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Brilliant week at the CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Last week, Mark S and I ran one of our annual CIC Hut Weeks, based at the UK’s only true alpine hut, on Ben Nevis. The hut, which is well heated and makes for an extremely comfortable and convenient base, is situated at 650m above sea level, at the very foot of the north face of Ben Nevis. This means that approaches each day to many of the UK’s finest ice and mixed climbs are minimal, allowing for maximum climbing time and making the absolute most of the prevailing conditions… and making the absolute most of the prevailing conditions is exactly what Mark, Neil, Michael, Simon, Steve and myself were able to do.

Normally, the first day is a leisurely affair, with time for last minute food shopping and a stroll up to the CIC Hut in the afternoon, but with a mixed forecast for the week, we decided to head up to the hut sharpish and to climb a short route that afternoon, just in case we were faced with a hut-bound day later in the week. We made a mass ascent of the increasingly popular East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, which gave us three interesting pitches of mixed climbing. The highlight of the route is the second pitch, which tackles a two tiered corner, which whilst strenuous, is not too technical, on great hooks and with good gear.

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

East Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Second Pitch of the East Ridge

On Monday, team West Coast made another mass ascent, this time of the brilliant NE Buttress, which I still think is one of my favourite routes of its grade in the UK. The lack of consolidation made the climbing a bit trickier, but still great fun and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. The Mantrap was fairly dry and didn’t pose too much of a hurdle, however, the 40 Foot Corner above was a bit more awkward, with very little useful snow, ice or gear.

NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

On NE Buttress

 

NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

40 Ft Corner

 

NE Buttress CIC Hut Week

Steve on the 40 Ft Corner

Tuesday saw Steve, Simon and I climbing the first icy pitch of Wendigo, on Creag Coire na Ciste. There was just enough ice to make for a secure and fun pitch. We did consider traversing into Central Gully R/H, but having not climbed the inviting mixed pitches of Wendigo before, we continued up the route. None of us were disappointed by the brilliantly absorbing and exposed climbing that makes a rising traverse to the final snow bowl and summit plateau. Meanwhile, further along Creag Coire na Ciste, Mark, Neil and Michael had fun on Lost The Place.

Wendigo CIC Hut Week Ben Nevis

Wendigo

 

Wendigo CIC Hut Week

Wendigo

With the winds due to pick up on Wednesday afternoon, we all opted for a quick hit. Mark, Steve and Simon climbed the SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder, whilst Michael and I climbed Jacknife to then join the SW Ridge. I had forgotten how good the main pitch of Jacknife was, having last climbed it in 2011. Sure enough, as we were descending the East Gully of the Douglas Boulder, the winds picked up and the temperature rose.

Jacknife CIC Hut Week

Looking up Jacknife

 

Jacknife CIC Hut Week

Wild weather whilst on Jacknife

 

Jacknife, CIC Hut Week

Looking down the main pitch of Jacknife

 

Jacknife CIC Hut Week

SW Ridge, having climbed Jacknife

 

SW Ridge of the Douglas Boulder

Abseiling off the Douglas Boulder

Thursday morning brought with it a degree of uncertainty, due to the thaw from the previous day and night, so to play it safe, we decided to all go for Tower Ridge and to let things settle down during the day. However, whilst gearing up at the foot of the East Gully of the Douglas Boulder, I did wonder whether the thaw might have caused the snow to become a bit more dense and therefore provide good footholds on the more difficult pitches of Observatory Ridge. With there only really being one way to find out, Michael and I soon found ourselves part way up the long and sustained Observatory Ridge. My theory applied to the first pitch or so of the ridge, thereafter, the thaw hadn’t really affected the snow and it was a case of clearing a lot of it from the ledges to uncover tiny ledges for crampons and to dig around for usable axe placements. Observatory Ridge is renown for being tough in these conditions, and I certainly can’t deny that it was hard work (but still enjoyable), but we both kept our foot down, and ploughed our way up. Above the difficulties, with still plenty of climbing still to go, a French couple, who were also staying at the hut, overtook us, and put in a welcome track up the final pitches of Zero Gully, which was largely full of soft-ish snow, with a couple of icy steps. Meanwhile, Steve and Simon enjoyed their day on Tower Ridge with Mark.

Observatory Ridge, Ben Nevis

Looking up at Zero Gully from the start of Observatory Ridge

 

Observatory Ridge, CIC Hut Week

High on Observatory Ridge

 

Echo Wall and Tower Ridge

 

Observatory Ridge, CIC Hut Week

Digging required on Observatory Ridge

Observatory Ridge, Ben Nevis

Looking across at Tower Ridge

 

CIC Hut Week

Teams on Tower Ridge

 

Observatory Ridge CIC Hut Week

Above the difficulties on Observatory Ridge

 

CIC Hut Week

Looking down the final pitches of Zero Gully.

 

Observatory Ridge CIC Hut Week

Final pitch of Zero Gully/Observatory Ridge

Steve and Simon, having had their fill of winter climbing for the week, headed down early. So, for the final day, with conditions once again due to deteriorate in the afternoon, an early start saw Mark and Neil climbing Jacknife on the Douglas Boulder, whilst Michael and I climbed the atmospheric chimney of Gutless, which is a brilliant route, with some great mixed climbing, particularly on the main second pitch (so long as you enjoy climbing chimneys).  We were all back at the hut by 10am, just as the drizzle started, and enjoying fish and chips in Whetherspoons in Fort William by 1pm, finishing off another great course at the CIC Hut.

Gutless, CIC Hut Week

Above the main pitch of Gutless

 

 

 

 

Great week at the CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Last week, Mark S and I ran a five day long winter climbing course based out of the CIC Hut on Ben Nevis, which is Britain’s only true alpine hut  and gives unrivalled access to the some of the finest winter climbing cliffs.  The weather decided to play ball  for much of last week too, enabling Neil, Mark C, David and Jeff to climb a number of classic winter climbs.

On Monday, under blue skies and sunshine, Mark S, Neil and Mark C climbed Minus 2 Gully, which they reported to be in great condition.  Neil and Mark C had climbed on Ben Nevis many times over the years, but hadn’t climbed NE Buttress before, so the team continued to the summit via the buttress, taking in the Mantrap (the single hardest move on the mountain?!) and the Forty Foot Corner.   On the other side of NE Buttress, on the Little Brenva face, Jeff, David and myself were basking in the sunshine, whilst climbing Cresta Direct before traversing to finish up Moonwalk, therefore linking some of the steeper ice pitches in the vicinity, giving a very alpine feel to our day.

The following morning, we woke to slightly murky conditions, and so opted to stay low and made a group ascent of The Curtain, which was in reasonable nick, if a little thin on the first pitch.  David and I then made our way over to have a look at Vanishing Gully,  by which point the freezing levels had crept up causing the approach slopes to start to feel a bit spooky, and as a result, we chose not to push on up steepening slopes that lead to the foot of the route.  Mark S, Neil and Mark C climbed the first pitch of Gemini that afternoon.

Wednesday brought with it another settled day, so wanting to make the most of it, Jeff, David and I started early, in order to beat the crowds, and broke trail all the way up a very snowy Tower Ridge.  The clouds hung around during the first half, but soon cleared to give another fine day. There’s something quite magical about being the first team on Tower Ridge, and not having a track to follow.  We then descended Ledge Route, from where some of the best views of the mountain are to be found.  Mark S and his team climbed Observatory Buttress, and found the easier angled pitches above the crux to be hard work, with plenty of unconsolidated snow lying beneath a thin, icy crust.  That said, they still enjoyed themselves on one of the finest ice routes on the mountain.  A team also climbed Zero Gully that day.

Thursday promised another fine day, so Mark C, David and myself started early, and made an ascent of one of the most iconic ice climbs on Ben Nevis, Orion Face Direct, which at 420m is also one of the longest.  We enjoyed a clear run all the way, with near perfect conditions throughout.  The crux traverse was so well iced that it felt quite easy for the grade, the second pitch of the route giving the steepest and most sustained climbing of the day.  Other teams on Astral Highway, Minus 1 & 2 Gullies and Observatory Buttress.  Mark S and Neil climbed Vanishing Gully and Waterfall Gully that day.

Waking up on Friday, having been listening to the rain and wind beating down through the night, it was quite evident that there was no way that the climbing would match that of the previous few days, and so after a leisurely breakfast or two, we made our way down and made the most of Fish Friday in Whetherspoons on Fort William High Street.  So, despite not climbing on the final day, it was a nice way to end what has been a great week, with fun company, amazing conditions and a good haul of winter climbs.  I’ll be back up at the CIC Hut next Sunday for another five day course, fingers crossed for such good conditions then!

Yesterday, the company was great, but conditions less so.  I was out with Barry and Radu, and with a thaw in progress, we went to one of the most snow sure mountaineering ridges in the Highlands, the Forcan Ridge in Glenshiel.  The ridge was quite bare lower down, but improved with height with snow encountered for much of the route to the summit of The Saddle.

Other West Coast teams out over the past few days, including Tom who was out with the Branch family.  They enjoyed two mountaineering days on School House Ridge in Glencoe on Friday and the Dubh Ridge to the Climber’s Col on Aonach Mor on Saturday.  Rusty was out with Arran and Dave.  They climbed Fawlty Towers on Ben Nevis on Friday, and were on Stob Coire nan Lochan yesterday.  Finally, Scott was out with Michael and Marion yesterday, in Glencoe.

So, what about this coming week?  A high pressure system is set to dominate for much of the week, which will give clear skies and so warm days, but cool nights, which will firm up the currently rather soggy snow pack.  Heat loss through night time radiation should also help firm up the ice, although early starts may be necessary to make the most of the cooler temperatures.  Some of the thinner ice routes (Gemini, Mega Route X, Minus 1, Orion Direct etc.) will have suffered as a result of the thaw this weekend, but the major drainage lines (Hadrians, Point 5, Green Gully) should remain climbable once those cooler nights come around.

Some interesting reading regarding this current high pressure here:

http://www.ukweatherforecast.co.uk/topic/72-high-pressure-dominates-this-week-bringing-plenty-of-settled-weather/
http://blog.metoffice.gov.uk/2016/03/11/high-pressure-keeping-things-mostly-settled/