Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A disappointing winter? (posted by James)

Soloing Castle Ridge (III**), Ben Nevis, Dec 2011

Despite the ongoing wintery weather in the Highlands, for me the Scottish winter climbing season is over due to a shortage of spare time and a few other things - so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the winter season that is now all but finished.

I think I'm fairly safe in saying that for many winter climbers, it has been a disappointing season to say the least. "Worst winter ever" became an over-used (and frankly incorrect) phrase on, ironically often used by people on the forums who have only been winter climbing for a year or so.

But I am totally understanding of the viewpoint that it has been a poor winter. I think if I'd still been living in England and doing only occasional trips to the Highlands, I would have had a similarly disappointing few months if I'd set my heart on winter climbing.

The North Buttress of Stob Ban (II/III), Jan 2012

I think for me the phrase "highs and lows" best describes my winter. I climbed a lot of routes, some of them very good, some of them previously unclimbed or unrecorded and many of them in beautiful weather. But there were long periods in between routes, regular huge thaws that stripped away snow at alarming rates and made winter climbing impossible or ridiculous for up to 3 weeks on end.

The West Face of Beinn Fhada, Glencoe - my focus for new routes this winter

But despite the "proper" cold snaps being infrequent and fairly short, I still managed to climb a lot of routes relying on hard frozen turf or ice. But then…everything was in my favour living in Glencoe. I'm privileged to be able to see what the snow conditions are like every day of the winter, what the weather is doing. I'm well networked with local guides and other local winter climbers and always have the advantage of their first hand knowledge.

With those tools at my disposal I was able to make the best of the fickle conditions, in the brief weather windows in between the long thaws. But in my opinion, even if you live in the mountains, winter climbing is only what you make of it. Unless you are willing to put in a lot of effort, expect disappointment and suffering and be ready to adapt and think outside the box, then most Scottish winters will be disappointing.

The view to Bidean nam Bian's South East Ridge, March 2012

We were so spoilt by the last two perfect winter seasons, that I think some of us forgot this year that winter climbing is no pushover. Bad weather and unpredictability are pretty much the norm, and I think if you were a climber going into this season still in the mindframe of last winter, you were going to be disappointed weather you lived in Glencoe or London.

Soloing Crescent Gully (III), Creag Meagaidh, Jan 2012

If I were to be asked to give one piece of advice to someone starting out in mountaineering, it would be this: don't plan things too firmly, and always have a plan B. I think it's something I'm finally learning properly, that even if the snow is melting and there's a waterfall coming down Number 5 Gully, there's always something to do. Go hillwalking instead, go running, go and watch the waves crashing on the coast, go and visit a waterfall.

Soloing Garadh Buttress (III), Ben Nevis, Jan 2012

Ultimately we are all just spectators really. The mountains are in charge, and we are just playing at things. It is rubbish when things don't go to plan, when a climbing trip feels wasted. But it is a privilege to even BE in such places at all. There is so much more to do, see and feel in the mountains.

I'm not having a rant, and I genuinely hope everyone who had a bad winter has better luck next time around. But sometimes I find it very healthy to step back from the addictive absurdity of climbing, take a breath and a good look…before inevitably indulging in it again.


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