How to judge winter climbing conditions

Posted by Rob Dyer on 21/12/2014

Waiting for turf to freeze before climbing on it will probably increase the lifespan of both you and our rare arctic alpine plants. But how can you tell if a route is in condition? Rob Dyer takes a look.

Winter has finally arrived it seems and with snow on the ground in some areas of the UK's mountains, thoughts will undoubtedly be turning to the first winter routes of the season. Those first snows create an excitement like no other with winter climbers and for good reason: they signal the start of an ephemeral season of wild adventure.

I’m no different to anyone else in that respect and after nine months of my tools gathering dust, I’m psyched for ice and mixed climbing and raring to get out there. But let’s not forget that climbing in too marginal conditions greatly increases our potential to have an impact on some very special and rare mountain plant life.

The mountainous areas of England, Wales and Scotland provide an important fringe habitat for a number of rare arctic alpine plants. These have been drastically reduced in numbers over the years through intensive collection in the Victorian era and widespread upland grazing. This means that the last bastions for these species are on the crags we visit as climbers, where collectors and sheep have been unable to get to. Nowhere is this truer than on winter routes, which tend to follow naturally wet drainage lines and turf which provides the ideal habitat for these plants.

The good news is that if we’re careful and climb only in well-frozen conditions, we can have virtually no impact on vegetation. Climbing on turf that is frozen solid will make your climbing experience far more pleasant – reducing those heart-in-mouth, will it/wont it rip moments – and also causes almost no damage to turf or the plants that live in it. Add this to the fact that climbers have an ulterior motive in preserving turf, as it often makes a route possible at a given grade, then conserving this delicate resource becomes a no-brainer.

Just because a crag is white with hoarfrost and looks wintery doesn’t always mean the turf will be fully frozen. Likewise, snow can sometimes act as a blanket and insulate the underlying turf, preventing it from freezing if there hasn’t been a cold spell before it snowed. This isn’t a problem in banked-out gullies, where the thickness of snow itself protects anything underneath, but on face routes, where snow collects on vegetated ledges which often provide crucial turf placements, it’s important to check before setting off on your big lead.

Rob Dyer is the BMC Access and Conservation Officer for England. He’s busy sharpening his tools in anticipation of a great season.

Our quick guide to avoid getting on routes that are out of condition:

DO keep an eye on weather patterns and forecasts on the run up to a winter trip.

DO make sure turf is frozen solid before you climb on it.

DO take care when making tool placements in cracks - some very rare alpine species grow there rather than on ledges, and can be easily damaged or dislodged by the tearing action of tools in marginal conditions

DO check out the Cwm Idwal Winter Climbing Information Project and the one in the Lake District, which enable you to view live conditions information right here on the BMC website.

DO check the guidebook for more information on the location of rare plants. The North Wales White Guide is available with topos showing areas of particular sensitivity. So is the Lake District White Guide.

DO remember that thin ice streaks and smears can hide arctic alpines. Make sure ice is thick enough to properly take a tool before starting up these types of route.

DO try to be as precise as possible with placements. Make sure your tools are sharp, where possible hook rather than hack with your axes and try to avoid pedalling your feet.

DO be flexible so you don’t have a wasted day in marginal conditions. Banked-out snow gullies, pure ice or non-turfy mixed routes might be possible as an alternative or if conditions are really poor, why not spend a mountaineering day tagging a few summits instead?

DON’T climb a turfy route if your axes rip through turf or come out coated with mud.

DON’T clear out turf-filled cracks: they provide valuable tool placements and can be a haven for arctic alpines.

Watch: Conditions Apply - Winter Ethics

Watch Rob Dyer in action as he climbs a snow gully and explains the importance of minimising winter climbing’s impact on the cliff environment.

WATCH: The BMC Winter Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV


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Is there any training for 2015? Is it possible to attain from out of country ???

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