The Skye ridge in full winter conditions is a sight to behold. The jagged peaks of black basalt criss-crossed with snow gullies and ice runnels are truly magnificent. I have always loved the concept of first ascents. It's like creating a little piece of history; to be first, unique and unrepeatable.
We got up far too late, Dave and I, and struggled into Coire Lagan under heavy winter packs. It was really impressive, rocky and completely iced up; a very rare occurrence. Standing underneath the Cioch, famous for the Highlander cliff fight scene, I waited for a rather unfit partner to catch up while scanning the cliff above for new route potential.
Dave eventually dumped his pack in the snow and asked what the plan was. Not knowing much about the crag, I opted for a line of unclimbed ice that ran just right of the main buttress. I set off leading. The ice was only a couple of inches thick, so by the time the rope ran out at 50 metres, I had placed no protection. Wedged behind a boulder, I brought Dave up. With each swing of his ice axe he looked shakier, as fear and panic took over. At the belay he refused to take his turn at the front.
So the day panned out. Every crack was choked with ice, protection was sparse, and the climbing got harder. With no concept of time I got stuck in. I was now fully committed on a steep wall. I tried to place a metal piton and dropped it.
Now in a position from which I could not retreat, and at my limit, I clicked into another zone, calm and clear. The move appeared. Pulling on to a ledge in the sun, I sat down shattered. Using all my strength, Dave now had to be hauled up the wall. He flopped on the ledge beside me.
Above us, a beautiful crack lay just out of reach. Even though I tried ten or so times, I could not make the next moves. We were 50ft from the end of the route, I was spent and the sun was going down. I was 500ft off the Coire floor on a big cliff with limited gear and a freaked-out partner.
Dave gave up and started gibbering. The stars came out and the head torch went on. I did not want to spend all night out, so I pushed, lowered and cajoled Dave down the cliff in the dark. I lowered him down, taking the weight off the gear to stop it pulling out and sending us to our deaths. Then, gingerly, I down-climbed. Half-using the rope for support, I inched down the rock. Lights appeared in the corrie basin below. It was 10pm. Then they disappeared.
I climbed down the first ice pitch. Every time I swung my axe I could see sparks under the ice where my crampons and axes punched though to the rock. The mountains were majestic: starlit and covered in snow, the moonlight reflected off the sea. What an amazing country, place and experience. We got back to the hut on Sunday morning at 1am.
Next day's papers read: "Two experienced climbers failed to return in daylight, prompting the mountain rescue to go on alert." I went back to school. I was 16.
Find out more about Duncan's adventures at www.duncanmccallumadventure.blogspot.com and www.sourcealps.com
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, April 11, 2010