Winter climbing, it’s a strange beast really, particularly what we like to think of as our ‘special’ British variant of the activity. Many of us will drive for hours long into the night for a dusting of snow and a long walk in to be met by conditions that make us think ‘yeah, it is in nick, honest’. A start in the dark by headtorch will often be matched with a walk out by headtorch, if not climbing by headtorch, a slump into the car and a nod to our partner of ‘yep another good day out, winter climbing is ace isn’t it’.
As winter climbers we seem to readily accept less than the ideal. This covers: weather (think of those days fighting up a gully route with spindrift piling down on you), accessibility (think of the walk ins to Little Brenva Face, Lochnagar etc), conditions (think of that feeling when you place a tool, remove it and the spurt of water comes out of the hole) and protection on a route (50m run out anyone?).
Two incidents, a fortnight and 400 miles (by road) apart, have led me to think a lot about this last point. I wouldn’t regard myself as an uber experienced winter climber but have played in the snow and ice for 15 years or so across the UK and further afield. Before you read on think about when you have rigged a winter belay, or belay in general, how much did you think ‘that’s enough, that will do’ or ‘that’s bomber and won’t be going anywhere’.
A surprisingly good forecast for Ben Nevis happened to coincide with a pre-planned trip to Lochaber so spirits were high with a 5-10mph wind forecast and 80% chance of clear summits. Two pairs decided to head up to Number 3 Gully Buttress and try one of the routes in the area. My partner and I made good time in great weather up to the CIC hut leaving an overflowing North Face car park behind us. On heading up to the buttress we could see teams on several of the routes we had been eyeing up so plumped for a line that was harder than we had planned on but looked like good fun – Two-step Corner V 5 with a team on it ahead of us making good progress.
Ice screw protection there was aplenty with rock pro here and there including for some of the belays. We made good progress taking stances where we felt comfortable. Initial impressions that the ice wasn’t great were unfounded, or it may have been the party ahead of us clearing the crud off! I decided to put a belay in approximately 10m from the top and the final cornice. There was a large bulge of ice next to a featureless bit of rock with some fat icicles on the left. So I decided to put my cordlette round an icicle (which had touched down and good fist size diameter) and a 15cm screw into the ice. ‘That should do, it’s only a little pitch up and round the corner to an exit through the cornice’, I thought. Then looking down at my rack realised I had one ice screw left, only a 10cm one, but decided to place it as well, just in case. Then tied in to the power point with a clove hitch, kick myself a stance in the soft snow and jobs a good un. Safe!
My partner worked his way up the 50m pitch and joined me at the belay. A traditional exchange of pleasantries followed by a pointing of the way up. Then he was off. This was the point at which I was glad I had set a belay up here as the ice was a classic snow / ice combination that he wasn’t really enjoying. Then he fell! Both axes and crampons ripped when his crampons were 2 meters or so above the cordlette on the icicle. We were on a section that was maybe 60 degrees so it should have been a nice slide, however, his crampons snagged the cordlette flipping him backwards to then point headfirst down the gully. 120m+ of steep terrain lay below as he hit the snow slope before twisting sideways as the rope came tight. I looked down to see a smiling face looking back at me with the panorama of the abyss behind him.
I was trembling having had flashes of the two of us careering down the route, if we’d been lucky we might have stopped on the snow ledge 50m down as the route crosses Number 3 Gully Buttress route, otherwise it would have been all the way down to the main gully. My stance had failed and I was lower than I expected. Looking up I could see that the icicle had snapped, no doubt helped by him snagging the cordlette so the fall had been taken by the two ice screws, the second one a bit of an after thought. It was a factor 2 fall as he hadn’t got any protection in with total fall length in the order of 10m. My partner was uninjured which was a pleasant surprise given flailing axes, crampons and ice screws and his rucksack combined with the powder snow helped to avoid a back injury.
He climbed back up and after an inspection of the belay finished the climb. When I came to strip the belay the clove hitch on the rope wasn’t going to come undone easily so I just left the carabiner on there! In the hut later on it took 5 people to have a go at undoing the knot! The successful de-knotist won themselves a bowl of gingercake and custard.
So the winter adage of ‘don’t fall’ had been broken and I reflected on the occasion. Only the second factor 2 fall a leader has taken on me and it reminded me of the forces involved in such a scenario. My partner appeared non-plussed about the incident, however, a week later at the bouldering wall he did say that on the journey home he had ‘re-lived’ the event and now appreciated the seriousness of the situation!
Sometimes we push the bounds of what is ‘in’ and the second incident was definitely during a day of dubious conditions I will readily admit. However, the number of people that were on Clogwyn y Garnedd (Trinity Face, Snowdon) on this day indicate that we weren’t the only people with a plan to get some winter climbing in. After initial thoughts of a visit to Cwm Lloer were dashed by a distinct absence of snow in the Ogwen Valley we popped round to the Pen y Pass car park and opted for the highest crag in Wales as our best chance of getting something done. The Pyg Track was verglassed so things were looking good. The forecast was fair, if a touch warm, but it promised good views later in the day.
As we approached the base of the cliff features such as the Spider were starting to appear although there was quite a lot of blackness and the ice didn’t look particularly well affixed to the rock. Our friends opted for Central Trinity whilst my partner and I went for Right Hand Trinity, a classic grade III. After some hard work getting up to the base of the climb I headed up the first pitch and belayed under a large stone / cave. It was mainly a mixed route rather than neve / snow which are the more normal conditions for this route I believe.
On arriving at the stance I noticed a dodgy jammed flake, some tat and a small spike. I discounted the flake but went for a better chockstone next to it as well as taking advantage of the tat (appeared to be in good condition) and spike. Excellent, a bomber belay that would take a factor 2 fall if needed I’m sure! My partner seconded up and then led through leaving me on my stance to await the arrival of another party following us up.
The leader was bashing his way up using a pair of Nomics leashless and looked like he was wearing an MRT jacket, joking about only putting a single piece of gear in on the 40m pitch. He got to my stance threw a sling around something, clipped in and called safe. I’m often timid about making criticism of others belays unless outright I can see something that they may have overlooked. This chap seemed very confident but I did raise an eyebrow to myself when he then used a bug direct onto the sling to bring his second and third up simultaneously. Whilst my leader was carefully picking his way upwards I sparked up a bit of conversation with them. Asking what channel their radios were on in case they were on the same channel as ours. I also clocked a bigger radio on the seconds rucksack strap so I asked the question ‘Are you MRT?’ to which the answer was yes. His second also offered the leader use of his reverso for the next pitch. They were all nicely tidied off waiting for my leader to finish and me to clear the next pitch. Then their belay failed.
They were tumbling down in a flash. Three sets of crampons, three pairs of axes and three helmeted heads heading down the gully with 40m or so to go to the Spider snowfield. My instinctive reaction was to lock my leaders rope off, a bizarre thought given I wasn’t attached them at all! Due I think to the fact that there was very little rope between them, they got wedged in a narrowing of the gully about 10m down. A moments silence broken by questions of ‘you ok’ and ‘don’t move’ from me and between themselves. At this moment I get a chirp on the radio from my leader ‘safe’, what great timing! I quickly call back ‘give me 5 mins or so’ before focusing my attention on these three bodies beneath me. Since my partner was safe I quickly tied off the rope onto my power point and dropped a loop down to the team in case they wanted to clip in, I also shouted that there was a spike they could sling right in front of them, which they duly did very rapidly!
The leader carefully made his way back up the slope and gratefully accepted my help to place a better sling and clip into the tat. Luckily the third (possibly less lucky being under two pairs of crampons) had managed to catch one of the Nomics before it had headed off below. We joked about them at least having a radio on which I could have called their colleagues for help if necessary along with talk of needing a change of pants! I eventually called my leader and said that I was ready to climb now. I left them to it and skitted my way up the rest of the route. A good day out, at least from the climbing perspective.
So why did the belay fail, why had they chosen for three of them to hang off a single sling, why didn’t I say that the area he had placed the sling looked dodgy when I approached the stance originally, did I give them enough room to join me on the stance if they wanted to? All questions I don’t know the answer to, some only the other leader knows. I’ve mulled it over in my mind and put some of it down to our lower expectations of good gear on a winter route and some down to a nervousness of speaking out sometimes.
Every trip out I learn something and everytime I read someone’s experiences I play it through in my mind and hope to use as a learning experience. Sometimes subconsciously, sometimes consciously. My takeaway from these incidents were that I shouldn’t be complacent on a winter belay, after all I wouldn’t be happy in summer with a belay like that and speak out if you’re not happy about the ropework of someone else. The second point is really hard and needs to be phrased sensitively and don’t take offence if you get a rebuff. If anyone sees me out and about on the crags and notices something I’m doing to be a bit amiss or have room for improvement please tell me, it is quite possible I have missed something that you have seen from a different angle and I would hope to learn from the discussion.
So boys and girls, stay safe when you’re out and about and think about your belays!
A Crookrise rainy day come good
The Meet That Never Was......
Hanging Around in The Peak
A Tale of Two Winter Belays
Winter Skills in the Cairngorms
LMCer's in the Pass
Dave & Holly's trip to Yosemite
Paul's trip to Ailefroid (Alps)
C2C - A taste of things to come??
The Greenwoods Go Climbing
Lots of photos in videos with music
Wasdale Head Meet
Buttermere - Dalegarth Campsite
Tour of the Lake District