Keeping an Eye on Winter Conditions
By Instructor Dave Evans
The season has finally started. You’ve been waiting since September. Everyone is getting excited about trips up north, but the big question as always, lingers; will it be worth it? Will it be good enough to justify the effort, or would you be better to wait a while, go to the wall, get fitter, leave it until later on?
Dave Rudkin in lean early season conditions on the start of 'Wendigo' (IV, 4) Creag Coire na Ciste, Ben Nevis. These kind of conditions of thin ice require a good awareness of freezing levels and their effect on the state of the ice.
The constant struggle of the dedicated Scottish Winter climber is a tricky one, but one thing is for certain… If you don’t go you’ll never know! A large part of the game in Scotland is picking the right target for the prevailing conditions, and once the season is fully underway, it is pretty rare to find nothing to go at if you’re clever about it.
There are many sources of information on the Internet these days giving advice about current mountain conditions. These are very varied in terms of reliability. One person’s blog account of a perfectly in condition route does not in any way guarantee you will have a good time in the same place a few days later. Things change very quickly during a Scottish winter, with freezing levels varying wildly in any 24 hour period and winds changing strength and direction likewise. This can change the nature of the environment so much, with certain routes becoming hazardous to climb, where others may suddenly be brought into perfect condition during the same period.
Putting an arrow on your map to show prevailing wind direction will give a good basic indication of both snow distribution and potential rimed buttresses.
Learning the art of being able to read and interpret the information available, and combine that with the prevailing weather conditions, is the most satisfying thing about winter climbing, and doesn’t come easily. Great options for keeping track of the weather are the MET office forecast and The Mountain Wetaher Infornation Service
Combining your map interpretation skills with prevailing wind direction and freezing levels will give good indications as to the stability of ice climbs, and the potential amount of rime ice on the rock to make mixed climbs white and wintery. The internet information available will usually be supported by photographs, which give a more reliable image of what conditions were like. Trying to read between the lines of the written information in combination with photos, using a variety of sources to see what a few different people think, will generally prove useful.
Snow piling in over the top of crags will create both cornices and unstable snow conditions below.
Obviously it is also vital to be thinking about snowdistribution. With the wind as variable as it is in the winter, snow can be rapidly transported from one side of a mountain to another, making slopes of differing aspects safer, or more dangerous places to be. Often the climber will be at most risk during their journey when approaching the base of the route, up long snow slopes of classic avalanche angle, or on exit slopes at the top. Stay up to date with avalanche informatin on the Scottish Avalanche Information Service website.
As a general rule, early season is more likely to be good for mixed climbing. This relies mainly on Snow and Rime covered crags, with the turf underneath well frozen. A relatively short period of good cold temperatures, particularly with a wind blowing at the crags, will bring them into condition nicely. The higher and more North/East facing the better really which is why historically the Northern Corries on Cairngorm often see the first climbers of the season on them. While there are exceptions, most Scottish ice conditions take snow build up at the tops of the cliffs melting and re-freezing to form up well. This is a more time consuming process and normally occurs more reliably a bit later in the season.
As a consequence of this we must have a very flexible approach to venue and route choice, and rather than having a few specific routes in mind for a winter season, it is a far better option to have a wide variety of aspirations in a wide variety of areas of Scotland. This generally means a slightly different approach than many people have to rock climbing, where you can have a limited fixed set of targets for a summer. A lot of background research will pay dividends when dealing with unusual conditions, as you will have a greater volume of ideas from which to draw, to pick an appropriate one.
Phil Dowthwaite on the crux of 'Ventriloquist' (VII, 7) in Coire An Lochan in the Northern Coires, Cairngorm. This route is in perfect rime conditions produced by wind blowing at the crag. This pristine white colouring is crucial to a modern mixed climb being in condition. This route was completely bare wet rock less than 24 hrs before this photo was taken.
All these issues and more will be covered in the Winter Climbing courses on offer at PYB Scotland, in Glen Coe. If you are starting out taking your first steps, or are looking for some coaching to take you to the next grade and broaden the spectrum of routes you could go for, we have a course for you. With decades of experience of Scottish climbing between them, the team at Alltshellach House will be as keen as ever to help you on your journey chasing winter, and getting the most out of this season. With great accommodation, fully equipped stores, relaxing bar area, Swimming Pool and Hot Tub you’ll have a great holiday too..
Have a great winter!