Scottish Water Ice: Ben Udlaidh

This year I finally got the chance to climb on Ben Udlaidh, one of Scotland’s best but often allusive Ice climbing destinations. It was a venue I had heard so much about over the years and it always appealed to me as steep ice has long been my favourite climbing discipline. Needless to say this year it lived up to the hype!

The top of Ben Udlaidh is a large plateau which collects precipitation and slopes gently down towards the edge of its steep northeast facing cliffs. At only 840m it sits at a significantly lower altitude than many of the other classic winter climbing crags in the west highlands. This means that most of the time the cliffs are wet, vegetated and largely unappealing to climbers. But with a sustained freeze to low levels all this changes and the cliffs can transform into a veritable water ice climbing wonderland. Fed by water draining down from the plateau over the cliffs ice can form rapidly if temperatures are low enough, offering a great selection of routes to enjoy.

Having been unlucky in previous years with warm weather and travel commitments during these brief cold spells I never quite managed to catch the right conditions. But this year I finally got the chance. By February winter conditions across Scotland were shaping up nicely and with most of the country buckling down in fear of the ‘beast from the east’ I began to get excited. The cold easterly winds battered Scotland with arctic air for almost three weeks, the perfect storm!

So I teamed up with my close friend and colleague Grant Shorten and drove up to Glen Orchy. After a night in the car we set off up the somewhat steep but short walk in to the corrie. As soon as we could see the many waterfalls come into view I knew we were in for something special. Grant is relatively new to winter climbing and for the last few seasons I had promised to take him up some steep ice. So we walked to the base of Peter Pan Direct and were fortunate to find that no other climbers were on the route, with most having been drawn to the adjacent and ever popular Quartzvein Scoop.

We quickly geared up and after a giving Grant a few tips, I set off up the steep start of the route. The ice was as good as it gets in Scotland, well frozen but still plastic enough to climb easily. I climbed the one long 50m pitch with a smile on my face the whole way. Having perhaps under estimated its length I was forced to run it out on the top section in order to save enough ice screws for a solid belay.

With a three point belay firmly in place and a bit of coaching over the radio Grant set off on his first proper ice pitch. At grade V,5 many might argue that it was a bit ambitious for someone of his level of experience, but I knew he could do it. Over the years I have learned that often the most important ingredient when pushing your limits is simply self-belief. For Grant this confidence was not in short supply and he cruised up, buzzing the whole way.

We decided that rushing to do a second route wouldn’t be wise so we opted to take our time and savour the moment. We abseiled down and enjoyed a relaxing walk back to the car. So in the end I finally managed to climb on Ben Udlaidh and even better got to share the experience with a good friend. What more could you want on a beautiful winter day in Scotland? Congratulations to Grant on his first real ice climb and fingers crossed for many more days like this together in the future!

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