Winter climbing: conditions apply

Posted by Rob Dyer on 06/12/2012
Brian Seery out in well frozen conditions. Photo: Rob Dyer

The first snows of the year have fallen in England and Wales. But before you head off to the mountains, here’s a reminder from access officer Rob Dyer on the importance of minimising winter climbing’s impact on the cliff environment.

Snow. A magical medium that has even the most jaded climber rushing around like a kid. Once again, the annual frenzy of checking online conditions reports, sharpening tools and planning for the weekend is underway.

Winter climbing is fantastic and as anyone who has swung a tool in the UK will tell you, the adventures you can have in our hills when they’re plastered in snow, rime and ice stay with you for a lifetime. But before you get started, I want you to take a quick look at how we interact with rare plants when climbing with ice tools.

Winter routes often follow drainage lines and vegetated rock, which also provide habitat for some incredibly rare arctic alpine plant species. We are fortunate in England and Wales because our mountain crags hold some of the most southern populations of these plants.

We’re only now discovering some of these precious populations. Thanks to overzealous Victorian plant collectors and upland sheep, they’re very scarce. Many remaining populations are only found in inaccessible places where they have been safe from hungry sheep and greedy collectors – steep rocky crags.

Conflict between winter climbing and conservation is a real possibility. If a route is climbed when its turf is out of condition, the areas inhabited by arctic alpines are sometimes so small that an entire population could be destroyed in one ascent.

The traditional conservation view might have been to ban climbing on any cliffs holding these rare plant species. So all credit to Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales for recognising that this conflict can be easily avoided by following a few simple guidelines.

The most important point to remember is that routes relying on turf or frozen vegetation should only be climbed when they’re frozen hard. Providing the turf is fully frozen, environmental damage will be minimal.

WATCH: Winter skills 1.2: kit and what’s different in winter

Fully frozen turf has long been considered by winter climbers to be crucial for the obvious reason that unfrozen turf can be ripped off and the character of the route may change drastically. So if the turf is soft or loose, if your tools rip through it or remove chunks, or if there’s dirt on your picks after removing them – don’t climb.

Some of the common locations for arctic alpine plants include the shaded sides and bottoms of gullies, cracks, seepages that form into thin ice smears and cushions, and hummocks of turf on rock slabs and faces. Be extra careful when using turf in these locations to ensure it is well frozen.

Snow can sometimes insulate turf and prevent it from freezing, while making the crag appear to be in full winter condition. This often happens if there isn’t a significant period of cold weather to freeze the ground prior to snow falling. Don’t assume that turf will be frozen if the crag is plastered in the white stuff – check first before committing to a turfy line.

WATCH: Winter Skills 2.7: how to make a snow belay

On gully lines, unfrozen turf will not be a problem, providing conditions are banked out and any vegetation is buried underneath plenty of protective snow or ice.

After a long journey to the mountains or waiting all winter for conditions to come good, it’s easy to get sucked into doing the route you wanted to do in marginal conditions – we’ve all been there at some point.

Hopefully this article will encourage you to pause for thought next time conditions don’t seem quite right. Unfrozen turf doesn’t have to mean a wasted day. Flexible plans are the key to making a success of marginal days.

Routes that aren’t reliant on turf or a day of winter walking are both excellent alternatives. Paying heed to the simple points above means that turf and frozen vegetation will survive undamaged and winter climbing and conservation can happily co-exist for future generations.

WATCH: Winter Essentials:

 

Find out more

Download the North Wales White guide

Download the Lake District winter conditions guide

Watch the BMC winter ethics debate films

 

 


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Anonymous User
19/12/2012
Nicely written, with a good tone that I hope may make some people pause for thought. I have seen a lot of thoughtless recreation in my 25 years of pursuing mountain and water sports, but would like to think that more people are considering the precious environment whilst they do it these days. We can live in hope!
Anonymous User
11/11/2013
The main reason why these species are not prolific is not victorian collectors or sheep, but that the climate that originally supported them no longer exists (ie they are a result of the tundra type conditions at the beginning of the Holocene). Other species have since out competed them in all but the coldest, darkest cracks and nooks - they are Arctic plants and by definition don't belong here now we have a more temperate climate. They are now confined to a particular niche that is unlikely to be even a minor component of the surrounding ecosystem with most likely a wide variety of factors that threaten their existence. I'm just wondering what the philosophical reasons are for protecting a 'legacy' species like this?
13/11/2013
Fantastic article, really pleased to see this as a climber and a botanist. Well pitched , not too dry but still raises awareness about some of the key issues we face as responsible climbers and also the role climbers and the BMC can play in conserving biodiversity. 10/10

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