The Scottish Highlands in winter can be wild and intimidating, but they can also be awe-inspiring and beautiful. With the right skills and knowledge, you can make these mountains your playground throughout the winter months.
Our Women's Winter Weekends offer a chance to gain new experiences, new skills and to push yourself physically or mentally, in a safe and supportive environment.
Sat 14th - Sun 15th January 2023
Sat 11th - Sun 12th February 2023
You can join our female instructors along with other like minded ladies for two fun and inspiring days in the Scottish winter mountains. Regardless of your prior experience there is a course for you. Winter Hill Walking Skills will give you core walking skills if you are new to everything wintry, Intro to Winter Climbing is for women who want to learn the ropes for simple winter climbing, and Winter Climbing Progression is for women who already do some climbing who want to push through to grade III and IV climbs.
We want to create a fun and supportive environment where women of all abilities can learn skills, make friends and go away feeling inspired, motivated and with the confidence to do more. Perhaps you will be the one introducing your friends and family to the winter mountains in the future!
Adventure sports are typically very male dominated and this can be off putting for some women to get involved, but there is no reason why women can't get out and enjoy the mountains just as much as the guys do.
Last winter we joined forces with Girls on Hills to run our first Women's Winter Festival. After a big Covid shaped spanner was thrown into our plans to launch the event in 2021 it was absolutely fantastic to get the festival going this year, and to have so many keen and capable women join us for the various events.
Over the two days, courses run by Girls on Hills and ourselves will include:
Winter Trail Running
Navigation Skills Refresher - Be Winter Ready
Winter Hill Walking Skills
Intro to Winter Climbing
Winter Climbing Progression
Plus we will have inspirational speakers in the evenings, and time for everyone to come together to share their experiences and learn from each other.
Look out for the Women's Winter Festival - 10th to 12th March 2023
This title doesn't mean that climbing Ben Nevis is not a good experience, it refers to the amount of crap that we walkers and climbers leave behind on the mountain. We need to have a matter of fact conversation about our impact. This blog will talk plainly about pee and poo, and it's past time that we all became a bit more comfortable talking about these things in order that we can lessen the mess we leave behind.
The situation is so severe that Jahama Highland Estates has formally reported the huge amounts of human excrement on Ben Nevis to SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency). I have been faced with a pile of poo in the middle of the path complete with toilet paper poking out of the top.
I have just spent a few days at Lochan Meall an t'Suidhe which is one of the few areas where people can find a little shelter from the wind and viewers on the path. Inevitably there was a lot of toilet paper, poo and tampons as well as three pairs of boxers and two odd socks. I was working with the Green Space Dark Skies project, a large scale arts and technology project which took around 250 people halfway up Ben Nevis for some filming. With such a large number of people all at the same location for a few hours, the production team installed temporary toilets for everyone to use. This resulted in all the pee and all the poo being carried back down to be disposed of properly.
Ben Nevis enjoys around 150,000 people walking up it each year. For this reason it is quite different to other mountains, and our impacts are much more focused. The advice from Mountaineering Scotland is excellent and, as they say, in very busy places like Ben Nevis we need to carry out all our poo. Even if everyone buried their poo and took down their toilet paper, the impact would be too great. Especially on the summit where there is no vegetation or mud to carry bacteria to digest and decompose everything.
Instead, we will need to get used to the idea of carrying down poo, toilet paper, tampons and anything else that we normally dispose of in the bathroom at home. Without a toilet to flush things away and without bins to drop rubbish into we need to do things differently. But, once we have got over the thought of it, it's actually quite easy to do.
This is what Green Space Dark Skies did this weekend. They had lots of Wag Bags which are basically plastic bags with some grains of something in them that absorbs fluids and starts to biodegrade anything you put in to them. You can squat over them or hang them in a bucket with a seat. After you are done, just tie a knot in the bag, seal it in the zip lock bag provided and drop it into a regular bin once you are back in the car park. They are good to go straight into landfill. The plastic bags are biodegradable and you even get toilet paper and antiseptic wipes in the kit.
The main problem with this system is the thought of carrying your poo in your rucksack for the rest of the day. Here's my advice - get over it. It's only poo, we all produce it and all parents and dog owners get pretty adept at cleaning it up and wrapping it in a secure little package.
For this event, we also collected as much pee as we could. This was much more simple - a jerry can and an enormous funnel! Normally pee is not a big problem, and full credit must go to Green Space Dark Skies for taking this down as well. If you want to put it on your compost heap it works wonders by the way! Going for a pee does not have the same problems as going for a poo. But, we should take down any toilet paper we use. To do this, carry a ziplock bag or a dog poo bag or a nappy bag. It's a tiny bit of preparation but it will make a huge difference to everyone else if you can take down your paper.
It's the same with sanitary products such as tampons, sanitary towels, nappies and incontinence pads. We can not leave them on the mountain side, we need to take them down in our rucksacks stored safely in a tough plastic bag. So, carry a couple of plastic bags, it's really very easy to do, and we are all very used to carrying little bottles of alcohol gel to clean our hands afterwards.
The Ben Nevis Visitor Centre stocks Wag Bags (or similar) so they are easily available for Ben Nevis.
So, this is what all Abacus Mountain Guides will have with them, and I encourage all leaders and guides working in busy areas such as Ben Nevis to carry Wag Bags or something similar, as well as regular walkers and climbers. Our right of access is dependent on us behaving responsibly and this is one part of the responsible behaviour that is required of us.
Today I picked up all the toilet paper, soiled boxers, tampons and any other rubbish that I could find at the south end of Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe. The Real Three Peaks Challenge will get to grips with Poo Rock just down from John's Wall not far away as well as lifting as much rubbish as they can in one day. Last year they picked up over 100kg of rubbish and carried it down! So if you are able to help this is a very good event to support. Also, John Muir Trust organises regular litter picks and they are always very happy to see new volunteers.
As a final anecdote, don't do what I did once, learn from my mistake. I went around the CMD Arete with Victor, my springer spaniel, and picked up after him quite early on into the walk. I double bagged the poo in dog poo bags and put it into my rucksack. Of course, CMD Arete is a long day out and by the time I got home I had forgotten about the bag in my rucksack. So I forgot to take it out. After three days in my bag in my shed it was quite aromatic. I'd go as far as to say that it was pungent! Remember to clean out your rucksack properly.
Arriving with Rob Brown on the summit into brilliant sunshine, we were slightly overwhelmed by such an immaculate day. This was an unexpected gift, a random act of kindness, and was all the more memorable and meaningful. Nobody else was on the North Face of Ben Nevis, in perfect weather above a layer of clouds in the glens. For a lucky few local residents, the covid lockdown had its benefits, and we had just shared a precious gift.
A few hours earlier, on the walk in by the Allt a’Mhuilinn we were not sure what to expect, what the ice would be like, what we would climb. Our uncertainty took us towards a regular ascent of Orion Direct instead of something more exotic. But it became increasingly obvious as we climbed higher up the face that the ice was pretty much perfect and the most ephemeral routes were there to be climbed.
The Orion Face on Ben Nevis is the home of the biggest and best ice climbing in the country. Orion Direct was the first and is the ultimate classic route up the face, first climbed in 1960 by Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith. This was just one of their incredible climbs completed in a seven day period, the pinnacle of the step cutting era.
By modern standards, the technical difficulty is low, but any ascent is always a serious undertaking. Protection is often spaced and consecutive ice screw belays are always required. The route is long and does not follow a natural line, so route finding is difficult. For most people, an ascent of Orion Direct is a lifetime ambition, and quite rightly so. But it is not the only route up the face.
The stellar theme is maintained in the names of other climbs; Astral Highway, Journey Into Space, Space Invaders, Spacewalk. Many routes now wind their way up the face which, at its best, is covered in squeaky snow-ice, the ultimate in thin face ice climbing. The question is, what is the best way up the face?
Here is my suggestion. Climb Orion Direct for four pitches into The Basin and to the crux traverse out onto the upper face. This is at the foot of the Second Slab Rib which is one of the few rock features on the face that is recognisable, even with a very good covering of snow and ice. It is climbed by the summer rock route, The Long Climb, and occasionally holds enough ice on the slab to climb. This is a sensational pitch and you should take the opportunity to climb it if you are in the right place at the right time. Rob and I found ourselves in exactly this position in February 2021.
Rob was an excellent ice climber and his bling gold axes were swung with a casual style and great precision. Many people would be quite self-conscious with a pair of such spectacular tools, but Rob favoured super bright clothing combinations which always made a bold statement. Bling gold axes were the perfect way for him to accessorise his look.
Thin, silky smooth ice cased the slab of The Second Slab Rib. It was a shame to take something as harsh as an ice axe to something as clean and pure as the ice on the slab. Standing on monopoints on transparent, flawless ice was quite a feeling, 200m up the face, but knowing that Rob was holding my ropes and that we could swing leads all day gave me an extra boost of confidence. Rob led another long pitch that carried on up beautiful grooves and ice bulges, heading for the deep blue sky.
The way ahead is obvious, but daunting. A clean slab of snow-ice leading off to the horizon requires a steady approach and a conviction that it will lead to somewhere friendly. Where it leads to is the last pitch of Spacewalk, a steep shallow groove of fat ice right at the top of Orion Face. Spectacular climbing in a sensational position to finish a direct line up the biggest and best ice climbing face in the country.
Rob died in a climbing accident recently. He was one of the nicest guys I've met and it was a privilege to climb and work with him. This was one of the best days of climbing I have ever had, we were both totally stunned by the brilliance of the day, and I'm so glad I got to share it with Rob.
Even after 27 years of climbing rock in this area there are very many excellent climbs I have not done. So when I get the chance I try to make the most of it to go to search out some climbs that are new to me. Dave and I have climbed together a few times, including a Sea Stacks trip, a Cuillin Traverse (in the wet) and some Winter Climbing. He has also done lots of climbing in the Alps. So when we got a good weather forecast for this week I started to think of what we could do that would be new to us both.
We started with some Classic Rock routes in Glen Coe. The Long Crack and Archer Ridge are both fantastic climbs that link well together. Weeping Wall was living up to its name though and The Long Crack was pretty wet. Since we were up high already we carried on up to Church Door Buttress, along a really cool path over the west face cliffs of Aonach Dubh and up some pretty horrible scree.
Deep inside this buttress is Crypt Route, a rock climb unlike any other. It is much more like uphill caving than climbing, especially when it is wet and slimy! Head torches are essential to find your way in the darkest tunnels and chambers and don't wear your favourite bright climbing clothes, they will never be the same again. We emerged onto the arch to find the clouds and drizzle were lower than before so we udged up the final chimney groove to the top, thoroughly worked.
It was nice to see the crags of Ben Nevis drying out in the sunshine on Wednesday. The Long Climb takes a good couple of weeks to get dry (if it is ever completely dry) so we ruled this one out. Instead we went for Strident Edge on South Trident Buttress, a fantastic high mountain VS 4c with everything it a mountain rock climb should have including slimy cracks, a little loose rock and awesome exposure.
Andy joined us for this one and we climbed the beautiful ridge all the way to Carn Dearg before going along to descend Ledge Route. This was such a cool mountain day, a great circuit up South Trident Buttress with the views right across the North Face to a great summit, then down another great ridge, all in the sunshine
Today it stayed a bit cloudy in the west and we were in search of more Classic Rock. So we went to Coire an Lochain in The Cairngorms, along with a few other teams as it turned out. We planned on climbing Savage Slit and Fallout Corner (that I had not climbed in summer) but another team was already on Savage Slit and a team behind us decided to go for Fallout Corner. So we climbed Prore in the sunshine, between these two other routes.
Prore (VS 4c) does not get as many stars as the other climbs here but it is sensational. Prore is an obsolete term for the prow of a ship, and once you are established on the route you feel as exposed to the drop as you would be on any big boat. Beautiful, rough granite and delicate moves make this a route to savour.
We abseiled down and slotted in behind the team in Fallout Corner, which is a lot of fun. It is showing plenty of signs of many winter ascents, including a few bits of stuck protection. It also has slightly more positive breaks and cracks so the climbing is steady away and very well protected. Such a striking line draws your attention and it is a very nice climb.
It's easy to get over to the abseil point as well - in fact there are abseil anchors all over the top of this cliff. It would be well worth going there to tidy it all up. We took away some of it like we did yesterday on Ben Nevis. We all need to make an effort to tidy up when we can.
Of course the most striking line is Savage Slit. This isn't just a chimney, this is a slit that passes right through the mountain and out the other side. While the breeze rising up the cliff on the outside is warm, the draft coming out of the slit is cold and dank. Savage Slit is probably connected to Crypt Route deep under the ground.
Thankfully, you can climb the outside of the slit and avoid its powerful embrace. If you do step into it, it will not let you go easily. Bridge up the outside and look into the deep dark depths but don't be tempted to dive in too far.
Tomorrow we will stay in the west in search of exciting new ground for us both. We have our eyes on the big herdsman, where the ravens haunt the deep gullies.
CMD Arete, or Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête to give it it's full title, is one of the finest ridge walks in the country.
The route we take starts at the North Face car park and follows the path towards the CIC Hut for a little way before breaking away up the flanks of Càrn Mòr Dearg. The views for this first half of the day are simply breath-taking as we look across to the immense crags of the North Face of Ben Nevis.
For keen hill walkers who want a bit of extra challenge in their day and to bag an extra Munro along the way, this is one to go for. It adds an extra hour or two to the day, a couple hundred extra metres of ascent, as well as some delightfully exposed walking and easy scrambling. It's not for novices, but if you're looking for a more challenging walk up Ben Nevis, this is the one for you.
Càrn Mòr Dearg translates to big red pile of rocks. It sounds a lot better in Gaelic! Càrn is a cairn or a pile of rocks, Mòr is big and Dearg is red. Have a listen to the sound file on Walkhighlands to learn how to pronounce it properly. When you look across from Ben Nevis it really is very clearly red and rocky. The granite that the rocks are composed of is beautifully red and fine grained, making it a delight to walk over. It stays clean and grippy, there is very little moss and not very much lichen, so it makes for fantastic walking. Once you have completed the narrow sections of the ridge at the head of Coire Leis and the ridge broadens out, you cross from granite to the black andesite of Ben Nevis.
From the summit of Càrn Mòr Dearg we descend onto the arete and scramble our way across until we are on Ben Nevis itself. The scrambling consists of moving around and over big blocks of granite. It is always quite simple but it certainly requires good balance, the use of hands and arms to help you around the blocks, and always with long steep slopes dropping away on both sides. A good head for heights is useful, or the ability to block out the view down the sides of the ridge! It is certainly not simple walking, but it is very far from rock climbing. Scrambling is what we call the stuff between walking and climbing and this is simple scrambling.
Today was a pretty good day for a traverse of CMD Arete. It was dry and clear on Càrn Mòr Dearg, and just a bit misty on the summit of Ben Nevis. Hannah and Terry got a nice early start and got around to Ben Nevis smoothly and efficiently. John and Will did the same not long afterwards, with camping gear for Will to spend the night up next to the Allt a'Mhuilinn to relax afterwards. The descent follows the top half of the Mountain Track then cuts across country past Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe to re-join the original path back to the car park.
So, if you want to see the most spectacular side of Ben Nevis and enjoy an extra challenge to reach the summit, go for Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête. It is easily one of the finest ridges in the country.
It is a bit of a myth that you have to wear sturdy boots to go hill walking or scrambling. Looking around in the Cuillins on Skye recently it was noticeable the number who of people who were wearing approach shoes, not boots. I have been wearing light weight mid-height approach shoes (Scarpa Mescalito Mid) for a couple of years and really like them. I have been enjoying how light they are on my feet and how grippy they are on the rock.
Recently I read an article by someone who uses barefoot walking shoes for hill walking and scrambling. This was after being stopped from enjoying these things due to an old skiing injury and continuous pain as a result. It was so bad that barefoot shoes were looked into to change the style of walking, and to alleviate the pain. She was going to have to learn to walk from scratch again anyway, and she took many months to build up muscle and soft tissue strength with the new shoes. It was successful, and this person has gone on to be able to go walking and scrambling again.
The advantages of barefoot shoes were put forward as a great way of reducing stress on your joints and our impact on the ground, reducing erosion. These are great goals to achieve but I don't think that you have to go 'barefoot' to achieve them. It's one way of doing it, but not the only way. I have put a lot of thought into my walking over the last 30 years; not surprising when you think about how much time I spend walking. Whatever shoes or boots you wear, there is much to be gained by walking softly, using all your joints to reduce impact and reducing the impact of your foot strike on you and on the ground.
The goal is to change your style of walking. Rather than swinging your legs out in front to an over stride (which means that your body has to overcome a braking force with every step and the associated forces on the joints), the aim is to get your hips forward and to land on the ball of your foot underneath your hips, in balance.
If we can become more efficient walkers, we will be able to walk further and enjoy it more. If we can become better walkers, we will slip, trip and stumble less often. And, as we move into scrambling and climbing, we will move much better on steep ground if we have good foundations in our walking technique.
Here are some tricks to get you thinking about how you walk and how to make it softer and more efficient.
Often, one of the first drills you do when you start rock climbing is to climb with silent feet. The same goes for walking. Place your feet as quietly as possible as you walk along a trail (any trail). Of course, the gravel under your shoe will crunch but the thumping noise of your shoe striking the ground can be minimised. Tune in to what you are doing to make this work best.
You might find that you look to place your feet accurately instead of where ever they land, you might shorten your stride slightly, place your foot gently and softly, perhaps by putting it down toe first. All of these things are good.
Explore how you place your feet. You can use your toes, inside edge, outside edge, walk sideways. Learn to use small placements accurately and confidently. Shorten your stride to make it easier to shift your weight over the leading foot.
Pause and balance
Walking along a pavement or any regular, even surface, we tend to fall forwards onto our leading foot with full commitment. When the foot placement is predictable this is fine. Going uphill on uneven surfaces, when the foot placement is unpredictable, a moment of pause, balanced on one foot (the trailing foot) is useful so you can check if the next placement is stable. All these drills are designed to build in a moment of pause, balanced on one leg.
Be centred and smooth
Hook your thumbs into your belt in front of your belly button or hold your hands behind your back. Focus on your hands and on moving them forward smoothly. Take this up a step by balancing small stones on the backs of your hands held just in front of your belly. You can make this a competition between the people you are with – the person who keeps the stones their hands longest wins.
Balance a small stone on your head while walking!
We tend to focus on our extremities, especially when we think about skilful walking, when we should be more centric, leading with our tummy buttons. Leading with our centres makes us walk more smoothly.
It’s common to end up with a lot of shock loading when we walk downhill. Long steps, landing on your heel, falling onto your leading foot, all result in heavy strikes and a lot of stress going through your knees and hips. It’s also a good way to slip and slide. So, do the opposite. Walk on your toes in descent and take short quick, soft steps, placing your feet accurately.
Our joints can be used as shock absorbers that transfer impact force into muscles and tendons instead of the cartilage and bones within the joints. Cartilage is very hard to repair and replace, whereas muscles repair themselves and adapt quickly, and tendons are designed specifically for stretching and rebounding. If we use our ankle joints as well as our knees and hips, we add another shock absorbing joint and hugely reduce the impact force, wear and tear on our cartilage. To make this habitual (something we do all the time) we need to practice it purposefully on easy trails.
With purposeful practice of these skills by doing the drills we will build our walking technique. This means we should practice all the time we are out walking, as much as possible during the walk, regularly and often. Make it habitual; normal.
In addition, we should do specific exercises to build strength and balance in our ankles. The best way to do this is also to build it into a daily routine. We can use the time we brush our teeth for this! When we brush our teeth (twice a day for two minutes each time) –
One last thought is about walking poles. In descent, walking poles can help take a lot of shock loading off your joints relieving knee and hip pain, and they act as stabilisers, especially useful when your muscles are tired and legs are wobbly. However, there is a serious down side to over reliance on walking poles. We can learn to rely on the poles for balance, stability and correcting small errors in foot placements. This means that our muscles used in walking and our walking technique deteriorate. It seems to me that we should maintain our skilful walking technique and use walking poles only when we really need to, such as walking through fresh snow or with a heavier than normal rucksack.
There is a Scottish bill being proposed that would ensure that all young people have the opportunity to experience residential outdoor education. If this gets passed, every 12 to 16 year old pupil will be guaranteed a week long outdoor education residential experience.
Most people I know who work in the outdoor industry benefited from an outdoor education programme early in their careers. Most went on outdoor education residential trips, and many worked in outdoor education for a time. I was lucky enough to do both. As a child being brought up in Somerset I went on a residential trip to Charterhouse Outdoor Education Centre in the Mendips in Somerset. Even now, getting on for forty years later, I remember some of the things we did. Before I set up Abacus Mountain Guides I worked at Outward Bound Locheil for two years, specifically to gain the skills and experience that I knew I would need to work as a mountain guide. Right now, my daughter is on a school outdoor education residential trip and I am sure the experience will remain with her for decades to come.
Not every young person gets this opportunity. This bill would change this around completely, making it law that every young person would get the opportunity to go on a week long residential trip. In doing so, outdoor activities would be introduced to every child in Scotland. Once children have received a high quality experience in the outdoors, they are far more likely to return to it in later life, meaning they will be far more likely to live active, healthy lifestyles. They will also make connections with the landscape, the outdoor environment and nature, something that is crucial to tackle the climate emergency.
There are many barriers to participation in outdoor activities, financial, cultural and geographical, but the benefits to participation are wide-ranging and profound. This bill would cut through these barriers and introduce the outdoors to everyone growing up in Scotland.
I fully support this proposal, and if you would like to contribute to the consultation you can do so here.
Adventurous new experiences in the outdoors develop young people with a lifelong connection and concern for the natural environment, self-esteem, self reliance, confidence, resilience and an understanding of how to deal with new challenges and manage risk. It also helps young people to know what it means to be part of a team, to learn leadership skills and the importance of valuing friendship.
The evidence about these benefits of residential outdoor education is both widespread and compelling, and, in the age of COVID-19, when there is growing national concern about young people’s health and lifestyles and the fact that many children from some of the more deprived areas do not get the same opportunities as their counterparts elsewhere, residential outdoor education should be a key part of the curriculum.
Is it too early to be thinking about next winter? The summer solstice is only a month away after all. I only just emptied my van of all the accumulated gear and rubbish from a winter and spring of ice climbing and mountaineering. All my ice axes are now hanging in my shed, my winter boots are deep in the cupboard and I have been enjoying some rock climbing. But, winter is always on my mind. When people ask what my goals are, they are always wintry things.
The winter just finished was a blast. For me it started in December with some early season mixed climbing on Buachaille Etive Mor and on Ben Nevis. North Buttress and Hobgoblin make fine early season climbs. January was soggy for a long time and it kept us guessing what the rest of the winter would be like. Even so, we managed some very good fun days of climbing. February, as ever, was hard work. Storm after storm brought snow, thaw and freeze and incredibly quick cycles. One week gave us three overnight thaws with rain followed by freeze and fresh snow during the day.
It all came good in March though and we had some fabulous days in sunshine on good ice and snow. Some rare climbs were enjoyed like the last big icicle on Ben Nevis and a few ascents of Astronomy. The better weather and snow cover lasted well into April. I made several laps of Tower Ridge when it is at its best, covered in solid icy snow with the rock just starting to peak out again and in amazing weather.
This was my 22nd winter of work in Scotland. I missed most of one winter when I broke my back but I have enjoyed just about all of the other 21 winters and had a fantastic time. I really hope that I will get to enjoy another 20 odd winters. But I also want to explore some other places, so next winter I will be going to Norway to work alongside my good friend Donald King. We will still be running a full winter of guiding in Scotland but I will be away ice climbing in Norway for three weeks at the end of February and early March.
Donald has been ice climbing in Norway for many years now. He has found a place where there is a huge range of climbs with very people there climbing, based in the village of Aurland. Aurlands fjord itself is a branch off the great Sognefjord, which is the longest fjord in Norway. The mountains surrounding Aurland rise on all sides to an altitude of around 1800 metres, on the slopes of these and in the gorges between them, the great icefalls form. Within ten minutes drive of the cabins there are low level options for climbs when conditions allow, extending the drive to half an hour one can be at an altitude of 700m or in another valley entirely, so good ice can usually be found.
So if you fancy something a bit different, a week of the best ice climbing in a beautiful part of the world, and if you want to sample my cooking, have look here and get in touch with Donald.
You will need sharp picks and crampons, and a sense of adventure!
In some ways I feel like I should apologise for our social media feeds. I put up nice pictures of all the adventures I experience and describe them in detail, and you might feel like you have missed out on something. It is a common theme in the outdoor community and is enhanced by the ephemeral nature of what we seek. We quite like, secretly or openly, to get one up on our friends. Knowing that we have got to a climb in perfect condition, when most other people have not, is quite satisfying.
If this FOMO (fear of missing out) generates the drive to get out and have your own adventures I’m delighted. Going climbing and walking and biking (and even kayaking, although that’s not one I enjoy as much) is brilliant in so many ways. I hope to encourage people to get out and engage with our beautiful landscape. The benefits of exercise and challenge in nature to our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing are profound. And it’s a lot of fun too!
One-upmanship can be a fun game but let’s not let it get out of hand. What I don’t want to encourage is a kind of outdoor consumerism. If we start to get the idea that climbing a certain route makes you better than someone else we will start to follow the wrong path.
I have fallen into this trap before myself. Many years ago, my friend Jonny and I enjoyed soloing big ice climbs on Ben Nevis. We compared notes on climbing Point Five Gully, Zero Gully, Hadrian’s Wall Direct, all solo. It started to get competitive and we started to think about whether we could go for a grade VI and who would do it first. So I found myself standing underneath Mega Route X with every intention of climbing it but with a slightly unsettled feeling inside. The climb was in great shape and the weather was good but something wasn’t quite right.
So, I went home, without climbing the route, and I’m very happy with this decision. It became clear to me that the main reason for climbing that route was to get one up on Jonny. That’s no reason to do such a serious thing as climb vertical ice solo.
A couple of weeks later I went back up with my wife Louise and my friend Tony. We were deciding what to do when I suggested I could climb Mega Route X before doing something else. This time it felt so good to climb the route, even with Louise watching me at the bottom of the coire. We went off and did another climb together afterwards and had a lovely day. We did the climbs we wanted to do for us and for no other reason.
We praise achievement and we are right to do so. When Dave MacLeod completes another of the world’s hardest climbs we all celebrate his success. When we first climbed Everest the whole nation celebrated. Now, some people climb Everest to be able to say that they have climbed Everest thinking that this status gives them something other people don’t have. We might complete the Munro’s, or the Cuillin Traverse or climb Orion Direct and feel like this makes us better than others. This is not universal, it is only a few people but it is not healthy.
We should not collect outdoor objectives like badges we can wear on our sleeves. We should not do things so that we can say we have done them with the intention of making our audience feel small.
The challenge is ours and ours alone. It is so hard to do but we should not measure ourselves up with other people. We should push ourselves to new things, new places and new adventures for the experience it gives us. Let’s share our experiences to encourage others to have their own adventures but the reward is entirely personal. It’s about the struggle, the escape from everyday life, the sense of perspective, the focus on what actually matters right here, right now. It’s not actually about what you do at all.
Doing great things in the outdoors does not make us better than anyone else but it might just make us better people.
So I hope we inspire action and not envy, that people get out and have adventures of their own instead of feeling that they are missing out. Don’t read it and think about what I have been up to. Read it and think about what you can get up to.
Is mountain guiding ethical? Does the outdoor industry fit with the way that we approach access and enjoyment of our mountains? Do people in the professions of leading people on walks, guiding them on climbs or teaching them mountaineering skills add or take away from the traditions of our activities?
You will probably have an instant reaction to these questions, but it is worth thinking about them a bit longer. After a conversation online, these topics came to my mind again. So, here are my thoughts.
We have a tradition in the UK, and especially in Scotland, that is put into statute in the Land Reform Act of 2003 with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC). It is similar in Access Areas in England and Wales. The SOAC principles are:
• Respect the interests of other people.
• Care for the environment.
• Take responsibility for your own actions.
We have the right to access most land in Scotland to do what we want, as long as we behave responsibly. What we’re thinking about here is this last bit, that we must take responsibility for our own actions, for example care for our own safety, keep alert for hazards and take special care with children.
We also have a tradition of self-reliance. Our approach to climbing and walking should be that we are fully prepared and skilled for the route that we take on. We should not rely on outside assistance as a matter of course. There will not be navigation aids, shelter, food outlets on hand. It is down to us to learn the skills that we need, to carry the equipment and try to make sure that we are capable of the route we go for.
On this background, hiring a guide to do much of this stuff for you does not fit with our traditional approach or our access code. If we hire someone more competent than us to take on a particular route that is beyond our current capability, we are not self-reliant, and we divest some of the responsibility to the guide. So, there is an argument that guiding does not fit with our mountaineering ethics.
If we carry on with this argument though, it starts to break down. What if we go out with a friend who is better than us and who leads the hard pitches of a climb. Is this being self-reliant? Should we all go out by ourselves then? And if we are being completely responsible for our actions, mountain rescue is also unethical. If we want to be completely self-reliant, we should not call on mountain rescue if things go wrong, we should take responsibility for our actions and sort it out ourselves, or suffer the consequences.
Clearly these are daft notions. Going out with friends or a club to learn your craft of mountaineering is a brilliant way to get into it and to progress. It’s how most of us start out, me included. We can learn a lot by ourselves, but it has inherent risks, it does not always go well, and you can get through the dangerous early stages of learning much more quickly by learning from someone with more experience than you.
There is of course no suggestion that the amazing service provided by our mountain rescue teams is unethical! In fact, anyone out in the mountains who sees someone that needs help is very likely to feel a responsibility to help when they can. I am always deeply moved by the work of our voluntary rescue teams and of individuals who will go to offer help. It is a very positive aspect of our community that should be acknowledged far more than it is currently.
So, while we aim to be self-reliant and responsible for our own actions, there are some cases when it is OK accept help from a more experienced friend, and I think that hiring a guide falls into this category. A small group or climbing pair will aim to be self-reliant, whatever the makeup of that group. In fact, we need experienced people to help new people into mountaineering, it is useful to have instructors and guides helping people learn their craft well, so that it does not become elitist.
However, there is, potentially, a problem. Currently we have free access to our mountains as long as we take responsibility for our own actions. One aspect of this is that we can do whatever we want, as long as we accept the consequences (and as long as we respect the environment and other people). What I mean is that we can take on whatever challenge we like, any grade of climb, any length of walk or run. There is no certification required, no test that we have to pass, no statement of competence that needs to be presented to an authority to allow us to take part in any of these activities. In this regard, we have free access to do what we want. And this is a fundamental right that we need to preserve. We should celebrate this and come together to defend this right.
We have had this right for a very long time so it would be easy to think that it is not under threat. Generally, I think this is right, but there have been a couple of worrying moments in recent years. A few years ago, after a spate of fatal avalanche accidents, there were calls for access to our mountains to be restricted to summer months on account of the burden placed on our rescue teams and NHS. The argument was that the cost of rescue and medical treatment is very high just for the sake of a few reckless, selfish climbers. Dorothy Grace Elder, a journalist and former SNP MSP said exactly this many times in 2013. Thankfully, nobody took this seriously and our access in winter has been retained.
Much more recently, a few people have been arrested for culpable and reckless conduct after calling for mountain rescue. Most of these were aggravated by breaking covid travel restrictions, but at least one was not. This is a worry, and I hope it is not a trend. We do not want to be in a position of being unwilling to call for help when we need it due to the fear of being arrested. Police Scotland has reassured us that this is not the case, but these arrests do demonstrate that we need to make sure that our right to access is maintained in its current form. It would be a disaster if there were consequences to legitimately calling for help or if access was taken away from us when someone else decides that it is too dangerous. Equally, we do not want to have any requirement for certification, training or statement of competence in order to go climbing. Some other countries only allow people to climb certain peaks if they hire a qualified guide. I certainly don’t want any system like this in the UK.
So, it seems to me that the current system is pretty good. In fact, I think it is world leading. As individuals we can do what we want as long as we follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. We can go out by ourselves in any conditions, or we can ask or hire someone to help us. This does not erode our principle of self-reliance, or in any way affect those who want to go out and do it all by themselves. In fact, I encourage everyone to go out and have adventures, I try to instil the confidence in my clients and anyone else that they can try stuff by themselves and that they should do this. It is brilliant for me to hear from my clients that they have been out climbing by themselves after we have been climbing together.
To me this does not seem like commodification of the mountains or of climbing. But of course, I would say that, I’m a guide. While I do advertise online and try to promote my services, when I am out guiding there is nothing commercial about what I do. Nearly all of my clients are committed walkers or climbers already and the rest want to be. Some of them are incredibly proficient with extensive experience. Climbing with me is just one part of their climbing activities.
I am a strong defender of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and of our ethics and principles of mountaineering, and I don’t think that the few people who hire guides are doing anything against these.
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.