|Date: 13 - 17 March
Submitted by: Michael Hassan
Thursday morning saw me rise at 4:30, an early start in any man's language, made easier by the excitement of my first Scottish trip (and not having to go to work). After a quick breakfast and with the car loaded up I headed to Larne. There I met up with Peter, PJ and Shane, and George and Anthony. The weather had caused delays with the ferry crossing and so it didn't depart until around 11 o'clock and took about two hours to arrive in Cairnryan. It was a miserable day in Scotland - very wet. The drive up was tiring, but I got to see the Scottish countryside for the first time, so I wasn't disappointed.
We arrived late at the chalets, so we decided just to settle in for the evening in Inchree.
Ledge Route (II)
We awoke early on Friday morning to clear skies and sunshine. We had decided the previous night upon Ledge Route for our first day of climbing. It would be both a good introduction to winter climbing for us beginners and a good warm-up for the more experienced. With the gear packed we headed to the north face car-park. The walk in to the CIC Hut is tough going and not being used to the heavy pack, I needed a few rests along the way. But after my first sight of Ben Nevis' north face and upon reaching the CIC Hut, it was quickly forgotten about. What a place! After a quick sandwich, we got the harnesses and crampons on and moved up No.5 gully to the start of Ledge. George, myself and Anthony were together and Sandra paired off with PJ, Pete with Shane. At one point we moved up a ramp section and reached a rest point. Here there was a choice of moving around to the right and walk up a slight gradient, or straight on over a technical step. Everyone opted for the step and so here was a chance to really get to use the shiny new axes in anger for the first time. It wasn't difficult, but made the climb that little bit more interesting. Further up, it felt good climbing along narrow ridges, with long sloping precipices on either side. At the top, after handshakes and high-fives, we posed for some pictures. We then started in the direction of the summit hoping to descend via the Carn Mor Dearg, but this was going to be a long trudge, so we decided to be more adventurous and descend down No.4 Gully. This is a little hairy as you negotiate the vertical part at the start, but becomes easier fairly quickly. Some of us got roped together for this. Sandra was first over the edge and then me. I had a little moment when I dropped about half a metre as the rope went tight from below giving Sandra a mouth full of snow when I dug the crampons in. The walk back down the track to the car-park wasn't comfortable in the rigid boots. The knees took a battering.
Tower Ridge (IV)
On the Friday night, Anthony and Shane decided they would try "Dorsal Arête" (II) the next day, while the rest of the group decided upon "Tower Ridge". That meant quite an early start on Saturday, and once again we were greeted by superb weather. The walk in on day two was very tough once again. I really struggled. But after some refreshments at the CIC hut, we headed in the direction of the Douglas Boulder (a stunning pillar of rock). We moved around to the left and then to the top of the Douglas Boulder to the start of the ridge climb proper. George and Sandra paired up, while I went third on the rope with Pete and PJ. The three of us moved well together and I was enjoying the climb. At one point there was a little crux move over a bit of rock, which was made harder as I struggled to remove a bit of gear. A third arm would have been handy. The next interesting part of the climb was the Eastern Traverse. My first reaction on reaching this point was to utter an expletive. It looked just a little exposed. It was one boot width wide and when moving across it, I'll admit to feeling slightly nervous.
After the Eastern Traverse, we chose to go straight on up over a rocky face. This I found perhaps the hardest part of the entire climb. There was a slight overhang and I couldn't get my feet high enough without being forced backwards. I managed though to find a good hold with one axe, but feared it might slip as I groped around with the other one. I hauled myself up however, feeling elated at having mastered this technical section. Soon after, we reached the infamous Tower Gap. Here we encountered a bit of a traffic jam. There were two climbers in front of George and Sandra, negotiating the gap, so we realised we might be there a while. It was getting cold, just hanging around on that very exposed part of the climb. It was an amazing place to be though.
Soon George and Sandra were in the gap. Pete viewed their exertions from above and looked back at PJ and me with a wry smile and said that it wasn't easy. As you can imagine, this really raised our spirits. It wasn't long before it was my turn to descend into the gap. This was a very giddy experience - looking down into a chasm, twisting and turning with axes bouncing around. I was glad to finally clip into the belay. Climbing out of the gap wasn't as difficult as I had feared, though I had had the benefit of seeing others do it first. And with that, we had negotiated the last hurdle of Tower Ridge. Looking up on the last pitch was very picturesque with the dark blue sky and moon shining down. There was no time for photography though. We topped out at about 7.00, and of course, we had the small matter of the descent to attend to. We decided the zigzagging tourist track was the best option. We reached the pub at the bottom of the track at 9.00, with my legs creaking as I ascended the steps. What a day!
Curved Ridge (III)
Sunday was planned as an easier day, so Curved Ridge was an obvious choice. We managed to get a lie in, before gearing up and heading down to Buachaille Etive Mor. I loved the look of this mountain, with its pyramidal shape and its prominence. The walk in here was much easier, and just as it was getting hard, it became more technical and scramble like, which made it more interesting and less of a slog. Pete and PJ went first, then me and George, followed by Anthony and Shane. The start of the route was a little tricky – a feeling of uncertainty with the crampons scrapping at the rock, so I put the axes away and just used my hands. Soon after we came to a point where there was the option of going up a short gully or a slabby face of rock. George decided to lead on the face of rock, which was very interesting and enjoyable. It didn't seem like there would be much for the axes, but there were plenty of gaps in the rock that gave good holds. The two of us moved alpine style over the easier parts and I got to lead a couple of the less technical pitches in between. We topped out around 4:30 to a spectacular view.
A few photos later, we headed to the Great Gully for the descent. I practiced some self-arrests while descending after trying to slide a bit of the way but finding I was picking up speed a little too quickly. We reached the car-park at about 6 O'clock. A few more parties were behind us, but Anthony and Shane were not among them. Eagle eyes were scanning the gully, the col and the top of the mountain, but no-one was in sight. The suspense grew. They had been right behind George and I around the half way point and we couldn't understand why they were now such a distance behind. At around 7 O'clock Pete got through to Shane on the mobile, who relayed that they were fine and were almost topping out. On discovering they were safe, the rest of us headed back to Inchree to get refreshed and await their arrival. After hearing other stories about trips to Scotland, I feel very lucky to have had superb weather for all the days we went climbing on. I was truly blown away by the landscape and really enjoyed my first foray into Scottish winter climbing. I was able to learn a lot over the course of the weekend and loved the challenge of a new discipline, helped all the way by the fine mountaineers of the CCC.
4 Intrepid Mountaineers - Sandra, Michael, Shane & Anthony gear up for Ledge Route