I returned home last week from an amazing climbing trip to Scotland. The Scottish hills and crags are the birthplace of technical ice and mixed climbing in the same way that Chamonix is the orgin of alpine climbing and Yosemite shaped big wall climbing. Since I began ice climbing 15 years ago, I have always wanted to check out Scottish winter climbing but have been scared of wasting a week or two sitting in the rain waiting for conditions to get good. Indeed, Scotland is known for fickle weather but it is this same maritime weather that is the reason why the ice and mixed climbing is so good. Magazine photos of hoared rock and rime ice have tantalized me for years. I have also found the Scottish style interesting where bolts are forbidden and a ground-up onsight ethic prevails.
My opportunity to visit the Ben's and Corrie's of Scotland came in the way of the BMC winter meet which is a week long event where 2 climbers are invited from various countries around the world. This unique gathering occurs every 2 years and has been going on for 10 years now. I represented the Alpine Club of Canada as part of a late Centinnial project along with 40 or so other climbers from all over including most European countries and as far away as China, Japan and South Africa. Yes, South Africa has ice.
Our basecamp for the week was Glenmore Lodge near Avimore in the Cairngorm Mountains. The first evening, Mr Scotland himself, Simon Richarson gave a short slide show on the various areas of Scotland as well as lecturing us on proper Scottish winter ethics. He warned, "If you are caught climbing rock without a good coating of white, you will be sent home". To me coming from the Canadian Rockies, this seemed contrived and silly. Why wait until the rock is caked in snow then have to go and scrape it all off so you can climb the rock underneath. Why not simply wait until the rock is snow free? The answer is simple. Winter is Scotland is different than here. We do not have to fake winter since it begins in earnest in October and sticks around until late April. Even if our rock is dry, the frigid temperatures still dictate winter techniques as opposed to summer rock shoes and chalk. Conversely, the weather changes hour to hour in this maritime climate so certain rules are self-imposed to keep "winter" ascent legit.
The first day, I was paired up with Ollie Metherell, a climber from Sheffield. We headed into the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms to Coire an Lochain home to classic mixed routes like Fall-Out Corner, Savage Slit and The Vicar. Thinking mixed climbing, I underestimated the weather and dressed in my normal rockies winter garb of softshell jacket and pants. By the time we completed the 1.5 hour approach (this is their "roadside " crag) I was soaked to my underwear from the horizontal slashing rain.
The following day Ollie and I went to Ben Nevis and climbed the classic Indicator Wall which ascended 3 pitches of moderate ice topping out right on the summit of the UK's highest peak. The ice was thin but very soft making for enjoyable climbing but useless for ice screws. It is given Scottish IV 4 which is like WI3 but felt more serious due to the thin ice and run-outs.
Simon Richarson tempted me with a plan for the next day: A new route in a remote corner of the Cairngorms called Braeriach. The next morning we arose at 4am and set off on bikes for a 1.5 hour ride up a valley. This was followed by 3 hours of hiking up and over a pass in whiteout conditions. Simon's map and compass skills got us across the high plateau and we dropped down the other side to our objective. an unclimbed buttress on Corrie of the Chokestone Gully. Simon graciously took the first pitch so I could have the crux mixed pitch. His lead entailed almost vertical grass climbing. Nothing beats a good stick in turf and we occasionally encounter this nebulous medium in the Rockies. This was different as all four contact points were embedded in solid frozen flora. My lead started up a steep rock corner decorated with rime. It was perfect mixed climbing. one foot on rock, one on snow. One tool in sunk into a blob of grass while the opposite hand stuffed into a verglassed jam. Pure ecstasy. The corner was topped by a roof which was pulled onto neve covered rock. At home, low-angled snow covered rock instills fear since it typically consists of powder over slabs with no gear. In Scotland, the snow thaws and freezes all winter forming squeaky neve offering quality pick and point placements. One more short pitch of steep snow through the cornice and the route was in the bag. Now for the grueling return trip back to the car. In total , a 12 hour day with 3 pitches of climbing (really only 2 real pitches). We named the route "Slovenian Death Water" (Scottish V 6 or M5) after Rok Zalokar's grandmothers homemade schnapps she sent him to Scotland with for getting us all wasted. I definitely prefer single malt scotch whiskey.
The next day was a wash due to extreme avalanche hazard and hideous hangovers we all suffered from Rok's grannie's moonshine. I felt human enough by the afternoon to go on a whiskey distillery tour. Nothing like the hair of the dog that bit you.
Day 5 also posted high avalanche hazard but Viv Scott and I managed to sneak safely up to Coire an Lochain to do the classic steep chimney, Savage Slit (V 6). I lead the first 2 pitches as one resulting in one of the best pitches of mixed climbing I had ever climbed. Perfect pick slots and bomber nuts and hexes almost whenever you wanted; all of which was nicely coated in frost and verglass. Dreamy.
The final day, everyone gunned for Ben Nevis with big goals. Some locals guessed it was probably the most productive day of Ben Nevis ever (check out this news link). Testy Simon Richardson routes like Darth Vader and Cornucopia saw 3rd and 4th ascents in addition to 3 new routes being established. Ian Parnell gave me a gnarly dose of hard Scottish mixed with a first ascent on the Sioux Wall. Last winter he and Ollie made a winter ascent of the summer Sioux wall route at VIII 8 naming the mixed version Sue Wall after Sue Nott who Ian climbed the Colten-MacIntrye on the Grand Jorasse a few years back. Freddie Wilkinson of the USA and Rok were gunning for the 3rd ascent of the Sue Wall making for social belays. Our line took the steep arete to the left. After a moderate first pitch of snowy rock, Ian spent 2 hours unlocking the tenuous crux second pitch. It was technical and bold compounded by route finding difficulty. By the time I reached the belay, Ian was already shivering so he launched off on the next pitch which was still hard but had better gear. This deposited us at the Sue Wall finish which was climbed in 2 more pitches to the top. I pulled over the cornice on top of the Ben just as it got dark. Without headlamps, we carefully worked down the ridge trying not to fall off the cornice. It was easy to locate the top of the #4 Gully descent due to all the traffic from the busy day. We didn't get back to the car until 9pm and immediately drove to Fort William for greasy Fish and Chips.
I already can not wait to return to Scotland. The Haggis sucks (bad texture, no flavour, nasty ingredients) but the excellent single malt and classy climbing more than makes up for it. Scotland's no bolt ethic and ground-up onsight style provides big adventure from little mountains. It is no wonder why some of the best alpinists in the world hail from the UK. My four days of climbing were some of the best mixed climbing I have ever done. As the saying goes: "If it ain't Scottish, it's crap!"