Matt Helliker: Scottish winter climbing tips

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 09/03/2018
Pete approaching Church Door Buttress in Glencoe. Photo: Matt Helliker
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A couple of weeks ago, Matt Helliker and Nick Bullock treated Wideboy Pete Whittaker to a lesson in winter climbing on Bidean nam Bian's Church Door Buttress in Glencoe. On the day out, the team made the second ever ascent of Church Door Angel VIII/9 and established a new VII/8, which they named Dark Angel. Sarah Stirling caught up with Matt, one of the UK’s most talented and accomplished all-round climbers, to find out his top tips for Scottish winter climbing.

MH: Why Scottish winter? Why something so ephemeral? Early starts, long walk-in and outs, smashing knee cartilage to bits, tennis elbow from 'help' with approach poles, head to the ground in gale force winds, eyes scratched like they have been put through a sandblaster in the driving snow, savage hot aches in your fourth pair of wetted-out gloves, feet like ice blocks after damping out the insulation in your boots with sweat on the hike in, now only to stand still for a three-hour belay!

But wait, it's not always like that ... the dry approaches, the clearing mornings, the rimed cliffs, the squeaky neve, the bronze late afternoon and evening light. The battles and the commitment are well worth the effort for those moments when it all comes together. There's also the ethics, the history, the community, the passion, the atmospheric scenery and without a doubt the best mixed climbing in the world...

More info about Matt, Nick and Pete's new route can be found on Matt's blog, matthelliker.com

Now onto the tips!

1 Get naked

There is always a long walk-in to a Scottish winter route. I do a complete thermals and socks change before setting out on the climb. This keeps my feet toasty and core temperature up — why stay in damp, cold underwear all day? So my advice is get naked for a warm day out…

2 Loosen up

Loosen your boot laces before walking in, but don’t forget to crank them up at the bottom of the climb! Climbing in crampons with heel lift going on is not pleasant.

3 You can never have too many gloves 

I take one pair of gloves for the walk-in, which usually sweat out - I then ditch these at the bottom of the route. I also pack a technical set, a medium set and a belay set for the route. I stash all these gloves inside my jacket when I'm not using them, spread around my torso to help dry them out and to keep me warm! Make sure your jacket is always tucked into your harness nice and tight to stop any gloves slipping out the bottom.

4 Prepare for the worst

Don't leave your map and compass at the bottom of the route in your pack. When topping out in a white-out on a plateau it's so easy to get lost on the descent. The easiest thing to use in bad weather is a small, laminated map of the crag area - it's well worth making these to carry! I pop this and a compass in my pocket so it's easy to hand.

5 Lose a few extra grams

Don't walk into the Ben with a full water bottle. Save the weight and fill up from the pipe outside the CIC - the walk-up is hard enough!

6 Don't forget your goggles!

It's pretty unpleasant being sprayed in the eyes with snow and unable to see! Leave a pair of goggles in the bottom of your pack always. They weigh nothing and can be a life-safer in bad weather.

7 Stay sharp

Keep those picks sharp, it really does makes all the difference.

8 Keep it real

Don't rely on your smartphone navigation app. It will die when you need it most in the cold! Bring a map and compass!

 

Enjoy, Matt

 

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

Also check out this: 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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