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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.