Well? Where is it?
As May and Eiger adventure approaches we wanted to get some early 2017 winter climbing in so back in November I had booked the CIC (Charles Inglis Clarke) hut at the foot of the north face of Ben Nevis with the idea being to get a couple of days of proper Scottish done.
Fast forward to Friday and we were on the torturous slog up from the North face car park, our packs heavier than even usual winter due to food, sleeping bags and various other bits and bobs to see us through a couple of days under the mountains (..that would include Whisky ). My legs burning, heart pumping and breathing hard under my ropes, gear , axes, crampons and I’m sure the kitchen sink we hiked up and in, to finally arrive at the hut around 8.30pm .
In the dark, the path and world around us lit only by circles of light from our head torches, twinkles of light ever present as sleet and snow began to fall we walked up the hill, crossed the style, trotted along the mountain path , the tiny light from the CIC taunting and teasing us for what seems like hours.
We arrived, hot under our gear, soaked and weighed down but already the energy and excitement was in us – we were here to climb!
An evening of banter and a dram, maybe more, with the other lads staying at the hut later we agreed given expected poor conditions we would hit Tower Ridge and use it as a gauge for what else might go. Off to bed on the bunks, alarms set for a very civilized 7am.
Up and at em, get the porridge and coffee on, pull all the various bits of gear together and watch the conditions develop out the window. It was snowing.. a bit.. a little bit. Basically the rock was black, the snow was wet and winter was still a pipedream but as we do we headed out to see what was what and play it by ear.
We were here to get on the mountain so to the mountain we go!
The walk up towards Douglas Boulder told us what we feared already.. lots of unconsolidated snow, no ice and lots of rock. But hey that’s what mountaineering is all about – get on and do, and change the plan as needed .. until that point where you need to stick to the plan!
We passed Douglas gap on the right and started up broken and step terrain on the ridge itself. Scratch, hook, swim, scratch . Soloing around looking for a route that would take us up we had some fun, scraped about and all in all found it poor going but still good fun. Getting the crampons on and axes out always gets the blood going.
The battle continued, slabby rock under powder, no gear options and all the time swimming upstream. Finding hooks for axes, jamming crampons in slab grooves or into poor turf, the smell of points sparking on rock and the scraping of crampons and axes ever present to the ear – it was great practice of course (given position, run out and lack of gear and to give it some perspective imagine a short grade 4+ type pitch). After exploring for a while we arrived on the ridge just above Douglas gap.
Do we spend all day (maybe more) battling it , snow getting heavier, wind getting up or call it a day, move to find a suitable abseil anchor (by no means ever an easy cop out) and head down and back to the hut?
The votes were cast and the latter won, not of course entirely happily but when the plan is agreed we stick to it. Moving on “just a bit to see” can turn into a long day and a dark descent so sensible heads on we headed for the gap and the Chimney to rap down.
Davy set up the tat and as we were about to head down another party were moving up the chimney so a long belay stand began. Patient of course but freezing by the time it came for me , last in line, to abb off.
Clip in, rope on, get in position, unclip, fingers almost numb with cold and set off down the steep and awkward chimney. Arriving at the bottom we made a second abseil due to the steep and unconsolidated gully below the chimney, quick rap here and gather up then ropes we made our way down. Snow deeper now, rocks hiding below to catch a crampon point and trip you at every option. But its Scottish Winter and we love it!
Back to the hut then, kettle on, gear set out to dry and decisions to be made.
But first new friends to greet.
The Rab creative team were in the hut having arrived later in the morning , 3 of their athletes on the face shooting a new film to showcase some interesting new gear. As we all chatted the unmissable sound of a chopper made an appearance. Low, near and circling – its never a good sign.
In the mountains it means one thing.
The collective hope that it was perhaps just training was quickly dashed when the door opened and a member of Lochaber MRT advised a party of 3 had been reported avalanched and asked us to make room, heat the hut and get hot water ready as they expected more team members and with hope the missing climbers to arrive soon.
Pots boiled, fire on, room cleared and space made the choppers an team members converged around the face until after some time the walking wounded began to arrive.
Thank goodness all 3 were walking, and talking but they were also bruised and broken. But alive, that’s all that matters.
Their eyes said it all.
That is a nightmare of mortal terror I never want to experience first hand. As blood was wiped away, back and shoulder injuries assessed and counselling of shock was underway no-one could help but be shaken by the sight. The MFRT amazing. Profesional , efficient, good natured throughout keeping spirits up before leading them off to the helicopter for an airlift out for hospital attention. Perspective on life and climbing, the risks and the rewards, the decisions brought very quickly into sharp focus.
We had made good choices today . In the route, in our approach and in our decisions.
By now our plan had galvanized.
We’d be climbing nothing tomorrow so without getting in the way of medics tending the injured gents we assembled our gear and made off back down the path to the car – about a 90 minute hike with a plan to head to Glencoe, The Clachaig Inn and at least 1 beer.
Maybe 2. Maybe more.
2 hours later we are in Boots Bar at the Clachaig, that hub of mountain culture and history in the shadow the the mighty Aonach Eagach and the atmosphere of Glencoe with social media pings and voicemails kindly asking after our safety as already reports the avalanche was on the national news.
We met up the Rab crew (including the bear battler himself Greg Boswell) and other great friends, we talked as we always do about climbing, the mountains and of course the events today.
We laughed we shook hands and hugged and yes we had 1 beer.
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