Awesome winter mountaneering in Scotland and the Lake District

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Between Friday 19 and Saturday 27 February I spent the first week of my life practising winter mountaineering. I went with a group of eight members of the Brixton Climbers Club from London. I want to share this experience and there are many things to tell, so this will be a somehow long post. Friends, family and mountain lovers will surely read it in full. The rest, pleas do not feel obliged.

Before you begin, I would like to say that the highlight of the trip was the group: a Polish couple (she, the only woman in the group), a Brazilian, four Britons and I, sharing 24 hours for several days without any ugly tensions, always having fun, exchanging knowledge, collaborating. It was a great group experience, which I will treasure with much appreciation.

We left late on Friday afternoon in two cars, and went towards the Lake District, where we spent the night at a hostel in Ambleside (about 450 km from London).

On Saturday we started early, something that was repeated throughout the trip to try to make the best use of the short days of winter (the sun rises at about 8 and sets before 6 pm). The first contact with the rock, snow and ice was on Pavey Ark, where we ascended the famous Jack’s Rake, more a scrambling than a climbing route. It is a sort of ramp that climbs a wall of 700 meters, from right to left, hidden to the bare eye when seen from a long distance. We made the climb without crampons or ice axes, or ropes, it was not necessary. I put on the helmet, though, just in case.

From the top of Pavey Ark we followed the ridge to the South and descended through the col that links it to Harrison Stickle. We fit our crampons and grabeed the ice axes and then made what I think must have been two short Grade I winter routes, mixed with rock in some few steps. That’s how the first day in the mountains ended. We then moved North, to the Cairngorms, in Scotland.

In general the clothing system I chose gave me a good result. Here, some notes for those interested in the topic (if you are not interested in this subject, you can skip to the next paragraph). The boots, Raichle 60 Degree GTX (B2), which I had bought right before the trip started well in the Lake District and generally gave me good results. I generally have many problems with footwear, but this time after more than a week of climbing I had no blisters (it is true that I spent a few extra pound on Superfeet, but the extra money seems to have paid off). For the legs, I wore Helly Hansen long johns, not the particularly thick ones, and for the top base layer, Patagonia Capilene 3 t-shirts, which I thought worked very well. I tried two options with them: a Capilene shirt plus a microfleece or a capilene on top of another thermal t-shirt. The two worked well in temperatures reaching -17 ° C, and in situations of snow, sleet and rain, with winds over 100km / h. One of the best items was a very lightweight Montane jacket (less than 80 grams), not a waterproof one but breathable and with super windproof properties. For walking and climbing, this combination allowed me to keep relatively low body temperature, preventing excessive sweat. When we stopeed, I put on an AlpKit belay jacket (0Hiro). It proved very warm and, being synthetic, very efficient even when wet. It is also highly compressible and lightweight, making it easy to carry. I took a GoreTex hard shell and used it in a couple of occasions of heavy rain and snow, but it still does not fully convince me. Perspiration condenses and generally gives me the feeling that it ends up just as wet inside as outside, and it’s also quite heavy. On top of the long johns I wore ronhill-like pants, which really gave me good results. On top of that went waterproof trousers and e-Vent gaiters. In addition, several pairs of gloves (they get wet all the time), a balaclava, neck heater and hat.

On with the trip: in the Cairngorms we stayed in Newtonmore, in a little house that a hostel rents for groups. When opening the door on arrival, a chilling cold hit us. But when we turned on the living room fire and the little heaters in the bedrooms things got better -in the living room (the heaters were crap). Luckily the bed duvets were quite warm. We spent 3 nights in this house.

Sunday 21st. was very cold, sunny and with nil wind. There was also a low avalanche probability, due to the super stable snow. That had been also the weather in the Lake District and that’s how it remained while we were in Newtonmore. A blessing. An old local mountaineer who we met in a climb said he’d been climbing here for decades and that he can count with the fingers of one hand the number of such clear days.

Our first series of ascents in the Cairngorms took place in Coire an t-Sneachda. We split in two, to climb in the area of Aladdin’s buttress and Fluted buttress. A two-man team, the strongest of the group, was devoted to the more difficult routes (as happened during the whole trip). Another group, four of us with less experience, dedicate ourselves to simpler routes -still challenging ones, I must say.

With my group we climbed Aladdin’s Couloir, a 150 meter grade 1 route, my first winter climb proper. We soloed it, because it was easy. We soloed every route, but always carried the rope, just in case. We did use it one, in another route, to belay one of the group that didn’t feel fully comfortable topping out through a nasty looking cornice.

After Aladdin’s couloir we did Central Gully, another grade 1 route of similar height but with a more exposed top out. I was fascinated, I started to fall in love with the snow. After finishing the climb we walked towards the summit of Cairngorm, the highest peak in the area, at 1245m. That marked the end of our Sunday activity. We downclimbed walking in deep snow and glisading on harder one.

On Monday, half the group went skiing and the other -which I was part of- went to learn some winter mountaineering techniques with an instructor. He taught us some basic avalanche awareness skills, snow and ice anchors and abseils (bucket seat belay, modified stomper, snow bollards).

The instructor shared with us the gear kit he generally carries on a winter climb in Scotland. He takes some slings with locking or non-locking carabiners to build safe anchors in the snow and to take advantage of natural anchors or rock outcrops or ice columns. He carries 12 ice screws (two for each belay and 8 for the route, although more could be used for the belays and less for the route), a set and a half of nuts (he doubles the largest ones), and two or three big hexes. He might carry a single or double 60 meters rope. A 60 meters one could be paired with a 70 meter static sling of between 5 and 7mm, for long unexpected abseils, but that requires a series of complex rope management techniques I don’t yet feel like trying.

On Tuesday we did possibly the best routes of the whole trip. Raeburn’s Gully on Creag Meagaidh. It’s a 360 metres grade 1 spectacular route on a gully in perfect condition, covered with fresh powder snow on a more solid snow base. It felt generally quite easy, but with had two steeper sections, one in the middle with plenty of ice, another one at the end. Near the first tricky part, a friend saw a climber fall to the right wall of the gully. He was frightened. Soon, the “falling climber” passed us striding downwards. He had just jumped from the end of a tough ice route he had been doing with a friend. His friend jumped behind him, and walked by us eating a sandwich. A bite, a stride. After rebuilding our egos, we resumed climbing. We soloed this route too, it was not worth roping up, it would have done the climb more tedious. I enjoyed every step of it, making progress steadily and safely. In the last 150 or 180 meters of the climb my love for winter climbing was sealed. I went up in ecstasy, and the top out felt like a climax. Creag Meagaidh consists of a series of north-facing walls, that live in the shadow. So when one looks out at the end of the route, the sun rays hits one’s sight in full, bathing bathing the ridge plateau. The constant cold days, sunshine and lack of wind had helped to conform large flakes of snow powder. It was a dream landscape, a desert of giant white dunes.

Creag Meagaidh was our stop on the way between Newtonmore and Fort William, the last stop on our trip. We spent there the remaining 4 nights in a hostel, in an 8-people room, with not much space for the gear.

On Wednesday the weather worsened. And we started late. We managed to walk up to a fantastic frozen waterfall in Glen Nevis. The name is not certain, some believe it is Steall Falls. Some friends set up a top rope up and I could just manage to try a 20-meter climb with an interesting small vertical section. Had I had to lead it, I would have been quite worried when hitting that bit of the route. It was my first pure ice climbing. Although the weather was horrible, we were lucky to find the waterfall. According to locals it had been six years since it last froze.

The next day, amid almost as bad a weather, we returned to the waterfall and did some climbing in two top rope routes. On the way there we saw a RAF rescue helicopter flying low, looking for a man with a heart condition, part of a group that was doing a walk of a couple of days but was hit by bad weather. One must admire the courage of the pilot of the aircraft, who put the chopper in such a narrow valley in such a bad wind conditions and low visibility. There was a permanent wet sleet and constant wind. We returned so soaked the clothes and the gear did not fully dry even after spending hours by the fire.

On Friday a group of us ascended a hill of about 550 or 600 meters, while others were to follow a path along the lake. We all start from Glenfinnan. Our hill was behind a small monument. Just above two hundred meters the wind hit about 100k/h, but closer to the summit it easily exceeded that speed. At 450 meters a mate and I decided we had had enough share of wind and started to walk down (I had sprained an ankle the day before and that was also bothering me).

The others climbed a bit more and we met downhill. We managed to drive to see the ocean and then buy a good steak for the last night dinner (Scottish beef fame is well deserved).

On Saturday we got up relatively early, and after discussing it for a while we decided we would go back directly to London without making any stop along the way to climb or walk. I think it was it a good decision, otherwise the return trip would have been greatly lengthened. Upon reaching the city we parted warmly. It was a wonderful experience in terms of sports, adventure and friendship: the ingredients that make the mountains charming and irresistible.

NOTE: There are hundreds of photos, I have a few, but peers have a lot more, and I’ll be posting more as I get them. Some can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/72021965@N00/tags/natoescocia2009/

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