Thursday, 8 October 2009

First route of the season

Yesterday afternoon, I walked into the coire beneath the North Face of Ben Nevis to inspect developing conditions. There was a dusting of snow and what appeared to be some icing on the highest rocks. Since most of the face was dry, I tentatively planned to climb Tower Ridge the following morning, as only the top 100m or so would be snowy. However, overnight as I camped near the CIC hut a storm struck, attacking my tent with wet snow and plastering the cliffs.

I awoke at 6:30am when it stopped snowing, and immediately discounted the idea of soloing Tower Ridge in the conditions, which I anticipated to be powder snow on wet rock. Ledge Route is a ridge I am familiar with and a safe option in most conditions. On the approach there was just a little thawing snow on the ground, but upon attaining the ridge proper there was an inch or so of pristine powder on top of clean dry rock. I scrambled up the lower aretes in my boots: no point in attaching crampons at this point!

At some distance up the ridge, probably near the halfway mark, the snow became icier and the rocks sported a patina of rime and verglas. Icicles dripped from shadowed corners. It became unsafe to climb without crampons, and although it wasn't really 'proper' winter conditions, the route was white and frozen and it certainly wasn't in summer nick. Today was one of those grey areas where summer and winter conditions subtly interplay.

As I neared the top of the ridge, the sun came out and immediately the rocks started to drip. I removed my crampons for the rest of the day.

The plateau was almost completely white. Although the depth of snow was obviously nowhere near what it attains during the winter, it did seem wintry and the highest buttresses of the mountain were draped with rime and ice. Proto-cornices were already starting to form over the gully exits. The summit shelter itself was quite well-iced.

By nine o'clock, everything was melting in the sun even at high levels, and only the snow in the shade survived unscathed. By mid-day the mountain had suffered substantial snowmelt. What conditions existed at all were very fleeting indeed, as you would expect at this time of year.

So although I wouldn't describe Ledge Route as being in full winter conditions today, I required crampons and the route was certainly wintry in appearance and character. Unfortunately my photos don't do the conditions justice as the camera stopped working just before I got on the route!

For some far better photos of what Ben Nevis was like today, look at Al Halwood's blog entry for Tower Ridge here.

Photos from today

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