Monday, 24 March 2014

Observatory Ridge (V,4), Ben Nevis

It was 2am by the time I arrived at the North Face car park on Friday night. Another epic drive from London. Firstly traffic hold-ups on the M6 North of Birmingham, then snow on the road North of Crianlarich. Tent pitched and alarm set for 5.30am. It snowed for much of the night.

Three hours after arrival. Time to pack up and go climbing
The coires were holding a lot of fresh snow above the CIC hut so breaking a trail halfway to the summit did not appeal. That said I was aware that the recent warm weather would likely have thawed the lower buttresses so a compromise was needed. We headed for Observatory Gully with a vague plan to climb the first route that looked in condition.

I had anticipated Observatory Buttress to be the right sort of altitude to withstand the recent thaw but this was just a vague hunch. I was more concerned about the presence of large cornices above the routes but visibility was too poor to confirm their whereabouts. The cliffs were buried in fresh snow. Wading halfway up Observatory Gully for a closer look with no clue about the route exits seemed silly business. Observatory Ridge was right on our doorstep and inviting us closer. No cornices to worry about and no wading to reach it. Another team was already on the route but time lost queuing seemed a lot more attractive than time lost battled up deep unstable snow to something higher.

Observatory Ridge conditions were tough and easily warranted tech 5. There was surprisingly little névé on the lower pitches. Evidently the thaw had been aggressive during the week. What ice remained was in very poor condition. Thin ice cascaded over the rocks but the slightest tap would lead to its immediate collapse. Even the turf was only partially frozen, which made climbing the initial corner on pitch three particularly hard work. Powder snow covered everything, which made progress slow and gear placements hard to find. Plenty of time to contemplate how sleep deprived I was feeling at each belay.

Start of the second pitch
Third pitch in tough condition
Snow fell in squally showers throughout the day often reducing visibility to close proximity. During its respites there didn't look to be much in the way of conditions on the surrounding cliffs. At least four teams had bailed off the Minus Three Buttress area. Observatory Gully was void of activity. Only the distant shouts from Tower Ridge indicated other climbers in the area. The Orion Face and Observatory Buttress areas looked thin on ice but with so much fresh snow it was difficult to be 100%. The fragile ice on Observatory Ridge didn't suggest much to be excited about elsewhere.

Fourth pitch. Climber up there... somewhere
By the time we were bashing up the final snow slopes of Zero Gully it was twilight. Finally some bomber névé with the difficulties long below us. It was 7.20pm by the time I hauled myself over the top of the route exhausted. Sanity restored though. Finally a decent route climbed this winter, and in very challenging conditions.

Easy upper slopes
By the time we had descended the tourist path and skirted the bog back to the North Side it was 11pm. An eleven hour drive, followed by three hours sleep, followed by sixteen hours on the hill... The maths didn't really add up. Something that did add up was that there would be no climbing tomorrow. The only thing planned was a lie-in.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Lochnagar

Lochnagar maybe wasn’t the best choice of venue given that we had only managed a couple of hours sleep on the roadside of the Old Military Road. Something with a shorter walk-in was probably more appropriate. Leaving London was as grim as ever. We had lost an hour stuck in grid-locked traffic on Fulham Palace Road and we were still obviously a long way from the M25. I won’t need to do this for much longer I keep reminding myself…

The morning’s weather was idealistic with blue skies, little wind and freezing temperatures. Much of Lochnagar’s cliffs were still plastered in deep snow though. The cornices above looked massive despite the thaw the previous Sunday. The avalanche forecast looked underrated for Northern aspects. We saw two massive avalanches trigger down Raeburn's Gully and continue down towards the loch. Maybe the biggest I have witnessed in Scotland.

The West Buttress looked the exception with less snow and minimal cornice. We dithered for too long trying to work out which route to climb - undoubtedly our downfall. Eventually we settled on Black Spout Buttress but by then it was 1pm. The snow was largely solid neve but the climbing took too long as protection needed time to uncover. I found no gear at all on the third pitch leading up to and across the traverse. ‘Make sure you fall on far side’ I thought to myself. At 6pm we bailed into Black Spout with a single abseil. Bailing off a route whose grade I would usually be happy to solo. I’m praying some decent late season conditions develop in order to make up for this season’s disappointment.

Plastered
The West Buttress
Second pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Third pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
The traverse