Scottish Winter: Ten Must-do Routes at II and IIIby Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com Dec/2013
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Grades II and III. Isn't that where proper winter climbing begins? The ropes come out (phew), you're thinking about the moves (well I am, at least), and that pair of axes starts feeling like it was worth the money. Each winter many of us spend lots of our time climbing at this sort of level. And why not? Though they can be a stepping stone to harder things the IIs and IIIs are far more than just that. This is a rewarding grade range in its own right, with a wealth of stunning objectives to work through. We've listed some of our favourite low grade Scottish routes here, and asked some committed winter activists for recommendations too. This selection spans everything from popular classics to obscure gems, from ridges to gullies, and from low level ice falls to remote mountaineering adventures.
And despite all I've said, if these easier classics inspire you towards something a bit more challenging, take a look at this new skills article from Jack Geldard, Ten Top Tips for Climbing Grade V This Winter.
Grade II, Beinn Bhan
Beinn Bhan is one of the great mountains of the northwest, with an east face that's been bitten into a series of monumental corries. The ice falls and mixed routes on these huge tiered crags give some of the longest and most sought after winter climbs in the area. But though the bulk of the big ticks are at V and above (considerably above in some cases) Beinn Bhan does offer one truly classic route at a far more amenable grade. From the outlying rock peak of A'Chioch follow an airy grade I ridge traverse above the awesome depths of Coire na Poite and Coire na Feola. Where the ridge meets the main mountain the challenge picks up a gear or two, with a good 150m of exciting mixed ground that gives a little taster of the stronger stuff to be found here.
200m, Grade II (III when lean and icy), NE Corrie of Lochnagar
Tucked away at the heart of Lochnagar's magnificent Northeast Corrie, this is a big line cutting through towering rock architecture, and the epitome of a classic winter gully. Early in the season there can be ice aplenty, and though much of the gully tends to bank out with snow later in the winter a decent ice pitch usually remains. It's a top day out, but do assess conditions with care. There are steep and potentially avalanche-prone scarp slopes to get past en route to the base of the gully, and even then you're not necessarily out of the woods. Raeburn's Gully is overlooked by an extensive area of cliff, and that makes it particularly exposed to avalanches. And at the top-out the cornice may also be huge, and might best be outflanked by sidling left - a potentially scary finish.
350m-plus, Grade II, Coire Toll an Lochain, An Teallach
Toll an Lochain, the further of An Teallach’s two corries and the deeply enclosed one with the lochan (obviously), has a number of great gully climbs. Lord’s Gully is the famous one, but its better left branch is rarely in nick at the described grade of III. Lady’s Gully is easier and much more often in nick, and also leads to near the start of the Corrag Buidhe Pinnacles, but just above the crux step. So turn right at the top of the gully and you get to include the magnificent crest of the An Teallach traverse, and even the two Munros if you have the energy.
Despite being a great route Lady's Gully has only two entries in the UKC logbooks. It may not be technical but with about 500m of ground in total (if you include the approach) it is one of the longest Grade IIs in Scotland, with a serious retreat and a serious continuation if the weather deteriorates.
The gully rises leftwards out of the top of the triangular snowfield low down in the centre of the corrie face, so collects much of the snow which falls down the face from the Corrag Buidhe Pinnacles and therefore fills readily. Of course you have to reach its start, and the snowfield lies above some steep walls which, if iced, can provide a more direct start in the line of the upper gully, although at Grade III. The normal start is up Constabulary Couloir, or more likely just left of it and crossing over.
The gully normally has an ice pitch at its start, just above the snowfield, but even when this banks out, it is still too steep to be Grade I. If you are feeling strong near the top, there are two steeper right-hand finishes, both Grade III.
Andy Nisbet is New Routes Editor for the SMC and in his own right probably the most prolific winter new router in history.
240m Grade III, Lurcher's Crag, Cairngorms
The weather had been cold but now it had been thawing for two days and there was little snow anywhere. My client wanted ice so I gambled on the only possible option, North Gully on Lurcher’s Crag. Fortunately it was misty on the approach otherwise he would have laughed and gone home, but instead he had total faith in me. Actually finding North Gully in the mist wasn’t easy but I had a picture of the crag in my head and gambled again. Deep heather and boulders led to .....ice!
The route gave five long pitches of continuous ice, possibly the longest section of ice I’d ever climbed in Scotland. Soft chewy ice, none too steep but certainly more than the Grade II it was given at the time. I ignored the harder right branch whose crux ice curtain was bare but it still steepened up and then we exited on to a bare hillside which could have been summer.
It could bank up a lot in snowy conditions but I think it will always be good. There are rock belays to the side if you want but otherwise ice protection. And the descent is pretty easy, down to the path east of the Chalamain Gap.
240m, Grade III, NE Corrie of Beinn an Dothaidh
Thanks to easy access and a range of quality routes the northeast corrie of Beinn an Dothaidh is a popular winter venue. Among the more amenable gullies here Taxus is the acknowledged classic, not especially tough for the grade but a long climb with plenty of atmosphere. With the option of two different finishes, one at III and the other IV, this is a good route for those who like keeping their options open. It's fairly steep to start, with a decent pitch or two of ice if you're lucky with the conditions. A snow plod up the gully then leads to a split, and that choice of finish: a) For the grade III tick take the left branch, exiting onto a little snow ridge and then across easy ground to a final little gully and a top-out right near the summit cairn. b) If it's in nick then the grade IV line of the Icefall Finish will be obvious directly above the split in the gully, giving about 90m of good exposed climbing with a wee sting in the tail right at the end. NB. Taxus is a bad choice if there's a high risk of avalanche.
This was a tough call. Mainland Scotland's classic grade II winter ridge traverses are all fabulous mountaineering journeys. But though there'd be a strong case for covering The Saddle's Forcan (brilliant) Ridge, the mighty Liathach or awesome An Teallach, if I have to pick only one then Aonach Eagach may - just - have the edge. Fundamentally there's more climbing to be found on it, with a series of giddily exposed pitches spaced out over at least 2km of the ridge crest. Can you have too much of a good thing? Perhaps, if you've underestimated the scale of the Aonach Eagach traverse and find yourself only halfway along the well named Crazy Pinnacles as night falls. It happens often.
Most teams will want a rope and small rack for the occasional harder pitch, and two or three optional abseils. But don't hang around, and expect the ridge to put up a fight to the last. It's high entertainment all the way, with a variety of obstacles from awkward slabby downclimbs and teetery knife edges to enjoyable blocky mixed passages weaving over and around the various mini summits and pinnacles, with that 900m drop into Glen Coe under your heels to add a flutter to the day. Some mountaineering ridges offer get-out options, but on Aonach Eagach the challenge tends to be met head on, with few flanking routes available. Bear in mind too that once committed, the only way to finish is forward or back. Between Am Bodach and Stob Coire Leith there is no viable escape route south into Glen Coe, and even from the western summit Sgorr nam Fiannaidh the least problematic descent takes you far out west to the road near Glencoe village. For a grade II climber this is a monster of a day. But as you reach the finish line on Aonach Eagach and the sun sags into the watery west, console yourself with the fact that, unlike the writer of best-of route selections, you don't have to restrict yourself to a single great winter ridge traverse. The rest are just as good.
85m, Grade II/III, Stob Coire nam Beith, Glen Coe
During a fortnight of frenzied soloing which included classics like Taxus and Staghorn Gully, I didn't think a short and obscure route in Glencoe would be one of the highlights. It just shows how a winter route can always surprise you. Nutcracker was 85m of sustained enjoyment, a beautiful ribbon of styrofoam ice tucked behind a ship's prow buttress. Narrow and twisting, never more than a couple of metres wide, and overlooking one of the finest corries in Glencoe. The ice climbing conditions in Glencoe were great for weeks last winter, and by late February I'd be surprised if there was a single other gully in the highest corries that didn't have a track leading to its base. But I found an untouched route, and better ice than on any of the many classics I would climb over the weeks that followed.
Enthusiastic winter soloist James Roddie runs the popular Glencoe Mountaineer blog.
500m, Grade II, West Face of Aonach Mor
Better known these days than only a few years ago this long mountaineering route gives a full day out even with the gondola. The ridge is the best defined and finest of the 'summit ribs' on the west face of Aonach Mor and the situation and length make it feel remote even though it's just round the corner from the ski centre. It's a good option when strong westerlies have loaded east facing slopes with snow. Parties will have to overcome the challenge of finding the route in poor visibility, a walk-in that feels longer than it is and the length of the route itself to avoid the 'walk of shame' if you miss the last downlift at Nevis Range.
Make sure you are on the right ridge by spotting the gendarme of Gendarme Ridge its neighbour on the horizon to the left, and enjoy the first few steep pitches until you are high enough to turn and look across at Ben Nevis peeking over the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Now savour the exposure as the ridge narrows to a knife edge and weave your way over and around short steps with drops into deep gullies on either side. Finally the climbing eases and the ridge merges with the face just below the plateau. If visibility is less than perfect use the summit cairn only a short distance to your right as a starting point to navigate back to the top of the ski area ...and don't be late!
Formerly manager of The Ice Factor in Kinlochleven, Alan Halewood now works as a freelance instructor based in Lochaber. To see what he's been up to check out his blog
50m, Grade III, Creag Dubh, Newtonmore
Often gazed at wistfully but rarely found complete and climbable at the grade, this low-level south-facing ice route gives a superb pitch or two of quality ice - but only during sustained very cold spells. It is practically roadside, and conditions could almost be assessed from the car, so when it's in then word soon gets around. Steep at the base and easier angled above, the ice can be climbed more or less anywhere. The grade III line cuts from right to left, and gives the option to finish at a tree belay (handy for the abseil descent); a more direct start further left may be possible at a slightly higher standard. But note: A huge upper icicle menaces Oui Oui (Golden Shower, VI), hanging from the steep rock above the route and posing a serious risk from falling ice in sunny weather or a thaw. Accidents have occurred here, so time your visit for an overcast day of stable sub-zero temperatures, or perhaps even come at night.
600m, Grade III/IV,3, Ben Nevis
OK I'm pushing the grade envelope here, but in this case it's worth it. One of the biggest and best of Scotland's winter climbs, and perhaps also the most famous, Tower Ridge is the embodiment of the grand old classic and a route that should sit at the top of everyone's wish list. Its profile is well seen from the approach up the Allt a' Mhuilinn, rising from the domed rock peak of the Douglas Boulder in a series of giant steps to the knobbly wart of the Great Tower. The ridge is exhilirating throughout, and though much of that 600m is comparatively easy ground there are a number of distinct cruxes too, most notably: the intro chimney out of Douglas Gap; the exciting crab crawl of the Eastern Traverse; the steep continuation onto the Great Tower; and the knee-wobbling climax of Tower Gap, a space walk along a narrow arête and a sketchy step down into an awkward notch. For climbers more used to Scottish routes of a more average length the scale of this whole undertaking may come as a surprise, and that's chiefly why the SMC upgraded it from III to IV some years ago. Or perhaps it's still a III, but just a very long one? As ever, winter grades only tell part of the story, and whatever number you give it this alpine-scale ridge demands a steady pace and faff-free efficiency if you're to avoid the all-too-common indignity of a mid-route night out. Conditions on the day might make all the difference. With wall-to-wall neve and a well-trodden footprint trough to speed your passage, you may wonder what the fuss was about; but if the ridge is buried in fresh powder or coated in early season verglas then even a strong team might stuggle. But whatever state they find it in, for most winter climbers Tower Ridge remains a major milestone.
Let's end with a massive disclaimer. I am not suggesting for a moment that a grade II/III leader should have a go at Tower Ridge tomorrow. But in good conditions, with a more experienced partner? Well it's certainly one to work towards.