Conquering the UKs ten highest Mountains in Winter – Ben James

I am not sure where my obsession with mountains began, it may have been when I was in my early teens, when I was first dragged up Croagh Patrick in Ireland by my Dad, along with my two brothers, who at the time were just as reluctant. Despite an experience that would probably have put most people off for life, it seems to have resonated within me.

I started out hill walking, mostly around Dartmoor, but needed something more, something more challenging and with a bit more danger. Dartmoor strolls grew into Ben Nevis via the CMD arête, and then sleeping on Snowdon at the start of a Welsh 3000s attempt, followed by more summer trips to the highlands and a segment of the Cuillin Ridge. 

I’d always been in to survival programs and books, and Arctic and winter techniques always stuck with me, so naturally I decided to progress to winter mountaineering and hill walking, and perhaps slightly ill advised, I decided to read up on it and teach myself.  Surprisingly, after a lot of practice, it went quite well, and my first winter summit was in February 2015 - Ben Macdui, followed by Cairn Gorm and then Carn Mor Dearg. 

My first winter summit, Ben Macdui, March 2015

My first winter summit, Ben Macdui, March 2015

Mountains seem to be addictive, and I returned again at the end of January '16 with the aim of completing the highest 10 UK summits all in winter conditions. This time I returned the favour, and dragged my Dad along for his first Winter Mountaineering experience, along with my Brother who had been 'encouraged' to come the previous year. The list seemed a little daunting, but achievable. It consisted of Ben Lawers via Beinn Ghlas, Aoanch Mor and Aoanch Bearg, Ben Nevis via Carn Mor Dearg and the CMD arête, Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine. Just a few peaks to do, and two weeks booked off work to do it in. We based ourselves in Newtonmore and set out from here each day.

Ben Lawers and Benin Ghlas were a relative breeze, the weather was very rough with the start of storm Gertrude on the way. I began with my brother and my friend, but at half way they decided it was enough for them, so I slogged on to Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers with my dog, Nuka. Two down!

Straight away the next day, my brother and I tackled the Aonachs from Glen Nevis, all the way over to the Ski resort. We had relative calm on the weather front, but a bucket load of snow came down which made it tough on the slopes, luckily the ice on top easily took a crampon which made it much quicker going. Our friend Rob had decided to opt for Sherpa duties, and dropped us at one side and collected at the other. Everyone needs a friend like that!

After a quick exchange at Inverness airport, Rob flew home and my Dad flew in. We planned to head out to Creag Meagaidh nature reserve on the 31st of January, giving my Dad a chance to practice some winter skills before we threw him up a mountain. Despite the 70mph gusts, it went quite well, and we even had time for some snow holing.  

Naturally my Dad being my Dad wanted to try out the new skills immediately, and with a gap in the horrendous conditions the next day, we decided Nevis it was. We took the less travelled route, going via Carn Mor Dearg and the CMD arête, before going up the back of the Ben to the summit. To say the conditions were tough would be an understatement. The piled snow and ice did reduce the need to bolder hop in places, but the 2 or three foot snow that had accumulated on the steep route up the back of the Ben, made it draining. I was relieved to see the summit! A very good effort from my Dad - his first winter climb and he bagged Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis.  

Ben Nevis summit, with my Dad

Ben Nevis summit, with my Dad

We then had to wait out the weather again for two days as storm Henry Rolled in. The initial plan was to walk from the Sugar Bowl Carpark, near Aviemore, to Corrour Bothy, and after staying there for the night, we would complete the Cairngorm summits I had remaining the next day. Of course all best laid plans… We did manage to walk out to the Chalamain gap, before having to turn back due to struggling with all of our kit and trying to walk in 70mph gusts. We’d hoped to dodge the worst of it by going through the Valley but it was not to be.

The next day was plan B, head straight to Braeriach and then on to Sgor An Lochain Uaine and Carn Toul, then back again.  My Dad remained behind this time, leaving me and my brother to slog it out. The start was much easier, and we made the Chalamain Gap and beyond well within an hour. The challenge began when we reached the start of the ascent to Braeriach, at the beginning of the Lairig Ghru. The snow was deep and soft with a good foot falling the day before. We found we were wading in snow past our knees in places, until we eventually found what we could see of a path. The route to the top was hard going, and as we crossed the Plateau the winds picked up again and the snow whipped up. As we approached the summit, we were in a complete white out. Distinguishing the edges of the ridge and the route we should be taking became nearly impossible. As we finally reached the summit of Braeriach, we decided to call it a day with the wind chill becoming so cold, our gloves had started to freeze over, and navigation became a problem, with cornices becoming indistinguishable. At that we headed back. 

My brother Alex at the summit of Braeriach

My brother Alex at the summit of Braeriach

As soon as I returned home to Cornwall, I planned straight away to head back up. About two weeks later, I returned on the 24th of February to finish off my top ten, Carn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine remaining. This time I went on my own, and planned a three day trip, approaching from the South, starting at the Linn of Dee and staying at Corrour Bothy for two nights.  I timed it perfectly this time. Despite there again being about three foot of snow, making it hard going, the weather was perfect. Some fresh snow fell on the first day, but I never needed a jacket once. On the final day I even walked out in just a tshirt. Corrour was amazing to stay in, and I had one night there to myself. I completed Can Toul and Sgor An Lochain Uaine with ease, crampons and Ice axe making short work of the terrain. Even the detour I had to take up the side of the Devils Point was not a huge problem. The usual route had avalanche signs at the top, so I opted for using the ice on the steep side of the Devils Point, adding another Munro to the list.

The Devils Point, Corrour Bothy the spec to the right.

The Devils Point, Corrour Bothy the spec to the right.

Finally the ten were done, all in the winter, and the last was definitely the best. It is possibly the only time I have been to the Cairngorms and had clear skies, clear enough to see for miles, even across to the Isle of Skye.

Like I said at the beginning though, Mountains are addictive, and the to do list has already gained a few more locations…

By Ben James. (currently somewhere in the Brecon Beacons.)