PM
Charly carefully inserts his ice tool into a thin layer of hard snow, or rime, on the surface of the rock. "Keep cool" thinks Charly, though in his homeland of Carinthia, Austria, he would say, "pfugelule.” Hours later, he decides to give the route that very name.
If you ever hear this name again, then that can only mean one thing:
you have signed yourself up for the adventure that is Scottish mixed climbing.
To understand the uniqueness of the Scottish attitude towards climbing, it is perhaps necessary to remind visitors of what is uniquely Scottish. For novices, here are the top three features.
- 1) The bagpipes: an instrument as singular as the sound that it spits out.
- 2) The kilt: no other item of clothing manages to frame men’s legs so stunningly.
- 3) The whisky: in Scotland they have known what to do with grain, apart from bake bread, since the 5th century.
In Scotland, climbing routes with alternating sections of rock and ice have a long tradition. Of course ice climbing equipment is used in numerous countries around the globe. But the term “Scottish mixed” has developed as a result of the extreme and inimitable conditions in Scotland. It’s a daring, no-compromise style, regarded with awe whenever climbers of the frozen verticals gather together. In a word, it’s unique.
Listening to tales of Scottish mixed can be entertaining, but it doesn’t get really exciting until you get to grips with it yourself. And that was what Charly Fritzer and Matthias Wurzer intended to do as they set off from Austria to Scotland.
Preparation was not half the battle in this case, but at least it gave them the edge. Before they set off Charly and Matthias put in some serious training sessions. But how can you prepare for such adverse conditions? Standing under a cold shower followed by chin-up sessions naked in a wind tunnel perhaps? No thanks. “Plenty of training with ice axes, dry tools, mixed climbs and running up north faces – and whatever else you can manage,” seemed to make more sense, says Charly. The strategy worked: “The preparations really did me a lot of good. Especially managing to keep up with Charly. That guy is truly ripped,” says Matthias.
Another important element you need to bring with you before committing to such extreme routes without being able to train in advance: friendship and trust in your climbing partner. This prerequisite was no issue for these guys since they’ve been climbing together for almost five years. Charly, 31, born in Carinthia/Austria but now living in Berchtesgaden/Germany, and Matthias, 29, a professional mountain guide from Kals in Tyrol/Austria, have become a team for whom no corner of the world is too wild.
One of their more recent travels took them to Patagonia – tied with Scotland for the worst weather worldwide – where they tested their resistance to the elements while climbing Cerro Torre, Exupery and Fitz Roy.
In contrast to Patagonia the Scottish Highlands aren’t particularly high: the highest mountain is Ben Nevis at 4,409 ft – which works out to just 1,344 metres. But it’s the sheer expanse of the Highlands that makes the difference. As a rookie there’s an excellent chance you’ll get lost out in the sticks, taking longer than planned to actually find your route. The Austrians do have one advantage: Charly visited Scotland last year to climb some more difficult routes with the Queen of Ice, Ines Papert, including the extreme line Bavarinthia (IX/9).
Plus, they made friends with two of the toughest aficionados of Scottish mixed climbing: the young and talented Will Sim and the dyed-in-the-wool Scottish mixed climber Greg Boswell, who both know the most important climbing areas and the local conditions like the back of their hand.
After some time climbing together Charly and Matthias started to understand the principles of Scottish mixed climbing:
The weather is never bad, because it’s usually terrible.
It’s never really cold, but at near freezing temperatures you better be prepared for a merciless wind and pea-souper visibility.
"We climb in bad weather because it’s the only weather," says Will.
Because the temperatures only just dip into minus figures, there is no ice but rime instead. Rime is a substance halfway between snow and ice, possessing properties of both without truly deciding which it si. Rime is neither one nor the other. If you haven’t climbed rime, then by Scottish standards you haven’t done a winter climb. Which means you won’t have earned haggis for your tea.
Strength isn’t everything, in fact in these conditions it’s only a small part of the story.
What you really need are strong nerves.
Whoever dares defy the Scottish ethic and drills a bolt will be banned from climbing for life.
You need to be on first name terms with your chocks, friends and hexes.
Grading is also calculated slightly differently in Scotland. The Scottish mixed scale consists of a roman numeral to indicate the overall grade (up to grade XI), followed by a second figure referring to the most difficult section of the climb. The overall grade is intended to give an idea of the physical demands of the climb as a result of the sparse protection that can be used. That’s why difficult routes are also extremely demanding physically.
Matthias: “It’s all about protection, or the lack of it. You start crapping yourself if you think too much about the last protection you set being way below you, and that it is probably not all that good. But when it’s behind you and you’ve finished the climb, then you’ve all the more reason to be proud of yourself. Your pint of Eighty Shilling tastes brilliant after that!”
So climbing in Scotland requires a strong heart, strict rules and respect for the ethics. Off-putting for some, inviting for others, as proven by the impressive list of climbs notched up by Matthias and Charly.
During their seven-day tour they bagged a number of climbs in Cairngorms National Park on Coire an Lochain, among others, including Fall Out Corner (VI/7), Nocando Crack (VII/8) and Pic ’n Mix (IX/9), which for Matthias was “the best kind of route—where everything goes to plan.” To top that, Charly conquered The Secret (X/10) on Ben Nevis. In his opinion he would have rated it grade VIII/9, which goes to show that, a) even an outsider can develop a feel for Scottish climbing, and b) even non-Scots can excel at mixed.
Looking back, they ask themselves whether winter mixed climbing really is as difficult as everybody says. Do you need to take out life insurance and sign a will before you get started? Do you really have to be as immortal as a Highlander to climb and descend these routes unscathed?
Matthias says: “You don’t need to believe all the rumours; the Scots don’t wear kilts while they are climbing either. There are routes of all grades. It’s just that many climbs are well off the beaten track. You’ve got to make sure nothing goes wrong, even on an easy climb!”
As with any challenging route, the question you’ve got to ask yourself is what kind of potential risk you are prepared to take on board in the name of success. As Charly says: “A route is not just awesome because it is difficult, but the grade of difficulty certainly has its attraction."