Winter mountaineering and climbing
Going out in the Scottish mountains in winter is always a big day out! Perhaps an early start and a fair walk in to your snowy, iced-up objective for the day. There’s a mean weight in your rucksack and the weather can be quite wild. Why bother with all that effort?
The mountains of the Scottish Highlands offer infinite potential for adventure in winter. They present many and varying challenges to inspire the imagination and to fill holidays, as well as providing great locations in which to learn skills and encourage safe travel through the mountains.
Ridges, buttresses and gullies
Although the days out can be long and taxing, they all can be done in a day from a comfortable valley base. So whatever the day throws at you, you can get back to warmth, a good meal and a drying room, to recharge the batteries for the next day’s adventure.
Compared to the Alps, the scale of the mountains is so much reduced in Scotland, yet this is where the benefits lie. Less time is spent in the approach so there’s more time spent doing the winter activity.
Whether that’s practising movement skills on snow and ice, mountaineering along a classic winter ridge or climbing an ice-filled gully.
You inevitably find yourself heading out in all sorts of weather, indeed if you didn’t at least try to head out in poor weather in Scottish winters you might never go out at all.
Adapting to the weather and conditions are keys skills for every mountaineer, learning about what you are capable of and when to change the plan for the day.
With a mountain guide the Scottish winter environment is an excellent place to prepare for climbs in the Alps. You learn a lot more about yourself and the skills required for exploring in wilder mountain environments. And certainly, the bad weather thing can be just a myth, when the good days happen they feel very much earned!
Winter Mountaineering Skills
Before heading out into the snow clad mountains and hills for the first time it is normal for folk to attend a winter skills course. Here you learn about using your winter boots, crampons and mountaineering axe, and look at winter navigation techniques and basic avalanche awareness. It’s an overall introduction to the winter mountain environment.
Having good footwork on snow and ice is the basis to being safe and confident on Scottish hills in winter and in the Alps alike. Just simply learning to walk in a way that you should not trip and slip on a variety of slopes, with or without crampons.
As you move on to slightly steeper or more exposed slopes further skills and decisions are needed. Learning about using and being on a rope, making snow belays and deciding on the best route to take. Try climbing an easy gully or ridge; it’s good to put the skills into practice on a good mountaineering feature.
From this simple but essential beginning, the winter world lies before you.
Winter climbing in Scotland is tremendously varied. There’s ice, snowed-up rock and frozen turf to get your axes into. You can climb in gullies and chimneys, on crests and ridges.
There can be a lot of mountaineering terrain to cover making for big, grand routes or you can choose shorter, more accessible routes to have a go at something a bit trickier.
Time is a crucial factor in having good days out winter climbing; days are short and you need to get a move on to ensure you’re not too late back. You’re going to get cold when waiting at belays for your turn to climb, but it’s also good to choose a route where you do feel you as a team are moving up the climb well.
Choosing the right route with regards to the weather, climbing conditions and the abilities of your team, is everything. Good to get on a route that can be adventurous and challenging but not to be too ambitious to begin with!
Northern Cairngorms (valley base: Aviemore and the Spey Valley)
The Northern Corries of the Cairngorms are like a big outdoor playground for winter climbers. Routes of all grades are to be found after a relatively short walk-in.
Great, generally well protected climbing in gullies or on fabulous snowed-up granite.
It’s probably the best place to try whatever is new for you in winter climbing, whether that’s a new grade, new to leading or new to winter climbing.
As your confidence increases, or if you’re happy to walk a little further then the rest of the Cairngorms are open to you. ‘Over the back’ lies the Loch Avon Basin; big cliffs in an immense space.
Many an adventure are to be had on Stag Rocks, great open ices routes on Hell’s Lum and some of the finest winter climbs in Scotland are to be found on the cliffs of Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone; big routes, fantastic days out!
Lochnagar and the Southern Cairngorms (valley base: Braemar)
More climbing of similar style to the above, good long climbs in a remote setting. The routes are not necessarily sustained but have a good balance of technical interest and easier terrain to ensure you should finish the climb in the daylight. A good mixture of mixed, ice and snow on these grand routes.
Creag Meagaidh (valley base: easily accessible from both Fort William and Aviemore)
A popular ice climbing venue central to both Aviemore and Fort William. Here the climbs have a big route feel to them, most of which are snow and gullies. A big mountain, but the climbs are imminently more manageable when the ice is in reasonable condition.
Ben Nevis and Lochaber (valley base: Fort William)
In the west, ice predominates. Two big contrasting areas for climbing, big adventures on the fine icy cliffs of Ben Nevis and some mini adventures beyond the ski lifts at Aonach Mor.
There is probably nothing that can beat ice-climbing on Ben Nevis on a good day. Good snow-ice, so good ice-screw protection. First time placements that allow you to flow up these ice cliffs on cruise control. Many of the climbs have a fair bit of easier ground to cover, either on the approach or in the upper section of the climb. Good to have your wits about you on these bold, exposed sections.
Several rocky ridges split up the complicated network of ice cliffs, Tower Ridge being the most well-known. A fine expedition of commitment and interest that leads to the summit of the mountain.
Glencoe (Valley base: Ballachulish)
South of Fort William lies this equally renowned winter climbing venue, which complements the ice cliffs to the north.
Complex rocky buttresses abound, climbs taking the gullies, cracks, ridges and faces; mixed and snow-ice territory again. A different style to that found in the Cairngorms, not least because these west coast peaks are more spiky and intricate.
There are many dramatic lines to climb at all levels of difficulty and the Aonach Eagach ridge make for a fine and popular winter mountaineering excursion.
Northwest Highlands (Valley bases: Lochcarron, Torridon and Ullapool)
Heading north from Lochaber, all the way along the west coast are several chains of mountains that have great opportunities for remote and adventurous winter climbs. Each mountain area has its own character to explore. Big hills, long walk-ins.
Part of the adventure lies in the lack of information available about the condition of the routes, so you have to go and check things out for yourself. In the right conditions, there can be so much ice pouring down some of the cliffs you could climb anywhere!
Equally, the ridges between the buttresses make great mountaineering expeditions. These journeys capture the alpine style where there is the perfect balance of technical interest while keeping on the move and getting to the top of a great summit in the process.