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.
In 2020 Abacus Mountain Guides turned 20 years old, so to celebrate we headed down to Polldubh in Glen Nevis. Not to go climbing, but to plant trees!! Today we planted 20 beautiful little Scots Pines around the Polldubh crags as our way of giving something back to this spectacular environment that we use every day to make a living, as well as being a little "Happy Birthday to Abacus!"
The trees we planted are part of Nevis Landscape Partnership's Future Forests Project which began with the pine cones being collected from mature Scots Pines growing just across the river on the opposite side of Glen Nevis. Those old trees are a remnant of the Caledonian Pine forest which once covered large parts of the Highlands, but for various reasons there are now only small pockets left. The pine trees struggle to regenerate due to grazing pressure, predominantly from red and roe deer, so they need to be protected if they are going to grow successfully.
Fortunately for our birthday trees they are safe inside various exclosures where no deer or sheep will be able to nibble them, and hopefully in a few decades time there will be plenty of big, strong pine trees on the slopes of Glen Nevis which are regenerating and continuing the growth of the forest themselves.
The environment needs our help now more than ever, and at Abacus we believe that we should be giving something back to the mountains and glens that provide so much for us. This is why we will continue with our tree planting and make it a yearly event so we can see healthy, living habitats full of biodiversity continuing to grow.
Back in July we wrote about how hard it is to climb Ben Nevis in the summer (which you can read here). With winter rapidly approaching, how about climbing the UK's highest mountain while it is coated in snow and ice? There are many mountaineering and climbing routes on Ben Nevis, but only one straightforward route, the mountain track, and that is the one we are talking about. The mountain usually sees it's first snowfall in September and it can be in winter condition all the way through to May. So don't be fooled by a warm, sunny April day down in Fort William, the top of the mountains could still be experiencing serious winter weather!
Can you climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Yes, of course. However, you need to know exactly what you will be getting into and be well prepared, both in terms of the kit you carry and the skills you will need to look after yourself. Climbing Ben Nevis in the winter months is definitely not for everyone. It can be a long and tiring day, requiring a good level of fitness, and the weather conditions can be incredibly tough, with strong winds and poor to zero visibility on the upper parts of the mountain being quite likely. But if you get it right, successfully reaching the summit and getting safely back down brings a huge sense of achievement.
How hard is it to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
This can vary massively from day to day, and it depends on the the snow conditions underfoot and what the weather is doing at the time. The bottom half of the track is often clear of snow, with the snow line usually sitting at about 600m. From this point you should expect to be on snow all the way to the summit and back down. After a fresh dump of snow it will be very soft, and if there is a lot of it you will be doing a serious amount of wading. This is incredibly tiring and if you are with friends make sure you take turns at the front so it is not the same person doing all the trail breaking! If the snow has been through some freeze-thaw cycles (meaning the temperature has risen allowing the snow to go soggy, then the temperature drops again, freezing the soft soggy snow into snow-ice) it will be very hard and icy, so the walking will likely be easier but crampons and an ice axe will be essential.
Once on the snow you need to be comfortable using your boots to kick steps if it is just small areas of hard snow, or confident walking in crampons on relatively steep ground. Make sure your crampons are correctly fitted to your boots before you set off - the side of a mountain in 40+ mph winds and swirling snow is not the place to be adjusting them. Crampons have a habit of catching on everything - rocks, trousers, your other crampon, you name it - so make sure you practice walking in them on easier ground first. You should also have your ice axe, and know what to do with it. It can be used to provide support while you walk and also to stop a trip or slip from having dire consequences.
A clear summit on Ben Nevis is a rare thing so expect cloud, and in the winter that means your navigation needs to be on point. In summer there is a path to follow but in winter this gets completely buried in snow, and there can be little to no difference between the ground and sky. You need to know how to take a bearing from your map, and then be able to follow it accurately on varying terrain. Once on the huge and featureless summit plateau there are cairns to aid navigation but it is common to not be able to see from one cairn to the next, or in heavy snow winters some of them get completely buried. You will still need to follow a bearing on your compass and know exactly when to make the left turn toward the summit. When you reach the summit remember that you're only half way there and you will then need to do everything in reverse, so stay switched on all the way down.
How long does it take to walk up and down Ben Nevis in winter?
This depends on a number of factors but on average it takes between seven and nine hours to climb Ben Nevis in winter. If you are fit and experienced, and you get good snow conditions you could be quicker, but you should plan to be out for an entire day. With a lot of fresh snow it could take upwards of 10 hours, and remember that in December and early January there is less than seven hours of daylight.
Do I need 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 pioint it is too late to go back and get them! They need to be real crampons rather than microspikes, which are next to useless on hard, icy snow. Your crampons need to be fitted to winter boots, either B2 or B3 rated. Winter boots are much stiffer than summer boots which means you get a lot more support, you can use the edge of the sole to kick steps in the snow and your crampons will stay on. Soft summer boots bend inside crampons and the crampons simply fall off. Another essential piece of kit is a pair of goggles. When the snow is being blown into your face and you are trying to walk on your bearing you will find goggles absolutely vital. See the video below for a run down of essential winter kit and our full Ben Nevis in Winter Kit List is here.
Is there snow on Ben Nevis all year round?
Yes and no. Some of the deep gullies on the North Face can hold snow all year round but on the western side of the mountain where the mountain track is, this is not the case. The first snow usually falls in September with winter kit normally required between November and early May. The top of Ben Nevis is often hidden in cloud so you could look at the first 1000 metres and think there is no snow without realising that the top 300 metres is still very wintry. Do your research and make sure you go prepared.
Is it dangerous to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Any mountaineering activity has it's risks but it is possible to minimise these risks and have a fantastic day in the Scottish mountains:
Moving up to the next grade can feel like a daunting prospect, or sometimes an impossible leap. Much of the time the barrier is in our heads but there are also some practical steps you can take to reach the next level in your winter climbing. Here are some practical things you can do to help.
To get used to placing protection on harder climbs and in more difficult positions, when you are climbing at your current grade place protection in tricky places. You know you can climb at this grade and you can place protection in comfortable places. As well as this, stop on the steeper, trickier sections and place protection. Don’t power through the crux; instead stop half way through it and place an ice screw or a nut. This will give you practice in placing protection in more difficult places which is what it will feel like on the harder climb. Make sure you are relaxed and slick at placing the protection. If it does not work you can just carry on climbing like you would have done anyway.
In fact, even if you don’t place protection, stopping half way through the tricky section of your current grade is a good idea. Instead of powering through, rushing through the crux to easier ground above, slow down, stop and admire the view. You need confidence in what you are doing and in the position you are in. If you are rushing though the crux you are not ready to move up a grade. If you are relaxed and confident enough to stop and soak up the atmosphere, to admire the view, you are ready to try a harder climb.
You need to trust your protection and belay anchors. You might even need to do a hanging belay on the next grade of climb. So, practice and get confident in your anchors by leaning out on your anchors when you are belaying your buddy. This is a good idea anyway. You do not want any slack rope between you and your anchors if you are belaying off your harness so that there is no chance of a shock load on your anchors if your buddy falls off. So, kick out a nice ledge, stand tall and lean back on your anchors with confidence.
Do your research. Winter climbs come in all shapes and sizes, styles and characters. Choose one that matches your strengths, whether it is ice, mixed or snowed up rock. Find out what it takes to be in optimum condition, where the pitches go, where to belay and where the crux is. Choose a popular climb which is well known, not an esoteric adventure that has only seen one ascent. Make sure it is well known so you can get the information you need, and so you know the grade is accurate. You will also be able find out when it has been climbed recently which is quite a reassurance. Making the first ascent of an ice climb each winter is certainly more nerve-wracking than climbing it after many recent ascents.
Having said this, it can be tricky working out what kind of route each one is and therefore what the optimum conditions are. The information is much more available these days though, and don’t be afraid to ask around.
Climb with climbers who are better than you. You will find it easier to move up a grade if you have seconded a few climbs at that grade and you know what it feels like. In fact, if you can get a buddy to lead you up a climb that you want to lead yourself you will have much more chance of success. Much of the difficulty in moving up a grade is psychological so take away the concerns over route finding, where to belay, what kind of protection to take with you as well as the climbing itself by climbing it with a stronger climbing buddy. Even though leading a route you have seconded makes it much easier to lead, you will still have the confidence of having lead at that grade which will carry you forward to your first onsight lead of that grade.
Serve an apprenticeship and move through the grades steadily. If you climb one grade IV route you are not automatically ready to climb a grade V. Even if you find the grade IV straight forward you should climb several more at that grade before moving up the grade. Experience is earned through spending time on lots of climbs in different locations, on different days and in different conditions. You learn how to deal with many, many different situations and these help you cope with new situations that you will undoubtedly face.
“There is more to ice climbing than climbing ice”. In fact, the techniques of winter climbing are only a small part of climbing winter routes. Be prepared to build up a huge bank of experience by climbing lots and lots of routes. You will learn all sorts of tricks from other climbers, about dealing with the harsh weather, about how the weather affects the climbing conditions, about avalanche safety and navigation, and about how to cope with all the little (and some major) things that don’t go completely right every time!
Sort your system so that you stay warm and dry. We all have different preferences of gloves and clothes but a system that works well for you is essential. Any fool can be cold, hungry and dehydrated but all these will reduce your performance. Play around with different gloves and carry spares for when you get wet. Use a belay jacket, one between the two of you if you are swinging leads. A jacket that fits over your helmet, that does not pull out from under your harness and that does not hang over your harness covering up your gear makes a huge difference to your climbing.
Find food that is easy to eat on a belay ledge and something to drink in something you can drink from easily. If you can arrive at the foot of the crux pitch feeling warm, dry and well fed you will be in a much better position to climb it. The concept of marginal gains really makes sense to me in winter climbing. Making sure your zips are done up really can help you climb the next grade!
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.