The BMC winter meet and Scottish mixed madness

Posted on February 11, 2014

The BMC winter meet and winter climbing in the Scottish Highlands trip report


JW approaching Extacy.  The route goes up just right of the dangling icicles.  Photo Nick Bullock 

I’m just back from what will likely be my biggest adventure of the 2013 / 2014 winter season – a visit to the Scottish Highlands to sample their unique flavor of mixed climbing.  Scotland had been calling   In Scotland, the traditional approach to climbing is strongly maintained and the history of the climbs is well remembered.  Modern ice climbing was in fact developed here, and early prototypes by Chouinard and others were tested on the walls of Ben Nevis and surrounding area.  


I was fortunate enough to attend the 2014 BMC Winter Meet this year, with my girlfriend Michelle Kadatz, where 47 foreign climbers from 25 countries got together at the Glenmore Lodge in Aviemore during the last week of January.   Every day, each visitor gets paired up with a host climber from the UK, familiar with the Scottish winter climbing scene, and together they head out on an adventure.  At the end of the day, everybody has dinner and drinks together, and has the option to watch slideshows and presentations at the lodge’s lecture theater.  Halfway through the week, a partner switch is made so the visitor gets a total of two different hosts to climb with. 

Conditions throughout the week were tricky with an unusual amount of snow, a high avalanche hazard and generally bad weather.   This however seemed to force people to dig a little deeper, and as a result, there were a lot of early starts made and an impressive list of climbs got done. 


Extacy pitch 1


My first partner was Nick Bullock, a veteran of the Scottish winter scene, who had been putting up cutting edge first ascents and generally raising the bar for well over a decade, both in Scotland and in the greater ranges.  Like me, he really liked to get after it.  But in order to do just that, it seemed prudent to use our first day, a bad weather day even by Scottish standards, to put a track into Craeg Meagaidh and try to find the start of a route called Extasy, put up during the 2005 winter meet by Bruno Sourzac and Dave Hesleden.   It had been one Nick was stoked for since a friend of his made the only repeat and spoke highly of its quality.  That day we couldn’t see more than halfway up the 250m face, but with the boot track in and the start of the route located, the cards seemed nicely stacked in our favor.  The hike was also a good way to shake off my jetlag.  We made the routes 3rd ascent the next day in a 17-hour car-to-car effort, and it didn’t disappoint.  The entire cliff was coated in thin ice and rime – prime Scottish conditions, and the climbing was fiercely sustained!  Following the thickest, most supportive ice or neve, usually just a couple of centimeters thick and often too thin to hold body weight, we battled upwards for 5 long pitches.  It never felt like we had the route in the bag until the very top.  Protection was scarce, and head-spinning run-outs were the norm.  A perfect intro! 

Nick stated on his blog: 

Its difficult to imaging that I will have a more compelling, engaging day of the winter than this one. We climbed the route totally on ice but the ice was less than perfect and the ground at times was steep. The gear to protect the climb was minimal and the descent ‘interesting’… All in all, a pretty full-on day.” 


Extacy - Nick climbing pitch 2.  The route snaked it's way around and through many steep bits


Nick leading off on pitch 4, hoping to find a groove jst a little more left.  It was now storming.



JW leading the start of pitch 5.  Headlamp ready, just in case!  Fortunately I completed this 62 m pitch before turning it on.  photo: Nick Bullock 


The next day, the weather was the usual slashing rain in the valley bottoms and winds up to 90 mph up high. This made it easier to take a much needed rest day, as Extasy had taxed our bodies both mentally and physically.  The event organizers initiated a partner switch that night, and I got paired with Greg Boswell.  Greg is as bad-ass as they come and has been turning heads both at home, and abroad, with lots of difficult and serious new routes and repeats under his belt.  We immediately started making plans to climb a new line he had scoped on the beautiful quartzite walls of Beinn Eighe.  But Nick’s new partner needed a rest day so he insisted on making joining us too.  


Greg Boswell and I on the summit of Beinn Eighe, before rappelling into the West-central gully.  This was by far the best weather day of the trip.  photo: Nick Bullock


After a couple hours of approaching, we reached the base of the route.  Greg won the first rock paper scissors and fired a series of roofs above a snow ledge near the top of the West-central Gully.  Much to Nick’s dismay I won the second rock paper scissors and scored the second pitch - a long slightly overhanging off-width with a thin coating of verglas.  Fortunately the rock had just enough other features, and it turned out to be one of the best pitches I climbed during the trip.  Nick fired the final crack / corner system and we were soon treated to amazing sunset over a stunning view of the north-western highlands.  “Lochs” dotted the green valleys everywhere and the snowline at mid height gave the mountains a bigger feel, despite their low altitudes. 


Nick wrote on his blog: “The perfect day. Stunning settled weather, a magnificent situation and a line both Greg and I had spotted a few years back. I lost Scissor, paper, stone all-day and climbed the third pitch, which was still good but not as spectacular as the second pitch or as sustained as the first pitch. We called it Making the Cut after talking to Simon Richardson about the amount of entries he has on his blog Scottish Winter climbs.”

Greg hooking his way out some sweet quartzite roofs and pitch 1  

Another angle of Greg on pitch 1.  


Working my way up the sustained chimney, off-width, corner - pitch 2 of Making the Cut.   photo: Greg Boswell


Two days later, we were hoping to do another route on the same face, but after an hour of sitting in the car hoping for the winds and rain to calm down, we opted for plan b.  This time it was Nick and I (Greg’s knee strain was acting up, and he was getting off treatment) and Michelle and her partner Ian Parnell.  Two days earlier they had a big success on a 9-pitch Ben Nevis route called the Centurion one of the longest in the area.  Another nearby peak called Mael Gorm offered “the shortest approach in Scotland” which by the time we got there made sense, especially with the gale force wind gusts.  Although not quite as spectacular as the first two climbs, it was a popular spot that day and many routes saw climbers on them, and certainly way better than festering at the lodge. 


Back at the Meet that night, wine flowed freely as everyone celebrated an amazing week.   The energy had been incredible and it had a been a long time since I’d seen so many really passionate mixed climbers getting after it like that. For both myself and Michelle (who had amassed a route list most locals were jealous of), there couldn’t have been a better introduction to winter climbing in Scotland, and we’re deeply thankful to the BMC for organizing it, our UK hosts – especially Nick, Greg, Will and Ian, and from the support we received from the Alpine Club of Canada and Arcteryx for helping making it all happen. 


Mega Route X.  Looks almost like a pure ice route, but it had some intesting mixed sections on the second pitch.


Now it was time to get after it on our own, and our photographer friend Paul Bride had just flown over from Squamish B.C. to join us.  Scotland had been on his bucket list for a long time, and he was psyched to tag along to shoot some climbing.  However, the weather wasn’t panning out very well, and we got shut down a two days in a row, and not for lack of trying.  At least we managed to tour the countryside a bit and sample some of the finer local vintages.  The folks that live in the hills were incredibly hospitable and easy to get along with.  Finally we got some weather decent enough for climbing, and we headed up the Number 3 gully on Ben Nevis, home to some famous test-pieces I was hoping to try.  A thick fog on its upper reaches forced us to stay on lower cliffs, and we climbed some obvious thin ice lines called Mega Route X, which is classic, and a wild overhanging dagger line called Feeding Frenzy.  Late in the afternoon it cleared enough to see the crazy looking rime plastered to some of the higher walls. 

Mega Route X, a thin classic. Mega Fun!  Photo: Paul Bride  


We descended to the town of Fort Williams, hoping to get another chance.   Two more horrendously bad weather days passed, although on the second, we hiked through the slashing rain to the deluxe CIC hut at the base of the Ben’s North Face.  The forecast called for “a rare benign day” on Friday, which didn’t exactly pan out, as the fog level again was much too low to climb at the higher routes with the thick rime.  Maybe it was just as well as the avalanche hazard was still high and we observed a number of fresh fracture lines a few days earlier. 


Tea time, with the Ben Nevis bible.  Michelle enjoying life in the CIC hut


Eventually we settled on trying a route that seemed to be unclimbed, just left of Mick Fowler’s 7-pitch classic – The Shield Direct.  After two-and-a-half pitches of sustained overhanging dihedral action, laced with thin ice and neve, we merged back with the shield and continued up it to the top of pitch-4.  The benign weather was abruptly ended with strong winds, which turned the route into a river of spindrift, making upward progress virtually impossible.  But the pitches had been wild ones and the beast within was fed.


The start of the variation.  Photo Paul Bride


And a little higher up.  Photo: Paul Bride


Scottish winter climbing is intense.  Every pitch was a memorable battle that had me focused on nothing but the present.  The Highlands truly are the quintessential real deal venue for mixed adventure.  Rich with history and virtually devoid of any in-situ gear, proper mixed climbing in its purest form was a refreshing experience!  The addictiveness of it grew on me throughout the trip, and I know it won’t be long before I’m back again.