It's become a regular and very enjoyable fixture in my diary - road tripping round Scotland climbing stunning and classic lines with Rob & Jude. After last years soggy experience it was great to find some dry rock and get some serious mileage in. This years ticklist included Agags Groove & Grooved Arete on the imposing Rannoch Wall, Archer Ridge & Quiver Rib in Glencoe, Savage Slit in the Cairngorms, the Classic Rock trio of Cicoh Direct, Arrow Route & Integrity on Skye, Tower Ridge on the Ben and a wet adventure up the iconic Clachaig Gully - 9 Classic Rock routes and 27 stars :)
A final few days at the end of my Scottish winter season gave a mixed bag of conditions, weather and routes. After a year off the Irish crew arrived for a quick hit coming away with ascents of the Douglas Boulder SW Ridge (IV 5) and a very snowy swim up Western Rib (III) on the west face of Aonach Mor. With the turbo thaw back in action my final day on Curved Ridge was almost alpine with a leisurely picnic on Crowberry Tower and a cloud inversion on top.
Winter conditions in 2017 have been a wee bit fickle. There's been a reasonable amount of snow but successive thaws have continually stripped the hills meaning that there is no base and lots of loose rock around. Nonetheless with a bit of imagination and lateral thinking there's always an adventure to be had. Regulars Rob & Jude were back for another week on the west coast moving up the grades and climbing classics.
Sunday saw us on a warm and wet Ben Nevis enjoying the delights of No 2 Gully. There was a surprising amount of good ice where needed and the screws were needed. After an atmospheric climb we topped out going from winter to summer in a couple of steps. I think we were the only team to log a route on UKC that day!
We tried heading east one day coming away with an ascent of Hidden Chimney Direct (IV 5) in Sneachda. The route was well verglassed and rime was developing as we started but we narrowly failed to beat the freezing level to the top of the crag as things turned warm again.
Overnight snow gave our final day a proper wintery feel. We broke trail into Stob Coire Nan Lochain and swam up Raeburns Route (IV 4). There were copious amounts of spindrift & grauphal being moved by the wind and we triggered a small slide on the approach but once established on the route things calmed down a bit and we enjoyed a great climb.
The final week of my Scottish winter season involved lots of different groups (and weather). Starting out east I had a day winter climbing with Russ for Cairngorm Adventure Guides. Marching up into Coire an t-Sneachda out of the cloud inversion was spectacular and Aladdins gav e a great introduction to the vertical winter world. Topping out into the sunshine the obvious descent was over the top of Cairngorm to delay our inevitable descent back into the cloud for as long as possible.
Next up was a weekend of winter mountaineering with Justin. Once again thick cloud was blanketing Fort William but up on the Ben it was blue skies and zero wind. We popped into the sunlight at the CIC hut and a full days climbing up Ledge Route and around the CMD arete was just about perfect. The next day was nearly as good and we made a quick ascent of Stob Coire Nan Lochan and Bidean nan Bam descending by the Lost Valley. It had taken Justin 4 attempts to tick this Munro but it was worth the wait.
My final couple of days were out with a team of sport scientists from Leeds Beckett University. They're undertaking high altitude research on some willing volunteers from the "British Services Dhaulagiri Medical Research Expedition 2016" We looked at winter and general expedition skills while climbing both the Ben and Buachaille with a couple of hours of heavy rain bringing my season to a traditional close!
Scottish winter climbing is a very funny pastime but every now and again the weather and conditions aline and you remember this is the best game in the world. Rob & Jude have certainly served their apprenticeship in some pretty typicasl Scottish conditions so it was great for them to be rewarded with a perfect week on their annual pilgrimage north. The weeks adventures included the South West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, Tower Ridge, self led on Golden Oldie, North Buttress on the Buachaille and Waterfall Gully .
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!