Winter Mountaineering

In the Western Highlands of Scotland

By Ray Darker
Quick Index: Accomodation, Local Mountain Guides, Navigation, Local Knowledge, Local Avalanche Information, Recommended Reading, Travel Info, Other Useful Information.


The aim of this document is to give winter mountaineers and climbers who want to visit the Ben Nevis & Glen Coe area of the Scottish Highlands some idea of what is available in the area and how to go about it. What I've tried to cover is - the climbing areas, when to come, where to stay, navigation, local knowledge, recommended guide books and reading, local guides & instructors and local climbing shops.

Information about avalanches is available from The Avalanche Server Pages.

It is important to stress that walking and climbing in the Scottish hills in winter is a serious business. Being on the West coast means that we are subject to wild variations in weather, a South Westerly wind can bring warm air from the Gulf Stream visibly stripping snow from the lower hills and then suddenly swing North Westerly and bring freezing air from the Arctic. Temperatures can vary as much as 15o Centigrade in a single day. This freeze/thaw cycle is the essence of winter climbing in this area, thawing and freezing of the snow pack favours the formation of perfect Neve and superb ice falls.

When deciding on routes to do there are quite a number of factors to take into account:

The Climbing Areas

Glen Coe is a magnificent playground for the winter mountaineer, with the classic Aonach Eagach ridge on the north side, a good grade III when in condition, and the Bidean Massif on the South with the Buachaille Etive Mor standing guard over the desolate Rannoch Moor. These hills are lower than Ben Nevis but never-the-less provide some superb climbs and mountaineering routes of all standards.

The North facing cliffs of Ben Nevis in winter provide serious mountaineering routes and climbs of an Alpine nature. Early starts, efficient climbing, fitness and careful navigation are the order of the day. You must take this mountain seriously as it is very unforgiving of mistakes.
The classic Grade V routes - Point Five, Zero Gully, Smiths Route and the Orion Face are known throughout the world. Who would have thought that such unimaginatively named gullies like zero, point five, minus one, minus two would be able to conjure up so much passion, fear and dread and emotion in the very souls of those who have climbed them or are aspiring to.

It is very important to note the way off the Ben; most the guide books give the exact bearings from the 'Trig' point on the top. Not all climbs finish at this point, so make sure you know exactly how to get off from where you finish your climb. Many people have died descending into Five Finger Gully due to navigational errors, beware! (The 1:25000 Mountain Master of Ben Nevis has an inset map of the top of the Ben in 1:10000 scale, very useful.)

Recommended Guide books:

When to Come:

February and March prove to be the most reliable months, however there is winter climbing being done from as early as October and sometimes through to June. The climbing November through to January is a bit of an opportunists sport as temperatures and weather vary so much. April and May have quite often been good times to do the higher climbs on Ben Nevis with the snow & ice remaining longer than on the lower hills.

It is always worth checking what the conditions and weather before leaving; you can usually get this from the local Police station, too.

Where to stay

At my guest house of course, where else? Seriously though there is a short list of suitable accommodation , that I know about, at the end of this document. Suitable meaning that people will be flexible enough to allow early starts/late finishes, wet gear, supply vital local knowledge about conditions etc.


There are a dozen or so fatal accidents every year in this area during the winter season, a large majority of these accidents usually stem from navigational error. Make sure you know your way on to your climbs and more importantly off them and have alternative descent routes worked out should the weather deteriorate. A planned descent down a perfect neve slope can be transformed into a dangerous avalanche prone slope by fresh or blown snow whilst you are climbing. It is really worthwhile writing down and attaching the direction and distances for the descent to your map. It is much easier to work out distances and directions at home than in the teeth of a howling blizzard on the top of a mountain. The Ordnance Survey 1:50000 landranger number 41 map is the one for this area and the 1:25000 Outdoor Leisure Mountain Master for Ben Nevis for more detail.

Local Knowledge

To get the best out of the area it is important to know what climbs are in condition and what the history of the snow pack is. You may be an experienced mountaineer but in poor or lean conditions without inside knowledge it is difficult to know where to go, so it might be worthwhile hiring a professional guide for a day or so.
These are the folk who are out on the hill nearly every day watching and noticing what climbs and routes are in condition.There is a list of guides at the end of this document.

Local Avalanches

Although we do not get the severity and size of avalanches experienced on the Continent, avalanches in Scotland do maim and kill mountaineers every year. Last year [1995] an enormous avalanche nearly wiped out several members of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, whilst trying to rescue some people who had been buried by a previous avalanche in Coire na Tullaich.

Avalanche prediction is an art based on science and many factors have to be taken into account, weather, wind, snow, temperature, previous conditions and so on. Again local knowledge is important here. You might arrive here on Saturday night and notice a strong wind blowing from the North West and quite rightly think that, potentially slopes with an easterly aspect could be avalanche prone; however what you might not know is that we have had easterly gales all week!
See the recommended reading guide on avalanches. There is an avalanche prediction service which posts up a notice at various points in the area and is usually attached to the weather forecasts in the Scotsman and the Herald newspapers. Last year it was also posted onto the WWW by Glasgow University,

The avalanche predictions are based on past history of the snow pack and the weather forecast, so if the weather forecast is wrong the avalanche prediction may well be wrong as well.

[The Avalanche Information Pages and Server are here. ]

Local Guides & Instructors

The local guides and instructors listed all have relevant qualifications.
It is worth noting that in the UK. anybody can take anybody out on the hill as a professional guide without having any qualification or training at all. Now obviously there are some guides who have a vast experience of mountaineering who have no qualifications and are probably better than some of those who have but it is worth while checking the qualifications and experience of those people who will be taking you out.

If you need an instructor or guide for winter climbing there are two important qualifications to look for :-

  • The highest guiding qualification is the International Guides Carnet the U.I.A.G.M. this qualification is a must if you are guiding above the snow line in Europe.
    The British Mountaineering Council can provide a list of the UK guides with this qualification. These Guides will have the capability and experience to take you up some of the hardest winter climbs in Scotland.
  • In the UK. the next is the M.I.C. (Mountaineering Instructors Certificate), this qualification is given to people who can usually rock climb in the E grades and climb in Winter at about grade V/VI.

The local guides & instructors run courses throughout the winter season ranging from basic winter mountaineering skills to serious snow & ice climbing. They will also take clients on specific routes, depending on conditions. So if you've had your eye on that special route for some time but don't want to die on it, give one of them a call.

Alan Kimber
Mountain Guide/Instructor - Author of guide book(Winter Climbs - Ben Nevis & Glencoe)Up-to-date information on winter climbing conditions & accommodation for visiting climbers. Tel: Winter Help line 01397 700451 or Fax: 01397 700489.
Mountain Craft Courses Ltd
Glenfinnan, Fort William, PH37 4LT. Tel: 01397 722213 Fax 722300. Established 1986, provider of instructional mountain courses for adults;BMC Approved Courses, SSC Approved Tuition.
Paul Moores (Glencoe Guides)
Tel:01855 811402
U.I.A.G.M. Mountain Guide/Instructor. Established 1976.
Dave Hanna
Ardarroch, Ballachulish, Argyll, PA39 4JQ. Tel: 01855 811620. Winter mountaineering courses, daily guiding, self catering accommodation. Safety cover for film units etc. Dave is a member of the Glencoe Mountain rescue team.
Fraser Coleman Freelance Mountaineering Instructor MIC.
1 Mamore Road, Kinlochleven, Argyll. Tel : 01855 831658. Tailored courses and private guiding throughout the year. Fraser is a member of the Glencoe mountain rescue team.
Hadrian Mountaineering
(Mark Tennent) 19b Carnoch, Glencoe, Argyll, PA39 4HS. Tel/Fax :01855 811472 Mountaineering instruction throughout the year and private guiding by arrangement.
John Cuthbertson (MIC) Snowgoose Activities
The Old Smiddy, Station Road, Corpach, Fort William, PH33 7LS. Tel/Fax: 01397 772467. Run Winter Mountaineering courses, including Winter Mountain Navigation, , Winter Hill Walking and Mountain craft and Introduction to Snow & Ice climbing. John had 15 years active service with the RAF Mountain Rescue Team.
Ryan Glass (MIA & Winter ML), Phone number is 07901 648328/07769 704823. Winter Skills courses by arrangement plus all the usual services in summer.

More information about training and qualifications can be found here.


Generally the hotels are comfortable and offer excellent service but they are geared up for tourists not climbers. I think a good rule of thumb is to ask them what time breakfast is? If the reply is "What time do you want it?", they will probably be flexible enough to cater for the odd hours winter climbers have to keep.
A full list of all types of accommodation in this area can be obtained from the Tourist Information Centre in Fort William. Tel :01397-703781.

Here's a few I know about.

Sheana & Mike Hall, Cnap-An-Tairbh,
By Lochside Cottages
PA39 4JP.
Tel: 01855 811575. Bed & Breakfast in a spacious Lochside cottage, spectacular views. Mike is a member of the Glencoe Rescue Team.
Greag Mhor Hotel, Onich By Fort William, PH33 6RY
Tel : 01855 821379, Fax : 01855 821579
Lochside hotel midway between Glen Coe and Ben Nevis. Winter, caters for climbers with early breakfasts, drying facilities and good food at affordable prices. Also used as a base by visiting Guides who use the hotel as a base for their courses.
Clachaig Inn, Glencoe, 01855 811252
Is the climbers Hotel situated on the edge of Glen Coe, includes bunk house, self catering chalets, and hotel accommodation. Very lively weekends with a bar serving real ale and live music.
The Smiddy bunkhouse, The Old Smiddy, Station Road,
Corpach, FORT WILLIAM, PH33 7LS.
Tel/Fax: 01397 772467. Good quality Alpine style bunk house, sleeps 12. Is the base for Snowgoose Activities.

Recommended Reading

Scotland's Winter Mountains
The Challenge and the Skills' by Martin Moran
ISBN 0-7153-9096-1 a brilliant inspirational book which will give you a very clear idea of what climbing in Scotland is about.
A Chance in a Million?
Scottish Avalanches. Bob Barton & Blyth Wright.
ISBN 0-907521-11-8. The Bible of avalanches in Scotland
Mountain Navigation
Peter Cliff.
ISBN 1-871890-55-1. Clear, readable and understandable book on mountain navigation techniques.
Mountaineering in Scotland & Undiscovered Scotland
Bill Murray.
ISBN 0-906371-07-4. Is a classic of mountaineering literature.
Cold Climbs
Compiled by Ken Wilson, Dave Alcock and John Barry.
ISBN 0-906371-16-3. Is a collection of essays and photographs of winter climbs in the UK., mostly Scotland, if that doesn't have you running up and down the garden wielding your ice axes looking for ice nothing will.

Recommended Watering Holes/Entertainment

  • Clachaig Inn Glencoe, Laroch Bar Ballachulish, Nevis Bank Hotel
  • Fort William and The Nevis Bar Fort William.

Climbing Shops and Gear Hire

  • Glencoe Guides & Gear 01855 811402
  • Nevisport, Fort William 01397 704921
  • West Coast Outdoor Leisure, Fort William, 01397 705777
  • Ellis Brigham, Fort William. 01397 706220

Travel Information

If you intend coming from abroad, the best way is to fly to Glasgow, hire a car and drive up to Glen Coe, approx 2 hours from Glasgow Airport. If you are struggling with excess baggage (winter climbing gear is extremely heavy) it might be worth leaving axes and crampons at home and hiring them when you get here.

More information on travel details is available at these pages.

Ray Darker
26th November 1995

Ray Darker , who ran the Laroch House Guest House in Ballachulish for 10 years, was killed in an abseiling accident on Friday 28 May 1999.

Ray and his Guest House provided food, lodgings and his comprehensive climbing library to visiting climbers from all over the world.

Ray was a regular climber, with winter ascents in Glencoe being his favourite sport. On Friday Ray was engaged in a memorial act on Sron na Ciche, Skye. Ironically he was scattering the ashes of the father of another climber.

He'll be sadly missed.

Many thanks to Rob Naylor for this information.