Hunting winter in Scotland!

For us winter climbing junkies its been a difficult, frustrating at times,  often disappointing season with more sun and rain than snow and ice.

Even in the usual haunts on Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms and high in Stob Coire nan Locahan in Glencoe conditions have been very “lean” ( although as I write this there is a hint, of a promise, of a suggestion of an improvement…)

Mountaineering though is not about waiting for perfect conditions, so with the Mittellegi Ridge on the Eiger not that far ahead we made sure to get out regardless. And off hunting winter we went.

Davy Wright and I headed to Stob Caoire nan Lochan, recent Facebook picture suggesting there was going to be little snow around it still seemed a good , quick bet  – and even if not great it would at least get us  a good steep long walk-in and support our physical readiness.

Dorsal Aréte (II/III) was the agreed target so off we headed on Sunday at 6.30am to get an early start up the hill. Dragging yourself out of a warm bed on  Sunday morning at 5.50 am is never easy but once up, momentum tends to take over and if you have prepared before hand you drive through the shower, getting dressed, breakfast, food packing and gear loading in one automatic flowing motion.

Davy put the foot down and we were in Glencoe by 8am. The hunt was on!

The rain was coming down hard and the walk-in was frankly a grim slog but up we headed ,2 hours of steep, damp, hot work up 800m to arrive at the lochan, situated at the base of the high black rocked amphitheatre of cliffs that make up the face.

Davy with the the route behind, Dorsal is middle, back set buttress flanked by gully’s

There was some snow, not much.. and a lot of  rock confirming this was going to be a lean day and might actually make for either fun or awful climbing. Only one way to find out.

It was also obvious that great minds think alike and anyone around  had the same thought  -meaning  4 teams had set their sights on the same route –  so time to hustle and get up the queue!

We arrived at the base of the buttress just behind the first team of guide and client so finding a starting belay was the first challenge. By the time we had, the 2 other teams were now also with us making for a very sociable start but potential for some “interesting” rope work on the route to come as we all battled (very amiably)  for room on the route and anchors at the belays!

Off we headed, taking a more direct left line on the aréte to avoid crossing the first team and the going was fun, so snow and mixed rock, fast moving meaning we were arriving at the next belay around the same time as the first team. Plenty of chat en route and as we continued we regularly met/crossed/avoided other teams.

Lots of rock and loose snow making going more interesting 

After more waiting than climbing, fingers sore and numb at times, feet kept alive only by regular belay stance dancing we made our way, swing lead fashion (taking turns to lead) to the crux point – the shark fin from which the route takes its name.

Quick belay selfie as Davy sets up the next belay

On my previous outing snow had banked this out so much that I’m sure I pretty much walked up this “bad step” but today it was all rock, exposed, narrow, with a high step, one side all slab and seemingly little to get your axe into…. gulp! (In this condition is where it gains a potential III grade if not avoided on the left)

After scratching about, the last bit of gear seeming VERY far away and below me, feeling the exposure to my core I capitulated , backed off, moved aside and set up a belay to allow Davy , who I feel is a stronger/braver climber to take the lead.

Lean and fun mixed and snow climbing

This frustrates me greatly and I already know how I could have made the move but at the time I hit a wall… The fear of falling and lack of seeing how to make it go (on lead) just paralysed me.  As second even it was a committing move – but went OK , as lead it seemed terrifying.. now?.. I’d do it  – and that is hard to reconcile when sitting at home afterwards – all part of the never ending head game i go through.

Once past the fin we sumitted, Davy bringing me up, sitting in a bucket belay, spin drift whipping across him and the summit, half buried in snow!

Aha! we found winter!

Time to pack fast and get down fast.

Descending by Broad Gully (the fastest way if safe) we  trudged with cold, wet tired legs back down the hill to arrive back at the car for 5pm.

Looking back up Broad Gully, Dorsal Arete on right

Did we truly hunt down and bag  winter? I don’t think so, but  just enough winter for us to have a day on the hill.

Davy exiting the bottom of Broad Gully to the Lochan

A good fun day, maybe not “ideal” conditions – but for us every day climbing is a good day!

Looking to the 3 sisters and the snowy Stob Coire nan Lochan


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