Three fantastic winter days in Scotland

Pete on the approach up Observatory Gully

We’ve just had three fantastic winter days in Scotland. Blue sky, hardly any wind, and lots and lots of ice.

With the good forecast, Riasg, the Climbers Club hut in Roy Bridge, was fully booked. We didn’t fancy multiple nights sleeping in the car so we opted for the more luxurious hotel option. Late Thursday night saw us driving up the A9 heading for the Perth Travel Lodge. Cheap and cheerful and only about 90 minutes from our first destination…

Creag Meagaidh

We arrived at the car park at a reasonable hour, 8.30am. It was daylight. How strange to be starting a Scottish winter mountain day in the daylight. But the days are getting longer, so we knew we’d have enough time to complete our target route, Last Post. We’d seen this tempting column of beautiful blue ice on our previous trip and were pleased to get an opportunity to climb it.

We made good time on the walk up, but it felt tougher than last time. Perhaps it was because we could see our destination, which seemed to stay so far away for such a long time. Eventually (90 minutes), we started the steep approach up Easy Gully.

The approach to Last Post up Easy Gully
The approach to Last Post up Easy Gully

The ice was fat and steep.

Pete on the first steep water-ice pitch of Last Post
Pete on the first steep water-ice pitch of Last Post

And as is traditional in Scotland, ended with a steep, unprotected slope up to a cornice.

Laetitia finishing Last Post
Laetitia finishing Last Post

It was cold on top, but we decided this time to bag the Munro and made our way to the summit. Interestingly, there were raised frozen footprints across the top – where the strong winds had blown away the snow. They were like fossilised footprints.

Laetitia having fun on the raised snow footsteps left after recent gales
Laetitia having fun on the raised snow footsteps left after recent gales

It seemed very quiet on Creag Meagaidh. We shared our route with one team; there were two teams on Missed the Post, the route next to us; and there were a few walkers. Strange for such good conditions.

Like the walk up, the walk down seemed more tortuous than last time. I don’t know why, perhaps it was because it was later in the day, but we were looking forward to heading to our next hotel. We were definitely doing it in style this weekend and had booked ourselves into a hotel in Roy Bridge.

Aonach Mor

Saturday was intended to be a semi rest day. A lift assisted ascent and an easy route was required, so that meant heading for something classic on Aonach Mor.

The gondola and the chair lift did take us most of the way, but the steep walk up the line of the drag lift seemed brutal. Perhaps our legs were still tired from yesterday, but when we got to the top the views were amazing.

The North Face of Ben Nevis in amazing winter condition seen from Aonach Mor
The North Face of Ben Nevis in amazing winter condition seen from Aonach Mor

We headed along the top of Aonach Mor and found the descent gully – the snow bollards were the give-away. I wasn’t too keen at first to abseil off a snow bollard, but that was the way down so off I went. It was quite safe and a single rope took us to easier ground where we could traverse to the bottom of our selected route, Left Twin. Another route with fat ice ending in a steep, unprotected slope and cornice.

Laetitia on Left Twin
Laetitia on Left Twin
Laetitia approaching the cornice at the top of Left Twin
Laetitia approaching the cornice at the top of Left Twin

When I topped out I found I was just next to the top of the drag lift, and some convenient posts to make a belay.

The summit area and cliffs of Aonach Mor
The summit area and cliffs of Aonach Mor

Despite being so convenient, again, there were very few climbers around. We saw perhaps four other teams. But there were plenty of skiers and boarders enjoying the conditions.

With it being a ‘rest day’ we headed down to the gondola, then Fort William for window shopping, tea, and cake buying. :yum:

Ben Nevis

We saved the last day of activities for the big one, Ben Nevis, but with the clocks going forward, and the extra hour of daylight, we decided a 4am start wasn’t required. We had a leisurely 6am breakfast at the hotel and left the North Face car park just after 7am.

Our destination was Smith’s Route. This is a short and exposed route near the top of Observatory Gully. The approach was brutal. There were no easy bucket steps to follow. It was all crisp névé and my calf muscles were screaming at me for a rest by the time we got to the ice.

Pete on the approach up Observatory Gully
Pete on the approach up Observatory Gully

The rocks were completely encrusted in snow, but Pete found the line of ice and headed up the first pitch. This might be a four star route, but it hadn’t yet seen many ascents this season. At least certainly not since the last storms.

The first pitch of Smith's Route
The first pitch of Smith’s Route

The second pitch is where the excitement started. An exposed traverse left and the axes rebounding off the super hard ice.

Pete starting off on the super exposed and exciting second pitch of Smith's Route
Pete starting off on the super exposed and exciting second pitch of Smith’s Route
Laetitia coming up the steep second pitch of Smith's Route
Laetitia coming up the steep second pitch of Smith’s Route

Again, the route finished with a steep, unprotected slope, and this time to a very huge, very powdery cornice to negotiate. Pete made himself safe below the cornice, the summit just three metres above, and waited for me to get in to sight. He called for me to make myself safe, ‘a bomber belay’ he shouted. He’d already tried to negotiate the overhanging cornice and his axes had just ripped through the un-consolidated snow. Thankfully one found purchase and he was able to stable himself, but he didn’t want to try his luck again without a first-class belay.

I dug deep to find some rock and hopefully the perfect nut and cam placements. In the meantime, Pete attracted the attention of a climber on top and let him know a rope would be useful. I was so relieved when he understood the situation and dropped a rope for Pete that I completely forgot to take pictures. 😳 Anyway, suitably roped up, Pete tackled the cornice again, axes slipping through the powder again, but this time the top-rope tightening and preventing the inevitable slip and a 40+ metre fall.

Phew! Thanks to the climber, who left before Pete got his name. The alternative was a very tortuous and scary down climb, abseil, and more down climbing all the way back to the CIC hut.

Pete on the summit of Ben Nevis
Pete on the summit of Ben Nevis
Laetitia on the summit of Ben Nevis
Laetitia on the summit of Ben Nevis

Climbing on the north face of Ben Nevis can sometimes be hard, the walk down is always hard, well, on the knees anyway. On the way down there was a bit of excitement as a rescue was underway…

A rescue helicopter above the tourist track up Ben Nevis evacuating an injured walker.
A rescue helicopter above the tourist track up Ben Nevis evacuating an injured walker.

We made it back to the car in good time, in a lot less pain than last time – we must be getting used to this crazy game – and in good spirits as we headed for our hotel.

This morning, and despite the weather still being glorious, we decided to take a leisurely drive home.

8 thoughts on “Three fantastic winter days in Scotland”

  1. Stepping up on to the overhung cornice – watching both axes rip through the unconsolidated snow in slow motion – knowing that I had 20 metres of rope out – Laetitia on a belay of unknown quality – and the whole of Observatory Gully yawning at my feet was just about the most scary moment I’ve ever had! If my right axe hadn’t found a layer of hard snow as it ripped down through the cornice I would certainly have been off, likely sliding head first down the final 20 metre snow slope before being launched in to space for another 20 metres before my weight would have come on to Laetitia’s belay! Would the belay have held a 40+ metre fall factor 2?

    I wonder what the best solution would have been if I hadn’t managed to get a rope from above? Try to climb the cornice again with more commitment to find/make better placements? Down climb? Or maybe set about hours of digging straight up through the 3 metres of cornice?

    After a few more days of freeze-thaw cycles (assuming no fresh snow) the cornice will likely be firm and I’m sure it’d be climbable, but as it was the whole event is giving me nightmares!

  2. Pete was looking at some old blogs and we realised I had done this route before, with Jon on 5th April 2007. http://www.sterling-adventures.co.uk/blog/2007/04/05/even-more-antics-on-the-ben/
    The conditions were very different, and in fact an old photo makes it look much more like the picture in the guidebook. In 2007 there seemed to be more ice and more rock – a combination of warmer conditions, more water and less snow.
    I think we possibly did the icicle variation in 2007, but this year that wasn’t visible. In 2007 there wasn’t a roof to belay under, there was no exposed steep traverse left and the cornice was well consolidated. It was still an excellent route in 2007, and well worth climbing again in the different conditions.

  3. Wow sounds like a pretty amazing weekend of climbing, and conditions look fab!
    😎 Sorry I didn’t make it down to the Ben to catch up with you both. We had a rest day on the Sunday in the end.

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