I recently bumped into a French alpinist in Glencoe who explained that 10 top French Alpinists had come to Scotland in winter to train for a trip to the greater ranges. My own mountaineering career began in Scotland 30 years ago and, despite having climbed all over the world, it remains a very special place for me.
So what makes a day out in Scotland in winter so challenging?
1 Few lifts
Having very few telepheriques keeps the place wild. The downside is that the approach to climbs is often long and arduous, especially if you are climbing a technical route and carrying ropes, a big rack of protection and two ice axes.
2 No fixed protection
In the Alps, guides often place fixed belays and protection on classic routes to make their job easier and safer. The purist ethic in Scotland eschews this practice, leaving climbers to find and establish their own places to secure the rope. This can often be the most time consuming and difficult part of an ascent. The geology of each cliff differs enormously so you need different types of equipment.
The winds can be vicious, but if you always waited for a calm day, you may never get out. Wind increases the risk of exposure, dramatically lowering core body temperature. It can also be intimidating if you’re climbing an exposed ridge. Perhaps the biggest threat posed by wind, though, is the way it redistributes snow, loading slopes and increasing the risk of avalanche. Understanding the relationship between the effects of wind, people and terrain is vital if you want to survive in this world.
4 Fluctuating temperatures
The weather changes quickly in Scotland, sometimes within minutes. Ice and snow conditions are always changing, which can greatly affect the difficulty of a climb. Fluctuating temperatures help create the unique ice found in the coastal mountains, but if too high for too long, ice routes can turn into streams in a few hours
5 Difficult to navigate
Navigating in the Scottish mountains is fraught with difficulty. In winter most features on the map are buried under snow. Many mountains only have one or two options for a safe descent and you may have to locate these in extreme weather with poor visibility. Each main area of Scottish mountains has a distinctive topography, so the skills and techniques crucial in one area might be different to another – for example, pacing and timing in the Cairngorms versus local knowledge on the west coast.
6 Short daylight hours
Obvious I suppose, but the main season for winter climbing is December-March, and for much of this you have only a few hours of daylight. So an early start, plenty of batteries and the confidence to climb and navigate at night is useful.