Winter Climbing For The Middle Aged Married Parent

© Marion Leister
When we were 21 I'm sure we were all going to set the winter climbing scene ablaze with our flaming ice axes. But priorities change, you meet the love of your life, settle down, maybe start a family,

... but you don't completely settle down...

Come mid October Scottish Winter Climbs has magically appeared next to the toilet, and a battered copy of Cold Climbs on the coffee table, you find yourself looking at Fort William when you watch TV weather forecasts and you discover your three year old knows all about ice screws. If this is you read on, my ramblings on what I've found useful when combining domestic bliss with winter climbing may be of some use.

(If you are 21 and think you are shortly going to set the winter climbing scene ablaze with your flaming ice axes then keep this article in a safe place for the next fifteen years.)

Curved Ridge  © ravensgully
Curved Ridge
© ravensgully, Feb 2010

Autumn preparation

Every couple I know work the brownie point system. If you and your other half don't you are either lying to yourself or your partner simply hasn't informed you of the fact yet. I won't dwell on this, but if you don't want your climbing to be curtailed by your own guilt or a blazing row then make sure you are in credit, or arrange an overdraft!

Some die hard winter climbers still see 'fitness' as a swear word and 'training' as somehow cheating. However the few days you have out are going to be hard, so do some prep'. Don't be one of the people I've seen make it to the CIC hut too knackered to do a route. In my experience if time is short running, and particularly cycling, are better than climbing wall visits. (I haven't climbed a grade V yet that demanded I was able to do a pull up, but the ability to keep going hour on hour has been very useful.) Try to build this into your routine as this avoids spending brownie points on training; commutes to work, after the kids have gone to bed and early in the morning work for me. If you find yourself out cycling at 8.30pm on a Saturday night you are: Sad and, probably on the right lines...

Get the beta; Read guide books, look at maps, talk to people who have done the routes you want to do, ask questions on web forums, generally don't be afraid to bore people stupid in your quest for knowledge! Try and get a list of mixed and ice lines you want to do in each area / venue so you keep your options open. The more you know about a route, when it may be in, how to get to it, how to get off it etc, the more likely you are to get it done. (Just be aware of those wanting to give
their opinion who haven't done the route you want to do, been on a particular crag, or indeed in some cases been winter climbing at all. Web forums can be particularly good for meeting these helpful souls.)

Chat to friends, (or at least those who are still prepared to listen to you.) See early on who will be up for some winter climbing. It's better to have a list of likely partners that you keep in touch with through the winter than spend a Thursday evening desperately phoning anyone and everyone you know who has ever held an ice axe, when you know the route you want to do is in condition but nobody seems to be up for it. Remember that if travelling from 'down south,' when prospecting for partners that the single most useful attribute for Scottish winter climbing is not a nerve of steel or the ability to withstand untold horrendous weather, it's a drivers license.

When winter comes
Now this may be easier for me than some as I live about four hours from Fort William and five from Aviemore, but I've become an advocate of the one day hit. Basically don't go for the whole weekend, go for a day. It is tiring, but has several advantages:

  • Only one nights camping / dossing to deal with.
  • Far less kit to take.
  • If your kit gets wet it's not an issue.
  • When you get up knackered in the morning you know the next night you will be in your own bed.
  • Spend one of the weekend days with partner / family. (See 'brownie points'.)
  • You don't have to do it all over again when motivation may be low on day 2.
  • Leaves you fresher for the following week and possibly weekend. (However, again, see 'brownie points'!)
  • Use websites and blogs to know when the weather / conditions are good.

In my Element  © Marion Leister
In my Element
© Marion Leister, Feb 2008

Be prepared to climb on busy weekends in busy places. Perhaps not ideal, but if you are in the position where you are only going to have a few days out, better to wait until the routes are good and you know what's in rather than waste time on marginal conditions and weather. The way most of us will get this info' is through websites, (see above,) which leads to some 'honey potting'. You can either accept this and just get on with it, or try to sus out where other less frequented crags in condition could be; if the high ice routes on the Ben are in then Aonach Beag may be too, if it's the Northern Corries Coire An Lochain is less frequented than Corrie An t-Sneachda (particularly on Sundays,) is Hell's Lum worth a look(?) it's only the same walk time as Lochain. If you are going out on Aonach Mor why not go for a long adventure on the West Face rather than join the race to the East Face routes? If Stob Coire Nan Lochan is in are the high buttresses on Bidean Nam Bian worth a look? Do you have to drive to Scotland? Are the Lakes or North Wales in condition? (Both now have good guide book coverage.) Stay open minded about venue choice until the last possible moment; pack all your guide books and maps in the car.

Waste as little time as possible. Talk to your climbing partner before you go so you know who is taking what in terms of the rack / maps / guides etc. Check your ropes aren't the same colour. Take a bivi bag, easy to use tent, or doss in the car; you are unlikely to get a good night's sleep wherever you are as you'll get there late and get up early so accept this and just get on with it.

Research shows that humans sleep in four hour 'blocks'. You will be lucky to get eight hours sleep, but try and get at least four, even if this is while somebody else is driving. We all know that an extra hour in bed will not do you a great deal of good though, (although we've all convinced ourselves otherwise at one point or other.) If the difference between getting up at 4.00am and 5.00am is likely to be queuing for two hours behind other climbers then get up early.

IKEA, (that great supplier or cutting edge alpine climbing equipment,) make shopping bags that are great for throwing damp kit / tents into to be dealt with later. Getting these has the added advantage that when you inevitably find yourself shopping at said Scandinavian retailer on a Saturday you can kid yourself that you haven't surrendered to domestic middle age but are simply getting sorting for the up coming season.

Don't take a stove, (you'll have so little sleep that you'll probably hurt yourself with it in any case!) Take a flask of a non diuretics for breakfast and a tupa-wear box, (don't pretend you haven't got any,) with cereal in. Just add milk, when you've finished drop the spoon in, put the top back on and deal with it when you get home.

Eat before you set out from home and take food with you for the journey. This way you can make sure you have water and carbohydrate rather than service station lard and coke. Hard though the temptation may be save the beer and fish and chips for the evening drive home after the route, or better still the night after that.

Learn about hydration and nutrition, (I know it's tedious, but it really does help,) that will make your day out easier. Remember, you have to drive home when you've finished so just making it back to the road absolutely spent, although sometimes unavoidable, isn't always desirable. Have food and water for the journey home already in the car, make some of this protein if your concerned about recovering better. I've also found that with advancing years sinking a big pain killer on reaching the car greatly reduced stiffening up on the drive home.

On the day

If you are new to the game, or more likely given the premise of this article, haven't climbed for a few years, be progressive in building up your experience. Remember it is far more important to be fit, know how to navigate and know about snow condition than it is to be able to climb hard if you want a long and productive winter climbing career. Although we have all done it, try not to bite off more than you can chew. Or at least, not too often.

Right, that's the disclaimer over with!

There is a flip side to this coin however. Be aware of how hard you can climb, (this is where experience comes in; KNOW how hard, don't GUESS.) You probably haven't got time in a season to 'warm up'. I have a friend who has climbed Vs and VIs, but most season spends a few trips warming up, and then when he is ready for his big lead watches the season finish. I'm not saying grades are everything, but if you want to climb at your limit don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, just know where your comfort zone is and don't step too far.

Make sure you pack enough rack to have a few route options. Don't make the numpty mistake a friend and I once did by going to do Observatory Ridge and when we were foiled by deep powder snow found ourselves standing below a pristine Zero Gully with not an ice screw between us.

Use ski poles as, with advancing years, it really helps not stiffening up in the car on the way home. If like me you don't, (didn't,) use them as you don't like them flapping about on your pack Millets, (yes Millets!) do a set for £40 that are made of four rather than three sections so fit inside your sac when climbing. (Alpkit now also do a carbon four section set.)

Stay open minded as to route choice; do what looks best rather than what's highest on your list.

If day light and weather allows try and get two routes done, makes you feel as though you've got a weekend's worth into one day!

And, when it all isn't going to plan don't forget, in Mark Twight's words, 'It doesn't have to be fun to be fun.'

Final words

Some may read these notes and feel that if you end up in a busy corrie, climbing a route you know a great deal about, then you have removed too much of the uncertainty, that planning as many aspects of your trip as possible removes the spontaneity and a degree of adventure. You may be right.


At the stage I'm at in my life I want to spend the little time I have climbing great routes on good days without short changing my family, I'll save the exploration for when I've got more time, (and possibly a beard?!) in later life. If you're in the same position I hope bits of this have been of some use to you.

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14 Feb, 2012
Nice article, which can be usefully extrapolated to a variety of other pusuits. Cheers Mark
14 Feb, 2012
Fab stuff. Thanks
14 Feb, 2012
This is me, though I am clinging on to the idea that I am 21, rather than 40 and middle aged. Great article!
14 Feb, 2012
cool article. nice to read something about winter climbing not totally focussed on the bloody gear! a lot there any climber could use.
14 Feb, 2012
liked that. still somewhat a yoof (28) though with commitments but also no car, so a lot of the same approaches are needed to get anything done. Also a lot of generally wise things we try to do to make sure things go smoothly.
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