Libby Peter is one of the UK’s most respected climbers, with years of experience in expeditions, instructing, coaching and guiding around the world.
The Scottish winter season usually throws up a few surprises. Last year copious amounts of unconsolidated snow made climbing hard work. Protection was difficult to find and usually required lots of digging. The general theme was go steep and bold! However finding and building secure belays is a key part of everyone’s winter climbing apprenticeship and the foundation for staying safe.
A solid grounding in placing summer rock protection forms the basis for good anchors and runners in winter. They are generally stronger than those placed in snow and ice with all their variability’s. Work through your options of rock gear (nuts, hexes, slings), ice screws and snow anchors in order of decreasing security. When looking for opportunities for gear be logical with your evacuations. Look in corners, behind lumps. If you find a crack follow it to it’s bitter end. It may just give that perfect placement. Any ice or crud in the crack will have to be cleared otherwise any gear you place can melt out under pressure. Get busy with your pick and prep that placement. Give nuts a tap with your axe to help them sit more securely. After all your hard work you don’t want them to be lifting out as you move away!
Friends can work well in winter on dry rock but any ice in the crack can cause spectacular failures. For this reason the iconic hex is still many climbers preferred weapon of choice. A size 11 hex hammed deeply into the depths of an icy crack is still one of the most reassuring sights to the lonely leader.
In summer the ‘coffin rule’ gives a good rule of thumb for the security of blocks. If it’s big enough to be your casket then it should be good for an anchor. Things get a little more complicated in winter where even the smallest blocks can provide a good placement if well frozen in place. Keep yourself and your second safe but get your ice axe in behind and give it a good test before committing yourself.
In winter gear may be very spaced so take plenty of long slings and alpine extenders (tripled 4’ sling) to prevent any of your hard won gear lifting out
The dying art of placing pegs still belongs in winter climbing. Many popular routes will go without but sometimes they’ll be your only option especially in icy conditions with the rocks coated in verglass. Getting the right size means you should be able to place around 50-75% of it’s length into the crack by hand. Then it’s hammer time. Listening for a rising ringing tone which indicates a good placement. There are also many in-siteu pitons dotted around the mountains. Give these a good tap with your hammer and use your judgement before trusting them.
Ice screws have developed beyond all recognition. From the first drive in Warthogs and Snargs came the basic screw which needed two hands and the leverage of an ice axe to place. Now modern screws can be placed in seconds with a one hand. Get yourself comfortable with a good stance and hanging from a straight arm. Try and get at least one foot flat to stave off that all too familiar calf pump. It’s best to place them at waist height to increase your leverage and decrease the pump. Prep the ice ready for your screw by clearing any rotten crud and tap a little guide hole. Jab the screw into the ice and once it’s bitten twist it all the way in. The quality of the ice core that protrudes will give a good indication of how strong the ice is.
Traditional warthogs do still have a place on some folks racks for climbs which rely on frozen turf for progression and protection. Ice hooks although originally designed for ice, can also be hammered into turf and iced cracks very successfully. Both can be a challenge for the second to remove though
The amusingly named Abalakov Thread was named after Russian climber Vitaly Abalakav. It involves drilling two intersecting holes in the ice which can be threaded with abseil tat to provide a very strong anchor. Perfect for abseils as you get to take your expensive ice screws with you .
Snow bollards and bucket seats are the staple of the winter mountaineer for enjoying the many classic grade 1 gullies on offer. Surprisingly strong the principles of a braced stance hold true for what ever anchors you’re using. Bollards also make a very good anchor for retrievable abseils for checking out a slope or dropping in over a cornice.
Persevere. It may take as long to build a good belay as it did to lead the pitch but being safe is compulsory. Remember digging is fun!
Parrish Peak 1775m
Horseshoe Valley S 79.55 W82.01
1st ascent 12th Dec 1979 I Campbell & G Coleridge (NZ) Route unknown
2nd ascent Jan / Feb 1994 M Curtis & B Hull (UK) NW Ridge
3rd ascent 23rd Dec 2015 P Delmas, M Vincent (Fr) & Z Poulton (UK) NW Ridge
North West Ridge, Grade AD-, 300m.
Ascent 3:00, Descent 1:15
Access NW Ridge (left hand skyline on photo) from west by means of a snow rib below west face (windscoop) on skis to the first large horizontal platform. Climb the ridge direct on snow and very loose flaky rock, mainly on the left with a couple of excursions onto the right. The crux is just below the summit. Bypass the final tower by traversing snow leftwards until a loose gully leads easily to an exposed summit with block belays. Descend by the same route
The best laid plans! Plan A was a quick trip to the Italian Dolomites, climb a 4000m peak with a couple of speed flyers (Aaron Durogati & Armin Holtze) and film them flying from the summit. All part of an ariel sequence for the BBCs Natural History Unit and their new series Planet Earth II. Hoiwever plan A didn't account for some very unseasonable weather and we spent the week chasing the conditions with little success.
The last few days in the mountains have proved pretty eventful with the ongoing earthquake disaster in Nepal and the avalanches on Everest. We'rejust picking up the pieces after our own avalanche experience in Greenland exactly one year to the day after 16 Sherpas were killed on Everest.
I was guiding for Tangent Expeditions and our plan was to explore, climb and ski in the rarely visited southern Stauning Alps on the east coast of Greenland. Good weather enabled our skidoo transport to make quick progress across Jamieson Land with the mountains of Milneland, Renland and the Staunings dominating the horizon. There were tens of musk ox moving singuly and in herds chewing on the few sprigs of vegetation that were starting to show through the snowpack.
We spent the night in the derelict Gurreholm Research station after digging down to it's back door. The following morning we picked our way across the sea ice and up the main drainage line until we were blocked by sheet ice. From here we were on ski dragging everything we needed for the following two weeks in our pulks. A long hot day ensued until we found a good location for our base camp still a few kilometers from the mountains
Next day saw us enjoying a stunning ski tour up one of many glacier that drop from the small icecap atop the Stauning Alps. There was very little crevasse risk, the sun was out and we were sheltered from the wind blowing across the plateau. However on a slope we had identified as stable we presume a deep seated weak layer meant that we triggered a large slab avalanche as we approached the rim. We regrouped having dug ourselves out after a bruising ride and with no serious injuries but our skis were gone. Our 'postholing' descent to base camp took rather a long time!
Back at camp we realised our expedition was over with no efficient way of moving around the mountains and a few limiting injuries. A poor weather forecast meant that the Dragon Skidoo Team couldn't reach us immediatly but we were safe and secure in camp with enough food and fuel for 2 weeks. In the event it wasn't needed as a weather window opened and the Dragons grabbed the oppurtunity to get in and pick us up. Poor visibilty and flat light meant that the return journey took three days but within hours of getting back to Constable Point we were in the air and on our way back to Iceland.
Good report here from Dr Rob Conway on the Dragons Skidoo Team
I'm currently on my way to the east coast of Greenland to guide an exploratory ski mountaineering and alpine climbing expedition for Tangent Expeditions. Our plan is to base ourselves in the Southern Stauning Alps which have had few if any visits. First ascents and descents would seem to be the order of the day. Access will be by a two day skidoo journey up through the vast frozen fjord system to place our base camp on Oxford Glacier. The promo video we shot from a couple of years ago gives a good idea of the scale and isolation of this stunning landscape.