Scottish Winter Climbing & The Tyranny of Success

© Patrick Roman

Patrick Roman takes us through his adventures in the Scottish mountains, discussing the danger of trying to run before you can walk.

Who said the Ben was a crowded place to climb? Emerging, early morning, from the Orion Face onto an unblemished plateau  © Patrick Roman
Who said the Ben was a crowded place to climb? Emerging, early morning, from the Orion Face onto an unblemished plateau
© Patrick Roman

Appearances can be deceptive. Climbers on the Direct pitch of Jet Stream, heading for an unseen Damoclean cornice  © Patrick Roman
Appearances can be deceptive. Climbers on the Direct pitch of Jet Stream, heading for an unseen Damoclean cornice
© Patrick Roman
"What on earth am I doing here? I could have gone for a walk instead, the Lost Valley would have been beautiful today. What are those guys climbing over there? That looks enjoyable. Why can't I just sit on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon and watch a movie? I'm sure the book said this was a good introduction. Christ, how do I get out of here?"

These are some of the thoughts racing through my head as I teeter on my front points, hundreds of feet above the coire floor, staring at a steep blank wall split by a single crack. "I could ab off if I had a rope. But I don't. I have to figure this out." I place my tools in the crack and lean to the left, trying to see around the wall, brushing it with my gloved hand, feeling for a weakness. Nothing. I repeat on the right side with similar results. There is nowhere else for me to go but upwards. Fortunately there is a small ledge at chest height big enough for my right fingers to fit on. I readjust my left tool in the crack and torque the pick - it feels secure yet tenuous. I pull myself up until I'm in a contorted position, making sure I don't move the pick but feeling the strain in my right arm and wondering what I do next. I lower myself back on to my tip-toes. I grimace, "you really need a third arm for this kind of thing." I try again, and lower again. Half an hour passes before I finally commit to the moves. Pulling up once more, I tentatively manoeuvre away my fingers and replace with a knee. I now have a free right arm, and flick my tool into my palm, reach up and try to hook the ground above the wall. I'm losing strength. The pick bangs off the rock. The seriousness of the situation could not be clearer. I can't reverse my position safely now, I have to hook the axe this time. I have to. I'm at full stretch as I swing again, the pick clears the top of the wall and rests on solid ground. I'm not in a position to test the placement, so pull as hard as I can, placing my right crampon points onto the crucial ledge where my knee had rested. I remove my left pick from the crack and stand up. I see sanctuary above.

It had all started less than a year before with a solo ascent of Tower Ridge in fine alpine conditions. My (and many others) first "proper" winter route. 12 months previous to this I had interspersed classic winter walks with Ben Lui's Central Gully, an exhilarating Grade I, and a traverse of the Aonach Eagach (II). After completing the Ben's most famous ridge, which had been a III but now upgraded to IV,3, a summer course in Glen Coe, climbing classic rock, followed, along with a little exploration of my own. And then it was back to winter again. Ordinary Route on the Central Buttress of Stob Coire nan Lochan seemed like the next best step, and on a miserable day, after an even more miserable and bitterly cold night camping in the coire, I set off up the direct start, taking the pedestal variation to the top. I had a I, a II, a III/IV,3 and now a IV,5 under my belt. It was time for a V, "the grade to which most winter climbers aspire", I had once read.

Between light and shadow, a world of possibilities exist  © Patrick Roman
Between light and shadow, a world of possibilities exist
© Patrick Roman

Home from home. Preparing for a lengthy dawn approach after a short night's sleep  © Patrick Roman
Home from home. Preparing for a lengthy dawn approach after a short night's sleep
© Patrick Roman
I didn't know any other climbers, hence the solos, and online forums were only just developing - I certainly wasn't aware of their existence and didn't even own a computer. So I scanned the guidebooks for my information and came up with Crest Route for my V. It seemed perfectly logical and it was also in a coire with which I was familiar. Besides, the V's on the Ben scared me too much. The now infamous route description which accompanies Crest Route didn't speak of any hard cruxes or awkward technical moves. In fact, quite the contrary. As it turned out, more a baptism of fire than a good introduction. In retrospect it probably hadn't been the best idea, and although the day ended well there was an invaluable lesson to be learnt. But it would take another incident a month later before it hit home.

I feel sluggish as I toil alone up Coire na Ciste, the clouds swirling menacingly above, but I'm relaxed as I have no set agenda. I had been here two days before with a friend, experiencing one of the most enjoyable days I could remember. I just wanted to be back on the mountain, irrelevant of what I climbed. I made my way up the scenic North Gully, lost in my thoughts, when I noticed a steeper groove up on my left. I stopped and pulled out the guide - North Gully Left Fork. "Only a IV, let's go for that." Ten minutes later, I'm in a nightmarish world, full-body climbing in almost vertical powder. Each swing of the tool buries my arm to the shoulder. I begin to wonder how much longer it can support my weight. I keep going, delicately, hardly daring to breathe. Somehow, my eyes are suddenly level with the plateau. There is nothing that provides a secure placement other than a small neb of rock off to my side. I twist my body, reach up and hook my pick behind the rock. It's not ideal but I'm out of options. I strain, my legs kicking desperately at the crumbling mess beneath, and then...

I've been spun round and am now free-falling back down the gully as if in a swimming pool flume. A hundred feet later the angle relents and this is where I hit, being thrown over myself and continuing downhill. I'm thankfully thinking clearly enough to adjust my position so that I can arrest my fall. Steep rocks were just a couple of seconds away. I get onto my knees and, with adrenaline coursing through my body, remove my helmet and gloves. My face is dripping as I rub a hand across the skin, expecting the snow to turn red. Luckily it's just meltwater. I check myself over, amazed at escaping without so much as a scratch (although my helmet is a little worse for wear). I sit in the snow for a while, shaking my head, angry at myself. There's a harsh realisation that if I continue like this I won't last long. Something has to change.

By chance, I came across an article on Scottish Winter Climbing, written by a Glenmore Lodge instructor. It contained numerous pieces of advice but the overriding one was that of consolidation. As I read more, it was as if the article was aimed at me in particular. "Yes, you can climb Grade V" it said, "but spend a season or two climbing lots of III's and IV's first." At that moment, I made a promise to myself (and to those who depended upon me) to do just that. And so, the following winter, I found myself high on North-East Buttress (IV,5), waiting for a party to overcome an icy Mantrap. I watched as the leader, a very competent rock climber according to his partner, fell off twice, before finally scraping over the top, no doubt a few pounds lighter! His second didn't fair much better, and then it was my turn. As I stepped up, I knew I couldn't afford the same mistakes, for a 1,200 foot drop down the Orion Face awaited. A situation like this is clearly more of a head game, but this time I felt adequately prepared for the task after a long season of climbing at similar grades. As a result, the route still remains one of my finest winter climbing memories.

Years later, a passage from Mark Twight's book, "Extreme Alpinism", caught my eye. It talked about self-knowledge and the tyranny of success.

"Beware of accidentally succeeding on a route above your ability. Success tends to breed ambition. The next time, a route of similar difficulty and danger may deliver the hard lesson that a single success at a high level may represent luck and not skill."

Every grade can throw up different challenges and through a process of consolidation you will develop your physical fitness, technical ability and psychological control, allowing you to better cope with harder terrain. In Scotland, we're blessed with a tremendous variety of routes across the board which will give you the opportunity to become a more rounded climber.

Whether rock or ice, the Raeburn's Wall area of Ben Nevis can provide an exploratory experience  © Patrick Roman
Whether rock or ice, the Raeburn's Wall area of Ben Nevis can provide an exploratory experience
© Patrick Roman

Some popular examples at Grade II are Ledge Route, Dorsal Arete, Gardyloo Gully, Sron na Lairig, Golden Oldy and the An Teallach Ridge. Master these and you'll be better equipped to move together, tackle mixed ground swapping between handholds and tools, figure out cornice exits, route-find and navigate. At Grade III, you could have a late-season Sunday morning run up the 65m Tower Scoop under perfect blue skies which would be great fun, but finding yourself traversing the crux of a snowy 400m Centre Post on a wild Meggie weekday will provide an altogether different set of problems. If you have aspirations to climb a big Nevis V like Orion Direct, try The White Line or Cresta on the Little Brenva Face first. Don't underestimate the power of linking routes together to create the feeling of being on one of the harder classics but knowing you can bail out if you get too tired. Glover's Chimney and Number Three Gully Buttress will teach you about exposure, whilst the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag and SC Gully will focus your mind on conditions. And for a combination of it all, try the Clach Glas-Blaven Traverse. At Grade IV, Observatory Ridge is a superb outing which will often feel more serious than its neighbouring Zero or Point Five gullies. Similarly, East Buttress on Beinn Eighe will provide an imposing atmosphere in a sensational setting, or for a shorter but more technical day, head for The Message. For icefalls, try Jet Stream or the steeper Cascade, both with potentially difficult exit slopes. And if it forms, Quartzvein Scoop will give a taste of Southern Highlands water ice. Green and Comb gullies can be enchained midweek to avoid the crowds (maybe!), but it's unlikely you'll have that problem on Minus Three Gully. And if Crowberry Gully is deserted when you arrive, revel in it or start assessing the avalanche risk.

A major benefit of working through the grades like this is that you also build familiarity with a mountain, coire or even a face. So by the time you launch yourself at Smith's Route for example, you will probably have been up (or down) Tower Gully (I), Gardyloo Gully (II), Tower Scoop (III) and Right Edge (IV), the latter providing perspective on what it's actually like to to climb on the buttress itself.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a route wasn't in condition. The trouble was I happened to be ropeless and already half-way up it. 200 feet of Grade VII downclimbing in atrocious weather followed. Despite what had just occurred, experience enabled me to deal with it constructively, and I simply lowered my grade and soloed a more reliable Grade V that day. Downclimbing is a skill like any other, and one you will pick up through a comprehensive apprenticeship. Although you may never need to use it to quite the same extent, it will allow you to backtrack enough to reach a safer stance from which you can try again or escape.

Grades, however, are just one way of measuring progress in the mountains, and being able to climb a degree harder than before is often not the most important product of consolidation. It's about feeling confident when standing at the bottom of the route, knowing you can move fluently and safely, and that your experience gained on a wide range of climbs will allow you to deal with whatever may be up there. If the weather closes in, the route conditions worsen or an enormous cornice threatens to collapse on your head, you will be prepared to handle it, and in a calm and rational manner. This all translates to a greater enjoyment of the climb, the day and the season. The times you will look back on and remember warmly will be those when the enjoyment factor was highest, not necessarily when you climbed a grade higher.

Stick to a consolidation plan and don't be pressured into attempting harder routes which you don't feel ready for. There are many sources of antagonism out there - be they magazines, online forums or climbing partners. These same sources can also provide advice and inspiration, but it's vital you climb what YOU want to climb when YOU want to climb it. A recent quote by Steph Davis sums it up, "I should have no doubt, physically, mentally or emotionally that I belong there. I take an analytical approach to anything risky." And if, after a long expensive journey, a cramped cold night and a bog-ridden approach, things don't feel right, go for a walk instead. In time, you will learn when this feeling is purely nerves or subconscious judgement. However, with proper consolidation at Grades II, III and IV, you'll be in a far better position to get onto the wonderful assortment of V's which we have in Scotland, be they poorly protected and run-out V,4's or safe but fiercely technical V,8's.

"Unlike a lot of other sports, the consequences of pushing yourself too far and getting it wrong can be fairly terminal in climbing." The words of Brian Davison.

Make the most of the winter but remember to live long enough to see summer.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Patrick Roman

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10 Dec, 2008
Enjoyed that, thanks.
10 Dec, 2008
10 Dec, 2008
Hi Patrick Great article, well written :) Good to hear that people actually read and listen to the advice I've written in articles past. He! Nice one. Cheers fur noo George
11 Dec, 2008
Nicely written article- but I'm not sure many folk would survive such an 'apprenticeship' to write about it! Maybe I'm wrong in my interpretation of it but it doesn't seem like this collection of near death solo'ing experiences have taught you much prudence?! Good stories and well told, but I'm not sure the two themes of the article gel all that well... Hope you're not offended.
12 Dec, 2008
very good
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