As great as the summer climbing is in Scotland, I’m sure many would say that the winter climbing is where it’s at. I’m not a winter climber at all, so I really don’t know what it is that makes it so special. Many of my friends do some winter climbing and often talk about the quality of the climbing in winter. I was invited by Ryan to get out and try it and Dan was on board as well, so we had a keen party of three. Ryan is an experienced winter climber and all-around hard man, Dan is a solid rock climber and is on the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team. Good guys to have around for my first winter foray.
The plan was to meet at 05:00. In order to maximize daylight it’s best to be situated at the base of the route as day breaks. Climbing in the mountains in any season often means long days because the approaches are longer and routes are multiple pitches. Add winter conditions and fewer daylight hours and suddenly the seriousness of a winter route is compounded.
We drove two hours in pouring rain to Aviemore and arrived at the Cairngorm car park in gently falling snow. We were relieved that our elevation was above the freezing level. We geared up in an almost empty car park and set off. Like the bumbly I am, I had all my clothes on and after about 15 minutes of hiking, I was sweating hard.
There were at least a dozen others on the trail up to the corrie. The world was white. Snow was falling and had covered everything. The ground and the sky were the same shades of winter and the only evidence of a trail was the meandering line of footprints we were following. I don’t recall exactly how long it took to get to the corrie. Maybe an hour and a half? We reached our destination just as they sky started getting brighter. It was cloudy, but it seemed like it might clear which would be good.
We could hear voices of several parties already climbing and could see a few small groups of people waiting in line or deciding on an objective. We put on crampons and readied our axes in a flat area before heading steeply up a snow slope to the base of our intended route. The snow was knee deep and unconsolidated but fairly easy to wade through. The tools helped a bit. We had to claw and wade 50 meters up a 45 degree snow slope before reaching the first bit of rock that could hold our anchor before the serious climbing began.
Our intended route was a jumbled, snow and ice covered ridge known as Fingers Ridge (IV 4). The winter grading scheme eludes me. Unfortunately, there was a couple of guys just beginning the route, and a couple of others in line to go next. This was disappointing. Instead of waiting we opted to go up Red Gully (II). Despite being an obvious couple of grades easier, it was meant to be climbed in icy conditions. Who knows what it would be like full of unconsolidated snow?!
Ryan pounded in a couple of pitons as the first belay. I’d never heard the ping, ping, ping of a solid piton being pounded in before but I’d read about it often enough. As the piton is driven into a solid placement the tone changes in a satisfying way. For some reason, Dan was not as happy about our belay as I was. Something about the falling, and the ripping of gear. Whatever. Ryan wasn’t going to fall. And he didn’t.
He disappeared for a good long while leaving Dan and I on our kicked out frozen ledge. The weather was also getting worse. Every now and again blocks of dislodged snow would come tumbling down the gully. Not much to see or do except get cold. I think it took Ryan almost an hour to lead the first pitch and I can remember our relief to hear him call down that he was on belay and that we could start climbing.
The climbing was pretty easy for the most part. Just walking steeply uphill in the snow really. The difficulties focused on negotiating a three meter vertical step. I found it quite tricky actually. There was no solid snow to sink axes into so we had to rely on hooking edges of rock hidden by the powder. Reach, scrape, hook then pull up and pray it didn’t suddenly pop off. My crampons were scraping around on the rock looking for purchase as well but not finding much in the loose snow. With a fair amount of effort I managed to get up and over the step and that’s when the “hot aches” set in. I got a mild case in my right hand that brought all movement to a stop. Hot aches are a painfully nasty condition where blood goes rushing into cold capillaries causing extreme pain. Like I said, mine were mild and stopped me for only a few minutes while they passed.
I reached the belay to find Ryan in good spirits. He was clearly in his element, and warm in his down jacket. We chatted while Dan climbed up after me. Ryan kindly gave the next lead over to Dan who took the rack and proceeded up the next pitch. More loose snow up to another rock step, this one not so technical as the last. The weather had definitely deteriorated into full on snow. Ryan and I were constantly moving around to keep warm high on the mountain.
I often find time passes strangely when on belay and this was no exception. I don’t know how long we stood there. It seemed like hours, but it was probably only one, maybe less. Dan finally called down and so we headed up. This second pitch was quite easy by comparison and we arrived at Dan’s belay quickly. The last little bit of our route looked really easy so decided to just carry on and “solo” out. There didn’t appear to be any gear anyway so the ropes wouldn’t be much help.
Ryan and I arrived at the top and Ryan promptly sat down to give Dan a body belay up. Whiteout conditions prevailed on the corrie ridge and there was no shelter to be had but we were all in good spirits and fairly warm from the climbing. There’s a perverse sort of satisfaction from doing something hard in bad weather and we all felt like it had been a good experience. We took a photo, gathered the ropes and rack and set off in search of a descent slope to get us back down to the corrie floor and the path back down to the car.
We bumped into some friends along the way and exchanged news of the day. We decided to meet up in Aviemore for some coffee and food. Apparently there’s an all-day breakfast that is part of the winter climbing ritual. I can appreciate that. We hiked out and I was feeling quite tired upon arriving back at the now full car park. Cairngorm is a big ski area and there were many people taking advantage of what little snow there was at the time.
After our food, and long drive home I figured that during that 16 hour day I maybe climbed for two hours of them. Winter climbing is a lot of work and hardly any of it is actual climbing! At least at that level. I’ve seen photos of friends who do some seriously outrageous climbing in winter conditions. Climbing in the winter requires a high level of fitness, mental toughness, the ability to block out harsh weather conditions and some all around savvy. Personally, I enjoyed it. I thought it was a great day out with friends and a unique adventure that I would likely try again but it doesn’t compel me as much as summer climbing does. Most of the enjoyment seems to come after the fact. I guess I have yet to experience that nugget of in-the-moment awesomeness that compels winter climbers.
Hopefully I get out again this winter. Fingers Ridge did look pretty awesome!