Dave belays supportively from two ice screws at the bottom of the ice pitch. Water drips from them and it’s getting dark. I climb a few metres to place my first screw but we’ve forgotten to transfer the last ice screws to my harness. I carefully climb down, take the screws and attach my torch to my helmet. Up again, on good ice axe placements and small ledges for front points. With two solid axes above my head, I twist the screw into the best ice I can find, feeling its sharp points touch rock. With several centimetres of ice screw sticking out towards me, I tie it off with a short sling and clip it. Lacking confidence in this thought provoking protrusion, I focus on axe placements instead.
Cracks appear in the brittle ice, spreading outwards from the embedded pick and sending warning signals to my brain. Pulling lumps of ice onto Dave below, I clear them away to find more solid, more elastic ice underneath. Testing good axe placements, I move up on front points and swing again, aiming for small, snow-filled depressions in the ice – a good tip handed to me by my winter mountaineering instructor mentor, Alan Kimber. A few more metres and the ice steepens at a tricky step. My hands feel tired from gripping too tight. I take a moment to breathe and relax. It’s time for my second ice screw. It’s going to be my last too. We only put four in the rack.
In the most solid looking ice I can see, the screw feels good at first. Then it breaks through to a hollow space behind. The ice is only half as thick as our shortest ice screw is long. It looks like the best I’m going to get so I clip it. To my right, there’s an icicle as thick as my wrist that’s merged into the ice below it to create a thread. I pass a sling behind it and clip that too. Taking my mind off these thin layers of protection, the climbing becomes my safety. Make every placement a good one. Take my time. Keep my heels low. Rotate my legs at the hip to kick both front points evenly into the ice. A high and wide step to my left, a lock off with my right arm, a high swing with my left ice axe and I pull over the step.
Above the steepest ice now, I see more ice climbing above me. Pushing on, I’m conscious of a big fall potential below me. Every axe placement has to be good. Aiming for some rocks on the left wall of the gully, I hope to find a good belay. When I reach them, I find nothing but cracks too flared, too thin or too choked with ice for me to use. There’s a short and steep step between me and the next belay possibility way above. Hammering a bulldog all the way into the ice is the best I can do for now. Over the step and on easy ground, I find a large flake of rock wedged tightly into a wide crack. After several hits, it still looks, feels and sounds solid. Tied to the flake, I shout “Safe!” down to Dave.
Sitting in the safety of the belay, I whoop and shout into the wild and windy night. That was exactly what I came for! I just didn’t know until it found me. Watching the light from Dave’s head torch dance on the ice, this feels like a very atmospheric way to climb. In three fast and easy pitches, we are at the top of the route and re-packing our rucksacks for the long walk back to the car. Out on the mountain, in the dark and the snow, through the wind and the wildness, there’s beauty and peace right there, just for us. While the world around us is in the warmth of a fire or a bed, I am all alight inside and wide awake with life.