Winter Ridges for Walkers and Mountaineers

© Dan Bailey

What's more enjoyable than a classic ridge walk or scramble on a sunny summer day? Not much that I can think of – except perhaps for the same route in winter conditions. Snow promotes our wee hills into genuine mountains, giving them a more austere, elemental feel and adding physical challenge and seriousness to any day out. With ice-glazed rocks and corniced crests even easy summer ridge walks can take on a mountaineering edge, while lower grade scrambles transform into proper (albeit bottom-end) winter climbs.

Helvellyn from Striding Edge  © Dan Bailey -
Helvellyn from Striding Edge
© Dan Bailey -

There's a lot to bear in mind at this harsh end of the year, from possible avalanche risk and wild weather to choice of gear and competence with axe and crampons. Squeezing big routes into narrow daylight windows will often mean starting and finishing in the dark, and maintaining the sort of efficient pace you might associate more with the Alps so that you're off any tricky ground by nightfall. It's a rigorous and unforgiving season to be out on the ridges, but the rewards are worth all the extra effort.

In snow even easy ridge walks can take on a mountaineering edge, while lower grade scrambles transform into proper winter climbs

Sron na Lairig  © Dan Bailey
Sron na Lairig
© Dan Bailey

The following brief selection covers a few of the more popular winter ridges from Scotland, the Lakes and Snowdonia, in roughly ascending order of difficulty from top-end walks to grade I and II winter climbs. Grade I ridges combine airy excitement with minimal technicality, offering the sort of ground that's ideally suited to experienced winter walkers with mountaineering aspirations. A walking axe, crampons and a steady head will be required, but a rope (etc) pretty rarely.

From here it's generally quite a step up to grade II, where the big classic traverses such as Aonach Eagach and Liathach can prove to be relatively serious, sustained and technically interesting. A rope and some protection will often be needed, and many will welcome the reassurance of a pair of climbing axes; if you're not sure what I mean by all that then book a course or join a club before having a go at An Teallach in the snow.

On the northwest ridge of Pen yr Helgi Du  © Dan Bailey
On the northwest ridge of Pen yr Helgi Du
© Dan Bailey
Carn Mor Dearg and the CMD Arete from high on Ledge Route  © Dan Bailey
Carn Mor Dearg and the CMD Arete from high on Ledge Route
© Dan Bailey

All that said however, it's hard to make general rules about winter numbers or the gear any individual will definitely need. This is the season that really exposes the fallibility of grading as an objective science. A grade is a rough approximation of a route's difficulty in average conditions, but in the winter context what does average even mean? With our fickle weather change is the one thing you can pretty much bank on, and ditto the state of snow and ice underfoot. Deep powder one morning could turn to slush by the afternoon, before perhaps refreezing into concrete neve.

It's a rigorous and unforgiving season, but the rewards are worth the extra effort

Since each will give a very different climbing experience, the challenge of a particular ridge on any given day is something of an unknown quantity until you get there. A grade I in really testing weather and snow conditions might feel more dicey than a grade II in perfect crisp nick, and in this situation the requirement for ropes etc might conceivably be reversed. Occasionally even the most straightforward walker's ridge can put up quite a fight. Take nothing for granted, and don't underestimate any day out. In winter team decisions can be for high stakes, but learning to cope with whatever the mountain throws at you (or deciding when to run away) is all part of the fun.

Tarmachan ridge

Hard walk

Tarmachan Ridge  © Dan Bailey
Tarmachan Ridge
© Dan Bailey

The switchback route over the knobbly peaks of Meall nan Tarmachan and Co is a perennial favourite, but particularly memorable under snow. There's just one notably narrow section, the famous Meall Garbh arête. It's only an airy walk, and sadly short lived, but the sting in the tail (for those heading west) comes at the end with an unexpected steep downclimb that's awkward if icy. Classic stuff, and a good first taste of winter ridges for the less experienced.

See this UKH Route Card

Southern Carneddau

Hard walk / grade I

Compared to the up-front impressiveness of the neighbouring Glyderau you could be forgiven for dismissing the Carneddau as rolling and grassy. But these Welsh biggies have hidden depths as monumentally gothic as any in Snowdonia. The circuit of Cwms Llafar and Eigiau is a grand high level ridge traverse, taking in four summits including the third and fourth highest in Wales. Summertime scrambling may be negligible but snow offers a hint of mountaineering at three very brief points – the east spur of Pen yr Ole Wen; the descent into Bwlch Eryl Farchog; and the northwest ridge of Pen yr Helgi Du.

See this UKH Route Card

Ben Cruachan via Drochaid Ghlas north ridge

Hard walk / grade I

Etive hills from the Drochaid Ghlas ridge  © Dan Bailey
Etive hills from the Drochaid Ghlas ridge
© Dan Bailey

OK, this is a bit of a wild card compared to the better known classics listed here. Cruachan is deservedly popular of course, but the north ridge of Drochaid Ghlas sees a fraction of this footfall - and that's part of its appeal. Lose the crowds and head round to the north side of the massif, where a series of impressive corries and ridges rise above lonely Glen Noe. The Drochaid Ghlas ridge is just one of several choices – steep, slightly scrambly, and good fun in the snow. To finish the day either continue to Cruachan's main summit, or complete a shorter circuit over Stob Diamh and Stob Garbh; either option gives top quality winter ridge walking.

Helvellyn's Striding Edge and Swirral Edge

Grade I

A circuit of the fine sculpted crests enclosing the Red Tarn cove, this much-loved hill walk is all the rage at any time of year - but naturally it's best saved for a day of sunshine and snow. In hard winter conditions the ground just about makes it into the mountaineering category, but not by enough to put off competent winter walkers. Though the round sits at the most inclusive end of the climbing spectrum it is not short on airy excitement. If any ridge can disprove the idea that quality is proportional to difficulty, it has to be Striding Edge. To avoid getting caught in a snail-like procession along the crest avoid weekends and bank holidays if at all possible.

See this UKH Route Card

Ben Nevis via CMD Arête

Grade I

In summer the CMD Arete is one of the top scrambly hillwalks of Britain, while winter gives it rather more of a mountaineering edge. With its pure curving proportions and airy situations few routes of this modest grade can match it for atmosphere, and as you progress along the spine the views of the complex crags of Ben Nevis are unrivalled. It's amenable to mountaineers of all abilities, but bear in mind that since the ridge links the mighty Ben Nevis and 4000-footer Carn Mor Dearg its altitude exposes it to the harshest of weather and conditions.

See this UKH Route Card

Ring of Steall

Grade I

Starting the Devil's ridge section of the Ring of Steall  © Dan Bailey
Starting the Devil's ridge section of the Ring of Steall
© Dan Bailey

It is hard to write about this route without gushing superlatives, from the approach through the Glen Nevis gorge and across the infamous wire bridge near Steall Falls to the horseshoe waiting above. The graceful thin ridges of this 'ring' provide one of Scotland's prime low-end winter mountaineering trips, a long day in the heart of the magnificent Mamores with the Glen Coe peaks to one side and the Nevis range to the other. It's mostly just walking, but two notable sections prove entertaining under snow. These are the rocky An Garbhanach – An Gearanach spine, and the evocatively named Devil's Ridge - it's much less hellish than it sounds.

NE Ridge, Sgor an Lochain Uaine

Grade I

On the northeast ridge of Sgor an Lochain Uaine  © Dan Bailey
On the northeast ridge of Sgor an Lochain Uaine
© Dan Bailey

Otherwise known as the Angel's Peak in complement to the nearby Devil's 'Point' (a prudish euphemism), this is the most peak-like of the five Cairngorm 4000-footers, and shares the epic corrie complex of An Garbh Choire with neighbouring Braeriach. The scale and remoteness of these hills make a biggie of any trip here, particularly in winter when the range can enjoy some of the toughest conditions in the country. If there's fresh snow to slow progress consider making a weekend of it. Rising in a one-er from the shore of Lochan Uaine to the summit, the Northeast Ridge is a compellingly obvious line, an easy blocky clamber with an out-there feel.

Snowdon Horseshoe

Grade I

Crib Goch from the west  © Dan Bailey
Crib Goch from the west
© Dan Bailey

Notwithstanding recent possibly freak seasons it is arguably quite a rare treat to catch the Snowdon Horseshoe in true winter nick. But it's worth the wait. With added snow this classic summer scramble takes on the mantle of a mini Alpine traverse (granted, an easy one) with the sort of knife-edged thrill that you'd otherwise have to travel to Scotland to find. Crib Goch starts the day with a bang, its shelving rock crest and gnarled pinnacles giving a definite crux to the route. There's also plenty of fun on the long airy spine of Crib y Ddysgl. After these highs the southern half of the horseshoe over Snowdon and Lliwedd is a gradual come-down, though still spectacular.

See this UKH Route Card

Sron na Lairig

Grade II

On Sron na Lairig  © Dan Bailey
On Sron na Lairig
© Dan Bailey

Sron na Lairig is traditionally considered a stepping stone to the nearby and more committing Aonach Eagach (thus I guess other big winter traverses such as Liathach and An Teallach too). It is low in the grade, and in good conditions well suited to teams taking their first steps into grade II climbing. Yet the fact remains that this is a long route in a fairly isolated setting, with the occasional tricky little step, steadily building in exposure to a sudden grand climax right at the top. It's fabulous whether climbed as an end in itself or as an entertaining mountaineer's access route to the Bidean nam Bian range.

Ledge Route

Grade II

Tricky bit on Ledge Route  © Dan Bailey
Tricky bit on Ledge Route
© Dan Bailey

This is by quite a margin the easiest of The Ben's famous ridge climbs. It's not technically that tricky for the grade, but a big day out in an impressive setting, with over 400m of fall-off-able ground and some interesting route finding. Though the name may not conjure up images of narrow arêtes don't be fooled; the route's upper half is a classic ridge, the optional highlight of which is a striking narrow rock fin with a precarious little step down from its far end. The climbing may be fairly easy but Ledge Route needs sound judgement. Its start is accessed via the potentially avalanche prone Number Five Gully, while the first section of the climb itself crosses sometimes-treacherous iced slabs above a very terminal drop. If there's time a descent via the CMD Arête gives the full value Ben Nevis experience.

Details of these routes and many more can be found in Dan's two guidebooks, The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland, and Scotland's Mountain Ridges

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14 Nov, 2011
Cheers Nick; have a good winter
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