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Scotland March 2008

Date: 13-17 March 2008
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney

In January / February this year there were huge dumps of snow on the Highlands and PJ and Pete were passing on stories from Aviemore and the Cairngorms. I bought new Salomon B2 boots and a set of Grivel G12 crampons in anticipation of actually getting some winter climbing this year, after the wet trip to Scotland last March. "Look at the points on them suckers!" I had the family, friends and work colleagues bored rigid.

A few days before the off however the wind was blowing a gale and there were storms all over. I picked up George then met Michael, Pete, PJ and Shane at the Larne ferry which was delayed by nearly 3 hours. I could have had an extra couple of hours in bed! The onboard movie was Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, perfect for a nerd like me, just a pity the sound didn't work. Being a nerd though I knew the dialogue off by heart and promptly fell asleep.

We had the usual wrangling over what routes to try and of course Tower Ridge was big on the agenda. I was apprehensive about jumping straight onto a Grade IV, having never swung an axe in anger, so we settled on spending some time on the Thursday covering basic winter skills for me and Mike, self-arresting, that sort of thing. Friday would be Ledge Route on Ben Nevis, a nice Grade II introduction.

However by the time we got off the ferry and headed north it became apparent that Thursday would just be a travelling day, especially after I missed the turn to Glasgow airport and we ended up in the city centre sans map, compass or any local knowledge. Sandra was travelling up to Glencoe on the train later. A helpful native got us back on track and we stopped at Luss for some excellent food. "Would ye like a cup o' tea with that, PAL??" On the way out of the cafe a little black stringy thing fell out of my pocket, much to everyone's mirth, but it wasn't the ladies underwear they'd first thought, just a sleeping mask. Not quite up there with the Cuillins' feather pillow but embarrassing enough!

We eventually found the Inchree accommodation and though our chalets were double-booked we were given double rooms on the first night and a £50 discount when we paid up. Their drying rooms were adequate but not quite up there with Kimber's. A quick shopping trip and a few beers later we were ready for the off in the morning.

It dawned with blue skies and patchy cloud and we set off eagerly for the walk up to the CIC hut. As usual the eagerness lasted until the first steep slope when the sweat started running into the eyes and the legs started protesting strongly. Note to self: Climbing 4 sets of stairs to work isn't the same as climbing the side of the UK's biggest mountain. I also always make the same mistake of getting on all these layers of lovely gear, which are quite practical for mountain tops but not necessary for steep walk-ins in calm weather.

I stopped to photograph some red deer, one of whom looked up and into the camera at just the right moment. Despite all Mike's cooing and clicking they wouldn't repeat the same feat for him. Must be my animal magnetism...

Naturally I was last to the hut but some of the others gave me a run for my money. The snow was reasonably thick here but we saved the crampons until the higher steeper slopes. Putting them on felt like kicking into 4-wheel drive and I was soon plowing away with the axe shaft like a pro.

In the gully below the start of Ledge Route we met a descending Scot whose legs had given out. He and his partner had been thwarted by cornices at the top of the gully and while the partner had decided to do Ledge he was turning back. An unhappy man, everything was "pish", the snow, the weather, the gullies, the ridges. Undeterred we geared up Alpine style with George, Mike and Me on one rope, PJ and Sandra on another and Pete and Shane on a third.

The route itself isn't very difficult, although George tried to spice it up by trying a more technical section early on. The higher sections too have some very airy moments, big drops either side just a few feet away from the ridge point. We stopped for lunch about half way up and were immediately rewarded with the weather clearing and some amazing views down into the valley and across to Tower Ridge and the North East Buttress. We could pick out some people on various sections of the mountain and you got a real sense of scale comparing these tiny figures to the vastness of the rock and ice walls they were surrounded by. Tired but happy we topped out mid afternoon.

The descent was to be via Carn Mor Dearg Arete but the long pull up to the summit was taking it's toll and there were 14 unhappy legs so we back tracked to the top of Number 4 Gully where we'd watched a climber break through the cornice and descend. Ronnie Smith was lowering 2 people into the gully on an Italian hitch so we copied him and lowered 4 of our party. Pete and I abseiled and then George down climbed. Below me I watched Pete bum-slide down the gully, whizzing along at a fair speed on the steep snow. I looked up and George was doing the same so figured I'd try it. A decent place to learn self-arresting I was soon bombing along nicely, rolling over onto the ice-axe when things felt too out of control. Definitely the best way to descend a mountain.

The only downside to that whole day was the long long long trudge out of the valley and it was a major factor in deciding what to do the next day. Over pints in Nevis Sport we debated the wisdom of taking 7 people up Tower Ridge, 2 of whom were virtual novices. Mike was full of youthful exuberance and eager to get on it while Shane and I were less keen. A few more beers back at the chalets and the debate raged on. I didn't like the idea of being dragged up it and really wanted the chance to lead something in case the weather turned, so Shane and I chose to do Dorsal Arete another fine Grade II recommended by Sandra. The walk-in to Dorsal is supposed to be as bad as the walk up to the Ben, maybe worse, so we decided to go over Gearr Aonach and drop off the shoulder into the valley below the route.

Next morning the other 5 got off to an early start while Shane and I took our time and a more leisurely pace. The walk up to Gearr Aonach via the zig-zags is still a favourite and we both enjoyed not having to keep up with the greyhound race of the ever-competing Pete and George. I couldn't persuade Shane to try the Grade III scramble up the exposed nose in our big boots but we reached the summit soon enough and broke trail across it in the crampons. Looking down into the valley we could see several large groups heading for the Arete while others seem to be practising digging snow holes and the like.

The path up to the route was well stepped but I had my first ever case of snow blindness as I stared at my feet on the steep slopes. On with the goggles and we were soon at the rock, mesmerised by several parties climbing what had to be Grade V or VI routes up a frozen waterfall to the right and more rocky thin ice to the left. We skirted the bottom of the rock face and banked right onto the thicker snow above. We tried our hands at Alpine style but ended up in a shouty mess and settled on belaying like rock climbers. The snow was even better than the day before, the clear night having consolidated the top snow into a harder layer. "Thunk! Thunk!" with the axes, "Kick! Kick!" with the feet and I've never felt so well attached to a mountain. I literally had to wrestle the axe out at times and I felt supremely confident leading Shane up to the last few sections. Shane led a pitch himself before I wrapped up the last airy pitch.

A few minutes work took us to the top of Stob Coire nan Lochan and down the other side was a huge snowfield leading down into Lost Valley. More bum-sliding gave us a quick descent and we discovered the path that followed the river down. Minus crampons we descended into the valley, a magnificently wide place with a flat floor filled with post-glacial rubble, Beinn Fhada and Gearr Aonach towering above you. At the mouth of the valley there are a number of huge boulders, one of which we couldn't help scooting up to take some interesting photos. Further on the boulders require some delicate footwork to prevent falling into the cavernous spaces in between. You finally cross the river and meet the Gearr Aonach path having completed this circuitous route.

By then we knew the others had just finished Tower Ridge and were planning a head-torch descent but at least they were together and safe. We arranged to meet at the Achintee Inn where after a few drinks I was wowed by a curly haired temptress, who claimed that the Northern Ireland accent made her tingly all over! The others were ready to get home and cleaned up and grew very impatient as we compared Scots and Irish Gaelic and arranged to meet later. The less said about the rest of the evening the better.

After 2 days of such exertion we were ready for a quiet day. A short walk in and an easy Grade III climb. Curved Ridge on the Buachaille! We had a late start to snore off the drink from the night before, getting to the bottom of Rannoch Wall by 10:30am. There were several parties readying to climb it and George suggested that we didn't all have to start at the same spot, there being no one definite route line to follow. So Shane and I started in the gully the the right of what we thought was the ridge while the others queued up below.

About 30m up, having still not placed any gear, and in a fairly technical rocky section where I was dry-tooling more than anything I started to think "This Grade III is a quare step up". As I climbed out of the section I looked across another gully to where PJ was belayed on the proper ridge. George had only directed me onto Crowberry Ridge, a Grade IV! Ah well, it made the morning interesting.

Shane and I scooted up through the gully and got ahead of George and Mike momentarily but we still managed to get stuck behind a Kiwi girl called Sheryl and her Scottish partner Rab, an older man who was on his first ever winter climb. PJ and Pete were well ahead of us and George and Mike had managed to circumnavigate them by taking a slightly harder line but Shane and I were following an almost identical line to them and generally had to wait as she brought up Rab and then I brought up Shane. As the day wore on I started setting my belays higher and getting me and Shane through the changeovers quicker (they were using 2 ropes and feeding them though each time!) until we eventually got ahead of them.

It might have been around then that we checked for my camera. I'd given it to Shane earlier to take some ego boosting photos of me leading but we couldn't find it. All the weekend's pics lost. Waaaaaah!

Sheryl saw us getting ahead and let me know that she was worried about being stuck on the mountain after dark. Rab was really taking an age at the climbing and the changeovers and it was all me and Shane could do not to laugh as she scolded and berated him. "No Rab!" "What the hell are you doing Rab?!" "Are you listening to me Rab!?". She really was getting tired and very cross. I was about to ask what part of Australia she was from when she blurted out that she was from New Zealand. That could have been a fatal mistake on my part I think...

I didn't have much confidence in Rab either, especially when Sheryl asked him if she was on belay at one stage and he had a hold of the totally wrong end of the rope! Foreseeing disaster I decided it best if the 4 of us climbed out together and I tried to hurry everyone along. I'm sure Shane was sick of me saying "One more pitch" because I wasn't sure how far up the summit was. As we rounded Crowberry Tower darkness started to fall and a brief snow flurry came in. Shane was getting a little worried but my main concern was to keep doing everything safely and get off the climb and on to the summit, then worry about how to descend in the dark. A couple of our screwgates froze up and we had to use an Italian hitch to belay at one stage before borrowing a belay plate from Sherly to finish the last sections.

Finally on the summit we called the others, slapped on the head torches and started following the footprints across the top, using Pete's advice. The weather cleared but it had gotten really dark so we roped up together and made the descent into the snow filled gully. Sheryl and Rab caught us up at the bottom and I was pestered to go for a drink but we got mixed up about where we were eating / drinking. The others had the chef at Inchree on standby while I though we were off to the Clachaig Inn. Ah well.

Anyway to round off the adventurous weekend we had a slap up meal (the chef was really very good) and several Dewar whiskies as recommended by George. Back at the chalet we drank, laughed and swapped stories till 3am. Next day was the brightest clearest day yet but we were headed home. We loaded all the photos of the weekend onto PJ's laptop and it raised the spirits to look back on it all but it was a subdued lot that filtered off the ferry for the ride home. I'm thoroughly addicted to this winter climbing lark though and will be back again.

Photo of Route
Ledge Route, Ben Nevis - PJ leads Sandra up the Grade II Ledge Route