10 Things No One Will Tell You About Winter Climbing

Jenny is currently working for the Lake District National Park as an education facilitator. She has become a fairly regular climber in the lakes throughout the last year; found out on the crags and at the wall when the weather isn't playing game. She will always have a smile on her face if being out in the fresh air is involved. She tells us about her weekend in Scotland - the first winter climbing trip of the season!

This weekend I completed my first mixed rock and ice routes in the Cairngorms. It was brilliant! On reflection I will admit to loving every minute of it, even though at times it was very much Type 2 fun. However, as I set out I came to realise that many of my preconceptions of winter climbing were entirely misleading. I am therefore going to let you in on a few hidden truths regarding this teeth gritting, bicep pumping sport.

1. The Walk In

When it comes to approaches I am very much a “the shorter the better” kind of girl. Although I love the wild ruggedness that often comes with a lengthy approach, my patience has a tendency to dwindle on route. Unfortunately, this is one of the downfalls of climbing in the rocky outcrops that often host good winter areas. As I was repeatedly reminded, the walk in for Coire an t’sneachda at an hour or so with a bit of pace, is relatively short compared to most.

2. The Necessary Toilet Stop

A lack of embarrassment is key in these situations. With a lengthy approach will come the inevitable pressure on your bladder and you will have to purse your lips against the cold and pray that the figures ahead will keep their eyes forward for the few seconds it takes for your cheeks to turn from peachy to rosy.

3. The Boulder Field

This one really took me by surprise and I’m not entirely sure why. In my head I was going to walk from the car up a well-trodden path the entire way to the route. Obviously this was a huge misjudgement. With craggy outcrops that are ideal in condition due to the freeze thaw nature of their climate, rock fall will always be present. Landing, ever so kindly, in the bowl that makes up the valley floor before being lightly dusted in snow and ice to add a delightful element of danger.

4. The Layers

If you’re planning on using your winter climbing pics to flaunt your epic lifestyle on Instagram, be wary. A thermal, t-shirt, fleece, puffa, waterproof and belay jacket will not give you the sleek “I exercise regularly” look you may be going for. If Michelin man is more your style then you’re in luck!

5. The Chatty Third Party Member

They may be from another party or they may be one of yours, but being the third member in the party means providing food and entertainment to whoever is closest. In my case, this meant pretending to look interested whilst one guy told me about how he’d snuck a gold bikini into his friends backpack. Good one mate!

6. The First Axe Pop!

Starting up the first few moves of the climb felt good. I felt strong and I was pleased that I was finding good placements for my axes. After a few moves I found myself sitting on one axe with my arm beginning to burn and, struggling to find a placement, my legs began to Elvis (shake uncontrollably). Then, out of nowhere, the ice holding my axe gave way and I catapulted backwards, flinging my arms back to keep the axes away from my face, I was jolted into the rock as the rope caught me. It was exhilarating! Don’t be scared of an axe pop, it’s all part of the fun.

7. Necessary Trouser Repairs

Don’t wear your best waterproof pants for your first winter route. They will end the route with multiple crampon wounds that will need some attention once you are home. Top tip: Also don’t borrow your dads!

8. Hot Aches

Hot aches were a whole new sensation for me. Halfway up the first pitch I could feel my fingers numbing and getting slightly more painful. Little was I to know that this would be nothing in comparison to the pain when, having reached the belay, the blood rushed back into my fingertips making me feel a tad queasy. This is when you need a partner you can rely on.

9. The Solemnity

Coire an t’sneachda is a popular place for climbers looking to complete winter routes, especially in the early season. However, even with multiple groups ascending the same outcrop at the same time there is still a big sense of solitude when squinting up at your partner through snow as it cascades down the gully. The wind whips away any other parties voices and you are left with the beauty of your surroundings and the serenity of your thoughts.

10. The Achievement

The sense of achievement when completing a winter route, to me, is unparalleled. Not only have you overcome any doubts about your ability or the route but the intensity of the weather, the surroundings and the complexity of moves involving tools adds an entirely new dimension to the success you feel on completion.

Will I be making the trip to the Cairngorms again this weekend? Perhaps not. Will I return again this winter? Definitely.