We’ve just had three fantastic winter days in Scotland. Blue sky, hardly any wind, and lots and lots of ice. More “Three fantastic winter days in Scotland”
Another night sleeping in the back of the car, another 4am alarm call, and another world-class classic Scottish winter route. This time on the mountain that some might consider to be the “crucible of Scottish winter climbing”, the north face of Ben Nevis. More “Ben Nevis, Point Five Gully”
We had winter skills training up in Scotland this weekend with the rescue team, so Li’l Pete and I decided to take advantage by going up a day early and getting in a cheeky route on the Ben.
The avalanche forecast through the preceding week didn’t make pleasant reading following some very heavy snowfall the previous weekend combined with strong winds. Some huge avalanches had been reported in various locations, but we reasoned the Ben was the best of a bad job and we’d go and have a look.
After a night in the car, we set off up the hill, noting the deep drifts through the forest section and the warm wind blowing down the valley. It was drizzling, and the Ben was shrouded in mist. Moving towards the C.I.C. hut, we saw some great snow sculptures carved out by the wind, which lightened our mood a little, but I couldn’t help thinking we were probably going to turn around as soon as we got there.
Finally reaching the C.I.C. hut, we stopped for the traditional rest and considered our options. My gut said turn around, my sensible head agreed, but my lazy side wanted some payback for the effort of the early start and the walk-in.
We prevaricated, waiting for glimpses of possible routes through the gloom, and made friends with a wee snow bunting, keen to sample our sandwiches.
Eventually, the mist lifted a little and we glimpsed the Minus Face, Observatory Ridge and Tower Ridge. I’d fancied a crack at one of the Minus gullies, but we agreed that Vanishing Gully would be a safer bet – besides, it was closer!
The tromp up and across the snow slopes to the base of the route was a little spooky, with reasonably consolidated but deep windslab, above a very unpleasant run-out. It was manageable, otherwise we would have stopped, but if the slope did go, we’d have been buried in the gorge below ’til the Spring!
Best not to dwell on the nasty stuff though, we had plenty of time, and the drizzle was at least pretending to be snow now…
After an aborted attempt at finding the base of the route (possibly due to a 50m versus 50ft spelling mistake in the guide?), followed by an abseil retreat to avoid the spooky snow slope…
…we geared up below (what turned out to be!) Vanishing Gully. Pete led off into the gloom, with wisps of spindrift funnelling down from above.
All was well, and I enjoyed what view there was. Strangely, the wisps of spindrift decided they didn’t want us to have it all our own way, and organised themselves into distinct torrents, that I guess some people might call ‘avalanches’. Nomenclature aside, they halted progress each time they swooshed through, but the ice, and therefore the gear, was good, so all nice and safe, merely moderately uncomfortable!
Pete took refuge after an impressive ‘V’ groove first pitch, and hid as best he could, whilst I followed. The next pitch looked steep to start, but appeared to lean back shortly after, so timing my start to avoid the mobile white stuff, I set off. The route has seen plenty of traffic recently, so the pitch was mostly hooking in previous placements, which took away a lot of the effort – welcome indeed given the increasing volume and regularity of the assault from above. Moving quickly up the slope above, I belayed, brought Pete up, and we agreed to ab the route rather than risk unknown ground on the recommended decent.
All-in-all, a great ‘proper mountain’ day out, with (we think) good decision making along the way. Realising that NevisSport cafe would be closed by the time we got there, we topped off the day in style with tea and toast in the car park! I tried for the photo, but the cold had got to my camera again – sorry about that.
I didn’t want to miss out on all this adventuring on the Ben, so lucky for me Jon was keen to make the trip up north again. We left Penrith by 5.30 on Wednesday evening and made it to Fort William by 10pm. After stopping at the BP garage for a quick cup of beige coloured water that was unsuccessfully pretending to be tea, we headed for the car park that would be our place of rest for the short night ahead.
|The alarm went off at 2.30am, but we hadn’t been asleep. I think I managed an hour, but Jon was convinced he hadn’t slept at all. Oh well, it was time to leave, and start that long trek up hill.
We made it to to CIC hut before 5am and headed towards Zero Gully, but we were put off by the continual falling of small and large lumps of ice. Perhaps this is how it always is, but the warm temperatures made us think it might just all fall down around us, so we opted for Smith’s Route after soloing Tower Scoop.
Jon led a great first pitch on thick ice that was dripping with water, and I finished with a 60m pitch to just below the cornice. We were first on top – well, it was only 9.50am!
We took the usual photos, but the clouds were coming in fast so we didn’t hang around for too long. It was a long way down, my feet hurt, and I was really looking forward to a decent cup of tea. We were in Nevis Sport café by 2pm. Lovely!
Having missed all of this winter season in Scotland (and last season), Jon persuaded me to take advantage of the great conditions on the Ben with a late night dash northwards to grab a classic.
Jon leaves the snow basin
We parked at Torlundy at 11pm, grabbed a couple of hours kip in the car and walked up to the C I C hut, arriving there at 4.45am. The lads just getting up and hoping to be first on Orion Direct were a little disapointed to find us ahead of them!
Jon tackles the final steeper section.
We started up the route at 6am, finding in a few places that the heavy traffic in the last week or so was beginning to take its toll.
The route up and across the snow basin was straightforward enough, but the 5th and crux pitch was very thought provoking! But a couple of good wire placements and the angle eased. With only some steep sections higher up, we cruised through the final 4 pitches to top out at 12.45.
Jon, relaxed at the final belay
We’d only seen the lads behind us all day, and now on the summit found all the tourists that had come up from Fort William. Never mind, we left them at the half-way lochan and were back to the car at 4pm, after a very leisurely wander down. Home in the Lakes by 10pm! and another classic on the Ben filed in the memory under the heading “all time great routes”.
Terry and I traveled up to the Scottish Highlands this weekend having heard about the almost perfect conditions on Ben Nevis, and adding in the continuing ‘bon temps’ forecast, we had to go. A big route on the Ben seemed within grasp!
Traveling Britain’s motorways is a trial. And that isn’t even counting for the catering at motorway services. When we stopped for dinner I asked for the steak pie. The lady serving had to check with the cook if there was any left – there was one! Then I was asked, “Would you like chips with that?”, I replied, “What are the choices?”, the answer, “None”. I had chips with my steak pie and luminous green mushy peas. Nice!
Arriving at Riasg we looked for the key to gain entry early the next morning to the forestry track that takes an hour out of the walk up to the north face of Ben Nevis. It wasn’t there! Whoever’d had it during the week had passed it on to another without signing it out, and against the system that allowed Terry and I to book it for the weekend. A great way to ruin our plans. Only one thing for it. Wake them up and get it!
Of course the morning did come, we did have the key, and after some off-road fun getting Terry’s little Corsa up the forestry track we finally got to the mountain.
It was crowded! Every ice climber in Britain had heard about the conditions and was out to play.
We had planned to climb Orion Face Direct, but that had at least 8 people strung out up the route. Not one of them moving an inch as we slogged up the snow slope to the base. Busy! So we chose to climb Zero Gully, a super classic.
Whilst people on this line were moving, it was still busy, which meant falling ice! Check this clip…
One of these falling chunks of ice whacked me on the leg… It hurt! A lot! If Terry hadn’t been there I might have been less manly and cried! 😉
One positive aspect of the crowd was meeting Adelle & Paul, who were climbing ahead of us. Really friendly and enthusiastic people. Hope you had as great a day as us?
Despite the falling ice, what an amazing route! Easy climbing by Canadian ice standards. But combined with the walk in (even with the key), a painful ice fall injury on my leg, the stress of imaginary belays, and that damned walk out, a very tiring experience. Awesome! Here are two more shots, Terry starting the first pitch, and topping out.
On top was so nice we hung out just soaking up the sunshine and the views. It isn’t often you get a view like that from the top of the Ben. I even took my boots off and relaxed my tired feet ready for the walk back down.
One last picture though, is this the most freakishly scary cornice you’ve ever seen? It must be overhanging the cliff by 25+ feet, a fast way to descend a very long way! Or maybe a BASE jumping platform?