GUEST EDITORIAL: Scottish Winter Climbing - Where Next?

In this guest editorial article, top British climber Dave MacLeod talks about his motivations for Scottish winter climbing, ethics, conditions and what he sees as the future of the sport, both for him, and for others.

Winter climbing, more than any other climbing discipline, highlights for me that my motivation to go climbing has many sides. I've always been pretty bad at mixed climbing as I am at most disciplines. But in winter I struggle particularly and I must admit I wonder every time I walk in on some dark spooky morning if I'll still remember how to do it at all.

Dave MacLeod about to launch in to the roof of 'Castles in the Sky', 232 kb
Dave MacLeod about to launch in to the roof of 'Castles in the Sky'
© Andy Turner

I used to compare myself a lot to my old, sadly brief, climbing partner Alan Mullin who also struggled with winter climbing for the some of the same reasons, and some different ones. Alan, and some others like Scott Muir, looked a little like a fish out of water when climbing on rock, but as soon as he had tools in his hands for winter climbing he transformed into a confident climbing machine. I was stronger and fitter than Alan, with more experience of hard leads and hard training on my side, but I had the opposite problem, feeling at home on tiny crimps but the fish out of water with tools in my hands.

The talent we shared that helped us overcome, or more truthfully just offset our weaknesses, was a deep determination not to fail. In the right circumstances, either of us would keep going upwards out of sheer refusal to fail, where it would have been much easier just to say "I can't do it".

So, from the perspective that I wasn't great at winter climbing and had to make a real effort just to manage it at all, I felt that I only wanted to do it if it was a really inspiring climb. It would be different if winter climbing was all I cared about. But climbing was a much bigger picture for me, with the winter climbing discipline only one small part of it. My motivation for bouldering and sport climbing was different, I can never get enough of it! It doesn't really matter if the routes are good or not, I still just love doing it, always.

My progression through the mixed climbing grades was strange too, perhaps because I was an experienced rock climber at a decent standard. I always found up to grade IV,6 quite easy. But found that anything from V,6 up to the start of grade IX,9 about the same overall difficulty! In that large window of grades, I never climbed any routes where you could fail out of lack of fitness or just be unable to find a way to do the next move. The only prospect of failure would be lack of determination to keep hanging in there and inching upwards. Anything in those grades felt difficult, but would always go if you just didn't give in.

And so after a while I felt like I was going over old ground, and found myself bouldering more over the winter than winter climbing. I felt like to do something that was really worth doing in winter, I needed to try routes that I knew wouldn't go first try. And so I embarked on a string of really rewarding new routes - The Hurting, The Cathedral, Don't Die and Anubis.

Andy Turner on the Second ascent of The Hurting, 197 kb
Andy Turner on the Second ascent of The Hurting
© seanjc, Jan 2011

On Don't Die, I felt like I'd taken the style of vertical 'scratching about on very thin hooks' as far I wanted to. Steep climbing on big overhangs was feeling like more fun and I was really keen to do more of that. Hence I was looking across to Anubis and wondering if that would go. Anubis was probably the most rewarding day out in winter I've ever had. A long overhanging battle that was just great climbing from start to finish.

The issue of conditions (getting the cliff to look white) was the biggest problem with finding something to progress to after Anubis. Being high up on the Ben, it occasionally does get rimed, and a little more often catches a little rime except on the roof. This was the condition I did it in and received the not-unexpected horror from others who feel that all winter climbs have to fit the same look. I certainly agree with the underlying principle that is applied in Scottish winter climbing - climb when the route is white to give the maximum experience. As someone who climbs on the steepest bits of rock in the Coire, I've had to suffer more wasted days and waiting than most for this reason. I do think a bit of common sense is needed though - some cliffs are exceptionally steep and provide shelter from the worst winter storms.

This winter, when I went up for a look at a roof I'd heard about on Druim Shionnach, I smiled with excitement. I knew I'd found something really different. As a five metre completely smooth and horizontal roof at the back of a big recess in the cliff, not even the most entrenched could expect the roof section would ever get rimed or snowed up. So there was more freedom to get climbing on it, rather than spend big chunks of my life waiting for snow to fall on a ceiling. I knew I would enjoy climbing it and I did. This idea of doing something different, with steep and exciting climbing, got me the most fired up I've been for mixed climbing since I was on Anubis.

My two wise friends, Guy Robertson and Pete McPherson gearing upbeneath Satyr
© Nick Bullock

I sometimes get a little irked by 'future of Scottish winter climbing' articles that proclaim, with a whiff of dogma attached, that this or that type of climb will be the future groundbreakers. Climbing new routes is a free and aesthetic activity, and very personal. The future hard routes lie in the minds of Greg Boswell, Guy Robertson, Pete MacPherson, and a handful of others who have the necessary drive and vision. But my personal future of Scottish winter climbing is definitely to seek out some super steep winter climbing, wherever I can find it.

Dave MacLeod is sponsored by GORE-TEX , Scarpa , Black Diamond and Mountain Equipment

Thanks go to the photographers who have contributed photos to UKC that have been reused in this article; Andy Turner, SeanJC and Nick Bullock.

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