Wednesday, 20 March 2013

"On belay. Don't fall"

A misadventure on Ben Nevis, 16 March 2013.

“On belay. Don’t fall”

I’m sitting awkwardly into the snow slope, attached to two ice screws and half buried in drifting snow. Stuart has just reached the base of the cornice atop Smith’s Route on Ben Nevis, just 4m from the summit plateau. The walkie talkie crackles his pronouncement on the reliability in his anchor. I think back to the numerous other occasions I’ve heard the same worried call over the radio. It’s never been particularly inspiring.

The snow’s gotten pretty bad now, and any mark of his passage has already disappeared. Scottish winter weather at its finest. The screws come out and I’m moving up again – this terrain is easy enough, certainly a lot easier than the last pitch, which I failed miserably on. My gloves have frozen solid while belaying in the blizzard and ice has formed on my eyebrows. This must be what they call full conditions.

Following the rope up the steepening central ramp, the ice turns to hollow honeycombed unpleasantness. I join Stuart at the ‘belay’, the cornice looming over us, the summit mocking us in its proximity. It’s 2.30 – last time we were on the way down by now.

The day started off as well as any Scottish day ever could. A glorious weekend on the Ben a fortnight ago left me very psyched, and I managed to infect Stuart with my enthusiasm on a visit home to Belfast last week. He caught the citylink bus over on Friday, and north we headed in the Focus cragmobile estate. Down went the back seats, and out came the sleeping bags. A clear night, good sign. The alarm set for 5.30.

As it does with almost depressing regularity, 5.30 rears its ugly head - but for once I find it quite easy to rouse myself at this inhumane time. Hard not to be psyched – it’s perfectly clear, total visibility, a good forecast, low avalanche risk. Couldn’t be better. Today is going to be good.

Alpine glory, from the CIC hut

The 2 hour slog to the CIC hut passes in no time at all, and Ben Nevis looks splendid in its winter coat. There’s no wind, and we share the usual banter with the other climbers emerging from and getting ready at the hut – it’s all very pleasant and civilised for the Ben.
“What are you going for?”
“Tower Ridge, haven’t done it before”
“You’re in for a treat, it’s a classic, did it 2 years ago on a day like this”
“Excellent, what about you guys?”
“We’ll have a go at Smith’s, bit of a slog up to get to it but sure it’s quite short, then we’ll drop down Number 4 gully and maybe have a go at Italian Climb or something. Sure we’ve loads of time, and when I was here last week we topped out by midday, plenty of time to do two routes.”
I think I know what I’m doing by this stage, having spent the season in Scotland, on a university placement at a power station in Ayrshire.

There’s a well worn track up Observatory gully. Two teams on Point Five Gully and another two gearing up for it, despite routes either side being empty. Seems a bit silly to me - having climbed it (and somehow had it to ourselves) a fortnight ago I wouldn’t fancy being underneath someone in that chimney. At least Smith’s looks free.

Echo Wall

Sure enough it is – past Point Five we’re breaking trail. Echo Wall looks steep. That Dave MacLeod is a mad eejit. Slog slog slog. I must be getting good at this walking up hill lark.

Stuart enjoying a classic Scottish approach

We reach Gardyloo Buttress at 9.20am. Smith’s Route looks good, plenty of ice on it. The weather’s still glorious – still and cloudless, an Alpine feel to the whole affair, might as well be in that amphitheatre on the Italian side on Mt Maudit in July, nor Scotland in March! Hard not to feel a bit smug and superior.

Smith's Route takes a line through the middle of the buttress

Stuart takes first lead. He’s not done a huge amount of winter climbing but he’s keen, and stronger than I am. He got through an epic on Glover’s Chimney last year fine and he’s used to suffering, coming from a caving background. He’s about to become President of QUBMC anyway, so he should be well fit for it.

Stuart leading

Sure enough, he is – despite a pair of knackered crampons borrowed from the club which don’t seem to stay in ice very well, he makes short work of the deceptively steep first pitch and belays in a cave between two icicles. I’m feeling good; this is what it’s all about. The ice isn’t as plastic as I’d hoped - explains Stuart’s difficulties with the crampons. We’ll be at the top in an hour or two, sure it’s two hard pitches then easy ground after that.

The second pitch is the crux and my turn to lead. A steep traverse followed by a sustained vertical section. This looks scary. Oh well, I’ll give it a bash, man up and all that.

And lo, it is scary. Traversing on steep ice is difficult and slow. I’m Irish, I’m not built for this ice climbing lark. Thoughts of summer weather and jamming cracks at Fair Head drift through my mind. My crampons aren’t going in as well as I’d hoped; I’m over gripping the axes. There’s a hymn I haven’t heard since primary school stuck on repeat in my brain. I get across and fire a screw in, relief. Moving up – Christ, this is steep. Another screw goes in. Axe, step, step, lock off. Getting tired. In goes the next axe. Keep moving – looks like a rest a couple of moves up ahead. Crampons keep popping out – breathe! . Midnight Cruiser, that’s a nice soft touch E1, far better than this cold suffering...  Another screw goes in, but my arms are really suffering. Axe, step, step, slip, axe. Lock off. Lots of nice bridging rests at Fair Head too. I let go of one axe to shake out – my other arm begins to unravel. Uh oh. Switch over – the same happens again. I haven’t got enough strength left to hold the lock-off while placing the other axe above me. B*llocks.

“Stuart, watch me, I think I’m about to come off!”

Now I’ve embraced the leashless approach to winter climbing, and my Matrix Lite axes are attached to me with a length of 5mm cord through the grip rests. I used to attach this cord to my harness with a karabiner, but this would always get tangled up in my crampons – so I’ve taken to clipping it to a sling that I carry over my shoulders. This, it turns out, is not the brightest idea.

My prediction to Stuart was right. I come off, but the rope doesn’t come tight – the axes hold and I stop abruptly, hanging with a sling over my head, holding me up by my right shoulder. Right arm going dead. Oh dear.

I struggle out of the sling and slump onto an ice screw. Now my axes are out of reach. Brilliant.
20 minutes and some ersatz aid climbing later (hanging clipped to a screw, placing another screw at full reach, clipping the rope to the top one, standing in a sling and hanging from the top screw, repeat) I’m back up at my axes. Five metres to easier ground, but I’m shattered and my arms hurt. Maybe I bit off a bit more than I can chew.
Eventually I wobble onto the snow ramp above, and in go two ice screws. I can see the cornice above, happy days. I can also see a big wall of cloud coming in from the southeast – that wasn’t in the forecast.
Stuart races up the pitch, not needing to rest at all. Very impressive, maybe I should’ve given him that lead as a Development Opportunity. At least he was terrified on it as well, wouldn’t do for him to enjoy himself too much.

Stuart reaching the belay atop the crux pitch

 We swap over the gear and Stuart sets off up what I hope is the final pitch – my antics below having put us a bit behind schedule.
The cloud arrives, and there goes the lovely Alpine weather – replaced with heavy winds and a lot of snow. Damn.
Spindrift down my neck. Ahh, it’s been a while. Jaysus, it’s cold! My gloves rime up and start to freeze. That’s inconvenient.

P3. Just before the blizzard. Daft cornice visible above

Stuart doesn’t see an obvious way through the cornice. He sets up a belay of sorts and makes clear his feelings toward it over the radio. I follow him up over the increasingly bad snow and ice until reaching the honeycomb and powder affair of the monster cornice. Ah now, this doesn’t look great. No matter – there must be a way through further over.

There isn’t. I remember that according to the UKC logbook no-one has climbed this in two weeks, and there’s been a fair bit of weather in that time. I traverse along the steep powder, towards Tower Gully. Between gusts there are voices from Tower Ridge but I can’t see more than 10m in front of me in the intermittent whiteout. The snow under the building powder starts making worrying whomping noises as I go along and there’s nowhere decent for gear or a gap in the cornice. Eventually it clears just enough to see that there is no way through the cornice. Hmm.

I turn back and find a patch of what seems to be good ice in the cornice above my head. In go a couple of ice screws and I belay Stuart over. We hatch a plan – Stuart, being tall, will reach as high as he can, plant his axes, and pull up through the overhang. A bellyflop over the top should see him on the plateau.

He gives it a go. The axes go in, he pulls, he’s over the lip, he’s moving up and then he’s lying upside down on the slope below me.
“It’s just powder.”
Unperturbed, he tries again. Slightly farther but whoosh, down he goes again. And a third time. This isn’t going well.

I have a go at aiding my way through like I did on the steep bit earlier. Hanging off the belay, I place a screw as far up in the good ice as I can. Seems solid. I clip a sling to the belay, stand in it, clip myself to the highpoint.


Now I’m upside down on the 65° slope below the cornice – and so is Stuart. Not only has the screw I was attached to ripped out, but so has half the belay.


Now we’re running out of options. The weather’s just getting worse, its 4pm, we can’t climb up, there’s nothing to abseil off, and the blasted cornice is too big to dig through. In any case we’d have to chop away what little we’re attached to. And so, out comes the emergency phone from the first aid kit.

“Mountain Rescue, please.”

Of course, the helicopter can’t come near us in this weather. Clag all the way down to the valley, according to Donald on the phone. It’ll take at least 3 hours for the brave folk of the Lochaber MRT to reach us – Donald advises we try and force a way down. We’re not keen, there’s no way we can get down the way we came up, everywhere else is steep powder with the gods know what below, and there’s no anchor worth speaking of. But we’re getting cold, and I don’t know how we’ll be in 3 hours’ time. I traverse back over to the top of the route to hunt for good ice, just for something to do.

No luck. It’s just honeycomb ice and powder. Even worse than the ‘good’ ice that failed before! We need something better for an abseil. I keep digging.

And then, like Zhukov’s armies at Stalingrad, salvation appears from the winter gloom. Another climber appears out of the murk below us – coming up from a different direction to we had. A shouted exchange reveals he’s also on Smith’s; furthermore, he has come up an easy ramp that he’s happy to down-climb when he sees no way over the top. Not only that, his belayer is attached to a peg belay 40m below. Happy frigging days.

I inform Stuart that we were back in business, and start climbing down. Snow coming in so heavy that the tracks from the climber below are already gone by the time I reach them. How did we miss this way up? This is far better. Decent snow, I even get an ice screw in and tell Stuart he can start moving. We’re downclimbing on grade II/III snow and ice but I don’t mind, the axes are going in nicely and the feeling’s coming back in my hands. Yes lad! I call Mountain Rescue to say that we can get ourselves down now; they’re glad to hear it and stand down. Thankfully they haven’t set off yet.

I reach the peg belay. We only have one 60m rope, meaning we can only abseil 30m at a time. The Three Wise Men of the other party are happy enough to let us abseil on their pair of 60m ropes, meaning we can reach easy ground in one go. Manna from heaven.

By 6.30pm we’re back at the base of the route. It’s getting dark, I don’t notice the snow anymore. I put my hood back on, filling my jacket with powder. Damnit. The snow is thigh deep, probably not the safest – but we have to get down. Wading past Echo Wall (definitely mad, that MacLeod) and the Douglas boulder, the snow somehow doesn’t part with the mountain and soon the lights of the CIC appear below. We’re unscathed. Time for some celebratory chocolate and to take off the gear we don’t need any more. Out comes the camera to capture this moment for posterity – Stuart’s photo sums up the mood perfectly.

This is the life

“Something tells me we’re not getting another route done today.”

9pm, back at the car. Everything is soaked. Bacon and pasta never tasted so good. The police pay us a visit to fill in a mountain incident form. I’ve never sat in the back of a police car before, I suppose this means people in Belfast will respect me more.

We write off Sunday (St Patrick ’s Day). There’s a lot of fresh snow, but mostly we’re completely shatnered and need to recover physically and psychologically. Retreat to Paisley, but our plans to have a quiet pint in Wetherspoon’s are shattered – the local team have won a game of fitba, it seems, and everyone is quite jolly about it.

Lessons learned: never, ever, underestimate the Ben. All that extra stuff you carry ‘just in case’ is sometimes very, very useful. Two-way radios are the business for mountaineering; I don’t know how I managed without them. It’s worth carrying 2 ropes in case you have to abseil. Always be mindful of escape routes while climbing. Cornices are b*stards. The weather forecast can be wrong. Malt loaf is the business when you’re cold and tired.
Pile jackets are still the best

There are 3 guys out there (whose names I never caught) to whom I owe pints. And that’s not to mention Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, whose services we didn’t require but whose support was invaluable. Their dedication is incredible, particularly as they are all volunteers, and they don’t get near enough recognition.