Introduction to Scottish Winter Climbing

Last week, I spent six days with Gavin, a regular client who has progressed from easy scrambles to rock climbing and winter climbing. We were joined by Alan Kimber for our first two days. He is the co-author of the ‘Winter Climbs Ben Nevis and Glencoe’ guidebook, an incredibly experienced guide and I am very fortunate that he is mentoring me through the last stage of my mountaineering instructing qualifications.

Castle Buttress on Ben Nevis

Castle Buttress on Ben Nevis.

On day one we paid a visit to the north face of Ben Nevis, to introduce Gavin to movement on steep terrain with ice axes and crampons. We traversed under the Douglas Boulder to the east side of Tower Ridge and climbed steep snow as a biting wind picked up and whipped the snow around us. When ground became more steep and technical, we built a belay for Alan to lead a pitch with a short ice step. I took the lead on pitch two and climbed through some interesting mixed terrain.

Easy snow climbing at the end of the 2nd pitch.

Easy snow climbing at the end of the 2nd pitch.

Belaying with a Petzl Reverso.

Belaying with a Petzl Reverso.

Pitch three was a traverse across the ridge to the top of a short gully, where we belayed one last time to climb down onto a snow ramp that led to the bottom of the Douglas Boulder…

Traversing to descend.

On day two, we took the gondola up Aonach Mor and traversed onto a sheltered snow slope to practice building snow belays. Day three brought particularly knarly weather so we went to a quiet dry tooling spot near Onich. Gavin made the most of the opportunity to climb a steep slab of rock on a top rope with ice axes and crampons – great practice for mixed winter climbing.

Day four was adventure day – Dinner Time Buttress on the west face of Aonach Dubh. The guidebook suggests an easy approach to 45m of grade I climbing, followed by an easy exit to the top of the ridge. The reality was a long approach up tricky grade I/II terrain with hard-won belays to secure Gavin. This led to two good pitches of steeper climbing, the second giving sustained interest at grade II/III. From the top of this technical section, it was clear that we still had a long way to go, up more grade I/II mixed ground.

The sun was setting, the moon was in the sky, Orion came out to keep us company and we pushed on through the dark, reaching the top of Aonach Dubh in an incredibly peaceful setting with a beautiful view of Stob Coire nan Lochan. We were tired but felt very lucky to be on the mountain on such an amazing night. Walking through deep snow to descend into the coire and down the valley, we reached the van a whole 13 hours after our departure. Hats off to Gavin for completing such a big day!

The west face of Aonach Dubh.

The west face of Aonach Dubh.

Looking west to Loch Leven and Loch Linnhe.

Looking west to Loch Leven and Loch Linnhe.

Day five brought us back to Ben Nevis, where Gavin climbed steeper ice steps and practiced removing ice screws…

Gavin's first taste of steep ice.

Gavin’s first taste of climbing ice.

With a train to catch on day six, we went to The Ice Factor and spent a few hours climbing much steeper ice. By the end of the session it was clear that Gavin will be ready for some much harder ice climbs next season!

Getting steeper at The Ice Factor.

Getting steeper at The Ice Factor.



Posted: February 8th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

1st Scottish Winter Mountain Walking Course This Year

With just one booking for this course by Christmas time last year, I was wondering if we might need to cancel. Then my friends Mike, Tig and Tim came to the rescue, joining us for the week and helping to cover the cost of the cottage. Add a last-minute booking with a week to go and we were all set.

This was the the first time we stayed in Burn Beag, a six bed cottage in Glen Coe, and we were delighted from the moment we walked through the door. It was beautifully decorated, spacious, comfortable, homely, warm with energy-efficient under-floor heating, equipped with a brilliant kitchen and had plenty of space for drying wet kit.

Our first day was a fairly easy introduction to the winter mountain environment and a chance for Roger and Chris to get to grips with an ice axe in a beginner-friendly setting…


Mike, Roger, Tig, Chris and Tim on the way up Buachaille Etive Beag.



Tig and Mike climbing Buachaille Etive Beag.


Day two was most definitely magical. We walked through a Narnia-like wonderland to ascend Stob Coire nan Lochan’s north ridge with stunning views across the Highlands. Descending the east ridge was a great opportunity to gain experience with crampons on more technical terrain.


Roger approaching the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan.


We thought we had seen Scotland at its best but day three on Buachaille Etive Mor was one of those memorable mountain days that stay with you forever…


Chris preparing to ascend steep snow with ice axe and crampons for the first time.


With a considerable avalanche risk on north facing slopes, we played safe and avoided the potentially dangerous Coire na Tulaich by climbing the steep spur that bounds it on the west. Keeping close to the rocks we climbed a slope of firm snow that gave Chris and Roger a good taste of winter mountaineering on steeper ground. Weaving through rocky outcrops on the upper half of the spur, we found ourselves breaking trail through much softer snow that sapped our energy and slowed us down. The effort was well worth it as we climbed into the sunshine with views that touched the soul and a sky that invited spirits to soar…


One of Stob Dearg’s resident ravens.



Looking north to Ben Nevis.


After some time on the summit of Stob Dearg, we turned into the sun and thousands of snow crystals reflecting its golden light. As the sun descended in the sky and its angle of light refraction hit the sweet spot, the snow crystals began to flash hints of pink, green and blue as we approached them.


Walking into a magical sunset.


On day four, the amazing weather began to change and our legs were feeling tired from the deep snow stomping of the previous day. We enjoyed a slow walk up a peaceful stream bed to the ever changing sound of its playful flow, climbed onto the gently sloping ridge to the east of the Aonach Eagach and strolled easily towards the West Highland way under an atmospheric sky…


Looking south towards Buachaille Etive Beag.

With wet, stormy weather and legs ready for a rest, we spent our last day climbing indoor ice at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven. It was a great opportunity for all of us to learn and improve the techniques for climbing steep ice in a safe environment.

It’s weeks like this that remind me time and time again how lucky I am!

Posted: January 24th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Adventure Education in Nature

Working with the children from my previous post, Wednesday morning was spent orienteering. The most memorable bits were: two girls learning to encourage a boy with a low attention span to engage in the task, me being humbled by map orientation without a compass – I was about 20 degrees out, and chatting with the teacher about opportunities for nature connection and teamwork in an indoor and individualistic education system. Is one week in five years enough?

Wednesday afternoon was spent climbing a 10 meter wobbly pole and standing four team members at a time on the top, followed by another climbing challenge up Jacob’s Ladder – horizontal logs that get further and further apart. Teamwork, trust, encouragement, attentiveness, managing fear, keeping calm, pushing out of the comfort zone and accepting failure were on the menu for most. It was a good day, followed by more night walks and team games while I took a well-earned evening off.

Thursday morning was spent on the low ropes challenge course, where it was a joy to see the children progress from individuals and pairs into a cohesive, supportive and successful team. This was followed by the muddy obstacle course, where the recent teamwork and encouragement was in full flow on the high wall and much fun was had clambering over logs, crawling under nets and wriggling through tubes.

Reaching the end of the childrens’ stay, we took a few minutes to review the highs, the lows, the lessons and the memories. It was such a pleasure and a privilege to work with these children and play a small part in their education. It made me think how our education system seems so focused on performance over process, individual over team and work over enjoyment. What would we be like if we all had the opportunity for adventure education in nature for one day in five? I wonder…

Posted: November 9th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »
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