5 of the best Scottish winter routes

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 25/01/2018
Tower Ridge at Dawn. Photo: Tim Taylor
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The first in a new mini-series. A bit of Scottish winter climbing history, plus a range of classic routes from Grade II to V, complete with big stunning photos and brief descriptions. You're welcome.

Scottish winter climbing is known around the world for its adventure and traditional ethics. Back in 1906, according to the SMC annals, one Harold Raeburn climbed the hardest ice climb in the world: Green Gully on Ben Nevis (IV, 3). The ascent was way ahead of its time and wouldn't be repeated for 30 years.

Another cutting edge moment worth a mention: In 1959, the controversial first ascent of Point Five Gully was made by a Yorkshireman – over six days using almost 1000 feet of fixed rope and 60 pitons. The next year, Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith put that to rights. They smashed through seven winter routes in seven days, including first ascents of Orion Direct, Smith's Route and the first single-day ascent of Point Five Gully. To give you some perspective, Marshall and Smith had a single ice axe each and crampons without front points. 

Ten years later, Yvon Chouinard visited Scotland with prototype curved ice hammers. He demonstrated how to make fast ascents, how to hang off a pick embedded in the ice and compared techniques in the Clachaig with John Cunningham, Hamish MacInnes and other local climbers. The seeds of modern ice climbing were sown.

More recently climbers like Ian Parnell, Dave Macleod, Andy Turner, Guy Robertson, Uisdean Hawthorn and Greg Boswell have brought Scottish winter climbing back onto the world stage.

In 2014, Ueli Steck visited, and commented: "Scottish winter climbing was the beginning of mixed climbing. The climbing in Scotland was state-of-the-art. Then people started to mixed climb all over the world and it started out this strong ethic. I think that’s really cool."

READ: Ueli Steck unleashed in Scotland

Here are some classics to whet your appetite, from Grade II to V.

 

Dorsal Arete
Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe
II 


Grade II routes don't get much better than this. Photo: Tim Walton

A classic entry level ridge climb accessed by a 'short walk in' by Scottish winter standards: only around two hours! Be warned – some moves are technical for grade II – but it’s a superb route and very well-protected. It’s justifiably popular, though, so don’t expect to have it to yourself on a weekend.

The route climbs the rib between Broad Gully and Forked Gully. It begins with a slabby buttress, progresses to a groove, and moves up to a narrow arete with steep sides. The Arete Pitch can be avoided by a rising traverse, but it is the highlight of the climb; then there's a final exposed crest – a cheval is an acceptable option here!

Ledge Route
Ben Nevis
II


Ledge Route. Photo: Rob Johnson

Probably the best route of its grade on Ben Nevis (and perhaps in the UK), Ledge Route has a bit of everything. It's a spectacular winter scramble, which sustains interest and offers amazing views. The route is a non-technical, 450m snow climb (when well-covered!), which feels like a big mountain route. It’s not a hard climb, but protection is infequent. There's a tricky step at the top: be warned.

The route starts in Number 5 Gully (which can avalanche, so don’t linger at the base), weaves up Carn Dearg Buttress via a big ledge and a snow shelf to a narrow ridge, and finally attains the summit of Carn Dearg on the Ben Nevis plateau. Watch out for cornices.

Fingers Ridge
Northern Corries
IV, 4/5


Fingers Ridge. Photo: Steve Fry

An easy-angled rib, which starts at the foot of Red Gully and culminates with two impressive, large fingers of rock pointing skywards: there's a good photo op between the V of the fingers! – these are obvious from the foot of the route. 

A couple of hard parts are avoidable – you can escape a narrow ridge by traversing into Broken Gully and avoid a last hard wall by heading around it on either side.

NOTE: This route can be loose if not completely frozen. There has been rockfall on the ridge and around Broken and Red Gullies recently, and there have been several accidents on this popular and scenic climb.

Tower Ridge 
Ben Nevis
IV, 3


Yes, this is Britain. Tower Ridge at dawn. Photo: Tim Taylor

In his book, Scotland's Mountain Ridges, Dan Bailey writes: “Tower Ridge has all the cachet and atmosphere of a truly classic climb. With an obvious line, superlative length and magnificent situations it ranks among the grandest routes in Scotland.” This magnificent route takes a mix of wall, ridge and traverse lines and leads almost to the summit of the Ben.

Its length and notoriously tricky cruxes (the eastern traverse and the Tower Gap) mean benightments are common for those not comfortable at the grade. This Cold Climbs quote may be helpful in avoiding an epic: "Go up to the Great Tower until it gets really steep before traversing left."

Photographer Tim Taylor commented: "It was an intentional night-time ascent of the ridge. No wind, a cold temperature overnight and clear skies were forecast with a full moon, which is exactly what we got. I don't remember us using our headtorches much. We left the CIC hut sometime around midnight, topping out on the Great Tower around dawn to finish the gap and final slope to the summit plateau in light. Suffice to say, topping out at dawn, I didn't make it back into the office for 9am in Edinburgh, but we weren't too far off!"

Point Five Gully
Ben Nevis
V, 5


Stefan Morris climbing Point Five Gully. Photo: Andrew Cherry

The most famous ice gully in Scotland, and perhaps in the world! The route practically defines the Scottish V grade and is on every winter climber's ticklist. It's atmospheric, long, serious and tops out near the summit of Ben Nevis. It can be a giant funnel for spindrift and debris: the route is popular so beware of things falling from above. Pitches 2 and 3 have the most sustained steep climbing on them. 

Stefan Morris (pictured climbing above) commented: "It's a great introduction to harder ice climbing with short crux sections and a beautiful top-out that puts you almost bang on the summit of the UK. Combined with clear weather and an all-time sunset as we had, you'll wish it was Groundhog day!"


Sunset on the way down after Point Five. Photo: Andrew Cherry

 

Conditions

The Mountain Weather Information Service
Detailed, precise information on weather and conditions.
www.mwis.co.uk

SportsScotland Avalanche Information Service (SAIS)
Don’t forget to check the avalanche conditions at your chosen climbing area.
www.sais.gov.uk

Guidebooks

Buy it in the BMC Shop: The Cairngorms Rock & Ice

Scottish Winter Climbs

Skills videos

Follow Heather Morning from Mountaineering Scotland and Richard Bentley from Mountain Motion, as they explain winter climbing skills. The films were produced exclusively for BMC TV in association with the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI), Lowe Alpine and DMM.

These videos will make you aware of the skills you’ll need in the winter environment. But remember, if you're at all unsure about your skills then get some face-to-face instruction from an experienced guide.

There are a few videos below; you can find the whole series on our YouTube winter playlist.

WATCH: Climbing snow and frozen turf to a belay

WATCH: Bringing up a climbing partner

WATCH: Swapping leads at the belay

WATCH: Climbing and protecting steeper mixed ground

WATCH: Transitions between technical and easy ground

WATCH: Leashes or leashless? Placing nuts...


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Jasmin Taylor won more medals at World skiing level last winter than any other British athlete, and this season is going down in similar fashion. The first Brit to ever win a World Championship medal in telemark skiing (which she has now achieved twice), she's a sort of modern day Eddie the Eagle, flying the flag for Brits in this niche sub-genre of skiing, and setting her hopes on winning the Olympics.
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