Greg Boswell is a prolific Scottish winter climber, with a host of new routes under his belt. Greg has proceeded to raise his own standards by being the first person to onsight grade X (10), moving on to establish the hardest Scottish winter route to date, Banana Wall (XII), which is steep and marginally protected by small wires.
What exactly is it about Scottish winter climbing that attracts you to it ?
As I said above, the adventure aspect of the sport is a massive part of why I love Scottish winter climbing. There is something almost euphoric about fighting weather conditions, climbing conditions and the route itself, and hopefully getting to the top and knowing that you put up a huge fight and can reap the rewards. It's addictive. Plus Scotland in winter is one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world, and I've spent a lot of money and time looking elsewhere!
What draws you to new routing? Perceptions would suggest there are plenty of hard established routes still to be climbed in Scotland.
As corny as it sounds, it's the "unknown". It's such a cool feeling to get on a line and have absolutely no information about it whatsoever. It could be the hardest thing you've ever been on or it could end up being a splitter crack hiding underneath the snow and ice that swallows gear and you dance up it, enjoying every moment. It's a cool feeling making your own path and not worrying whether the guidebook said go left or the crux is approaching. Just go for an adventure and see what happens. There are still loads of established routes that I want to try in Scotland, but my list of unclimbed potential is much more intriguing.
Ever since the first winter routes were established in Scotland, leader placed protection has been the gold standard. How do you feel about this precedent? Do you think it is possible to continue to drive the standard up in terms of technical difficulty whilst remaining true to tradition?
It depends on what you class as "change". The problem with Scottish winter climbing ethics is that everyone portrays them differently, and lots of people that don't really know what they're talking about bump their gums at every given moment when something is done that's different, but maybe not ethically wrong. I think the sport will evolve in the way that the rest of the climbing world has. People will see routes that they want to do and might throw a rope down it to see if they are willing to try it from the ground, like the trad rock climbing scene has been doing for years. But as long as the main heart and soul of the Scottish winter climbing ethics is maintained, then I don't see a major problem with people pushing their limits and the limits of the sport in the aspect of difficulty. The routes should always be in suitable winter condition, gear/protection should be placed on lead when trying the route and leave the mountain as you found it. If the sport does move into the trying of routes on a top-rope or yoyo style, then this to should be done in full winter conditions! What we don't want to see is people thinking that just because a route is steep and dangerous, that this gives them a "get out of ethics free card". If anything, it's the opposite! Steep walls and roofs do come into full winter condition, you just might need that once in a lifetime storm to make it happen, and if that happens to not be in your lifetime, tough shit, don't climb it!
You have an honest approach to your climbing; you climb for you and not necessarily under peer pressure. After your ascent of Banana Wall ( XII ) in 2015 you secured a sponsorship deal with Rab Equipment. How is this relationship working for you given your previous freedom over the years?
I think it currently works really well for me. All my sponsors seem to be happy with my laid back approach to my climbing rota. Over the last couple of seasons I've felt more drawn to maintaining my hill fitness along with running and going mental on my bike in the summer months and give it my all throughout the cold months with my climbing, or when on specific trips. I've always said I'd stick to my guns when it comes to doing what I enjoy with my climbing, I suppose I'm just super fortunate that all my sponsors support me with this and don't push me to do stuff I'm not up for.
You currently live in Peebles, just south of Glasgow, a place not renowned for its winter climbing. How do you maintain your fitness and get yourself ready for the winter season, which can be incredibly fickle in Scotland?
Yeah Peebles isn't really known for its big mountains and hard climbing, but it does usually get a load of snow every year, which is good to keep you psyched. There's a bunch of stuff I do in the area close to my house that helps me stay in good condition to venture in the hills in whatever conditions get thrown at me; I have my own training wall/gym that I built in a disused farm shed in the next village along. I use this to keep my climbing fitness up and this means I don't have to journey through to the Edinburgh walls on a regular basis, which is handy as I'm pretty antisocial when it comes to going to climbing walls. I also love spending time in the rolling hills that surround the Tweed Valley which is where Peebles is situated. I've got really into hill running over the last couple of years and find myself venturing out to trudge through the heather coated hills most evenings. And last but not least, biking! I do loads of mountain biking in the local forests and I find this helps loads with big mountain day fitness. Your body gets a full workout when you ride techy trails all day.
One of the challenges with Scottish winter climbing is the often long periods of waiting around for conditions to come in, and of course the summer months when there is no winter climbing at all. How do you structure your training during these periods ?
I try to keep my training specific to the type of climbing you find when new routing on mixed terrain. There is a lot of hanging around on Scottish winter routes trying to find protection or to look for axe placements, but then after all the hanging about you still need to have energy and power in your reserve to continue to forge upwards, especially when you don't know what's lurking above. Sometimes it can take multiple hours to climb just a single pitch, so you need to be both mentally ready and obviously physically prepared. I alternate my sessions on my wall with power endurance and stamina. I use weight belts and wrist weights to do power circuits some nights and monster long sessions staying on the wall for extended periods of time to get my body used to working hard on the steeper angle, which is hopefully steeper than most routes you do in the mountains, so it also helps with the psychological aspect of knowing what you can do under stress. I like to end my sessions with campus and pull up sets to train my arms to keep pulling even when totally drained. I think this is something that helps a lot for winter climbing. I used to just make it all up as I went along, and I now just focus on what I think helps me make the most gains.
You have been a prolific activist establishing cutting edge first ascents. Do you think there is much scope left for new routing in Scotland or are we reaching the point of saturation?
No way man! The scope for new routing is just as strong as ever before, you just need to go into the mountains with an open mind. There are literally hundreds of routes still to do, even at the most popular venues, and not just higher grade routes, there is scope for all levels if you look in the right places.
What advice would you give some one wanting to start out in winter climbing?
My advice would be to take the good with the bad. Cherish the good moments when you get them and learn to love the bad ones once they're over. It might be some of the worst days you've had in the hills, but these will turn into some of your best memories! Take it easy to start with and work up through the grades—remember a VS in summer can be crazy hard in winter conditions! Mileage is the way forward—or should I say upwards.
Yorkshire based climber, photographer, writer, alpinist