Scottish Winter Climbing

(by Allister Gerrard, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2012)
I have been going to Scotland for a number of years, winter mountaineering and climbing. It takes a bit of forward planning and organising to get there, finding suitable accommodation and of course deciding on the areas and routes to walk and climb in the Scottish highlands in winter. Here are a few of the lower-grade, easier, Scottish winter climbs I have had experience of doing, and recommend.

Number Four Gully, Ben Nevis

Grade I , 100m

No. 4 Gully is a great gully for starting off as a first winter route. It is quite straightforward, and gives the opportunity to practice belays using bucket seats, and other winter skills.

It is also a good descent route to the CIC hut in good visibility. The top of the gully has a metal marker post with the number 4 drilled into it (Grid ref. NN 15821 71733), though this marker may be removed in the future. Due to the cornice it may require using a snow bollard abseil but usually there is a section of cornice dug out below.

Avalanches have occurred in this gully, so check conditions first. I climbed it in 2004.

North Gully, Ben Nevis

Grade II **, 110m

A narrow gully, close to the entrance to No. 4 Gully. An excellent outing, with a mix of steep snow slope and some ice lower down. Takes approximately five pitches. Belays can be found on rock walls along the route, also snow belays. We exited to the far right, a steep finish with a small gap in a cornice previously made. Exiting out left is a grade III finish, which I found was difficult to find good gear placement as the rock was crumbling. Beware avalanche danger on the final slopes.

I did this with Aileen Moloney and Pádraic Gibbons on 21st March 2009, and again with Aileen in March 2011.


Pádraic Gibbons on North Gully

Number Two Gully Buttress, Ben Nevis

Grade III **, 120m

A mixed route, with steep snow and an ice wall of approximately twenty metres. Anchors can be found along the way and vary from using a snow stake, buried ice axes, nut, friend and peg. When climbing the ice wall, we belayed from the buttress to the far right, which was great because we didn’t get covered in snow and ice from the leader. There was a long run-out of the rope at the end up the snow slope to the plateau. No. 2 Gully next door looked heavily corniced at the time (26th February 2007). We had good weather for it, no wind, and a clear day. It took about ten hours for the round trip from the North Face car park, including about four hours for the climb. Descent was via the Red Burn.


No.2 Gully Buttress


Allister on No. 2 Gully Buttress

Number Two Gully, Ben Nevis

Grade II ***, 120m

Early in winter it can be grade III. A fine gully, wide and gradual at the lower slopes, it narrows and then opens higher up to reveal a large open snow expanse, with large cornices above. We exited out left on steep snow and ice to avoid the cornice.

I did this with Aileen Moloney on 29th March 2011.


No. 2 Gully


Aileen on No. 2 Gully

Other Ben Nevis Classic Scottish Winter climbs

  • Point Five Gully (V)
  • Tower Ridge (IV)
  • Raeburn’s Easy Route (II)
  • Ledge Route (II)

Broad Gully, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

Grade I *, 150m

The climb is straightforward and doesn’t usually have any cornice difficulties. The route can be hazardous in avalanche conditions and is best avoided after heavy snowfall and/or heavy winds. From the top, walk easily up to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan and head SW to the summit of Bidean nam Bian along a fairly narrow ridge. Descend to the corrie by either shoulder (NW is easiest); from the corrie follow a path back to the start. The gully is also used for descent and can be even quicker when glissading!

I did this one in 2004.

Forked Gully Left Hand, Stob Coire Nan Lochan, Glencoe

Grade I/II

The route starts just to the immediate right of Dorsal Arête. Like a typical IMC party in the winter of 2005, we arrived up near the base of the climb in dribs and drabs. Moira and I for some reason decided to head off right of the start on a solo climb of our own; I blame Moira, I was following her. After a nice bit of solo climbing, we found ourselves on steep snow and ice. Twenty metres above, our party were settling into a nice belay spot. We had to back-climb across and down to them, which was a slightly hairy moment for us. All back together, we climbed in two groups up the steep snow gully which is Forked Gully. It is a great gully in condition with a bit of chopping for Denis to cut into the cornice at the top. A great day out with splendid views from the top.

It was an IMC meet, with Eileen Murphy, Denis Beakey, Moira Creedon, Sé.O Hanlon and Allister Gerrard, on 6th March 2005.


Forked Gully


Eileen and Allister at the top of Forked Gully

Dorsal Arête, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

Grade II ***, 120m

Starting from Broad Gully, we climbed up onto the ridge by whatever obvious route we could find from the bottom of the arête. Up to the arête itself is straightforward enough. The arête itself is more defined and very narrow but can be avoided on the left by traversing along under the side of the arête. Just below the end of the arête, Pádraic and myself broke off left and Pádraic led an alternative finish up a rock pitch in a narrow gully; probably a grade III/IV finish. A great climb but short.

Done with Pádraic Gibbons on 16th March 2009.


Allister on Dorsal Arête

Ordinary Route, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

Grade IV **, 150m

The climb starts on mixed ground, mostly rock, then a groove, and moving right a tough move up onto a ledge overlooking NC Gully. Follow the edge to a tower and a series of awkward walls. Half way up, due to time and weather constraints, we abseiled off into NC Gully.

This was on 2nd March 2007.

Other Glencoe Scottish winter classic climbs

  • Twisting Gully (III) **
  • SC Gully (III) ***
  • Aonach Eagach Ridge, 4km, II/III ***
  • NC Gully (II) **

The Runnel, Coire an t-Sneachda, Cairngorms

Grade II *, 135m

A fantastic winter climb. A straightforward well-defined gully with some rock belays, left and right, until you reach a narrow ice chimney which is the crux of the climb. I managed to get one or two ice screws in here before leading on to the upper slopes, with a little soft snow at the top before topping out for fantastic views at the top.

Climbed with Pádraic Gibbons on 17th March 2009.


Pádraic on The Runnel


Allister on The Runnel

Golden Oldie, West Face Aonach Mor

Grade II, 500m

A mixed Scottish winter snow and rock climb. Our approach was to take the gondola from the Aonach Mor ski centre (see their website). During the winter they run a climbers’ gondola at 8am before they open for skiers at 9am. As the route is quite long (500m) I would advise taking the 8am one if possible.

From the top of the gondola follow a track to the west. After 15 minutes this track ends, but a small path can be seen descending into the valley below. Follow this then continue up the valley for about an hour and a half until you can see a number of rocky ridges descending from the summit plateau. These ridges are not obvious until you are almost below them. Pinnacle Ridge is the furthest left ridge and has a small gendarme near the top. Golden Oldie takes the ridge to the right. Harder climbs (grade II/III and III) take the ridges further right. We found it tricky enough to find with poor enough visibility; we were lucky to have someone point it out to save time, as the whole west face is without huge features. Gear up at NN 1877 7301 which is below the buttress. If time is short then slopes to the left can be ascended for a hundred metres or so to the platform.

From here the route follows the crest of the ridge directly. The way is now obvious almost to the summit plateau. We found the route relatively straightforward, except for a step I had to make on the final knife-edge before reaching easier ground. A delicate traverse on the right-hand side can be taken. Continue up easier ground to the summit, which we had to navigate to in whiteout conditions. Navigation was required to lead out across the summit plateau to our descent route.

Climbed with Pádraic Gibbons, 15th March 2009.


Allister on Golden Oldie


Golden Oldie

The Web, Aonach Mor

Grade II/ III

A nice chimney 100m in length. Situated approximately 30-35m south of Easy Gully. The grade varies depending on condition. We found good hard névé, with some ice patches and occasionally small patches of verglas-covered rock. Mostly straight up and we had one short traverse to the left across a small rock slab required at about half-way. At the snow slope above the chimney we traversed out to the left and up to find a suitable exit, using snow stake and axes as anchors (using a T-bar and we switched axes), with one peg in a rock slab half-way up the snow slope.

I climbed this on 1st March 2007.

Right Twin, Aonach Mor

Grade II **, 120m

Narrow gully and well defined, with steep sections at the bottom and at mid-height. Exit left at the top is the norm I think; however, I exited straight up and found it a little struggling pulling up over the top in snow, with soft deep snow underfoot, often the case on steep exits in gullies I find. With time not on our side I found on the second half of the route it was difficult to find any anchors.

Climbed with Pádraic Gibbons and Tony Barry on 18th March 2009.

Icicle Gully, Aonach Mor

Grade IV, 130m

A wider gully at the start, narrowing. Continue up a wider right-hand line to where it narrows (we went left for some more challenging ice), climb the icicle to a snow bay, at which point Pádraic proceeded to unleash half the mountain of snow and ice down on top of me. We followed up a steep snow slope before stepping out left on mixed ground. Out left is a direct finish graded V, and we went left. The final climb provided us with a serious mini soft snow field before pulling up with difficulty over the cornice, with soft snow again underfoot and topping out ‘wasted’, with cold hands, into glistening sun. Scottish winter bliss.

Climbed with Pádraic Gibbons, 20th March 2009.


En route to Icicle Gully


Pádraic leading on Icicle Gully

Other Scottish winter classic climbs on Aonach Mor

  • Left Twin (III) ***
  • Forgotten Twin (II) *

Getting there

A number of ferries operate from Belfast to Stranraer. Alternatively, people could fly to Glasgow (Ryanair to Ayr; Aer Lingus to Glasgow airport or even Inverness or Edinburgh) or another airport and hire a car or get the bus, all of which I have done myself at one time or another.

What to do

Ben Nevis is close by Fort William and Glencoe. For example, Stob Coire nan Lochan in Glencoe (about 30km from Fort William) is within easy enough reach by car.

The Cairngorms are also manageable as a day trip, from Fort William (95 km approximately).

Aonach Mor nearby also offers easy access to the snow line via gondola for skiing, winter mountaineering, and some great Scottish winter climbs.

There are many guidebooks and lots of walking options, as well as a multitude of climbing routes and grades in these areas. A good guidebook is Scottish Winter Climbs (Scottish Mountaineering Club Guide), by Andy Nisbet, Rab Anderson, Simon Richardson.

For an easier indoor day there is also the Ice Factor at Kinlochleven (see their website).

Accommodation

Camping or even snow-holing may be an option!

I have stayed in various accommodation; however, a place I have repeatedly returned to, depending on availability is Alan Kimber’s Self Catering (see the website), a minute’s walking distance into the heart of Fort William town. Alan of course himself having put up some of the harder routes in Scotland and with vast experience, is always willing to give you key update information of routes and conditions.

Scotland Weather

Some useful sites to plan your Scottish winter climbs, around the weather.

Other useful websites for Scottish climbing routes and conditions

General

Navigation skills and competent map reading are essential, particularly coming off the Ben Nevis summit plateau. Leave adequate time to descend. Early starts for longer routes are essential, especially for places like Ben Nevis, if you have limited experience. In low cloud, it can be difficult to even find the right route and can take time.

Typical rack

For a grade-I route a walking axe will suffice; after that two axes will most likely be needed. Be selective; the more you have the more to carry and slow you down. A deadman can be useful in snow gullies where there is no rock or ice available, although admittedly I have never used one and used axes only in snow gullies for anchors when there is no rock or ice. Some of the routes above are okay with a single rope. A half-set of nuts, one or two hexes, two friends/cams, two or three ice screws depending on the route, a few assorted pitons, extenders and quickdraws (extensions for these can be useful to avoid excess drag), a few long slings, twelve-point crampons, for example Grivel G12. All these are personal decisions.

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