Murdoch Jamieson takes the mystery out of mixed climbing: one of the most satisfying mountain experiences.
As the temperatures drop, my thoughts turn from trad to winter climbing. Climbing in winter is the ultimate game, making full use of all my mountaineering and rock climbing skills. But if you’re new to mixed climbing then route choice, learning to trust tools on rock and dealing with icy cracks can be pretty intimidating. Here are my top tips to help you mix it up.
Think days ahead
If I’m planning on getting out at the weekend, I keep an eye on the weather and avalanche forecasts from the beginning of the week. This helps me make a more informed decision on which venue to choose. I pay particular attention to temperature, precipitation, wind speed and direction. Generally I’m looking for crags that have been blasted from a recent winter storm, since the crag will be well rimed and in acceptable condition for mixed climbing. I also take into account previous weather. If it’s been cold and dry, there’s a chance the turf will be quite aerated (and tool placements rippy), so I’ll consider routes that don’t rely on turf. I also look at how much snow has fallen and where the wind has come from. If lots of snow has arrived, the crags could be buried or the approach mega hard work. Recent weather also affects the stability of the snowpack, so read the avalanche reports.
Have a fast start
On the day, I’m obsessed about having my bag pre-packed and getting an early start. This buys me time to climb and top out in the light. If your choice of venue is a climbing honeypot, it also means you can be one of the first teams in the corrie. A few winters ago, some friends climbed on Creag Meagaidh and reported it to be in awesome nick. I was psyched to get there the next weekend but, knowing the forecast and the winter psyche on the web, knew the place was going to be mobbed. So I persuaded my mate to leave the car park at 4am to make sure we were first to the bottom of Smith’s Gully. Yes, we started climbing in the dark but we were never behind other teams.
Below the route
On arrival, you need to assess what effect the recent weather conditions have had. Is the crag in acceptable nick? Is the approach to your climb safe? Will the weather forecast have any effect on your planned descent? When you first arrive in the corrie, you need to be pretty flexible about what you get on.
At the base of the route, I normally still feel pretty fit and ready to concentrate on the technical climbing. This is where all those runs after work and occasional long hill-day through the autumn pay off. Cardiovascular training will prepare you to have good recovery after the walk in and not be totally knackered. Last autumn, I also made the effort to get out dry tooling a few times. This improves your confidence with placements, increases your repertoire of techniques and improves your ability on steep ground. It definitely boosted my confidence.
Get the gear
If you’re serious about improving your mixed-climbing, consider climbing leashless. I remember climbing Fallout Corner years ago with old leashed tools. It was a complete faff, but I just accepted that that was winter climbing. Last season, I did the same route with a set of leashless tools and mono points. It was almost a completely different experience: much easier and more natural.
Protecting mixed routes requires a substantial rack. I normally base it on my summer rack, taking an extensive set of wires and cams. But be careful when using cams in winter: if the cracks are dry, they’re good, but if they’re lined with verglass, they’re useless. Pack some hexes to hammer into icy cracks. I also carry a selection of pegs – a few warthogs, bulldogs and, more recently, a pecker. If I know I’m going to be on mostly rock (such as quartzite on Beinn Eighe), I might ditch the warthogs, but if I’m on lots of turfy ground (like sandstone on Beinn Bahn), then I’ll take quite a few.
Once I arrive at the belay and set it up, I swap my gloves for a pair of belay mitts. This is one step to reducing uncomfortable belays. Normally, as a team, we carry a sack with food, water, belay jacket, guidebook, some spare gloves, and a map and compass. It’s the second’s job to bring this up. Yes, it’s a sometimes a faff to climb with, but at least you’ll have some comfort on those long belays. Or maybe I’m just a wimp!
I reckon we’ll get a great season this year – an ideal one to start your mixed-climbing career. Just remember to search for venues that suit the current conditions, then look for routes that are well protected but will get you pulling some moves. See you out there.
Murdoch Jamieson has spent a lot of time climbing and working in the Northwest Highlands. He’s currently working at Plas y Brenin but is returning to Scotland for the winter season.
EXPERT Q & A
Greg Boswell is one of Scotland’s most experienced young climbers. His passion lies in pushing his limits on hard Scottish winter route. During the winter of 2010/11 he climbed an impressive 11 routes of Grade VIII or above, all by the age of 19.
Q. How did you get into mixed climbing?
A. My Dad and good family-friend Ken Lacey took me into the mountains and taught me some winter skills. The next weekend we did an easy mixed route. After that I was hooked…literally.
Q. Which is your favourite Scottish mixed venue?
A. Definitely Ben Nevis. It’s one of the most reliable venues in Scotland for winter conditions and is one of the best places for a high concentration of hard mixed and ice routes. There are also an unbelievable amount of unclimbed lines on the Ben, both hard and easy. As soon as winter rolls in, this is the place I look forward to climbing at.
Q. Which winter route have you learnt the most on?
A. The one that taught me the most about how far I can push myself, both physically and mentally, was Stone Temple Pilots on the Shelter Stone. It’s over 200m of super-sustained climbing. Will Sim and I climbed it in about 15 hours, and I fought total fatigue, cramp and mental doubt. I learnt to push myself to new levels on this monster route and it’s helped me progress.
Q. If I climb hard in summer, can I jump onto something really hard in winter?
A. Honestly? No. Your summer fitness will help out on pumpy mixed routes, but the techniques and skills needed to climb hard Scottish mixed lines take a good while to obtain. It takes experience to unveil the protection and gear placements on winter climbs. Trusting axes and crampons on miniscule edges, often a long way above your last, icy gear placement, is also an acquired skill!
Q. What’s your frame of mind when setting off on a hard lead?
A. I take it one move at a time. I try to stay calm and focused but also keep telling myself that I’m more than capable of overcoming any situation or level of fatigue I’ll come up against. Keeping focused on succeeding is always key, even if the odds are stacked against you.
Q. Which piece of winter kit do you rely on the most?
A. My Grivel Force axes. These have been all over the world with me and have helped me get out of some pretty tricky situations. I use them for every type of mixed climbing. I’d feel naked in the mountains in winter without them.
BMC Winter Essentials DVD
Packed with information and advice on all the skills and techniques you need for winter climbing. Available now in the BMC shop.
Plas y Brenin
The national mountain centre has a range of winter climbing courses: from starting out to performance coaching. www.pyb.co.uk
Read more climb skills articles.