#skyewinterfest and a slippery In Pinn

It was a busy Christmas and New Year’s holiday and it’s been a while since I’ve posted, so here’s getting back into it with this first of 2017. Over the weekend of 14-15 January I was at the Isle of Skye Winter Festival. Run every year by Mike Lates of Skye Guides, the Festival is a relaxed and informal meetup between like-minded winter climbers and walkers who have come to know Skye Guides in various ways over the past few years. It’s been running for a few years but the last time I could make it was in 2013. So it was nice to be back again – crossing the soaring Skye Bridge and leaving the mainland behind is always a great feeling.

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The Northern Cuillin

We (Marie and I) arrived on Friday mid-morning after being delayed on snowy roads from Glasgow, sadly too late for a full day out. In fact, we had spent the night in a frozen Glen Nevis car park. Upon getting to Skye we had an easy two hour walk from the Sligachan hotel over the moor towards Coire a’ Bhasteir; a brief warm-up for the winter weekend ahead. The Northern Cuillin looked beautifully stark in the flat afternoon light, with only a dusting of snow coating their angular lines. There was patchy snow and slushy ice underfoot – winter hasn’t hit the Isle of Skye in full force just yet.

After a sober evening (sticking to a dry January!) I set off with three others – Johnny, Daniela and Chris – on frozen roads towards the Glen Brittle. The forecast had been good for winter climbing; a short sharp cold snap with fresh, clear skies made for good winter conditions. We were lucky; Skye’s coastal location often makes for mild winter conditions, and thaws can wipe out accumulated snow and ice in short order (though admittedly it has been a mild winter across the whole of Scotland so far).

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Sun and drifting cloud on the way up

We had decided to tackle the Inaccessible Pinnacle, also known as the In Pinn. Famous for being the only munro top that demands a rope and rock climbing skills, the Pinn is actually the summit of Sgurr Dearg (the Red Peak in Gaelic). At 986m it’s a narrow whaleback ridge of rock, less than a foot wide in places. The most common way up and over is by the East Ridge. A Moderate rock climb in summer and a Grade III/IV in winter, it offers awesome exposure and a vertical drop on both sides.

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Daniela and Chris on the  East Ridge

Daniela and Chris were first, and when they were safely away I led the climb with Johnny as my second. The thin rime-coated ice made for tricky going, with little in the way of built-up ice allowing use of my axe picks in the normal way. Instead I climbed with one hand and one axe, using the latter for some crafty hooking. The crux (visible just above Daniela in the photo) was exhilarating and slippery, with few positive holds, but once above it the way ahead was nice and easy.

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Abseiling from the Bolster Stone. Photo credit: Chris Boote

We abseiled from the Bolster Stone (the highest boulder), made a bit more famous last year to a whole new audience by Mr Danny MacAskill perching on top of it with his bike. Unfortunately the cloud had moved in by that point, so our views were limited in typical Cuillin fashion. The ridge is an infamous cloud magnet. In fact, many of the other people at the festival were up on top of Blabheinn (Blaven) at that point just a few kilometres away, still in the sun!

We finished off a great day on the Cuillin with a mass curry in the evening with good chat and a couple of presentations at Skye Basecamp hostel. Mike has put together a fantastic annual event in the Festival, and the opportunities for meeting new climbers, ticking off established routes and even putting up new lines is immense – Skye’s fickle weather notwithstanding! As if to underscore this, Sunday was mild, wet and cloudy when it arrived, so we decided to head back to Glasgow at midday. Here’s hoping for a start to the Scottish winter season proper – and soon.

Faster and lighter? Part II – Five alpine lessons for Scottish mountaineering

What’s the difference between mountaineering in the 4000m+ peaks of the Alps, and Scotland? More importantly – what lessons can we take from alpine climbing to become better trekkers, climbers and mountaineers here in the UK?

Part I provided an introduction to Chamonix, where I’ve just spent a week, and summed up what I did. This post, Part II, answers the question: what lessons from alpine mountaineering can be applied to trekking and mountaineering in Scotland? In this post I’m mainly talking about winter mountaineering in Scotland, when applying lessons from the Alps is most important.

Moving together roped over glaciated terrain

Moving together roped over glaciated terrain (Col du Midi, Chamonix)

What is the ‘alpine style’?

In alpine mountaineering it’s important to manage both time and energy as efficiently as possible. After all, if you run out of time you’ll be finishing your route and/or your descent in the dark, which makes things much less fun and much more challenging. Worse, you may have to spend the night on the mountain and wait for first light before you can move again. If you run out of energy, needless to say, you’ll be in trouble. At best you’ll be burnt out and at worst you’ll risk exposure or exhaustion.

So ‘alpine style’ mountaineering is all about travelling fast and light. The idea is to make it to the top of a peak or a route as quickly and efficiently as possible before coming down again, and so avoid running out of time or energy. It emphasises self-sufficiency; advocates of the alpine style don’t take get out of jail cards like tents with them in case things turn bad (the extra weight would slow them down). The drive for self-sufficiency and speed means a deliberately frugal approach to heavyweight equipment (though weight can still add up on multi-day trips). In the Alps or the Greater Ranges where weather windows can be brief, speed is safety, so it’s no surprise that the alpine style is now the de facto approach for many modern mountaineers.

The alpine style was taken up by pioneering mountaineers like Reinhold Messner and Chris Bonington in the 1970s on expeditions to the Greater Ranges. In these cases they were applying an ethic, which had been developed in the Alps, to peaks of much greater scale than those in the Alps; peaks whose size meant that they weren’t obviously suited to the alpine style. Before the 1970s, expeditions had depended on the expedition or ‘siege’ approach to mountaineering, with fixed ropes and several camps being established as parties made their way laboriously towards the summit over many days. However, the likes of Messner and Bonington proved that the alpine style could be successfully  applied to very high mountains in the Himalaya. Yvon Chouinard’s 1978 book ‘Climbing Ice’ was one of the first popular books promoting the ethic. And much more recently, elite mountaineers like Ueli Steck have since taken the fast and light ethic to its fullest extent in speed ascents of the Eiger Nordwand and others. This is sometimes referred to as ‘extreme alpinism’.

So what lessons can we learn?

It should be pretty obvious from the above that the alpine style demands a healthy amount of experience to be able to apply safely! Alpine style mountaineers rely on their experience and skill to find the balance between placing lots of speed-sapping fixed protection and maintaining a good rate of progress.

But even if you’re not an alpine god like Ueli Steck, many alpine style lessons can be applied to Scotland and its piddly (by comparison) munros. Lesson can be learned from elite mountaineers and adapted for less extreme (but still challenging) Scottish winter situations.

#1 – Embrace minimalism (within reason!)

When it comes to speed, the most effective way you can help yourself is by cutting down on weight. Try to adopt a consciously minimalist approach to packing, and pack light. Ask yourself what’s essential and what’s an added extra. On a short day, can you drink an extra 500ml before setting off and so reduce the amount you need to carry? Can you take lighter food, maybe taking out that apple and replacing it with dehydrated berries? Do you need two axes for a Scottish Winter Grade II traverse, or will one do?

Look at your kit, too. It’s a simple fact that you usually get what you pay for, and lighter gear is more expensive. The amount you want to invest in personal gear is your choice, but there are some wise choices to be made. Instead of bulky crampon-snagging external gaiters, can you use winter softshell trousers with internal snow gaiters and reinforced hems? Is your rucksack a 2kg army surplus throwback to the 1940s, or is it a 900g clean-profile modern job? Can you upgrade your fluffy 11mm single rope to a dry-treated 9.5mm? There are so many considerations and it’s impossible do them all justice in one blog post. Fortunately, there are lots of more detailed info sources out there to help you with this – check out Dave MacLeod’s video here on what to pack for Scottish winter climbing, for starters.

There’s an important proviso here. Being overly minimalist, to the point of being underprepared, is dangerous and is never recommended. The Scottish climate is unpredictable (see #2 below) so it’s essential not to skimp on core essentials like a bothy bag, hardshells (i.e. full waterproofs), a GPS, a headtorch and spare food for emergency energy.

An unroped approach to Number 4 Gully, Ben Nevis - 3 March 2013

An unroped approach to Number 2 Gully, Ben Nevis

#2 – Check the forecast and conditions

In the Alps, weather systems are usually fairly predictable and forecasts are generally reliable. Nonetheless, Alpine climbing demands a healthy respect for the severity of bad weather at altitude. Alpine climbers will generally not venture out if the forecast is bad.

In Scotland, the situation is different. Uncertainty in the forecast is normal and frankly, if you want to wait for the perfect weather day, you won’t be getting out much! So check that forecast and prepare accordingly. The point is not that an uncertain forecast should have to stop you heading out because you’ve packed a super-light minimalist rucksack – the point is that what you pack is always a judgement call based on the best quality information you can get.

Check online sources too – the ukclimbing.com logbook pages and forums for beta (information) on route conditions is the best place to start. And always make sure you check the avalanche forecast and snowpack conditions at www.sais.gov.uk.

#3 – Start early and finish early

This is good practice at any time of year, and especially when a beer or an evening stretched out in a warm tent after a hard day beckons! But Scottish summer days are very long, so early starts are far more important in winter. When it comes to Scottish winter days you might only have seven hours of daylight to play with, and the first and last of them will be dawn and dusk. So an early start is essential. Winter lines like those on the north face of Ben Nevis, for example,  frequently have long walk-ins and you may have an hour or two of walking before you can even start climbing. It’s quite normal for climbers at the Ben Nevis North Face car park to set off at  4am. In the Alps, depending on the route, it may be as early as 11pm the night before! But early starts pay off – the certainty of knowing that time is on your side is priceless.

#4 – Work on your fitness

Although Scottish mountaineering can be extremely challenging, it doesn’t usually demand the wholesale adoption of an Alpine style ethic. Days out in Scotland tend to be short and single, meaning that you can afford to place more of an emphasis on thorough protection (more on this in #5 below). Not so in the Alps, where multi-day trips can really push you, especially because of the added challenge of being at high altitude.

Whether in the Alps or Scotland, if you don’t have the cardio fitness and stamina to keep up a good rate of progress then you’ll be letting yourself down. The key to this one is preparation. Build up your fitness in advance through long days out – cardio fitness and endurance training beats pumping iron in the gym. Upper body strength is important, yes, but if your legs are exhausted by the time you get to the start of a climbing or scrambling route then it won’t matter if you can do one arm pull-ups on a two-finger hold.

#5 – Move quickly!

Last and by no means least is the importance of moving quickly and efficiently. In the Alps, long routes mean that fixed pitches are often unacceptably slow. Alpine mountaineers will generally move together over easier sections of technical ground, either individually or roped together. In the latter case, it’s normal to use fixed protection in the form of running belays, which the leader will place and the last climber on the rope will remove. This is also known as simul climbing.

Traversing easy ground on the Aonach Eagach

Moving unroped over easy ground on a winter traverse of the Aonach Eagach

The benefits of moving quickly apply to both Scottish summer and winter, whether you’re trekking, climbing or mountaineering. In Scotland, the tendency is to treat every pitch on climbing routes as a fixed pitch with a belayer. Whilst this is secure, it’s very slow. Consider the possibility of simul climbing on easier sections well within your ability. As always, it’s important to use your experience to assess the suitability of a section for moving together. Simul climbing is better suited to winter climbing or summer scrambling than steep rock routes. For example, you certainly wouldn’t try to simul climb a multi-pitch VS (Very Severe) trad route! But on ridge routes like Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis where fixed pitch climbing would take ages, simul climbing is a necessity in summer or winter. Knowing when to run it out and move together (roped or unroped) comes with experience, but it’s important to keep in mind the need for speed and to avoid slowing yourself down where possible.