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Winter Climbing
A Visitors Guide to Scotland

STYLE & ETHICS:

Scottish winter climbing has a long and continuing history of adventure

It is the accepted practice to climb on-sight and ground-up, whether as new routes or repeats.

This ethic helps maintain the adventurous nature of the climbing, on what are generally smaller cliffs (in comparison to Alpine length routes). The technical difficulty achieved climbing with this ethic is not as great as that of drytooling sport routes elsewhere in the world, but in terms of seriousness, adventure and commitment Scotland’s climbs are at the forefront of what is possible on-sight.

  • It is assumed that a good range of modern leader-placed ‘nuts’ and ‘camming’ devices are to be used as well as specific ice protection such as ‘Ice Screws’, ‘Drive-ins’ and others. It is accepted that the use of ‘pegs’ be extremely sparing. The use of ‘bolts’ is regarded as unacceptable under any circumstances.
  • It is also now agreed that any new winter routes should not be claimed unless they have been lead without rest points, either on gear or on axes.
  • A very recent development has been that of sport-style climbs on very steep and hard sections of smaller crags with only winter interest. In-situ protection has been from a mixture of pegs and nuts. To what extent this will develop is uncertain at present.

To help safeguard the adventurous ethics that make Scottish climbing unique, and to help protect the fragile environment in which it is practiced, the MCofS has drawn up some guidelines based on the views of leading practitioners as follows:

Winter Climbing – A Code of Good Practice
Definition
Winter Climbing in Scotland traditionally takes place when the hills and watercourses are under snow and/or frozen conditions. The ‘season’ can extend from October to April (and sometimes beyond on the higher cliffs). However, there is no set date limit, but rather the definition of a winter ascent concerns the conditions encountered on the cliff during climbing. What constitutes a winter ascent is an ethical question.
 
Conservation
Many of the best winter climbing venues in Scotland are north-facing cliffs, which hold considerable amounts of vegetation. At some of these venues can be found rare alpine flowers, which are not to be found elsewhere in the UK. Hence it is important for conservation reasons that vegetation is well frozen to minimise damage.
Climbing styles

Since great variation is possible across Scotland, from almost snow free to a heavy covering and with variable degrees of frost when low-level watercourses to high-level mixed routes are frozen, winter climbing involves the following different styles:

  1. Traditional Gully climbing (either frozen watercourses or snow/neve)
  2. Ice fall climbing (frozen watercourses over rock buttresses)
  3. Snow/rime ice on buttresses (peculiar to Ben Nevis)
  4. Mixed climbing (on rock buttresses with varying amounts of snow/ice)

Discretion should be exercised as to choosing the best style and route for the prevailing conditions. The following voluntary code is a guide to allow for an accepted ethical ascent that has minimum impact on the natural cliff environment:

  1. For maximum enjoyment, the optimum overall conditions for winter climbing would be under frozen and snow covered conditions.
  2. The cliff should have a ‘winter’ appearance with snow, hoarfrost, rime-ice or verglass covering rock, not just snow covering ledges.
  3. The climb should be more practical and easier in winter climbing equipment such as crampons and ice axes, than without their use.
  4. Turf (vegetation) is an excellent climbing medium and is best when it is well frozen or well covered in snow/neve and then unlikely to be dislodged.
  5. Most of the easier to higher grade gullies require more snow and ice than buttresses of a similar grade. Whilst still harder groove and chimney lines require similar conditions to mixed ascents.
  6. It is the view of the overwhelming majority of Scottish climbers that bolts are not to be used in winter ascents in Scotland.
  7. Summer routes that are of good quality and in particular classic climbs, often have little vegetation or even ice. They should only be attempted in winter when fully coated with snow and ice in order to prevent damage to the underlying rock.
  8. During the winter ascent of summer rock routes there should be a presumption against the use of pegs. All attempts to find protection on such routes should mimic the summer equivalent.
  9. It is common practice to place and remove ones own peg runners and belays on a winter ascent. Repeated use of this sort will ultimately damage the rock and the use of pegs should therefore be kept to a minimum with all options for natural gear utilised first. It should be pointed out that camming devices are of limited use in winter and are useless in iced cracks.
  10. Considering the above conditions, Dry-tooling, as practiced in the USA and Europe is not common in Scotland. It would be considered unethical to dry-tool rock climbs, established or future.

 

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