Ian Clough did a huge amount of climbing on Ben Nevis in the late 1950's and 1960's including the first ascent of Point Five Gully in 1959. He was a very talented climber and in 1960 he climbed Comb Gully Buttress by what is now called Clough's Chimney. This is graded VI,6 and it certainly gave Connor, Brodie and me a good test today! When it was first climbed I imagine there was more solid snow-ice to use in the chimney but even so, to think they climbed it with one ice axe each is very impressive.
The first pitch is commonly a nice steep bit of cascade ice that lands you on the easy angle section at the bottom of the crag. This had a little bit of ice today and was good fun. Cascade ice has been forming in many places where there is a spring above such as Compression Cracks, Boomer's Requiem, The Curtain, the walls to the right of Green Gully including Number Three Gully Buttress and Garadh Gully. There is no ice on Mega Route X, The Shroud or The Cascade since these rely on the snow slopes above to dribble water down the cliffs in the thaws to form the ice in the subsequent freeze.
The main pitch is up the big chimney which was snowed up rock with some frozen turf today. It's nice to know that it climbs at the same grade when it is in this condition but a bit of snow at the back of the groove would help no end! All the rocks left of The Comb were very white today but everything right of The Comb was quite black. Sioux Wall and Darth Vader were not on the cards today so we were very happy to find this piece of Ben Nevis looking very white.
It was cold, a bit breezy and dry so it was a very nice day to be out. We were not alone - Guy and Alan climbed Number Two Gully which was not in its usual condition either, and Chucky and co. climbed Number Three Gully Buttress. It is still November so everything is in typical early season conditions - some thin ice, loose snow on wobbly rocks, some rime and nothing very helpful. Why is it we get the trickiest conditions right at the start of the winter when we are all feeling just a bit rusty?
Here are some West Coast Grade III winter climbs to test you. When you want to push into grade IV you want to have a bit extra capacity in reserve on grade III. These climbs will give you a good idea of how you are doing and make sure you are ready for grade IV.
Tower Scoop (III) and Good Friday Climb (III), Observatory Gully, Ben Nevis
This is a classic combination of two short Grade III ice climbs high on Ben Nevis. They are very reliable and offer fantastic climbing, but linking them together is much trickier than the climbing. Tower Scoop is climbed in two pitches of great ice with a big snow slope at the top. Not only do you need to protect your second with a snow anchor belay at the top but it is on a steep slope that feels like a very exposed position.
Getting from here to the foot of Good Friday Climb is the next problem. In good snow you can short rope across the slope underneath Gardyloo Buttress but think carefully about how you do this. It is a very steep slope with a big drop beneath you. If short roping does not appeal it is unlikely that pitching will feel any better! A combination of short pitches with your second staying beneath you on a pendulum line might be best to avoid the swing of a fall. Either way, it’s a good puzzle to practice and come up with your favoured solution.
Once you have successfully traversed the slope, Good Friday Climb will seem quite straightforward and lands you right on the summit with just the walk down to manage.
Morwind (III,4), Coire an Lochain, Aonach Mor
For some reason we seem to equate ease of access with security on this crag. We can get to it very easily using the gondola and chairlift and it seems like this makes it a safer place to go climbing. This is not the case as I have learnt (the hard way). Facing east it catches all the snow being blown over from huge snow slopes on the other side. This crag is renowned for massive cornices and wind slab building in front of your eyes. Where Morwind is found on Central Buttress is a relatively secure place to climb to avoid the cornices and avalanches but the question is, how do you get there?
In stable snow, go down Easy Gully and get really slick at moving through the cornice, down the gully and across the steep slope to the foot of the climb. This is quite a steep slope and can feel quite spicy in some snow conditions.
With cornices and avalanche hazard you might well question whether you want to go to this crag at all but I have found that an abseil approach to Morwind and a climb straight back up can work out quite well even in a considerable or high avalanche hazard. Of course, there are some provisos; you need to know where the abseil line is (and please don’t abseil down over people climbing up) and where the anchors are for the three pitches of abseiling; and you need to be sure you can climb back out again since a walk down from the foot of the crag will be much more threatened by avalanche than climbing the route.
The climb itself is really cool. Brilliant belays and protection in solid granite with quite poky and sustained climbing making it great fun. It also goes in just about all conditions from frozen turf and a little rime to buried under solid neve.
The White Line (III), Coire na Ciste, Ben Nevis
When you learn that this climb was descended before it was climbed you can’t fail to be very impressed by the skills of Goodeve and co. Seven long pitches of great climbing with some ice screw belays, tricky route finding, awkward belay stances and a very big feel make it quite a test. If you can get up this climb in a reasonable time you must be climbing quickly, making good decisions and be very efficient. It’s all straightforward climbing but you need to be doing the basic stuff really well to climb this before it gets dark.
Western Rib (III), Aonach Mor West Face
With a start up the gondola it is easy to think that a day on the West Face of Aonach Mor will be quite short. This is not the case! It is a good walk in to the climbs and locating the start of them is notoriously difficult. The climbing is very nice blocky granite with a few pitches at the start. The angle of the ridge eases as it becomes more defined leaving a few hundred metres of quite moderate climbing. However, it is not clear whether it is best to move together or pitch. I recommend changing to moving together as soon as it feels comfortable for the second half of the climb. Give it a go to make up your own mind and remember to pay attention to the navigation to get back over the plateau. It is a long walk down if you miss the last gondola but you certainly won’t be the first.
Castle Ridge (III), Ben Nevis
To me, the two crux sections of Castle Ridge seem harder than anything on Tower Ridge. The first crux corner feels really quite hard with wet snow or rime on the rocks. It is much easier with a good build-up of snow and very good freeze but the climb is not very high up and you don’t always get this. The second crux is a small chimney corner that is tremendously exposed. Once you are used to hooking up steep rock and hanging out over huge drops you’ll be fine. However, any nervousness in your climbing will be exposed here just as much as the pitch is exposed.
You need to change between short roping, mini-pitching and long-pitching a few times. With an approach threatened by avalanche and a difficult descent, the whole package is harder than it appears at first glance.
Once you've climbed these routes you will be well practiced in the wider skill set you need for grade IV. You will be moving fast enough, climbing hard enough and have enough in reserve for climbing at grade IV. But which climb at grade IV should you go for? Try Green Gully on Ben Nevis. This is a super popular climb with five pitches of snow-ice and some reasonable belays. North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor is excellent as well. This has many pitches of mixed climbing that are well protected with quick easy belays. And then there is always Tower RIdge ....
For the last three days our Summer Mountain Leader candidates have been out on the expedition section of their assessment. With snow forecast down to 700m the decision was unanimous on Wednesday morning to head out west from Fort William, where the hills are lower and would be below the snow line, but about as rugged as you will find anywhere in Scotland.
We started just west of the end of Loch Eilt and went up into the hills on the north side of the road where the map is covered in wiggly little contour lines allowing endless possibilities for navigation. The early sunsets at this time of year meant we just kept walking into the night to eventually camp close to Meoble.
Day two got off to a fantastic start when a sea eagle flew low over our heads as we made our way along Druim a' Chuirn, and between the showers the views out west to the islands of Eigg, Rum and Skye were stunning. The terrain in this area is incredibly rough and it's just not possible to move at any great speed, so after camping at Kinlochbeoraid we just followed the very faint path along the side of Loch Beoraid to complete our loop.
All the candidates did incredibly well and after five challenging days of assessment we now have four more excellent Summer Mountain Leaders. Well done to them all!
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.