As winter sets in, snow gathers on the mountain tops and watery gullies start forming themselves into immense ice sculptures. It’s a sight to behold across the region, but for many it means digging out the crampons, ice axes and winter ropes and planning their next adventure into the ‘hills’ ice climbing in Cairngorms. Climbing in the Cairngorms has been popular since the activity came into existence, but winter climbing in the Cairngorms National Park really took off during the 1950s. As more and more people venture out into the mountains every year, What’s On decided to check out the sport, it’s history, it’s ever increasing popularity and the importance of respecting the landscape that plays home to one of the most exhilarating and interesting winter activities. Grab your gear and take a read!
Early climbing wasn’t easy in the Cairngorms National Park. It took grit, determination and a foolhardiness that by today’s standards may seem more than a little unusual. The area’s remote nature coupled with an unjustified reputation for unsound and vegetated rock made the sport a real challenge for the early climbers. However, it did not deter one famous Edinburgh mountaineer, Harold Raeburn, one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, who ventured forth to pioneer some of the first climbs at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1907, along with his companion Frank Goggs, Raeburn’s steely determination saw him start the day cycling from Kingussie, before walking in to the cliff and descending a difficult route – Castle Wall – before even beginning to climb the severe buttress now known as Raeburn’s Buttress on Shelter Stone Crag. The pair persevered and finished in time for lunch. Their efforts, some say, would put most modern climbers to shame…
Despite this flying start, the cliffs of the Cairngorms remained mostly unloved and unvisited by technical rock and ice climbers until the 1950s. However, in that decade a great explosion of creative climbing talent came pouring out of Aberdeenshire to begin the exploration of Cairngorm mountaineering in earnest. Legendary north-east climbers such as Bill Brooker, Ken Grassick, Graeme Nicol, Ronnie Sellars and Tom Patey formed a new generation untroubled by preconception of their elders. Instead the group recognised the excellent exploratory climbing to be had in their nearest major mountain range.
In 1958, these Aberdeen ‘hard men’ were braving the ferocious arctic conditions of deep winter to climb on the cliff, producing many challenging routes, including Sticil Face – one of the first Grade VI winter climbs. Yet what made these achievements all the more remarkable was that they were climbed with equipment (single straight-picked ice axes and nailed boots), which had scarcely changed since the dawn of climbing in the Victorian period! In fact these routes are significant undertakings today even with unimaginably more sophisticated gear and clothing. Yet despite such eventual changes in technology, one of the biggest impacts on the development of northern Cairngorm climbing was the development of transport in the area. In 1960 the Coire Cas ski road opened, allowing climbers to reach an altitude of 700m before having to don heavy rucksacks and climbing equipment. The access road did not take away from the remoteness or seriousness of the mountains, but it did make them considerably more accessible, promoting a gold rush of mountaineering exploration by climbers from all over the country.
The 1960’s saw the further development of what is now Sport Scotland’s flagship outdoor pursuits training centre at Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore. This provided another impetus to exploration in the remote heart of the Cairngorms. As today, the instructing staff provided a constantly refreshing reservoir of tough, experienced mountaineers with a hunger to climb hard even after working all day in the hills. Therefore, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s not only did these guides establish over 30 new routes; they actively helped change the nature of climbing itself. In the late 1960s, staffer John Cunningham began independently developing a new way of climbing steep ice using ice daggers for direct traction, rather than the time-consuming method of cutting steps in the ice.
During the same period winter climbing also made a quantum leap in standards, thanks to the evolution of ice tools and a new approach to their use. Climbers such as Speyside resident Andy Nisbet pioneered the technique of torqueing ice axe picks and crampons into cracks in the snowed-up rock, enabling them to climb ever harder technical pitches and overhangs, albeit strenuously. It resulted in another revolution as to what constituted a winter climb and suddenly very steep, frost-hoared rock became ‘fair game’ to the technical maestros. So much so, that since then the area has attracted the biggest names and experts in climbing from all over the world who come here to push themselves, train and simply enjoy the region and everything it has to offer.
However, despite the history of climbing in the area; the pioneers that have lived, worked and basked in the area’s beauty; and the important part the region has played in advancing the sport, it is worth, always, remembering the respect, understanding and expertise needed to explore these mountains.
It is fair to say that the wilderness climbing of the Cairngorms (whether in the winter or the summer months) remains very much the preserve of the dedicated expert. With the region still being home to so many enthusiasts and trained professionals, however, there is always the opportunity to ‘make it yours’ and explore the mountains in a safe way with some of the most knowledgeable guides in the world. Check out www.visitcairngorms.com for details and loads more information!
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