As the first snow starts to fall, we are just about to start five months of winter climbing in Scotland. Excitement levels are reaching the max and we are super keen to jump in. The question is, what do you climb first? When should you think about doing those super classic ice climbs? What’s the best climb at each point in the winter?
December - Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe
The first winter climb of the season always feels like a real test. It takes a climb or two to work through the faff factor of fumbling with gloves on, to remind yourself which way up your crampons go, that you need to pee before you put your harness on and that you need to eat constantly. When you throw in short days, a thin cover of fresh, useless snow and a chance the ground is not yet well frozen, it’s not surprising that it feels tough to get going.
So, try Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor as a wee warm up climb. It’s a beautiful route at grade II or III depending on the conditions on the day with some very nice climbing. It’s a long route so you will get lots of time in your crampons but it is a relatively short day. The walk in is less than an hour and the climb goes all the way to the summit of Stob Dearg with a short enough walk down Coire na Tullach at the end of the day.
The climbing is always interesting, varied and on solid rock with plenty of spikes for protection. Much of it can be climbed like an Alpine ridge by shortening the rope and moving together. The crux sections are quite easily seen and it’s worth throwing in a couple of pitches on these.
January - Number Three Gully Buttress, Ben Nevis
In January we hope to see a reasonable cover of snow building up and some thaw freeze cycles to consolidate the snow into solid neve. The days are still short though and January can be pretty stormy with lots of fresh snowfall so you’ve got be on your toes.
At grade III, Number Three Gully Buttress has a lot of varied climbing in a fantastic position. Right at the top of Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis there is a steep slope to get to the start of it which will test your fitness and avalanche awareness too. The first pitch is on ice to a reasonable rock anchor, followed by a few pitches on snow leading up and right. Finding good belay points on this can be tricky but you can also go more directly up and right if you are feeling adventurous. Follow your nose up some grooves and corners and you will find continuous grade III climbing that leads directly to the crux rock step.
The crux is a wee rock step that lands you on an exposed shelf, very high above the coire floor. The rightward trending line continues in an ever more spectacular position with Number Three Gully tucked a long way down under your feet.
February - Gemini, Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis
When the snow has built up and the January storms have created the best ice and mixed conditions, Gemini can be one of the best climbs on Ben Nevis. It is grade VI and combines steep cascade style ice at the start with icy mixed climbing at the end. It sits on the right side of Carn Dearg Buttress on Ben Nevis, at quite a modest altitude so conditions do need to be excellent for this climb to be formed.
There is no warm up on Gemini! The first pitch is a long icy groove with some very steep climbing on hard ice. A more reasonable second pitch lands you at the foot of the obvious and very impressive smear of cascade ice halfway up the climb. If this is fully formed it can be taken from its foot, giving another long, steep and this time very exposed pitch. If it is thin at the base, a traverse in from the right side is quite feasible but certainly no easier.
Mixed pitches of rock, turf and ice then lead up to the twin grooves that give the climb its name. Decide which of these looks best and go for it. This is the last of the hard climbing but getting up to the traverse shelf on Carn Dearg Buttress that takes you to Ledge Route is still quite exciting.
March - Point Five Gully, Ben Nevis
The most famous ice climb in Scotland (and possibly in the world) is reliable, popular and brilliant. It is a big funnel that catches a lot of snow and channels all the dribbles of water that run down it in the thaws. This is a great combination to help build the ice quickly at the start of the winter but it is also the perfect combination for pouring spindrift down onto you at the most awkward of moments!
Any of the three hard pitches at the start can form the crux. Before it is fully banked out, the bulge at the top of the first pitch will have to be taken direct, giving you a good few moves of vertical ice. The chimney pitch is always more technical with bridging, balancing and pulling over some steep bulges that sometimes form. The rogue pitch can then be a simple bridging exercise up a nice corner, or it can feel very steep, tenuous and bold. The only way to find out what it’s like is to give it a go.
After these three pitches the angle relents to give three or four pitches of grade II or III climbing to the top. Leaving this climb until March can reduce the chance of poor ice and spindrift. When it is well formed, banked out and when the weather is more settled, Point Five Gully is the ultimate classic climb it is reported to be. Sometimes it is good to be patient.
April - Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
At the start of the winter Tower Ridge can feel quite hard. When the rocks are not fully covered with snow, or worse when they are covered in verglas, moving up the rocky ridge is slow and laborious. When your rate of progress is slow in the shorter days at the start of the winter there is no surprise when people finish the climb in the dark, or spend a cold night out on the ridge!
So, wait until the spring when the days are long, the snow cover is brilliant and the rock is starting to become exposed again in all the right places for hand holds. The sun gets high enough in April to give an Alpine experience at home in Scotland. Tower Ridge is the ultimate super classic climb that is long, beautiful and has its crux sections right at the top.
When the weather is good and you are moving well after a few months of wearing crampons, Tower Ridge is a delight. Standing on the Great Tower in the sunshine, looking forward to Tower Gap with excitement instead of trepidation makes it a much more fun experience!
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.