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Scottish Winter Climbs West - Unsung Gems

© Steve Kennedy

With its clear user-friendly design and inspiring photography, the new guidebook Scottish Winter Climbs West paints the popular venues of the area in a flattering light. But there's far more to winter climbing in the west and southwest highlands than hotspots like The Ben and Glen Coe. Author Neil Adams introduces some less-travelled areas well worth seeking out.


As a winter climber, it is too easy to lapse into a pattern of climbing snowed-up rock in the Northern Corries in early season, and ice on Ben Nevis in late season. Scotland has so much more to offer than this! While working on the SMC's new Scottish Winter Climbs West book, I've had the opportunity to explore some of western Scotland's lesser-known winter climbing venues. Here are three of the best areas to check out.

Bob Hamilton and Lewis Harrop nearing the top of The Black Prawn on the little-visited Creach Bheinn  © Steve Kennedy
Bob Hamilton and Lewis Harrop nearing the top of The Black Prawn on the little-visited Creach Bheinn
© Steve Kennedy

Ardgour

Scotland rewards those who get off the beaten track. There are dozens of interesting crags and hundreds of compelling routes away from the honeypots

Ardgour is a magical place. It sits just across Loch Linnhe from the A82 Fort William to Glen Coe road, connected to it by the beautiful Corran Ferry, but feels like a world apart from the hustle and bustle of Ben Nevis and Stob Coire nan Lochan. It is a rough, rugged landscape, lacking Munro-height mountains to draw the crowds but with some of the finest smaller hills in the country. In winter, the combination of sea, snow and solitude is unforgettable.

In summer, Garbh Bheinn is the main draw for climbers, often combined with a trip to the Ardnamurchan Ring Crags further west. Garbh Bheinn's steep South Wall has classic, sought-after rock routes ranging from Sgian Dubh (S) to Kelpie (E6), contrasting with the excellent mountaineering ridges of The Great Ridge (D) and Pinnacle Ridge (Mod) on its East Face. In winter, The Great Ridge and Pinnacle Ridge are good Grade IIIs with a hard freeze, though both have defeated strong parties in poorer conditions.

Tim Miller on the first winter ascent of Butterknife (VI,6) on the South Wall of Garbh Bheinn  © Jamie Skelton
Tim Miller on the first winter ascent of Butterknife (VI,6) on the South Wall of Garbh Bheinn
© Jamie Skelton

In recent years, the South Face has become the centrepiece of Ardgour winter climbing. This is a tricky venue to get in good condition: its southerly aspect and relatively low altitude (750m crag base) mean that it can strip near-instantly in the sun, so it is best climbed on an overcast day after (or during) a storm. When fully rimed up, the South Face gives some incredible steep, technical mixed climbing. So far, winter ascents of the summer lines have been done from Grade V to Grade IX, with Scimitar (VII,8) being perhaps the most compelling line on the crag.

Just across Glen Tarbert from Garbh Bheinn lies Creach Bheinn. This mountain is an outstanding vantage point, with 360° views across the mountains and islands of the west coast – so much so, it still bears the remains of a "Colby Camp" used by the Ordnance Survey in the first triangulation of Scotland. The crags on its north side are dank and vegetated, repulsive to the rock climber but ideal winter terrain.

In winter, the combination of sea, snow and solitude is unforgettable

In the eastern corrie (Coire nam Frithallt), Voodoo Buttress (V,6) is the stand-out route. It takes an obvious ramp line cutting across the lower buttress to a pedestal on the arête, from where a tricky groove leads to the upper buttress. From here, the complex-sounding description can be summarised as "follow the line of least resistance to the top". In the western corrie (Coire an Dubh-Alltan), the finely-positioned ridge of The Black Prawn (III,4) looks outstanding, though I haven't got round to climbing it yet.

Helen Rennard starting up the initial ramp of Voodoo Buttress  © Neil Adams
Helen Rennard starting up the initial ramp of Voodoo Buttress
© Neil Adams

At the northern end of Ardgour is the magnificent peak of Sgurr Ghiubhsachain (pronounced "you-sa-chan"), which forms part of the backdrop to the Jacobite memorial at Glenfinnan. Its North-North-East Ridge is a popular summer scramble; in winter, this is a pleasant Grade I by the line of least resistance.

Helen Rennard on the magnificent NNE Ridge of Sgurr Ghiubhsachain  © Neil Adams
Helen Rennard on the magnificent NNE Ridge of Sgurr Ghiubhsachain
© Neil Adams

This can either be continued around over the neighbouring summit of Sgùrr Craobh a' Chaorainn to give a lovely mountaineering outing, or used as the approach to Jacobite Buttress. This crag was first explored by Steve Kennedy and Andy MacDonald, who climbed the obvious diagonal fault, Bestial Devotion, a lovely Grade III,4 featuring some entertaining squirming through chockstones. If you'll excuse some self-indulgence, I'll also nominate Raising the Standard (V,6) as a route worth seeking out. This cuts through the steep headwall in the middle of the crag, with unexpectedly good hooks and solid gear making it much easier than it looks from below!

Neil Adams on the first ascent of Raising the Standard  © Nathan Adam
Neil Adams on the first ascent of Raising the Standard
© Nathan Adam

Aonach Beag

Aonach Beag is a huge, complex mountain. In any other context it would dominate the landscape, but nestled in amongst Ben Nevis, Aonach Mòr and the Grey Corries, it has a relatively secluded and secretive air.

When there are queues for every ice route on Ben Nevis, the East Face of Aonach Beag is a great way to escape the hordes

There are major crags on the north, west and east faces of Aonach Beag, and they are remarkably different in style. The North Face builds good ice in the latter half of a decent season and can be accessed from the Aonach Mòr cable car, so it has become relatively popular. Routes such as Royal Pardon (VI,5) and Stand And Deliver (V,6) rank alongside the best of the Ben Nevis ice climbs, and the North-East Ridge (III), which bounds the left side of the face, is a classic mountaineering outing with a short, stiff crux. By contrast, the West Face has plenty of steep, turfy mixed climbing. Simon Richardson's book Chasing the Ephemeral drew some visitors to this face by including Top Gun (V,6); neighbouring routes such as Ruadh Eigg Chimney (IV,5) and Salmonella (VII,8) see occasional ascents, though it is rare to meet another party at the crag.

The better-known faces of Aonach Beag: steep ice on the North Face and turfy mixed climbing on the West Face:

Stuart McFarlane on Camilla  © Andy Clark
Stuart McFarlane on Camilla
© Andy Clark

Neil Adams on Salmonella  © Stuart McLeod
Neil Adams on Salmonella
© Stuart McLeod

Aonach Beag's real hidden gem is its East Face. This is a big, wild, adventurous venue with an almost alpine feel. The main face is a huge bowl, often capped by enormous cornices – not a good place to be if the snowpack is at all questionable!

The mighty East Face of Aonach Beag, with Stob Coire Bhealaich in the left foreground  © Jamie Hageman
The mighty East Face of Aonach Beag, with Stob Coire Bhealaich in the left foreground
© Jamie Hageman

In late season, when there are queues for every ice route on Ben Nevis, the East Face of Aonach Beag is a great way to escape the hordes. One of the best ways to enjoy it is to link routes on the various crags. To do this, it makes sense to begin with Stob Coire Bhealaich, accessed via a long but scenic approach up Glen Nevis. Earlier in the season this has some good icy mixed routes such as The Clare Effect, the obvious corner at the top left corner of the face. These tend to melt out by late season but the huge diagonal ramp line, imaginatively called The Ramp, holds snow well. My mate reckons this is the best Grade II he's ever done – a bold claim! It certainly takes in a lot of spectacular ground, finishing up a narrow crest in an incredible position.

Stuart McLeod on the easy upper ridge of The Ramp  © Neil Adams
Stuart McLeod on the easy upper ridge of The Ramp
© Neil Adams

From there, the main bowl beckons. In the centre of the face is the largest buttress, Goblet Buttress, split by the obvious icy corner of Goblet of Fire. In good conditions, a direct finish is possible at VI,6, but just as fun is the original finish, which sneaks off up a gully to the left at a more amenable IV,4. The approach to the crag requires care – it is worth roping up to pass the cornice, and the consequences of a slip below would be catastrophic. Once on the route, though, the alpine scale can be forgotten, and it feels like a conventional (and very good) Scottish gully. From the top of Goblet Buttress, a short traverse across the snowslope leads to Summit Buttress, where Catabasis offers a couple more pitches to a break in the cornice (hopefully) close to the summit.

Stuart McLeod in the upper gully of Goblet of Fire  © Neil Adams
Stuart McLeod in the upper gully of Goblet of Fire
© Neil Adams

Southern Highlands Outliers

High-quality climbing and proximity to the Central Belt mean that certain Southern Highlands venues are justifiably popular – The Cobbler and Beinn an Dothaidh's North-East Corrie are usually busy when conditions are good. Some of the other venues have classic climbs which get traffic, e.g. Monolith Grooves on Beinn an Lochain and Great Central Groove on The Brack, but there are loads of other good venues which remain relatively unloved.

A conspicuous example hidden in plain sight is Ben Lomond. Scotland's southernmost Munro is close to Glasgow, and while the summit may be crawling with visitors, a popped champagne cork away there is a high, north-east-facing corrie with a few great routes which receive very few ascents. Lomond Corner is the stand-out route, and should be on every Central Belt climber's hitlist.

Gordon Lacey on the classic of the crag, Lomond Corner  © Neil Adams
Gordon Lacey on the classic of the crag, Lomond Corner
© Neil Adams

Across Loch Lomond in the Arrochar Alps, the excellent Flakewalk on Ben Donich appears to have gone unrepeated for 30 years since its first ascent in 1990. Ben Donich has an unusual series of crags, with some weird schist "crevasses" near the base which could catch out the unwary, but it has a short walk-in and comes into condition fairly quickly. Flakewalk follows a compelling flake-crack across an otherwise featureless wall. It was given VI,8 *** in the old Arran and Arrochar guide, which may account for the lack of traffic – the crux must have been desperate with old leashed tools, but with modern kit it is no harder than Tech 7.

Chris Cartwright on the first ascent of Flakewalk  © Simon Richardson
Chris Cartwright on the first ascent of Flakewalk
© Simon Richardson

Some entirely new venues have been developed in the 25 years since the last guidebook was produced. Perhaps the most significant is the large north-facing corrie on Beinn Sheasgarnaich above Loch Lyon. Glen Lyon became unusually popular during the Covid lockdowns, where quirks of Scottish Government rules and council boundaries made this area more widely accessible than the better-known venues to the west. George Allan and Billy Hood made some of the original ascents, including that of Leo, a good Grade III taking the most obvious icefalls and chimneys near the left side of the face. Simon Richardson, Sophie Grace Chappell and various partners added some harder lines, including King of the Jungle, a direct line through the tallest part of the crag. The grades appear to vary significantly with conditions, so may settle down as the routes get more repeats.

Scotland rewards those who get off the beaten track. There are dozens of interesting crags and hundreds of compelling routes to explore away from the main honeypots. If Scottish Winter Climbs West can inspire more climbers to explore these lesser-known venues, I'll be delighted!



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15 Nov, 2022

Your link to Creach Bheinn goes to the wrong mountain, between Loch Creran and Loch Etive (albeit with the same name).

15 Nov, 2022

A fantastic, colourful book. Compiling this Guide, Neil has done a remarkable job, enthusiastically gathering information, text, topos and pictures, over a large geographic area! It will broaden horizons, of seasoned activists for sure.....

We'll done

Stuart

Thanks. My bad - corrected that now

15 Nov, 2022

It really is terrific.

15 Nov, 2022

Looking at those pictures make me want to see what I'd need to do to be able to teach in the Scottish system! Not sure exactly my family will make of the relocation plan though...

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