Wednesday, 12 May 2010

One last ice climb

After the euology I had written for the winter only a few days ago, it occurred to me that the season had not been brought to a triumphant and spectacular close, like last year. Almost exactly a year ago, I climbed the mighty North Face of Aonach Beag in stunning Alpine conditions, followed by a crossing of Carn Mor Dearg to Ben Nevis. It remains my single best mountain day last year and was the last ice climb for the previous season.

James and I decided that something just as special was needed: one final ice climb, another day with ice axe in hand before the inevitability of the snow-free months had to be confronted.

Cold weather and high pressure were forecast. We set off for Ben Nevis at three o'clock this morning, starting the walk-in along the Allt a'Mhuillin at just before four. The sky was already quite light (already there is no real darkness on a clear night), and as we left the forest and began the long flat crossing of the moor, the first sparks of Alpenglow flared on the high peak ahead of us. The Great Tower burned orange for just a moment. We could tell it was going to be a special day.

Our route of choice had been Tower Ridge, but an inch or two of fresh powder snow overnight, and a good plating of verglas over every rock, vetoed that idea. As we walked beneath the vast amphitheatre of Coire na Ciste, the deep slot of No.2 Gully arrested our attention. We decided to head in that direction.

The snowfield in the base of Coire na Ciste sports several giant crevasses and possibly a number of hidden ones as well, but we decided not to rope up as we crossed the 'glacier', given our plan of mostly soloing the couloir above. Nevertheless, we passed a huge bergschrund at the bottom of Glover's Chimney, and as we climbed higher up the gully we crossed several more large crevasses (still with well-frozen snow bridges in place).

Conditions underfoot were rock solid but somewhat unforgiving. A small amount of cosmetic powder snow lay on top of the old glacier ice, iron-hard and full of muck blown over the cliffs. Progress was exhausting on the calf muscles, and we found ourselves laboriously cutting ledges on which to rest every twenty or thirty yards. Daggering with our axes was impossible on this consistency of ice.

As the couloir narrowed, the slope got steadily steeper ... and kept getting steeper! The sun hit the ice slopes above, and volleys of stones whizzed overhead and rattled down the centre of the gully, reminding us to be ever vigilant and stay out of range. What with the stonefall risk and the gaping crevasses, an Alpine grade of about AD- felt far more appropriate than Scottish Grade II.

At its steepest, the gully was perhaps 60 degrees and on the same exhausting bullet-hard ice as lower down. Luckily by this point we could take some of the weight on our arms, but it was still tiring work.

The cornice loomed ahead, a seemingly impossible obstacle. A wall of ice some twenty feet in height overhung the exit of the gully on all sides, fringed with icicles, gleaming the menacing blue of old ice. James climbed this final pitch first, and declared the exit impossible. He started to traverse left on the narrow gangway beneath the huge wall.

This gangway was exposed and quite alarming, but we took our time. In places we were forced to crawl on hands and knees to fit beneath enormous bulges of ice. Finally we topped out to be greeted by spectacular views, although sadly a bank of light clouds rolled in as we reached the summit.

On the way down, the weather warmed up, and by the time we had reached the valley it was summer again. It is a strange thing to spend a morning climbing steep ice in an Alpine environment, then to descend to find balmy temperatures and trees in leaf. Summer ice climbing in Scotland is a rare pleasure.

Today counts as among my top five days of the winter, even though it's not really winter still! Even so, a fittingly magnificent end to the 2009/2010 snow and ice season. Now I can put my axes and crampons away happily and enjoy the summer.

For information: there is a large amount of snow and ice still remaining on the northern cliffs of Ben Nevis, and although much of the ice will go next time there is a thaw (it's getting late in the year for ice!) the snow in the easier gullies will remain for weeks yet. With care, an ascent of the cliffs on snow might be possible well into June this year.

The full set of photos from today, featuring pictures by both myself and my brother James

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