Scottish Winter Climbing Advice
Scotland’s winter mountains can be as challenging and uncompromising as any other mountain landscape in the world. Gale force winds, zero visibility and numbing cold can be an integral part of the average Scottish day. It’s a tough game but the rewards are well worth it: if you’re in the right place at the right time… atop the summit plateau of Ben Bhan, alone at the end of a perfect day with the sun sinking behind the distant Cullin of Skye, there’s nowhere quite like it. As usual, experience is the key to operating comfortably and efficiently. However, some common sense scottish winter climbing advice, hints and tips can go a long way towards making life easier.
When and Where to Go
It used to be the case that only the wise and experienced predicted the weather and conditions accurately for a successful trip to the icy wastelands. Nowadays we have a wealth of information at our fingertips and although it’s taken much of the mystery from the sport, we would be fools to ignore it in the name of tradition (that tradition being to waste countless weekends driving for 10 hours only to go hill walking in the rain!). The Internet can give us accurate weather information, avalanche reports, and even which areas/routes are currently in good condition via Scottish winter climbing conditions forums and noticeboards.
Remember though that Scotland can be fickle and things can change rapidly overnight. It’s often a good idea to stay flexible in your choice of venue, deciding where to go at the very last minute if possible to give the best chance of finding good conditions. This is where the art of interpretation is still useful and can turn a borderline weekend into a brilliant trip. For some useful hints on interpreting weather and conditions refer to the Intro section of the excellent compilation guide book, ‘Scotland’s Winter Climbs’ by the SMC.
Getting to your chosen venue can often be an ordeal, especially in bad weather so be prepared with snow chains etc. Rumour has it that climbing legend Mick Fowler used to pre-pack his car and leave it at a strategic spot in North London on Friday morning, then get the tube to his car after work for a swift get away!
Clothing for Scotland needs to be incredibly versatile and most importantly, warm when wet. I think on the worst Scottish days there isn’t a chance of staying dry, even with the best waterproofs known to man, so great attention needs paying to the insulating layers of your clothing system. Fleece and fibre pile are the traditional layers and are hard to beat, modern windproof fleece with fancy membranes just takes ages to dry and doesn’t provide as much insulation. Interestingly, many Scottish Mountain Guides and also some of the leading young mixed activists, use Nikwax Paramo products. Their fast drying/fast wicking properties are ideal for the Scottish climate and this is the kind of ethos you should be aware of when choosing a layering system.
One of the best luxury items you can take on the hill is a belay jacket. Many manufacturers make this type of jacket, which is basically a duvet jacket with synthetic insulation and a large hood that fits over a helmet. Used on long cold belay stints it makes life tolerable and is ideal for emergency use too. Gloves are another item that need careful thought. I always carry at least two pairs and some spare mittens. Fingers really suffer in the cold, moist Scottish hills – despite trips to Patagonia in winter, the worst hot aches I’ve ever had have been in Scotland!
Boots are perhaps your single most important piece of personal equipment. Leathers have gained great popularity over the last few years and can be great on mixed routes, especially on the East where the climate tends to be dryer. If I’m climbing on the Ben however plastics are always the first choice to deal with the bogs, streams and long days of ice bashing, where they are far more supportive and waterproof.
Winter climbing can demand a whole new set of kit to deal with the very specific conditions you will encounter. Dry treated ropes are essential to prevent them from freezing up like wire cables, and 60 metre double or twin ropes give you the edge when tackling long ice routes on the Ben or Creag Meagaidh. They give extra reach to find the best rock or ice for placing a belay, and allow you to climb faster through longer pitches.
A harness with fully adjustable leg loops is convenient for putting on whilst wearing crampons, or while stood on steep ground (you shouldn’t be!). They are also great for answering those calls of nature whilst half way up point five gully… Ice tools are a personal preference but bear in mind they will probably see as much contact with rock as ice in the average season, so make sure you have mixed picks fitted which tend to be more durable than the slimmer icefall picks.
Consider using a full spec helmet in Scotland, not a flimsy polystyrene affair that will crumple if you get clobbered by a chunk of falling ice. It also gives you somewhere to store your goggles to stop them getting squashed – inside the cradle of the helmet! On uneven ground and especially on descents, walking poles can be useful and really save your knees.
Navigation is a crucial skill for the Scottish mountains. Before even leaving the car, have a clear idea of how to get to the cliff and more importantly how to get down again. Having a few notes inside your map case, with crucial compass bearings, distances and pacing/timings for each navigation leg is a good idea. This means that when you pull over that cornice onto the white hell of the plateau, you can get straight on with the job – this is no place to be refolding your map! Nav skills can get rusty, so practice them!
Consider taking two maps on the hill, e.g. one laminated A5 cut-out of the area with standard approach/descent bearings and distances etc written on the back. This easily fits into any pocket and is totally weatherproof. A second cutout or full map is kept as a backup. Its handy to have a compass that can be attached to you in some way, and with pacing beads on the attaching cord for those tricky short nav. legs. Your watch should also be accessible, maybe on your rucksack shoulder strap instead of your wrist, as you may need to use it for timing. It goes without saying that each person in the team needs their own navigation equipment in case you are split up and remember, GPS is a useful supplement to your skills, not a replacement.
When you are approaching a cliff take every opportunity to check out the general topography and your descent route, as you never know when the mists may roll in. Make a mental note of obvious landmarks to help with your descent and walk back to the road. On the approach it’s always better to stop sooner rather than later to put on crampons and harnesses etc. Anyone who has tried to gear up on a 40-degree slope can tell you this. Pick somewhere with shelter from the wind, put on any extra climbing layers, then tackle all the fiddly jobs like putting on harnesses etc. whilst fingers are still warm from the walk. Try and do all your jobs in one stop to save precious time.
Finding good protection in winter can be a real black art. On ice you are dealing with an incredibly variable and at times unreliable medium – making it tricky to judge the quality of an ice anchor. On rock you are often up against frozen mud, ice choked cracks and frozen in spikes – so inventiveness is a great ally.
The average winter rack is badly abused, as nuts often get tapped into icy cracks until the wires fray, so it’s a good idea to have a dedicated set of winter wires and hexes. Old style hexes are great if you drill them to reduce the weight, and this also helps them to bite in icy placements.
Cams are of limited use in winter unless the rock is very dry, as they fail in icy cracks. Pegs are great when cracks are very icy and nuts don’t seat properly – they can be threaded with short loops of 4mm cord to make racking onto biners much easier. Ice hooks are a revelation for Scottish mixed climbing as they are incredibly versatile: they can be hammered into mud banks, tapped into grass filled cracks or slotted into very icy nut placements. As part of a winter rack they go into places where nuts and pegs just won’t.
Looking After Yourself
Climb cool and belay warm. If you overheat too much whilst climbing you dehydrate and lose performance – and also your clothing becomes soaked and loses insulating power. An ideal solution to this is carrying a synthetic duvet jacket to pull on at belays. Also remember to look after your hands, as they will cool rapidly as soon as you stop. If you carry mittens then put them on at belays and put your gloves down the front of your jacket to stop them from freezing up. This requires discipline when you are tired, but will you warmer and more comfortable through the day.
Remembering to eat and drink is sometimes difficult, especially if the weather is bad, but is crucial to your performance and comfort. Warm drinks such as blackcurrant juice are always more palatable than water and a good lightweight flask can be made by wrapping a nalgene bottle in Karrimat and duct tape. This will keep fluids warm for four or five hours without the weight of a large flask.
Climbing with crampons and ice tools requires skill and judgment, especially when you need to start really pulling on your tools on steeper terrain. Climbing in crampons requires a great deal of poise: moving your feet accidentally on ice or rock edges can easily dispatch your front points and you with them, so precise careful movement is required.
Similarly, tools need to be weighted evenly and statically to prevent ripping in marginal placements. A test pull from the shoulder gives a good idea about the placement – and if it rips then at least your other tool isn’t shock loaded. One of the great things about Scottish climbing is the way it makes demands on your entire body for progress. Watch a good winter climber on mixed ground and they will use knees, hips, elbows and shoulders etc in a remarkably controlled and graceful way.
Climbing leashless has really taken off on the continental icefalls and has been taken to the big mountains. In Scotland, a lot depends on what type of tools you are using and what kind of climbing you are doing – on hard routes, modern technical tools with highly sculpted grips (ie with hand rests, trigger fingers etc) are best used leashless, with a tether system to keep them attached to you so you can’t drop them. For tools used on easier routes however, a standard leash may make most sense. Establish a good communication system with your partner too, as often you will be out of sight and if the weather is bad, certainly out of earshot.
Have fun! If you need to brush up on your skills, consider going on a Scottish winter mountaineering course.