Winter climbing in Scotland - an Easter weekend report
Armed with a box of maps and guidebooks, Joe Williams and Caroline Holmes decided to head to the Scottish Highlands for the Easter long weekend. They managed to do the traverse of An Teallach and Waterfall Gully, Ledge Route and Good Friday Climb on Ben Nevis.
As has happened throughout this winter season, I spent the week leading up to the trip studying the avalanche conditions pages, checking the weather patterns and pouring over the blogs. With a few days to go, the plan is set: Caroline and I will drive north, have a quick run in the Fannicks, camp at Loch Toll an Lochain, traverse An Teallach, drive to Fort William (picking up a friend along the way), then spend two days climbing on Ben Nevis. Probably for the first time ever, we managed the plan without any changes!
Driving from the Lake District on Thursday night, we stop at Loch Inch to spend the night. After a leisurely breakfast, we pick up food supplies in Inverness before heading NW on the Ullapool road. At Loch Droma, we find a place to park, pack some cereal bars into pockets and set off for a short run in the direction of the Fannicks; the big, wild hills to the south.
Our jog (well, really more of a walk) takes us up to the frozen Loch a’Mhadaidh - an impressive position where the Munros loom above our heads. Without the time or equipment to go higher, we turn tail and run back to the car.
For years I’ve had a gorgeous framed Colin Prior print hanging on the wall at home. I can’t imagine the number of hours I’ve spent staring at it, tracing the lines I would take through the snow and rock. After our run, Caroline and I drive to Dundonnell where we have a cup of tea in the aging hotel, then pack our bags with winter climbing and camping equipment. Due to a persistent foot injury, I do the walk in to Loch Toll an Lochain wearing fell running shoes and waterproof socks - very comfortable.
The ascent, following the Coir’ a’Ghuibhsachain is quite rough going, without a path for the most part. The two hour ascent is punctuated by a hilarious - yet potentially serious - moment when I accidentally drop my walking pole into the burn. Soon it is moving downstream towards a waterfall, so I drop my pack and run to carefully collect it. Caroline also drops her pack to help me. Suddenly I hear a scream: I turn to see her rucksack rolling down the bank and splash into the stream! Caroline jumps into the water to fish out the bag - fortunately most of her kit has stayed mostly dry… a learning experience?
Our wild camp is memorable: a full moon, clear skies and the impressive face of An Teallach lit up. I can’t decide whether to climb into my warm sleeping bag or suggest we do the traverse by moonlight; in this case we choose sleep.
The morning brings light rain, snow and thick cloud: not the promised forecast! We climb the enormous gully that cleaves into the NE side of Sail Liath before emerging onto the ridge just as the cloud begins to break up. The traverse appears before us - it looks massive! At the famous Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles we rope up. Not liking the look of the Grade III direct route, we skirt the first pinnacle on the left before rejoining the ridge crest. After peering over the abyss of Lord Berkeley’s Seat, we unrope and climb the two Munro summits - tiring a little now - before descending back to the tent.
After loading up our bags with the camping equipment, we cut across the the Shenavall path, which we follow back to Dundonnell. To our amazement, it has been an 11 hour hill day. We make it to Inverness just in time to pick up Matt from the train station. Fish and chips, then a drive down the Great Glen sees us arrive at the Calluna bunkhouse around midnight, tired and smelly.
Ben Nevis Day 1 - Waterfall Gully and Ledge Route
Climbing days on Ben Nevis usually require an alpine start, but none of us can face it today. So it’s 9:30am by the time we begin the usual walk up the Allt a’ Mhuilinn. The weather is simply stunning: perfectly blue sky, not a breath of wind and pleasantly warm. After half an hour, Caroline’s and my achy legs begin to loosen up, and we make good headway towards the north face of the Ben. His first time seeing the mountain with his own eyes, Matt is suitably impressed by the huge walls of rock, snow and ice.
Our late start does have its benefits though: we aren’t competing with anyone to get to the start of our chosen route first, as most people are already a fair way up their climbs. At the CIC hut, I again change out of my running shoes and into mountain boots. We opt for Waterfall Gully, a grade IV climb with a steep first pitch and easier gully/mixed ground above. It only takes us a few minutes to casually wander over to the bottom of the route. The steep pitch turns out to be quite straightforward, and i’m quickly belaying on ice screws, now established in the gully. As the route progresses, I lead while Matt and Caroline second. They climb side by side, chatting all the way, with Matt offering the occasional piece of experienced advice. A cool cave belay is a nice highlight halfway up.
In no time at all, we have finished the climb, reaching the ridgeline of Ledge Route. A quick stop for photos and we continue up the grade II ridge to the summit plateau. None of us can believe the weather is so perfect; we have been climbing in baselayers and light fleeces, and haven’t needed to change gloves once! De-gearing at the top, Caroline proudly presents the Easter egg to us (she has kept it completely intact throughout the climb) and smashes it open with her ice axe. It feels like a special moment as we eat the chocolate, enjoying the warmth, each other’s company and wide-ranging views down the length of Loch Linnhe. I then take us round to the upper part of the Red Burn where we perform a sitting glissade [read: bum-slide], descending 400m in a couple of minutes. An hour and a half later and we’re back at the car.
Ben Nevis Day 1 - Good Friday Climb
We have agreed to a 5am start. Urgh. Our bodies are slow and tired now, and motivation is waning (where has my youthful energy gone?!), but we set off once again up the Allt a’ Mhuilinn path, this time taking over 30 minutes longer to reach the CIC hut than we managed the day before.
What a difference a day makes: today’s weather is high grey cloud and a cold easterly wind. Our goal is Indicator Wall, a grade V at the top of Observatory Gully. The Indicator Wall routes are the highest climbs in Britain, and it’s a long walk up the gully to reach them. The higher we progress the windier it becomes, and the more powder snow and spindrift there is biting against our faces and flowing past our boots. Nearing the wall, itself covered in thin sheets of ice, we rope up to guard against a slip on the steep approach slopes. The routes around here have epic and evocative names: Riders on the Storm, Ship of Fools, Albatross, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Direct, Psychedelic Wall, Satanic Verses. VI, 5 is the standard grade around these parts.
Geared up (and slightly intimidated), I start up Indicator Wall (V, 4), a hacked-out streak of ice. It’s harder to protect: even my short ice screws are bottoming out and scraping on the underlying rock beneath. Twelve metres up and I get scared: the climbing still looks OK, but the ice screws are a problem, and I’m irrationally worried they might all pop out if I fall. I’m also worried that Caroline won’t enjoy it as it’s harder climbing and the spindrift snow is pouring down (and up), making it impossible to see anything. Reluctantly I start downclimbing, carefully reaching Caroline and Matt back at the belay.
Just as I’m standing there feeling disappointed with myself, a solo climber appears from below and climbs straight onto the ice of the adjacent climb, confidently swinging his ice tools, testing them, kicking his crampon points in hard, and making rapid progress up the grade V ice. In a few seconds he has gone, having climbed the whole route - without a rope - right before our eyes! “Probably his first time,” jokes Caroline. “He’s soloing because he doesn’t own a rope: such a beginner,” Matt chimes in.
As a consolation prize, we move left to climb an easier route, Good Friday Climb (III). It proves to be a brilliant little route, with some fun steep ice and some interesting belays. As we near the cornice, Matt agrees to lead the last pitch. A quick scan of the guidebook and we note: “It’s traditional to belay around the summit trig point.” Very cool! Caroline and I watch Matt as he progresses up, placing an ice screw every now and again, until he reaches the point where the snow and the sky meet above our heads. A quick look down and a bit of hacking at the snow and he’s up, leaving some legs kicking in the air for good measure. I feed the rope out until it pulls tight: time to start climbing.
We’re on top of Ben Nevis again, but this time it’s a cold, austere place. We don’t hang around for long. We’re tired and it’s time to head home now. It’s a long drive back to Cumbria….
Joe Williams is Cicerone's Business Development Manager. After many years climbing and running on the roads, he realised he wasn't actually any good at either of those things. He has since turned to mountain ultra running, which he's better at. Joe also enjoys playing the classical guitar, and has an unnatural aversion to swimming.View Articles by Joe Williams