It’s strange that 2017 gave us the worst winter for snow cover and ice climbing for many years and all the snow in Scotland melted for the first time since 2006, followed by Scottish ski areas opening the earliest they have ever done and the following winter being one of the best for climbing since 2010. Who would have thought? Not me but I certainly feel like I’ve made the most of a brilliant winter.
The autumn was cold and not too snowy so the ground was very cold before any substantial snow came. Frozen turf, rimed up rocks and little ice made the mixed climbing really good. Taliballan on Stob Coire nan Laoigh with Louisa was wonderful in November. One guidebook says it is a contender for the best climb of its grade in the country. At V,6 it is up against some stiff opposition. And you are likely to have the whole crag to yourselves. Louisa and I enjoyed a cold, wild day with great conditions on the crag and shared a fantastic experience, as well as a lot of good chat. It’s not a long climb but when every move is a winner it certainly packs a punch.
We had a beautiful Christmas present of fresh snow fall after a deep thaw melted away much of the snow cover. It continued to snow for six weeks with barely a thaw and we ended up wading through very deep and extensive snow cover. Mixed climbing was amazing if you could get to a crag. It got to the point we were working out which crag we could get to then trying to think what to climb there.
It’s been a few years since I have done any new routes. I did one with Matt which we called Medusa on B Buttress, Aonach Dubh West Face. This was a steep, turfy groove of chockstones that led to the eye of Cyclops. I went back to the higher crag with Tommy soon afterwards and climbed 120m of new ground at V,6. Each one of the four pitches gave us fantastic moves, steep and interesting climbing. The final pitch was especially good with 50m of sustained climbing up a groove to the top of the crag with the best view below all the way to the floor of the glen.
Finally, on 18th February we got a proper thaw that saturated all the snow without melting much of it away. Over the course of a couple of days the snow froze solid and by the end of the week we were walking over the top of crisp solid snow instead of wading waist deep in the stuff. We had amazing snow cover right down to 600m and it was all frozen solid.
My friend Donald and I tried Raven’s Gully in January and didn’t get very far! We had such a good day though. It’s not always all about the climbing. I went back with John in February and found just about perfect conditions, enough ice in the right places but dry enough rock as well, enough solid snow in the upper grooves but also some soft and cruddy snow to deal with. It was a climb that tested every skill of climbing I have learned in 25 years from mixed to ice climbing, steep soft snow that is best climbed with hands and careful weight shifting rather than ice axes, a punchy well protected crux and long runout sections of sustained but not desperate climbing. All in the most amazing slot, the slottiest slot in Glen Coe!
As with the winter of 2010, the second half of the winter was characterised by long periods of an easterly airstream across the country. Cold air came from Siberia across the continent to Scotland and dropped its snow on the Cairngorms. Here on the west coast it was dry and cold. Ice formed readily and copiously. Beinn Udlaidh is normally a smash and grab venue for ice climbing, the ice forms and you grab your chance of climbing it for a few days. This year there was great ice climbing at Beinn Udlaidh for many weeks in a row. Glencoe had roadside ice everywhere and Steall Falls formed and was as popular as always.
Gully of the Gods is such a good name for a climb and one that is fully deserved. I have to drive away from a lot of brilliant climbing to get to Applecross and with two pitches of climbing and two more of much easier ground you could argue that it’s not really worth it. However, you have to go for Gully of the Gods if you get a chance! The cliff is so impressive (scary) and the slot climbs into it surrounded by hanging icicles and blobs of moss. The gully bends right and left so its deepest pleasures are hidden from view. Once you are there it is still so intimidating but once you commit to the ice it turns out to be an absolute pleasure. I think I need to explore the NW a bit more if there are more gems like this.
Finally, a week into April, the temperature has risen and we have a gentle thaw again, the first proper thaw since mid-February. We still have amazing snow cover and the classic ice climbs on Ben Nevis are still fat. Given a few more frosty nights there will be some beautiful spring ice climbing days still to come.
This year I enjoyed Zero Gully, Orion Direct, Sickle and Point Five Gully (three times). There is nothing else I’d rather be doing than climbing one of these historic climbs, thinking back to the first ascents made by cutting steps, and feeling completely at home on the biggest cliff in the country. By the way this winter has gone, I might well be able to do a few more laps before it all finally melts away. But don’t worry, it’s only six months until it all starts again!
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.