My First Taste of Scottish Winter.

by Scott Herrett (of the LMC)

1_RanochMoorI moved up to Edinburgh last September, and while taking advantage of its location in terms of cragging north and south during the autumn, it was the upcoming winter season that I was anticipating the most. Previously I've done a few easy alpine peaks, winter walks etc. but never done any 'proper' Scottish winter climbing.

Fortunately my flat mate Ollie has had quite few seasons now, so I have the ideal person to introduce me to the dark arts of Scottish climbs. There's me thinking 'to bolt or not to bolt' is a big question in climbing, since being up here I've realised that pales into insignificance against 'is it in or is it out' of condition!?

After a few false starts this season due to car troubles and assignment deadlines, I finally made plans to team up with Ollie last Sunday. The objective was 'Crowberry Gully' a grade IV on the Buachaille in Glen Coe. A good breakfast and a last inspiring read of the description in 'Cold Climbs' we set off from Edinburgh at 6.00am. Once getting into the southern highlands it dawned on me that I've never been to the highlands in winter, and soon understood why Kath, Dave B, Paul H wax lyrical about the place. Coming over from Ranoch Mor with cloud inversions left and right against snow clad peaks, blue sky and sunshine, was simply stunning.

2_BuachaileAs we drove past the Buachaile, Ollie nearly strained his neck to see if the route was in condition, hoping to see a continuous white line snaking up against the darker mass of probably the most impressive and recognisable Munroe. We got to the layby only to see another team gearing up, why is it that you always assume out of all the routes on the mountain they're going to pick yours and possibly hold you up?! As a result, "it was quick get your boots on and grab your bag" so to steal a march on them. Half way down the track, with laces half done up I looked back only to find the same team going the other way!

First few signs that climb would be 'in' were good. Rising temperatures were forecasted, however everything was still frozen underfoot as we approached steeper ground beneath the gully; it was time to get the axes and crampons out.




 3_LowSunOllie lead the way up the snow slope and aimed for a narrowing in the gully, which we both thought was the base of the 300m climb. As we ascended, the ground got even steeper and at one point Ollie turned round to inquire if I was comfortable. To which I responded 'Sure!'. Although upon turning round myself, it gave me a better perspective (and focus) on how steep the ground was. For a second I did wonder about roping up, but probably within a few seconds I made an assessment the snow was in such good condition, careful steps combined with concentration would ensure there would be no drama. All this made for an exhilarating first 100m in which we later realised that we had soloed the first two pitches of the route, a grade I/II snow slope.

As we moved into the narrowing recess of the Gully, we could see the ground sharply steepen and another team at a belay just starting off. Rather than climb up and crowd the belay, we decided to wait for them to move on. Fortunately they were relatively swift, because I felt quite exposed waiting on steep snow, while leaning against a protectionless wall.


4_NarrowWe got up to the belay and Ollie soon set off, 10 metres in, he shouted down 'there isn't much gear!' but fiddled around with something and then headed out of sight. A few more expletives later, followed by a shout of 'that was absorbing' and about 1m of rope left I heard him say safe. I then set off up the first steep section of névé and found this straight forward, but I could see the first test ahead which was 8m near vertical ice step. At that moment I was thankful of Neil Mc lending me his technical axes, I'm sure it made the next few minutes that much easier and enjoyable than if I used the straight handle axes borrowed from the club.






5_2ndPitchFirst pitch in the bag and with a quick flake of the ropes Ollie then set off again, the first section was fairly steep ice fall that slanted to the left awkwardly. He got up with not much fuss, but commented on his lack of style. I soon followed and realised afterwards why he struggled somewhat. He was wearing his brand new Petzl Lynx crampons and was loathed to touch any rock and blunt them. I had a battered pair of G10's and so had no hesitation in bridging between rock on one side and ice on the other to make my passage up the winter clad wall easier.

At the third belay I soon realised that weird whizzing sound I often experienced coming 'up' the Gully with my head down wasn't some sort of giant Scottish raptor I first imagined. In fact it was something all the more hazardous, I never would have thought ice makes such a distinctive sound when it falls!




6_3rdPitchThe 3rd pitch was probably the crux, with some steep climbing on good Névé to the right, but the snow to the left wasn't so firm. A final 10m ice fall over a side slab preceded a small traverse to the left where I met up with my partner again on the summit ridge. Unfortunately the cloud had come in by this time, so, we didn't have a view of the glen, but that didn't take away for one second the unique atmosphere of the position and route we had just completed.

We decided to un rope as the short walk up to the summit was relatively straight forward. However I was soon left thinking the decision wasn't such a good idea just before another short ice scramble that required both axes to ascend. It was only about 3 metres high on easy-ish ground, but I couldn't help thinking that if I lost my footing, the slide down would be quite a long one into the unknown! Ollie confidently led the way and reassured me that the snow was solid and to just take my time. I hesitated for a second, but then reassured myself to just trust my ability and everything will be fine. In the end I confidently but very carefully climbed up the step and so was left with a final exhilarating feeling of being on top of one of the most famous Munroe's in all its winter glory.

For me its small moments like that why I love climbing so much, slight moments of hesitation with thoughts of what could go wrong, but then you take a breath, judge the technical difficulties that you face and then trust your own ability to see you through safely. I could have easily asked for a rope, but this would have certainly (for me anyway) taken away a little bit of the magic.



7_TopOn the summit we said hello to another team that had just come up 'Curved Ridge, a grade ii/iii 4 star Scottish classic before heading along the walking path and down 'great gully,' which in itself is one impressive spot on the mountain. We started at 9.30 and were back at the car for 3.30, in which Ollie commented was a good time and in his book an unusually efficient day on a Scottish Hill. He told me there's often something that crops up to test a pair, be it the Scottish weather or getting half way up and finding out the next pitches are not in ideal condition and somewhat more difficult than previously thought.

We set off back to Edinburgh, leaving the scores of car drivers and passengers stopping to take cherished photographs of the glens stunning scenery, but knowing (perhaps slightly smugly) that the true wildness they hope to capture rewards those who actually venture into the landscape.