Monday, 31 January 2011

Big Bad Ben

Obviously not as fit as I thought (or hoped)! Nor had the walking around in plastic boots done much to get my legs used to stumbing around in the dark and half-light on rocky paths. All this is a way of saying that two days' climbing on the Ben and I was knackered!

The plan was for a four day weekend but we ended up using Thursday to drive up to the hut at Roy Bridge rather than rushing it either Wednesday night or early Thursday morning so as to get some climbing done on the Thursday, the plan would have been to do something around Bridge of Orchy. Steve had never winter climbed on the Ben before but was keen as ever, hopefully conditions would allow the sports plan to unfold as intended. A piece of luck in that we were offered the use of the forestry key for the day which would save time both on the walk in and out.

A 5AM wake-up on Friday morning led to us leaving the car around 0615 for the long trudge up to the CIC hut. The path has been "upgraded" in recent years so no more trudging through the infamous Allt a Mhuilin bogs. It was just daylight when we got to the hut, a group of three young lads arriving just ahead. Chatting to them it turned out that one of them was the son of the person I'd last climbed on the Ben with - 25 years previously! They were heading for Tower Face of the Comb.  Our original intention was for Point Five but since the last grade V I'd led was the occasion of my last trip up here I was having doubts. We settled on Comb Gully.

After another hour's slog we were behind a team also heading for the same route - b***er! We waited a bit then Steve headed off up the easy part of the gully. 60m later and he's at a belay and my turn. More easy slopes lead to a steepening, this is good neve, good for step cutting, good for axe placements, not good for ice-screws. So it was a case of getting on with it and up to the belay.

I'd caught up with the team in front so we had to wait about half and hour before there was enough room to bring Steve up. The next pitch looked similar to that below but more sustained. Steve set off and made short work of it. The second piece of gear was interesting - a thumb sized loop of wire sticking out of the ice! Steve said he was glad it was there and he didn't care what it was attached to! By the time we were on the top it was a white-out so we headed down the zig-zags as I'd never been down that way then headed back to the Allt a Mhuilin and the car for a ten hour round trip. Some photos of the route here

Saturday: day two and we didn't have the forestry key so it was a walk in from the North Face car-park, another 350m of ascent though plus it was drizzling. We'd been recommended Thompson's Route, again high in Coire na Ciste, so the CIC was only going to be halfway. It was definitely light by the time we got to the hut but it was very murky. Enough so  that we spent the best part of an hour finding the route.

Steve set off up the first, short, pitch but after some tooing and froing at the start of the steep ice declared "I've lost my mojo!" and down climbed.  After swapping ends of the ropes I head up, a quick look over the gear and onward and upward. The direct line was verglas and looked hard, the previous team had taken a line to the right then moved back in to the main line so that's the way I went as well. An easy ramp lead to a steep shallow corner, in with a warthog then up on some dinner plating ice to an excellent belay.

I offered Steve the next pitch but he decided that it would be quicker if I led it. Again we moved the ropes around and I moved in to the chimney. The climbing was excellent and varied with a definite crux bulge that felt a little exciting but nothing over taxing. It was over all too soon and I was at the large flake belay at the top of the chimney. By the time Steve had joined me the clouds had cleared out and we had good views of the teams at work on the wall opposite.

Kev Avery on the crux of Darth Vader
The next pitch was easy so Steve said he'd lead it. Eventually the ropes came tight but no shout to begin climbing. After a minute or two I set off anyway and the ropes  began to pull in. Steve's stance was on the prow of the buttress and was shared with a team on No 3 Gully Buttress. After some time we got going again but rather than follow them across to the right I headed straight up some snowy grooves which were quite interesting even if easy. Eventually I reach over the small cornice and pull on to the plateau and sunshine.

When Steve arrives we decide to head up to the summit as Steve has never been on the mountain at all and it's a chance to get another Munro.

Steve nearing the summit of Ben Nevis

We decide not to head over Carn Mor Dearg Arete as planned since we missed the turn and ended up on the top of North East Buttress. Ooops! This time rather than head down the zig-zags we dropped down No 4 gully. Fortunately the snow was soft so descending was much easier and we were soon back at the CIC hut. It was dark by the time we were back at the top car park it was dark and by the time we were at the car we had been out twelve hours. A long day.

The following morning we consider heading up to Aonach Mor but a quick enquiry at the gondola ticket office reveals that there are 35-40mph winds at the top of the slopes. Probably just as well as we are both knackered.

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