Winter epics

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  • Winter epics
  • elliptic
    Member

    In response to Buzz’s suggestion in the Winter Hillwalking thread, here’s one to start the ball rolling…

    Many years ago one February, me and H. drive up from our normal haunts in the Lakes to Ben Nevis to do the ultra-classic grade V ice climb, Zero Gully. After the obligatory miserable half-night’s half-sleep in the golf course carpark we trudge up the Allt A’Mhuillin for two hours in the dark, put on harnesses and crampons outside the CIC hut in the murky dawn light, and head up the snowslopes to the start of the climb. In the process one of my crampon straps disintegrates, so I find a spare piece of cord in the bottom of my rucksack to fix it and we carry on. Picture the scene: the top of a steep sweeping snowslope under one of Scotland’s greatest natural ampitheatres, surrounded by 1500-foot cliffs plastered with ice where some of the most famous winter climbs in the world go.

    Unfortunately, it’s a typical Ben Nevis day. By this I mean the clag is well down, it’s blowing a hooly over the summit plateau and and spindrift avalanches (fine windblown powder) are coming down all over the face at regular intervals. Normal Scottish climbing weather, in other words, but on top of that the ice conditions really aren’t all that great – it quickly becomes clear that Zero is a bit too thinly iced for comfort, besides which it acts as a funnel for the worst of the spindrift on days like this.

    So. What now? Looking around at other nearby climbs we assess the ratio of (climbable ice) vs. (frequency of avalanches) and decide that Minus Two Gully looks the least stupid choice. It’s another classic grade V and neither of us have done it before. So we move over that way, H. finds a belay in a sheltered spot and I start up the first pitch.

    Thus begins one of the more precarious couple of hours in my life. After some thrashing up 60-degree powder snow I’m under a tapering bomb-bay rocky chimney. I manage to excavate a #1 cam placement for protection, which H. subsequently couldn’t extract so it’s probably still there. This was the good news; the bad news was the lorryloads of spindrift coming down the chimney at regular intervals. Hood up and get on with it. A couple of steep and irreversible moves and I’m into the chimney with my feet bridged across it, but from here the walls are blank and it tapers further: some fancy footwork steals a bit more height, might be able to reach through now, swing a tool at a loooo…ong stretch and yes! it’s in good ice above, feet are scarting about on not-much but a quick swing to set the other axe next to the first, just pull up and out and… oh ****. I can’t pull up, because the chimney tapers to narrower than shoulder width, so I’m wedged there, hanging from my tools with nothing for my feet when the next installment of spindrift comes swishing down the face to swamp everything in its path. There was little risk of actually being swept off (the axe placements were solid) but I honestly thought I might drown at that point.

    After an indeterminate period which I’ve mostly deleted from memory I managed a sort of gymnastic half-twist pull-up-with-pike manouvre that landed me on out of the chimney and into the wider gully above. A hundred feet of more conventional climbing on moderately rubbish ice, then wait for a long enough gap between avalanches to scuttle across leftwards to the upper gully and the belay.

    Another three or four pitches of really quite good ice climbing land us on the crest of the North-East Buttress, one of the great winter ridges on Ben Nevis and a grade IV climb in its own right. By now the light is fading, the weather is still foul and North-East Buttress has a notorious short-but-sharp crux right at the top. Going up does not appeal. On the other hand the lower part of NEB starts up a long snowy rising traverse onto a ledge system called the First Platform, where we are now. So we unrope and solo off down the traverse line into the gloom.

    It takes a long time. Headtorches on. I go first picking a line down and across, downclimbing little icy steps and gullies and snow patches, spindrift swooshing by, H’s torch beam swinging around somewhere above me, down more snow patches and icy bits. Suddenly I realise the slope drops away steeply, can’t see anything below in the dark and swirling snow but there is that stomach-pit feeling of a very large drop right under my feet as the spindrift streams past into the void. Okaaa…ay. Go back up to find another line. Further left, keep going down and across mechanically, how long is this going to take?

    Finally the angle slackens off. We’re back down in Coire Leis under the face. Just a two-hour walk to the car and a four-hour drive back to Ambleside for beer and medals.

    Several years later H. pointed out to me that Minus Two doesn’t actually finish on the First Platform, it goes to the Second Platform which is much higher up on North-East Buttress. We were nowhere near the easy traverse line and had accidentally downclimbed a grade III ice climb, in the dark, solo…

    loddrik
    Member

    Could we just have a one sentence summary as I can’t be arsed to read all that….?

    Premier Icon thepurist
    Subscriber

    @loddrick – Went for a walk, was a bit chilly, climbed some stuff, got dark. Survived.

    See, I may have started that other thread, but stuff like that is just a different world.

    I’ll stick to yomping about hills and glens for the time being!

    elliptic
    Member

    Aye, well, I was young and daft back then… 🙂

    Kendal
    Member

    I think H’s part in the proceedings was far more heroic than you make out. Also forgot to note you were in H’s van and both too skint to put you on the insurance so H did all the driving!

    Eeee! I’ve done some scrambling and done some moves I didn’t think I could reverse – horrible. OK…

    It started as a straightforward Easter weekend hike on the South Glenshiel Ridge. The snowline was fairly low but the weather fair will snow showers and sunny spells, so got kitted up and set off. I left easter eggs in the car as treat.

    A steady climb and I was soon trundling a long the ridge on intermittent hardpack and thigh-deep snow. Got bogged-down a bit and you know how tiring that is. I had not noticed that show showers were getting more regular and heavier and in between, the sky become iron grey.

    A few hours in and thinking about turning for the valley, suddenly the storm arrived and things immediately got serious: white-out, bent-double in the wind, deep snow and feeling knackered; time to go down NOW! Foolishly I turned away from the next summit with my planned summit ridge and headed down the nearest snow-filled corrie. But it wasn’t long before I realised it narrowed to an icy gorge I could not descend and I had no idea of the terrain further down. I decided to reclimb and summit so I could descend the ridge I knew. I slowly crawled back up, turned hopefully toward the ridge and crawled down.

    Conditions improved lower down and I slid through the forest to the road. Never been so pleased to get back to car and scoff easter eggs. Amazing how a seemingly benign day can suddenly get serious.

    B.A.Nana
    Member

    Not quite winter, but we were first on scene of a crag fast American/Canadian couple on Snowdon, North Wales. It’s a bit of a long story, but the local MRT asked us to rescue them and we started preperations to lower them back down the route (they didn’t know how to absail). The MRT then phoned back and said not to continue as an RAF Heli Had been assigned to them. We gave them instructions how to indentify themselves to the heli, strapped their gear down and left them to wait for their pick up. Having climbed the difficult pitch they were stuck below, we got a shout asking if we could climb back down as the heli had now been assigned elsewhere, we told them to tell the MRT to stick it, it was all getting a bit silly for us, it was late in the day (not quite our words, but we decided it could now potentially get a bit out of hand for us to safely deal with us and them).

    Oooh close up view of big, friendly, yellow helicopter.

    Premier Icon Sandwich
    Subscriber

    A couple of years back in the Cairngorms we went searching for ice on Lurchers Crag. We had started late due to my mate not being a morning person. The walk through the Chalamain Gap was quite strenuous due to the snow covering the gaps in the boulder field being too weak to walk on. We lunched at the base of some cracking ice and set off into the ether. The wind was getting up and ropes were difficult to coil at the top of the climb also the light was going and we had to traverse the area below the Corries to get back to the ski car park.
    Visibility was poor and navigation was from pile of rock to pile of rock. We hit the path back to the ski car-park eventually after considering an uncomfortable snow hole bivvy due to the 70mph winds making progress difficult as was the deep soft snow. Four hours after finishing the climb we arrived at the car park and had a well deserved energy bar (our last ones) and one of our hats went off into the night by itself. Our car was parked further down the road and fortunately another climber gave us a lift back to it.
    The fish and chips in Aviemore were judged the best in the world ever.

    Them pesky boulders in Chalamain Gap

    This was a superb Xmas holiday day out in the Cairngorms:

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