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.
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.
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!
After lunch we split into pairs and started the climb proper, moving together at times before starting to pitch the harder sections.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After about five pitches we topped out into yet another gorgeous sunset – the perfect way to round off a week of climbing.