The winter conditions in Scotland have been challenging this year to say the least, and as pretty much a novice winter climber I’ve found my winter climbing trip a bit of a roller coaster. Having gone from days battling 70mph gusting winds and skin-abrasing spin-drift, to Alpine-like bluebird skies with barely a breeze to contend with, I’ve probably seen the best and worst of Scottish winter climbing! However, the weather is the last thing I’ve been worrying about – piles of snow and rising temperatures have rendered much of the climbing completely useless – routes are either buried under too much snow, or melting to nothing. And then, there are the avalanche risks to consider.
Complaining aside, it’s probably thanks to the vastly unpredictable conditions and weather that I’ve had such a successful trip and achieved so much in such a short space of time – I won’t deny there have been tears, plenty of bruises and achy muscles – but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!
My first taste of winter climbing was last winter in the Cairngorms – I shuffled my way up a couple of easy, low-graded climbs in the standard difficult Scottish conditions; that and a dry-tooling session later had me hooked. I have to admit my commitment did waver a few times during this current trip –days in the Cairngorms and Glen Coe went from successful to abysmal, and sometimes got me down – day after day of climbing is difficult, both mentally and physically. However, my faith was restored after an amazing day in Torridon climbing a 4* route on Liathach.
We left Fort William at 7am, with a two-to-three hour drive ahead of us into the depths of the North West Highlands – the promise of blue-skies and light winds was the lure, and method behind the madness. After an amazing two-hour walk in through Glen Torridon, we arrived at the imposing crag that is Liathach – covered in deep snow and substantial avalanche debris!
Suited up with helmet, harness, ropes, crampons and ice axes we started the 200m ascent. A couple of hours later we were still waiting to get through the pitches – getting stuck behind another party of climbers really held us up, and allowed the chills to set in, however the views were spectacular looking north to the islands, Ullapool, and over the horizon – it certainly made the muscle burn and hot aches worth it!
The climb itself was pleasant, with a few technical moves – the very best of which came completely out of the blue – close to the top I shuffled myself and my hefty backpack into a neat little cave, a few steps up I had to twist myself round to horizontal and go feet first – the very last thing I expected to step out on to was a sheer drop! The only place to get the toes of my crampons stuck in was a vertical face out to the right! A couple of toe kicks and ice axe hauls later, I was on my way to the top of the climb – phew! It was a heart stopping few seconds!
As a result of getting held up during the climb, we began the very steep descent as darkness was falling, the wind had also really started to pick up and I was so keen to get back to the car. Two hours later, we could see the road, but were still at snow level – it was steep, slippy and so exhausting! Once the light completely disappeared we were forced to don head torches for the final drop down. Almost 10 hours after we set off, we arrived back to the car!
Of all the days during my trip, this was the hardest and longest, but by far the best – and was topped off by bumping in to Ueli Steck and Jon Griffith in the pub on the way home! An unforgettable and eventful day – my first clean ascent, and for the first time I can no longer imagine life without my ice axes and crampons!