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Winter Climbing
A Visitors Guide to Scotland

CLIMBING AREAS

The variety of climbing on offer in winter almost equals that in summer. The fact that the weather varies so much (both on a daily basis as well as geographically between north, south, east and west) means that there are many different possibilities across the country.

 

Where to go & when- A Rough Guide:

The most reliable are the high mountain crags that face north. Mixed climbing on these can come into condition very quickly after a short cold spell to freeze the turf and a fall of snow. The ridges can be climbed as long as there is a fall of snow. Many of the gullies and icefall routes require a spell of extended cold weather and snow to come into full condition. Low-lying icefalls come into condition only after extreme cold temperatures at sea level, snow may be optional! On Ben Nevis prolonged freeze / thaw cycles are required to build up sufficient ice onto the surface of the rock. In general colder temperatures at lower level are found early in the season from November to January. After that, the temperature has risen a little and the sun is too strong for south facing cliffs and some west or east aspect cliffs to hold ice and snow on the rocks, and higher, north facing options are best.

  • November:
    Cairngorms (mixed climbing); Aonach Mor (mixed).
  • December:
    Cairngorms (mixed); Aonach Mor (mixed & some ice); Arrochar (mixed); Central Highlands (mixed & low lying ice).
  • January: Cairngorm (ice & mixed); Aonach Mor (mixed & ice); Ben Nevis (buttresses & ice); Arrochar (mixed & ice); Central Highlands (mixed & ice); Glen Coe (mixed & lower level ice); Northern Highlands (mixed & ice); Skye (ice & mixed).
  • February: Cairngorms (ice); Creag Meagaidh (ice); Ben Nevis (ice & snow ice); Glen Coe (higher ice, snow ice & mixed); Northern Highlands (ice); Skye (ice & mixed).
  • March: Cairngorms; Ben Nevis (snow ice); Glen Coe (higher areas); Creag Meagaidh (ice); Northern Highlands (ice).
  • April: Ben Nevis (buttresses and gullies); Aonach Mor (ice & gullies); Cairngorms (ice & gullies); Creag Meagaidh (ice & gullies).
  • May / June: There are recorded ascents of gullies on Ben Nevis in May and June, whilst rock climbing is possible in nearby Glen Nevis! And another very late season venue is to be found in the Fannich hills on Sgurr Mor.

But before looking at options in different areas here are a few peculiar types of route to look out for:

Mountain Ridge Traverses

Some of the mountains in Scotland form long ridges, where scrambling is required to successfully traverse them in summer. In winter they offer excellent expeditions. The Jewel is undoubtedly The Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye. Comprising over 3000m of ascent over 10km it usually requires an overnight bivi (or more). It has long sections of Grade III and several of Grade IV including a couple of abseils. Conditions can be very fickle and brief – the snow disappears as fast as it comes. The only other island to have a substantial ridge is The Island of Arran, south of Glasgow. The A’ Chir Ridge is the only comparable ridge with that on skye for commitment and technicality, and is about 1.5km long and Grade III by the easiest line (but this is not easy to follow at times). Also here, the traverse of Ceum na Caillich includes ‘The Witch’s Step’ which can be tricky (possibly Grade II), but gives an exciting section in the otherwise easy traverse of Caisteal Abhail.

On the mainland, there are not as many possibilities as one might think. From north to south they are: An Teallach, Grade II, offers a long day out with intricate route finding in a very exposed position and includes an abseil. In Torridon, the traverse of Liathach is probably as good as the Cuillin ridge, although easier at Grade II. It gives continually spectacular scenery with continuous Grade I and the passage of ‘The Fasarinen Pinnacles’ being harder. Escape at any point along the ridge’s 8km length is very difficult. Next door is Beinn Alligin. The traverse is given Grade I, although keeping to the crest of the three ‘Horns’ is Grade II. Similarly, the traverse of the full ridge of the remote Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart may be more than a walk for some, on the odd occasion it gets covered in snow.

The final ‘big ridge’ is to be found in Glen Coe. The Aonach Eagach Ridge forms the north side of the glen. At 4km in length and Grade II/III with few possibilities of safe descent back into the glen, it is a long day out. Descent off Am Bodach at the east end usually involves down climbing or abseil and ‘The Pinnacles’ give the main interest. The exposure can be daunting.

One final small route exists on The Cobbler in Arrochar connecting The South and Centre Peaks, 200m Grade III, starting up the South East Arete and abseiling down off the summit, then crossing the route ‘The Arete’ to the Centre Peak summit and descending to reach the col.

Summit Ridges

Whilst some mountains do not form defined ridge traverses, some have long vertical ridges that often lead to the summit and give great ‘Alpine’ expeditions. Here is a selection:

Suilven in the North West, nicknamed ‘The Sugar Loaf’, comprises a 3km walking ridge with the summit, Caisteal Liath at its west end. The west face of this has a fine 180m buttress. It can be climbed by “The Western Approach Route”, 140m (Grade II/III).

The “Traverse of A’Chioch” on Beinn Bhan, 150m (Grade II) is a long (1.5km) ridge between two huge corries onto the summit plateau and gives the best mountaineering day out on the hill.

Forming Glen Shiel, on the route to the Kyle of Lochalsh lie two long ridges. To the north The Five Sisters of Kintail and to the south, The South Glen Shiel Ridge. Both offer fine winter walking with no technicalities. However, The Saddle at the west end of the south ridge can be climbed via “The Forcan Ridge”, which gives a long scramble with 200m of height gain at Grade II and may include an abseil.

On the Island of Skye, the best ridge leading to one of its summits is that of Pinnacle Ridge, 400m (Grade 11) on Sgurr nan Gillean.

The “North East Ridge” of Aonach Beag, 460m (Grade III) near Fort William has a 3hr walk in for the purist or much shorter if the ski uplift is used on Aonach Mor. It is one of the best in this list!

Ben Nevis, Scotland’s and the UK’s highest mountain, near Fort William, is the most important winter venue [see ‘Central Highlands’ section]. However, special mention must be made of “Tower Ridge” 600m (Grade III) as the longest buttress ridge in Scotland. Its direct entry up “The Douglas Boulder” increases the length by 200m of sustained climbing of between Grade II and Grade V depending on your choice of route. The “North East Buttress” of the Ben Nevis cliffs, beside Tower Ridge, gives a 300m buttress route akin to a ridge (Grade IV) which finishes directly at the summit. Castle Ridge 300m (Grade III) is also a very good way to reach the top of Carn Dearg.

The chain of mountains south of Ben Nevis are called the Mamores. The central summit, and one of the more elegant, is Stob Ban. The “East Ridge”, 200m (Grade II/III) of its North Buttress is started from Glen Nevis and is a classic hill day.

Across Loch Linnhe in the region of Ardgour lies “The Great Ridge” of Garbh Bheinn 300m (Grade III). This excellent mixed buttress route finishes directly on the summit cairn.

Near Glen Coe, the classic “Curved Ridge” 240m (Grade II/III) on Buachaille Etive Mor gives the best mountaineering expedition besides the traverse of Aonach Eagach in the glen itself. Also here is “Sron na Lairig”, 300m (Grade II) on Beinn Fhada in the back of one of the more remote corries in the glen.

There are not many summit ridge routes in the Cairngorms as the mountains are generally less precipitous. They tend to offer huge plateau masses sliced occasionally by large cliffs. The “Faicaill Ridge” 130m (Grade II) of Coire an T-Sneachdha in the Northern Corries of Cairngorm and “Angel’s Ridge” 300m (Grade I) of the north east ridge of Angel’s Peak on Cairn Toul are two of the few summit type ridges.

Finally, The South East Ridge, 100m (Grade II/III) of the South Peak of The Cobbler gives a fine little route to the summit (one of only a handful of peaks requiring climbing to reach).

Giant Gullies

A very peculiar type of winter climb can be found lurking on hillsides which are usually the preserve of the hill walker. They are long gullies cutting deeply into the hill and give often claustrophobic, journeys into the unknown. Usually it is possible to walk up or down the hillside either side of the gully. Unless it is very cold, an ascent will probably involve getting a bit wet.

North Gully, 420m (Grade III/IV) on Sgurr nan Ceannaichean lying to the south of the A890 between Achnasheen and Achnashellach is actually on the west side of the hill and is accessed by a good 3km track and is one of the few such giant gullies in the far north.

The southern flank of Ben Nevis below the Tourist Track is a huge hillside cut by several deep gullies. Five Finger Gully, 400m (Grade IV) is the left hand one. To its right is Antler Gully (unclimbed). The biggest is Surgeon’s Gully 450m (Grade V) which has three branches high up with an ascent of a barrier pitch into the central one. It gives possibly the longest, most continuously difficult gully in Scotland. To the right again are two more gullies, the first easy and the second, Polldubh Gully, 600m, unclimbed in winter.

The south side of the Aonach Eagach above the road in Glen Coe, is characterised by large broken buttresses and big gullies, which give serious scrambling terrain that’s not quite good enough for climbing. The most famous and actually one that can be inspected from the lounge bar of its namesake hotel, is Clachaig Gully, 520m (Grade IV/V) at the west end of the ridge. Further up the glen the major gullies are The Chancellor Gully, 525m (Grade III/IV) and Old Man Gully, 270m (Grade III) finishing at the summit of Am Bodach at the east end of the ridge.

On the south side of the glen in the north west flank of Gear Aonach is Avalanche Gully, 600m (Grade IV), following a stream which crosses the path 5mins walk from the bridge over the river Coe. Finally here, at the far west end of the glen (opposite the Clachaig Inn) slicing down the hillside above the road is The Chasm of An t-Sron 365m (Grade III/IV).

In nearby Glen Etive, on the flanks of Stob Dearg of Buachaille Etive Mor is The Chasm of Stob Dearg, 450m (Grade V), and further down the glen is the equally grand Dalness Chasm 360m (Grade V) on Stob na Broige, giving perhaps the hardest of this genre of climb.

Near Tyndrum in the Central Highlands is the hill, Beinn Chuirn. Its western spur is Beinn Dubh and holds the 300m (Grade III) Sickle Gully.

Waterfalls

Although there are many icefalls documented on the major mountains they tend to be weeps or smears of ice on buttresses or in gullies, which all but dry up in summer. There are few permanent waterfalls, which freeze up into substantial winter ice climbs similar to those found in the Alps or Norway. Here is a selection:

  • Eas a’Chaul Aluinn 200m (Grade V), the longest single drop waterfall in Scotland. Found on the Leitre Dhubh cliffs of Glas Bheinn just south of Unapool.
  • Beinn a’Mhuinidh Waterfall, 120m (Grade IV) above the village of Kinlochewe on Beinn a’Mhuinidh – visible from the café and outdoor shop!
  • Fain Falls, 150m (Grade IV) lie to the north of the A835 on the flanks of Meall nan Doireachan just before the Corrieshalloch Gorge. Almost roadside.
  • The Falls of Glomach, 100m (Grade V) lie beside Meall Sguman in Glen Elchaig north of the Five Sisters of Kintail.
  • Ghlaisteal GTX, 210m (Grade V) is found a long way up Glen Orrin, north of Inverness.
  • Oui Oui 90m (Grade III) at Creag Dubh, near Newtonmore. The direct finish up the spectacular hanging icicle waited until the big freeze of 2011 to be climbed (Grade VI,6).
  • Steall Waterfall, 120m (Grade III) lies above the ‘Meadow’ of upper Glen Nevis. It is accessed by crossing the River Nevis at Steall by a wire bridge. Grade is variable depending upon the line taken.
  • Culachy Falls, 40m (Grade III) in Glen Tarff near Fort Augustus offer easy access fun.
  • The Birks of Aberfeldy, 40m (Grade III) is a popular tourist attraction virtually in Aberfeldy. Both the direct line and a slightly harder line up the right side were climbed in 2011.
  • Black Spout 20m (Grade II) is actually in Pitlochry and is a popular tourist walk.
  • Eas Anie, 150m (Grade IV) is on the east flank of Beinn Chuirn, near the old Gold Mine.
  • Eas Ruaridh, 60m (Grade III) is a prominent waterfall on a tributary of the Dubh Eas in Glen Falloch near Ben Lomond.
  • Eagle Falls, 100m (Grade III) also in Glen Falloch, on the West Highland Way and very close to the Inverarnan Hotel bar!
  • Fynne Falls, 70m (Grade III) lie in Glen Fyne and drops into a hydro electric dam!
  • Lumberjack’s Fall, 140m (Grade III) is on Creag nan Aonaidh opposite Cruachan Power station.
  • The Gray Mare’s Tail, 130m (Grade IV) is found close to the A708 road between Moffat and Selkirk in the Borders. The main hazard will be hundreds of other climbers queuing to climb whilst it is in condition.
  • Dobb’s Linn (Grade II) north east of The Grey Mare’s Tail. Not quite so impressive.
  • Spectacle E'e (Grade II/III) lies on a popular walk from Strathan in Ayrshire.

Roadside Icefalls

Roadside climbing is a rarity in Scotland, but the following give good sport when a hard frost continues for a few days down to sea level. The Icefalls in on the eastern flanks of Ben Stack are good sport with access times as low as 15mins and offering routes to Grade V. In Strathconnan to the north of Inverness are several Grade IV icefalls up to 200m. Access is by crossing the river when frozen or low in about 5 mins. The Gleann Mor Gorge beside the Corrieshalloch Gorge at the junction of the Ullapool and Dundonnell roads gives some sport on very steep walls that have been top-roped in recent years.

On The flank of Meall an t-Suidhe, the westerly satellite summit of Ben Nevis, above the bunkhouse and restaurant of Achintee House, and the start of the Tourist Track up Ben Nevis, are a couple of gullies. Achinteee Gully is the best at 120m (Grade II/III).

Although not strictly directly beside the road, there are several good icefalls on the ‘Sentry Wall’ at the entrance to the Lost Valley in Glen Coe. The steepest in the centre is Grade IV. And only 15mins walk from the car park. On the opposite side of the glen on the flank of Am Bodach of the Aonach Eagach is Blue Riband, 600m (Grade V), starting only a few minutes from the car park it gives one of the finest water-ice routes in the glen when in condition.

In Stirlingshire, just north of the village of Lochearnhead, the A82 climbs through Glen Ogle and over the pass towards Killin. On the opposite side of the glen is an old railway line and distinctive railway viaduct. The small crags hidden amongst the trees to the north of this are home to many short steep summer sports climbs, but in a hard winter icicles form all over the place. On ‘The Galleon’ Buttress it may even be possible to clip the odd bolt from the ice!!!

Finally, On Meall nan Tarmachan beside Ben Lawers (above Killin) and only 10mins from the road beside Lochan na Lairige can be found several icefalls up to 220m (Grades III and IV) including a recent hard addition of the often forming hanging icicle (Grade VIII).

Girdle Traverses

The longest winter climbs in Scotland are, surprisingly, traverses of extensive cliff masses. These horizontal journeys usually have to be soloed to finish them in a day. Good snow conditions (neve) and frozen turf are vital for success. The most famous is Crab Crawl 2,400m (Grade IV) across the entire four separate cliffs ringing Coire Ardair on Creag Meagaidh. The other is Das Rheingold 2,800m (Grade IV) which traverses the entire three corries and buttresses of Beinn Bhan in Applecross in the north west.

Winter Sports Routes

There are only 3 such routes to date (2002). Firstly on Stob Coire nan Lochain, Glen Coe is The Tempest (Grade M9). On Ben Vorlich towards the north of the Arrochar area also now sports a winter sports style route Logical Progression (M9).

 

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