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How to get into winter climbing…

If you’ve done some rock climbing, or winter walking, and fancy stepping it up, and getting into winter climbing, it can feel quite daunting. It’s a whole new environment, and a serious one at that. This is why it’s ultimately so rewarding, and worth the investment in time. Here are a few things to bear in mind.
For rock climbers;

  • If you’ve not done any long mountaineering routes, then you need to. You’ll need good route finding skills, multipitch efficiency, and confidence in your ability to do a series of abseils if retreat is needed.
  • Be as fit as you can! Most routes will require at least 1.5 hours to walk in, carrying a heavy bag.
  • You need to be a mountaineer first. Before you even think of swinging those axes into the ice, you’ll need to navigate to the crag, and make sure there’s no chance of being avalanched. This is a step that’s often missed. It’s a bit like just passing your driving test, then ragging a car round the Neurburgring – you might get away with it, but your chances aren’t great…! A winter’s apprenticeship as a walker / mountaineer is money in the bank, and a really good adventure – you’ll see some amazing places.
  • The lower graded routes, I to III are often serious affairs if they’re gully routes. You might get the odd bit of gear, but it can feel more like soloing with a rope tied to you. The equivalent grades on rocky terrain are a better bet, you’ll often find more reliable protection and belays, and if you’ve misjudged the conditions, there’s less chance of being hit by an avalanche, or ending up on rotten ice.
  • Conditions play a huge part in the difficulty, and security of a climb. Good conditions can make routes two whole grades easier, and vice versa. Until you can recognise what these are, I’d suggest sticking to the blunt end of the rope.
  • Finding protection and belays, and making winter belays (snow bollards, ice threads, and buried axes) can be quite tricky. It’s good to learn from someone who’s done a lot of it already, and that you know is a safe, and measured climber.
  • Seconding routes will allow you to get used to your tools in safety, and you’ll be able to watch how your partner manages the ropework – it’s pretty different from summer rock climbing.

In essence…

In essence, your best bet is to get some instruction from somebody experienced, and used to teaching this sort of stuff. I would say that though, wouldn’t I?! Seriously though, I nearly killed myself a couple of times, as have several mates, in the early days. Think of it as your first 10 hours of driving lessons, when you don’t even know what you don’t know!
Once you’ve done that, get out walking. Lots. Tick as many Munroes as you can. Become a winter navigation Jedi, and adept and confident with your avalanche mitigation. Get out as much as possible doing this, you’ll have a blast! Take on some grade I ridges and gullies once you’re comfortable, and you’re 100% confident that you won’t slip.
From here, build up slowly and surely, slowly ticking your way through the guidebooks. The greater the variety, the greater the skill set you’ll develop. You’ll get used to the environment, be able to follow your nose, and know when to back off, you’re building judgement. This is absolutely essential experience for all winter and alpine climbers. Aim for 30 routes of grade I before you move up to II, and then 30 of those, etc. It’ll take a few seasons for most folk, but by the end of it, you’ll be amazing on your feet, able to climb well, make good decisions, and be a safe climber in a very gnarly environment. It’s an apprenticeship.

Enjoy it!