Follow Powered by 3Bears Porridge climber, Callum Johnson, as he takes us with him on two epic winter mountain climbing expeditions in the Scottish Highlands. When it comes to handling Scotland’s unpredictable and extreme conditions, Callum explains it’s all about fuelling right, keeping your spirits high and a thorough understanding that to earn the good days, you have to endure the tough ones.
"I climb in Scotland all year round, and consider myself an all-rounder, rock climbing in summer and winter climbing when the temperature drops and the snow arrives. The mountains of Scotland become a whole different playground once winter takes hold.
Scottish winter climbing involves the use of ice axes and crampons, often climbing snow covered rock, frozen turf or vegetation and ice formations. The rock and cliffs we have in Scotland lend themselves well to this style of climbing, in that the rock is generally good quality but still cracked and featured enough to climb. For a winter's day, they are the perfect size mountains, in that a route can be approached, climbed and descended in a single push. However their seriousness in winter is not fully reflected by their modest size, the ever changing and harsh weather in Scotland adds hugely to the challenge and experience of winter climbing. Copious amounts of snow can fall in short periods and gale force winds often make a day out feel full-on, tiring, but often exhilarating and energising.
By their very nature Scottish winter climbs are transitory and elusive, therefore predicting conditions and making good venue and route choice is essential to success. I love this aspect of winter climbing. Poring over guidebooks and online resources, keeping an eye on weather forecasts and data, and reading condition reports. It’s a game of logistics, tactics, and knowledge.
“I always overnight my oats ready for the morning. It’s going to be an early start and a long day so having a big bowl of porridge ready for the morning is the perfect set up.”
I always try to drive to the planned destination the evening before and stay in my van, avoiding that early morning drive and getting an hour extra in bed makes a huge difference.
Rucksacks are packed, ropes, gear, harness, helmet, crampons, axes, lots of warm clothes and spares. However above all, I take time to prepare good food, for me this is make or break, if you don’t fuel big days in the hills right you’ll suffer. I always pack at least 3 3Bears Porridge bars. Then I’ll make nut butter, honey and banana wraps for lunch and a few other high energy snacks. Before going to bed, I make my breakfast, I always overnight my oats ready for the morning. It’s going to be an early start and a long day so having a big bowl of porridge ready for the morning is the perfect set up.
A Scottish winter day seems to come in two varieties, both are hugely rewarding. The tough days are endured and the good days are earned.
Perseverance. A tough day.
The rain beat a rhythm on the roof of the van keeping me awake, it faded through the night, changing from sleet to snow as the temperature dropped. My climbing partner arrived early in the morning, we checked our gear and set out, the first light creeping into the grey dawn.
Clouds shrouded the menacing black cliffs, the cold north winds brought snow to paint them winter white. We ventured further up into the coire each step feeling like a marathon as we struggled through the deep snow.
The crag was reached, exposed turf was frozen, the cracks filled with icy snow and verglass, gear was hard won. The climbing felt slow, methodical, trusting hidden rounded granite edges with crampon points, staying in balance. Some steep, but positive pulls on the axes round an overhang and into a wide crack. A fist jam, a layback, another axe torque, this is mixed climbing.
The wind rushed into the coire, hitting the cliffs straight on and then being funnelled upwards past us. With it sharp icy snow stung exposed cheeks, and stuck to the rocks. The temperature was dropping rapidly, everything was frozen now, even us. We keep each other motivated, that partnership crucial to days like these.
Change gloves, add layers, keep moving. Topping out the celebration was brief, gear was quickly sorted, ropes, blown horizontal in the gale were coiled and stashed in our bags. The plateau was a whiteout, but familiar features indicated the way home.
Back to the carpark, into the van, wet clothes removed, kettle on. Head full of the experience of the day, a warm cup of tea and a porridge bar for recovery, a satisfied glow comes from within, it was fun after all.
The reward. A good day.
Frosty snow crunches under our boots, the bright moon is dipping towards the west, stars above twinkle, today they have aligned. The eastern horizon brightens, the clear morning sky glows orange, light pink tinged clouds wisp over perfectly snow white cliffs. Smears of ice flow down enticingly, calling out to be climbed. There’s a lightness and spring to our step.
Excited conversation flows as we ascend into the coire, great anticipation of the next step in our day's adventure. Snowflakes float down unhindered, the air is still and crisp. Arriving at the base of our route, conditions are perfect, snow covered rock and icy smears, all well frozen. We ready ourselves to climb, harness then crampons are put on, ropes are uncoiled and gear is organised.
The planned route weaves its way up obvious corners and features in the cliff above us whooping as we climb, shouts of exhilaration, “this climbing is just so good” each movement a joy. Every belay ledge is a short reunion of excited conversation, sorting gear and planning the next pitch, we swing leads - taking it turn to go first. After each hard pitch there’s nothing more satisfying than putting on your warm belay jacket and having a bite to eat - 3Bears Porridge energy bars are perfect for this, great tasty energy, and importantly you can still chew them when they are frozen!
Topping out onto the plateau, our white snow covered vista switches from vertical to horizontal, the sun bright and warm with colours changing as it dips west. High fives and fist bumps. Ropes are laid out on the ground, gear sorted, bags repacked. We drink in the views on the descent, a porridge bar on the go to fuel the final leg of the journey.
Both of these days are greatly enjoyable, although that is sometimes only realised afterwards. They are both hugely rewarding, feeling energised to move in the mountains. Dinner is always as much fresh raw veg as possible, with some legumes, fish or a boiled egg. Make it colourful, make it healthy.
With a tired body but a mind in overdrive processing the day, sleep is greatly needed but hard won. Soon it is found deeply, dreams of snowy mountains and big views take over."
You can follow Callum on more of his porridge-fuelled wild winter adventures over on his Instagram Channel - @callum.johnson.climbing
Every adventure begins with a bowl of porridge. Share your adventures with us using #PorridgeStories and tagging @3Bears_uk. Gobble up and go get em.