Winter conditions are slowly developing in Scotland. We got a bit of everything this week as a couple of storms blew through but they left a good covering of snow on the hills. I was back out with Rob & Jude who have now amassed plenty of Scottish winter experience but are always up for an adventure.
Sunday saw us having a crack at Summit Buttress Ordinary Route IV 5 in Stob Coire Nan Lochain. Unfortunately the snow was insulating the turf and it wasn't remotely frozen meaning we had to bail. Unfrozen turf seems to be a real problem on the west coast at the moment so we headed east looking for better conditions. An early start saw us battle against the spindrift avalanches on Opening Break IV 5 in the Northern Corries. Topping out on to the plateau in to 80mph winds was an interesting experience and it was a good team effort to get back to the van safely.
Unsurprisingly the bodies and psyche had taken a bit of a battering so Tuesday saw us hiding in the Ice Factor pushing our ice and dry tooling grades and drinking plenty of coffee.
Wednesday was looking like the best day of the week so we broke trail up on to the Aonach Eagach III. We were soon joined by a few other parties on what was a very enjoyable traverse along the snow plastered ridge. Our final day saw us push tired limbs up onto the Ballachulish Dragons Tooth II. A new route for me but one that has become very popular in the last couple of years and had seen plenty of traffic the previous day. A great day out on continually interesting ground and amazing views from the summit to finish the week.
I've just spent 3 days with Raj & UKML developing his skills for a forthcoming ice climbing trip to Rjuken. he's a very proficient rock climber so it was all about winterising his systems and introducing him to steep ice. Ice and indeed winter are somewhat lacking in the Cairngorms at present but we found some great little venues in the northern corries to workshop the various skills. Day 1 we made a scrambly ascent of the Fiacaile Ridge looking at building belays in winter. The surprising amount of ice on the Goat Track also allowed us to develop the Raj's movement skills offering a few steep bulges for front pointing. The second day saw us expolring the various ice streaks on the Great Slab. The right hand start to the coulior gave us a full 50m pitch of Gr IV ice perfect for placing ice screws and lots of climbing.
Finally we returned to Sneachda and the small ice / mixed climbing venue below the Fiacaille and expolred the limits of ice tools and crampons on the different mediums.
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.
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There were a number of folk in obvious states of disrepair slogging back up to the Ben on Friday morning. The common refrain was "When's the good weather going to end? I'm broken!" It didn't end this weekend so weary legs were forced back uphill for a couple of spectacular days on the ice of Beinn Udlaidh and then to the Cold Climbs classic of Monolith Grooves (IV 5) on Beinn an Lochain. Some great images from the talented John Pickles Photography
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!