Glen Pean Nights

Words and images by Dave MacLeod

Rock climbing has always been my platform for spending time in the mountains and enjoying them. I would never change this as I love everything about rock climbing and the process of doing routes at my limit. Although I do appreciate my time in the mountains and the recent pandemic year was a powerful reminder just how much life was impoverished by having access to the outdoors removed, I do sometimes sense that such a strong focus on the task at hand, the climb, can mean that I notice less than I could about the mountains around me. What you focus on, is what you see.

 

As a younger climber I remember frequently visiting the website of a top Italian all-rounder at the time, Mauro ‘Bubu’ Bole. He had a quote under his name on the header bar of his site that said ‘Every once in a while I stop, just to look’. It always struck me that he chose this as the one idea or message he wanted to have alongside his name. Perhaps because it came from a climber I looked up to, this quote remained in my consciousness and I found myself stopping during climbing days, even if for a few moments, for no other reason than to take the time to notice. This did make my climbing days noticeably more enjoyable. I also found that my memories of climbs, places and experiences on hills were stronger and richer.

After many extremely intense experiences burned into my memory by fear, physical effort, exhaustion or inspiration on my hardest routes, I could not help but notice that some of my strongest experiences on mountains were not that well correlated to the adventurousness of climbs. Instead, they often occurred in a somewhat understated aspect of travelling in mountains; sleeping out on the hill.

 

Bivouacking (bivying) on mountains was not usually something I sought out. Like many rewarding aspects of climbing, it is not always comfortable. I also rarely had to bivy in my native Scotland since our mountains are well suited to one-day mountaineering. I usually did it for unusual purposes such as filming night or sunrise time lapses or helping others with long hill running efforts. Every time I did it, I found myself resolving to do it more often.

 

Fundamentally, I think the difference comes from having the time and space to observe and notice the beauty of the mountains. In many mountaineering situations, especially if difficulty is a motivating factor, you are always trying to be somewhere else; the top, the bottom, into the snow, out of the snow. Pressing tasks are all too often in competition with just stopping and giving your surroundings full attention. With time before or after an evening meal or morning breakfast, you just notice more and more. The light, the crags, the wildlife, the smells and how you feel about them and about life in general. In these moments, either alone or with others, I’ve found myself making important decisions about my life or resolving my inspiration for where to spend my energies next, or just simply feeling deep enjoyment of simply being there. ‘Fast and light’ and ‘pushing the limits’ can get you to the top in mountaineering, but perhaps at the cost of needing to discipline yourself to occasionally stop as Bubu noted. The bivy sidesteps this problem, by providing the stop, with the added bonus of a rest and a cup of tea.

 

For all these reasons, I have changed my strategy for climbing and now seek out any opportunity I can to stay overnight in the mountains, on long walking or cycling routes, at the foot of climbs I’m trying, or just anywhere that has a fine view. Over the past year, this has been one reason I’ve been particularly motivated to spend time in Glen Pean, a remote glen in the west highlands with endless rock climbing potential. Developing new trad routes takes a lot of time, effort and sometimes lots of equipment too. A three hour rough approach with a 100m rope and big rack is fine for a day. But to climb new routes at your limit, you might need to do this day in day out for a whole season. Staying at the cliff for two or three nights means a lot more progress gets made, and routes get done. Carefully chosen bivy gear makes this a lot easier than it used to be since bags, sleeping mats and stoves are always getting lighter and more compact.

Last Autumn I made multiple trips into the glen. Leaving my bivy gear on a whaleback ridge with a lovely outlook (and exposed to midge defeating breezes), I was free to dangle around on the crags above until hours after dark, trying moves and cleaning holds without having the pressure of knowing I’d be walking out through the night. Instead it was a chilled amble back down the hill for a hot meal and multiple cups of tea as I watched the moon cross the sky and listened to roaring stags across the lochan.

 

After a slow start with much tea drinking, looking at crags and just sitting relaxing, I’d just pick up where I left off for another 8 hours on the rope until my fingers couldn’t take any more. It felt like 8 hours anyway, but to be honest, I pay almost no attention to time or how it passes on these trips. I have my head torch so can keep climbing until I’m too tired without worrying about daylight. I have plenty of food and nowhere else to be for several days. Thinking about time just fades into the background and becomes unimportant. All I really pay attention to is the great rock, the mountains, and how good I feel when I’m there. After climbing a handful of new routes, I came across what I was looking for; a new route project that looked so hard that it would ensure numerous return visits in the seasons to come.

Kit list (for an October Bivi)

Equipment

Mat: Helium 2.5

Sleeping bag: Helium 400

Bivy Bag: Ion Bivi

Stove: MSR Windburner

Clothing

Insulation Jacket: Fitzroy Jacket, plus Frostline vest if forecast is cold

Mid Layer: Kinesis Jacket

Trousers: Ibex Mountain Pant

Base Layer: Groundup Tee

Gloves: Direkt Glove

Hat: Branded Knitted Beanie

Boots: La Sportiva TX5

 

Food

Evening Meal: Summit to Eat Beef Stew, cashew nuts, dark chocolate

Breakfast: Oats soaked in cream, sweetened with allulose

Hill food: cheese, boiled eggs,

Tea: M&S Gold, whole milk (one pint for the trip)

Value the wild that's closer to home

Whether you're mid-way through a multi-day trek along the road less travelled, steeling yourself the night before an early start on a long mountain rock route, or hunkered down against the midgies in the long hours until dawn, bivying in the UK is in equal parts a rewarding and a committing experience.

 

To help you make your next bivy a comfortable and considered one, we've pulled together tips and advice from our team on everything from essential kit, to the pros and cons of leaving the tent at home, and how to choose the right sleeping bag for the job.