Sitting by the fire with a mug of hot tea, watching the leaves turn red and gold outside, I get great pleasure from flicking through my winter climbing guide books finding inspiration of lines to climb and new crags to explore in the winter months. Noteing all these climbs down, I pin the tick list to one of my kitchen cupboard doors for a reminder when the snow arrives. Obviously, the conditions don’t always fit with your plans and you need to keep an open mind, as covered in another one of my blogs 'the dangers of the brain in avalanche terrain' but with plenty of routes and crags in mind, there is usually somewhere you can venture. I am going to pick five of my favourite routes working up the grades, each route from a different area, with the hope of inspiring you to get flicking through the pages of your guide books, for a winter tick list of your own. To get your imagination flowing I am going to delve into some climbing history, with the hope of giving some depth to these magnificent mountains and the first ascents that took place.
1) Black Spout at Lochnagar - Grade 1 ***
‘An atmospheric gully climb, in a wild mountain corrie’ as stated by Garry Smith in his new book ‘Scotland’s winter mountains with one axe’. This is the first route in his book and the first recorded winter climb on this crag. The Black Spout is by far the biggest and most impressive gully line within the corrie. Unlike the other gullies it is of an easier angle and grade apart from perhaps in early season when a chock stone can create some problem solving. The SMC guide book The Cairngorms describes: ‘The chokestone soon becomes buried, but at the start of the winter when the through route becomes blocked and the boulder remains uncovered, the pitch presents an interesting problem.’
The first known visitors to the cliffs of Lochnagar were quartz diggers and botanists, back in the late 1800’s botanists and Geologists were often the founding climbers, developing their skills through necessity to discover more about botany and geology which lead on to climbing for climbing’s sake. Lochnagar is situated on the Royal estate of Balmoral and the mountain its self has royal links. Due to the cliffs accessibility and visibility it soon attracted attention from the early SMC members. The first recorded route was a winter ascent of Black spout by the left branch in 1893 by J.H Gibson and W.Douglas. Some decades later, it was first skied in 1954 by Ashie Brebner with traditional skiing equipment and a skiing technique called ‘stem christies’, a lost art for those of us who have only skied on the newer carving skis. It still stands as a high achievement with todays advanced ski equipment so perhaps this is another area of inspiration for you towards the end of the season.
I recall my first ascent of this gully, setting off from the car park early one January morning, the cloud shrouding the hills and making for some more challenging route finding to the gully. Once I had located the lower snow cone, the ascent was obvious, lined by intimidating steep walls. Thick cloud hugged the cliffs making for an eerie atmosphere. After topping out I found my way to the summit of Cac Carn Beag and to my surprise, as I picked a route up through the boulder which constitute the last, large mound to reach the summit, I popped out of the cloud into bright sunshine and blue skies. It was a cloud inversion and I could see only the few highest summits of the Cairngorms such as Ben Macdui, like remote uninhabited islands lost in the vast sea of cloud. I stayed to soak up the view and solitude whilst munching on a sandwich, before making my way back into the cloud and navigating off the summit. It felt like a rare treat gifted for making the effort to reach the summit on such a cloudy day.
2) North Gully into A’Chioch Traverse II**** - Beinn Bhann, Coire Na Poite.
Combining these two routes makes for a long and sustained four-star outing at grade two. This is an incredibly absorbing climb starting in the deep cleft of North Gully, at the foot of the Coire then breaking out into superb mountaineering terrain taking you all the way to the expanse of Beinn Bhan’s open summit, boasting views of Skye and the Hebrides on a clear day. The upper connecting ridge is steep and committing with plenty of exposure, so I would recommend this for the accomplished mountaineering, with a grade in hand before tackling this long route.
The Main traverse of A’chioch was first climbed in summer 1891 by Hinxman who writes beautifully of his visit to Coire na poite in his journal: ‘1,200 feet of purple sandstone – broken here and there by narrow green ledges and seamed with dark rifts, out of which pour streams of stony debris. The talus slopes are carpeted with a luxurious growth of parsley fern, to which succeeds a zone of delicate-fronded oak fern; while the lower ledges, dark with dripping moisture, are lit by the brightest blossoms of the globe flower and the sea-green fleshy leaves of the rose root.’ From his description you can tell it has the damp and turfy making for a good winter venue. However, it wasn’t until 1952 that Tom Patey and his Aberdonian friends began properly exploring the Applecross area putting up the classic summer line of Cioch Nose on Sgur a Chaorachain.
Eventually in 1968 Tom Patey and Joe Brown, both legendary climbers of their time, ventured into Coire Na Poite and made the first winter ascent of The A Chioch Traverse, most probably scoping out other potential first ascents leading to the first major winter route on Beinn bhan -March hares gully on March 1st 1969. The day after this A.Fyffe C.MacInnes and M.Alburger made the first full ascent of North Gully finishing up the traverse of A Chioch to create this fantastic link up.
3) Centre post on Creag Meagaidh – Grade III***
The magnificent stature of Coire Ardair was bound to receive attention from Victorian mountaineers sooner or later. Over 3 km long and nearly 500m meters high its cliffs are among the largest in Britain. Despite the rock being made up of somewhat fractured and vegetated Mica Schist, it holds plenty of good water courses making for a fine winter venue when the conditions permit and has since been most popular as a winter climbing venue. As described in the SMC Ben Nevis guide: ‘Centre post, the third post from the left provides a magnificent climb of alpine proportions.’ A more amenable graded line on the wall of blue ice which makes up the ‘Post Face’. Centre Post was one of six routes I climbed on Creag Meagaidh, one blue bird day in February, during a fantastic winter. I haven't seen the crag so good since. I set off solo with the intention of just climbing one route and walking off the summit, but the Rat was hungry and as one route turned to two so the difficulty increased, finishing with the ascents of Diadem and South Pipe Direct where I had to wait in a cave for fifteen minutes as I discovered some hidden climbers on the cave belay below the crux pitch. I worked hard to keep my cool during this time, as the reality of my position could be fully realised. I reassured myself the ice and snow conditions were safe and solid, cold and crisp, and soon I resumed the flow. It was a magical day! I walked in the following day on a high from my haul of routes, with hope of more, but on reaching the base of the crag, realised I had received the gift and shouldn't ask for more. I learn't for myself that to climb solo is to be treated with the highest respect and not to be take for granted. I walked out of the corrie that day after one short climb and have never climbed so many long winter lines in a day again.
It was the April of 1896 that brought the formidable team of Raeburn, Tough and Douglas to the Post face for an attempt on Centre Post. Unfortunately, they had to make a swift retreat from the base of the impressive ice fall at half height, due to a cornice collapse, making an ascent of easy gully by way of consolation the following day. Coire Ardair's winter lines were somewhat neglected for 20 years after this until Jim Bell took an interest in the area. Jim took to the place in summer and winter, getting to grips with the less secure nature of the summer climbing. It takes a certain climber to seek out the loose and greasy nature of this crag in summer, but Jim enjoyed the challenge. Jim’s most significant ascents for today’s climbers are his ascents of Stag Horn Gully, South Pipe and finally his most impressive ascent being Centre post with Collin Alan in 1937. Allan had adopted a new technique for the time of single axe and step cutting on these great ice routes. Allan used his ice axe in his left hand to secure himself, whilst leaning down, rather precariously, with the right hand to wield a small hatchet for cutting steps. This small hatchet was a more adaptable tool for step cutting, finding its use at the belays as well, for hammering in protection.
4) North east buttress on Ben Nevis – Grade IV,4****
North east buttress is the compelling, skyline ridge which shrouds the backdrop as you admire the grandeur of this formidable climbing arena, during the walk in from the North Face car park. Such a long, sustained and committing climb is still highly respected today. A long route of 400m which is difficult to escape or retreat from and holds a distinct crux near the top, the ‘man trap’, a short but steep and technical wall, followed by the ‘Forty-foot corner’ which can be awkward under some conditions. Even more so with the equipment of the late 1800’s. I can still recall my first ascent of this route in winter, I had been in the alps for a month that summer and had become accustomed to long routes. The Man Trap taking a few attempts to problem solve and making the summit seem further in distance than it was. I was glad of my Alpine experience, similar to Naismith’s back ground before making the first ascent.
North East Buttress was first climbed in summer by the brothers John, Bertram and Charles Hopkinson after a successful ascent of Tower ridge. However, these significant events went unnoticed for three years until recorded as a note in the Alpine Journal in 1895. In the autumn of 1884 the West Highland Railway opened, and subsequent Scottish Mountaineering Club meets were held in Fort William. The most impressive ascent of the time being Naismith’s winter ascent of North East buttress in 1896. By this time, routes of this calibre were becoming common place. Many mountaineers active in Scotland were also accomplished alpinists drawing similarities between routes like Tower ridge and the Italian ridge on the Matterhorn as well as making many first ascents of peaks and routes in our most alpine of regions, The Cuillin on Skye. Norman Collies winter ascent of Tower Ridge took a very respectable five hours, bringing his alpine fast techniques to good use. Even today it is prudent to take heed of their speed and be an experienced mountaineer before attempting these long ridges on Ben Nevis. Becoming benighted is still a very real possibility if too slow. I have taken this snippet of writing from an article by Naismith in 1925 which features in the book: ‘Ben Nevis’ By Ken Crocket and Simon Richardson.
It was a long day, for we were on the buttress for nearly seven hours. The party was a jolly one, but rather large for speed. The rocks were plastered with snow and ice and distinctly difficult. At one or two places the route followed by the first climbers was impossible and had to be varied. Until we actually reached the summit, there was a slight doubt as to whether the top would go or not, for a pitch that brown had climbed (in summer) with difficulty was now found to be iced and hopeless; but by crossing to the left side of the buttress, we followed a narrow gully, at first hard ice but afterwards good snow, which led us past the obstacle. It was pitch dark long before we arrived at the Alexandra hotel.
5) Blue ribband in Glencoe, Aonach Eagach – Grade V,5****
Blue Ribband, a somewhat hidden Jem. This route had not been on my radar until last winter when cold and relatively dry conditions prevailed in Glencoe for a good week, similar conditions to the year in which the first ascents were made. Whilst the rest of the country was being battered by the ‘Beast from the East’ storm, Glencoe being far west, was receiving relatively calm snow free conditions in the shadow of Ben Nevis. Life in Glencoe continued as normal apart from the empty shelves in the shops due to the snow blocked roads further south. Driving through Glencoe, there were ribbons of ice rippling their way down the hill sides, green grass licked with blue, grey white ice. It looked almost unreal. Placing Crampons on in the grass to kick hard ice one step on. I was working this week and we made the most of the conditions and got stuck into plenty of good ice only a twenty-minute walk from the car. My clients quickly learning new ice techniques such as front pointing like they would have been learning in the 70’s. However, Blue Ribband managed to elude me. On retrospect I should have gone for the night time ascent, but the fatigue of winter work was already getting the better of me. My friend Donald, working on a performance climbing course, managed to climb it twice in one week along with Elliot’s Downfall and a few other classics, making the most of these rare conditions. Blue Ribband being one of the longest routes in the country, weaving a line high onto the road side face of the Aonach Eagach, it gives multiple pitches of pure water ice, on a par with long ice routes of the continent. Teams made the most of the rare conditions before a week later the temperatures rose and we said fair well to these ephemeral ribbons of ice.
‘1979 gave way to another good winter with ice forming low down in Glencoe, young climbers who had been weaned from front pointing took up some of the new challenges. One of the most impressive along with Elliot’s Downfall being John Mackenzie and Gerry Rooney’s Blue Riband, one of the longest routes in the country.’ as noted in the SMC Ben Nevis, Rock and Ice Guidebook.
This productive spell in the late 70’s came after a slight lull in first ascents, following the development of front pointing and the ‘curved axe revolution’ introduced by Yvon Chouinard the black smith who made pitons and then the curved ice axe. Climbers took some time to get used to the advancements in kit and new techniques required such as front pointing, rather than step cutting up the ice using one long, straight shafted ice axe and perhaps one small ice axe, or a hatchet as described earlier, for step cutting. This advance in equipment changed the style of winter climbing forever, bringing an end to the step cutting era which had reached a climax with the Marshall and Smith now legendary week at the CIC hut. They made six outstanding first ascents which were so advanced in speed and skill, they were unrepeated for over 10 years and was comparable with anywhere else in the world.
There we have it. Five routes in five areas and of five grades. I hope this brings some inspiration and a brief over view of the history behind these classic lines and the changes that happened during the evolution of winter climbing in Scotland. Blue Ribband is still on my list so we shall have to see what the conditions bring. We would love to hear what routes are on your list or if you are looking for guidance on how to make these achievable, please visit the website for more details on our winter climbing courses.