Taxus - An Introduction to Winter Climbing

© Mark Blackwell
The author on the summit of Beinn an Dothaidh
© Mark Blackwell

Excitement, and to be honest, a small sense of nervousness. That was what I felt, standing beneath the cliffs in the north eastern corrie of Beinn an Dothaidh. My soggy cheese sandwich, flattened in my rucksack by what felt like a ton of climbing gear, did little to settle the hyperactive butterflies in my stomach.

I was on a weekend break in Glen Orchy with friends from Lancaster University Hiking Club. We'd been hoping that conditions would be right for winter climbing and, for a change, they were. The previous day, Jim and Darren had made an ascent of Twisting Gully on Stob Coire nan Lochan and enthused about perfect conditions and breathtakingly clear views from the summit.

As we stretched, yawned and sorted out gear in the car park at the bottom of Beinn an Dothaidh, a gnarled, grizzly old timer wandered over. “What you up to today lads?” he enquired. “We thought we'd have a look at Taxus” I answered, trying to hide the excitement in my voice. “Oh. Hard stuff then” he muttered as he wandered off. “Great” I thought. My winter climbing so far had consisted of a few grade I/II snow plods and this seemingly hardened mountaineer describing our route as 'Hard stuff' did little to boost my confidence.

© Chris McDaid

As we started up the footpath, I hoped my friends were in a 'slow' mood. I wouldn't describe myself as unfit – my day job doing rope access work in Cheddar Gorge kept me in relatively good shape, but I'd only had three days in the mountains over the past six months, and I was in very fit company. I needn't have worried. For once I managed to keep up, and we arrived at the bottom of the route together.

As the only one of us who'd climbed Taxus before, Jim pointed out the line of the route to us. “This is no snow plod!” I thought to myself happily. Finally, after three years of waiting, I was going to experience proper Scottish winter climbing. We split into two groups. Mark and I would go first climbing as a pair, and Jim, Darren and Andy would follow us up, climbing in a group of three.

Ice screws and nuts jangling on my harness, I set off up the first pitch, trailing my new pair of 60m ropes behind me. Stopping twice to place ice screws in solid looking sections of ice, I reached the first belay, elated at the position and quality of climbing. After arranging the belay (an ice screw and knife-blade piton) I shouted for Mark to come up. Fifteen minutes later, he appeared, his huge grimace contrasting wildly with my manic grin. “Bloody hot aches” he cursed through gritted teeth. He was obviously in excruciating pain, but before long, he was able to belay me as I started up the second pitch.

Veering slightly off route, I ran out nearly 50m of rope with only two dubious nut placements. After bringing Mark up to the belay, I could see that he was less than impressed with my route finding abilities. “How can you get lost? he asked. “We're climbing in a gully!” Feeling embarrassed, but happy with my small experience of mixed climbing, we agreed that Mark should have a turn at leading. Heading up to the junction of the route, we assessed our options. We could either head right, for the grade IV finish, or continue up a snowy ramp and easier ground to our left. After a brief discussion, we decided not to court trouble, and Mark set off up the ramp. The unconsolidated snow didn't allow for any runners, so before I knew it, 60m had been run out. I started to dismantle the belay and, shouting to tell Mark what I was doing, began to climb - praying Mark was still on easy ground ahead of me. After that run-out pitch, one more on easy ground led to the summit cairn of Beinn an Dothaidh, and a barrage of spindrift. Stripping off our harnesses and ropes, we headed down, deciding en-route that haggis in the Bridge of Orchy Hotel was a more tempting idea than pasta over a gas stove.

So that was my first taste of proper winter climbing. Did I enjoy it? Oh yes. Will I be back for more? Definitely. Despite the long run outs, freezing hands and whirling spindrift we felt in control at all times, and to finish a route at the summit of a Scottish munro was simply breathtaking.

See you in the hills this winter...

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13 Nov, 2006
brings back memories of a day out with between exams & the start of the christmas holidays back in 1980. I think I was climbing with Neil Morrison (probably the first winter route we climbed together) along with Ian Duckworth & Pete Bilsborough. My memories have a move around a chockstone on the first pitch as the hardest move but I guess that banks out later in the season, the direct finish was the first time I'd climbed anything so long on water ice & the final pitch up to the summit was technically easy but seemed very insecure with no gear. Somewhere still have a photo of the sunset from the summit
13 Nov, 2006
Nice one Pete! Sounds an ace route.
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