Guest Editorial: Winter Lines

© Steve Ashworth Collection
Steve Ashworth is a keen winter climber and Lake District winter expert. He has made many first winter first ascents in the Lakes and he often shares his local conditions knowledge through updates on the UKC Forums and on the Epicentre Blog.

In this guest editorial article, he gives his opinion on the ethics of climbing popular summer rock climbs in winter.

Steve Ashworth making the first winter ascent of Snickersnack - Gable Crag  © Steve Ashworth Collection
Steve Ashworth making the first winter ascent of Snickersnack - Gable Crag
© Steve Ashworth Collection

Rich Cross climbing Engineer's Slab, Gable Crag  © Steve Ashworth Collection
Rich Cross climbing Engineer's Slab, Gable Crag
© Steve Ashworth Collection
Having done new routes and first ascents of lines that are both established summer rock routes and winter only lines, I am always surprised to see how much debate and argument can be generated by what some people feel acceptable compared to others. Environmental arguments and ethical arguments seem to be important.

I am talking about routes on mountain crags in winter condition here, not "dry tooling" which seems to confuse people. I'm not going to enter a debate on what constitutes winter condition as I think that decision lies with the climber. You know if the route you did was a winter one.

What captures me as a climber is a line. A lot of the best lines for winter also happen to be the best lines for summer, Gimmer Crack is a prime case in point, a three pitch corner system, the winter line differs slightly from summer. Ascents in both summer and winter are equally as enjoyable and rate as being as good as anything about. The 2 styles can coexist and do in many places; Scafell, Bowfell, Gable, Ben Nevis, Shelterstone, Beinn Eighe, Cairngorm, Lochnagar, Glen Coe, The Cobbler the list goes on. If a line is truly great then the climbing and positions will capture you, if in summer you are distracted by a few scratches then you have missed the point.

The Rock Climbers environmental argument against climbing established summer rock routes in winter is seriously flawed and dangerous. What the argument actually is about is aesthetics, it is a selfish argument deployed by hypocritical rock climbers wishing to preserve what they think a rock climb should look like. This environmental argument is not about protecting fragile ecosystems. It is an argument that worries me as a rock climber, the ultimate extension of the environmental argument is that we should all stay at home.

Chris Stirling on Bowfell Butress, Langdale  © Steve Ashworth Collection
Chris Stirling on Bowfell Butress, Langdale
© Steve Ashworth Collection

The first winter ascent of D Route, Gimmer, Langdale  © Steve Ashworth Collection
The first winter ascent of D Route, Gimmer, Langdale
© Steve Ashworth Collection
Gable Crag is a great case study, the ascents of summer lines on the Engineers slab face have generated endless criticism. When Brian Davison climbed Engineers slab in 1985, routes such as Snickersnack hadn't been done in summer, Brian bore the brunt of criticism. Nearly 20 years later when I climbed Snickersnack I encountered a huge amount of mostly anonymous criticism, a major theme was that I was destroying the Environment, and that the crag couldn't support this style of climbing. Gable crag is at 900m is North facing and is micro granite, this makes it a fairly robust environment. The main protagonists behind the development of the crag from a rock climbing perspective were also it's strongest "environmental" supporters in the light of this winter "destruction." The same people had poured petrol down the crag and set fire to it in order to prepare the lines for summer ascents. Ice axes are a popular tool in the gardening repertoire of summer activists. Who should receive criticism for damaging the environment? As climbers we seem to have forgotten what we are about.

When C.S. Worthington climbed Engineers Chimney in winter condition in 1909, now graded V 6, and at the time a winter ascent of a summer VS ( about as hard as any rock route in the world at the time) they were out climbing and having a good time, I'm sure they didn't court wide scale criticism. This answers another question posed of this style of climbing, namely that it is a passing fashion, Rock routes have been climbed as cutting edge winter lines for over 100 years.

In answer to a pure environmental argument against climbing established rock routes

I would put forward a counter argument that says you should only climb established classic summer lines in winter. On these lines the environmental damage has been done; vegetation removed, drainage altered, approach paths eroded etc, climbing them in winter and scratching the rock generates a mineral flush which can help stimulate lichen growth to cover up the polish. Chalk changes both the Ph and moisture content of the system, which in terms of stimulating vegetation regeneration is bad. Winter climbing on summer lines can be shown to be a good thing from an environmental stand point

Encouraging winter climbers to climb winter only lines on winter only crags is environmental terrorism, lets all go to pristine untouched ecosystems and interfere with them, incidentally this destruction is the same when a new untouched line is gardened in summer, in fact winter is probably the best time to interact with these untouched ecosystems as a lot of the vegetation is dormant.

Pitch one of Gimmer Crack, Langdale
© Steve Ashworth Collection

Woody on Asterix  © Steve Ashworth Collection
Woody on Asterix
© Steve Ashworth Collection
Basically from an environmental point of view we can't stop winter climbing on established classic summer lines, if anything less damage is done to these ecosystems in winter than in summer, just as we can't stop the development of new crags. We have to accept that any interaction with an ecosystem will have an affect and try our best to limit how serious this is.

So it boils down to aesthetics. When it comes to a question of aesthetics what we are doing is putting a higher level of importance to one set of climbers values than another. I would say that the visual damage that chalk and erosion does to a bouldering venue such as Langdale boulders is far worse than a few scratches on a high north facing mountain crag. Not only does it spoil the appearance of the rock for other climbers but it spoils what is a very picturesque view for a much wider user group. I don't criticise the use of chalk, I don't try to limit visitor numbers etc. It is not up to me. I go bouldering at Langdale and I am happy to climb 3 star summer routes in winter.

The ascent of summer lines in winter is not new and is not going to disappear because a few rock climbers think it is bad. Just as rock climbers are not going to stop gardening pristine crag environments and using chalk. We have to accept that this is the case, this is climbing, and get on with enjoying ourselves on the crags.

Steve Studied Ecology, Environmental Management and Geology in the Mountain Environment whilst at the University of Cumbria in Ambleside.

Steve Ashworth on pitch three of Moss Ghyll Grooves.
© Steve Ashworth Collection

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6 Jan, 2011
Well said Steve. I remember the first time I climbed (The Needle) on Shelter Stone Crag in winter being appauled by the sheer volume of in-situ gear, tat and polish left by summer ascents. Your perspective is refreshing, and realistic. Cheers, Guy
6 Jan, 2011
Nice one Steve!
6 Jan, 2011
I hope everyone who has put there opinion into the forums debate has a good read of this article which looks at things in a logical calm basis. best article I have read on UKC for some time.
6 Jan, 2011
A well presented argument Steve, it is good to see someone whose ascents are often criticised answering their critics. Your photos on their own negate many of the "not winter routes" arguments. I have climbed a number of lakes "rock" routes and will continue to do so. In fact I have a "secret book of secret things" which I am slowly working my way through, unfortunately I think you have had a peek at it and I keep having to cross routes out because you beat me to them (that and the reported grade being beyond me). I have a nagging doubt though, what are your views here: A crack leads up a wall for a pitch on a mountain crag which holds hoar and snow, the route has few footholds when wearing crampons. The route obviously can be climbed in winter BUT the style of climbing is yard, pedal, yard pedal, yard, foothold. How acceptable is this route given the potential amount of aesthetic damage per ascent. Do you think we need to consider this when selecting routes to climb? I stood underneath the route in question(can you guess?) but gizzarding had lead to an inadequate rack. On the day I thought the route to be in acceptable condition and an acceptable proposition but only just!
6 Jan, 2011
To Steve: very well put Steve. To 3leggeddog: If Steve has seen your book can I have a look? Saxon?
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