|View of the Ben, Feb 2011|
With a coating of powder and lots of freezing, the climbing landscape in Scotland can evolve into an ugly and challenging place. The risks may be greater when climbing: feeling run out on a couple of poorly bedded ice screws, if you fall your picks and spikes may rip through your waterproofs. This will hurt. Climbing can be slow and arduous, as my recent experience following Matt and Joe on Castle Ridge pointed out.
But the biggest risks surpass the immediate pitch, when external forces come into play. Avalanche. Weather. Foresight and good judgement are needed in the winter climber's arsenal. The extreme cold may prove a problem for the belayer freezing their tits off, or for the climber whose hot aches burn like buggery. The low temperatures demand a methodical approach to fuelling yourself and changing layers between pitches.
For me, the brutality of winter climbing is overshadowed by the beauty of a discipline with more adventure than Ueli Steck on steroids. It has history and ethics to the sport which need respect. This kind of mountaineering is far removed from the monotony of plastic holds on a straight-line route at the indoor wall. On these routes, decisions are taken. Errors are made. The shit gets serious.
My debut on Scottish winter came in December last, taking our luck on Castle Ridge (III), Ben Nevis. With mixed forecasts and far from perfect conditions, I had low expectations of the day, unsure about our chance of success and needing more psych really after a couple of hours sleep then hitting the road for Fort Bill. Maybe I was doubting my own ability more: a lack of experience and desperately wanting technical axes. I had put in the physical training, scrubbed up on winter reading and got some practice with tools at the Leeds Wall, so why not make a go of it?
Coatings of sheet ice at the North Face Car Park and along the track that follows would be the first obstacle, stacking it onto the ice several times, then sheepishly standing up and regaining composure as amateur mountaineers would.
Castle Ridge offers pleasant winter scrambling interspersed with steeper sections that warrant a grade III label. Seconding Paul for all but one pitch, I was thankful for Matt and Joe breaking trail ahead of us. Dumpings of soft powder were making it difficult to place protection and get a purchase on the rock or in the snow pack. Joe was our snow plough for the day.
|On Castle Ridge|
At the crux pitch, I was baptised into Scottish winter climbing. There was no font, no religious words said, but bouts of swearing as I heaved on dodgy axe placements. The pitch involved a verticle rock step of a few metres, with desperate pulling and body tension to keep hands and feet in the right place with directional pull. The winter climbing style as a form of movement isn't natural - tools and crampons pushing you away from the rock, making the climb feel steeper and ultimately like hard work. But it's the most epic fun you'll ever have in the Scottish mountains.
Our climb finished in classic style with a descent in the dark and a hot meal at the bunkhouse. Thank you to the guys for a good day out.
Ben Nevis winter routes
BMC Winter climbing conservation tips
UKC Winter conditions
Scotland Avalanche Information Service
Gresham and Parnell's Winter Climbing+ book
Not the most psych-laden video I've seen, but it gets you in the mood: