The Winter Apprentice
I love this photo of me. It was taken on a Route called Moonwalk (IV,3 **) on the Little Brenva Face on Ben Nevis. I would have been about 21 and at the start of my Winter climbing Apprenticeship. It's a photo that shows how much I'd learnt over the last winter and also that I'd still quite a bit more to learn...
Matt and I didn't know any other winter climbers, there was no internet to ask so we read lots of instruction books and made the rest up as we went along. John Barry's "Snow and Ice" was our bible, I'm sure I can quote long sections of it even now!
We're climbing on a single 50m rope because we were gully climbing at the lower end of the scale and had decided that gully routes didn't weave much so what was the point in carrying two ropes in. In the future we'd realise that on slightly more technical gullies your gear is often on the two walls of the gully and without two ropes you'll get a lot of drag.
I'm belaying with a fig 8 as opposed to a standard belay plate. We were young and poor and dry treated ropes were not the norm back then, they were much more expensive. We climbed on standard ropes that soaked up the water and then froze. When frozen we couldn't get them through the normal belay plates so had come up with the idea of using a fig 8 to belay with. This worked really well and we learnt later that quite a few 'proper' climbers did this as well.
Just out of the photo is the ice screw that made up my main belay. I then placed both my axes and equalised off the leashes. We only owned 3 ice screws between us so didn't like to waste too many at the belay, i think I own about a dozen now. The rope is lapped over the rope to keep it neat and out of the way. I just hate seeing people not manage their rope stances!
I'm climbing with straight shafted DMM Aliens - one of the best axes ever made. Straight shafts were the norm then, you really learnt to get a good quality natural swing with a deft little flick to save your knuckles. I never had a problem with bashed knuckles as I had a good swing. A few years later I would solo Point 5 Gully on Ben Nevis, THE classic Grade V, with these axes.
Over my shoulder I've got a bandoleer. That's how I like to carry my hard wear then as I found it easier to find the gear. If I clipped it to my gear loops on my harness I found that the folds of the jacket and hip belt on the rucksack obscured it. As I moved onto harder climbs I would learn that the gear on the bandoleer swings behind the back and alarmingly out of reach. Big gear loops on the harness and the hip belt folded out of the way was to become the way forward.
I'm wearing leather palmed gloves that made handling the rope much easier. I still use leather gloves now but I have a big set of 'Belay Mitts' clipped to my harness as sometimes you can be belaying in bad weather for hours. Cold hands is not nice.
I'm wearing a pair of Mtn Equipment Aquafleece salopettes. These were very warm but by the end of the route would have soaked up enough snow and ice to double in weight. I would learn that good pair of Shell salopettes is a must in my opinion. Trousers in winter don't work for me as I always end up with my lower back exposed - cold....
I'm belaying with my jacket half open - it must have been towards the end of the season and quite warm. I'd soon learn to keep my jacket zipped up on belay as spindrift avalanches will pour over you at the most inconvenient times.
I'm wearing an un-padded Alpine Bod harness. No padding meant it was lightweight and packed down small into my pack. I'd learn that hanging in one for hours in winter is painful. A nice padded harness with adjustable leg loops :-)
We kept at it, making our way up more routes and always learning. Never getting too far out of our comfort zone but always pushing ourselves. Every pitch we did we always asked "if we needed to, could we get down that?"
We did make a few mistakes along the way. Topping out on the final pitch of The Pumpkin beneath a massive cornice. Just had to breathe deep and crab crawl sideways until we could find a way through hoping that the cornice didn't give.
You have to climb in winter with someone you trust, doesn't matter how good you are. The brotherhood of the rope is soo true in winter.
A couple of years after the top photo was taken, Matt and I traversed the Matterhorn in Winter. The skills we needed to get through that storm ridden climb were learnt on the cliffs and faces of Scottish winter.
If you want to get into winter climbing then my advice, though slightly biased, is to learn the basics from an Instructor holding the MIC qualification and a member of The Association of Mountaineering Instructors and then get out their and enjoy an apprenticeship.