Scottish Winter

Despite much IMC winter action in Wales and the Lake District, I may have been
our only representative on the Scottish winter scene this winter. So this is the
tale my trip in early March.

Being both inexperienced and rusty from missing the previous season, I booked a
guide for four days, with the Glen Nevis youth hostel as a base. I can
thoroughly recommend both the hostel and the guide. The latter, Ian, a Mancunian
based in Snowdonia, is known to at least three other IMC members to my

The main issue with these trips is the weather and correspondingly, the snow
conditions. There had been plenty of snow. Reports of neck deep powder on the
Aonach Eagach ridge added to the inaccessibility of most of the high routes on
the Ben due to category 4/5 avalanche risks didn’t bode all that well.

We warmed up with a wade through the snow to a grade II ridge somewhere near Lock
Laggan, which passed without incident, significant snowfall or even a late

The next day was dedicated to another wade up the side of Tower Ridge to
do Fawlty Towers III, to the right of the Douglas gap. This was our second
choice route, due to traffic on the Douglas Boulder route that we first headed
towards. Meanwhile, a party had set out to tackle the ridge itself from the CIC
hut, at the same time that we’d passed the hut. Apparently this was the first
attempt for several days, thanks to the excessive snow accumulations. The only
problem that we had was that at that height, water was running under the ice and
a lot of it had no real substance to it. With the benefit of a top rope, I was
able to trust the ice on route, whereas Ian had to take a few diversions when
leading. If I’d been leading, I’d have backed off in terror after the first few
metres. The top pitch proved particularly difficult, with Ian needing three goes
to find a route that had any semblance of security. As we descended to the
Douglas gap, we wondered whether the ridge party had any chance of finishing in
daylight. The fact that they were only just above us on the ridge well into the
afternoon suggested not. The third day was pretty easy to assign as a rest day;
the forecast of high temperatures and heavy rain proving to be annoyingly
accurate. As we later saw, this caused most of the main gullies on the Ben to
avalanche and actually improved the remaining snow to something like a
reasonable state.

Climbers on the Douglas Boulder

Abseiling into the Douglas Gap

Climbers on the Douglas Boulder Abseiling into the Douglas GapSouth West Ridge III

The classic Twisting Gully III,4 on Stob Coire nan Lochan was the next day’s
target. This time we were the first party to get to the crag, on what turned out
to be a busy morning, with many teams out. I can imagine that in good
conditions, the technical grade might be a bit generous, but in the rather warm
air, the ice wasn’t the best that I’ve encountered. The crux is a steep traverse
out from under a chock stone, which Ian reached with his usual efficiency.
Belaying and watching from below, it didn’t look easy, and to confirm that, a
“Watch me!” put my concentration onto its full setting, as though it might ever
not be. Ian edged out onto the face. I fed a little of the higher blue rope
through the belay device. Searching for a placement with the left hand axe,
obviously nothing good to be found… Then the unmistakable sounds of falling, of
crampons not staying put. In the age that ensued, I locked off the rope and
braced for the inevitable tug. It never came though. Somehow, Ian held on, his
crampons having latched onto rock a foot or so down. “Tension on blue”, then he
continued climbing, with obvious care and got out onto the rib. Being able to
use the revealed footholds made following straightforward. Nevertheless, I was
reminded of my rustiness on the next pitch, where I made a complete, four
course, meal of a simple corner, almost devoid of ice. Ian had easily bridged up
on nothing very obvious, but when it came to my turn, I ended up hanging from my
axes, cranking up with my feet scraping ineffectually at the rock. Ho hum.

The fourth day’s climbing saw us out bright and early and after an hour and a
half’s trudging at the base of Green Gully IV on the Ben. Its technical grade
seems to be a movable feast, but conditions weren’t bad. There was plenty of
ice, which was mostly pretty secure to climb on, although gear was mostly old
pegs, this being another classic. Three steep full length pitches and an exit
over the cornice went by without difficulty, but was entertaining and what
Scottish gully climbing is all about.

All in all, my best winter trip to date.

Ben Nevis NE Ridge

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