Sometimes it happens. A route, a day, or a whole trip that makes it all worthwhile. A reward for weekend after weekend of trudging through loose powder, repeated failure, motivational crises, hot-aches, standing at belays being gradually buried in spindrift, agonising over weather forecasts, and all the usual pleasures associated with Scottish winter climbing. This was one such experience.
Happily, our five-day booking of the CIC hut, at the foot of Ben Nevis' towering North Face, coincided with blue skies and unbroken sunshine, yet with bombproof snow-ice on the upper buttresses still hanging in there. Okay, so the rest of Scotland was already bathed in warm summer sunshine and probably every roadside crag in the country was dry and screaming “climb me!” But for those still with the enthusiasm to walk for several hours in the dark, this was a perfect, luxurious end to the season.
The walk-in was quite an effort. As I struggled to make it up the first small rise just after the car park, hampered by my fridge-sized rucksack stuffed with five days'-worth of food and gear, I seriously doubted I'd get very far. Memories of a drunken conversation years ago about how load-carrying elephants and camels should be introduced on the Ben, began not to seem so ridiculous. Eventually, though, we all got into a slow rhythm, plodding on upwards with the occasional stop for the utterance of expletives.
The CIC Hut had always been a place that we passed on the way to climb, it always looked so inviting but it was, well you know, just... not us. The ease with which I had booked the place had come as something of a surprise. Thus, finally entering this hallowed building felt like quite an honour. We all recalled tales from Cold Climbs of Robin Smith stealing food, and of the whole hut bursting into life at 3am with everyone desperate to be first out on the routes (My attempt at such an energetic reveille on day two would result in a smashed bowl, porridge all over the floor and the whole hut woken by my swearing!).
These days it's a slightly less exclusive venue. This evening the hut was packed to the rafters with wild-eyed, dishevelled climbers, all discussing today's experiences and tomorrow's plans. Apparently the six places we had booked included three on the floor.
After a dinner of pasta and something dehydrated, and the one beer per day we had rationed ourselves, the decision was made not to mess around and to head straight for The Point. So a 5am start and a gloriously short walk-in saw us standing at the bottom of Point 5 Gully, one of those simply must-do classics. I, typically had forgotten my gloves. Thankfully though, my climbing partner Steve had come prepared (probably just because he knew he was climbing with me – I had forgotten my waterproof jacket on our last outing) and had around ten pairs.
Initial nerves subsided as we realised the route was in exceptionally easy condition, hooks and steps gracing its entire length. There was one point, on the chimney pitch, where this made it harder, as the ice had been hacked to pieces so much as to create an overhang! Generally, though, it was steep, thrilling climbing on delightfully positive holds the whole way. There were several moments where my previously grade-4 climbing mind though “woah, this is f***ing steep”, but it was merely matter-of-fact recognition of this, rather than outright fear. The Rogue Pitch was the steepest section, but today was only 'Rogue' in that it convinced us it was harder than it was. Having hooked our way up that, stretching Steve's 50-metre rope to the limit - in order to reach anything remotely resembling a belay, all that remained was a seemingly interminable snow-plod to the summit.
We topped out around lunchtime, basked in the afternoon sun and in the glory of having just climbed a classic and not had an unpleasant epic. Our friends topped out on Zero Gully at around the same time, and we walked across the summit plateau swapping stories before locating No.4 Gully and descending to our home from home for tea and medals.
It seemed that the “Step ladder” that had been Point 5 had been merely a gentle introduction to the classic Ben Grade 5s, as the following day Indicator Wall (V,4) was giving away very little. Even the approach was scary, shuffling along the top of a steep snow slope which dropped away on hard neve that rendered ice-axe arrest virtually impossible, to Observatory Gully. Steve ably hacked his way up the first pitch, making positive noises about the condition of the ice but not about the lack of hooks. We were on our own now. The crux pitch fell to yours truly, and turned out to be far more sustained than anything on Point 5. By 30 metres up I'd reached that disco-leg stage every time I stopped to place a screw, assuring myself it would be easy after this next bulge... ah okay, the next one then.... bugger, next one?.... until finally I emerged, heart racing and legs like jelly, at a bulge of ice shot through with ice-axe holes, a ready-made bucket seat and an easy snow slope leading to the top. One further deceptive pitch and we were basking in the sun again, taking in the same awesome views as yesterday. “We could get used to this”, we commented, slightly concerned that we would.
There was a definite sense of “we have to make the most of this”, and it wasn't even lunch-time, so the decision was made to race up Comb Gully. It was late enough for the queues to have subsided, so after just over an hour of pleasant climbing we were on the plateau again, Steve relieved at having avoided the drama of two years previously when one of his crampons had fallen off on the crux. We had come a long way. Okay, it hadn't quite been the seven-minute ascent described in Cold Climbs, but it was good for us.
The next day, another perfect Alpine affair, saw Smith's route dispatched in the same workmanlike, step-assisted manner as Point 5. This assistance, however, did not detract from the heart-stopping exposure of this prominent curtain of ice. I even seconded the crux pitch with great care, taking heed of guidebook warnings that of dodgy belays. As it happened, though, the incredible ice made any screw placement rock solid, and my fears had been unfounded.
Our daily sunbathing session came even earlier today. The sun seemed even warmer, but we decided we had to at least attempt another route. Our attempt on Two-Step Corner (V,5), however, was abandoned after a large part of the cornice melted and collapsed very close to the crux pitch. We finished up the pleasant No.3 Gully Buttress, enjoying the views and the satisfaction of what we'd achieved so far.
So accustomed had we become to these unbroken alpine conditions that when the fourth day dawned slightly cloudy, excuses were mumbled about high temperatures, melting ice and tired legs, and Steve and I retreated back into our sleeping bags. The day would then be spent with Steve trying to coax me out of bed and me making increasingly ridiculous excuses for not moving an inch. “It's a famous hut, come on we should just enjoy it!” In fact, a certain Andy Nisbet arrived predicting that “Aye, something'll be in”, which got Steve all excited, but refining his prediction to 'slush' was enough to convince me to turn over and sleep again. Our friends climbed point 5 as it happened, but we'd already done that...
One final day remained, and it arrived swathed in cloud again. We reasoned, however, that at the end of a normal week in Scotland this would be considered great conditions, we had just been spoilt. So, motivation largely restored, we trudged up the snow-slopes once again with the vague aim of the No.2 Gully Buttress area. We were carrying only the selected Scottish Winter Climbs book, and as a result what we thought to be Five Finger Discount turned out to be JP is Back (IV,4), a two-and-a-half-pitch, entirely unfrequented ice route providing a great end to the week and, we assumed, to the season.
The real icing on the cake, however, was the semi-controlled epic bum-slide all the way down No.4 Gully almost to the snowline, the snow having changed in consistency allowing for prime glissading conditions. It seemed illustrative of how easy and painless (aside from the initial walk-in) the whole week had been. It almost didn't seem like Scottish winter climbing.
But as I said, it's weeks like this that make it all worthwhile. As we walked out to the car park, we were already looking forward to next season. More trudging through loose powder, more repeated failure, motivational crises, hot-aches, standing at belays being gradually buried in spindrift, agonising over weather forecasts... and one day, another week like this.
Andy Ruck, 23, is a recent graduate and his qualification has thus far led him to the dizzy heights of outdoor retail and temporary exile in the low lands of the South of England. He is trying to cut it as a freelance writer and plans to ditch the job and become an itinerant climbing bum in the not-too-distant future. He would describe himself as a “mountaineer” above all else, yet admits that this is often an excuse for being rubbish at rock climbing!?