Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Solo on Ben Nevis

After my final exam I chose to escape the city and run away to Ben Nevis. After booking the CIC hut for the night, something I can recommend to anyone who wishes to visit the North Face, I took the train to Fort William. From Fort William a short walk to a gap in the trees surrounding the golf course presents the old path. Over grown and rarely trod, this often muddy path through the trees offers a fantastic walk through the glen avoiding the ugly forestry commission tracks before emerging from the forest and into open moorland. I reached the CIC hut just before the fog and heavier rain closed in, with the melt water causing an exciting stream crossing for a soloist just short of the hut.

Staying in the CIC hut that night with the Inverness Backcountry Skiing club was great. A collection of mountain lovers all on the Ben to enjoy life and experience the surroundings. We had a great time, as a climber I had packed a boil in a bag and some snacks for the next day but the hospitality of the club was apparent when I was offered cheeses and wine which it would be rude to refuse. We stayed up late discussing the mountains and my plans of a trip to the alps that summer.

The next morning I woke to rain and postponed my trip as a fellow climber who was known to members of the club was apparently heading up and may be interested in climbing together. By 1000hrs the weather had cleared and with no sign of a partner I began to ascend the slopes below No. 5 Gully and the route for the day, Ledge Route.

As I ascended the slopes the stories of the night before echoed in my ears, one of the party had been involved in a rescue high on the route in a grim and serious accident with one fatality. I plodded on assessing the snow, consolidated but wet from thawing.

Climbing up No.5 gully I began to trend right towards the ledge, bare of snow. Due to the snow melt above the cliffs were separated from the bulk of the gully snow by an almost bergschrund like gap. The gap was bridged occasionally by snow and I crossed a snow bridge which felt barely adequate onto the first ledge.

The ledge sloped away to the right, gently and to the left was a slightly overhanging rock. Climbing further along the ledge I realised this was not the route of the day, the ledge itself was awash with just enough water to make your boots feel buoyant and black lichenous slime covered all the rocks. It didn't take long to make the decision to not risk a 300ft fall over the cliffs below and retreat.

I abseiled down two 30m lengths in order to get back to No.5 Gully using snow anchors and rock spikes for protection as retreating back along the snow bridge was not inviting.

Not giving up I decided to head higher up No.5 Gully to traverse into ledge route higher up. This would be more exposed but potentially could still see me reaching the summit. I was stopped roughly half way up No.5 Gully by a large glide crack. Still trying I traversed left to another snow bridge and stepped across onto some scree and climbed some choss until the base of a wall. The wall had a vertical crack which I climbed self belaying for two pitches, 40m. From here I realised I couldn't make the traverse to ledge route as the snow was crossed by more cracks.

I abbed off and began my retreat. Four abseils saw me below the glide crack and looking into the bergschrund as I bounced across. The gap between the snow and rock must have been 15m in depth. I pulled my rope through and traversed to the other side and began a slow climb down by now very slushy snow. During the descent rocks began to fall down the left hand side of the gully, I avoided this area as it was stained and pitted, a decision as I was glad of as the rocks bounced down.

Two hours of down climbing later saw me at the bottom of the gully absolutely exhausted and glad to be in one piece. I sat behind a large rock to remove my crampons and rested for an hour before picking myself up to descend to the CIC hut and pick up my kit. I'd been so involved in the day I'd not eaten or drank. Four Mars bars gave me the energy I needed to get back to Fort William.

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