Scottish Winter Climbing is alive and well
(if you know where to look)
For the first time in years Craggers has not had its annual fortnight in the winter fastness of the Cairngorms. Which, this year, has actually been a good thing. The weather has been extreme and what snow there has been (not much) was unsuitable and far too high for us to use it anyway. Still, I was booked onto an Association of Mountaineering Instructors Winter Training Workshop and Spanna wanted to do a private trip to keep me company.
Climbing friends tend to shake their heads when I announce my annual pilgrimage to get roughed up by the Scottish winter. Sure, global warming has made the weather north of the border ‘unreliable’, Gatwick airport is on our doorstep and Easyjet do offer criminally cheap fares to Geneva. Yes the journey, by public transport, from Brighton to, say, Glencoe is long, expensive and convoluted. But my friends have still missed the point.
Scotland offers a unique experience to all mountaineers and climbers. If you can climb within safe limits on the Ben and operate efficiently on the Cairngorm plateau or the more remote corries, while looking after a group or a climbing partner then you can probably cope anywhere in the world.
Which brings me, at last, to the training weekend. It was a stroke of genius to open up the weekend to all AMI members with an interest in working in winter and indeed participants included students who had done; winter ML training, held winter ML, had done MIC training.
To put things into context and for the benefit of those who have not done a Craggers winter trip, this is how it went.
We set off on Monday morning 12th. February, with a walk, bus, four trains, walk, coach and walk to reach the mountain hut. In winter you need to carry a huge amount of kit – warm and waterproof clothing, good sleeping bag and crampon compatible boots (very heavy) plus a vast array of hardware – two ropes, a summer climbing rack supplemented by ice screws, tat for Abalakov threads, threader, tri cams, deadman, bulldogs, warthogs, ice axe, ice hammer, walkie talkies, GPS and a good thermos (and for us Vegans, food that we are unlikely to find in Scotland) I’m sure there are things I have forgotten but you get the idea. We were loaded down with two unfeasibly heavy rucksacks each.
Tuesday we needed to go into Fort William to get information and buy supplies for the week. The weather was pretty grotty but the forecast for the next day was good.
Wednesday, everyone was out climbing. The heavy snowfall the night before had clothed the summits in their winter best. I desperately needed to get in some climbing before the workshop and Spanna was up for seconding. We had interrogated everyone as to where we could find the most in condition climbing. The consensus seemed to be something on Stob Coire nan Lochan, luckily not far away. So an early start and a bus ride down Glen Coe to the foot of our mountain.
We were amazed at the lack of snow, its only purchase seemed to be at the top of the very high mountains that wall in the Glen. It took us almost two and a half hours of steep uphill walking to even reach the snow. Dorsal Arete was our chosen route, a ridge climb, it removed one of the objective dangers, that of avalanche, or rather it exchanged the avalanche danger for that of rockfall.
The route in normal conditions is a grade II and a three star route to boot. We would also have the opportunity to do a grade III variation near the top. But these were not normal conditions and we would have to take care. As it turned out there was another danger we had to face, that of other climbers on the same route. I was rather hoping for water ice or at least neve on the ridge but I was to be disappointed. All that was on offer was unconsolidated powder snow lying on rock. So lots of ice axe hooking. To avoid other climbers and make the climb more interesting for Spanna I broke the route up into fairly short pitches. The crux of the climb was a tricky traverse where, after placing a runner, I had to lower blindly onto a minute rock edge, just big enough to get the tips of my front points on. On a traverse the second has to be able to climb as well as the leader as she is in danger of a swinging fall. Therefore it is the duty of the leader to place as many runners as possible.
We topped out into a raging wind which whipped stinging ice crystals into our faces. Time to get down as quickly as possible. The quickest way was to descend a broad gully filled with powder snow lying on a hard base – not ideal. It was interesting walking down the gully while roped climbers were climbing up. By the end of the afternoon the winds picked up re depositing the unconsolidated snow and increasing the avalanche risk in the gullies.
Thursday, the spookily accurate weather forecast nailed the conditions yet again. Torrential rain and very high winds ensured that the entire west coast climbing community, except us, squeezed themselves into the Ice Factor. We had a short, wet, low level walk.
Friday, the snowy mantle worn by the Aonach Eagach Ridge on Wednesday had been washed away and our climb had vanished. Aonach Mor was avalanche death on a stick. We opted for a walk up to the Lost Valley, reputedly where Rob Roy and co. used to hide their stolen cattle.
Saturday and Sunday, Spanna had decided that while I did my training she would do a couple of winter walks, as it turned out the walks were suitable for her Summer ML logbook.