Jeff is a climber from the US who did a lot of ice climbing in the 1980's in New England and Washington. He has recently gone back to climbing and is recalling his dreams from the 80's, one of which was to try the unique experience of ice climbing on Ben Nevis. So, after thirty years of waiting, Jeff finally got to have a go at some super classic Ben Nevis ice climbs this week, and it was a real pleasure to help him achieve his goal.
We got an early start on Tuesday but just missed out on being first in line to Climb The Curtain. Ice climbs on Ben Nevis do not get much more classic or sought after than this one. The climbing was typically Scottish with lovely soft snow-ice, very good for climbing but not so secure for protection. Jeff was straight onto it and breezed up the slab, getting used to modern technical ice axes and mono-points as he went, a very different experience to climbing with his gear from the 80's. We did the climb in three pitches, uncovering the in-situ anchor at the top of the second pitch. If you have 50m ropes it is best to do it this way; 60m ropes will reach to the rock on Ledge Route if you want to do the whole thing in two pitches.
The weather was windy but cold and dry so we went for another climb. On the other side of Coire na Ciste we found Vanishing Gully was free so we jumped on that route. More lovely, soft snow-ice made the climbing very friendly but the protection very dubious. A 55m pitch on this gets into the best cave belay on Ben Nevis. Steep moves above make up the crux of the climb and another long pitch lands you at a simple two pitch abseil down 1938 Route back to the start. What a brilliant first tatse of ice climbing on Nevis, two mega-classic routes on a really good day!
Yesterday was supposed to be the best day of the week with a ridge of high pressure settling things down. It did but only for a couple of hours before the next weather front piled in from the west. So, Jeff and I got another early start and we beat the crowds to the Minus Face. This was a popular destination yesterday morning with several teams trying to get onto a climb and get back down early, before the change in the weather. Jeff and I got to Minus Three Gully first and really enjoyed the climbing. It's an easy enough pitch into another cave belay then a very spicy pull through past the icicle that hangs over the entrance of the cave. Two more brilliant pitches of lovely climbing in a superb place got us up to NE Buttress a short way above the First Platform, just as the weather turned.
We did one long abseil onto the First Platform traverse line and followed this into Coire Leis. The wind had been eroding the snow on the this face which I was grateful for to reduce the risk of avalanche. I was not grateful for the wind blowing snow right in our faces as we struggled to see what direction to go in! Proper Ben Nevis conditions is what Jeff expected though and that's what we got yesterday! Ben Nevis ice climbing had a lot to live up to for Jeff and we got everything he thought it would be. Three super-classic climbs in great condition on two very nice days. Sometimes, things work out very nicely.
We have had a succession of cycles of heavy snowfall, a brief rapid thaw with rain and a subsequent refreeze. This is the perfect weather for building snow-ice on Ben Nevis. We had another one last night and yet another forecast over tomorrow and Saturday. Right now, lots of climbs are looking very good. Most of the big classic climbs are very well formed and some of the more rarely forming climbs such as Minus One Gully, Mega Route X, The Shroud and Gemini are forming up nicely. Few of these climbs have been climbed since the weather has been so bad we have not been able to get to them! However, when the weather settles down a bit, I think we will be in for a real treat, a feast of ice climbing in the gentle Spring weather. From what I saw of NE Buttress and Tower Ridge, the big ridges are very well covered in good snow and excellent to climb. Harder/steeper mixed climbs have a thick coating of icy rime and ice in the cracks so will be a bit more challenging. The big snow gullies and coires are very full of snow so skiing will go on well into the Spring as well.
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.