As we got to the bottom of the route, a team that had been furiously chasing us from the CIC finally caught us up and made it clear that they had similar ideas. They were also heading for Centurion – twenty two years and nobody goes near the route in winter, then two teams arrive at once! It was Viv Scott and Steve Ashworth - The Big Bad Ben was back in business. The early bird gets first dibbs...
The climbing was awesome, very sustained but not too hard, with lots of verglas and ice making it absorbing and very much a true mixed line rather than just snowed up rock. We lost the light and the good conditions when we got to the Route II traverse, by which time we were in the thick of it. The southerly storm hit with the vengeance of a bride jilted at the altar. Full on blizzard conditions raged as I crept along the Route II slabs; the last time I was there ten years ago I skipped across on perfect neve but this time the bald slabs were covered in useless powder, with more snow being dumped on them by the minute. I was about to retreat from the pitch - the run-out from my last piece of pro and the seriousness of the position weighing heavily on my mind, when I found a 'thank-god' in-situ peg that gave me the confidence to teeter on for another 25 meters and finish the pitch off.
Three more pitches saw us at the top of the route and faced with a decision: to go down Ledge Route and face a certain avalanche or to head to the top and descend to the half-way-lochan. The southerly winds had raised the temps to above freezing, so we were soaked and the snow had a really bad feel so we took the decision to climb upwards straight into the teeth of the strengthening weather.
At the top we discovered that neither of us had a compass and the severity of the situation hit hard. A simple bearing would have guided us to safety, but in the maelstrom we could spend all night going round in circles. This kind of weather can and does kill people and our soaked bodies were well aware of this. Following a lot of psyching up, we headed in the likely direction of the red burn, every step an effort in the wind knowing that we could be heading for any one of a number of steep drops, with the visibility at times down to ten feet or so. After some time, we got a few glimpses of the twinkling lights of Ft Bill which confirmed our location at the top of the red burn and a safe route off the hill. At this lower altitude the snow had turned to rain and it lashed down as only west coast rain does.
We got back to the car at 4am - twenty three hours after setting out.
The avalanche blog on Sunday reported avalanche debris on all the Nevis gullies and gully 5 spontaneously avalanched when the avalanche observer was watching it. I think we took the right decision to go over the top, but next time we will take a compass.