Ueli Steck sends The Secret - Ben Nevis, Scotland - Photo T. Lamiche.

If there is one place on earth where climbers celebrate the arrival of the next snowstorm, it has to be Scotland. Each winter, pounded by the North Atlantic winds, the Scottish Highlands are covered by a layer of snow and frost at the mercy of weather conditions. Here, winter climbing has existed for more than a century, and the smell of adventure is as authentic as the whisky borne of the local peat. Climbing is done from the ground up, without bolts, and generally onsight. An introduction to the very modern ethics of Scottish mixed climbing.

(Scroll to the bottom of this screen for photos of the Petzl Team climbing in Scotland).

Patience is no doubt a virtue, but it's above all it's a trait that is recognized in all who come for a taste of Scottish mixed climbing. As noted in the legendary humor of the local climbers: “Here the ice usually forms on Monday and melts by the weekend.” When there is little or no ice, there is usually dirt or frozen vegetation and rock powdered in white. Everything you need to get a taste of Scottish-style. The end-all, be-all comes when a thick layer of frost covers the rock with a shell of ice that creates extremely esthetic routes.

The two key ingredients of Made in Scotland climbing are generally miserable weather and the style - placing your own protection. Placing protection is in itself a challenge, but there is also a usually necessary preliminary operation: finding, and then cleaning, an adequate spot to place it. Forget about spring-loaded cams: they have a tendency to slide out of the frozen cracks of Ben Nevis, when they aren't frozen in the ice and humidity all around. Take a good set of standard nuts out of your closet, along with your old set of Hexentrics, especially the big ones.

A creative style of climbing

But the most important thing? "Come with an open mind," explains Andy Turner. Familiar with the Highlands and more particularly with Ben Nevis for ten years, Andy knows that mixed climbing requires creativity, and a repertoire of moves closer to that of rock than "classic" ice climbing as practiced on the continent. Wedging the shaft or head of your ice tool, laybacking, using knee bars…anything you can use to keep going, to find rest positions, and in theory, not fall.

This was Andy's resolve when he got on The Secret, on-sight, in December 2007. After the first, sustained pitch, the second one was an incredible crack to the right of Number 3 Gully on Ben Nevis. "Being a little creative with the ice axes surely helped me. After ten meters, you can relax a bit," explains Andy, "but only for long enough to get a look at what's next, a crack going from finger to fist jams."

Andi Turner climbs on snow, ce and mixed in Ben Nevis, Scotland - Photo T. Lamiche.

The Petzl team discovers Ben Nevis

March 2009. After the first ascent by Andy, Steve Ashworth and Vic Scott, The Secret had been repeated many times. During an international gathering of climbers, Ueli Steck and a team of European climbers[1] came for a taste of Scottish mixed climbing. "I had just finished my trilogy (ultra-rapid ascents of the three North faces of the Eiger, the Grandes Jorasses and the Matterhorn) and I was open to a new project. I like to improve my mountaineering skills, and Scotland is an ideal place for that » says Ueli. "It was raining every day, but after four consecutive days of it, we started hiking toward Ben Nevis." On third day, under Andy's watchful eye, Ueli climbed The Secret. "I wanted to see what a difficult Scottish route would be like, meaning with difficult gear placements and bad weather."

"Here the mountains aren't high, but the rules are as important as the routes," stresses Ueli. Clear rules, which Andy Turner repeats: "Keep the mountains clean, unbolted." Climb as much as possible on-sight, without beta, except from the ground: a demanding style that has been practiced since the time of the pioneers. On Ben Nevis, Tower Ridge, climbed in March 1894, was compared to the arête of Lion on the Matterhorn. In 1906, the incredible H. Raeburn climbed Green Gully without crampons, cutting his own steps! After that, the period of the big arêtes in the 1950s, and of the steep couloirs like Five Point Gully or Zero Gully in the 60s, established standards of difficulty that would not be surpassed in Europe until the equipment would evolve.

A mountain school

Since then, pushed by the discovery of new lines, climbers have turned to the large faces and compact-looking slabs in all the Scottish mountains, from Glencoe to Cairngorms, and to the more exotic areas, like the Isle of Skye. The evolution continues today, where climbers are looking for the steepest routes, even overhanging ones, and keeping the same spirit of on-sighting from the bottom, without bolts. Don't mention dry-tooling in Scotland: as the Scots themselves say, if the rock is dry, it's better to be in climbing shoes than carrying ice axes. A route is generally climbed in « whiteness », meaning when the rock is more or less plastered with frost or ice. It's a subjective notion, but one that remains the reality despite the increasing steepness of the new routes, making their ascent in "white conditions" harder to figure out. A question of patience once again.

Not surprisingly, Scottish mixed climbing is also an excellent school for mixed climbing in the mountains. Once you are used to the spindrifts and blowing snow of the Highlands and to placing your ice axe into a vague crack full of frozen grass, you are more than ready to climb under the blue sky of the Alps or Colorado. Not the gusting winds, which blow you over the plateau when you're looking for the descent route, nor the thick fog that keeps you from seeing your seconding climber at the belay, and surely not the magical atmosphere of a sunrise on the Ben, will keep you from coming back.

When you ask Andy Turner whether he has projects for next winter, he says yes, but only under very specific conditions, in other words, when the weather is "absolutely horrible." Which is what we wish for all the climbers bound for Scotland.

[1] The climbers : Aljaz Anderle, Martial Dumas, Tony Lamiche, Erwan Le Lann, Mathieu Maynadier, Yann Mimet, Ueli Steck and Andy Turner.

Note: this article is an excerpt from the Petzl 2010 catalog, which you can order or download.

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The pictures of Petzl team in Scotland


Photos © T. Lamiche