Under the Weather

Publication Year: 2005.

Under the Weather

Why is Scotland such a good training ground for much higher mountains? Perhaps because an average winter day in Scotland offers more adventure than a week of storms anywhere else.

Simon Richardson

It was past two in the afternoon, blowing hard and snowing heavily. Roger climbed up to the stance and we took stock. Attempting a new route up the crest of Mitre Ridge, deep in the Scottish Cairngorm Mountains, we were battling on in a rising storm. It had taken six hours to climb the first three pitches. Scottish winter days are short, and we had less than three hours of daylight, but the line was just too good to give up. Logical and elegant, a succession of steep corners and unclimbed turfy grooves slotted together like a jigsaw puzzle all the way up the spine of the ridge.

I took the rack and continued straight up the crest, grateful that Roger had insisted I take a Warthog, as this was the only protection at one particularly awkward bulge. The natural winter way was a steep, right-facing corner that had accumulated a huge quantity of powder snow. The crack at its back was devoid of turf, so I liebacked up it on torqued ice tools with my crampons skating on the smooth rock. I badly misjudged it near the top and was on the point of falling when I found a crucial foothold. Panting heavily, I pulled on to the platform above just as the rope came tight. The next pitch was the last difficult one. I struggled up a steep corner, hand traversed on wilting arms to the crest of a tower, and stumbled in the gloom along the sharp ridge to belay in a col below a second tower. By the time Roger arrived it was dark and the urgency of the last few hours dissolved into the icy blackness.

Six hours later, we had finished the route and I trailed head down behind Roger as he kept us on the correct bearing. Conditions on the plateau were extreme, with gale-force winds and blinding spindrift. Our world was limited to the pools of light from our headtorches and the ever-shifting snow around our feet. We counted our paces to track our progress against the map and shouted out every hundredth step into the screaming wind. When we bumped into a prominent boulder we’d passed on the approach, the relief was immediate. We stumbled back down the glen and, elated, collapsed into our tent after 22 hours on the move.

Our ascent of The Cardinal on Beinn a’Bhuird was typical of many Scottish winter adventures. The 200-meter-long route had seven pitches of sustained mixed climbing, but technical difficulty was just one aspect of the experience. The 16-kilometer approach, the eight-hour winter day, the wild and unpredictable weather, and difficult navigation all provided equally important ingredients to the challenge. Overall it was more like doing a major alpine route than climbing on a minor crag.

The Scottish Winter Experience

During the summer the Cairngorms are a range of grassy, flat-topped hills, but like the rest of the Scottish Highlands they are transformed in winter and take on a seriousness way out of proportion to their size. Their summit plateaus collect huge quantities of snow that are swept by the prevailing westerly winds into deep-sided corries that were carved out by glaciers long ago. Their granite cliffs are cracked and vegetated and made for on-sight climbing. The cracks take protection readily and frozen turf has the consistency of plastic ice. When conditions are good, ice dribbles down corners, and powder snow and hoarfrost transform the dark granite walls and buttresses into white-frosted fantasy castles.

Scotland is a small country and more than half the landscape is mountainous. The mountains range from the rolling schist hills of the Southern Highlands to the spectacular sandstone summits of the Northwest Highlands. The Central Highlands comprise the rugged volcanic peaks around Glen Coe and Ben Nevis, while the Cairngorms lie in the center of the country and include the highest group of mountains in Scotland. The Hebrides Islands on the western seaboard are mountainous, too, and in a hard winter they can give spectacular climbing overlooking the sea. Most of these areas are accessible from Glasgow or Edinburgh in less than three hours, and are within weekend range of the English cities. On a good day during February and March the popular areas can take on a cosmopolitan air, and you are as likely to meet a climber from Slovenia or Spain as you are someone from Glasgow or Manchester.

Unlike the Alps, very little fixed gear is found on Scottish cliffs, and bolts are shunned. Every route you climb is like doing a first ascent. Protection has to be placed on the lead, and belay spots can sometimes take half an hour to find. On the harder routes, three-hour leads of 30-meter pitches are common, as the leader fights to clear the rock to find gear placements. This ground-up approach maximizes the challenge of the cliffs, and the harder routes are always a race against time and the short winter day. Most ascents are made in weather where, in the Alps, you would not consider leaving the valley. The wind blows almost continuously, and it is often raining in the glens and snowing on the tops. Despite modern clothing and materials, one is nearly always damp. On longer routes a single push is far more effective than a multi-day ascent, as the weather is too poor to consider bivouacking. The subarctic climate is unforgiving, and it is always better to stay moving rather than stop.

It is the mental dimension that makes Scottish winter climbing so compelling. Solving the frozen puzzle of leading a pitch and finding protection is one aspect, but predicting conditions and selecting an appropriate route is the underlying challenge. Conditions change daily, and historically the most successful Scottish winter climbers have not been the strongest or most technically gifted, but those who have the knack of being in the right place at the right time. While many Scottish climbs are reliably in condition most winters, others take a particular sequence of events?snowfall, wind, thaw, and freeze?to form, and many climbers will wait years for their chosen route to come into condition.

A Brief History

Scottish winter climbing has a long history. The Victorians pioneered winter ascents of the great 500-meter-high ridges on Ben Nevis before the end of the 19th century, using long, unwieldy alpenstocks, clinker-shod laborers’ boots, and short lengths of hemp rope. Even today, Tower Ridge (IV, 4, 1894) and Northeast Buttress (IV, 5, 1896) are respected climbs, with the latter sporting a short M4 crux near the top of the route. Step-cutting skills advanced, and Harold Raeburn took ice-climbing levels to WI3 levels with his ascent of Green Gully (IV, 4) on Ben Nevis in 1906. Fifty-odd years went by before ice-climbing standards advanced significantly, when Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith brought step-cutting to its pinnacle in 1960 with a magnificent series of ascents on Ben Nevis, culminating in the first free ascent of Point Five Gully and the 400- meter-high Orion Direct (V, 5). These climbs were the preserve of the elite. Marshall and Smith wore crampons, but step-cutting was still a slow, dangerous, and exhausting process, where a short axe was used to cut a ladder of handholds and steps in the ice. Further east, on the powder-covered rock of the Cairngorms, Tom Patey used nailed boots and a single axe to push mixed climbing standards up to M5 levels with Eagle Ridge (VI, 6, 1953); Parallel Buttress (VI, 6, 1956) on Lochnagar; and Scorpion (V, 6, 1952) on the Shelter Stone Crag.

Throughout the 1970s, the “curved axe revolution” advanced standards on ice, mainly on Ben Nevis. British climbers, well practiced on Nevis ice, applied their skills to great effect in the Alps and elsewhere. Perhaps the best example is the Colton-Maclntyre Route on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses (ED3, 1976). This very narrow couloir, Scottish in character, was undoubtedly the hardest ice climb in the Alps at the time. Another example was the application of Nevis-style thin face climbing to the north face of the Pelerins (ED2) by Rab Carrington and Al Rouse in February 1975. Toward the end of the decade, however, the focus began to slowly turn back toward mixed climbing, and during the early 1980s the art of “torquing” was developed. Mountaineers have jammed axe picks into rock cracks for centuries, but ironically it was the reversed curve “banana” picks, developed on the Continent for steep ice climbing, which proved to be perfectly suited to the technique of levering shafts to cam picks in narrow cracks. The vegetated cliffs of the Cairngorms are ideal for this type of climbing, for the deep cracks and rough rock hold the picks well, and there is a liberal supply of turf on all but the very steepest routes.

During the mid-1980s, the Aberdeen-based team of Colin MacLean and Andy Nisbet forged one of the strongest partnerships in the history of Scottish winter mountaineering. The bulk of their new routes were in the Cairngorms, but their first Grade VIII was away from home territory, some 100 kilometers to the west, in Glen Coe. Their winter ascent of the prominent corner line of Unicorn (VIII, 8) in Stob Coire nan Lochan in January 1985 proved controversial, as local climbers doubted whether a hoarfrosted ascent really counted as true winter conditions. The line of Unicorn occasionally forms as a thin ribbon of ice, but MacLean and Nisbet were applying Cairngorms techniques and attitudes developed over the previous few winters, where the key requirement for a route to be in winter condition is that it should be frozen and have a wintry appearance. These criteria are now accepted as the norm for high-standard mixed climbing across Scotland.

Three weeks later, the MacLean-Nisbet team went on to climb their greatest route, The Needle (VIII, 8) on Shelter Stone Crag. It took two weeks of continuous effort, scoping the best winter line and waiting for a settled spell of weather, before they made a two-day ascent. Twenty years on, the 250-meter-long climb still rates as one of Scotland’s most demanding winter routes in terms of length and sustained difficulty. Last winter it saw its first one-day free ascent.

The way was now open for the other great challenges to fall. The following season, 1986, Kenny Spence succeeded on his third attempt to climb Centurion (VIII, 8) on Ben Nevis, with Spider MacKenzie. In the same season Nisbet and Sandy Allan linked up an ingenious line on the front face of the Central Gully Wall of Creag an Dubh Loch to give The Rattrap (VIII, 8). As more people became aware of the new techniques such as hooking edges and torquing, attention in the early 1990s shifted to the easily accessible Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm. Brian Davison, Graeme Ettle, and Nisbet were all involved in the action, resulting in a series of short technical routes including Big Daddy (VII, 8), The Vicar (VII, 8), and Prore (VII, 7). The late 1990s were primarily a time for consolidation, and these climbs introduced dozens of climbers to Grade VII routes. As climbers became fitter and more skilled, many of the big winter routes of the 1980s were repeated, and the one or two points of aid often used on the first ascents were eliminated.

State of the Art

Until the mid 1980s many of the harder mixed routes were winter ascents of summer lines, but as confidence has grown there has been an increased emphasis on seeking out winter-only lines. These are typically vegetated, wet and dripping in summer, but they are transformed by winter’s grip into inspiring mixed climbing possibilities. Diedre of Sorrows (VIII, 8,1986) on the Tough- Brown Face of Lochnagar was an early example of a cutting edge winter-only line, and more recently routes such as Magic Bow Wall (VIII, 8,2001) and The Godfather (VIII, 8,2002) in the Northwest Highlands have expanded this concept to create 300-meter-long routes of alpine proportions that have significant technical difficulty.

Today two distinct styles are emerging. The first is a continuation of the traditional approach, with an emphasis on climbing routes on-sight and ground-up. Attitudes to aid have now hardened, and ascents using rest points or direct aid are considered seriously flawed. As a result, Scotland can perhaps lay claim to the most stylistically pure form of mountaineering in the world. Some routes require multiple attempts over many seasons, such as Brian Davison’s ascent of Mort on Lochnagar (IX, 9, 2000). This line involved 18 attempts over 15 years, and is widely considered to be the hardest traditional winter route in Scotland. The three-pitch climb involves technical and strenuous icy mixed climbing with poor protection and serious groundfall potential.

The second style is to pursue technical difficulty by applying modern rockclimbing techniques such as preinspection to shorter (often singlepitch) climbs. Dave MacLeod, one of Scotland’s most talented rockclimbers, is at the forefront of this development with routes such as The Cathedral (X, 11, 2004) on The Cobbler. MacLeod climbed this 30-meter-high roof problem by placing the gear on the lead, and suggested that the overall difficulty was similar to a pre-protected M12 route. Some climbers are questioning whether The Cathedral represents the limit of what is possible using traditional Scottish winter ethics, and for standards to progress, routes need to be pre-protected or practiced on a top rope. Although these techniques will drive up technical standards, the difficulty of the bigger traditional routes will always be dominated by the mountaineering challenges of longer approaches, lack of daylight, exposure to weather, and a strong determination to preserve the on-sight ethic.

The Fowler Influence

Mick Fowler, one of Britain’s most successful alpinists, has had a prolific Scottish winter career. “The appeal of Scottish winter climbing is not something readily understood by the average person,” he wrote in the 2002 Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. “I have to admit that I struggled to come to terms with it. Conditions are fickle, early starts wearing and success comes only to those that persevere. Perhaps these are the attractions. Successes that are won too easily are inevitably those that are the least rewarding.”

Fowler made his Scottish new-route debut in 1979 with the first winter ascent of The Shield Direct (VII, 7), a soaring line of icy chimneys on the Carn Dearg Buttress of Ben Nevis, with Victor Saunders. Fowler went on to climb a superb string of sensational icy mixed routes in the 1980s, mainly in the Northwest Highlands. Routes such as Tholl Gate (VI, 6, 1984), Gully of the Gods (VI, 6, 1983), and Great Overhanging Gully (VI, 7, 1984) are among the most sought-after winter routes in the country, and climbs such as Ice Bomb (VII, 7, 1988) on Beinn Dearg; Against All Odds (VII, 7, 1988) in Glen Coe; and Storr Gully (VII, 7, 2000) on the Isle of Skye, are still unrepeated. All these climbs take strong natural lines of daunting steepness and are predominately ice or icy mixed.

It was natural that Fowler should take his Scottish skills to the Greater Ranges. The first ascent of the technical southwest buttress of Taulliraju in Peru with Chris Watts in 1982 was his first major success, but the Golden Pillar of Spantik in the Karakoram, climbed with Victor Saunders five years later, was an eye-opener. Unquestionably this was one of the finest Himalayan routes of the decade and was very Scottish in character. Intricate routefinding, poor protection, and tenuous mixed climbing on powder-covered rock all contributed to the difficulty. “Prior experience of hard climbing in grim conditions helped enormously with this ascent,” Fowler told me recently. “Scottish winter gave us the confidence to be bold and push on for pitch after pitch knowing that we could find protection in snow-blasted situations.”

Spantik led to a series of outstanding first ascents on Taweche, Cerro Kishtwar, Changabang, and Siungang. These routes shared several common factors. They were mainly icy mixed climbs, the hard climbing was below 6,500 meters, and they could be climbed relatively fast in an alpine-style single push. But most importantly, perhaps, they were all intelligently chosen objectives that in many ways could be described as “super-Scottish” climbs.

Scottish Style in the Greater Ranges

The current generation of British alpinists has grown up with Mick Fowler’s exploits, and his style very much defines the current British approach to climbing the Greater Ranges. There has been a shift of emphasis away from 7,000-meter-plus peaks or attempting technical rock routes at altitude. The recipe is simple. Combine Grade VII Scottish winter skills with good alpine experience, then go and attempt a mixed climb on a moderate-altitude peak. Ian Parnell and Kenton Cool’s near-free repeat of the Denali Diamond (2002), Nick Bullock and Al Powell’s bold route on Jirishanca (2003), and Rich Cross and Jon Bracey’s rapid ascent of the north face of Mt. Kennedy (2004) all point to the success of this approach.

One of the finest British successes of the 1990s was the first ascent of the north face of Changabang by Andy Cave and Brendan Murphy (1997). “Undoubtedly, having climbed hard mixed routes in Scotland helped us dispatch sections of the Changabang climb more quickly,” recalls Cave. “We’d often made similar technical moves on previous climbs up north, and the ability to climb a long way above protection is also something that you learn in Scotland. Doing new routes in Scotland also breeds essential routefinding skills?a sense of where the line is going to lead. Climbing through bad weather is de rigueur in Scotland, too, something we did a lot of in India.” It would be simplistic to claim that experience with Scottish winter climbing is the underlying basis for these ascents. Proximity to Chamonix, good libraries, sharing of information, and an excellent expedition funding system also play their part. But many successful British climbers passionately cite Scottish winter experience as a key ingredient. “The weather and conditions that even novice Scottish winter climbers take as part and parcel of heading out into the hills really is unusual in world mountaineering,” says Ian Parnell. “While we miss out on the scale and terrain, everything else about Scottish winter climbing is very close to the big-mountain experience. A hard day in Scotland is as tough as any you’ll ever spend in the mountains. Even an easy day in Scotland you have to commit, whereas continental ice cragging you can amble up and decide when you get there whether you can be bothered or not.”

The variety of climbing encountered on a Scottish winter route is another key factor, as Malcolm Bass, author of several new routes in Alaska, explains: “In an average Scottish winter season you climb all sorts of white stuff. Water ice, névé, powder, rime, verglas, lovely plastic squeaky ice, wet snow plastered on rock, turf and all sorts of intermediate material. If you waited for routes to be in perfect condition, you’d wait for decades. Winter climbing in Scotland is done, almost by definition, when the routes are “out of condition” in the traditional Alpine sense. You do your best to make a good choice of venue, walk in, and if it’s white you climb something. You climb what you find in the corrie and on the route. I think this gives Scottish winter climbers an advantage in the big hills. When it snows all over your rock pitches you can go on. When the ice pitches melt out you can climb the running rock beneath, and powder- covered slabs come as no great surprise.”

But it is not just the technical skills that are important. “It is your will that is most tested when climbing in Scotland,” Patagonian winter expert Andy Kirkpatrick told me. “Conditions are never assured. The mountains can strip before your eyes as warm winds push north, and even when you find good conditions, climbing can prove impossible with hurricane winds and meters of rime and verglas. Once the top is reached?usually in the dark?there is the descent, testing the navigational skills of even the professional orienteer, especially in a whiteout with no pistes to follow or cable cars back to the valley. This means we Brits are optimists. We’ll give any climb a go if we have fighting chance.”

The Ben Nevis Playground

Although there are hundreds of corries and winter cliffs across the Scottish Highlands, the great northeast face of Ben Nevis is the best known and has had the greatest influence on successive generations of British alpinists. It is reliably in condition by January and for a few months onward and has the CIC Hut conveniently situated at its base. Climbing on the Ben is unique. Its cliffs are alpine in stature, and by virtue of their height and position near the west coast, they are exposed to the full force of North Atlantic weather. The resulting high level of precipitation, along with frequent changes in temperature and wind direction, allow ice to build rapidly and produce a winter climbing ground without equal in the country. While the mountain is best known for its Grade V gully climbs such as Point Five and Zero, it is the thin face routes such as Galactic Hitchhiker (VI, 5), Albatross (VI, 5), and Pointless (VII, 6) that climb the blank slabby walls in between?and these have the monster reputations.

Thin face routes rely on a buildup of snow-ice on steep slabs and are normally climbed when the covering is only two or three centimeters thick. Rarely does the pattern of freeze-thaw allow the snow-ice to form thicker than this, and, once one is committed, the climbing is a delicate game of mind control while balancing tip-toe up thinly iced slabs far above protection. The transitory nature of these climbs adds to their attraction, for it takes only one quick thaw to strip the routes, and they can disappear in a few hours.

Dave Hesleden, one of Britain’s finest all-round climbers, explains: “Climbing on the Ben has had a big influence on my climbing. There’s no fixed gear. You have to find protection and set up belays yourself. Routes like Orion Direct are big adventures?far more so than doing a Grade V+ icefall in the Alps where you can use screws and Abalakovs. The Ben is the most exacting climbing I’ve ever done. I would never dream of falling off. I’d be prepared to go for it and fall off in the Cairngorms, but never on Nevis.”

Hesleden’s comments reminded of the time I met Catherine Destivelle in the CIC Hut. She was making a reconnaissance trip with her husband to check out some climbs for a photo feature for Paris Match, but the weather had been poor and they had failed to do a single route. The hut was full and Catherine joined in the general banter with grace and charm, but underneath you could sense that she was disappointed with her week. She visibly brightened when Robin Clothier, the hut guardian and renowned Nevis ice climber, suggested they follow him and Harvey Mullen up Orion Direct the next morning.

It was a preposterous suggestion. The mountain was very snowy and it was too early in the season for snow-ice to have formed on the uppermost slabs. Morning came dark and gray with low clouds and blowing spindrift; most climbers in the hut sensibly chose icefalls or mixed routes low on the mountain. Robin was undeterred, however, and soon after breakfast the four of them set off for the Orion Face. That evening, when I returned to the hut, everyone had returned safely and were now recounting the day’s adventures over steaming mugs of tea. Catherine’s eyes danced with delight as she described their climb.

They had followed Robin and Harvey up into the murky gloom of Observatory Gully, and when the slope steepened they roped up as two pairs and started climbing. There was no ice, just a 15-centimeter-thick layer of barely consolidated snow covering smooth slabs. There were no runners or belays. Routefmding was desperately difficult in the mist, but the marginal conditions meant that it was critical they took the easiest possible line. Blindly they followed Robin and Harvey across a delicate traverse that led right into the maze of exit gullies above. Every so often they could hear avalanches hissing down Zero Gully. When they got to the summit, Robin pointed instinctively through the swirling snow with his axes and they plunged down through the whiteout toward the descent route. “It was like nothing I’ve ever done before,” Catherine told me later. “It’s a climb I’ll never forget.”

International Perspective

For international visitors, the most practical way to experience Scottish winter climbing is to attend one of the International Winter Meets organized by the British Mountaineering Council every other year. The meets are based in Glenmore Lodge, the Scottish Mountaineering Centre in Aviemore, at the foot of the Cairngorms. Guests are paired up with local climbers who have the necessary Scottish winter skills to direct their new friends to the routes, swing leads, and then get them back down to the valley again.

The meets have attracted many top climbers from around the world. Interestingly it is Slovenians such as Janez Jeglic, Andre Stremfelj, and Marko Prezelj who have been most at home in Scottish conditions. Prezelj first climbed in Scotland in March 1999 and notched up eight big routes, almost a lifetime’s worth of hard Scottish classics, in a mere five days. The following summer he made a rapid, alpine-style repeat of the Golden Pillar of Spantik. “There’s no doubt that my Scottish experience has improved my approach to mixed climbing,” he told me. Scottish routes are quite short compared to those in major areas, but the experience is very strong. It’s a complex thing, but after experiencing the long approaches in Scotland, clearing snow off to place gear, climbing in bad weather, and coming back in the fog and wind, I now believe that many things are possible in the mountains. On Spantik I had the technical experience from Scotland, so I wasn’t scared to make interesting moves without protection close by, and my Himalayan experience meant I wasn’t scared about the altitude and size of the mountain. It was really good!”

The meets have also given Scottish climbers a greater understanding of what makes Scottish winter climbing unique compared to the rest of the world. “You get great training in Scotland for big mountains,” British Columbia guru Don Serl told me recently. “You tend to be out in all weather, so bad weather is not unsettling. You know how to dress for it and how to cope with it. Most success in the big mountains depends first and foremost on being able to ‘live’ in the mountains, in any and all conditions. Here in the Coast Range and the Cascades, the problem is one of consistently bad weather coupled with extremely heavy snowfall and long approaches. If you get two mountain routes in over a winter, you’re doing really well.”

When you live in Scotland, the accessibility of the Scottish winter experience is easy to take for granted. Keen climbers will climb routes every weekend. There are probably few other places in the world where you can leave your bed early in the morning, have a full mountaineering experience, and be back in time for dinner.

But Scottish winter is far more than just training for big mountains. Some of the finest Scottish winter climbers rarely go elsewhere because Scotland gives them all the adventure, challenge, and commitment they need. The Scottish winter game can be frustrating and uncomfortable for much of the time, but when it works nothing can compare. As I write this in early January, a warm southwesterly is howling outside, the ice is falling off the crags, and the hills are being stripped by a deep thaw. I’ve failed on every route I have tried in the last month, but I know I’ll be back on the crags as soon as it freezes again. Andy Kirkpatrick understands: “Every season, countless climbers make the pilgrimage to the Highlands, believing that it’s better to take a shot and miss than never take the shot at all. Every now and again you’ll score, and when you do there’s no better place on the planet to climb.”

A Note on the Scottish Winter Grading System

Scottish winter grades are used to describe the difficulties of all types of a winter route, whether it is ice, mixed, or snowed-up rock. Nowadays a two-tier system is used with Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis as the benchmark V, 5 climb. The Roman numeral describes the overall difficulty of the route and takes into account technical difficulty, the quality and quantity of protection, and how the sustained the climbing is. The Arabic numeral describes the technical difficulty of the hardest pitch. The contrast between the two grades gives an indication on the nature of the route. For example a V, 6 grade suggests a well-protected technical climb, while a grade of V, 4 implies a route that is technically easier but with limited protection and possibly poor belays. It is almost impossible to compare Scottish climbs with ice and mixed climbs elsewhere, but as a crude approximation Scottish technical grades are a generous grade easier than the equivalent M or WI grades in North America.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Scotland

Article: A survey of history, recent developments, and nature of winter climbing in Scotland.

A Note About the Author:

Simon Richardson is a petroleum engineer who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, with his wife and two children. Born in 1960, Simon has made first ascents of over 150 Grade V winter routes in the Scottish Highlands and is the author of the Ben Nevis guidebook.