by Keri Wallace
It's that time again - first snow has fallen on the summit of Ben Nevis, and mountaineers and climbers are getting excited about the approaching winter. Some describe it is a yearning or an excitement akin to the first flutters of a baby's movement in pregnancy - known as the quickening. Maybe it's just the cold air that brings on an urge for sharpening tools and flicking through guidebooks. But it is a thing.
A traverse of the Aonach Eagach last winter (credit R. Crewesmith).
Why is Scottish Winter unique?
Why do we look forward to winter so much when it's so mean to us? What I love about Scottish winter is that you simply can’t take it for granted. The conditions are variable and ephemeral; it can be hostile, dramatic and beautiful all at the same time. The snow and ice can be suited to a different mountain sport every day of the week, from ice climbing to skiing, or from mountaineering to winter running – but not for long, and not every year. Sometimes Scottish winter creates conditions that are uniquely hazardous, and sometimes it hardly graces us with its presence at all. Like a petulant child, you simply can’t take you eye off it for a second, or take it for granted.
Scottish winter keeps you on your toes and always wanting more. The best way to enjoy it is to be a jack-of-all trades, an optimist and most importantly an opportunist.
Early winter on the Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) arete, looking towards Ben Nevis (credit K Wallace)
Scottish Winter Climbing
Of all the mountain sports I have experienced, Scottish Winter Climbing is the one with the biggest gender disparity. But even here, high up on the white, encrusted crags of Scotland, things are changing. These days it's not so uncommon to meet a woman at a belay or spot a female pair climbing a nearby route. We used to wear pink you know! - pink jackets and pink helmets (you know the one). But now we look more like everyone else - like we belong there. And we do.
But we are still a rare breed.
If you hire a Winter Mountaineering & Climbing Instructor (WMCI), then you might get a woman - but you probably won't. There are only 43 who have qualified (that's 6% of WMCIs to date). I think this is a massive barrier for young women coming into the sport. The more women there are out there leading mixed routes, instructing groups, abbing off snow-bollards or placing ice-screws, the more women who will look on and think 'maybe I can do that too'! Representation really does matter. The problem though is that most of us aren't up there in the swirling cloud and spin-drift to see this progress first-hand. We need photos, images and smiley video-clips on social media; great photography of strong women in Scottish guidebooks.
And so it was nice to be approached by the Scottish Mountaineering Press last year, looking for good photos of women climbing in winter. But you know, I didn't have any! I asked myself why that was - and I realised a few things. Since having my children I have stepped away from Scottish Winter Climbing, but looking back I can see now that I rarely led climbs (often preferring to second harder/interesting routes than the fairly mundane stuff I was confident leading on). The pitches I did lead were usually the easiest or visually unimpressive ones. I was also pretty focused and sometimes gripped; feeling too concerned for photos or busy belaying. I wish now that I had asked partners to take some of me, as it would help me remember those experiences and that version of myself.
"Getting out climbing with other women has helped me realise that it doesn't always have to be so serious. You can spend the day having a giggle and a blether! Not every route has to be about pushing hard. You can also decide when you want to go out (you shouldn't feel any pressure that you 'have' to do something)! If you're not going to enjoy it, it's ok to go home and come back another day!" says Kirsty Pallas, Mountaineering Scotland Mountain Safety Advisor and Winter Mountain Leader for Girls on Hills.
Feeling the pressure on the Salmon Leap, Liathach, Mar 2013, (Credit B Wallace)
"One major barrier to female participation, which is easy to overcome, is the visible availability of role models. It was really apparent to me last winter that more women were following me and my female peers on social media. I am a prolific, mid-grade female climber, of which there are comparatively few in Scottish Winter" says one of our 2022 winter festival instructors, Rachael Crewesmith.
R Crewesmith enjoying Garadh Gully, Ben Nevis Feb 2022
Perhaps there is also something else at play here. Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that there is a ‘self-promotion gap’ in the behaviour of men and women that spans sport, business, law and leadership. Data suggests that as women, we are more likely to downplay our accomplishments and less likely to 'own' or celebrate what we’ve achieved. We often qualify our successes, amending our achievements with words like ‘just’ and ‘only’. This is bolstered by a cultural pressure that that exists (particularly in outdoor sports) to diminish one’s achievements. Taking a low-key, modest approach is often celebrated but unfortunately fans the fire of poor representation. I for one, love to see photos of women 'crushing-it' and feeling proud of what they have achieved. You don't have to be looking gnarly or dangling from a single pick whilst placing a skyhook! Just show us you're out there having fun...
A rare climbing photo of me! Number Three Gully Buttress, Ben Nevis 2011 (Credit K Spinney)
Scottish Winter Climbs West from Scottish Mountaineering Press
Thankfully Neil Adams, author of the new Scottish Winter Climbs West guidebook has managed to dig-out a handful of pictures of fab women looking mega in the Scottish winter - and that's a definite improvement on guidebooks that have gone before!
"I made an effort to try to include photos of, and stories about, a diverse range of climbers in terms of gender, ethnicity, age and background. The most obvious examples are in the history section but I hope it comes across throughout" says Adams.
In general the book includes a lot of inspirational photography. There are also nicely detailed route descriptions and has improved breadth in terms of the areas and crags covered (spreading the love a little and maybe reducing queueing at popular venues). There are over 1,300 routes listed, including lots of new lines on familar and less well-known crags. The area maps are also really good - though lots of the crag topos are small thumbnails and a little indistinct for picking out key features.
One of the things we at Girls on Hills really like about this guidebook is the emphasis on improving accessibility for beginners.
"I remember starting out in winter climbing, being aware of a handful of venues but really having no idea how to choose where to go or what to do. I wince at the thought of some of the things we got away with! In a sense, a lot of the accessibility improvements are made with my 20-year-old self in mind, though I am conscious of the different routes by which people might enter the sport (e.g. from hillwalking or indoor dry-tooling)" says Adams.
"I have inlcuded useful information on getting to and from routes safely (e.g. navigation, avalanche risk, cornice hazard etc) and working out where to go on a specific day (e.g. judging conditions and making best use of weather forecasts and online reports). There is also a list of suggested fall-back options. Hopefully this means newcomers will be better able to keep themselves safe and avoid the frustration of poor venue choices early in their careers" adds Adams.
"The hardest thing about being a new winter climber is the planning phase: where to go and why that's the right decision. Weather influences and avalanche danger are the “hidden” parts of planning that often only get a cursory mention in guidebooks. The approach to the crag (and the descent) is the pinch point where a climber is most likely to get into trouble. I like the Selected Crags table, with its key information such as crag base elevation and approach aspect makes it easier to plan with avalanche danger in mind. Information on the character of the crag, for example “turfy mixed climbing” or “easier mountaineering ridges” give the winter climber a quick snapshot or overview of the whole area, which means they don’t have to trawl through the book for the right aspect or elevation. Another useful part of this bookfor newcomers is the brief “Winter Climbing Skills” chapter, signposting the reader to further information and instruction" says Crewesmith, who is a WMCI trainee.
Me & hubby Ben on Point Five Gully, Ben Nevis, Dec 2016 (credit R. Lovell)
Women's Winter Festival
At Girls on Hills we are passionate about encouraging and supporting more women into Scottish winter climbing, mountaineering and winter hillwalking. On March 10th-12th 2023 we'll be running our second Women's Winter Festival with Abacus Mountain Guides to help drive that change in the West Highlands. We'll be offering courses in winter climbing, winter walking and winter trail running - as well as providing courses in winter navigation and avalanche avoidance.
We're also looking forward to shouting loudly about women in the winter Mountain Training pathway who will be working with us and encouraging more women to pursue winter mountain leadership qualifications for themselves...
The Devil's Ridge at sunset, a winter traverse of the Mamores Dec 2021 (Credit J. Gay)