Scottish winter season summary. It is early April as I write this. Despite the birdsong and spring flowers, here in Northern England, 90 miles south of the Scottish border, it’s snowing. Up in the Scottish Highlands the cliffs are buried beneath blankets of unconsolidated snow, the avalanche risk is high, and snow continues to fall. Winter is still in ascendancy. The best winter conditions came late this year, as they did in 2004-2005; again it was mid-February before there was a major snowfall. Until the mid-1980s, late February, March, and early April were the prime times for winter climbing. Then the big snow and ice routes on Ben Nevis and elsewhere were most likely to have completed their complex evolution and be at their best. Many well-known classics had their first ascents in March and April: Astronomy (VI, 5) in March 1971, Hadrian’s Wall Direct (V, 5) in April 1971, Galactic Hitchhiker (VI, 5) in mid-April 1978, Gemini (VI, 6) in March 1979. This tardy tendency hasn’t been restricted to pure snow and ice routes. The classics Red Guard and Mitre Ridge, from the 1950s Aberdonian mixed school, saw their first winter ascents in March and April, respectively.
But since the resurgence of mixed and snowed-up rock climbing during the 1980s, the season’s usual focus has shifted to earlier in the winter, when the sun is lower and the steep ground less prone to being stripped of its snow and rime. Activists expect to get going in November and to have a decent tally of routes under their belts by February. This year’s dry early winter, with its scant, ephemeral snowfalls, resulted in frustration being expressed on internet forums as early as December. These “when will winter start?” threads can be seen as examples of what Will Gadd refers to in his blog as “pushing the seasons”: the desire for the onset of winter and spring to fit with our impatience rather than climatic reality.
Scottish winter traditionalists will have enjoyed the shape of the last two seasons. Scottish winter climbing in spring is a joy; less governed by the tyranny of onrushing darkness, and ending in a leisurely descent from winter hill to budding birch woods. (Scottish winter climbing in spring may sound like a contradiction but the winter status of a Scottish ascent is defined by the condition of the cliff rather than by the calendar.)
Climbing in November is anything but leisurely. Try something hard, and you may well find yourself warming up for the season by battling up a rime-encrusted wall, with plenty of air beneath your feet, in pitch darkness. This was Rich Cross’s almost enviable fate as he led the technical 7 exit groove on Hydroponicum’s first winter ascent last November. Jon Bracey and Martin Moran were his ropemates on this frozen, snowy, rimed-up El. Moran had spotted the sensational undercut ramp line on the savagely steep Far East Wall of Beinn Eighe, but on his first attempt, in winter 1993, had been thwarted by a sudden thaw. Two years later the route received a summer ascent, by John Allott and Andy Nisbet, who found it a rather dirty rock climb. This, of course, added to its winter allure. Ten years later Bracey’s impressive onsight lead of the bold and technical crux pitch, and Cross’s efforts above a hanging belay in the dark, brought the threesome to the top of a fine VIII, 8: a grade that is still rarely climbed onsight.
Hydroponicum adds yet another fierce test piece to Beinn Eighe, a fantastic mixed-climbing venue in the North West Highlands about 60 miles north of Ben Nevis. The mountain’s main coire, Mhic Fhearchair, is dominated by the Triple Buttresses. The first winter ascent of the 300m Central Buttress took two days (Spence, Rowayne, and Urquhart, 1971, VI, 7). The first one-day winter ascent was made by those doomed heroes of British Alpinism, Alex Maclntryre and Al Rouse, in 1978. Even they were forced to use a couple of points of aid, as they fought their way up the final tier in swirling snow and obligatory darkness. Since then, many superb mixed routes have been added to the buttresses and its steep flanking walls, such as the compellingly named and savagely steep Blood, Sweat, and Frozen Tears (VII, maybe VIII, 8), the lengthy West Buttress Direttissima (VII, 8), and the brilliant chimney lines of Kami-Kaze (VI, 7) and Shang-High (VII, 7). The special attraction of Beinn Eighe is that its rock is particularly helpful for mixed climbing, giving solid hooks and positive edges, allowing improbably steep ground to be climbed. This was exemplified later in November by Andy Nisbet and Jonathon Preston’s ascent of Bombs Away, a steep and exciting wall at a pretty reasonable grade of V, 7. If you add to this helpfulness the corrie’s weeping walls, general dirty dampness (there are some notable evil-looking thin weeps still unclimbed), it is clear why some people see Beinn Eighe as the future of Scottish mixed climbing.
December and January were difficult months. Although it was often cold, there was a distinct lack of snow. Success went to those who knew the Highlands intimately and could predict where conditions might be good, or to those committed to going the extra mile. Camping on Ben Nevis on New Year’s Eve (Hogmonay) and climbing on New Year’s Day counts as going the extra mile, so Oily Metherell and Ian Parnell richly deserved their reward of the first winter ascent of Sioux Wall, a Hard Very Severe rock climb high on Number Three Gully Buttress. This imposing climb up a clean cracked wall proved to be a sustained and pumpy winter proposition meriting VIII, 8. Metherell fell at one point, leaving his axes embedded in the belay ledge he’d so nearly reached (the pair were climbing leashless, which is still relatively unusual in Scotland), and the first nightfall of 2006 overtook Parnell on the top pitch. However, it was only a couple of weeks before the climb was repeated by Duncan Hodgson and Andy Turner, and it seems likely to become one of the modern mixed classics of Ben Nevis.
Mid-February finally brought a huge snowfall across the Highlands, and conditions stayed largely wintry through to April. A lot of pent-up new-routing energy was released by this improvement in conditions, and activity was hectic. As I mentioned last year, a great many new routes get climbed each winter in Scotland. The majority are up totally new ground, rather than first winter ascents of summer lines. Many are on cliffs that most climbers, even Scottish climbers, won’t have heard of, let alone visited. These new climbs spread across almost the entire grade range. Many are fickle, and their suitors have waited years for the correct conditions. Taken together, they represent a huge amount of exploration, commitment, energy, enjoyment, and opportunism. How can I capture all that in one brief report? Trying to choose the most significant routes doesn’t seem to get us far—significant in what sense? Technicality? Purity of line? Alpine stature? Ephemerality? Speed of ascent? In a faint echo of the Piolet d’Or debate, I deliberated how to select some climbs over others for this report.
I have tried to work by a couple of principles that I find more in common with the ethos of this Journal. I try to select climbs of a more alpine nature, either longer or more remote. I also try to showcase the variety of winter climbing in Scotland by selecting routes of different types from across the Highlands and trying to draw the attention of potential visitors to great cliffs beyond Ben Nevis. Whilst holding these principles in mind, I do find myself defaulting to harder new climbs, perhaps because I find it hard to judge the qualities of climbs on cliffs I don’t know. Of course, my favorite selection principle would be simply to choose my own climbs.
Foinaven is about as far north as it’s possible to go on the Scottish mainland. From its flanks you can see the north coast. It’s also a confusing and slightly mysterious hill, with seven named cliffs and a history of poor documentation and unfathomable route descriptions. Many of the cliffs, including the steep and unpredictable Lord Reay’s Seat, are remote. The unpredictability of this crag comes from the fact that a lot of snow is needed to produce adequate winter conditions. When it does snow sufficiently, the snow may be of the wrong type (as Simon Yearsley and I discovered in 2004, when we found mounds of graupel beneath a totally black crag), or the roads may be blocked many miles south. This combination of remoteness and unpredictability verges on the annoying. The last winter addition to the crag was Fishmonger (VI 6), which required three treks along Strath Dionard for Roger Webb and Neil Wilson before they were successful in 1998. Fishmonger takes a line of chimneys on the right of the crag’s steep central nose. To the left of the nose is another line of chimneys taken by the summer route Pobble (160m, Very Severe). The chimneys are steep and often wet in summer, providing a compelling winter proposition that until last winter had attracted several unsuccessful suitors.
The northerly winds of late February and early March deposited a lot of snow on the hills of the far north. They also dropped a lot of snow on the Chamonix Aiguilles, so Simon Yearsley and I abandoned an alpine trip in favor of Foinaven, where fresh snow would be an asset rather than a hazard.
We set off at 5 a.m. on mountain bikes, along the snow-covered track (mountain bikes are commonly used to ease long approaches), We switched to snowshoes for the walk up to the crag and began climbing at 10 a.m. Eleven hours later we were on top of Lord Reay’s Seat in darkness and a snowstorm, after climbing a superbly varied VII 7. The chimneys had been as steep as expected but helpfully supplied with hooks and torques. It was the slabby sections that proved most technical, their slight features hidden deep beneath the powder. Snow had been falling for most of the day, and so it was another six hours, most of them spent pushing the bikes, before we were back in the tent toasting the far north with frigid vodka.
The Southern Highlands is the generic term for the hills south of Glencoe. Climbing here feels different from the rest of the Highlands. The hills arc more rounded, the corries and cliffs less blatantly rugged. With a couple of exceptions the corries are often quiet, and the area has the feel of a backwater compared to Glencoe, Ben Nevis, and the Cairngorms. Many of the cliffs are very vegetated, so summer rock-climbing opportunities are more limited than the amount of rock would suggest. Water-ice routes are the main draw here, as they form quickly. The mixed routes, of which there are many fine examples, tend to be approached with more caution. The rock has a reputation for being compact and hard to protect, and the vital turf blobs are often invisible from below, requiring a confident approach. The steep mixed lines often go through or around friezes of free-hanging icicles, so the routes have an appearance akin to Continental or North American mixed lines. In March, Beinn Dorain saw Dave MacLeod and Fiona Murray pushing the standard of onsight winter climbing in Scotland with their ascent of Defenders of the Faith (IX 9). This is an archetypal Southern Highland mixed line: hard to protect, icy, and reliant on thank God blobs of turf (“tufts”) appearing just when you need them. Where this route differs is in its relentless steepness; the huge 60m crux pitch is gently overhanging. MacLeod, who has considerable M-climbing experience, rated the crux, which he led, as technically M8+, but he could place traditional protection onsight. Defenders of the Faith is well named: a winter line only, the ideal route for many activists, as the leader climbs with no prior knowledge of the terrain ahead (in contrast to following the known features of a summer line under snow, ice, or rime). The style of ascent was impeccable, and, despite its cutting-edge technical standard, the route still used that characteristic Scottish medium: frozen vegetation.
The speed of an alpine ascent seems to be an increasingly important dimension in the international reporting of climbs, and there seems to be a slowly emerging interest in the speed of Scottish ascents. Although the short days provoke a feeling of rush, high-standard Scottish mixed climbing is notoriously slow (or maybe it just feels that way when you’re belaying in the wind and spindrift, as your leader scratches around in the gloom above). The need to find tool placements beneath a uniform cloak of snow, to chop ice from cracks to place protection, and to wear or carry sufficient clothing to survive long belays, all count against speed. Three-hour leads of crux pitches aren’t uncommon. When darkness falls, time begins to balloon away.
All this makes Pete Benson and Guy Robertson’s 12-hour second ascent of The Steeple (IX 9) on the Shelter Stone crag in the Cairngorms a superb achievement. The climb is 240m, with nine pitches, six of which are technical 7 or harder. The first winter ascent by Alan Mullin and Steve Paget in November 1999 took a planned 24 hours and involved a lot of climbing in the dark. Benson and Robertson finished in the weak evening light of a mid-March day.
Sometimes it’s good to wait.
Malcolm Bass, The Alpine Club