The journey up was quick and uneventful. We stopped for maximum tourist-ing on the way down Glencoe and before we knew it we were installed in the cottage. The cheese was out, Jake was blocking the fire and Ben was occupying a whole sofa to himself. Standard.
Time for cottage pie and cunning plans!
Sunday: Tower Gully
The first day of a winter trip is generally an easy one to get everyone's eye in. Eleanor and Adam hadn't done any winter stuff before and Louise was wanting a relatively big adventure for her. After a bit of research and with a good avalanche forecast we chose Tower Gully (winter grade I) on Ben Nevis for more dramatic scenery on the ascent.
We started from Glen Nevis thinking the distance wouldn't be much greater. However we neglected the relative roughness of the Tourist Path compared to the easier North Face Path which slowed us down a little. The weather started off clear.
The Ben was looking a bit black with not much snow on the buttresses in Coire na Ciste. However the gullies looked to be holding the snow well.
Always time for a spot of bouldering in B3 boots.
We cramponed up at the foot of Observatory Gully, by which time the clouds were starting to come in, and made our way slowly up.
There were odd bits of ice that came skidding down from climbers in the Tower Scoop and Smith's Route areas but nothing major. One large noisy bit sent Jake scuttling to the edge of the gully but it was otherwise fine. Jake and Ben had a play on the ice at the foot of Tower Scoop before we started up the steeper slope to break out left then right into Tower Gully.
Louise was finding the steeper ground steps a bit more difficult so with a combination of Jake kicking steps and me stabilising her weak leg and providing a shove every now and then we made it to the cornice, thankfully it had been pre-cut. A confidence rope for Louise with some body belaying from Jake and Adam saw her over the top. "Nothing any more difficult than that in future thank you!" she declared. I'd got this far in a thin base layer and a thin hardshell so was glad of the opportunity to put my Buffalo top on.
Louise getting over the cornice with a little help from her friends
Victory top out shot: (L-R) Ben "Hawaiian" Powrie, Eleanor "Cthulu" Jones, Louise "Fox Tail" Miller, JP "elp!" (self), Jake "Gunwin" Goodwin and Adam "Thistlewhistle" Thistlethwaite.
We summited the newly increased in elevation trig point, drank summit whisky, fed some crumbs to the Snow Bunting that was singing on the summit shelter and started to head down the Tourist Path. We were also treated to a high cloud inversion that unfortunately only just cleared the summit so no other peaks were visible.
We were lucky enough to see three stags on the way back down, grazing quietly not 30m from us. Brown stag against brown background in fading light doesn't make for a good photo, but one kindly stood still on the horizon for us.
It was a long day and I hadn't brought enough food so was pretty tired by the time we got back down. Thankfully, Eleanor had put some lamb in the slow cooker so we polished that off quickly and made plans for the next day. Weather and SAIS forecasts were both good so we decided on a shorter, slightly easier day in the Castle area, again on Ben Nevis.
Monday: South Castle Gully, the Superindirectissima Finish (II, 3)
Louise was having a rest after long gully adventures so the five of us walked in with the intention of climbing South Castle Gully on the far west side of the North Face. We had fancied North Castle Gully but our observations that day before suggested that it wasn't complete with a large rock band visible about halfway up. Opting for the usual North Face car park and walk in to the CIC hut we set off walking at about 7am, the longer daylight hours giving us usable light until after 6:30pm.
Eleanor was struggling on the walk in and wasn't feeling too good so her and Ben decided to head back to the cottage and rest up - not a nice or easy decision to make when you've come all this way but sensible - the mountain wasn't going anywhere. I know from first hand experience that climbing when feeling rough is bloody awful and you end up doing more harm than good. I've bailed on climbs in the past and gone in search of tea and cake! Jake, Adam and I carried on and geared up at the foot of the Castle Gully access ramp.
The snow was fairly firm as we headed up, the blackness of Castle Ridge showing just how much snow and ice had melted with the temperature rise. It wasn't long before we reached the bottom of the Castle where Adam and I roped up for some moving together practice whilst Jake soloed above us taking a few photos. We ended up having 25m of the 50m rope out between us which, in my experience, is about the minimum useful rope length for moving together on a Ben Nevis gully. The rock is surprisingly compact and opportunities for gear placements are few and far between and some imagination and/or digging is generally required!
We made good progress until about halfway up where we reached a large chokestone with a deep randkluft (gap between snow and rock caused by melt back from the rock). The snow on top was soft and sugary giving no purchase for axes. The snow at the top of the randkluft was similar and wasn't holding weight very well. There were no gear placements to aid climb over the rock and the walls either side were vertical. Too difficult, so we dropped back down and I went exploring around to the right, trying to find a way around the difficulties.
After some to-ing and fro-ing sorting out rope drag, I found a belay on a block below a promising looking gully/chimney leading up onto Castle Ridge. Adam belayed me up on increasingly soft and shallow snow to the termination of the gully where an unfrozen series of grassy ledges led out on the right to a short chimney with a short, tricky move to escape.
I hummed and hawed, waggled a nut between some blocks, stowed my axes away, took a deep breath and then bridged and hauled on a series of disconcertingly loose blocks to reach the top of the chimney. Thankfully it was just that one hard move (around technical grade 3 on wobbly blocks!) before reaching a small platform with a good thread and block belay. Jake tied in to the middle of the rope to come up the last bit of the chimney shortly followed by some apologetic swearing from Adam as he made it up too.
Jake wandered back down to say that it was easy ground from here so we de-geared and de-roped before scrambling up the last bit to the flat top. Phew, that could have been easier! We found the top of the gully, uncorniced and steep-ish, looking like it would have been fun to have a go at. Maybe next time. We picked our way down through the rather loose boulders straight towards the end of the half way lochan before dropping off to the Allt a Mhuilin path back to the car park.
So much for a shorter, easier day. It could have turned into a bit of a long one (but not necessarily an epic) had we had to downclimb all of our progress. I found the prospect of route finding through the rocky buttresses and gullies exciting and challenging and was very pleased when we overcame the obstacles and made it to the top. A good mountaineering day out with some good decision making and a satisfactory result. Adam professed to having much Type 2 fun!
Back at the hut, we found that Louise had made her signature dish of spaghetti bolognese, yum! A few beers were opened and we kicked back, looking forward to some different winter fun the next day.
After a relaxing breakfast of croissants, bacon and egg sandwiches and coffee, we drove round to the Nevis Range ski centre for some ski lessons! Adam, Jake, Ben and I had never skied before so we had expectations of falling over a lot. Louise and Eleanor have both skied in the past but were a several years out of practice. Let the fun begin.
This was a first time wearing ski boots for me, fully rigid plastic boots are not the most comfortable items of footwear for walking in! Eleanor and Louise headed off for separate lessons on the upper slopes and Ben, Adam and I got onto the nursery slopes. Because it was late in the season the snow was a bit patchy but there was enough to learn on.
We went through the basics of putting skis on and off, moving forwards, backwards, side stepping etc before getting on to the more tricky business of snowploughing.
Adam very quickly picked things up and was snowploughing like a pro, Ben and I were a little bit behind.
We broke for lunch, the food in the Nevis Range Snowgoose restaurant was really good and well needed after the morning's exertions. Using muscles that you don't use very often is always harder work! After lunch we headed out onto a larger, more open run, initially practicing on the dry slope and limited snow at the bottom.
I was having trouble slowing down properly with my snowplough and I fell off the button lift a couple of times. No one told me you weren't supposed to sit down on the bloody thing!
Eventually I got the hang of things and was steadily skiing down the slope, roughly changing direction and it all starting to come together and feel a bit more natural. I like skiing! Ben struggled a bit but by the end was using the button lift and skiing down a fair way with a bit more control. Louise and Eleanor were parallel turning and having lots of fun :)
Comedy moment of the day was Adam skiing very slowly into a Chinese tourist who, after a second of thinking about it, fell over in slow motion with near perfect comedy timing.
We all had a post ski gluhwein to refuel before catching the gondola back down the mountain and back for a full roast dinner by yours truly. Yum!
Adam decided he was having a day off after bruising his thumb on the slopes, leaving Jake and I, Ben and Eleanor with some decisions to make. They decided to go for Number Two Gully (which looked quite fun) whilst I suggested to Jake that we might try The White Line, a grade III route that I'd had my eye on for a couple of seasons. And so it was...
Wednesday: The White Line (III)
We walked in with Ben and Eleanor who were heading off to do Number 2 Gully. On the way up from Coire na Ciste there cloud cleared and we got a great view of the bottom of the route along with Number 2 and Comb Gully extending off into the distance. We went off ahead of the other two, spotted the bottom of the icefall start of the route and geared up for the off.
This was one of the best winter climbs I've done. The ice was superb, taking screws and axes really well with plenty of ripples for feet. The first pitch went well and I found a good belay below the second ice pitch and it was smiles all round.
The second pitch was steeper and longer than the first and I was wishing that I hadn't lent two of my ice screws to Ben. Five screws for a long ice pitch, minus one for the belay you just left, minus one for the expected belay at the top only left three for runners on the pitch! Thankfully I managed to get a hex in halfway up before moving around a steep ice arete.
Around 12pm we heard a large chunk of ice fall off and down the gully from near where Ben and Eleanor were climbing - it made a right old racket. Thankfully we could still hear them OK once the crashing noise had died down. They said that a large piece of ice had come down from Comb Gully Buttress just behind them and hurtled all the way down into Coire na Ciste. Glad we made it to the route in time!
There was one last slightly hollow sounding ice step to get over, hopefully with some good rocks on the other side for a belay? No. Just a long snow slope and I'd just run out of rope! I put a sling over a (slightly too small) spike and equalised it to my last ice screw in the least hollow sounding bit of ice and made a very uncomfortable semi hanging belay. Bringing Jake up on a tight rope went OK.
The next pitch was a straightforward snow slope but the route finding went a bit vague here. We incorrectly estimated our position on the route, thinking we were a bit higher than we were (very hard to tell from a photo a long way off in totally different conditions!). I didn't like the look of straight up and the chimney pitches to the right looked a bit more tenuous although on reflection they would have probably been hard but OK. So we ended up traversing right underneath the upper cascades looking for a way up.
Lo and behold, a familiar buttress hove into view. We had moved onto Raeburn's Easy Route that Jonny and I had climbed back in 2012. From here it was a bit more moving together and up an easy snow slope to the top.
Jake was very happy to reach the top having completed his hardest winter route to date. The steady walk in, late start on the route and the slightly more complex than expected route finding meant we topped out at 6pm. I would like to go back and do the proper route straight up next year. Our calves were pretty trashed from the long traverse and we were running out of energy. We drank our victory summit sloe whisky, stuffed a load of jelly babies and flapjack down us before packing up and storming down the tourist path in poor weather conditions and back to the car at around 8pm.
We were presented with bottles of beer on our arrival and declared tomorrow a rest day!
Ben and Eleanor reported having saved an inappropriately dressed Chinese tourist who, having seemingly scrambled up the Red Burn, was wandering around Carn Dearg shouting for help. They refused to tell him where the summit was and escorted him down to the tourist path! Good work guys. Also they reported having seen Mountain Rescue out in force, which turned out to be fired by the discovery of the missing climbers' bodies at the foot of Observatory Gully.
Thursday: Extreme Bowling!
A very steady start to the day involving a lie in, a big breakfast, followed by a morning nap. Eventually a sleepy walk down to the Nevis Centre to go EXTREME BOWLING!!!!!*
* actually, just bowling.
We did find an ice axe so heavy that even Jonny would have considered getting a lighter model. No step cutting with this baby, one swing would remove half the cornice!
Bowling (good stretching for tired muscles) and isotonic sports beer (essential recovery fluids) were liberally administered.
I knocked up a bit of kedgeree when we got back for tea, followed by a super early night. Our plan for the week was going to happen - the perfect alignment of day and name of climb...
Friday: Good Friday Climb (on Good Friday!) and the CMD Arete
Ben and I set an 0430 alarm to make sure we were first on the route as we didn't want to be waiting behind some slow gits throwing ice down on us. Much better to be the gits in front than behind! Despite feeling very tired and lethargic after a full week at it we still made it to the CIC hut in an hour and a half - not bad for tired legs - where the resident population of climbers was just beginning to stir.
The views up Observatory Gully were fabulous again but Rachel and Tim weren't far from our thoughts.
As we ascended there were a couple of people on Smith's Route and one soloist on Tower Scoop who made his way over to Indicator Wall when he'd finished. We stayed ahead of the crowd and, soloing our way up the steep approach slope, made it to the foot of the gully, almost tucked out of the way rather apologetically, on one end of the wall. Thankfully it didn't look quite as steep as the guidebook suggested. In fact, Indicator Wall looked like a more interesting prospect!
I was feeling pretty bushed at this point, so had a brief rest and a drink whilst Ben sorted out his stance and the rope. A couple of nuts in a large crack in at the base of the gully and we were ready.
The first pitch was a steady gully, not too steep, with plenty of gear options on the sides, terminating in a steep rock wall and ice fall. I put a couple of screws in for the belay then brought Ben up. The spindrift was starting to pour down the route now, like white waterfalls of hood-filling cold.
I headed straight up the icefall, putting a screamer on the first runner just in case, finding an easier angled slope around the corner which my calves thanked me for. The ice was over too quickly, giving way to an easier angled snow slope. I headed off to the rocks, found a large boulder to belay from and put the belay plate in autolocking "guide" mode so that I could take a couple of snaps of Ben as he came up.
A quick swap over, some very efficient belay organisation, and I was off again up the easy last pitch to be greeted with the highest belay platform in the land, the summit plateau, about 25m from the trig point. Not enough rope to get there to put a sling around it so I quickly fashioned a buried axe belay (solid!) and a bucket seat. I was chatting to a chap from "a small village called Liverpool" who was in his first winter season having climbed the tourist track and feeling very good about himself. Well done mate. Ben arrived and we'd topped out by 1145, good going. It was a short but interesting route, well worthwhile!
Watch out for the killer jelly baby!
Still feeling a bit shot, we decided to go back down via the CMD arete as Eleanor, Jake and Adam were coming up that way.
Play "spot Eleanor, Jake and Adam"
The large white gully is Observatory Gully which we ascended twice this week, 500m from bottom to top!
Good scrambling and exposure on the CMD arete
The others had made good time along the arete and even better time on the zig zags on the way down and weren't far behind us. They all had "fun" on the arete despite the windy conditions and soft snow conditions (no crampons required). Ben and I got shoved over by one vicious gust on the way down too but made up for it by some really long glissades (bum slides) down some long snow patches.
Back at the car in good time having booted it out of the park all day, what a good way to end the week. It was all too much for some though...
...and we all ended the week on a high.
Saturday was a long drive back, with Louise aquaplaning down most of the M74 whilst I slept off my adventures in the passenger seat. The weather was pretty crappy, having to slow down to 40 on occasions because the rain was so heavy you couldn't see anything.
Sunday was a victory celebration with Grove beers, Maroc pizza and thence to the Magic Rock Brewery taps for the vintage reggae night featuring the awesome sounds of a the Axis Valv-a-Tron valve amplifier sound system. We danced our bums off and what a superb way to end the holiday.