My First Full Scottish Winter Season

01 April 2013

As I write this, the Scottish winter is not just hanging in there, it’s colder now than it was in any of the Winter months and it’s likely I could yet get some more winter routes in the bag before the season is over, however I wanted to write this up while the memories were still fresh.

A couple of caveats - I’ve been in the Scottish Hills in Winter before, and as is often said there’s no such thing as Scottish Winter Hillwalking, only Mountaineering. That said, prior to this Winter my only experience of Scottish Winter Climbing was being guided up the Grade II North Gully on Ben Nevis at the end of a particularly foul week, weatherwise, in February 2012. So this is pretty much my first full season of Scottish Winter Climbing.

Probably one of the best ways to get out into the mountains as much as possible is to join a local mountaineering club. I’m a member of the Jacobites Mountaineering Club based in Edinburgh, a motley bunch of Munro and Corbett baggers, climbers, alpinists and ski mountaineers. In addition, I took a couple of weeks out to do some guided climbing with Martin Moran, based in Strathcarron in the North West, and also with Jagged Globe, based out of Ballachulish.

The A’Chioch Ridge (II,***)

The A'Chioch Ridge (II)

After a couple of days on some lower grade objectives, the plan was for a route on Beinn Bhan - the Cold Climbs classic ‘March Hare’s Gully’ (IV,4,***), but the initial steep ice pitch was to prove a bit much too soon, and remains something I hope to return to now that I’ve had more practice. The consolation prize was a traverse of the A’Chioch ridge. Not technically difficult, but stunning scenery along the entire route.

Turquoise Gully (III,*)

I was feeling a bit dejected after failing on March Hare’s gully, so the next day we headed to Meall Gorm, and Turquoise Gully. A great climb that merits more than its single star in the SMC selected Winter Climbs book. Although, that may be coloured by the fact that the base of the climb lies barely 15 minutes walk from the car park. After practicing some skills on a top rope in the car park, we left our rucksacks by the car and walked to the base of the route. The initial pitch, led by Nick Carter, had an imposing ‘ice mushroom’ feature, or shroud, caused by high winds in the direction of the gully. I was a bit nervous of this feature having considered the initially steep ice of March Hare’s to be less difficult – however I passed it without any problems. I left the route feeling satisfied, and keen to get back to Beinn Bhan to have another go at March Hare’s Gully, though perhaps that will now have to wait for next winter.

Tower Ridge (IV,3,**)

Having had some instruction in leading winter routes, I was keen to put it to good use and my opportunity would come at the inaugural Scottish Winter Climbing Meet, organised by Richard Bentley. My partner for the weekend would be fellow Jacobite, Victor Manazares. On the Friday night before climbing we got some local info from Mike Pescod on which routes were in condition, but I had heard the phrase ‘Tower Ridge’ and could think of little else. Victor took some persuading, but he relented and the climb was on for the following morning. Arriving at the CIC hut, we saw that the path to the ridge had been well trod and visibility excellent - both signs which bode well for what would be my first winter lead without the assistance of a guide. We saw that most parties had opted to skip the initial gully that separates the ridge from the Douglas Boulder, and we took this as a sign that we should do the same. The route was busy and required waiting at some of the trickier points, but visibility remained excellent. I led the slightly hairy Eastern Traverse and Tower Gap, involving a short but intimidating down climb but I resisted the temptation to use the in-situ sling for aid. We topped out on a clear summit at about 5pm.

Postscript – Victor’s car had some difficulty escaping from the top car park and as a result we had to leave it and walk back down to the main road. I stuck out a thumb and flagged down a passing Range Rover, driven by none other than Tom, the owner of the Ben Nevis Inn, where we happened to be staying and the base for the meet that evening.

The Curtain (IV,5,***)

Andy Owen leads "The Curtain", IV, on Ben Nevis.

On the inside page of the current SMC Winter Climbs guidebook, there’s a picture of a climber on a steeply inclined icefall with the Ben Nevis cliffs in the background. This is ‘The Curtain’, and it is spectacular. This would be my first Grade IV ice climb since my failing at Beinn Bhan, and was in fact a degree harder in technical difficulty. There were to be no problems here, however – the ice was solid and had seen so much traffic that it often felt like a ladder to the top. Two excellent pitches finishing on Ledge Route above made the perfect introduction to ice climbing on Ben Nevis.

Point Five Gully (V,5,**)

After the previous day’s success on The Curtain I was buzzing, and when it came to discussing objectives for the next day, I tentatively suggested Point 5. I fully expected to be told it would be too much of a step up and was somewhat surprised to be told it would be an entirely appropriate choice, and wondered what I had gotten myself into.

Another of Ken Wilson’s ‘Cold Climbs’, Point 5 was the undisputed highlight of my winter. Andy Owen of Jagged Globe took on all the leading here, but even seconding would prove to be a challenge. The pitches were steep, sustained and strenuous and would prove to be a test of how I would be able to ice climb as efficiently as possible. The entire route was armour-plated in solid ice, forcing Andy to be a bit ‘creative’ at times with belays.Leading a route like this is beyond my abilities for the moment, though it remains a tentative goal for next season.

Ice Crew (III,**)

With a change in the weather we went for the lower lying Beinn Udlaidh, a great ice climbing venue in cold conditions but we were to see it, or rather not see it, in a day of thaw and poor visibility. With the noise of falling ice all around I would not have gone near the place without a guide of Andy’s experience, and he concurred that that would have been a sensible decision. However we would not be deterred, and climbed the fine, though wet, ‘Ice Crew’. In more benign conditions I would have led this as Andy could have soloed ( He would later solo Orion Direct during two weeks of stunning alpine conditions in late February ) but on this occasion I was more than happy to let Andy go up first. Ice cold water poured down from every icicle, but it’s a fine climb, and I would be happy to return to this venue. The neighbouring ‘Quartzvein Scoop’ (IV,4) is a reputed classic.

Raeburn’s Route (IV,4,***)

A quality mixed pitch on "Raeburn's Route", IV, on Stob Coire Nan Lochan.

Harold Raeburn was a prolific climber, and so there are a plethora of routes that bear his name. Confusingly, there are two on Stob Corrie Nan Lochan. Known as ‘Raeburn’s Route’ in the SMC guide, this is also known as ‘Raeburn’s Ordinary Route’, not to be confused with ‘Ordinary Route’ on the same crag. With ice climbing being the theme for the week so far, I was keen to try some mixed climbing. I found myself to be far more comfortable with this style of climbing than with pure ice, but nonetheless I was to take a fall near the top of the route. I console myself that I had gone the wrong way and had taken a harder technical variation than was standard.

George (III,4,**)

My first lead of a Scottish Winter gully climb. For me, this is what it’s all been leading up to. I don’t want to continue my climbing career being guided up things, far better to experience both the physical and psychological stress of climbing ‘at the sharp end’. Although I had led on Tower Ridge, that climb earns its grade from its length rather than its difficulty. I was expecting George to be a typical, though excellent, example of a Scottish Winter gully climb, more serious and technical, and I was not to be disappointed.

The Jacobites have a hut, Inver Croft, near Achnasheen in the North West highlands. It is perfectly located for climbs in the Torridion area, and that is where I and two friends headed on a weekend in early March that would also host the club’s Whisky tasting event. It wasn’t the finest of weather, and I would have liked to have better visibility, but ‘George’ is undeniably a fantastic climb. Nick and I shared leads to the top, we took the standard route rather than the harder ‘Sinister Prong’ variation, but nonetheless found the characteristic cave feature to be buried. During a slightly tricky manoeuvre I dropped one of Nick’s ice screws, and was delighted to receive it in the post a few weeks later after I contacted a climber on UKC who had climbed the route the following day.

An Teallach

Despite a return to cold weather in late March, I was unable to get out for further climbing until the Easter weekend. I arranged with another Jacobite, Pete, to head back up to Inver with the aim of doing one of the major ridges. I suggested An Teallach, as I hadn’t been there before. Pete’s not a climber, but nonetheless it wasn’t difficult to persuade him to try an ascent of ‘Chockstone Gully’ (I), which would allow us to approach via Toll an Lochain, which is a sight to behold.

Chockstone Gully (I,*)

After fighting through the Rhodedendrons opposite Dundonell House, we began the long (2 hours) walk to Toll an Lochain. The ascent up the gully was solid, so we didn’t bother to rope up and made good time to the ridge. The view from the ridge is hidden while ascending until the very last moment, when it is a spectacular reveal, with Beinn Dearg figuring prominently to the south.

Ridge Traverse (II,**)

The views from the ridge are spectacular, however the normally Grade II pinnacles were not really in appropriate condition for winter climbing, having been stripped dry by the spring sun. In addition the turf was unfrozen and the snow soft and powdery. As it was we avoided much of the difficulty, though made it back up to the crest where possible to take in more of the scenery.

With time pressing, and neither of us being munro baggers we opted to skip the final munro and descend from the col at the head of Glas Tholl. Although suggested by the guide book, this seemed excessively steep and corniced to me, so we continued along the ridge until we reached a more forgiving gradient. I wasn’t aware of the descent via ‘Hayfork Gully’, which I have noted for future reference.

Epilogue

As I hoped, I was able to get one more winter route done before packing up the axes and crampons, and what a route it was.

Crowberry Gully (IV,4,**)

Rob and I headed out at 5am from Edinburgh for a day trip to Glencoe to bag one more Cold Climbs classic, and my first (IV,4) lead. From following the #scotwinter feed on twitter I was aware that it had seen lots of traffic this week. We were at the base of the route by 8am but even so there was a party already ahead, and several behind. The ice was thin in places, and we considered the thin traverse before the cave pitch to be tougher than the usual crux, the cave pitch itself, which Rob generously let me lead.

The descent was almost as much fun as the climb itself, a smooth glissade down almost the entirety of Great Gully, bringing us from the summit of Buachaille Etive Mor to the car in under an hour. What Next? ———- Climbing amongst the dry Torridonian sandstone in the spring sunshine last week and my thoughts were already turning to rock rather than ice, but next years goals are really just to increase the mileage on grade IV routes, though if I could up my game to leading a grade V that would be a great achievement for me. I’d also like to try some more mixed climbs, and I haven’t yet paid a visit to Coire Mhic Fhearchair on Beinn Eighe, though that goal remains tantalisingly within reach for this winter while the temperatures are still low.

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