Scottish Winter Mixed Climbing
By George McEwan - Glenmore Lodge
What is ‘mixed climbing’?
Many winter climbers, particularly those who are new to the winter climbing game, have this assumption that winter climbing, especially in Scotland, is about climbing ice and snow. Yet if you go climbing in Scotland assuming that you need ice to climb on you might well be disappointed. Regular and reliable ice conditions are not that common in Scotland – mostly due to our challenging and unpredictable weather pattern. Many winter climbs do not form ice either due to them not being a natural drainage line or because they do not receive water from melting snow. In actual fact many climbs are what we in Scotland called ‘mixed’.
Generally the term ‘mixed’ climbing, as used in Scotland, describes a route where the climbing occurs mainly on snowed up rock, and/or turf, and sometimes the odd bit of ice being used for upward progress. As the climbs become harder then generally the main medium you are climbing on is rock, albeit very steep rock, but it’s still called ‘mixed’. This definition of mixed, as used to describe this sort of climbing in Scotland, can confuse the newcomer to the climbing game as it is used with a great deal of freedom regarding the type of climbing it describes.
Generally speaking protection on mixed climbs tends to be more plentiful, or at least better than you may expect on a more ’traditional’ Scottish winter climb such as Point Five or Green Gully on Ben Nevis.
In saying that, there are many mixed climbs with serious run out potential around. Compared to climbing classic snow and ice routes, mixed climbing requires a wider range of climbing techniques such as hooking, torqueing and being able to climb on rock with crampons – techniques that can be daunting for the newcomer to mixed climbing to learn.
When is a mixed route ‘in condition’?
A mixed route is in condition when it has a ‘wintry appearance’ – This definition has prompted a great deal of hot ethical angst and debate amongst Scottish winter climbers as to what exactly constitutes a ‘wintry appearance’! You would think the obvious answer is that the route looks to be at least covered with white stuff. For some climbers that definition is too rigid, for others not rigid enough. If you fancy starting a flame war on-line or a fight in a pub just raise this issue amongst appropriate company!
Without adding fuel to this particular fire there are some points worth considering: Some mixed climbs depend on frozen turf to climb. Climbing such routes when the turf is not frozen can lead to the turf being ripped out and thus not only making the climb harder, but also destroying a unique environmental asset in which rare alpine plants could be surviving.
On the steeper/harder mixed climbs looking for and placing protection is a key element in the ascent. It stands to reason that on a strenuous and technically challenging climb you do not want to be hanging around for too long clearing snow and ice from the rock to reveal a crack in which you can place protection. If the climb has a lot of resting ledges etc you can happily spend time clearing snow and ice from cracks to place your gear. This has led to some ascents of mixed climbs being done in conditions that some climbers may challenge as not being true winter ascents. If it is an easy climb (a relative term, I know) then the climber may be less concerned about having to clear cracks etc every few feet, and feel comfortable enough to run sections out.
Ultimately climbs plastered in snow will mean a great deal of clearing, i.e. removing the overlaying snow so you can see/find cracks etc. which results in a very slow rate of ascent. Alternatively climbs that are very iced up may mean protection in cracks is difficult to place due to the cracks being full of ice. I guess ‘wintry appearance’ means some happy medium between these two extremes!
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland in an effort to provide winter climbers with some guidance produced a leaflet titled Scottish Winter Climbing: A Code of Good Practice. This can be found at their website on mountaineering-scotland.org.uk/council/wintercode.html
Mixed climbing – ethics and style
Scottish mixed climbing places great ethical emphasis on a ground up, on sight ascent with the lead climber placing his or her own protection. By that you turn up at the base of a climb and give it your best shot, dealing with whatever conditions etc. the climb presents. This style is very challenging to the leader, particularly if they are pushing their technical ability. In the wider climbing world this style of ascent has almost a mythological reputation – particularly when you look at the hostile weather it is generally done in.
The grading system commonly used in Scotland comprises two numbers; the first, a Roman numeral, tells you how hard the route is to lead; the second, an Arabic numeral gives the technical difficulty. Grades go from I to XI, with technical grades going from 3 -11, although both are open ended.
For example Point 5, graded V.5, on Ben Nevis is a benchmark ice climb. It’s around 300m long with the main difficulties concentrated on the first three/four pitches, these being climbed on steep (70 to 80 degree) ice. In contrast Pot of Gold (V.6) in Coire an t-Sneachda is around 90m long with around four short pitches all of which are technical and sustained, requiring a good variety of mixed climbing techniques, albeit very well protected.
Techniques for mixed climbing
Mixed climbing has motivated climbers to look at esoteric ways of climbing the highly technical medium of rock, turf, snow and ice. In many respects the ice tool techniques used on snow and ice climbs translate to mixed climbs. For example, placing your tools into frozen turf is very much like placing your tools into ice: same action – mark and swing. Good frozen turf can actually give you better placements than ice, and it is sometimes easier to get good placements compared to brittle water ice.
More often than not you will find that you will be hooking your tools into cracks, or over small edges. Torqueing is a very specialist technique that involves lay backing of the shaft of the tools, as the picks are torqued into a crack. Generally speaking harder climbs will tend to have more sustained sections of hooking and/or torqueing. whilst easier ones generally will have more turf. Don’t forget you can always use your hands on good rock holds.
That’s your hands taken care off, now what about the feet? You will still be wearing crampons on your boots. If you are climbing on turf then treat the turf as you would ice – just kick your points into the turf. The main difference is when you are on rock. Here you will find that you will be balancing your points on edges, ranging from boot sized to minute. You may also be jamming them in cracks or even balancing on slabs. It is the use of crampons on rock that many climbers find the more challenging to get used to. Practice makes perfect so persevere with it.
Although in rock climbing using your knees is frowned upon as evidence of poor technique, you will find in mixed climbing using your knees is an integral and essential part of climbing mixed routes. In fact often using as many body parts as possible to maintain contact with the rock is a key way of ascending the routes.
At the end of the day though climbing mixed routes demands you be flexible in the techniques you use, and sometimes downright cunning.
Equipment for mixed climbing
So what gear do you need? Well the main stuff such as clothing, shell gear, harness, gloves etc are the same (check out earlier articles for more info). What you will need is a good rack of rock protection equipment. There is not much point in carrying ice screws on a mixed climb unless you know it has a significant iced up section that will require ice pro. The guidebook, or local knowledge will tell you this.
What you will need is lots of rock gear. At a minimum you will need at least a double set of rocks, some hexes or rockcentrics (mostly larger sizes), a good selection of pegs, Friends around size 1.5, 2 and 3 (although take care with camming units in icy cracks. The cams might only be biting into the ice/verglas rather than the rock causing them to pull when loaded) and around 10 – 15 extenders. This rack will cover you on most mixed limbs up to around Scottish V.6, assuming they have pitches around 30m in length. For turfier climbs you may wish to carry some warthogs (knurled steel pegs) and/or an ice hook – such as the DMM Bulldog or Black Diamond Spectre. As to how you rack all this gear, that is entirely down to personal preference. Some climbers prefer to rack their gear on their harness gear loops, others like to use a bandolier slung around their chest, some a combination of the two. Ultimately it’s down to personal choice.
Choosing suitable ice tools and crampons tends to cause a lot of discussion amongst mixed climbers. Some climbers swear by straight-shafted tools as they make torqueing in cracks, particularly when you go to use the hammer or adze in the crack, easier. Others prefer curved shafted ice tools. At the end of the day whatever you use for technical snow and ice climbing, as long as they have dropped picks which make hooks over edges and into cracks more positive, then they’ll do.
Regarding crampons you want reasonably short points. Take care with the secondary points, i.e. those behind the front points. Some ice climbing crampons have these projecting too far forward so that they make placing the points on small edges difficult. Better to go for secondary points that are a bit more vertically aligned. Mono points have become increasingly popular as they allow very precise placement on rock features and cracks.
Another choice to make is whether to use ice tools with wrist loops attached – ‘leashed’, or to use tools without – ‘leashless’. Wrist loops have the advantage that you can easily drop your tools to hang from your wrists whilst you use rock holds with your gloved hands, an action that is more awkward to do with ‘leashless’ tools without resulting in your tools disappearing down the climb.
Climbing ‘leashless’ comes into its own on steeper harder climbs where being freed up from being attached to your tools becomes an advantage allowing innovative moves to be used.
The obvious downside is the increased risk of dropping your tools. One way around this is to attach your tools with tethers to your harness, but having lengths of cord or bungee elastic getting in the way seems a bit of a retro step to my way of thinking. Still, each to their own.
Protection and belays
In winter climbing the greatest challenge can sometimes be finding good protection to use as either running belays or as part of your main belay. Depending on the rock type and prevailing conditions your protection options could range from plentiful to woefully inadequate. The grade of your chosen mixed climb might give you a clue. A low objective grade with a high technical grade would suggest very technical but well protected climbing, whilst a high objective grade coupled with a low technical grade would suggest poorly protected but less technical climbing. Snow and ice conditions on the climb can make seeking out suitable anchors harder or difficult to place. Overall though it is generally easier to find and construct good belays on buttress routes than compared to gully climbs.
Overall the rope work and rock protection equipment you use in summer translates to winter mixed climbing reasonably well. However a few top tips might be of use:
Clearing: If the climb is covered with snow use the head of your axe to clear the snow away. Although tiring and time consuming it does let you see what placements there are to use for your tools and what protection opportunities exist. When clearing try to work out how the faulting on the rock works. Look for corners or obviously snowed up crack lines to clear. This can save you energy and time in the long run as you clear with a purpose rather than in hope.
Protection: After clearing the snow away you will be able to see if any cracks exist. If the crack is choked with ice take time to clear as much of the ice out as you can. Be mindful that gear placed in icy cracks is not all that reliable. If using wires you can seat the wire in the crack then use the pick of one of your tools to gently tap the wire into place.
Take care with cams in verglassed or iced up cracks. Their ability to hold a fall might well be compromised, as the cams will not grip very well on the ice. If the cracks are very iced then placing a peg may be the only option but take care about placing pegs needlessly on popular summer rock climbs as their removal damages the rock. Then again you do have to ask yourself if climbing a popular summer rock climb in winter is a good thing to do… If climbing turfy routes then Warthogs or Ice Hooks come into their own as they can be hammered into the turf to provide protection. Although like ice, protection placed in turf is only as good as the strength of the turf!
Putting it all together
So now we have an appreciation of Scottish mixed climbing how does it all fit together in practice? Perhaps the best way to do this is to see how a world-class climber approaches the first ascent of a new route. The tactics and approach used to achieve a successful ascent apply equally well to ascents of climbs further down the technicality list. Andy Turner, Steve Ashworth and Viv Scott did the first ascent of The Secret (X 10) in December 2007. Initially it was graded IX 9 but it is now agreed that a grade of X 10 is more accurate.
In the section below Andy Turner describes his approach to mixed climbing, an approach that led to him successfully leading ground-up and on-sight The Secret. In it he outlines some great tips to enhance and improve your prospect of a successful ascent of a mixed climb.
The secret to successful mixed climbing By Andy Turner
Unlike rock climbing where routes rarely ever change except for rock fall or holds snapping off, winter climbs change from day to day, week to week. You could get on Point 5 in January and have a totally harrowing experience or jump on it in April and cruise up grade 4 stella ice all the way to the summit. We all know in summer you can get all the cheeky beta about No 4 wires in sideways slots or black aliens in hidden placements, but that doesn’t really happen in winter because a good coating of ice on your climb can scupper all that info.
So the key to a successful ascent is working out when and what conditions your route needs to be in for you to stand the best chance of getting up it on-sight. Get on those mixed routes early in the season before all the cracks fill with ice or avoid them after a log wet period followed by a freeze as this has the effect of icing up the cracks.
Nowadays with so many weather reports and blogs on the Internet it does make the process less haphazard than it used to be.
How do we gather this information?
Time is always well spent in the autumn on those wet and miserable days, when there’s nothing else to do, going up into the hills and checking out the crags. For one if it’s raining it will show you where all the seepage lines are and so possibly new routes, and two, it will show you any weaknesses in the rock, i.e. cracks, chimneys, off-widths, so you can start to formulate a plan of what gear to take before. It’s also worth noting what altitude and aspect the cliffs are at because this is then info you can tie up with weather forecasts on the Internet for freezing levels and wind directions.
Hopefully you now have all the beta you need to send the route, all you need now is to get yourself in fighting order.
There’s nothing worse than walking all the way to the top of the Ben to do your dream route and being totally knackered and being unable to pull yourself off the ground.
In the months leading up to winter, not only get down the wall to get the arms strong but get out on the hill and get hill fit. Having the endurance to last a full-on winter day can mean the difference between success and failure. A large part of training is mental; you need to have specific goals or objectives in mind like “I want to climb grade 7 this winter” or it becomes all too easy to slouch on the sofa.
Now you’re in shape make sure your kit is. It’s no good trying to climb hard ice or thin edges and seams if your tools and crampon points are blunt as a blunt thing. Invest in either a file or some new picks. Make sure your layering system is in order; a belay jacket and big mitts are invaluable for keeping warm on long belays.
You’re now stood at the bottom of your dream route, the conditions are awesome you’re feeling strong and confident, your picks are razor sharp… now its over to you.
When climbing stay focused and take the climb one step at a time, remembering all that prep you have put in, and this will hopefully pull you onto the summit plateau to the best feeling in the world.
I spent three years dreaming of climbing The Secret. Although it was my 1st route of the season I had spent three months training on a dry tooling wall, was down the gym and also used the climbing wall to get strong and confident.
Whilst out climbing on the Ben one day with friends, just cruising around, I spotted this line across the way from Thompson’s Route. It was a perfect crack line that sprung from the depths of number 3 gully and surfaced 70m later onto the plateau of the Ben. We were all fired up and couldn’t wait to get home to check the guidebook to see if it had been done. It hadn’t .
That was it. I spent the next three years trying to keep the route secret till I felt confident and strong enough to attempt it. It turned out the line wasn’t a secret and was well known about, but it still survived unclimbed for all this time. Eventually on a cold crisp day in December 2007 Steve, Viv and I found ourselves standing at the bottom of the climb. The route went like a dream and as the sun slipped away over the horizon we were granted amazing views of the west coast of Scotland to remember forever.
About Glenmore Lodge
Glenmore Lodge is Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre; our aim is to offer world class training in outdoor adventure sports and encourage more people to enjoy the outdoors more often. This is both through personal skills courses, providing individuals with the confidence to enjoy their sport themselves, as well as through qualification courses, ensuring that the next generation of outdoor instructors are trained to the highest possible standards. We offer courses of all levels in over 10 different disciplines ensuring there is something to interest everyone. www.glenmorelodge.org.uk