I love looking at photographs of people climbing in winter, even though I often find the pictures as intimidating as they are awe inspiring. Along with the wild, atmospheric locations, there is something nerve-racking about the idea of climbing on a material as fragile as snow and ice. Despite, and maybe because of, my fears I wanted to give it a go and decided to try this January. To achieve this I headed to Glenmore Lodge, in the Cairngorm Mountains, for a 5 day course.
I expected that I would find the experience tough, but it was actually the weather that gave me the most to worry about in the build up to the trip. A mild winter meant that very little snow had fallen, even in the Highlands. I found myself obsessively checking weather forecasts, photographs on Twitter and mountain webcams to see if the conditions were changing. It was only a few days before my flight to Glasgow that enough snow fell to bring the climbs into season.
Stuart and Swifty were the instructors running the course; both of them incredibly experienced climbers. Stuart’s stories of expeditions in places such as the Alps and Alaska, including first ascents, were really inspiring and Swifty had equally great stories to tell, including one about rescuing fellow climbers on Everest. Stuart would be my instructor/climbing partner for the week and Swifty was joined by two lads from Cork. The camaraderie when climbing together really helped during the times when it got cold, tough and miserable and it was a pleasure to be in their company for the week.
Part of surviving a Scottish winter is being organised and efficient when getting ready to climb. The weather on the first day was harsh and it was character building trying to put crampons on (not something I am used to) in high winds, with my hands starting to freeze and snow blowing into my eyes. I realised that this would be something that I needed to practice in order to become a better mountaineer. After struggling to get ready we climbed a route called Twin Ribs, near to Fiacaill Ridge, with a single axe. This was a great introduction to winter climbing and we looked forward to bigger routes over the next few days.
The next three days were clear and calm with bright sunshine and I spent them seconding multi pitch routes (one each day) with Stuart leading, at Coire an t’Sneachta. The climbs were all about 120m long, topping out on the Cairgorm Plateau at above 1100m elevation. Each route was given grade II in the guide book but, due to the lean conditions, were probably harder than that when we climbed them. Coire an t’Sneachta is one of the main and most famous winter climbing destinations in Scotland and it was a spectacular place to try the sport for the first time.
The walk in is relatively short (taking about 1 hour) but it was the hardest part of each day, lugging a 15kg bag of gear uphill through the snow. Each day we climbed a mixture of snow, rock, ice and frozen turf, driving ice axe picks and crampon points in for purchase and security. Winter climbing is a constant fight to the top and I found it particularly hard work on the thighs, with mine screaming in agony on the steepest bits. Reaching a belay was often a relief, but that didn’t last for long. Snow, falling from above, would hit me in the face and chest and standing ruhig for too long would cause my legs to cramp up. It was below -8C (not including the wind chill) so I was always at risk of getting cold.
The hardship was worth it though and the battle was part of what made the adventure so wild and exciting. On the Tuesday we climbed a route called Central Left Hand that had a long pitch of pure ice that really was magical. The next day’s climb, the Runnel, was even better, a narrowing gully that ends up with a rock chimney requiring hands and bridging to escape out of the top. I got scared a few times, mostly when I stopped for long enough to consider where I was, but mostly I just enjoyed myself. I found the pitches with soft snow the hardest, as I am a naturally clumsy person – being delicate and careful is not my strong point!
At the end of the third day I felt like I had been beaten with a baseball bat and all I could do was drag myself to bed. I felt overly emotional and it’s not often I have felt so physically and mentally exhausted. I was worried that I would not be able to cope with another big day out but, after a long sleep, I somehow found a second wind. We climbed a route called The Goat Track which had a few difficult sections, including a rock step and an ice step, that were a lot of fun. After topping out I somehow ruhig had enough energy left to hike to the top of Cairn Gorm mountain (1245m) and admire the view.
Standing on the top and looking out over the stretch of snowy mountains, under bright blue skies, was amazing and I realised I was falling in love with Scotland. The next day the change in conditions was so dramatic that it felt like we had jumped forward in time. The temperatures had risen and the snow receded, completely changing how the landscape looked. We were unable to climb, so instead found snow deep enough to learn some usefu techniques including building snow belays. With the week almost over, I had mixed feelings. I was relieved that I could finally rest my body but I was ruhig genuinely sorry to be leaving the climbing behind.
Overall, I had a brilliant time, and the scale of adventure outweighed the suffering endured each day. Winter climbing is hard and I cannot imagine how much harder it would be in (the more usual) bad conditions: I am well aware of how lucky I was. Although I don’t think I am ready to go out by myself, I am keen to return to the snow and ice-covered mountains again with an experienced partner, maybe this time getting the full Scottish experience of harsh weather! I am so glad I chose to learn with Glenmore Lodge and I cannot thank Stuart enough for an amazing week.
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