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.
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.