WHILE most Scots have been casting their eyes skyward and cursing the weather of late, a small, select band have been eagerly watching the clouds – and hoping things get worse.

Climbers from around the world – including some of the planet’s best – have headed to Scotland this week to take part in a special event being revived by Mountaineering Scotland after a four-year absence.

To mark the beginning of the 14,500-strong body’s 50th anniversary year, Streap Alba Geamhradh 2020 – the International Scottish Winter Climbing Meet – is returning for the first time since 2016.

Mountaineers from 22 different countries have assembled on the slopes of Scotland’s uplands for a week of climbing which will see them take on classic routes, tackle technical test-pieces and perhaps complete brand new first ascents as they experience the delights of winter climbing in Scotland.

Among their number are veterans of Everest and the Greater Ranges, as well as leading Alpinists. But they won’t be staying in cosy chalets, as accommodation will be mountaineers huts – “bothy-like”, in the words of one organiser – where home comforts are hard to find.

But while the facilities may offer the authentic Scottish climbing experience, nerves have been frayed waiting for the weather to play its part.

A relatively warm December and January over Scotland’s high ground had meant that the festival was facing poor conditions in gullies and cliffs, which are normally cloaked in the snow and ice that makes them an international draw in winter for the world’s mountaineers.

But as the weather worsens for everyone else, for the mountaineers conditions are improving as the cold, wind and wet moves in.

Simon Richardson, one of Scotland’s foremost winter climbers who sits on the organising committee for the festival, said: “Participants of the International Winter Meet have been anxiously watching the Scottish weather for several weeks now. After the warm December and January the prospects for winter climbing looked bleak.

“Fortunately, the February conveyor belt of westerly storms has changed all that. There is plenty of snow across the Highlands, and ice is building rapidly. Ben Nevis and the mountains of Glen Coe are ice-making machines that love frequent blizzards and rapid temperature fluctuations.

“The soft aerated Scottish ice occurs in very few parts of the world and is a delight to climb, and ice climbs in Scotland are highly sought after by International climbers.”

He added: “This weather trend looks set to continue through the week of the meet, and winter climbers from both the UK and overseas are looking forward to some superb ice-climbing conditions.”

The winter meet started in 1997 and ran for 20 years. The last meet was held by the British Mountaineering Council in 2016, but this year’s revival, led by Mountaineering Scotland, recognises the key role that the event has played on the world mountaineering stage, bringing climbers together to share ideas and form new plans.

Richardson said: “The spin-offs of winter meets have been huge. Regardless of the weather, all the meets have been hugely successful and have become a key event in the mountaineering calendar. International partnerships have formed and climbers have shared techniques and equipment. The meet has also helped shape the ethics of world mountaineering.

“At the turn of this century, dry tooling was all the rage – highly gymnastic climbing using ice tool and crampons – but these routes required extensive preparation with drilled holds and were protected by bolts.

“The Scottish ethic of climbing routes from the ground up and on sight, and not drilling holes in the rock, was in direct contrast to this and, after visiting Scotland, many visitors understood our ethic and have started to apply this more aesthetic approach in other parts of the world.”

Partnerships formed on the meets have resulted in dozens of important new routes across the world, and helped push mountaineering to new frontiers.

Richardson added: “Perhaps the most striking example of this was the first winter conditions ascent of the North Face of North Twin in the Canadian Rockies [which is] higher and steeper than the Eiger and one of the most formidable alpine walls in the world.

“It was climbed by Steve House of the USA and Marko Prezelj from Slovenia in 2004, where they used Scottish approach. Both climbers met on the Scottish winter meet.

“Several of the world’s greatest ascents in recent years have derived from partnerships created at the winter meet. The most recent example is the UK’s Tom Livingstone and Aleš Cesen and Luka Stražar, both Slovenian, who met on the last winter meet in 2016.

“In August 2018, they made the first ascent of the North Face of Latok I in the Karakoram – one of the most coveted prizes in world mountaineering. The route was first attempted in 1978 and had defeated 30 subsequent expeditions. They were awarded the Piolets d’Or, the highest honour in mountaineering, for their ascent.”

During the week, climbers will stay in some of Scotland’s most famous winter climbing arenas, including the Cairngorms, Lochaber and Glen Coe, being accommodated in mountaineering huts such as the famous Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut beneath the massive cliffs on the north face of Ben Nevis.

The event is being staged with the help of the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC), the Alpine Club and the British Mountaineering Council, and is sponsored by clothing and equipment manufacturer Salewa.

John Fowler, president of the SMC, which owns three of the huts accommodating climbers, said: “The Scottish Mountaineering Club is delighted to contribute to this international event and welcomes the opportunity to showcase the impressive nature of Scottish winter climbing to some of the best mountaineers from home and abroad.”

All abilities are represented, with climbers from Israel and South Africa, who have little opportunity to climb snow and ice in their own countries, through to regular winter climbers from Europe, Scandinavia and North America.

Host climbers from the UK have been selected to match the abilities of the international mountaineers.

These include Paul Ramsden, one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers and three times winner of the Piolets d’Or – mountaineering’s highest award.

The groups will rotate around each of the locations to ensure everyone gets to experience the varied terrain Scotland can offer.

Stuart Younie, chief executive of Mountaineering Scotland, said: “We want to give the climbers as authentic a Scottish mountaineering experience as possible. In previous years, they would have stayed in a hotel and been based in one place, but here they are staying in the huts right on the doorstep of incredible mountaineering locations.

“I’d describe the huts as one step up from a bothy. They’re basic but warm and dry with showers and bunks, offering the type of accommodation any Scottish mountaineer is familiar with.

“And out on the mountains, we want the groups to experience snow and ice and all the conditions which the country is famous for.”

Younie added: “A lot of them have told us that’s what they’re here for and we’re glad it looks like the weather isn’t going to disappoint.”