First off, being a numpty I forgot my camera lead, so this post will soon have some pretty pictures to accompany it!
Scotland this has been a week of ecstatic highs and complete non-starters. The week started on a bad foot having been wiped out with flu for 2 days and gondola’s not running due to high winds, which is not only grim being tucked up in bed but with a lingering feeling that you’re wasting precious climbing time trying to recover from splitting headaches and a severe runny nose. The highs have been tremendously high with my first time on the summit of Ben Nevis, my first taste of Haggis and some amazing routes on Buachaille Etive Mor and the Ben…a sure right of passage for any aspiring winter climber. My 3 amazing days this week have been in the presence of Jen and Ollie (last years batch of CA’s from Plas Y Brenin) who quite maybe are my winter lucky charm.
Curved Ridge (II/III) on Buachaille Etive Mor ****
The day prior to my downfall into phlegm and paracetamol. We headed up the track which is at an odd angle for Scotland, only mildly uphill and slightly undulating. We headed up the snow and across the slabs into the corrie at the base of Crowberry Gully. We roped up and moved together for the first 120m or so, a series of snowy gullies and steps with some rock thrown in for good measure. We then seemed to make that old age blooper after deciding that the ground looked as if it was easing and we should de-rope, just to encounter and then solo the crux of the route one after the other, joking that we should have kept the rope on. We headed up the steep snow to the summit, enjoyed a quick juice stop and refuel, before heading back down to the col where we would descend. It has to be known there is some fantastic bum sliding to be had from the col down, once slightly easier angled terrain is reached. Perhaps it was the start of the flu, or the fact I was half asleep or maybe the lack of hard and solid ice (only snow) but curved ridge…a classic four star route…did not feel as good as the hype (or the number of stars) had led me to believe.
Tower Ridge (IV) ***
My first time to Ben Nevis, a somewhat mythical mountain in the climbing world. Standing at 1344m, it boasts some of the biggest cliffs in the UK at 700m tall, and with a name that translates somewhere near Venomous or Malicious Mountain you can see why climbers have been attracted to its glorious north face. The north face of Ben Nevis hosts such fame in the climbing world, people know of the CIC hut and the North Face car park as part of climbing legend and that’s before you hit the climbs like The Curtain, CMD Arete and Point 5 Gully. In 2008 it was host to Dave McLeod’s first ascent of Echo Wall which he describes as ‘harder that Rhapsody or anything else I’ve tried’ which is currently the hardest trad climb at E11…is still ungraded.
Tower Ridge is one of those mythical known about routes in climbing folklore. It’s a 800m ridge line, with 600m of ascent which starts at the CIC hut and tops out pretty much at the summit. In summer its given a scrambling Grade 3, in winter it’s IV, which means near vertical ice and reasonable technical sections. Anyway.
The day had started with fine weather, patches of blue sky and reams of sunlight breaking through clouds across the summit highlighting patches of ground. I think the thought in everyone’s heads was ‘this is going to be an adventure’ and it defiantly was! We set off from the lower car park, and slogged into the top of the steep gully which leads into the Douglas Gap and the start of the ridge. We moved across the easier ground together, Ollie in front, Jen in the middle and me acting as the rear with Ollie placing gear where he felt it was needed. After a few hundred meters the ridge rises up over the Little Tower, I took over leading for a while, over icy steps and steep sections of rock, finding belays where needed. This is where the weather had started to turn, the adrenaline of finally making it onto the ridge and being totally focused was subsiding and I had noticed we where now totally enveloped in cloud, the wind has picked up and the air felt icy. Ollie took over again for the Eastern Traverse and made a belay just before the narrowing in the ridge, and the famed Tower Gap. The icy wind had now picked up enough that standing up on a ridge 1 foot wide with huge drops either side was out of the question. Me and Jen huddled on an exposed belay while Ollie crawled out to Tower Gap to set up a belay and then an abseil down. When we saw him returning, crawling back to us my initial thought was ‘F**k, if Ollie can’t set it up we’re screwed, and there’s a lot of steep down climbing or abseiling into the cloud to get off from here’. He wanted some more tat, simple. We all abseiled down into Tower gap and climbed the crux out. A short walk lead to the summit in whiteout, where we set our compasses, paced and met the Red Burn, a headlight lit walk back down to the car ensued, followed by a Maccy D’s stop in Fort William for chips and milkshakes!
It’s a brilliant route, it’s got everything, steep snow, gullys, icy steps, steep rocky mixed ground, knife edges, exposure, history…what more could you want. The thing that I wasn’t expecting was the eerie-nesss of being in the cloud which is not unusual in the Mountains. It seemed that we could hear people through the cloud like they where walking next to us, or talking to us. Some surreal moments where I was sure people had been walking on the ridge below us, noises of falling ice, chattering and crampons and axes being swung, metal on metal and climbing calls rang out through the cloud all day like they where within touching distance. Reality was that we where alone on Tower Ridge all day the noises where being buffeted around the cliffs and corries, and what we could hear was people between North East Buttress and Tower Ridge…still it didn’t make it feel any less like a horror film stalking.
Thompsons Route, Ben Nevis (IV, 4) **
After recommendation we headed back up the track to the CIC hut, turned right and headed into the deepest depths of Coire na Ciste. After kicking into bullet hard snow and cutting a big enough faffing ledge we racked up, flaked ropes and shoved Crunchie Bars in our most accessible pockets. My legs up to this point had felt like 2 lead bollards being dragged behind my lifeless and tired body, but now stood racked up and looking up the chimneys of perfect rime and runnels of ice they felt energized and excited in anticipation of climbing.
Ollie lead the first pitch, a glorious chimney of ice. The swinging axes and crampons felt rhythmical and perfect, all the way to a wonderfully cut stance and a bomber belay. Ollie lead off again, placed one dodgy ice screw then soloed up to the next belay on hard but unprotected, banked out snow. I joined him on the belay to be showered by ice and snow being kicked on us from a party above. This is where I took the rack and lead off. Having belayed slightly below where the guide suggests I turned right too quickly and ended up trying to traverse a completely blank wall with my only protection being a sling that I trusted about as much as a strawberry boot lace to stay in place if I fell. I retraced, continued on up and found an easy gully leading to the final traverse, an easy mistake to make, but could have had disastrous consequences. I topped out feeling pleased at my first ‘proper’ winter lead, bought Ollie up and we decided to find number 4 gully as our descent. After not finding the pole marker at the top, we got out the map and decided we where indeed in the right place and climbed through the cut cornice and down and down and down to the CIC hut and the motorway track back to the van.
Next week sees my ML winter training, and my last week in Scotland. Feeling like I’ve ended this years Scottish climbing on a high with Thompsons though!