Chris Franks overcomes his fear to find peace on the Silver Tear.
Must stay alert, stay focussed. Heavy day today. It’s 4:20am on a sleety March winter morning. I’m already on the way to work. My hands are clammy from lack of sleep, the rush to leave the house has brought on a headache and as I peer at the murky road ahead, I’m drowning in a sea of stress.
Brrrth. Brrrth, Brrrth. There’s a hypnotic purring coming from the wipers. The car heater is making me feel sleepy. As I gaze at the sleet particles, watching them dissolve on the windscreen, my mind starts to wander. Yes, it’s icy cold today - almost cold enough for snow.
I remember Silver Tear.
Brrrth, brrrth, brrrth. The virgin snow was squeaking under our boots, three of us heading for Coire Na Poite on Beinn Bhan in the Scottish Highlands. We were hoping to climb the classic grade V ice route, Silver Tear, and conditions were perfect, a hard frost the previous night and clear skies overhead.
We were passing through a vast white wilderness, empty plains and barren hilltops stretching away in every direction. The only sign of life was our trail of footsteps vanishing in the distance behind us. An icy wind was lifting the loose snow and carrying it across the plain. It seemed like we were walking on clouds, making my laboured steps somehow feel easier. Ahead of us the precipitous northern flank of Beinn Bhan was emerging and clinging to one of its sheer walls was a meandering vein of grey ice.
Silver Tear – such an evocative name. Are those really frozen tears? What would cause a mountain to weep? Had last night’s frost been that severe? I inhaled the sweet air, watching it spill from my mouth like smoke from a chimney. So many fanciful thoughts – so magical a place. On we went. The wind erased our tracks behind us as we vanished into the corrie’s enormous jaws. Dawn gradually became day and the surrounding hills that had looked so smooth and brilliant in the morning light became lined with shadows cast by the changing sun.
WATCH: Winter skills 3.5: climbing technique on grade I-II climbs
By early afternoon I was alone, perching uneasily on a narrow ledge several hundred feet up. We’d climbed the first few pitches comfortably and had now reached the crux, an intimidating wall of vertical ice. I was last to climb and as I passed the time tracking Beinn Bhan’s gigantic shadow like a sundial, I became very cold and stiff. Finally, after what seemed like hours, my turn came.
I set out. Thump, thump with the axes. Tap, tap with the boots. I remembered how cramped steep ice is with the wall so close to your face. And how tiring it is too; I was warming up again but starting to pant. Onwards. Thump, thump, tap, tap. I could hear the anxiety in my breathing. Stay calm, I told myself. Thump, thump, thump, thump, crack. I struggled with some brittle ice. Things were getting tricky.
Thump. Now where? I was poised below a lip; the ice was too thin to place my left axe. There was good névé somewhere above but how to reach it? I moved up gingerly, balancing precariously on the tips of my front points, and looked over. Just patches of powder snow on bare rock. How did the others do it?
I was about to step back down and rethink when the rope came tight. It had been taken in and I couldn’t move. Calling for slack wasn’t an option. My limbs started shaking. Fear took hold – that fear that paralyzes you when you cannot continue or backtrack and your muscles are turning to jelly. Desperate, I looked up again. Powdery snow as before - except for a small, icy patch high up. No time to assess it properly. I flexed my left arm and swung wildly.
WATCH: Winter skills 3.1: finding the right climb
Thunk. The pick bedded in and the whole axe vibrated. Instantly, both feet gave way, my right axe dislodged and I lurched violently backward. My weight came on my left arm; I was hanging entirely off my wrist leash, feet dangling in space. I hung there for a few seconds, letting the panic and lactic acid burn recede. Eventually I was able to find footholds and refocus, noticing that my axe was lodged between two rectangular holes – the others had found the same spot. Within a few easy moves, I reached the belay and slumped exhausted onto my rucksack.
The climbing eased considerably after the crux pitch and by early evening, I was waiting on a snowy incline not far from the top. Spindrift was streaming off the summit in giant curls over our heads and a beautiful, incandescent purple light was now adorning the surrounding hills; the day was nearly over. Suddenly I longed to see the sunset – a fitting end to our climb, I thought. Eventually we continued and as I climbed up through the spindrift, my jacket was lashed by ice flakes and my ears filled with the sound of spilling pea gravel.
We topped out just after sunset, the snow tainted purple with the last remaining light of the day. Loose spindrift was blowing across the summit in huge, rippling waves, making the mountaintop flow like water. It was extremely cold, not a moment of thawing all day. I stood motionless, gazing into the path of the departed sun. My spirit broke free and carried off with the wind across the plains, and as my thoughts vanished over the horizon and drifted up into the sky, everything was still. I was at peace.
Peace, I’d forgotten what that was. And now that I was here, I wanted to remember it and take it with me. But, like clutching at mist, the longer I stared, the more elusive it became. Perhaps if I stayed just a little longer? A shiver went through me. Looking around I realised I was alone, buried knee deep in snow. Daylight had vanished, the surrounding hills were turning black and a monstrous weather front was sweeping in from the south like a colossal tidal wave. There were head torches in the distance – the others were already descending. I pulled my boots free and started down. Before long I was in a blizzard, ice crystals racing through my head torch beam, and my thoughts turned to dinner in a warm, cosy cottage.
WATCH: Winter skills 4.5: transitions between technical and easy climbing
Brrrth, brrrth, brrrth. It’s raining again. The wipers are rubbing the windscreen. I’ve finally finished work and am driving home, but it’s dark now and there’s still a long way to go. I’m thinking unenthusiastically about tomorrow’s appointment. It was scheduled for 2nd March; so it must be the 1st today.
My hands grip the wheel and my heart starts racing. It’s a year ago to the day since I climbed Silver Tear - a year since that perfect day. My stomach turns to lead. How I wish I was there. But no time for that now. Must stay alert, stay focussed. Heavy day tomorrow.
Chris Franks is a BMC member. He’s hoping to escape work for some more quality days in the mountains this winter.
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