Scottish Winter climbing, Feb 2002

(new: 5 new pictures!!)

Why would you bother going to Scotland if  it always rains and the highest mountain, Ben Nevis,  is only about  1344m (or 4408ft, 6")? 

Ever wondered why most of the old style climbers and first ascents were made by British climbers? It's because they trained in Scotland. I had been curious about this area for years and every years something would come up that prevented me to go, but this years I finally arranged with Jagged Globe to join one of their advanced Ice climbing courses and get a taste of the area in a week time.

Well it was worth it! As I was warned by al the Ananova news stories and the local weather forecasts conditions were quite bad, too warm for good ice to climb, to cold for a comfortable belay or a summit picture, so perfect training :-) As our guide Andy Perkins told me: "when you do a course in the French Alps, they will stop climbing if it's raining, waiting for better weather. But in Scotland, you could wait all winter and then you still don't know if your gear is really weatherproof..."

So we climbed through rain, snow, wind and a healthy dose of spindrift in temperatures ranging from just above to just below freezing, but with ambient temperatures of + 15- -25 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately I did not bring my compact camera; as it is quite tricky to belay and take my camera out of my back pack the same time I did not make too much actual climbing pix, but you will get a nice impression from the following scans of some of the slides I made. I did not have time for a proper trip report right now, but maybe you'll enjoy the pix and texts. Click on the pictures for a larger version that will pop-up in a new window. Enjoy! 

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When I drove up with the CityLink bus from Glasgow to Ballachulish where our nice hotel was located I had already noticed it as it was one of the few mountains on the way where I had seen some white stuff on top through al the rain. After a full week and climbing 3 routes here I finally started to remember it's name: Stob Coire nan Lochan.

We climbed here on monday: a long walk up (about 800meters vertical) and a nice climb through hard winds over an easy ridge.

On Day 2 we went for the Big Shepherd (The Buchaille Etive Mor?)

We climbed a nice ridge (Curved ridge) which was mostly scrambling through the drizzle but with a beautiful view

To the left is Andy "don't worry, he always looks like that" Perkins, one of our two guides (we climbed with 2 climbers per guide). Andy has done amazing climbs and even hosted a slideshow about it. The picture is taken when the scrambling up turned into climbing the ridge. 

A close-up of Andy on this picture can be found here & this is his site.

This is Neil, my climbing partner for the next 3 days. Neill is a strong man with lots of experience and great old gear! We are resting and putting our crampons on for the last pitches through the gullies. 


left/middle: Ray, Arnes and their guide Dave Walsh are approaching. Right: Me, having a good time in Scotland

Left: Dave Walsh. Dave is one of the people who has climbed all 7summits!

Right: the big shepherd as seen from the car park, after (again) a long hike out.

 The Scottish mountains are not high, but you climb most of them from sea level which makes it quite strenuous. But you will be warmed up when you start climbing! 

On Wednesday the weather was expected to be nicer, so we headed out for "the Ben", Ben Nevis itself. The Ben has an easy walk up (tourist route) but too many tourists have dropped off the other side, not knowing that there are 600m high cliffs just a few meters from the summit cairn... Here the best climbs of Scotland can be found.

Left: Ben Nevis from the car park; Right: The North face of Ben nevis

When we approached the Ben the weather was not too good and actually it started snowing on the way to the cliffs. But gradually it got better and more blue patches appeared on the horizon. Andy decided on a classic Grade IV route called Gloovers Chimney, a nice ice gully with a mixed finish at the end. It was quite busy on the Ben, but we had this route for ourselves. Below is an impression of the route, seen from below, halfway and looking back from the summit of Great Britain:
Andy leading the near vertical first pitch next to a few large icicles. You can see the spindrift coming down as well.
Left: Andy leading the second to last pitch. At the end of the chimney you can see a climber standing over the gap.

Right: looking down during a belay. in the back you can see some other routes up to the summit plateau, including Gully #4 which we used as our descent route.

Left: self portrait of Neil and me, while on belay.

Below: Andy, me and Neil on the summit of Britain. ("It would be an insult not to walk to the summit", as Andy declared when we popped onto the summit plateau)

From the summit you can see all the way to the isle of Skye! The weather was great, no wind and amazing views.

The ridge in the middle is Tower ridge and our route, Glover's Chimney ended up in the notch in the middle of it; after which we continued up the last part of the tower ridge route.

A black and white enlargement of the Tower ridge/ Glover's Chimney route part of this picture can be found here. It was quite tricky to get from the notch back up to the ridge route with quite a long drop on each side, Great climbing!

While descending gully#4 we got a nice view of our route. Left is the approach route and the route itself, to the right is an enlargement of the route. The steepest parts are the first pitch and the final pitch (mixed chimney).
We walked out to the car park and arrived when the sun disappeared. Everybody was quite happy with the route but tired as well from the long days of hiking and climbing. So on Thursday we 'took it easy' and went to the ski Area Aonach Mor. The best part of this place is that a gondola and a chairlift will take you 600m up the mountain, saving a few feet and hours. After walking up the last slopes we changed into our gear and while the wind grew stronger and stronger and visibility was close to zero we dropped off the east face and walked to the bottom of the cliffs. We climbed a short but steep and tricky route called Morwind, normally grade III/4, but under these conditions a bit harder. The wind was bling hard but fortunately we were sheltered by the face, but still no walk in the park as you can see from the few pix I managed to take from Neil when he was coming up to our belay:


Left: Andy is belaying Neil up one of the most difficult parts of the route, a few meters of vertical chimney covered in brittle ice. A big chink came off when I put my frontpoints in them, so it was even harder for Neil.

You can tell Andy is having fun ;-)

Right: Neil popping out the chimney. That's my heel you see, I am hanging backwards, trusting Andy's belay, frontpoints in the face.

Part 3 and 4: the wind was blowing hard, but that also made it quite fun. No views, just hard work. 

The enlargements (details of Neil) show the real angle as you can see the dangling rope in a vertical position.

Great mixed climbing though. We arrived on the summit in blizzard conditions and bum-slid the way down to the gondola following the GPS bearings in the white out.

That evening Neil had to go for a trip to Morocco and the next day it was just me and Andy. We went back to the Stob Coire nan Lochan and wanted to climb SC gully, but another group beat us to it and as we did not fancy some rocks and ice on our heads in the steep and narrow gully we opted for a route called "Ordinary Route". Graded only III which I though was quite an understatement as it was a slippery mixed route with bare rocks, glazed rocks, a few ice patched and lots of Scotland's own specialty: 'turf-climbing'. This is mixed climbing where you do not hook your icetools in cracks, but hit them into small patches of 'turf', tussocks of grass. If they are frozen then it is better than ice as your tools will stick and hold perfectly, but at this time it was raining again and the thaw made the experience quite awkward as the route is exposed all the way.



Ordinary Route (pictures by Andy Perkins):

I (Upper left) On one of the first pitches just after some nice exposed rock moves. Turf climbing at it's finest!

II: (Upper right): Climbing the ridge just after the Key Chimney that was glazed with thin ice

III: (Left) Popping out at the summit plateau, in the back you can see the summit and steep cliffs.

But Andy guided me safe up and when we arrived in another windy whiteout we discovered the other climbers. 

" How was SC gully?" Andy asked them.

"Nah, couldn't be done: the ice is too loose, we had to turn back after the first pitch."

Andy and I exchanged a mutual 'they said it couldn't be done, let's try it!' look and sprinted down one of the easier gullies to the bottom of SC Gully to find out for ourselves. Normally the route is graded III/IV, but now the steepest parts had some V moves in them according to Andy. But although it was a bit loose and slippery we climbed up ok and had a great time, finishing off with a speedy running belay up the last steep snowfield. 

Left: in the beginning of SC gully after a nice steep traverse over hard Ice

Right: Last few meters where we used a running belay 


(pictures by Andy Perkins)

So, that was my first week of Scottish winter climbing. Overall a great experience with excellent guides and beautiful routes where you have to work to succeed. Thanks to Andy and Dave for excellent guidance, showing us the best routes and upgrading our skills; to Neil, Ray and Arnes for great climbing together and to Ian, Graham (2), and Phil for great chats about mountains and cockney slang and lots more during the fine meals at the Ballachulish hotel. Looking forward to climbing with you again and to returning to the great Glens!

Thanks and keep climbing,


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