Ice Climbing in Scotland

Last week our Explorer Scout Leader headed to Scotland for a week of winter mountaineering on Ben Nevis and the Mamores with friends from our District’s Network:

We had managed to get return tickets for £45 each and we were staying at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel just outside Fort William – perfectly located at the foot of Ben Nevis – and we had four full days to climb and we didn’t waste any of them.

Day one dawned dark, cloudy and (very) windy and we were sure that it was going to be a complete write-off. Nevertheless we geared up and headed out, battling against the wind and navigating over broken ground and arriving at the CIC hut at lunchtime. After a quick sandwich hastily grabbed in some shelter from the wind we strapped on crampons and roped up, and basically walked up an easy grade I gully to reach the top of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. From there we battled the wind, cut steps, front pointed and laboriously made our way up to the summit of Ben Nevis, getting there just as the clouds cleared, leaving us with this fantastic view to enjoy.

Summit photo - day 1
Summit photo – day 1
After walking and glissading (also known as bum sliding) down the mountain Dave cooked us a hearty dinner of pasta and roasted vegetables and we discussed options for day 2. The weather was set to brighten up so we set our sights on Castle Gully – a five pitch, grade II ice climb.

The view back up to the summit just after we started descending
The view back up to the summit just after we started descending
When we woke up we were relieved to see the weather had cleared up even more than expected and we set out up the valley at a brisk pace. We found a big snow slope underneath Castle Gully and practiced some more ice axe arrests, body-belaying techniques and built some anchors, just for practice really! We also carried out some Rutschblock tests on the slope to check its stability, and were reassured that none of them collapsed!

A secure Rutschblock test
A secure Rutschblock test
After lunch we split into pairs and started the climb proper, moving together at times before starting to pitch the harder sections.
Approaching the start of Castle Gully. We had just dropped the rope which had fallen over the lip of rock and got tangled. It took Jaye about five minutes to flip it free
Approaching the start of Castle Gully. We had just dropped the rope which had fallen over the lip of rock and got tangled. It took Jaye about five minutes to flip it free
The snowpack was well bonded even in the steeper gullies and every axe placement was firm, meaning we could climb with confidence. It was only day two though, so we were still warming up!
Jaye on the last of 5 pitches at the top of Castle Gully
Jaye on the last of 5 pitches at the top of Castle Gully
The climb took longer than expected and we arrived on top of ‘The Castle’ at about 4pm, leaving us an hour of daylight to cross the scree slopes and reach a path before dark.
Sadly we were already half way through our trip now, and as some of us had come straight to Scotland from a weekend in the Peak District with our Scouts (wildwolfesu.org/news) we were feeling pretty tired, so we voted to have an easier day. We were going to tackle the whole of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, which is mostly a long walk and not that technical, meaning we could travel lighter.
It’s great being above the clouds 
It’s great being above the clouds

Our route took us nearly all the way to the CIC hut, then across and up the steep neve (frozen snow) slopes onto Carn Beag Dearg, reaching an altitude of 1010m. From there the route was obvious – a three kilometer knife-edge ridge led all the way to the summit of ‘The Ben’. We tied ourselves together using a single rope and set off, picking our way along the ridge, sometimes walking, sometimes scrambling, sometimes handrailing the top and using our crampons on the slope below.

The view of the ridge ahead. We put our cameras away after this shot and got on with it
The view of the ridge ahead. We put our cameras away after this shot and got on with it
Even after the most technical parts of the ridge there was a long way to go to the summit
Even after the most technical parts of the ridge there was a long way to go to the summit
The time passed remarkably quickly and we were soon on the final approach to the summit.
When we arrived we were treated to the most gorgeous view for about ten minutes (during which time we climbed to the top of the shelter) before the cloud came down and the wind picked up.

The Summit shelter - possibly in itself the best bit of ice bouldering there is on Ben Nevis?
The Summit shelter – possibly in itself the best bit of ice bouldering there is on Ben Nevis?

Before we knew it visibility had dropped to 50meters and the wind was gusting 40mph. We pulled out maps and compasses and paced our way to the top of Red Burn – a stream that has dug out a shallow gully over the years that fills with snow early in the season and provides an easy-to-follow route to the Halfway Lochan, from where easier paths lead back to the hostel.

Visibility had dropped to under 30 meters just a few minutes after we took the summit picture
Visibility had dropped to under 30 meters just a few minutes after we took the summit picture
We slid down the gully using our axes to control our speed until our altimeter indicated we had reached the point where the path crossed the stream. A few more meters and sure enough – we saw some footprints in the snow. We packed axes and crampons away and walked down the mountain and enjoyed the sunset.

Once we had dropped out of the clouds we were able to enjoy the sunset
Once we had dropped out of the clouds we were able to enjoy the sunset
On our last day the group split in two. Jaye and I wanted to fit in one last climb, whereas Joe and Dave fancied a more sedate day and some photography. Jaye and I set our sights on a grade III gully on Stob Ban. It was a gruelling 2hr walk just to get to the snow slopes below the crag, and by the time we had bashed through all the powder to get up to the cliff we were left feeling pretty knackered! We stopped for lunch under a frozen waterfall, as you do, and were sorely tempted to call it a day and just enjoy the walk down.
The view from behind the frozen waterfall
The view from behind the frozen waterfall
We couldn’t just turn around though, so we roped up and started moving together, well aware that we had slept in far later than we should have! We started climbing when we reached the bottom of the gully and we moved quickly and efficiently.

The first pitch, and the last photo before we topped out
The first pitch, and the last photo before we topped out
After about five pitches we topped out into yet another gorgeous sunset – the perfect way to round off a week of climbing.

Stop Ban summit
Stop Ban summit

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