The best early season winter climbs in the west

It’s the start of the winter season and time to dust off the axes, if they aren’t out already. Of course, it’s still early days yet, which is why we asked Neil Adams, author of Scottish Winter Climbs West, to take us through a selection of his go-to areas for searching out in the start of the season in the west of Scotland. 

Traditionally, the start of the winter season is celebrated by scratching around in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms. This is as true for me as anyone else – mid-October this year saw a few opportunists (me included) making the most of some early rime in Coire an Lochain, and my previous season kicked off on the upper tier of Carn Etchachan in early December. However, the west coast does have some excellent early-season climbing which is worth seeking out. Here, I reflect on some of the best routes I’ve done out west before Christmas in recent years. 

Southern Highlands 

The winter of 2021/22 started with a Storm Arwen, which battered Scotland with gale-force northerly winds. These brought little snow, but the combination of low air temperatures and strong winds convinced Martin McKenna and I to take a punt on a high, north-facing, turfy route immediately after the storm. I was also recovering from injury so was keen for something of a moderate grade. Echo Edge (III,4) on Meall Bhuidhe in the Bridge of Orchy seemed a good choice, and the gamble paid off. We approached up surprisingly good water ice in the lower section of Mortal Coil, then moved left onto the ridge proper. The ridge had caught the wind, freezing the turf and giving just enough aesthetic whiteness to justify an ascent. From the summit, we descended to the col and dropped into the Beinn Achaladair crags on the other side of the corrie to climb Apprehension (IV,4), the steep corner on the left of the Premonition buttress. This was first climbed as an ice route so was a bit of an unknown quantity in early-season frozen turf conditions, but it turned out to be a worthwhile outing of V,6 or thereabouts. Needless to say, we didn’t see another soul on the hill all day. 

In previous years I’ve had similar early-season outings on other turfy, north-facing crags. Flakewalk (VI,7) on Beinn Donich (taking a left-hand start to avoid some unfrozen turf) and Tainted Elixir (V,6) on Ben Cruachan have both been early-season successes, and the North Face of Beinn an Lochain often catches good conditions early on. 

Ben Nevis 

In March, the Ben Nevis gullies will typically be fat with ice and festooned with climbers. In November, it can feel like a different mountain altogether. The mixed climbs high in Coire na Ciste are some of the most reliable (and best) in the country, but compared to the Northern Corries, they skew towards the harder grades and have a more arduous approach. This means that those willing to walk a bit further, and pull a bit harder, can often find solitude when these routes are at their best. 

Another early-season advantage of The Ben is that the CIC Hut is rarely full. This can turn Coire na Ciste into a pleasant weekend venue with a relatively short walk required each day. Andy Inglis and I took advantage of this to climb The Secret (VIII,9) and Apache (VIII,9) in a November a few years ago. There’s no way we would have been able to push our grades so much if we’d walked in from sea level both days. Though slightly lower, the Trident buttresses are another early-season favourite, I climbed Strident Edge (VI,7) with Heike Puchan at the start of December a few years ago. 

Church Door Buttress 

Church Door Buttress 

Being high and having north-west and north-east-facing aspects, Church Door Buttress is an obvious choice.  

I have had mixed experiences here in early season (no pun intended). Poco Loco (VII,7) with Graham McGrath and James Sutton and West Chimney with Andy Newton (V,6 before the through-route was blocked by rockfall) were both excellent pre-Christmas outings. However, when attempting Crusade (VII,8) with Erick Baillot, we encountered unfrozen turf on the third pitch and retreated to avoid damaging the route. We’ll be back… 


All these climbs and more can be found in our most recent winter climbing release Scottish Winter Climbs West.


Greg Boswell on Un Poco Loco (VII, 7). © Hamish Frost

Alasdair Fulton on the left-hand start to Flakewalk (VI,7) on Beinn Donich. © Neil Adams

Andy Inglis and Jim Higgins on a previous attempt on Apache (VIII,8) on Ben Nevis. © Neil Adams

Graham McGrath on an early-season ascent of Cornucopia (VII,8) on Ben Nevis. © Neil Adams