Monday, 22 February 2016

Fort William Winter Trip Feb 2016

February half term. Winter climbing. Fort William. Standard. Bernard the Skoda was loaded to the gunwhales with bags, booze and a James and Michelle for the long drive to Fort William.

Any journey north on a group trip begins with a stop at the Courtyard Dairy. Regular readers will know of my love for this shop. We picked up some superb new (to us) cheeses this time including some fantastic L' Etivaz and some bloody marvellous Dorstone goats cheese. £50 of grade A+ cheese just about lasted us the week!

Another regular stop is the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum where we refuelled on fantastic black pudding and haggis sandwiches. We're north of the border now kids! They've got an electric vehicle charging point now and we saw someone topping up their Nissan Leaf.

The sun was setting as we hit Glencoe

A quick trip around Morrissons with a trolley of vegetables and a short drive we reached the cottage. We were staying at Maybank Cottage just outside of Fort William. We really liked it with a decent sized kitchen for all our cooking needs, super comfy beds to collapse into after a long hill day and a decent sized living room. We'd definitely consider staying there again for a winter trip.

Fire on, getting started on the cheese, James brought a large selection of homemade pickles too!

Fish pie fun times, let the big dinners begin!

Plans were made for Sunday for a winter day for everyone given that there were a few people who hadn't worn their shiny new crampons yet. The avalanche forecast for Lochaber was considerable with an unusual north easterly wind depositing snow on west faces.

Sunday - A bash up the Ban

We decided on a trundle up the North Ridge (I) of Stob Ban (999m) from Glen Nevis as it was close and it is a lovely peak. Lorna, Vicky and I were looking forward to climbing it in the light as we'd descended it a couple of years ago in the dark after finishing late on a route. It turned out to be much nicer on the way up in lovely weather.

We picked our way up through the woods, following a likely looking path that turned into a rather sapping scramble over fallen trees and a climb over a deer fence to make a start on the hill proper.

The view down Glen Nevis on the way up, Ben Nevis on the right

Spot my fellow mountaineers below. Makes you feel small.

Above the scrambling but with a nice exposed narrow snow ridge to move across

A short scrambling section with a slightly exposed step across a gap pushed Louise well out of her comfort zone. "Look, just f*** off for a moment will you?" she said whilst curled up in a ball on a ledge when I offered her a rope for her peace of mind. When she is set on something Louise's determination to do things is one of the things I love the most about her. She got her head right and then clambered to the top, stopping at the next narrow snow ridge before crouching down. There followed a spot of muttering before she stood up and marched smartly across it without looking down!

The wind picked up just after we crossed this and made our way up the broad slope to the summit where we toasted each other with Parky's summit whisky (a nice drop of Jura Superstition) before dropping back down the East ridge to the col to pick up the path.

Louise and I at the summit

The Wooden Wonder was very capable on the ascent, if a little heavy. The massive adze is great at digging holes in the snow though!

Everyone eventually went on ahead after we said we'd catch them up as Louise had slowed down with tired legs. This was a big day out for her and the ascent and descent had caught up with her. She said after that it was the best Valentine's Day (I'd forgotten!) she'd had and one of the hardest things she's ever done. Good lass.

On Strava:

The slow cooker goulash was ready on our return, combined with roasted parsnips (never enough) and an early night for some.

The enjoyment of the day was tempered with the news of two missing Bradford climbers on Ben Nevis who went out for a climb and didn't come back. Our thoughts kept returning to them throughout the week and we were heartened to see many in the outdoor community working together to try and find out what happened. The dedication of Lochaber MRT in their search and rescue efforts is worthy of note.

We choose to test ourselves in the hills, the effort and sometimes adrenalin of the climb, the elation of the summit, the commitment because of the rewards it brings to us both physically and mentally. One does not conquer the mountain, we are permitted by nature and by our own skill and determination to reach the objective. We revel in our smallness against the massiveness of the mountains and come away bigger for the experience.

Monday: Ballachulish Horseshoue and Bolognaise

The avalanche forecast wasn't great but the weather forecast was great so we decided on a ridge-y kind of walk. The Ballachulish Horseshoe looked like a good day out as the hills seen from the Ballachulish bridge when heading south always looked very tempting. We picked a truncated route that went up Sgorr Dhearg (1024m) and Sgorr Dhonuill (1001m) with plenty of options for making the route shorter if required.

Loch Leven, Ballachulish village and Glencoe village

A rather stiff climb up the first hill led to a broad snowy ridge leading to the mini summit of Sgorr Bhan and the view of the lovely curving ridge to Sgorr Dhearg.

We dropped down to the col and up the other side, topping out on the second peak with a 360 degree panorama of peaks as far as the eye could see. We could even see all the way to the Cuillin hills on the Isle of Skye, a cool 2 1/2 hour drive away.

The overwhelming panorama of mountains is almost too much to take in and mobile phone photos do not capture the majesty, the scale of what we can see. It makes you very conscious of the sheer amount of rock and earth that makes up this planet, sending you brain into a dizzying spiral of thought before you *snap* back into remembering not to kick yourself in the leg with your crampons. Such is mountaineering.

On Strava:

A few quick bum slides down the hill and we were making our way back through the forest trails and back to the car. Louise had knocked up a tasty spag bolognaise back at the hut which was seen off very quickly. The weather forecast for Tuesday was, to use the technical mountaineering term, "shite" so we broke open some more wine and declared Tuesday a rest day.


Set the controls for a lie in (nice), lots of toast and hot cross buns, snacks, board games, books and approximately 5 gallons of tea watching the rain sweep the valley. The roast chicken dinner wasn't half bad either.


Avalanche forecast still sketchy but weather improving throughout the day. A big hill day was required after yesterday's refuelling so we decided on the CMD arete which links Carn Mor Dearg with Ben Nevis.

It's a long slow slog up from the North Face car park but the gradient is amenable so we just put our heads down and plodded up. Nick was feeling the previous day's in his legs and wasn't sure about continuing but once he'd got to the top of the first hill he perked up and went for it!

We had a pretty brutal wind carrying the snow and whipping it into our faces. It wasn't long before we all had our ski goggles on, a pretty much essential winter walking requirement. We chatted to a local chap on his way to do the CMD arete. He quickly crampon'd up and was away.

After the summit of Carn Mor Dearg the hill dropped sharply and the sides fell away as we gained the ridge and started our traverse. Conditions were good and we made steady progress, its just a shame that the cloud prevented us from getting a decent view of the north face of the Ben.

Eventually the cloud cleared when we reached the end of the arete leading to some lovely views and a chance to revel in the exposure.

The snow was quite deep on the way up the side of Ben Nevis with some thigh deep drifts. We almost lost Ben in this one.

An icy summit plateau awaited us with some decent sized cornices above the gullies

We made our way down the zig-zags passing a couple of parties on the way up and, oddly enough, a Chinese girl in Ugg boots clutching a flask of green tea by the half way lochain. We hit the car 9 hours after setting off just as it started to rain, perfect timing!

On Strava:

Climbers from the other cottage were thwarted in their Aonach Mor west face ambitions by a broken gondola forcing a later start than anticipated.

However the group curry was a great success. James made a lentil dahl, Vicky made a creamy turkey and vegetable curry, Lynnette's beef and spinach madras was just the ticket and once I got James and Michelle set up making chapattis we had a right old feast. Well done to the other cottage for bringing extra sundries too.

Thursday - Golden Oldy

The objective for Nick, Jake, Ben and I was the classic Golden Oldy (II) on the west face of Aonach Mor. Ben and I tried to climb this last year but had trouble finding the correct route in the cloud, ending up the still enjoyable Temperance Rib instead.

We caught the 8am gondola up to the ski centre, traversed across the hill to the bottom of the quad chair lift then dropped off the side following another party on their way in to the west face. This time, with the aid of GPS co-ordinates and the advice of a friendly guide we met on the walk in we hit the correct route. Nick and I paired up, moving together until I ran out of gear. We swung leads quickly with Nick tackling some iced up rocks with aplomb on his first winter lead proper. He's a capable chap and had no troubles with the narrowing ridge, stopping to belay after a while. I think he was happy to finally put his new Quark axes into action!

The narrow atmospheric ridge was great fun and steady going. The snow was falling steadily and filling the footprints of the soloist who went before us so it felt like we were the first ones on the route. Jake and Ben were moving a little slower behind us along with a guide and client and a chap and lass who had teamed up in the youth hostel. We had the ridge to ourselves. We refuelled at the last belay with some adventure bars and a swig of water, tasted good!

We motored up the last bit to finish the route in about 3 hours. Nick went off along the plateau to bag the summit proper whilst I coiled the rope and found a sandwich.

We'd agreed that if we were just in front of the guys that we'd wait for them at the top but they weren't even in sight so as agreed we headed down to the ski centre, caught the gondola back down and drove back to the hut for a cup of tea with Nick disappearing to pick up Ben and Jake later when they got down about an hour and a bit later. A successful day all round and what a great route, felt solid for the grade under all that powder snow.

On Strava:

Lorna cooked a cracking Cottage pie and Vicky turned out her trademark mango and ginger crumble (not enough ginger!). Poor weather forecast for the next day with RED on the avalanche pizza - too much tomato sauce. I wanted to do something with Louise as I'd hardly seen her all week despite sharing a cottage!

Friday - Nessie spotting in Fort Augustus

We intended a quiet day, just the two of us going for a short potter up the valley to poke around Loch Ness. Ben, James, Michelle and Nick all jumped in at the last minute so a triple date it was!

Fort Augustus is not a bad spot, we had lunch at the Moorings cafe (nice food) and made the first club ascent of the Gift Shop Traverse. I picked up a really nice bottle of Loch Ness brewery Dark Ness beer in the shop and a haggis for when we got home. We bloody love haggis!

It was pulled pork for tea, followed by board games and then the last night of the holiday was over. A good time was had by all.

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