Conditions for the weekend were for rising temperatures so Patrick and I decided to take Friday to get a climb in while it was still cold enough.
We decided on Beinn Udlaidh and we left at a very leisurely time of 7am, as being midweek we did not anticipate the hill being busy. After a 2 hour drive we arrived at the roadside and there were only three other cars there.
We set off for the slog up to the coire with heavy rucksacks each lost in our own thoughts in preparation for the climb to come but the first obstacle of the day was the now famous "Beinn Udlaidh Pigs" which are a couple of very large pigs in a field you need to get past before getting any further and I heard one of them took a bite at a fellow climber's leg just a few weeks previous. Luckily we made it to the fence stile just as the two chubby fellas came snorting and charging at us like a couple of enraged elephants.
As we reached the coire it was feeling pretty warm, and by my estimation just above freezing level. I had already rolled up my thermal trousers to my knees as shorts.
We had hoped to take a look at Quartzvein Scoop the grade IV, 3 star "Cold Climbs" classic, but it had looked decidedly decidedly thin at the bottom with rock showing through the ice but neither of us had done Sunshine Gully before, which is another 3 star route and the main ice was at a higher altitude so likely to be a bit fatter.
As we approached the lower tier we could see another two teams ahead in Sunshine Gully, and a third party had headed to something further to the right, making up all three cars we had seen alongside ours. While it was slightly warmer than expected the venue choice had paid off and we had a relatively quiet coire, and although there was teams ahead of us we had plenty of time.
We geared up with our crampons, harness and helmet at the bottom of the lower tier as the snow had been scoured and consolidated hard by the recent northerly winds so it would have been difficult to find a safe and comfortable higher up towards the gully. I only took out a single ice axe to use for extra balance and to self arrest should I fall. Water was running and dripping steadily off the lower cliff indicating that it was indeed above freezing level at this point.
After we had geared up we tentatively made our way up the side and across the top of the lower cliff and the nevé had consolidated bullet hard. I teetered across the traverse on my crampon points, conscious that we were not roped. While it is always a relief when there is no avalanche risk that also brings hard icey conditions where a slip would not be worth thinking about and Ice axe arrest would have probably been unsuccessful. It is best to not ponder on these thoughts and just concentrate on good crampon and axe placements in the ground. It seemed wise at this point to get my second axe to give me an extra point of grip into the ground before we got into the firing line of the proper gully.
We both skipped the first belay and went unroped up the first pitch of the gully to save time until we reached the belay before the main ice fall. When we arrived the leader of the second team had just completed the ice fall and was making towards the last belay so Patrick got a couple of ice screws in for the belay and we got the ropes out and tied in. The leader in front shouted on his second to start climbing and she moved on off leaving some space for myself to climb a little higher next to Patrick.
After the girl in front started to tackle the main ice pitch, I put Patrick on belay and he moved off behind her, but firstly having to rescue a dropped ice screw by the first team.
With the warming temperatures water could be heard dripping and running higher up the gully now indicating that it had warmed up a degree or two in the time we have been in the gully, and we were worried that the ice screws might melt out or not hold a fall. Patrick approached the ice fall and managed to get a couple more screws in and made his way up the ice, slowly and meticulously. After crossing the difficult part he continued higher to the last belay where a couple more ice screws would have anchored in ready for me to follow.
After removing the belay I inched up towards the ice, traversing past a small chasm with running water underneath. I removed the ice screws and started to work out the sequence of moves which would have me up and over. My first axe strike was good but the ice looked cloudy and insecure below it so I pulled on the axe and a few Kg of ice broke away and crashed off my helmet. I took a few more swings to clean off any more poor ice. One axe placement went in solid and I looked for somewhere for another clean placement, but seen a hole in the ice which allowed me to hook the pick inside. I pulled on one axe, while torqued the other, managed to get my right foot crampon high into a groove and carefully pulled myself higher. I dropped my right knee allowing my to balance my left foot up onto a small ledge. I was now able to get a good swing up and over the crest, followed my a second, while getting good contact with the ice with my front points. I was over the lip and onto the easier angled ice which I quickly made my way up to reach Patrick.
I was leading the second easier pitch, so Patrick put me on belay and I traversed left to the constriction where the final ice would lead us out the gully and out onto the top snow slopes. After the hard work of the main ice pitch my numb hands had started to feel the blood flow back into them and I experienced the condition us climbers know as the "Hot Aches".
For those of you who have not experienced this, it is when the cold has taken the blood out of your hands, and upon resuming climbing the blood rushes back in an experience similar to pins-and-needles but a thousand times worse. The only way to describe the pain is like someone hammering shards of broken glass into your finger tips (paraphrased quote from Andy Cave). The resulting pain making you feel dizzy and wanting to puke, not always welcome when you are hanging from your ice axes. This humorous video from another suffering climber describes it in a way words cannot.
After my Hot Aches subsided, I was able to place an another ice screw for protection, and climb out towards the top of the gully where the first party was awaiting (and taking a few pictures for me) to retrieve their dropped ice screw. I made a belay and brought Patrick up to join me on top. We packed up the gear and had an easy walk back down to the car. Luckily there were no sign of the killer pigs as we crossed the stile into their field. The rat has been fed, and our hunger for a climb has been temporarily satisfied.