As the first snow starts to fall, we are just about to start five months of winter climbing in Scotland. Excitement levels are reaching the max and we are super keen to jump in. The question is, what do you climb first? When should you think about doing those super classic ice climbs? What’s the best climb at each point in the winter?
December - Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe
The first winter climb of the season always feels like a real test. It takes a climb or two to work through the faff factor of fumbling with gloves on, to remind yourself which way up your crampons go, that you need to pee before you put your harness on and that you need to eat constantly. When you throw in short days, a thin cover of fresh, useless snow and a chance the ground is not yet well frozen, it’s not surprising that it feels tough to get going.
So, try Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor as a wee warm up climb. It’s a beautiful route at grade II or III depending on the conditions on the day with some very nice climbing. It’s a long route so you will get lots of time in your crampons but it is a relatively short day. The walk in is less than an hour and the climb goes all the way to the summit of Stob Dearg with a short enough walk down Coire na Tullach at the end of the day.
The climbing is always interesting, varied and on solid rock with plenty of spikes for protection. Much of it can be climbed like an Alpine ridge by shortening the rope and moving together. The crux sections are quite easily seen and it’s worth throwing in a couple of pitches on these.
January - Number Three Gully Buttress, Ben Nevis
In January we hope to see a reasonable cover of snow building up and some thaw freeze cycles to consolidate the snow into solid neve. The days are still short though and January can be pretty stormy with lots of fresh snowfall so you’ve got be on your toes.
At grade III, Number Three Gully Buttress has a lot of varied climbing in a fantastic position. Right at the top of Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis there is a steep slope to get to the start of it which will test your fitness and avalanche awareness too. The first pitch is on ice to a reasonable rock anchor, followed by a few pitches on snow leading up and right. Finding good belay points on this can be tricky but you can also go more directly up and right if you are feeling adventurous. Follow your nose up some grooves and corners and you will find continuous grade III climbing that leads directly to the crux rock step.
The crux is a wee rock step that lands you on an exposed shelf, very high above the coire floor. The rightward trending line continues in an ever more spectacular position with Number Three Gully tucked a long way down under your feet.
February - Gemini, Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis
When the snow has built up and the January storms have created the best ice and mixed conditions, Gemini can be one of the best climbs on Ben Nevis. It is grade VI and combines steep cascade style ice at the start with icy mixed climbing at the end. It sits on the right side of Carn Dearg Buttress on Ben Nevis, at quite a modest altitude so conditions do need to be excellent for this climb to be formed.
There is no warm up on Gemini! The first pitch is a long icy groove with some very steep climbing on hard ice. A more reasonable second pitch lands you at the foot of the obvious and very impressive smear of cascade ice halfway up the climb. If this is fully formed it can be taken from its foot, giving another long, steep and this time very exposed pitch. If it is thin at the base, a traverse in from the right side is quite feasible but certainly no easier.
Mixed pitches of rock, turf and ice then lead up to the twin grooves that give the climb its name. Decide which of these looks best and go for it. This is the last of the hard climbing but getting up to the traverse shelf on Carn Dearg Buttress that takes you to Ledge Route is still quite exciting.
March - Point Five Gully, Ben Nevis
The most famous ice climb in Scotland (and possibly in the world) is reliable, popular and brilliant. It is a big funnel that catches a lot of snow and channels all the dribbles of water that run down it in the thaws. This is a great combination to help build the ice quickly at the start of the winter but it is also the perfect combination for pouring spindrift down onto you at the most awkward of moments!
Any of the three hard pitches at the start can form the crux. Before it is fully banked out, the bulge at the top of the first pitch will have to be taken direct, giving you a good few moves of vertical ice. The chimney pitch is always more technical with bridging, balancing and pulling over some steep bulges that sometimes form. The rogue pitch can then be a simple bridging exercise up a nice corner, or it can feel very steep, tenuous and bold. The only way to find out what it’s like is to give it a go.
After these three pitches the angle relents to give three or four pitches of grade II or III climbing to the top. Leaving this climb until March can reduce the chance of poor ice and spindrift. When it is well formed, banked out and when the weather is more settled, Point Five Gully is the ultimate classic climb it is reported to be. Sometimes it is good to be patient.
April - Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
At the start of the winter Tower Ridge can feel quite hard. When the rocks are not fully covered with snow, or worse when they are covered in verglas, moving up the rocky ridge is slow and laborious. When your rate of progress is slow in the shorter days at the start of the winter there is no surprise when people finish the climb in the dark, or spend a cold night out on the ridge!
So, wait until the spring when the days are long, the snow cover is brilliant and the rock is starting to become exposed again in all the right places for hand holds. The sun gets high enough in April to give an Alpine experience at home in Scotland. Tower Ridge is the ultimate super classic climb that is long, beautiful and has its crux sections right at the top.
When the weather is good and you are moving well after a few months of wearing crampons, Tower Ridge is a delight. Standing on the Great Tower in the sunshine, looking forward to Tower Gap with excitement instead of trepidation makes it a much more fun experience!
October is awesome and annoying in equal measure. The weather is often all over the place, never really dry and warm for rock climbing, but rarely cold enough for much winter climbing. It's the one in between when flexibility and an open mind are pre-requisites, being happy to embrace all forms of climbing as dictated by the conditions. Mountaineering to bouldering, sport to sea cliff trad climbing; go with the flow. Embrace autumn.
When the sun shines, it's gentle warmth warms the bones if climbers and the wings of butterflies. Choose your crag carefully; even clean, south facing rocks dry out slowly. Enjoy a slow breakfast, slip into the routine of the days, take time to appreciate where you are, its sounds and its atmosphere.
The ring crags at Ardnamurchan bounce back the bellows of the stags in full rut. No other noise disturbs their roars other than the chink of our climbing gear and occasional calls to each other. It seems an empty landscape where the passage of time, beyond the daily rhythm of light and dark, is meaningless. Spending time at Ardnamurchan is like pressing the pause button, like stepping off the fairground ride for a few delicious moments, to restore some kind of balance.
Even in the rain, the gabbro at Ardnamurchan is as grippy as anything. The limit to your climbing will be the condition of the skin on your fingers. Go for a wander; it's impossible not to find great rock and brilliant bouldering. Take a rack and a rope too so you can throw in occasional pitches as well. Go with the flow.
Red, yellow, green and orange leaves on the trees are like nature's fireworks while whole mountain sides turn golden brown behind. Lazy bits of mist hang about in corries and spider's webs hold on to crystal lattices made of dew drops.
Sea cliffs can offer refuge from the biting breeze, a little warmer air and dry rock between the weeps. Just below the main road where unknowing drivers pass by, fights with flared cracks are going on with a sense of adventure beyond its modest scale. Down here, it's just us and fifty seals giving us all their attention and climbing critique. Their wierd wails make it clear where the idea of sirens of the sea came from.
Stars over night give way to a weak daybreak but there is no warmth in the sun. Drips on the tent soak cold into the fingers. The sky is blue and the sun shines straight onto the rock but we each wear three layers plus puffer jackets. It is lunchtime before I take off my second pair of trousers. It's not a time to be pushing the grade. Instead we spot lines that look good and enjoy the movement, the sensations, the sounds and the smells.
It's all about movement on rock. There is little difference between bouldering on 2m high rocks and climbing 200m high ridges. It's all climbing. It's all about focusing on what is underneath your finger tips, underneath the tips of your shoes, and nothing else.
The weather changes again and we shift venues again. The west always seems wilder and there is a lot of wild coast on Skye. For most, Skye is all about the Cuillins, but the coast has a wealth of sea cliffs, coves and caves to explore. Prehistoric rocks and fossils, columns and cracks offer outstanding climbing. John and I have a lot of exploring and climbing still to enjoy!
Castle Ridge (Moderate), Ledge Route
Yir (VS 4c,4a)
Volcane (E1 5a,5b)
Up-Pompei (E1 5b,4c)
Pash (Severe 4b)
Sanna Ferry Ann (V.Diff)
Mjollnir (HS 4b)
Solas (HS 4b)
Creag an Amalaidh (Golspie)
Sprockletop (VS 4c)
Giant (VS 4b)
Stepping Out (Severe 4b)
Shocket (Severe 4a)
Coaster (Severe 4b)
Pistachio (Severe 4b)
Sunspot (VS 4c)
Heavy Duty (VS 4b)
Positive Mental Attitude (VS 5a)
Fancy Free (VS 4c)
Bouldering at Castle of Old Wick
Spantastic (HVS 4c,4c)
Lucy in the Sky (HVS 5a)
Shocks and Stares (HS 4b)
Sonamara (VS 4c)
Baywatch (VS 4c)
We are very used to rain dancing here on the west coast of Scotland. Atlantic weather moves in quickly, hits us straight on and changes very rapidly. So, we need to be on our toes to move with the weather and make the most of the dry(er) bits in between the inevitable wet bits. In addition to the normal rain dancing, we currently have to find our way through covid-19 regulations, closed campsites, vans breaking down and any number of other logistical details. Perhaps I should move into logistics, getting the right thing to the right place at the right time.
Like many people this year, David had plans to go on a couple of trips to the Alps which fell through. Thankfully our trip to Skye did go ahead but even this was all a bit last minute in its details as well. Bad weather last weekend was still clearing away in the morning of Monday so we got off to a lazy start for the Cuillin Traverse (11.30am) to avoid a soaking at the start. This worked, the rain had gone and we enjoyed a dry walk in. We didn't get to see very much on th eridge and the rock was wet but we managed to set a very good pace even so. David has done a good amount of Alpine climbing in the past and moving along technical ground with lots of exposure is no problem for him. The addition of super-slippery rock made us focus even more though!
We managed to get along from Sgurr nan Eag (the most southerly Munro on the ridge) to the Inaccessible Pinnacle before 6pm and we decided to stop for the night in Coire Banachdich. It is very important to get a dry night when doing a two day traverse. After a wet bivvy there is little chance of being able to get going and complete the traverse on day two. Thankfully, we only had a couple of fairly light showers and we packed up in the morning in good shape. One other aspect of doing the traverse in late September are the shorter days. Normally, I'll make breakfast at 5am and get away at 6am. It's still dark at 6am at the moment so we were delayed in setting off by an hour.
Inspired by a few more glimpses of the view and of what we were traversing, we maintained a super slick pace over the slippery, slimy rocks. The jump over the bigger gap in the ridge on An Caisteal was particularly memorable after a wee foot slip on the first attempt! Even with a longer than normal second day, wet rock for the entire two days and a later start, David and I made it to Sgurr nan Gillean by 3pm. Brilliant work!
On Wednesday, my van broke down and I got towed back home!
Thursday started wet but was dry during the day. The rock steadily dried out during the day so David and I went to Buachaille Etive Mor to climb D Gully Buttress onto Curved Ridge, Agag's Groove, Crowberry Ridge and Crowberry Tower, and then on to the summit of Stob Dearg. The summit is only 2km from the car paark in a straight line, but we managed a huge amount of brilliant rock climbing to get there. It was of course slightly slimy in th ecracks but over all it was very good climbing. Another few super classic rock climbing stars ticked off.
Good, sunny weather was forecast for the last day of our week of climbig so I was disapointed to hear rain falling on my window at 7am. The forecast was still certain it would be a dry sunny day, but the question was how quickly would the rock dry off? We went to Ardverikie Wall, one of the most delightful places to climb in Scotland. It has a wonderful outlook, facing south it gets all the sunshine there is and it looks out over empty mountains and wild landscape. Amazing quality of rock (mostly granite) and climbing make it one of the best crags around and Ardverikie Wall itself is one of the best climbs ever.
It was a little damp at the start but the seeps and drips soon dried out. We split the first big pitch into two smaller ones and by the second pitch the rock was dry all the way. Quite good going since it only had 4 or 5 hours to dry out. There are substantial weeps at the top but it's quite simple to avoid these. By the time we got back down many of the other routes were dry as well so we climbed the other great Hard Severe route Kubla Khan. Blaeberry Groove (VS) gave us a klast route of very different character - whereas the first two were delicate slabs, this one is steep with wierd, contorted handholds and foot holds. Pinches, jams, lay-aways and finger locks are required; there isn't a single crimp on the climb.
So, a great week of rain dancing and route choice to maximise the sunshine. We got to enjoy some of Scotland's finest rock climbing and mountaineering. Next week, the west coast will be the best place to be as well. Easterly winds will bring rain to the Cairngorms and east coast, leaving us with drier weather. It might be time to find some sea cliffs along the west coast for more rock climbing adventures!
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.