Nid Arete Direct (V,5), Aonach Mor

Two days had passed by since we had last climbed a route. On Wednesday we had driven to Applecross in the North-West Highlands in the hope of finding some winter conditions but had found little. Temperatures were set to drop towards sea level imminently but with little snow remaining from earlier in the week there was little reason to stick around. Meall Gorm was stripped. Maybe the East and West Buttresses of Beinn Eighe would have been possible but with Anna's cold becoming slightly worse rather than better the three hour approach would be too long. This was actually our first visit to the North-West Highlands so at least we got to explore a new corner of the UK in process. It's a beautiful part of the world - no doubt more beautiful had we left the roads. More beautiful than many parts of Norway in fact and with a similar sparseness. We pushed onto Fort William and civilisation that same day, which meant few more hours driving than planned. Our only souvenir being some giant free range eggs from the local store in Lochcarron.

The view North from Lochcarron
A black-looking Meall Gorm
On Thursday we had headed to Ben Nevis but only made it halfway before turning back due to Anna's cold. With the avalanche forecast in the red from 900 metres upwards we had planned the South-West Ridge on Douglas Boulder, which was more a route to get something done rather than a route high on my to-do-list. Ben Nevis is easy to come back to again on another trip though.

The closest we got to Ben Nevis on this trip
On Friday we made the conservative plan to climb in Coire an Lochain on the East Face of Aonach Mor due to the short approach from the Ski Centre. Firstly taking the gondola to 650m, then a chairlift to 910m, followed by around forty-five minutes' walk up the side of the pistes to the top of the East face. Lots of rime was on display on the various structures on route. There wasn't enough snow to make a bollard above Easy Gully though, but the cornice was only small with a section cleared by previous parties. Descending Easy Gully was straightforward, although the snow consistency changed a couple of times, so needed a little extra care.

Rime build-up on Aonach Mor
Rimed buildings on Aonach Mor
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Coire an Lochain
Descending Easy Gully
Anna was keen to do Nid Arete, partly because it was described as a 'good and well protected mixed route' in the SMC guide, despite only getting one star. The second pitch looked to be the better one based on the description so I was happy to do the first pitch, given I had done the majority of the leading on the trip so far. The first pitch also had an alternative start directly up the arete rather than initially skirting it to the left, which seemed the more natural line. It increased the overall grade to V,5, thereby offering a more challenging lead for me without increasing the technical grade for Anna on second.

The direct first pitch proved to be a bold affair. Not much gear and even less good gear. A peg or two might have got me out trouble but I wasn't carrying any. Not many positive holds meant lots of balancy rock-over moves but nothing particularly steep, sustained or committing. Progress was slow as there were large quantities of unconsolidated snow to deal with once again along with a fair amount of rime covering everything. Also turf that was frozen to varying degrees. Towards the top of the pitch the gear improved significantly, although the route finding became more difficult. A blank wall out right blocked my way and so I was forced to backtrack a little way and climb a steep, short groove further left. It was formed between a smooth slab and a slightly overhanging wall and looked awkward and intimidating. Fortunately there were some massive hooks up the steep wall, which made for some briefly excellent climbing. Then just a little higher I found an in-situ peg on a comfortable platform that was ideally suited to a belay. 

Me climbing the direct first pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Climbing the hard corner
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Anna at the top of the corner
Anna wasn't feeling well enough to lead the second pitch unfortunately so I pressed on. The natural line looked to be straight up the groove above the belay but trying to gain entry to the groove from a couple of points proved far too hard for me. Instead I traversed further right to a vague slabby corner directly over the neighbouring gully. Gear out right was sparse, the moves lacked positivity and it all felt a bit sketchy - evident by the amount that I was chattering to myself. The thought crossed my mind to back off the pitch all together as falling off would have resulted in a nasty pendulum. With enough composure I managed to mount slabby corner though and wedge a large hex behind a prominent crack above. Then the realisation came that the crack formed the back of a large suspect perched block meaning gear-wise my situation was no better. Tentatively I mounted the block and trended back leftwards to gain gentler snowy ground. The climbing now became much quicker and easier and soon I was over the top. Needless to say I'm not sure I would describe the pitch as well protected as described in the guidebook. Maybe I was off route, or just struggling to find anything beneath the snow, although my line fitted the guidebook description. The second pitch seemed a bit of a naff line at any rate as it avoided the main features by taking what felt like an escape route.

There was nothing with which to make a belay on the wind stripped ground above so I simply walked twenty metres from the edge and took up a stance. No great seriousness given my partner was close to 30kg lighter. Anna actually needed to untie one of the half ropes on second to add to the drama. On lead I had just clipped one rope whilst making my looping line out rightwards, ensuring the other rope ran directly up from the belay to minimise drag. This directly running rope now refused to flick rightwards, partly because I wasn't feeding enough slack to allow so. Communication is always difficult when stood 20m back the top of a route though. 

At least we found a way to the top without the need to bail as it's always good to overcome the challenges regardless of the quality of the route. I'm very glad I did the direct variant on the first pitch as it was definitely the better pitch, albeit sometimes without much of an obvious line.

The weather on top was perfect with clear skies and no wind. A rare day during Scottish winter. By now it was 4:10pm with the last gondola due in five minutes. We were inevitably going to miss it but at least this meant we could take in the views a little longer without rushing. The descent on foot from the gondola station was actually pretty easy, following a winding downhill bike track for much of the way. Sometimes it was easier to cut corners straight down the hillside as it was not particularly steep or brutal on the knees. 

Despite Anna not feeling on best form for most of this week it's definitely felt a successful trip and we've been very lucky with the weather. With one day left hopefully we can finish with one more climb.

Ben Nevis from the top of the route
Perfect weather at the top of the route
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Perfect weather for a descent on foot

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