Newbie’s First Experience of Winter Climbing - Feb 2014

Thought that it might be good to share my experiences from an Introductory Winter Climbing course run by Martin Moran (http://www.moran-mountain.co.uk/moran-mountaineering/winter-courses.html). Apologies this report is going to be a bit wordy as it’s not the easiest to take pictures whilst climbing!

Martin Moran is a Mountain Guide who first gained fame (and notoriety?) as the person who completed the first winter traverse of all the munros back in 1985. Following his exploits on that trip he set up a guiding business based out of Strathcarron which remains to this day. He runs a range of courses both in Scotland and further afield. All the details are on his website which is worth a look, if only to provide some inspiration if you’re thinking of tackling something ‘mountainous’, and definitely worth looking at if you’re thinking of doing a mountaineering course. Martin is also a very good writer and has written a number of books. His blog posts of some of his own personal climbs (he’s one of the most accomplished winter climbers in Scotland) make for very inspiring reading.

Needless to say my aspirations are set somewhat lower than climbing the biggest waterfall in Norway or scary Grade 9/10 mixed routes in Scotland so I booked myself onto the Introductory Winter Climber course. Martin was very helpful in my decision making and recommended the course based upon my previous experience.

So, what is my experience? I’ve done a lot of hillwalking in Scotland including a fair bit in winter and in the dim and distant past I did a weekend’s winter mountaineering course going over the basics; cramponing, ice axe arrests and that sort of thing. I’m not a climber aside from playing around on indoor walls although I do know little bit of rope work from doing bits and pieces in the Alps. I wasn’t sure if this would turn out to be enough so set out for the course with a certain level of apprehension.........

 

Starting Out

The course was due to start on the Saturday evening but I thought I’d treat myself to an extra day to do one of the hills in the area so I rocked up after work on Friday evening and made my way to the course base which was a lodge at Coulags. The lodge was very comfortable with all the facilities you’d expect including an excellent drying room which would turn out to be very useful in the week ahead.

Saturday was spent on a wee jaunt up Maol Chean-Dearg. On the way up I passed Coire Fionnaraich bothy – might make a nice venue for a club trip?

Coire Fionnaraich bothy

Coire Fionnaraich bothy

As with all the hills in the area the views were stunning but I was a little concerned about the apparent lack of snow and ice.

Looking north towards Torridon, Liathach, Beinn Eighe etc (and errant camera strap!)

Looking north towards Torridon, Liathach, Beinn Eighe etc (and errant camera strap!)


Once I made it back to the lodge my course mates had begun to arrive and introductions were made. Moran Mountain run three different levels of winter course; Winter Mountaineer, Introductory Winter Climber and Technical Winter Climber and all of us were signed up to do the Introductory course. We were all of different backgrounds and levels of experience but most of the others were experienced rock climbers. There were 9 of us altogether and once Martin and his two guides for the week (Ken and Guy) arrived for the briefing we were split up into 3 ‘teams’. Presumably they’d worked out the groups based upon the details we’d supplied when the course was booked and, as it turned out, they’d got it spot on as there was no need to make any changes during the week. I was to get Martin himself as my guide and our group was also lucky enough to get another assistant/observer for each day through the week, trainee guides who were shadowing Martin for experience. My climbing partners for the week were James, who had a huge amount of experience in the Scottish hills, and Joe, a very accomplished rock climber. As you always share a common interest on these sorts of courses it’s difficult to find someone you don’t get on with but I struck particularly lucky on this occasion as the three of us made a great team for the rest of the week and Joe and James were both great guys to spend time with.

As you might expect Martin gave a briefing about what to expect through the week but emphasised that plans could change based on our desires and aspirations. We had our kit inspections which are always a nerve wracking experience for me as I have history of forgetting stuff and have turned up on a glaciated off-piste course without my harness before now! Luckily I’d got all my kit this time and we moved onto the plan for the next day – the guidebook and map came out and we were shown what our planned route was to be. This pattern was repeated each evening so we always knew where we were headed and could have a look at the route in the guidebook and get excited/scared about the day ahead!


The food

It would be remiss of me to miss out what is fundamentally important part of any activity week. Needless to say we were very well looked after. Adrian, a local B&B owner came in each day and cooked us a scrumptious 3 course dinner which was always delicious and most welcome after a hard day on the hill. He even made us up packed lunches to take out!


Day 1 – Basic skills and first climb

Our first day was spent at a local hill – Fuar Tholl. It has some very impressive buttress lines and has a reputation for being one of the best venues in Scotland for hard routes. Luckily for us it also has a couple of more accessible gullies and a nice corrie to practice core skills in. All winter climbing days start with a divvying up of the kit and a slog up the hill to get to the routes and this was no different. At least we didn’t have to wade through snow so that’s one thing we can thank this mild winter for.

Once we reached the corrie we had a refresher on moving around on snow using good axe work and precise edging with the boots and then moved onto ice axe arrests. Every winter I promise myself that I’ll put in some proper practice on my ice arrests and only ever get round to doing it in a half-hearted fashion. I didn’t totally disgrace myself but for some reason head-first on my front didn’t go too well but the incentive of not having to trudge back up the hill again and again until I got it right meant that I soon managed to crack it.

There’s a much better picture of the route in the SMC Winter Climbs guidebook

There’s a much better picture of the route in the SMC Winter Climbs guidebook

We then had a go at buried axe belays which, as long as you pay attention and get your angles right, are incredibly easy to construct but are completely dependent on the snow quality. Having tested our belays by heaving on them and ensuring that the axe didn’t release we were ready to move onto our route.

Our route followed the red lines and is a variant on ‘Right End Buttress’ (it’s to the right of the South East cliff which is out of shot of this picture and is where all the hard routes are). The route itself starts at the bottom of the buttress but we went up the gully and traversed into the route higher up missing out a couple of harder pitches at the bottom. It’s a grade III route but given that we missed out the hardest pitches probably more like II/III on our line. The green arrow shows the line of ‘Access Gully’ which is a Grade II route. It’s practically impossible to get a true sensation of the angle from a picture and even out on the hill what looked like a super scary line from the road looked more manageable the closer we got to it! The snow field below the routes is much bigger than it looks in this picture.

I was partnered with Will our assistant for the day and clearly a trusting soul given that I’d be belaying him and therefore responsible for his safety! In all honesty it wouldn’t have been a big deal for him as he’d be more than happy soloing at many grades higher than we were climbing. I took the first pitch which moved us into the gully and constructed an ice axe belay (reinforced with my other axe) and belayed Will up to me from a bucket seat. I’d never waist belayed before and as I’m a simple soul it took a bit of patience from Martin to show me how to get it right – predominantly sorting out right from left and pushing from pulling J The gully was still easy ground so after sorting the ropes out I lead the next pitch as well and got my first lesson in placing runners. Torridonian rock is extremely compact so it can be a bit interesting to find runners so I got to have a go at hammering in a peg. From there it was up to the end of the gully and building a belay and getting my first experience of digging for anchors chopping out loads of snow in the hope of finding something usable. Given that I’ve never placed gear before I was reassured that it only takes a bit of common sense to identify suitable cracks (assuming there are some) and it’s easy enough to place wires. It’ll take a lot more practice before I instinctively know what size is going to be good tho’!

From here on we were on tougher ground so Will lead the rest of the route. If memory serves there were 3 more pitches, the second of which was probably at grade III and felt pretty tough. Protection was pretty scarce so I had the pleasure of standing under a fusillade of chopped out snow, ice and other debris whilst Will dug around to find suitable gear. As this was the first time I’d been on grade III terrain I’m not ashamed to say that perching on what felt like precarious stances whilst trying to remove the gear (and not drop it!) felt slightly nerve wracking. On the other hand finding out how lovely frozen turf can be for an axe placement was a very pleasant surprise – as Will said it’s like hitting into a piece of toffee! I had a very wobbly moment having made the schoolboy error of not eating enough and crashing so over and above the technical skills the most important lesson learned on that first day was to take any available opportunity to take on fuel.

The day ended with a nice bit of scrambly ridge and a head torch descent back to the van.


Day 2 – Liathach – Vanadium Gully

An early start saw us setting out for drive into Torridon and a route on the giant Liathach. Our objective was Titanium Gully in Coire na Caime on the north side of the mountain. On the way we dropped the other team off at the big car park and when we got there a team of Scottish climbing royalty including Andy Nisbet and (I think) Sandy Allan were gearing up in the car park. Joe lamented the fact he’d left his guidebook behind as he was would have got them to sign it :0)

Anyone who’s seen or climbed on Liathach will know there’s no easy way up it so once again it was packs shouldered and a steady plod up to the ridge topping out at Pt. 903 just a bit west of the famous Pinnacles. No sooner had we gained that hard won ridge we set off down the other side! Suitably roped up we moved Alpine style down ‘Gully 7’ (an easy Grade I) which ends up in the beautiful Coire na Caime. It’s funny how just the day before I’d been slightly nervous about going up winter routes and now we were confidently moving down one. We had beautiful neve for most of the way down so the crampons were biting in perfectly.

Coire na Caime might be a beautiful spot and would be great for a picnic on a summer’s day but we needed to move quickly so we traversed round to our routes. (Day’s lesson no. 1 – it’s extremely important to keep moving) Once we got there it was clear that Titanium Gully wasn’t going to be in particularly good condition so we looked around for another alternative. (Day’s lesson no. 2 – it’s important to be flexible and be able to make alternative plans)  Fortunately for us Vanadium Gully at Grade III looked to be in good condition and should be a good alternative. It has a Grade IV direct start on ice but (un)fortunately the ice didn’t look to be in great condition for novices like us so we were spared the pleasures of Grade IV ice for another day. We moved up to the start of the route on fairly easy but exposed ground where it was important to have good footwork. Ian, our helper for the day, had moved around to the start of the route so Martin brought the three of us up a short pitch which brought us directly to the start of the route. Moving together with three of you on the rope emphasises how careful you have to be as any loose rock can be pulled down onto the climber below and any slip could result in a faceful of crampons for them. That first pitch may have been the most stressful of the whole week for me given how loose it was and the feeling that none of the rocks were particularly well anchored.

Once we got a bit higher and into the route proper we were on good quality snow and James moved onto Ian’s rope whilst myself and Joe moved together on Martin’s rope. By now I was feeling more confident and more assured of the movements that were required so the more difficult bits started to become interesting problems rather than just moments of fear. The fear was still there but more as a friendly reminder to exercise caution than just a series of ‘oh s..t’ moments J

Vanadium Gully is grade III but most of it is probably only Grade II so we made reasonable time and were soon back at the ridge after a few pitches (I forget how many!). Even with making good time the pressure was on to get ourselves back down to the stalkers path before darkness descended so we moved quickly across the upper slopes of Liathach. I’ve never been a big fan of walking poles but after moving across that ground with heavy packs I’m now a convert. I’ve just come back from a climbing week so I should be extolling the virtues of ice screws or somesuch but if anything I’ve come back eulogising poles above all other bits of kit!

Another head torch descent and the day was done as was I. It had been a full-on mountain day and exactly the sort of experience that gets me thinking that I’m going to enjoy all this winter climbing business ;0)



Day 3 ‘Rest day’ – Rock climbing and dry tooling

Thankfully after two strenuous days and with the forecast of bad weather in the afternoon we were to have more of a technical skills day so it was a nice relaxed start and then all into the van for the drive round to Ardheslaig which is just up the Applecross road from Shieldaig. There’s a nice little roadside crag which has a selection of easy(ish) routes which are great for beginners like me.

James climbed with Ian and seconded a couple of the tougher routes whilst Joe led me up a couple of the other routes. This was my first experience of outdoor rock in Scotland (my only other experience was a morning of top roped sport routes in Switzerland) and has reinforced my resolution to get out onto rock in 2014. The first route we did was probably Very Gneiss which was V Diff but I could be completely wrong as I don’t remember it very well other than it was pretty straightforward so it might have been Salmon Slit which is ‘only’ a Diff. The second route was much tougher and made me a little more nervous (even seconding it!) and there was a moderate amount of swearing. This one was called Scooby Doo and graded as Severe so reckon my target for this year should be to be able to lead at that grade or a little bit harder. Mind you we were climbing in winter mountaineering boots so that probably makes it a bit harder?

There’s a walk off the top of the crag but after the second route we had a bit of abseiling practice. It’s reassuring that I still remembered what to do (eventually) and I got to test out my prusik as the ropes had got into a bit of a fankle (technical term!) and needed sorting out on the way down.

After that we moved over to the other side of the road and had a bit of a go at placing pegs and testing them out. On winter routes sometimes a peg is the only thing that could be used (especially if the cracks are iced) so it’s good to have a good understanding of how to place them. It can be a right bugger to get them out tho!

Next up was a quick session of dry tooling which I wimped out of because, well, I’m a wimp but I also wanted to protect my dodgy shoulder and it’s exactly the sort of thing that would lead me to sticking own axe into my face or some other sensitive body part ;) The other guys did really well, Joe got most of the way up a really hard overhanging line before getting spat out whilst going for an ambitious heel hook and ended up spinning around upside down.

All in all a really good day both in terms of the technical climbing aspects and gaining a little more experience in rope work, placing protection and building belays.

Once the rain came on we all hurried back to base and the guides gave us some talks on avalanches etc



 

Day 4 – The Resurrection

Our earliest start yet for the longish drive round to Loch Droma on the Ullapool road for our target of Sgurr Mor, the highest peak in the NW Highlands and sitting on the NE side of the Fannichs. Quite often this hill can be combined with some of the other Fannichs in a munro bagging extravaganza but our target was The Resurrection a 320m Grade III **** route. On another day the opportunity to bag a few munros might appeal  on but the thought didn’t even cross my mind as I was extremely excited with the prospect of heading up the route. The guidebook made it sound really good and I think that 4 stars are reserved for the very best of climbs.

The walk in – it wasn’t all as easy as this but still easier than the beasting we got on Liathach

The walk in – it wasn’t all as easy as this but still easier than the beasting we got on Liathach

We were lucky with the weather on the walk in and had superb views across towards the Beinn Dearg hills and an even better view of An Teallach. The weather closed in as the day progressed but in no way did that detract from what turned out to be a stunning day.

There is a long walk in to the route but thankfully it was nowhere near as brutal as the ascent up Liathach so for once it was actually a pleasant experience.

As soon we hit the neve the crampons and the rest of the gear were on and we moved on towards the route. Once again Martin stressed the importance of moving swiftly on winter climbing days and we soloed across relatively steep ground to get ourselves to the base of the route proper. Once there the approach didn’t seem so steep as we were faced with a pitch of Grade IV 'ish ice! Martin and Ian headed up, placing ice screws for protection on the way.

Martin and Ian heading up the ice pitch

Martin and Ian heading up the ice pitch

For the rest of the day James and I climbed on Martin’s ropes and Ian led Joe and we were soon following up the ice pitch. The ice was variable and it didn’t take long to get a feel for how the axes would respond to the different ice. Sometimes the picks would hold in a really positive fashion, other times less so as the ice fractured into dinner plates under a blow from the axe. Finding a really good placement had an unexpected consequence, the better the pick was set the harder it was to get out again! Regardless of how well the axes were planted the key, as with all climbing, is footwork. Having a stable platform with the crampons helped make what had seemed precarious positions manageable. This stable platform was vital when removing the ice screws. Firstly to safely remove them without falling and secondly to make sure I didn’t drop them! Dropping a screw would be a costly mistake both in terms of the financial penalty of having to replace it but, more importantly the loss of protection for the later pitches.


and Joe appearing out of the gloom

and Joe appearing out of the gloom

After those first tentative steps on ice the rest of the climb was a joy but I will have to back and do it again one day and hopefully get some views next time! To get a flavour for the day here’s a few pictures;

Ian belaying Joe from a bucket seat

Ian belaying Joe from a bucket seat

Another belay stance

Another belay stance

Now that’s a bomber anchor! Belaying off the summit cairn on Sgur Morr

Now that’s a bomber anchor! Belaying off the summit cairn on Sgur Morr

Martin leading the last pitch

Martin leading the last pitch


Day 5 – Glen Shiel – An unnamed gully and the Forcan Ridge

Our last day had a particularly unpromising start as we drove around to Glen Shiel in the pouring rain and had a quick sort out of gear in a very damp and windy layby. I’ll admit to having rather dark thoughts as we trudged off up the hill through towards the Forcan Ridge but the memory of other days out that had gone well in spite of inauspicious starts kept the grumbling to a minimum.

Sure enough, after breaking away from the stalkers path and setting a course straight up the hillside the rain started easing off and once we hit our gearing up point beneath the start of the Forcan Ridge the sun was out (albeit briefly!) and we had beautiful views all around.

The start of the Forcan ridge (the other group are visible at the base of the ridge)

The start of the Forcan ridge (the other group are visible at the base of the ridge)

Rather than head straight up the ridge we went round to the north side more or less directly underneath the summit of Sgurr na Forcan to have some more practice at leading in one of the gullies leading up to the ridge. Although we were relatively confident of the snow pack we spread out on the traverse around to the base of the route. I’ve done this plenty of times whilst skiing off piste and I know that if we’d had any real concerns about the snow pack there’s no way we’d have traversed across suspect ground but there’s no point in adding to what little risk there was by putting all our weight together in one place.

James and I after James led the first pitch

James and I after James led the first pitch

Before starting out on our climb we had a bit of practice on snowpack analysis. I find the whole subject quite fascinating and there’s some very interesting and complicated science behind it all. That said, it’s very reassuring that it’s relatively straightforward to make a few simple observations and conduct a couple of simple tests to determine how safe (or otherwise) a slope is likely to be. There will always be an element of risk (but that’s true of just about everything) but you can mitigate against it, it most definitely isn’t a lottery. One thing that stood out was how the conditions changed as we moved up the slope so it most definitely pays to be vigilant at all times.

On the route James and I climbed together with Martin soloing beside us to offer advice and pass gear for placements. James led the first pitch which was fairly straightforward Grade II terrain and with a week’s climbing under our belts we were well into the swing of things and James cruised up with no problems at all.

As I set off on my lead Martin asked if I was up for something a bit more interesting. I should probably be old enough to know better but I said ‘Yes’ so we moved off into a left hand branch of the gully rather than taking the nice easy line up the middle. It turned out this was stiffish Grade III terrain and although we’d all been perfectly happy seconding Grade III in the preceding days it’s a different proposition without a rope in front of you. In all honesty the climbing wasn’t too difficult and there were just a couple of moves that needed a little bit of thought. The trickier part was placing gear and as I’m not a climber (yet!) I’m not attuned to spotting good gear placements and then stopping and placing something. In fact if Martin hadn’t been there I’d probably have been happier just to keep going although obviously this leaves you a bit exposed! It’s interesting to contrast this with Joe who was leading on Ian’s rope and, as a climber, is used to placing gear every few feet – his tales of how far he was run-out grew longer and longer in the pub that evening! Clearly there’s a happy middle ground to be found somewhere.

Joe led the last pitch in the middle of a mini-storm so I began to feel like a proper winter climber as I stood alone on my little stance as the spindrift came tumbling down all around me. The storm was short-lived so by the time I got up to the ridge (we topped out on the summit of Sgurr na Forcan) the views were stunning. Unfortunately the views were stunning as the hills were bathed in the light that comes just as the sun has set so we were in the position of having to get down the ridge in quick speed before the darkness came! So, although we didn’t get time to savour the views we did get the opportunity to practice moving quickly Alpine style down the ridge so there was a mixture of taking the crest direct and dropping off to the sides at some points. A great end to a great day and a fantastic week!