Getting into Scottish Winter

I bought my first set of crampons and an ice axe back in December, with the intention of getting out as much as possible in Scotland this winter. More specifically I had the following objectives:

  • Get comfortable moving over snow and ice wearing crampons;
  • Learn how to use an identity axe efficiently and safely;
  • Have a go at grade I and II winter climbs, and hopefully second a grade III or two;
  • Practise moving together over grade II ridges;
  • Become more comfortable in colder, harsher conditions;
  • Get mileage in as many different areas of the Highlands.

Over the Christmas break it dawned on me that there were only 12 winter weekends from when we returned to Scotland after climbing in Costa Blanca and the end of March; after that it would be quite unlikely to have enough snow and ice to be considered ‘winter conditions’.

I feel like I’ve learned a lot in this period, my thoughts on which are detailed below. Please note that the following is by no means a complete list of what constitutes an optimal ‘winter mindset’; they are merely my own reflections on what I’ve learned this winter.

Take what you can

Of the winter weekends so far, we’ve had a complete mixed bag of conditions and weather. That’s to be expected of course; we are talking about Scotland, not the Alps after all. One weekend we had deep snow up to our thighs; the next we were rock climbing by the sea in t-shirts. The overarching principle for this winter has been to get out, throw myself in the mix, and make good decisions based on the conditions presented with. It would be all too easy to look at the forecast and make the call to stay in the city and not get out, but I feel like I’ve learned an awful lot by simply spending time in the mountains. Getting in mileage, even if the conditions haven’t been conducive to climbing, has been invaluable. Two weekends ago we were at Glen Clova and looked at a grade IV winter route. It had absolutely no snow or ice on it, but was super slippery. We had a crack at it nonetheless, found out that it was totally awful (basically rock climbing on slimy wet moss), but now I know what a grade IV route looks like (admittedly in slimy mossy, totally non-winter conditions)! Fingers crossed next time I’ll be back when it’s in condition and I’ll be able to climb it properly.

Sofie on the mossy, unfrozen approach to a grade IV winter route in Corrie Fee, Glen Clova

‘Have a look’

Sofie gave me a cracking book for Christmas called “Scotland’s Winter Mountains with one axe” by Garry Smith. In the opening gambit, Smith notes that the mindset of ‘having a look’ is essential to get stuff done in the scottish winter. What does he mean by that? My interpretation is that you never know what conditions are like on the ground unless you actually go there and take a look for yourself. You can read all you like online, and look at recent photos people have posted on Facebook groups, but unless you put yourself there, standing in front of a route, you won’t actually know what it’s like. Snow conditions can change overnight, or in a morning, so even the most recent of posts by people can be out of date. Just because you get to the start of a route, it doesn’t necessitate actually climbing it, but if you don’t get out and take a peek for yourself, you could be passing up a golden opportunity for a nice route. A day out Sofie and I had on Hayfork Gully, An Teallach springs to mind: conditions didn’t look all that great from afar, and the weather forecast was for high winds and snow flurries; nevertheless, we had an early start, ended up walking in in balmy sunshine and nothing more than a gentle breeze, had beautiful firm snow to climb on up the gully, and clear skies throughout the day. Better yet, we had the mountain almost entirely to ourselves!

The view of An Teallach after topping out from Hayfork Gully in early February. We passed one other person all day.

An early start always pays off

This was one of the first things I learned when training for my Mountain Leader. It’s true in summer too of course, but even more pertinent in winter. Around December 21st Scotland barely gets more than 6 hours of daylight, so getting up and out there as early possible really does pay. Doing the walk-in to the route in the dark, or at least the first hour or so, seems to be smart. Time saved in the morning gives leeway at the other end, and means that if things do go wrong, you have more time at the other end. If you get back early, there’s always time to get your feet up by the fire, kick back with a brew and have a good read. 🙂

Become a student of the weather and the snow

So I’ve always been a weather geek, but the rigour with which I now check MWIS and SAIS has now reached new heights (Sofie can vouch for this). Simply put, I check the MWIS forecast every day in the week preceding getting out, watch the long-term planning outlook (MWIS releases an excellent 6-minute video every Tuesday and Friday), and read the SAIS avalanche forecast in full (not just the pretty coloured wheel). Doing this has meant that I’ve felt confident when going out, that I know what to expect, and enabled me to factor the information into my decision making. The occasions where I’ve not made as much time to study the reports beforehand have led to a feeling of unease and not being fully prepared, not things you want to be playing on your mind on a day out.

Get used to your gear, and be be efficient with it

Gear is always important, in summer and winter alike. But you need more of it in winter, and there’s less leeway for ‘faff time’. After all, it’s often cold, windy and wet (with snow or rain) in winter, so you really don’t want to be toying around sorting your gear on the way to or on a route. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with different combinations of layers this winter; it’s difficult getting the balance right between being warm enough, but not too warm so that you start sweating and then cool down later on. This is something that I definitely haven’t mastered just yet. Again, just spending time out in winter conditions and experimenting with your gear seems to be the best way to get slicker with it. 

A ‘nav day’ is a good bad weather option

No matter how much you may will the conditions to be good, and the weather to be conducive to doing a nice route, the weather gods and snow fairies may well not be on your side. So, what to do on that day where it’s snowing heavily, with no vis and nothing but slushy deep snow underfoot? It seems to me like the conditions that would make doing a route a bad choice are the exact conditions that are ideal for testing out your navigation skills. I recently had a brilliant day out in pretty poor conditions doing some nav practice up a hill that wasn’t of any particular importance. It’s surprising how much fun it can be breaking a journey down into legs, each taking it in turns to lead a leg to an interesting contour point or feature, and then chatting about the strategy.

Navving about up a hill out the back of the Kingshouse Hotel, Glencoe

There are still 5 winter weekends left. Whilst it seems like this coming weekend won’t deliver any sort of conditions conducive to winter climbing, there seems to be good cause for optimism. Here’s the latest from MWIS:

“Much colder air will result in snow on the Munros, or increasingly lower elevations into early next week as showery conditions become established. A chilly and unsettled pattern is likely to prevail through early March, with bouts of gales. There will be freeze-thaw cycles, but higher terrain more often sub-zero, and fresh accumulations of snow.”