Those of you who go winter climbing, or have been following the reports in the climbing press, will know that snow and ice conditions in Scotland have been fabulous this past week. Having done very little winter climbing over the past 13 years and now being in the right location, it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss. Tools for winter climbing have changed dramatically over the past ten years. Where once everyone climbed with ice axes that were fitted with leashes that went round the climber's wrists for support, now ice axes come with shaped hand grips that dispense with the need for leashes and that has allowed climbing standards to increase. Leashless climbing allows a much less complicated and freer movement. I had never climbed with leashless tools, so it was with some trepidation that I joined my friend, Jimmy, on a 2 day trip west.
A 5am start saw us head off on the 2 hour journey to Creag Meagiadh, one of Scotland's premier winter climbing venues. Situated halfway between Glencoe and Ben Nevis in the West and the Cairngorms in the East, Creag Meagiadh seems to be in condition more than most, as it catches the weather from both sides. Once we left the car park, I discovered another change to scottish winter climbing.....a lovely, well built path into the cliff. It's a good 90 minutes to the lochan below the crags and, in the 'old' days, it was a horrid, wet, boggy walk that also had the hazard of slippery wooden sleepers waiting to send the unwary onto their backside! The new path made the going easy and soon we were eyeing up the possibilities for the day. There were too many options as, being a Monday, meant less people out on the crag. We had heard rumours of a climb called The Pumpkin being in excellent condition, but as we made our way up the lower slopes, it became apparent that other people had heard the rumour too! Two other pairs were making their way to the base of the route, so a quick reappraisal saw us head to South Pipe Direct, a quality grade IV.
The lower part of the route consisted of good slabby neve snow and short steep ice pitches. Jimmy made short work of the first pitch, despite an awkward ice step and belayed on ice screws, then it was my turn. It didn't take me long to get back into the swing (pun intended) of things. Just had to tell myself to relax and trust my front points of my crampons and the two thin picks of my axes. Move one thing at time, look for placements where the ice is softer.. swing axes gently...breathe...try and stay calm....look for gear placements....good job the snow is solid....God my calf muscles ache! Having a pair of one inch spikes sticking out in front of your toe (part of the crampons) changes the leverage on your legs and puts a lot of pressure on your calf muscles. Add the fact hat there can be some long 'runouts' (long way between protection points), to this and things can get quite exciting for the leader! Best not fall off. This isn't like being down the local climbing wall you know. I go myself into a position where I could build a belay using ice screws as anchors, and brought Jimmy up. The ice steepened on the next pitch, but it wasn't a problem for Jimmy, who swung hard and pulled like a man possessed, pausing only to place a couple of ice screw runners, before romping up easy ground, to find a belay.
Our climb shared a belay stance with the classic Staghorn Gully (grade III), which crossed our climb. The stance was large and comfortable, with good rock belays. We paused and chatted about the climbing and the amazing weather. It was a blue sky day and hardly a breath of wind. Bitterly cold though, especially as we were climbing in the shadow of the cliff.
Being in the shadow has its advantages, and for me this meant perfect ice on the main pitch...and it was my turn to lead! The climbing was fairly straight forward, particularly as the climb had seen a bit of 'traffic', and although not totally 'stepped out', I could still hook into other people's axe placements. This meant saving energy ! At one point I placed my axes into the ice and then 'palmed off' some bare rock to get my foot onto a small rock ledge. This sort of move would have been awkward to execute in the days of leashes on axes, but now it just seemed natural to place the axe in the ice, let go, do the move, then pick up the axe and move on. How simple was that? I was immediately a convert to this new 'leashless' style of climbing! It was a lovely pitch, full of steep, blue ice. Almost perfect, except that it ended after approx 30 metres. Then it was my turn to bring Jimmy up and had the lead over to him. The next pitch looked reminisant of the "Rogue Pitch" on Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis (the world's most famous ice climb?).
It looked steep, but Jimmy made it look easy, even pausing mid crux to place an ice screw, before pulling over onto the summit slopes. When it came to my turn, I found it relatively easy, as I had got used to climbing leashless. When it came time for me to lead up the summit slopes, I soon discovered a slight flaw in leashless climbing. These snow slopes were quite steep and in the 'old days', I would have plunged the shafts of my axes into the snow for security as I moved upwards. But, these new axes have a finger guard at the bottom of the shaft, which makes plunging axes really difficult in hard snow. The bend in the shaft doesn't help either. Even though I used my axes as daggers, it felt quite precarious front pointing up the slope and I was glad to pull over the small cornice, on to the top. It wasn't long before Jimmy joined me and he was grinning from ear to ear. It was a great climb. thoroughly enjoyable. Good line, great conditions, great company and amazing conditions! I even managed to persuade Jimmy to walk to the true summit of Creag Meagiadh, over a kilometre away. The summit is one vast plateau, with concave slopes dropping off steeply nearly all the way round. It was easy to see why so many people get lost up here on a 'normal' winter's day. The wind chilled us, but the views made it all worth it. Then it was off down to "The Window" and back to the path and the long walk back to the car park.
After a good night's sleep in Raisag, the hut in Roy Bridge, owned by The Climbers Club, we headed to Ben Nevis. I have climbed on the Ben many times in the past, both in summer and winter. I have even taken part in Mountain Rescue callouts here when I was part of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team. It is a majestic mountain and has a complex north face that is covered in hundreds of climbs at all grades. Being the highest mountain in the UK, it holds winter conditions for most of the Winter and into Spring. In fact snow can be found in many places on the mountain throughout the year. Even summer day trippers have been caught out by snow showers on it's summit! It is best to go prepared. For winter climbers, the Ben, as it come to be known, it is our Mecca. There are so many climbs of quality that it even attracts visitors from abroad, who come from the big mountains of the Alps and further afield, just to test themselves on it's climbs.
Our journey started from the North Face car park, which was a new experience for Jimmy who had enjoyed the luxury of driving up the Torlundy track every time, as the Mountain Rescue team had a key for the gate. The approach path is steep initially, but is well kept and it only took us 30 minutes to get to where those fortunate enough to have a key, park their vehicles. Another long walk in saw us arrive outside the famed CIC Hut. This hut, owned by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, has undergone a complete transformation over the past few years and now looks very comfortable. It even has a working loo! Already many people were up and about, heading for their chosen route. We spotted a team already on the second pitch of Point Five Gully, who we were told later, were up at 4.30 to beat the crowds!
We were hoping to get on the mega classic Green Gully (grade IV), but as we made our way up into Coire na Ciste, a team had already laid claim to the route. Looking at the options, we decided on another classic grade IV climb, Comb Gully.
This short, but classic climb was first climbed back in 1938, when it must have been some undertaking. Then in the '60s, the gifted Scottish climber, Dougal Haston was said to have raced up it in 20 minutes! I can safely say we took longer than that! Having walked quite a bit and climbed yesterday, our calf muscles were beginning to complain, especially as the first 90 metres was front-pointing up steep snow! Even Jimmy was suffering. Eventually the snow gave way to ice as the gully narrowed. having done the climb before, Jimmy handed the lead over to me. What a great pitch! 40 metres of ice, steep enough in places to keep you on your toes (literally!). It had seen some traffic, but not as much as South Pipe Direct had. I managed to find the occasional hook placement with my axes, saving precious energy just in case the climb got nasty, but I needn't had worried. The climbing stayed honest all the way and I had finally dug out my winter climbing skills from deep within my memories.
Having belayed, I brought Jimmy up and he quickly scampered up the summit slopes. The weather had deteriorated and the wind was whipping up loose snow, know as "spindrift". With low cloud, it was time to put navigational skills to the test. As with Creag Meagaidh, the summit of the Ben is like a small plateau, with dangers on all sides. Many people have been caught out and have descended into the nightmare that is Five Finger Gully, or have slipped and gone speeding over the edge on the hard ice that forms. Some have even walked over/through the big cornices that form at the top of a steepening. There have been so many accidents in the past that there now are navigational cairns (piles of stones) that lead one safely from the summit to the middle of the 'zigzags' on the tourist path. You will still need a map, compass and the ability to use both to navigate your way safely off. We found the line of cairns and made our way down, keeping our crampons on until we reached the main path where it crosses the Red Burn. We grabbed a bite to eat, relaxed a little and reflected on the day. A steady stream of climbers trundled past us, everyone asking how our day was, keen to kind out where we had been, what route we had climbed and whether it was in 'good nick'. All this information gathering helps in making good decisions for the following day's activities. (Also look at weather and avalanche forecasts and keep appraising the situation throughout your day on the hill...things can change rapidly and forecasts can be wrong!)
A couple on their way down stopped to chat. It was obvious from the clothing, boots and equipment that they weren't really prepared for the conditions that they had encountered. The lady in question would have looked better placed in the High Street on a Saturday afternoon shopping outting. How did they get on? we asked. It seemed they underestimated the conditions and had no idea it would be that icy, windy and misty on the top. They had slipped over several times on the way down, but luckily for them, they were met by some better equipped and experienced climbers who roped them down. They were fortunate. I have been on searches for people who, like them underestimated the conditions and went on the mountain ill-equipped. Unfortunately, I have had to recover the bodies of such people. There is plenty of information about what to expect and what to wear if venturing onto the hills in winter. Even better, book yourself onto a course with a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors who offers winter skills courses. Don't become another statistic!
On a brighter note, after our long (2 hour) walk down to the car, Jimmy and I were invited in for tea and cake by a young couple from the Lake District we had met higher on the hill. It was warming to know that people are still kind and welcoming in this day and age. What was funny though was that they and I have several common friends and work colleagues. Its a small world! What a great way to end a really good couple of days. Thanks to H's mum for the chocolate cake, it was lush!