Think of the sketchiest, most temperamental weather and you might have a modicum of an idea what it’s like to climb ‘The Ben’ - Ben Nevis, Scotland
I can sink my tools into the plasticky stuff with the best of the boys. I have plenty of WI5+ sends under my belt and a healthy resume of alpine climbs to boot. Why do I tell you this? It’s not to brag, but to set you up for what I am about to say next. Ben Nevis is a sketchy sufferfest unlike no other. That’s right, I’ve spent 22 hours on the Eiger and punched through a crevasse en route to the North Face of Les Grandes Jorasses but none of these tests of mental strength and perseverance could have enlightened me as to what was meant by true ‘Scottish Climbing Conditions’.
Four months ago, I planned a trip to Fort William, Scotland for my fiancee’s birthday with the idea being that we would lap Ben Nevis on bomber ice for the six days we were there. I pre-planned everything, from our accommodations at the base of the climbs to our airfare and our rental car. Perhaps my ego got a little in the way of doing extensive research beyond routes we earmarked in our guidebook, but I don’t think anything could have better prepared me for climbing in Scotland other than climbing in Scotland.
We arrived in Edinburgh to some mild weather which quickly turned to complete crap when we drove through the Glenn Coe pass area. Snow, ice, sleet, oh my! After a three hour drive gone five, we grabbed the key for the CIC hut which was to be our “base camp” for our Ben Nevis climbing holiday and then settled in for the night at a local hostel, the Achintee Farm.
At the break of dawn, we charged up the walking path to the CIC hut, only to be passed on our post holing rendezvous by the Scottish certified bad ass, Dave MacLeod. We made it to the hut in reasonable time, dropped our gear to claim our bunks and headed off to our climbing target for the day, Tower Ridge. We were expecting the Ben to serve up somewhat nasty and unpredictable weather, but soon the nasty turned to downright dangerous. The winds increased exponentially in strength and the visibility faded to null faster than you can say “What the f@!# am I doing here”. With no sign of improving conditions, we opted to downclimb back to the CIC hut in the sleet flinging whiteout. Back at the hut we were greeted by none other than Dave Macleod, “I’m glad to see you guys back here [alive]“. Welcome to the Ben!
We spent the rest of the day chatting with climbers about actually using spectres as pro, nostalgic memories of taking 30-foot whippers on said spectres , playing cards, reading every magazine in the hut’s possession (twice) and enjoying the daylight through the hut windows for an hour or so before they no longer existed in their buried state. With no sign of winds dropping below 50 mph at “base camp” and the avalanches continuing to hurl down gullies along the north face, we romped back into Fort William the next day for some of that Scottish dew, better known to us as Scotch. Suitably fired up, we headed back up to the CIC hut to rinse and repeat.
14 February 2014 – We arose at a leisurely 0730, made coffee, and then a second cup and before delving into a third we convinced ourselves we could do this.
We stepped out into the fog and light snow toward the base of Tower Ridge. Avalanches and unstable snow pack made the Tower Ridge one of the only viable routes on the Ben, though gaining the ridge via the Normal East or West Gullies to Douglas Gap was a death wish. We opted instead to climb the face just past the Douglas Gap on the East side, roping up to do the rock steps in one long pitch. Gaining the double corniced narrow ridge, we simuled to the first rise surmounting it by traversing out right. Wading through another narrow flat section of waist deep snow brought us to a substantial steepening and upon some debate we concluded it was the Little Tower and not the Great Tower. The Little Tower was suitably rime covered to be tackled straight on in a few pitches. Note to self – bring a snow picket and a spectre next time.
A third flat narrow section brought us to the Great Tower. Some guidebook referencing amidst unruly wind gusts and snowfall led us to agree that we found the Eastern Traverse. I spent 30 arduous minutes trying to setup a marginally acceptable anchor and gold mine, my axe struck a piton, the first we uncovered in hundreds of vertical meters. The traverse, totally pitched out due to the literal state that Ben Nevis was buried in snow, made for an exciting pitch, but not as exciting as the second steep pitch to regain the ridge. The narrow crest was ruthlessly exposed, winds knocked us down to our knees as we crept along a meter wide crest until we reached the tricky step down into the Tower Gap. Pulling out of the Gap yielded one more hard pitch of rime covered climbing and then steep, waist deep snow plopped us on the top just before 1400, not bad for breaking trail the entire way!
A break in the storm that had been growing in force for the upper half of our climb greeted us right as we topped out, allowing us to see 20 meters. The brief “calm” was convincing enough that we were confident we could take the normal descent as opposed to reversing the ridge. 150 meters later, a dropped compass, visibility back to utter worthlessness and winds forcing us to our knees; we were completely disoriented and realized we had screwed up. Ben Nevis is cliffed out on three of its sides with 600m cliff faces, making the descent without visibility or a compass a ticking BASE jump with no parachute. We decided it was time to sit and wait it out. (NOTE – There is an emergency summit shelter, but with deteriorating conditions our objective was to safely navigate off the summit plateau to more stable conditions rather than blindly navigate around the plateau for the shelter.)
One hour turned to two. Two hours turned to three and now daytime was quickly fading to night. With no break in zero visibility or wind gusts strong enough to knock a cow over and having dug our snow hole out multiple times, only to have it filled within 20 minutes, we agreed it was time to explore plan B. I called mountain rescue to notify them of our whereabouts. They established 40% communication with us and were able to take down our Fort William contact information in case we didn’t make it down alive. As for getting down, they told us it was a hurricane and good luck. It was at this moment I realized my iPhone had a compass. Thank you Steve Jobbs.
Roped up, partner geared to arrest me if I mistakenly plunged 600 meters off of one of the three cliff sides, I pointed my iPhone to a 286 bearing and stepped into the void. A few hours later, a few cliffs navigated, we spilled out a few miles up the road from the youth hostel. The front desk at the youth hostel seemed surprisingly casual about us storming in with snow/sleet serrated faces in the middle of a blizzard at 2300 and called us a taxi. Having been told by the hostel custodian that the Esso fuel station was the only place in town to grab a warm meal at that hour, success was marked by a microwaved chicken curry pie, make that two.
Quick Reference Guide
Location: Ben Nevis, Fort William, Scotland
Getting There: Fly into either Edinburgh or Glasgow, both are around a three hour drive from Fort William, the large town a few miles outside Ben Nevis. We rented a car, but you can easily take the train or a bus.
- By bus - Both Scottish CityLink and National Express operate regular coach services to Fort William. Call Scottish CityLink on +44 (0)8705 505050 for Scottish routes and National Express on +44 (0)8717 818181 for all other UK routes.
- By train - The nearest station is Fort William train station. Daily services to and from Inverness and Glasgow connect Fort William with Aberdeen, Edinburgh and all other major UK cities. Visit scotrail.co.uk for tickets and more information.
Best Time to Climb: Year round I suppose. If you are looking for ice, typically February and March are your jackpot months with some lucky days in April.
- (2) 60m ropes
- set of nuts, both proverbial and gear related. Don’t bother bringing cams, they won’t place anywhere
- ice climbing tools, one with adze and other with hammer
- ice screws, six was more than enough
- alpine quick draws
- harness, ice clipper slots are nice
- gaiters, to protect your expensive technical pants from crampon tears.
- snow picket
- Gore-Tex jacket and pants
- Gore-Tex gloves, I swear by my Black Diamond Punisher gloves and carry a pair of Guide gloves
in my pack for the descent or emergencies.
- technical mountaineering boots, I wore La Sportiva Batura (integrated gator)
- warm base layer, I wore a Patagucci R1 Hoody
- warm synthetic mid layer, I wore a Patagucci Micropuff Jacket
- headlamp, with fresh batteries
- goggles. Whiteouts with gusts are more common than not. You will be heart pressed to see without them.
- Ordnance Survey Ben Nevis (Sheet 41) 1:50,000 scale
- Harvey Superwalker Ben Nevis 1:25,000 scale
- Harvey Ben Nevis Summit 1:12,500 scale (useful for showing the summit area)
Park at the North Face Car Park. To reach the NF Car Park, take the Torlundy turn-off the A82. There is a small sign for ‘The North Face car park’ if you’re approaching from the south. Drive through the village, over the single-file railway bridge and take the first right along an un-made up road to reach the car park.
From the North Face Car Park, follow the continuation of the road for about 100 m until you reach a path on your right, ‘Allt A Mhuilinn path’. Follow this path (more signposts) as it climbs uphill through the trees. Ignore the fork signed ‘Viewpoint’ reached after about twenty minutes and carry on till another fork is reached soon afterwards. Take the right branch, again ‘Allt A Mhuilinn path’ and follow it to a forest road. Walk up the road where a stile leads to a path alongside the Allt A Mhuilinn (the burn). Continue along this path for about 3 km until you reach the CIC hut, crossing the Allt A Mhuilinn just before you get there.
The following descent information is an edited excerpt from The Mountaineering Council of Scotland.
The Harvey Ben Nevis Summit map 1:12,500 scale (see map extract) clearly shows the bearings and distances. From the summit cairn follow a Grid bearing of 231 degrees for 150 metres. Beware of the steep drop into Gardyloo Gully on your right. Remember to make the correct adjustment for the magnetic variation, [which you can do online here (in 2014 add 4 degrees so that the bearing becomes 235 degrees)]. You will also need to confidently pace the distance. Practice pacing on lower and less serious terrain before using it on Ben Nevis. If you have a rope of known length, you can use this to measure the distance. Once you have completed this leg and passed the top of Gardyloo Gully, turn onto the second Grid bearing of 282 degrees. Remember the magnetic variation [in 2014 add 4 degrees so that the bearing becomes 286 degrees]. It is often this next section that goes awry. After travelling 300 metres on fairly flat terrain there is a steeper section for about 100 metres (McLean’s Steep) before the angle eases again. There is a natural tendency to steer very slightly to the left of the bearing in order to keep away from the north face. This is entirely understandable and may even be a wise precaution under certain conditions. The effect that this slight deviation can have is to put you onto the steep and potentially fatal ground at the top of Five Finger Gully. Being forewarned is to be forearmed and the knowledge that Five Finger Gully lurks below you to the south-west is an important piece of information to keep in mind. The edge of Five Finger Gully is about 800 metres from the top of Gardyloo Gully from where the 282 degree Grid bearing begins. Careful attention to pacing and timing will keep you informed about how far you have travelled. If, after about 800 metres from the top of Gardyloo Gully, you reach steep ground dropping away to the west, southwest or south then you have strayed into the top of Five Finger Gully (see c, d & e on the map extract). If you find yourself travelling south downhill with a cliff edge on your right (west) you have veered off the bearing significantly………
- CIC hut – situated on the north side of Ben Nevis at 680m, providing easy access to climbs on the north face. The hut sleeps 24 climbers on alpine platforms outfitted with mattresses. The hut has a stove with cooking and heating by propane gas supplied by the hut and even some power sockets to charge your cellular and other low power apliances. There is a drying room and two composting toilets. Additionally, there is a standpipe for fresh water outside of the hut, but we never saw it because the hut was just shy of being buried by snow on our visit. Fee is £15 per person per night and reservations can be made by contacting the hut custodian, Robin Clothier at email@example.com.
- Achintee Farm Hostel – Located at the base of Ben Nevis, this is an alternative to staying at the CIC hut if it is booked. It’s about a 6.5 mile hike to the CIC hut from here. The hostel custodian, Scot, is fantastic. We stayed here for our rest days off the Ben. Fee is £17 per person per night for the bunkroom and £19 per person per night for the private rooms. Reservations can be made at achinteefarm.com.
- Winter Climbs Ben Nevis and Glen Coe (Cicerone Guides), by Mike Pescod
Other Areas to Explore:
- Climbing – If weather on the Ben is totally inhospitable, aka not a good day for the Ben, check out Glenn Coe. After a day of recovery, we tried Stob Coire nan Lochan. Local mountain guide, Alan Kimber, recommended Scabbard’s Chimney with reports it was in thick, if a touch unconsolidated at points and pretty much totally unprotectable. Latter portion mumbled if said at all. We topped out playing gear resurrection fairies, returning gear left as bail off points from the two previous parties.
- Mental recovery
- Ben Nevis Distillery – take a tour of the scotch distillery and taste a dram
- Cachaig Inn – Glenn Coe after climbing hotspot. The Harry Potter cast and crew stayed here while filming. Great collection of microbrews and Scotch options.
- Ben Nevis Inn – nice eats.
Navigation Information: Buy a compass and a map and know how to use it. Whitout conditions are summit are probably more regular than not. Winds at 80mph are not unheard of and zero visibility ices that cake. Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s Navigation Resource Page: http://www.mcofs.org.uk/navigation.asp.