Ice climbing and self doubt

Ice climbing in cairngorm

I left the safety of the car and took a few steps across the carpark in the dawn light. The strong wind brought me to a sudden stop. I waited for a moment for the airspeed to drop enough to carry on. Gingerly I crossed the tarmac to the ski centre. This was not a good start to the day I thought.

Stepping into the ticket office was a welcome break from the howling wind. I was there for no reason other than to delay the inevitable. To head into the mountains, or retreat to the comfort of a warm house. I had a choice to make. To do or to not do. Neither sounded appealing. I wandered around the centre to delay returning outside and to delay making a decision.

I walked back across the carpark, stepping sideways into the wind. Opening the car door with two hands but it wasn’t enough, the wind took hold and flung it open, hitting the beat-up van next to me. With storm force 11 winds forecast on the summit I climbed into the back seat to gather my thoughts.

My Options. If I go I’ll be wet and blown around. It will be miserable but there is a small chance of a bit of fun ice climbing. If I give up now, before I’ve even started, I’ll be warm and dry but the opportunity will have passed and may never return.

I decided not to give up, not yet anyway. “I’ll just go and have a look around the corner,” I told myself. “I’ll turn back if it’s too bad.”

I packed my things slowly as the car rocked and shuddered in the wind, the fine rain hammering against the windows. I was still stalling for time, hoping the wind would drop. It didn’t. I’d delayed enough, it was time to go. I grabbed my bag packed with ice axes and crampons and left the shelter of the car one last time

Every step on the well-maintained trail took me further away from the sanctuary of my car. Each step made harder by the strong headwind and sections of ice on the path. Walking head down, the rain blasted into my eyes whenever I looked up.

I took a break and faced back towards the carpark, the wind now pounding my back.

“Why am I doing this?

What is the point in it?

The effort won’t be worth the pay off!

If the wind is like this here then on the summit plateau I’ll be on all fours crawling.”

All these thoughts go through my head. I should go back. I really should.

But I don’t. I press on, for a little while anyway. Just to the next corner.

Ice climbing and self doubt -
Walking in the rain to the climb and being battered by the wind was not fun.


Something moved in the distance, an arm waving to me, a friendly wave. I went over and crouched behind a boulder with the father and son team. After a few minutes of talking about our plans, I start to get cold. The duo got up and decided to retreat to the cafe. The talk of hot chocolate sounded tempting. I hesitated thinking about marshmallow and whipped cream but reluctantly put on my ski goggles and head up into the wind and the rain.

The rain hammered on my ski goggles, the water droplets were blown sideways across my visions as I struggled to walk. The wind speed increased as I got higher. Higher and higher I climbed as did the wind speed, while my will to continue slowly subsided. I slowly moved towards the head of the corie as I crossed cloud base and entered a monochromatic world. White snow, white cloud and black boulders.

Finally, I entered the wind shadow of the crag in front of me and the wind dropped. It’s like being in the eye of the storm, an unsettling calm amongst gales. The visibility was poor but enough to locate the base of the crag was headed for.

Coire an t-Sneachda in Cairngorm National Park
Coire an t-Sneachda in Cairngorm National Park. Aladin’s couloir is the snow filled gully to the left of the rocky crag

Aladin’s couloir is a grade one gully, an obvious feature when you can see it. The crag formed a natural shelter from the strong southerly wind. In the relative calm, I strapped my crampons to my feet and armed myself with my 2 ice axes, ready to battle. Gravity being my foe.

The ground steepened and I found myself kicking steps in the snow, the front points of my crampons digging into the firm snow beneath the softer crust. My ice axes plunged into the snow to keep balance. Slowly, methodically I worked my way up the gully, crossing an ice patch at the gully’s narrowest point.

The snow-filled gully continued, passing beautiful hoar frost covered crags. The sound of the wind blowing overhead, ready to welcome me as soon as I topped out. The quick ascent had been fun and completely worth the effort to get there.

Ice climbing and self doubt -
Hoar frost on rocks in the Cairngorms
Ice climbing and self doubt -
Hoar frost on rocks in the Cairngorms
Ice climbing and self doubt -
Hoar frost on rocks in the Cairngorms

On the top, the wind was strong but not as bad as I expected. I made quick progress back to the descent path where the wind picked up. The wind here was funnelled and the strongest It had been all day. I walked sideways, leaning 45 degrees into the wind to keep myself from being blown over.

Suddenly a gust makes me wobble, I instinctively drop to my knees, digging the picks of my ice tools into the snow. I wasn’t going anywhere and this manoeuvre made sure I wouldn’t be blown down the slope to my side. I was anchored to the snow. A moment passed and the wind dropped. I made my move, moving downhill quickly out of the wind and eventually back to the ski centre.

Sitting in the cafe with a hot chocolate in my hand I consider the events that just happened. I could have turned back and given up at the first sign of difficulty but I didn’t. I continued with the plan but constantly reviewed the situation. I was ready to take a different path if the conditions changed. I wobbled but stuck to the plan, to climb Aladin’s couloir.

Life is a lot like that..

The wind at the top was also a big worry but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The thought is often much much worse than the reality.

Life is a lot like that, it’s all too easy to give up when things get a bit tough, to give up on our dreams and return to a zone of comfort. Gripped by fear of what may or may not happen. You start to doubt your ability to do something that is well within your ability. But the reality is never as bad as our thoughts and fears make it.

Stay true to your dreams. Delays, self-doubt and wobbles are part of the process. Get out there and embrace them!

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