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Andy Nisbet the Winter King

Andy Nisbet the Winter King
26 January 2018 No comments

This article was originally published in our Winter Mountaineering Guide - pick up a free copy in your local Ellis Brigham shop or view online here.

His first winter ascents number almost 1000, and he literally wrote the guidebook on winter climbing in Scotland – we talk to legendary climber Andy Nisbet on how he caught the bug and what has made him so successful in this arena...

When did you first get the winter bug and what sort of routes were you climbing?

"I hillwalked regularly when I was at school, Munro bagging basically, but we didn't go out in winter so didn't even know how to ice axe brake. Climbing didn't start until I finished the Munros and the Inaccessible Pinnacle (second last Munro, left as long as possible!) gave me the bug. In Aberdeen anyway, all the climbers did both seasons, so we just got stuck into winter climbing (but we did a Glenmore Lodge course first, which with all the subsidies cost us £3 full board in 1973).

"We started at Grade II and worked our way up the grades quite quickly. Partly because we were the almost the first climbers to be taught front pointing from scratch and never were held back by step cutting. But also because we were very hill fit and relaxed about winter hills.  I once taught two lads; one rock climbed well but hadn't been out in winter. The other had done all the Munros but had never tied on to a rope. The hillwalker winter climbed better."

What's your strategy for hunting down new lines?

"Lots of homework! Going to cliffs in the summer, taking photographs, and then studying them for new lines. Digital photos and computer screens have made life easier. In the early days, the trips were for rock climbing so I have been accused of just doing winter ascents of summer routes. But more recently, I often go to cliffs just to check them out for potential winter lines."

How do you come up with names for all of those new routes?

"I don't know how I managed in the past without Google (I'm slightly dyslexic). So actually my partners often came up with the names. Now I can think of various words which highlight the route (trying not to make it too personal which would be boring for everyone else) and just submit various combinations until I find one which clicks. Sometimes there's a theme on the cliff, or I can link to the hill or cliff name."

You're a rock climber too, but what is it about you – physically and/or mentally – that makes you so successful in winter?

"I've never been a good rock climber, although anyone who tries hard can achieve a fair amount, but winter was the opposite. I took to it naturally. It's hard to analyse why, but my body type is good for stamina and bad for gymnastic movement. And I'm quite solidly built, so I don't get cold but there's a bit too much weight for hard rock climbing. My friends will now blame caramel shortbread but I say it's crucial for success. Plus a lot of winter climbing is a refusal to give up. And I'm cautious enough to not get myself into danger (that is also debatable after a few epics over the years)."

How big a part has the advances in equipment over the years helped in the development of winter climbing?

"In some ways, a huge amount. In other ways, you still need to get out and do it, with all the effort, discomfort and ultimately huge satisfaction. I think it's made more difference to the higher grades, especially steeper rocky mixed. The old axes were useless for hooking and only good for cracks, whereas now most rock routes will go (except friction slabs). And water ice climbing is certainly easier. But wading up a lower grade ridge or gully in not very good weather is exactly the same (and it's great!)."

What do you think about when deciding where to go climbing on a Scottish winter day?

"For me, it's got to be a new route. And a good line. And I'm not as young as I was. And I'm still recovering from a summer injury so grade III is about my current limit. And not too far from the road. You might think it's hard, but it's not, although the choice of crags is limited. But I've done about 10 new routes so far this winter, most between 300 and 600m long. But also I'm a fanatical watcher of weather forecasts and keep a keen eye on what conditions are likely to be, since my cliffs are not the popular high altitude places."

Do you have any tricks you have with gear or clothing to make life easier on winter days out?

"Aberdonians hate buying new anything, so my clothes last till they fall apart. Although I'm hugely smarter now that Mountain Equipment sponsor me with clothing. But the answer is just to wear lots, and be flexible because it's nearly as easy to get too hot. Some folk get really cold (especially small women) and some don't (like me), so clothing is very personal. It depends if you're climbing and standing around on belays, or mountaineering and always moving.

"Gloves make a huge difference, the thinner the better for climbing, but not everyone can get away with thin gloves. I carry three pairs, thick for walking in, thin for leading the technical pitches, and middling for easier pitches, belaying
and seconding."

Have you seen an increase in climbers in recent years, and if so, why do you think that is?

"I think it's increased a little, but it's one of those slow increases you don't really notice. I would say mountain rock climbing has decreased, because of time pressure on the average person. You can go to a crag (or the climbing wall) and have lots of time for the rest of the day. I think this factor has reduced winter climbing but the presence of lots of great pictures on-line of wonderful winter routes and crags has more than overcome this."

How has the season been so far, and do you have any predictions for the rest of the season?

"It's been very good so far, but to an extent that's personal because it's been cold enough to freeze the crags I like. And it's looking promising until mid February (just looking at the jetstream). Maybe even very cold if the Scandi High forms well (it's over Siberia at present which is a bit far away). Will the jetstream stay south subsequently? I'll be delighted if it does."

What's the best advice you can give to anyone wanting to get into winter mountaineering?

"Do some winter hillwalking. Then steeper walks. Then you'll realise that actually you have winter mountaineered and it isn't scary any more."

Which of your winter routes are you the most proud of, and can you pick several that you enjoy climbing now?

"Proudness is split between Vertigo Wall on Creag an Dubh Loch (FWA in 1977) and The Needle on Shelter Stone Crag (FWA in 1985). Vertigo Wall was a breakthrough for me, succeeding on something which was a 'last great problem'. We didn't climb it very well (aid and a bivouac) but we got up. The Needle was genuinely hard for the time, even elsewhere in the world.

"What do I enjoy now? It has to be new so there's no answer. Early season, I enjoy rocky routes in Coire an Sneachda – Fingers Ridge is a particular favourite. And Hidden Chimney. From guiding days, I think East and West Buttresses on Beinn Eighe are brilliant. George on Liathach is great too. And the Forcan Ridge on The Saddle."

This article was originally published in our Winter Mountaineering Guide - pick up a free copy in your local Ellis Brigham shop or view online here.

Ellis Brigham Winter Mountaineering Guide