For most people in the UK who enjoy winter climbing, skiing and mountaineering, this was a winter to forget. Covid-19 travel restrictions made it impossible for people to travel to The Highlands. For those of us living here in the winter it was a different story; it was a very nice winter with lots of cold, dry weather, good snow cover, great climbing conditions, and good skiing. I was lucky enough to share the winter with Russell and Liss and, for them, it was their first taste of winter climbing. Following the winter with these guys, from scratching around in stormy December, to sunny ice climbing in April, was a real pleasure and a winter that will stay with them for very many years to come.
Liss and Russell are strong ski tourers with many years and very many trips to the Alps under their belts. However, walking with very different things strapped to their feet forced them to start from scratch. In early January we had three days of super cold weather with ice on the paths all the way down to the top of the forest line. We walked a couple of hundred metres up the Allt a'Mhuilinn path before we needed to put on crampons for the first time! So we had a lot of practice of walking with crampons, even before we got to Ledge Route as our introduction to winter mountaineering.
We built on core skills of movement, climbing together on a rope, belays and anchors in the snow, and lots of studying of the snow, learning its characteristics, how it is moved around and the signs it leaves behind of this, and how to spot avalanche hazards. We were introduced to the "hot aches" early on and rapidly beefed up the quality and quantity of our gloves! However, the pain of fingers coming back to life after being numb with cold did not put them off. In fact, it's fair to say that they were hooked!
January was cold and super snowy. Russell and I found Curved Ridge to be buried in soft snow, but bathed in weak winter sunshine. And we found a very tame stag waiting for us at the car park, perfectly happy to pose for a photo or two. January also brought into condition some crags that are rarely visited. The Mome Rath Face was one of these, on the East face of Gearr Aonach in Glen Coe. High above the Lost Valley, this is a wonderful place to explore, and we enjoyed Lost Leaper Gully.
February was even colder at the start. Low level cascades were freezing up and you did not have to go high to find ice. Liss and Caspar went to climb Sgurr Finnisg'aig Falls, around behind Nevis Range, to nudge the comfort zone a bit bigger. Ice climbing certainly seemed to be the direction to go in. Then we had two weeks of rain to the summits, washing the ice on Steall Falls, The Chasm and Elliot's Downfall into the loch. As ever, the ice factory that is Ben Nevis came up good, and the snow-ice climbs were suddenly in excellent condition. Liss and I went for Number Three Gully Buttress to build on exposure to exposure, of which this route has lots. We also worked out that bum sliding is the best way to descend!
Cold northerlies marched right through March giving us sunshine, cloud inversions, our one soggy day (climbing The White Line) and a bone dry day for rock climbing on Castle Ridge. Good Friday Climb above the clouds was a real treat. By now, with many days of great climbing, walking down Ledge Route was quite a nice way to descend, thinking back to how much harder it felt in January.
Instead of springing in to April with warm sunshine and blooming daffodils, we had the coldest days of the winter. -12C on the summit plus windchill! Winter was reluctant to let go, and still is. Spring is only happening in the glens; the summits are still in an icy grip. Our progression up the grades carried on too with Thompson's Route and Comb Gully getting us established in the grade IV climbs.
So, after a few days of what we thought would be our last winter climb, we climbed Tower Scoop as the final last winter climb of the season. It's grade III in the book, but it was the steepest bit of ice we climbed all winter and was a brilliant end to a wonderful introduction to winter climbing.
Climbing here for a week each winter gives a very good flavour of what it is all about, especially as each winter has a different character. However, one of the wonderful things about living here is following the winter from early season scratching on snow dusted rocks, through the full depths of winter, to the skinny lines of ice between dry rocks in the sunshine of the spring. As always, Ben Nevis holds on to the winter for longer than all other mountains in Scotland, and ice climbing is still going up there even though we are now into May.
So, to share this with Liss and Russell was a wonderful way to spend the winter, and to see them progress through the grades to climb steep ice with confidence and move well around the mountain made it even more satisfying. I think the winter climbing bug is with them, and I hope to explore more winter climbing with Russell and Liss in winters to come.
Last year, many people found that they felt a deep desire to find open spaces, to explore the beautiful landscape of Scotland, to get outside and to connect with nature. It is such a fundamental thing to do that is fundamentally good for us, in so many ways.
Lots of us did explore our wild places and, because they left no trace, nobody was aware of them being there. The people that we did notice were mostly very receptive to being offered a bit of guidance so that they minimised their impact on the land and on other people. If you are new to it, it is not obvious what we should do to behave in a way that does not impact on other people and on the nature of the landscape. A bit of help goes a long way to us all being able to enjoy the landscape of Scotland, and to kep it beautiful.
To maintain our stunning landscapes, we must ensure we protect, respect and enjoy our countryside, towns and cities responsibly by asking people to leave no physical trace of their visit.
Last year, many campsites were not open or did not have their shower/toilet blocks open if they were accepting campers. This made many people think of informal camping (AKA wild camping) as an alternative, and rightly so. It's a wonderful feeling, traveling around the most beautiful parts of Scotland and setting up a tent for the night, tucked out of anyone's way, and spending a night in the wild under the stars. With no light polution and with only the sounds of nature all around, it's a perfect escape from our cooped up lives.
It's also very easy to impact other people without even realising it. We have the right to go camping, as long as we do so responsibly. To make sure we are doing it responsibly we need to:
We DON'T have a right to roam. We DO have a right to responsible access.
Touring around Scotland in a campervan is awesome! It gives you the freedom to go anywhere, to find out of the way places, and to take all sorts of toys to be able to go biking, surfing, walking and climbing.
It is also very easy to have quite an impact on everyone else if you are not used to it. Hiring a campervan for your holiday brings the excitement of exploration, as well as the challenges of driving a bigger vehicle than you might be used to, on smaller roads than you might be used to, with all the hazards of sheep, deer and distracting views.
Try to use official campervan sites to stay at overnight, or stop-over points provided by local communities, Forest and Land Scotland or the national parks. Parking up and sleeping in your van is not covered by our access rights in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code but lots of the same principles should apply. Leave no trace, take all your waste home, don't empty your toilet waste or waste water anywhere other than a proper disposal point, and think about how intrusive you might be to local communities.
Visit Scotland is encouraging us to make a promise:
And they are helping us understand how we can keep the promise.
I promise to care for Scotland's nature. I will…
• Not disturb the incredible wildlife that has roamed this epic land for centuries.
• Tread lightly to protect their habitats.
• Be considerate to farmland and livestock.
• Keep my dog on a lead when needed.
• Stick to the marked roads, tracks and paths.
• Take my litter home with me.
• Take only photos and leave only footprints.
• Observe the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
I promise to care for Scotland's communities. I will...
• Slow down, and savour every moment of what there is to see, do and learn.
• Shop local to enjoy the best products and support Scottish makers and businesses.
• Respect the locals and their resources.
• Fáilte (embrace) and respect the Gaelic language.
• Sample the delicious, seasonal foods available all across Scotland.
• Seek out and respect the rich and diverse cultures that are found throughout Scotland.
• Avoid crowded places and come back when it’s less busy.
• Take care when exploring the great outdoors, and bring/wear the right equipment.
• Check ahead to see if there is access or parking.
• Park my vehicle safely and responsibly.
• Follow physical distancing guidance and wear my mask as required.
I promise to care for Scotland and the world's tomorrow. I will…
• Leave the car when I can and walk, cycle, paddle or use public transport instead.
• Hire an electric vehicle where possible and take advantage of the many charge points that are now available across Scotland.
• Check the green credentials of all of the businesses I use to travel, stay and explore.
• Enjoy the pure waters that run from the tap, not single-use bottles.
• Switch off the lights and look up at the stars.
Seems like a good plan to me.
While I was out for a walk recently I was talking about how helpless I feel about being able to do something about our impact on the planet. I feel like I can't do anything meaningful to help reverse human impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, polution, plastic waste and extreme weather events. Our climate emergency seems like such a huge problem it is difficult to see how anything I can do on a personal level will change anything. Why do I bother trying to recycle plastic when there are huge floating islands of it in the oceans and when supermarkets are increasing their plastic usage, not decreasing it. It seems like all the power to change things for the better lies with big corporations and governments. What difference can I make against such a massive problem?
The continued thaw and very slow relaxation of covid restrictions probably added to my feeling of helplessness. All the drive from the governments seems to be directed towards getting businesses back up and running, opening up the economy and getting us back to normal, forgetting that normal is what is wreaking havoc with our environment. Once I got home and wrote down some of the things that we can do and how much difference they will make, I started to feel a bit better. It also looks like we don't need to turn into vegan eco-warriors to make a difference (sorry to all my vegan eco-warrior friends, you're all lovely!). Here's what I think we can do.
First of all, let's talk about it. Make it normal to talk about issues of climate change, polution and our impact on the planet, as well as ideas of what we can do to help turn the tide. It is a big and scary subject and it is easy to fall into very depressing conversations about the most recent evidence of our destruction of the environment. So, let's talk about what we can do, share ideas and knowledge, make it normal to want to become sustainable as a population, and as individuals. One person's effort is tiny in the big scheme of things, but when everyone makes the same effort the change is huge.
Connect with nature. Not just a walk in the woods on a Sunday afternoon listening to a podcast. I mean make a real connection with nature. Doing stuff in nature like biking and climbing is very good but still might not create a real connection. Slow down, look at the details, study how they change through time, note when the snowdrops burst up through the ground, when the daffodils bloom, how many bees you see. Even in an urban setting, there are trees to become friends with, "weeds" (AKA wild flowers) that grow in the most unlikely places pushing their way through tarmac and cracks in the concrete. Learn about habitats, land usage and management. Ideally, grow stuff. Growing your own vegetables is a fantastic way to create a real connection with nature and has the additional benefit of reducing food miles. You can grow herbs on a windowsill, tomatoes on a balcony, potatoes in bags. You don't need very much space at all, but if you do have some garden space make the most of it. The value of garden and green spaces has been highlighted through lockdown so let's maintain that and nurture them.
The impact of global climate change and our impact on the planet is seen through nature and our open spaces, as well as changes in weather, especially in extreme weather events. To be able to see these changes and feel how they might impact us on a personal level, we need to have a personal connection with nature and our landscape. It's not surprising that we, as a population, have become completely disconnected with nature when modern lives deliver everything we need and everything we want at a touch of a screen. It's natural to want to make lives easier for us, but ultimately it is not healthy. Our disconnect with nature is a fundamental problem that needs to be tackled.
Change banks. Many mainstream banks continue to invest in unsustainable industries such as oil and coal. Barclays and HSBC have collectively invested over £149 billion in coal, gas, oil, tar sands and fracking since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015, making them the 7th and 12th worst banks in the world respectively, and the two worst in Europe, for financing climate change. By moving our banking to an ethical bank, and writing to tell the banks why we are moving, we can demonstrate what our priorities are and change what investment there is available for different industries. Once you have changed banks (with a seven day switch guarantee) there is little or no impact on you other than knowing that your savings are being put to good use. Have a look at BankOnOurFuture.uk/action
Change electricity supplier. Do some research and change your provider to one that generates power from renewable and green sources instead of coal or gas fired power stations. Again, once you have done it, there is little or no impact on you afterwards. You need to do some research though. The best providers are actively investing and building renewable power generation infrastructure while others offer very green looking tarifs which offset their carbon production by planting trees. Planting trees is a good thing but there have been many problems with big carbon offset schemes and ultimately we need more renewable generation infrastructure. Have a look here as a start - https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/advice/switching-your-energy-supplier/
Stop wasting food. Each year, one third of food produced in the world goes to waste, and it is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is a stunning statistic and one that horrifies me and puzzles me in equal measure. In my house, we buy what we need and eat it all. There is very little food waste at all, and the peelings and food scraps we do get rid of go into a compost bin and into the vegetable patch. Reducing how much food we waste would have a huge impact on the greenhouse gas emitions we are each responsible for. Research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organizaton of the United Nations from 2013 estimates that if food waste was a country, then it would be the third highest emitter of GHG emissions. Each year, we waste 1.3 gigatons of edible food and this releases 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (without taking into account land use change). Buy what you need and make use of produce about to be thrown out if you can. Try this - https://toogoodtogo.org/en/
Eat less meat and be happy to pay more for good quality, locally sourced meat. Check where your fruit and vegetables come from to eat produce grown closer to home, and eat fruit and vegetables that are in season. In Fort William we are lucky enough to be able to buy venison from Jahama Highland Estates and all sorts of produce from local crofts through Food Lochaber . Do some research, you might have similar producers near you - https://www.farminguk.com/ - but remember that local doesn't always mean better. It's hard enough trying to work out what to eat to stay healthy, never mind trying to work out what to eat to keep the planet healthy. Soil is currently being destroyed 10 times faster than it is being created. The UK has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, with the erosion continuing at a rate of 1cm to 3cm a year. It's a huge subject and there are no single, straightforward answers. If you want to learn (a huge amount) about it have a look at the Sustainable Food Trust. ‘Kiss the Ground’, currently streaming on Netflix, has huge relevance for the massive environmental and health problems we face today and gives a nicely balanced view on food production. It's a really engaging film, easy to watch, and is highly recommended.
Hire kit and don't fall victim to fashion. If you ski for a week or two each year, do you really need to own a full set of ski gear? Would that cupboard in your house be more useful to you if it didn't have all that stuff in it doing nothing for 50 weeks of the year? It's the same with winter climbing gear. It also makes a lot of sense to travel with fewer bags and kit. And just think about whether we actually need a new jacket in this year's colours when last year's jacket is still working well. https://www.scottishmountainhire.co.uk/
These are all pretty easy things to do that have little impact on your daily life. You can be an eco-warrior without having to look like one! But that's the point, isn't it? We all have to do our bit, it's mainstream, it's normal. Doing something to help the human race live sustainably on this planet is something we all need to do. We can't rely on other people to do it for us. We all need to do our bit.
Here's what we are doing as a business to improve our sustainability.
We have had unusually strong and persistent easterly winds for a week now bringing fresh snowfall and creating deep accumulations of snow and a High avalanche hazard in some areas. It has been a very difficult week to get out and do anything safely, so it's a good time to brush up on some more planning skills.
In Scotland, we are super lucky to have the Scottish Avalanche Information Service giving us detailed information on snow conditions and the avalanche hazard. SAIS is funded by Sport Scotland which itself is a Scottish Government funded organisation. The Scottish Government considers this to be an essential service for walkers, climbers and skiers. The people delivering the service are incredibly experienced and highly trained observers and the way the reports are presented is world class. We have an amazing resource here, make sure you know how to use it properly.
Pull up the avalanche forecast in a new window and have a map to hand while you read through this.
We need to build a picture of the snow cover and its history. Start by reading the Weekly Snowpack Summary, top right of the page. This describes the previous week's weather and what happened to the snow. It will give some background to what to expect on your day out, where the snow is, how the weather has changed it, and what hazard there is in general.
Have a look at the blog posts. On the right of the page, under the Weekly Snowpack Summary, you'll find the last few blog posts rom SAIS observers. These have photos taken while they were out working as well all sorts of points of interest. A photo of where you are going, or somewhere close to it, is really valuable so you know what to expect when you get there.
With a bit of an idea of what snow cover there is and its history, we now need more detail. You'll get this in the Observed Avalanched Hazard tab to the right of the Avalanche Hazard Forecast. This is exactly what it says, observed avalanche hazard, i.e. actual data not a forecast. The forecasters go to lots of different places on their day out, making observations of the snow and checking the hazard. This is observed data, the detailed starting point on which the forecast is based. It is occasionally different to what was forecast the day before.
Lastly, read the forecast. Read the text and take time to read the details on the avalanche hazard rose. Check the altitudes of the start of the snowpack and where the higher hazard is, as well as what the hazard level is.
So, what does it say? The avalanche hazard rose (AKA the wheel of fortune or the avalanche piechart) tells us where the hazard is and what level of hazard it is. Each aspect of the mountain is represented at different altitudes all the way up to the highest peak in the area of the forecast. You can work out which aspects of slope have less avalanche hazard and stick to those. You need to know what the hazard level is in each area too.
The avalanche hazard scale is available to see by clicking just above the avalanche hazard rose. Take time to read the descriptions carefully and really understand what each level is. The words have been very carefully chosen and developed to give us the information we need in a practical, usable way. The hazard levels described by "Low", "Moderate", "Considerable" and "High" are very specific levels, not just vague adjectives.
The descriptions talk about natural avalanches and human triggered avalanches. Natural avalanches are started by a natural trigger such as a rise in temperature or rapid accumulation of snow. Natural avalanches can be triggered above you and sweep down onto you. Large natural avalanches can travel below the area marked on the avalanche forecast rose. It is important to take notice of avalanche paths in case you are in a run-out zone when a natural avalanche occurs. You might be on relatively secure slopes but what is above you might not be secure.
Human triggered avalanches are what normally catch people out though. Most people trigger the avalanche that they get caught in. Triggering of an avalanche will occur if the slope is steep enough and if there is enough extra weight on the snow to act as a trigger.
In a Moderate hazard, human triggering is possible, but not likely. It's reasonable to cross these slopes with some care.
In a Considerable hazard, a single person load is likely to trigger an avalanche. Would you cross the road if you were likely to be hit by a car? Probably not, so don't go walking across steep slopes of this hazard level. Natural avalanches may occur, but are not likely.
A High avalanche hazard says naturally occuring avalanches and human triggered avalanches will occur and they could be large or very large. Don't go near the red areas!
How steep is steep enough? Anything more than 25° can avalanche, but the most likely angle for an avalanche is about 30° to 45°. Knowing how steep a slope is, is a useful skill to develop. You can start by using a clinometer on your phone or compass, or the tool in the Be Avalanche Aware app from SAIS.
It's time to start looking at a map. We need to transcribe the information on the avalanche hazard rose to the slopes we see on the map. We need to look at the contour lines and work out the aspect of slope and its gradient.
If you want an easy way to do this, use Fat Map. You can add a layer to the satelite image to show areas above a particular altitude, on particular aspects and gradients. In the image above I have selected SW, W, NW and N facing slopes above 700m and steeper than 25°. The green shaded areas in the image relate to the areas of considerable avalanche hazard in the forecast above.
You can do the same by looking at the contour lines. The easiest thing to do is work out areas above a certain altitude by finding that contour line. If you stay below this altitude and away from run-out zones, you will be pretty secure.
The aspect of slope can be determined by considering a line perpendicular (at right angles) to the contour lines, pointing down the slope. See the image below.
We can also work out the gradient of a slope from the contour lines. On an OS map, the index contour lines (the thick ones) are 50m apart vertically. 50m horizontally on a 1:25k map is 2mm. So if the index contour lines are 2mm apart, the slope is 45°. If the index contour lines are 4mm apart, the slope is just under 30° (26.6° to be exact). I'll spare you the trigonometry!
Looking at the forecast above, a good route to choose might be Castle Ridge on Ben Nevis. It faces east and the forecast says that east facing slopes at all altitudes will have a low avalanche hazard because the wind has scoured off all the soft snow. So far, so good.
Now think about how to get down. The common descent is down towards Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe. The picture above shows that this slope faces north west and the top of the climb is at 1050m. NW slopes at 1050m have a considerable avalanche hazard forecast for them all the way down to 700m. So, if this slope is steep enough, it is one to avoid.
The pictures below show how steep it is. Between the 1000m contour and 950m contour the gap is just over 2mm. So the slope here is close to 45°. If you want to be super accurate, the gap is 2.5mm on the map which is 62.5m in real life. Doing the trigonometry gives a slope angle of 38.7°, just about perfect for triggering avalanches).
Down at 800m to 750m the gap between index contours is 4mm making the slope angle just under 30° here, still of concern and to be avoided.
So, descending this slope after climbing Castle Ridge is not a good option at the moment. It might be better to go over to the top of Carn Dearg, past Number Four Gully and down the Mountain Track since the slope angle is less all the way down here, the slope stays below 30° under the track all the way to the Red Burn crossing. However, check the gradient of the slopes going from the top of Castle Ridge up to Carn Dearg and decide for yourself if you'd be happy walking up them right now.
So, we can look at the avalanche hazard rose and read which slopes have an avalanche hazard, and how high the hazard is. We can then look at a map and work out what areas on the map to avoid. So, why do we need to read so much on the avalanche forecast instead of just looking at the avalanche hazard rose?
This is because the forecast is just that, a forecast. It is right most of the time, but sometimes it is not accurate because the weather forecast it is based on was not accurate. Sometimes we find an avalanche hazard in a different area or of a different scale to what was forecast and we need to be able to recognise this. If we build up a really good picture of what the snow is like first, we have a much better chance of noticing if the forecast is right or if it is slightly different to what we are seeing.
75% of the decisions we make in a day of mountaineering should be made in advance, based on the weather forecast, the avalanche forecast, our experience and ability level and those of the people we are with. We should think about these things first and choose a route based on them when we are not so easily influenced by what other people are doing or tracks we might see in the snow.
Once we are on the journey, walking in to our objective, we should be observing and checking that what we see is in line with the forecast. Most of the time we will be able to stick to our plan, but about 20% of our decisions will be made based on what we see on the journey. By the time we are at critical decision making moments such as which gully to go up or which descent route to take down, we should be 95% sure of the decision before we get there.
Being able to see is a very valuable thing. In good visibility we can look for signs that the avalanche forecast is accurate and we can see evidence of instabilities. We should be able to recognise areas where snow has been accumulating, and areas where it has been scoured away. A crucial skill is to be able to recognise windslab under our boots and to be able to spot windslab from scoured stable snow ahead of us.
It's nice to be able to see cornices and evidence of recent avalanches, areas of safety and areas threatened from above. If you can't see because you are in the cloud and you don't know the terrain intimately, work on the basis that the avalanche hazard is one higher than the forecast. If it is a Moderate, work on the basis that it is a Considerable, and make decisions appropriately.
Many people get caught out by quite small avalanches, small areas of accumulated snow that are just big enough to avalanche and send people tumbling. Big corries full of snow are easy to see, but small areas of windslab in random locations can catch out anyone. The text on the forecast describes some of these locations. Cross loading of gullies and small slopes occurs when a wind blows snow across a slope allowing gullies in the slope to catch snow in the sheltered side of the gully. The avalanche forecast might say that west facing slopes are secure, but in that west facing slope there will be undulations, bluffs and gullies that can catch small areas of windslab and cause individual areas of avalanche hazard.
Being avalanched in Scotland is not an option. Burials are quite rare but injuries due to tumbles and the trauma caused by hitting rocks are often severe. We have a world class avalanche information service - make sure you use it properly and fully to help make good mountaineering decisions.
We know that for the vast majority of people right now the mountains are not within their local area but as soon as travel opens up you will want to hit the ground running. Make sure your skills are up to scratch and you know how to plan a safe and enjoyable winter mountain walk so you can get out and enjoy the mountains as soon as possible. If you have a bit of time to spare why not go through the weather and avalanche forecasts and have a think about which mountains and routes would be appropriate in those conditions.
When planning a walk it is very easy to fall into the trap of selecting a particular mountain days or weeks in advance and then just going with it, even though the conditions on the day are terrible. In this blog post we will take you through the steps to follow when planning your next walk.
What is the weather forecast?
You probably already have a rough area in mind, or a limit on how far you are willing to drive. So what is the weather going to be doing in that area? Firstly, you need to find the correct weather forecast - the weather on the mountain summits is very different to down in the towns. There are a lot of options so have a look at as many as you can. The forecasts will vary slightly from one another but by looking at all of them you will get a good idea of what is likely to happen. Here are a few that we use regularly:
The weather can vary greatly in different parts of the country so, if you are fortunate enough to live in the middle of Scotland, then you could go east or west to find better weather. The prevailing weather comes from the south west so when it is raining and snowing on the west coast you may well find sunshine in the Cairngorms (and vice versa if the weather is coming from the east). If you don't have that option and the weather is not ideal then you can pick a mountain that offers you some shelter for much of the day meaning you only have to be out in the wind and snow while you quickly tag the summit. Or do you need to go to a summit at all? It is possible to have a nice day out in the mountains without going to a summit. If you're desperate for a summit remember there are a lot of lovely smaller hills and mountains around. It's not all about bagging the Munros!
You should also think about the terrain that you will be on during your walk. If high winds are forecast or a particularly gusty wind then an exposed ridge is not going to be a good place to be. Sticking to broader, open slopes is a safer option for windy days. It is also worth thinking about which direction you do your walk. Will you be walking into the wind or with the wind when you are heading back to the car with tired legs? Is the weather going to improve or deteriorate through the day? If you are going onto a narrow ridge will it be better earlier or later in the day? Should you get an early start or would you be better off waiting for the weather to clear up a little before setting off?
There are lot of things to consider with the weather but with a bit of practice you can select routes that are appropriate for the weather, and still have a pleasant walk on some fairly wild days.
What is the avalanche forecast?
Here in Scotland we are incredibly fortunate to not only have excellent weather forecasting, but we also have daily avalanche forecasts for six different areas of the country. These are provided by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) and the areas covered are Glencoe, Lochaber, Creag Meagaidh, Northern Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms and Torridon.
If you know you are going out at the weekend start reading the avalanche forecasts during the week so by the time it gets to the day of your walk you have a good idea about what is going on within the snow pack. So what are the key bits of information you need when you are planning your walk? (If you are not sure about how to read an avalanche forecast we will have a blog post about that soon.)
Firstly, READ THE TEXT! This will give you a lot more information than just looking at the diagram. So what is the avalanche hazard on different slope aspects (the direction the slope faces)? What is the altitude of the avalanche hazard and where does it change? What are the hazards? How will the hazard level change through the day?
Once you have all the information you will know which slopes you don't want to be on or under (even if the ground you are on is not going to avalanche it might be at risk of avalanche from above) and you can think about your safe options. With the prevailing wind coming from the south-west, quite often (but not always!) south, south-west and west facing slopes will be wind scoured and have a lower avalanche hazard. In a south-westerly wind the snow will be picked up and transported to north, north-east and east facing slopes, increasing the hazard level here. But this doesn't rule out every single slope that faces north, north-east and east. Look at the altitude of the avalanche hazard and perhaps you can stay below it. And remember that avalanches are most likely to occur on a slope angle between 30 and 45 degrees.
Before you send your brain into meltdown trying to count contour lines and work out the gradient, check out FATMAP. This is a fantastic and free tool that, with the use of the gradient layer, allows you to quickly see how steep the terrain is and which slopes you should be avoiding. By staying on slopes that are less than 30 degrees you will greatly reduce your chance of being caught in an avalanche.
Look closely at the terrain you will be on or under. Coires, or bowls, tend to collect a lot of snow so not only will it be really hard work to plough through a coire filled with fresh snow, but the avalanche hazard is likely to be higher. On the other hand, ridges stick up into the wind and get a lot of the snow blown off them, usually making them a safer option.
As with the weather there is a lot to know about snow and avalanches. If in doubt stick to wind scoured slopes, keep the slope angle down and remember that "ridges are bridges". If you want to learn more you can delve into the vast amount of information on the SAIS website or book yourself onto an Avalanche Awareness or Winter Skills course. You'll be amazed at what you'll learn about snow!
What about you?
You have read the weather and avalanche forecasts, but what about you and anyone who is joining you on your walk? It would be silly to plan a long day with lots of steep, technical terrain if you are just getting over a cold and your friend has never used crampons and an ice axe before.
Think about the group's ability and experience level and make sure you plan something that is suitable for every member. Are you confident and comfortable using crampons and an ice axe on steep ground? Can you navigate in a whiteout using a map and compass? Do you have enough warm and waterproof clothing for the conditions? Are you feeling physically and mentally up to the route that you have planned? What do you want to get out of the day?
It is really important to be flexible in winter and maybe have plans B, C, D etc to fall back on. The weather might not be as forecast, you may have woken up feeling unwell or perhaps the snow has been transported to unexpected places. Remember that there is no shame in turning around and the summits will always be there on another day.
Climbing Ben Nevis during the winter months can be incredibly challenging but if you get it right, your experience on the UK's highest mountain can also be very rewarding. Having the right kit with you, and knowing how to use it, could be the difference between having a safe and enjoyable experience and going home cold, wet and disappointed. Give yourself the best chance of success and make sure you go prepared for your winter ascent of Ben Nevis.
What clothes should I wear to climb Ben Nevis?
The key to staying warm in the mountains is layers, but you need to have the right type of layers. One of the most important things to remember when deciding what layers to wear is NO COTTON. While walking up Ben Nevis you will sweat and when cotton gets wet it is very cold. It also takes a really long time to dry so you will spend the rest of your day damp and cold. Synthetic or wool are the best materials to go for, and for your base layers we would recommend wool. It is much warmer when it gets a bit damp with sweat and it also dries fairly quickly. Next, go for a fleece, and then maybe a synthetic insulated jacket. Last of all will be your waterproof jacket, ideally with a nice big hood and wide cuffs so you can get your gloves tucked up inside your sleeves. For your bottom half, woollen leggings and waterproof trousers are probably all you need. Wear your waterproof trousers from the start so you don't have to faff around trying to get them on over your big winter boots and crampons. You will probably also start out the day wearing a woolly hat and thin gloves, which will get swapped for big, thick gloves when you get a bit higher. Everyone is different so it may take a few attempts to work out which layers and how many work for you.
What boots do I need to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Getting the correct footwear for your winter ascent of Ben Nevis is absolutely vital. As we discuss in the next section, you should expect to need crampons, so you need boots that can have crampons fitted to them. Winter boots are rated B1, B2 or B3 and for Ben Nevis we recommend either a B2 or B3 boot. B2 boots are good all-rounders and B3's are more designed for climbing, but at least you'll know that they will definitely be up to the task. Both B2 and B3 boots have a stiff mid-sole so they can be used to effectively kick steps into short sections of harder snow, and they won't bend inside a crampon causing it too fall off. Summer boots tend to be quite bendy and flexible which means that crampons will just fall off, making them completely useless in the winter. Winter boots are also much thicker and warmer than summer boots so you will certainly appreciate them when you are standing on the summit in -10 degrees Celsius. Compared to summer boots, winter boots feel quite stiff and uncomfortable when you first use them but you will get used to them. If you're buying your first pair go to a good outdoor shop and try on as many different boots as you can. Then break them in with some shorter walks before heading for Ben Nevis.
Do I need an ice axe and crampons for Ben Nevis?
If you are climbing Ben Nevis between November and early May then you should plan to take crampons and a single mountaineering ice axe. Early in the winter season the snow cover will be thin and it will come and go, but it doesn't take long for the snow to build up and for crampons and an axe to become essential. You don't know if the snow will be hard and icy until you are up there, by which point it is too late to go back and get them! Make sure your crampons are fitted to your winter boots before you set off, and it is also good to practise putting them on while wearing thick gloves. They need to be real crampons rather than microspikes, which are next to useless on hard, icy snow. Just like boots, crampons also have a rating system - C1, C2 and C3 - so ensure you have the right crampons for your boots. B2 boots can take C1 or C2 crampons and B3 boots can take any kind of crampons.
What other equipment should I carry?
So you have your clothes, boots, crampons and ice axe sorted, but what else do you need?
What food should I take when I climb Ben Nevis?
Don't be shy with the food you take because the last thing you want is to run out. Take high calorie food that has a good balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein and is easy to eat when wearing gloves - peanut butter, cheese or sardine sandwiches, flapjacks, nuts, chocolate, sweets etc. Take tasty food that you know you like and will eat, and lots of it. It is really easy to get dehydrated in the winter so take hot juice. You will be much more likely to drink this than cold water, and will make you feel a whole lot better when the weather is wild.
Last week the Scottish government opened up travel for people living in the Republic of Ireland which meant that Laura and Ultan were able to come over on their honeymoon to explore the best of the Scottish Highlands. As part of their trip they wanted to summit Ben Nevis and they'd lucked out with a dry day on the forecast. It looked breezy though so we started from the top car park and headed up the grassy slopes to the half way lochan, keeping our options open for also doing CMD Arete. Laura and Ultan made easy work of the ascent and we were soon on the summit of Ben Nevis in much lighter winds than expected.
With plenty of time and energy and not much wind it made sense to head down to the arete. We dropped out of the cloud, the wind became a breeze and we enjoyed a very pleasant traverse of CMD Arete on nice snow and with fantastic views of the Aonachs, over the Mamores to Glen Coe and across to the North Face of Ben Nevis. There was only a handful of people on Ben Nevis and it is not often at all that you get to do CMD Arete with only a raven for company.
CMD is the best way for hill walkers who are looking for a little more challenge to experience Ben Nevis, and it was fantastic to be back out guiding on this stunning route once again. It's great that folk from the Republic of Ireland are able to visit our mountains again, and we cannot wait to welcome people from England, Wales and Northern Ireland back here soon!
For those of us who climb on Ben Nevis regularly, this tree is a welcome sight. After a hard day of climbing and a long walk out, this tree signifies that you are only five minutes from the van. Yesterday, Rob, Ali and I had an amazing day on Ben Nevis climbing Darth Vader. The weather was perfect, the climbing conditions were excellent, and very few other climbers were out. Very few people are allowed to travel to Ben Nevis to go climbing. In fact, the majority of the population of Scotland is currently not allowed to travel to the Highlands to go climbing. The vaccine is out and we are at the start of the way out of covid-19. However, we are not there yet.
Who in Scotland can travel to Fort William to go climbing?
If you live in a Level 3 or Level 4 local authority area you must, by law, remain within that area unless you have a reasonable excuse. Going climbing or hill walking for leisure is not a reasonable exception to this law.
Who can travel to Scotland from other UK nations and Ireland?
Nobody from England, Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland is allowed to travel to Scotland to go climbing. Travel guidelines are on the scot.gov website here https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-on-travel-and-transport/#travelbetween
Under current Scottish regulations, given the state of the epidemic in these countries, unless you have a reasonable excuse you must not travel between Scotland and:
This applies to people who live in Scotland and to people who live in any of these countries who are thinking of coming to Scotland.
These rules will be kept under review and if the prevalence of the virus in all, or part of, any of these countries reduces it may be possible to relax these restrictions for some areas.
When will this change?
Our problem right now is that we don't know when this will be reviewed, when the border will open or who will be allowed to travel here once it is open. Clearly, this is a problem for people who want to plan a trip to the Highlands to go walking and climbing, and it is a problem for people who want to book some guiding or instruction with us.
We have committed to follow government advice and we will continue to do so. If you book with us and travel restrictions do not allow you to come here, we will not bend the rules. We will give a full refund instead and tell you not to travel here. If you have already traveled here against government advice, you will have broken the law and we will not take you climbing.
What we can do is take your booking and hope that the travel restrictions change before the dates of your booking. We hope and expect the travel restrictions to relax before Christmas, but this is our guess and there has been no indication from the Scottish Government.
What about the five days of free travel at Christmas?
Here's what the advice says -
Between 23 and 27 December, to help reduce loneliness and isolation:
The five day period is not intended for people to travel to go climbing or hill walking. Please don't ask us to take you climbing in this period unless you have traveled to the Highlands to form a bubble with friends or family.
Will the vaccine change this?
Yes, but not for a few months. It might not be until after the winter that the vaccine starts to have an effect.
So, what can we do if we want to go climbing?
Follow the guidelines, maintain good hygiene and spacing, and encourage everyone else to do so as well.
It's really hard for us to say no to people who want to book some guiding with us. We normally do everything we can to help people get into our mountains. And we know this sounds preachy but it's all we can do to help everyone get past covid-19.
So far this winter we have only had a couple of days of winter climbing. It has not been very cold and we have had little snow. Next week might turn out to be a little bit colder. There is a layer of snow on the tops right now, and at the end of the week it could get properly cold for the first time. So, here's what to look out for when it gets cold again. We will need to wait a little longer for the different types of ice climb we enjoy in Scotland
Mixed climbing has always been pursued in Scotland but it has become more popular in the last couple of decades. Whereas in ice climbing there is a limit to how hard it gets due to the nature of how ice forms, in mixed climbing there is virtually no limit. What is possibly the hardest naturally protected winter climb in the world is found on Ben Nevis; Anubis, climbed by Dave MacLeod and repeated twice since. Greg Boswell McInnes made the third ascent in 2019, a particularly poor winter for climbing. This illustrates the attraction of mixed climbing, that good climbing conditions can form quickly and there is ample opportunity for a challenging climb!
In the same way as with ice climbing, judging the nature of the climbing conditions is a tricky job and one that demands dedication, time and many attempts, both successful and unsuccessful. Once you know what to look for and how the recent weather affects the climbs, you will be able to make better decisions.
Mixed climbs need to be white and frozen to be in generally acceptable condition. Dry tooling is not acceptable on Scottish crags away from some low level training crags. In the mountains, the crag needs to be be wintry in appearance, white with snow or rime and frozen. This is the ethical approach that has developed over many years and is peculiar to Scotland. Many foreign climbers are baffled by these restrictions, but we abide by them to maintain the quality of experience and so that we are all playing by the same rules. Waiting until the crag is properly frozen also protects turf from excessive damage.
Different types of mixed climbs might be termed snowed up rock climbs, turfy mixed climbs or true mixed climbs on which a mixture of rock, turf, snow and ice is experienced. All of these types of route need to be well frozen to give good climbing.
Snowed Up Rock Climbs.
Snowed up rock climbs can freeze first due to being mostly made of solid rock. Even so, blocks, chockstones and flakes need to be frozen in place, and this takes a couple of weeks of sub-zero conditions at the start of the winter. They often make a good choice for the first climbs of the winter season because they are first to freeze, don’t require any thaw freeze cycles and can offer reasonable protection.
“Snowed up rock climb” is actually an unhelpful name for this style of climb. It is rime that is more effective at making the climb white and that will provide better climbing conditions. Rime is a type of ice crystal that grows on any surface exposed to humid air being blown onto it in a sub-zero temperature. It is often seen on fence posts and, perhaps confusingly, grows into the wind. So, you need a wind blowing cloud on to the crag and the temperature to be below zero. No snow fall is required at all. After a westerly gale, choose a crag that faces west and has been in the cloud.
The best conditions in which I’ve climbed snowed up rock have included really well frozen rocks and a light rime of a couple of centimetres that is easily brushed away to reveal (hopefully) cracks and ledges underneath. The crag was totally white at the start of the day but the climbs were brushed free of rime by climbers on various routes.
Delicate dry rime can fall off the crag in a strong wind and is likely to fall off in very dry, cold air. This means that the crag can be white one day but black the next day despite the temperature staying below zero. Once the crag is out of the cloud the rime will start to deteriorate. Sunshine will also strip rime from the rocks faster than you can climb them!
However, rime can grow to be a metre deep and turns very icy if it experiences thaw freeze cycles. The summit observatory ruins on Ben Nevis often have incredibly thick rime ice all over them in March that has built up over the previous three or four months and survived many thaw freeze cycles. This is not good to find if you want to climb the rock underneath. In thick, icy rime, it can be a monumental struggle to clear the rime off the rocks for the whole pitch.
Thaw freeze cycles will also create dribbles of water that run into cracks and refreeze. Iced up cracks are a problem; finding pick placements can be very hard and uncovering protection incredibly tiring. Snowed up rock climbs are best early in the season when the cracks are still clear of ice and the rime is light and fluffy.
Snow fall can also make a crag white in appearance. Cold, dry snow will not stick to the rocks. It will pile up on ledges making the crag look white from above but not from below. If the snow is a bit wet (this happens when the temperature is at or not far below freezing) it can stick to the rocks and make the whole crag go white. This wet snow can also freeze into an unhelpful icy crust which is hard to clear from the rocks when you are climbing.
Some snow on the ledges is very often a helpful thing to have on all mixed climbs, including snowed up mixed routes, especially once this snow has transformed into solid snow ice after a freeze thaw cycle.
Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor, Crest Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan, Slab Route and Gargoyle Wall on Ben Nevis are all excellent snowed up rock climbs.
Turfy Mixed Climbs.
Turf freezes slowly. Small tufts of turf freeze first and freeze most quickly when they are exposed to a cold wind. Wind chill affects the crag in the same way as it affects us when we are exposed to the wind. Big patches of turf can take many weeks to freeze properly but can be damaged or even completely removed from the crag if they are climbed over before they are frozen.
However, once properly frozen, turf will stay frozen through some quite substantial periods of thaw. It will hold water in a thaw which will dribble down below the turf and freeze into ice of one sort or another in the refreeze. So, turfy mixed climbs can become really quite icy over the course of the winter. There is nothing more satisfying than placing a pick in a solid, icy lump of turf!
Turf commonly holds snow on top of it which is transformed into snow ice with thaw freeze cycles. So, turfy mixed climbs quite often turn into true mixed climbs over the course of a good winter, with a mixture of turf, rock, ice and snow ice.
Turfy mixed climbs, like any mixed climbs, should look wintry and white. Rime and snow should cover the rocks. There is an argument that only the turf needs to be frozen and icy, that the rocks don’t need to be white as well since they are not used for the climbing. This is mostly the case on sandstone crags found in the far North West and is also a matter of opinion. It would be easier to say that all mixed climbs need to be white and wintry in appearance with the rocks covered in rime or snow.
Morwind is a very good turfy mixed climb on Aonach Mor which changes in character to a true mixed climb and can actually form so much snow ice that you don’t need to use the rock at all. Thompsons Route on Ben Nevis is the same but it requires some snow ice to be formed before it is fun to climb whereas Morwind is good fun as a turfy mixed climb with no snow ice. Taliballan on Stob Coire nan Laoigh is a wonderful turfy mixed climb that turns into a brilliant true mixed climb with varying amounts of ice and snow ice depending on the nature of the storms of the winter.
True Mixed Climbs.
Those routes that demand a specific combination of snowed up rock, frozen turf and ice of various kinds are true mixed climbs. Being so specific in nature and requiring the perfect combination of factors in the weather over the course of a couple of months, these are highly sought after climbs.
Gemini and The Shield Direct on Ben Nevis are perhaps the best examples. The first few pitches are on steep ice formed by melting snow patches above providing water to freeze into cascade ice. This is followed by a mixture of snowed up rock, snow ice and little bits of turf in the upper pitches.
So, now you know what is required to form good mixed climbing conditions, hopefully you will have more success in finding them. You still need to know or to assess the nature of each climb (if it is a snowed up rock route, turfy or true mixed climb) to determine whether it will be a good choice on any given day of climbing. For the moment, you'll need to work this out by yourself.
After a long and remarkable life, Hamish MacInnes died on Sunday at the age of 90. We owe a huge amount of our enjoyment of mountaineering to Hamish. His contribution to mountain culture was immense, his work on mountain rescue was groundbreaking, his personal climbing was cutting edge and his development of climbing techniques made profound changes to how we go climbing. It's no exaggeration to say that the modern ice climbing technique of using two ice axes and steeply inclined picks was developed in Lochaber and Hamish MacInnes was at the forefront of this. His “Terrordactyl” ice axes led the way in metal shafted ice axes with inclined picks. We still use this technique today.
Way back in 1957, Hamish made the first ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis. In the years following his ascent, several others tried the climb and there were some fatal accidents, often caused by wooden shafted ice axes breaking in a fall. Hamish was driven to engineer the first metal shafted ice axes, which he worked on in his workshop in Glencoe.
In the winter of 1960 Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith completed the most significant week of climbing ever achieved in Scotland. Orion Direct, Smith's Route, Minus Two Gully and the first single day and free ascent of Point Five Gully were amongst the seven climbs they completed on consecutive days. All of this was achieved with a single ice axe each and crampons with no front points.
Ten years later in 1970 Yvon Chouinard made a brief visit which was to trigger a change that would revolutionise winter climbing. Using prototype curved ice hammers he made some very fast ascents demonstrating how to climb ice by direct aid, hanging off the pick itself embedded in the ice. Comparing techniques with Hamish MacInnes, John Cunningham and others, modern ice climbing was born.
That year Hamish MacInnes developed "The Terrordactyl", a short, all metal ice tool with a steeply dropped pick. The "Terror" and Chouinard's ice hammer dominated the forefront of international ice climbing for several years. Eventually these two designs were combined to create the banana pick which is still the basis for modern ice tool design. Fifty years later, we are still using the same techniques and style of picks.
Hamish had a hand in setting up Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, Search and Rescue Dogs Association and Scottish Avalanche Information Service. His rescue stretchers are still the favourite design of many teams in the UK. He ran the Glencoe School of Winter Climbing, making many first ascents of climbs in doing so.
We owe a lot to Hamish. His legacy will be very long lived.
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.