Sunday, 20 March 2011

Waterfall Gully (IV,4), Ben Nevis

Temperatures were above freezing today and generally looked uninspiring for winter climbing. Not a day to push the boat out. Florian and me had a look at the Curtain this morning but it was far too thin for climbing. We dipped down to Waterfall Gully, which we knew to still be in condition. The initial ice pitch was sketchy. My axes ripped through the soft ice, and poor screw protection in these conditions offered little reassurance. A tricky break right on the icefall at half height felt far too gripping for grade IV in these conditions. With no more freezing temperatures forecast, it was safe to safe we would probably be the last to climb the route this season.

Gemini Direct Start (left) & Waterfall Gully  (right)
Near the top of the ice pitch
(Photo by Florian Urban)
The difficulties were largely over once up the initial ice pitch. Some people abseil off the route once this pitch is completed but we chose to continue up the gully to the top. The climbing was now much easier although snow conditions soft. Climbing was grade II but interesting nonetheless with good views to the ice of Gemini above. The final traverse right to exit the gully onto the broader slopes above was probably far more delicate than typical due to the soft snow.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Indicator Wall (V,4), Ben Nevis

Temperatures were warming up but there was still good freeze-thaw conditions reported high on the Ben. Florian and me headed for Indicator Wall. White-out conditions prevailed as we blindly bashed up Observatory Gully. We couldn't see any crag features and even Tower Scoop went unnoticed. High in the gully we spotted some climbers to our left where we anticipated Indicator Wall to be. We shouted out what route they were on. Satanic Versus came the reply so we were in the right area. We bore left from their stance and soon found our route.

Both the regular and right-hand versions of Indicator wall looked in good nick. We opted for the classic regular line. We swung leads up the ice with me leading pitches two and four. The first pitch felt steady for V. Difficulty increased during the second pitch, which involved a short traverse right in order to gain a weakness through steep ground. The ice was brittle but easy to protect. The difficulties eased back on the third and fourth pitches. The top-out on the summit of Ben Nevis offered a grand finale with me belaying Florian off the summit cairn.

Climbing the final pitch of Indicator Wall
Belaying off the summit cairn

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Hadrian's Wall Direct

Plan A had been to climb Point Five Gully but there was too much congestion. The lead climber ahead of us patiently waited for the first belay to be vacated so that he could make himself safe and bring his partner up. The gully looked like a motorway of concertinaing traffic in rush hour.

We made our way across to Hadrian's Wall, which was now free of traffic after busy start. I led the first pitch up the broad, bulging ice flow. It was typical Ben Nevis snowy ice. Easy axe placements but I wouldn't have wanted to test my screws placements. I placed three screws for the belay and sunk my axes for good measure as well. Time to bring Ryan and Mike up.

Me climbing the first pitch of Haidran's Wall Direct
A yell emanated from Point Five Gully. The lead climber from the group that would have been immediately ahead of us clattered down the full height of the Rogue pitch landing back beside his belayer. Then there was silence. Ryan called up to them. A response came in a low voice. The leader was ok but had broken his leg. We asked if they could abseil back down the route but that was a negative. Ryan rang mountain rescue.

What could we do to help? Ryan suggested I abseil back down our route but abseiling off snowy Ben Nevis ice was a serious proposition. Could I trust an abalakov? Besides what could we then do to help from the bottom of the route when they were too pitches up the route. Even if we climbed up to them there would be nothing we could further offer without a stretcher to help the injured climber down. As the bird flies the climbers were only a short horizontal distance from us but the steep ground between was serious. It seemed uncaring, even selfish, but the best thing for us was to continue up the route and maybe if we could gain the top quickly enough in order to provide assistance from the top down. In the meantime we could could stay in contact with the climbers whilst the mountain rescue teams mobilised.

Soon the Sea King helicopter was on the scene. It dropped off a dozen or so climbers at the base of Observatory Gully before departing the scene. The magnitude of response of the mountain rescue teams was touching. Another team had been dropped on the Western side of the mountain. They would summit and then descend to the top of the route. Eventually to lower the injured climber by stretch to their colleages waiting at the bottom.

Ryan and Mike joined me at the belay. Ryan traversed out left and then pushed on up the steep continuation of ice to easier ground. A tough third pitch ensued up a icy chimney with little gear to speak of. Then easier ground for a number of pitches. Delays with commencement of climbing, followed delays associated with accident now caught up with us. Darkness descended. Some steep delicate climbing led to the top.

The Pony track seemed the obvious route of descent at this late hour. Somehow we lost the trail at some point and were soon climbing through creaks and over loose ground. The temptation was to leave the car in the North Face car park and descend to our guest-house in Achintee. That would mean walking or hitching to the North Face car park the following day though, which didn't overly appeal. With no clue where the pig track now lay we traversed round the mountain to the West side and then descended to meet the path close to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. From here wet get across the heather and bog led us to the upper car park. It was maybe 11pm by the time we arrived back at the car. Tomorrow would be a rest day.