A little taste of winter climbing.

With the Christmas in full swing my two brother in-laws, Sam and Steve had both come up to Scotland with my sisters for spend the festive season at my parents house. With promise of the good weather holding out for the remainder of their stay I’d promised to take them both up the mountains for a little taste of the Scottish winter climbing. Due to unexpected circumstances the guys would have to be leaving a day earlier than previously planned so we decided to change our plans from travelling to Glencoe to the Arochar Alps to save the time spent on the long walk-ins and travel.

With the weather looking so amazing I knew that almost any crag would be in good condition, especially for the grade 1/2 gullies that I was wanting to take them up. We resorted to ‘The Cobbler’, it being so close from my parents house and an easy walk-in for the guys that had next to no hill fitness it was the obvious choice.

We started early to avoid the expected crowd of people flocking to the mountains due to the holidays and the amazing weather, it also gave the guys a chance to take their time on the walk-in. Lots of huffing and puffing later and with some encourage meant to just keep moving from me, we found our self’s kitting up under the start of ‘Great Gully’. This having been one of my first winter routes years ago I thought it would be the perfect starting route that wouldn’t be too  technically difficult but would provide a real insight to what winter climbing (rather than winter walking) was all about. I started leading up the route talking the guys through using their crampons and axes efficiently, reaching the top of the first with and set up a solid belay to bring both of them up the pitch.

day 2

Me, Sam and Steve on our ledge at the second belay

It’s always great taking people with little experience of the Scottish highlands and showing how spectacular it really can be. An easy feat with weather like we had today. Bringing them up the first pitch one by one their eyes lit up as they crawled under the huge chock stone at the beginning and climbed up into the main gully. I watched as they stood, dumbstruck at the sight of the ice and snow-covered walls of the north peak towering over them. We all gathered to the right of the gully where i had cut out a small ledge to stand on and switched over the ropes so i could continue on leading up the route.

day 3

Steve topping out

I climbed over what is usually the ice bulge on the second pitch I realised that it wasn’t any where near as banked up as it usually is making stepping over it slightly difficult and I hoped the guys would be able to cope with it as they came up on the second. As they topped put onto the ridge I congratulated the two of them for tackling crux without too much of a struggle (only the odd cry for help from Sam trying to remove a stuck piece of gear!) As we broke over the crest of the summit, Both of their faces lit up with surprise at the magnificent view of the surrounding hills. With the exceptional visibility we could see over the Bridge of Orchy hills all the way up to Glencoe with the sun radiating down onto the snow topped peaks creating a sight that silenced us all in awe.

day 1

The three of us on the summit

day 4

Sam getting his first taste of winter climbing

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A Miserable Day

Me cold and wet on the summit

I headed up to my parents’ house in Drymen with the hope of an early start for a lone trip up The Cobbler to scout out some new routes and take a look at some future projects.

I got up early and arrived at around 8a.m. Leaving the car in full hard-shells due to the torrential rain below 500m, I took my time walking in as I knew I had all day and wasn’t rushing to the base of a route. Ditching my hardshell into my pack I changed over to soft shell as the rain turned to snow and The temperature dropped. The whole path was flooded with all the melt water from yesterday’s thaw and only the hard compacted snow within the basin remained. Luckily The basin was sheltered from the freezing northerly wind as it pelted the back side of the crags.

me getting to grips with the roof og ‘The Cathedral’

I spent the day roaming around looking at a few unclimbed routes and things that I plan to become future projects later in the season when the winter conditions really kick in. I also managed to abseil inspect a few routes such as Dave Macleod’s ‘The Cathedral’ (X,11).      I know that abseil inspection is not ‘usual ethics’ for winter climbs but the route wasn’t in winter condition and it’s the standard of route that I think it would be foolish to no inspect it before even considering it as a future project for myself. It seems out of my reach at the moment but perhaps with some more training and getting a few hard routes under my belt this season, it might make its way onto the                                                                            ‘give it a try’ list someday…who knows!?

If anything, today was a good ‘reccy’ day, that may have got me soaked but it all helps top up the hill fitness and keeps me true to my promise to myself that I will try and get out on the hill at least once every week this season.

only hard compacted snow remains up high

Only hard compacted snow remains up high

A Warm Up Run

“I’m bored.”

“Me too.”

“Want to head up the Cobbler and camp out?”

“Yeah, why not!”

That was pretty much as simple as it was last night when Euan had realised we both didn’t start work till 6p.m. the next day and couldn’t find anything to entertain himself. It was just after 10p.m. and we’d both just returned from a day in work. We’d seen that the conditions were good but both had work the following evening and so the idea to get out tonight and start climbing early tomorrow to make it back in time for work seemed more appealing than sitting in the flat bored out our minds, regardless of the time.

We packed our bags in minutes and headed up to Arrochar in the car. We arrived at The Cobbler car park only to realise that we both had notes rather than change in our wallets! The Cobblers car park usually goes by strict conduct of a pay and display meter, that comes with a hefty fine of £60 for being tight-fisted enough to not cough up the £1 fee for a 24 hour ticket. Having seen several people end up with fines from thinking they could get away with it in the past I refused to take the risk and so the hunt was on to find enough change in the car to afford a ticket.

“What we at?”

“23p”

“Damn!”

No luck, we’d pillaged the car and it just wasn’t going to stretch it. Several minutes and a few ‘Let’s just stick a fiver to the windscreen with an IOU’ ideas later, we decided we’d have to go to one of nearby hotels to change up our notes! We eventually managed to acquire a pound coin after I hassled the night guard of a local hotel to switch it for our fiver from the donation box labelled ‘Hand-Knitted Scottish Scarves’. I left the other £4 as a tip and dashed out the door…he must have thought I was mad! Finally we drove back to the car park and got our ticket. After all the commotion we finally got our packs on a left the car park just as the police turned up. Apparently it looks suspicious to be searching round a car park at 1a.m.

After taking our names and branding us mad men we were finally allowed to continue on our way (for the third time!). We started up the zigzags and before we knew it, past the dam, the hill running had obviously made a difference to our fitness as we both felt fresh even after keeping up a fast pace. We walked past the snow line for ten minutes or so before deciding to set up the tent, aware of the time after our late start and ‘delayed parking’. It was great to get the boots off. After having only worn them a few times since new, they were still being broken in

High exposure of headtorches in the tent. photo Euan Ryan

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The night passed quickly as the cold took no effect on us wrapped up well in our sleeping bags that have provided comfort in temperatures ten times colder in the past. Unfortunately the moment we crawled out of our bags into the cold there was no relief from a morning brew as we’d left the stove behind to save weight on the walk in. Only half a slice of Christmas cake and a single pain-au-chocolat each was all we had to kick-start us for the day ahead. We kitted up, hid the bags and tent under some boulders and snow and started the scramble up into the basin through the white out.

It wasn’t long until I noticed Euan wasn’t 100 percent. We’d only managed the first 100m of the steeper ground before he took a break to stretch his hip that had been giving him complaints on the walk-in the previous night. Having run his record time for a 10km only hours before we had left the flat, he obviously had strained something and the rise in gradient was enough to push it past a discomfort and into a progress stopper. It doesn’t take much for the two of us to know when something isn’t quite right with the other. Having climbed together for the last 10 years, we know when the other’s had enough and doesn’t want to say. Euan being his usual self continued on through the pain, obviously not wanting to hold us back and seeing my excitement for the first outing of the season, he probably didn’t want to ruin my day as well as his.

We chilled out at some nearby rocks and grabbed some water before discussing what the plan was. When we left the night before we thought we had been ingenious, managing to sneak our trip into the small amount of spare time that we had. Expecting to return to Glasgow with a smug look on our faces having managed a climb before our shift. This made it more of a shame that are first winter jaunt ended prematurely but with worse weather coming in and with Euan’s hip playing up, sometimes you need to know when you’re beaten. We called it a day and started back down the hill towards where we had stashed the bags. A slow and relaxed descent pace saw us at the car and on our way back to Glasgow before midday had struck, more time to rest up and grab some food before heading into work.

It might not have been the day we were expecting but I guess we can call it a ‘warm up run’ to the upcoming season.