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Winter Climbing

Cartoon© Tami Knight

These notes are intended to assist the climber who has already gained considerable knowledge of rock climbing and is fully aware of its risks but still wishes to progress into winter mountaineering. They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way. Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead!

If you are still determined to venture into the Highlands in winter then the BMC's article on Winter Navigation Skills is worth reading.

For sound advice on how to choose and use winter equipment the Mountaineering Council of Scotland's Winter Essentials is essential reading as is their Gearing up for Winter.

Plas y Brenin administers the Conville Trust which provides subsidised Winter Skills courses for young impoverished climbers.

Check out the latest Scottish Winter Conditions.

In the notes below we frequently refer to "Scottish" winter climbing or "Scottish" mixed. Of course, with the wealth of winter climbing in England and Wales, this should really be British, but the term "Scottish" seems to have stuck.

Ice climbing gear has improved enormously in recent years. It has also become considerably more specialised; to the extent that one now has to ask exactly what sort of winter routes one intends to do before choosing the appropriate kit.

Above: Dave Bodecott tackling steep ice on the third pitch of Minus One Gully (VI), Ben Nevis. When in condition, which is not often, this route is almost pure water ice the whole way. However it finishes half way up North East Buttress (IV) which is a mixed climb of considerable difficulty.

Below: Stephen Reid, belayed by Steve Prior, thrutching his way up the final pitch of Savage Slit (V), Coire an Lochan, Cairngorms. This is a completely mixed climb, ie a mixture of rock, ice and snow with many moves involving twisting (or torquing) various parts of one's axes in cracks. (photo by Andy Perkins).

If the climber in the photo looks a bit sheepish it is because he has just ridden several hundred feet down Creag Meagaidh on the avalanche behind him. The photographer was with him too - hence the camera shake. Be careful out there!

 
Basic Scottish Winter Climbing: Up to Grade IV
Semi-rigid 12 point crampons are ideal. These are stiff enough for climbing yet still flexible enough to be comfortable when walking, and do not ball up too badly. Models such as the Grivel Airtech are ideal for those who are wanting a crampon for walking as much as climbing as its short points make it a better choice on rough ground. Choosing the New Classic binding option will mean you can put it on just about any boot..
At this sort of grade, straight-shafted tools (or very slightly curved tools) such as the DMM Fly are a good choice if you are only likely to be climbing in UK and alpine mountaineering - they are certainly easier to use in confined spaces such as chimneys and when plunging the shafts into snow or "daggering" with the ferules (the points on the bottoms of the shafts - common techniques on easier pitches. Leashes are not much of a problem at this grade and for the UK and Alps are probably worth having.
Advanced Scottish Winter Climbing: Grade V and above
Fully rigid crampons may be preferred by some - They give firmer placements when frontpointing and less wobble on tiny rock holds. However, they are rather uncomfortable as walking crampons. New models of semi-rigids such as the Grivel G14 are better for walking and have the advantage of forged front points that can be set as mono-points. This makes them ideal for all aspects of winter mountaineering from grade I gullies to harder mixed climbs, and they are good for steep water ice too.
For steep ice climbs a pair of bent-shafted axes can give a distinct advantage, but on buttress routes straight shafts are are less likely to lever out when torquing the adze or hammer head in cracks. This gives you a dilemma if you only want one pair of axes to do everything from Scottish Mixed to Norwegian icefalls. If that is the case, go for steep ice type tools with reasonably hefty heads such as the Black Diamond Viper - anything with too light a head is a pain if you are trying to hammer a peg into a crack or an icehook into frozen turf. Leashes are a nuisance on more sustained pitches - though most climbers put up with them. Consider clipper leashes or going leashless.
Continental-type Icefalls:
Fully rigid crampons are best, but semi rigids with forged front points will be fine.
Bent-shafted axes such as the Petzl Quark and BD Viper make climbing steep ice a grade easier than it would be with more traditional axes. Better still is to make the leap to leasless climbing and invest in a set of purpose built leashless tools. It's a bit like learning to hand-jam - once you have learned to relax, it all seems a lot easier. If going leshless on multi-pitch, consider using a special set of Axe Lanyards to prevent the embarassment of dropping a tool!
Other Kit:
Fully stiffened boots, either leather or plastic, with a good level of insulation, are essential.
Take a fairly full rack. Although the perpetuated wisdom is that cams are useless in winter, this is not always the case, particularly on Cairngorm granite. However, some large nuts should be carried as well. Slings become more useful than ever - take lots.
A small bunch should always be carried, especially in icy conditions where cracks may be iced up, and particularly on the Ben, where they always seem to be needed. A good selection would be 2 x blades, 1 x kingpin, 1 x channel.
Essential on many routes of grade III and above. At least four should be carried, one for each belay and two as runners. Modern sharp ones with wind-in handles are a fantastic improvement compared with what was available in the 1980s. A Warthog or two can be useful on frozen turf.
Despite the name, these are mainly used in iced up corner cracks and in shallow frozen turf placements where they work well in that you can get something in places where you otherwise wouldn't. Probably the most dangerous bit of gear to have on your harness if you fall off!
Essential for all winter and alpine climbing as stones and ice can be knocked down by other parties at any time.
You'd be lost without one!
If you do get lost (or injured), you may well need one. Also spare food and clothing. It's worth considering a Group Survival Shelter as well.

 


Colin Wells steep on a frozen sea - Trappfoss (WI4), Rjukan, Norway

 

 

The Divine Mysteries of the Oromaniacal Quest

And what joy, think ye, did they feel after the exceeding long and troublous ascent? - after
  Scrambling, slipping
Pulling, pushing
Lifting, gasping
Looking, hoping
Despairing, climbing
Holding on, falling off
Trying, puffing,
Loosing, gathering,
Talking, stepping,
Grumbling, anathematising
Scraping, hacking
Bumping, jogging
Overturning, hunting
Straddling, -
for know you that by these methods alone are the most divine mysteries of the Quest reached.

Norman Collie