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.
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.
Snowed up rock climbs often come in to condition first each winter. These are solid rock climbs that just need a quick freeze along with rime and snow to make the rocks white. Savage Slit and Fallout Corner in the Northern Coires of Cairngorm, Slab Route on Ben Nevis, Scabbard Chimney and Crest Route on Stob Coire nan Lochan are all pretty good examples.
Mixed routes take a little longer to freeze up properly and should not be attempted until the turf is frozen solid. These routes are climbed on rimed up rock, frozen turf and bits of ice all mixed up together. Climbing mushy turf is very unpleasant and damages the turf for future ascents. Taliballan on Stob Coire an Laoigh in the Grey Coires, Western Chimney Route on Bidean nam Bian and Morwind on Aonach Mor are all good examples of turfy mixed climbs.
Some mixed climbs take a bit more frozen snow-ice to be at their best. Snow-ice is formed by snow on the route being warmed by a thaw so that it goes wet but does not melt away, then refreezing into solid, aerated ice that is brilliant to climb on. Thompson’s Route on Ben Nevis is just like this. It’s a wonderful icy mixed route with bits of snow-ice and bits of rock in a chimney that is a dream to climb when the snow-ice has built up but very tricky beforehand.
When the snow-ice has had more time to form and just the right combination of snowfall and thaw freeze cycles (often not until February or March) the West Coast classic ice climbs can be at their best. Orion Direct, Hadrian’s Wall Direct, Point Five Gully and Zero Gully are all climbs to aspire to once you are confident on grade V ice and you can climb 300m or 400m in a few short hours!
When we get a sharp cold snap there are ice climbs that form in natural drainage lines. Whole venues such as Beinn Udlaidh is a perfect example of a venue full of ice climbs that require a very good freeze of a week or two but very little snow or thaw freeze cycles. The climbs here are of strong but hard water ice that is secure to climb on (solid ice screws as well as ice axe placements) but steep and hard work to place your picks. Make sure you sharpen your picks and crampons before you go!
Some winter climbs are good in any conditions and it is well worth knowing about these. If you climb the same route in very different conditions you will learn about how the conditions change the climbing and the feel of the route. It might also give you some good climbing in marginal conditions or bad weather. North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor is a great example. The grade is much the same if it is just rimed up, buried on soft snow or if it has a line of ice in the chimney and it is always great fun. South West Ridge of Douglas Boulder on Ben Nevis has become a very popular climb recently for the same reasons.
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.