There are so many wonderful places to explore in the world, but my exploration is usually in the mountains of Scotland.
Scottish winter climbing offers an incredible experience. There are still many unclimbed routes in the mountains of Scotland and there are also some routes with ascents which have never been repeated… meaning they are usually pretty hard!
A typical day involves a very early wake, anything between 3am and 6am. The walk into the route (main climb) can be between two and five hours. The climbs themselves vary in length but on average three to seven hours is a standard route. The grade of these routes will also make a huge difference in the time taken by a team. Weather, too, plays its part on the route.
Preparation is key for any route, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into: there is often nobody about and it could take hours before help arrives.
In my line of work, I’ve been fortunate to work with some world-class mountaineers and climb alongside them. One in particular is Kenton Cool, a British Mountain guide, who has summited Mt Everest 12 times, and guided Ranulph Fiennes up the Eiger North Face and Mt Everest. We recently returned from the Old Man of Hoy – it was a super experience and I am keen to go back. It was like stepping back in time when I saw the bolts and pegs from the first ascent in 1967 by Sir Chris Bonnington and team. To have climbed what they did with the equipment they had was truly nuts!
My regular climbing partner is a great friend from my local village of Blair Atholl. Corin Smith and I knew each other from the age of four, but we went our different directions in our teens. However, we met again a few years ago and started climbing together. I had significantly more climbing experience but, as with everything he does, he caught up and is now amazing! Having a good relationship is key, as there are many periods where you rely on each other, both physically and mentally.
We climb most of the winter around Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms and the North West. Due to the weather system, Ben Nevis is super for its ice routes; Towering grade V ice routes such as Point 5 gully and Hadrian’s Wall to the British classic – and a must for any aspiring climber – Tower Ridge.
Winter climbing preparation starts in August where I use the gym (work!) to get strong. I combine that with dry tooling, which is essentially rock climbing on very steep or overhanging crags using ice axes and crampons. The crag has bolts drilled for protection, unlike a winter climb where you carry all your protection.
There are topography maps for winter climbing routes, which will give details regarding the severity of the line, how technically hard it is and what to look out for. However, with most of the steep committing routes, the physicality of the climb is exacerbated by the mental. Like most things, the more time you spend in these positions, the less uncomfortable you get.
The only thing that still freaks me out is abseiling in the dark. I had a very scary experience with a friend when we ran out of light before reaching the top of the route. On a tenuous move one of my ice axes pinged off hitting me in the face and cutting me. We decided to get off the route quickly so we abseiled off what was poor gear! I think we had one nut (protection) fitted and I disappeared off the edge not knowing where the ropes were below. Fortunately, I made it down to a ledge and waited for my partner, where we repeated the process! A scary day but an experience, nonetheless.