2008/03/21--24 Record of mountaineering in Ben Nevis (by Masa)

[Japanese / English]


Scotland/Highland/Lochaber/Ben Nevis
Claudia, Masa
2008/03/21--2008/03/24 (3 nights)
Wild camping near the CIC hut (forced bivvy at first night)
  • 2008/03/21 Cloudy/snow
  • 2008/03/22 Cloudy/snow
  • 2008/03/23 Cloudy/snow
  • 2008/03/24 Cloudy/snow


This year the Easter is very early, which means the condition for winter climbing in Scotland is more likely to be in. Indeed the weather forecast looked good — wet for the whole Britain, but as far as winter climbing is concerned, it would not be too bad, apart from the fact we should watch out for the risk of avalanches. So I came back to Ben Nevis after the disappointing retreat a fortnight ago, this time with Claudia, an experienced mountaineerer, though she mentioned she hadn't done winter stuffs for a few years. This time the plan is to wildcamp somewhere near the CIC hut, and climb for a couple of days, perhaps starting from some winter training of revision.

Then in fact, this trip turned out to be a very memorable one for me in many senses. I am afraid, though, it was rather harsh and tough for a person who had come back after some blank, but to my relief Claudia mentioned she had enjoyed it a lot. Thank you!

21 Mar

Setting off rather late, we finally left the North Face car park at 18:20, arriving at the CIC hut at around 21 in the pitch dark. Now we put up the tent 50m away from the CIC hut. It is a bit windy, but should be manageable, I thought.

However, it turned out to be a big battle due to the strong wind with occasional even stronger gusts and powdery snow on the ground, which does not hold the pegs very well. After I managed to bury a couple of pegs, a gust hit the tent. A tent cord was released. Why? Because the plastic ring which connects the cord and tent broke. Incredibly weak connectors... That gust also left a pole a bit broken, while all the others were already badly bent. I mended it (with a metal sleeve) and carried on burying other pegs, while Claudia was holding a tent. However, suddenly another strong gust blew everything, in spite of a heavy rucksack placed inside the tent. A couple of plastic connectors were broken. A couple of pegs were blown out. What a hell...

A couple of hours have already passed by then since our battle started. At this stage Claudia suggested to give up camping, and to ask the people in the hut to let us in and stay in the kitchen floor or whereever. It is a shame and embarassing, but is probably the best idea in this situation. A good suggestion at the right time. However our request was turned down...

There are only two choices, now. Either going back to the car park and staying a night there (what would we do with our heavy bags in that case?) or bivvying in the group shelter, namely in this case in our half-broken tent. We chose the latter. Although miserable, the roomy tent must be still better than the ordinary group shelter. We brought everything by the east side wall of the CIC hut, then bivvied there. This is in fact my first forced bivvy (and so is for Claudia, she said). I have done forecast bivvy countless times, though, and so I have a good confidence, even though the forced one is the first time. The place is better sheltered from the wind than the first site, nevertheless the winds are still occasionally battering the group shelter that had been originally called a tent, so is far from comfortable, and we sometimes have to get up to readjust the shelter (= tent). After all, it is forced bivvy. What could we expect? I know both of us will well survive for a night with a big safety margin. So out we slept, finally. Four hours had passed by then since we started putting up the tent.

Looking back at it, there are some points I could have done better.

  • I should have brought a better tent I own, which is designed for proper mountaineering. The tent I brought was more roomy (for 2-3 people; the other better one of mine was for 1-2, which my mate Steve had once commented about: Masa, this is definitely not for two people! (far too small)), and that is the reason I chose it, but apparently it is not designed to cope with even just moderate winds...
  • I should have bothered changing the slider setting into the winter one beforehand. Because they were kept to be the summer setting as are the original, I could not equalise the tensions of several pegs well, and that could well contribute to the reason that the tent was blown out.
  • Some of the tent pegs I brought were not so suitable to bury in snow.
  • I should have preset to prepare (at least half of) the tent pegs so that they can be easily and immediately used to be buried in snow without hustle.

So these are the lessons I learnt. Personally it was not a bad experience. In the career of mountaineering, sooner or later I would meet such a trouble, and on that particular night, though tired, I was comfortably well within my limit in any aspect, such as, equipment, foods, fitness, time, etc, to the extent where I could care about the partner and could have offered some help, should it have been needed. Indeed to have a tent for a shelter, even without poles, is almost a luxury. So I gained a set of good lessons with a bit of suffering. I would say, not a bad trade off! But I just hope Claudia did not feel too bad with that epic experience...

22 Mar

So the day before was very tiring — we went to bed almost at two, after the long driving and midnight battle, and then had to get up a few times to resort out the shelter in the middle of night (= early morning). We got up very late, at 10 ish.

I was thinking of what would be the best option for the rest of our stay. The tent was half broken. A few pegs had been lost. I was not sure if the tent could cope with strong winds, even if we put it up all right somehow. So, a solution may be to go back to the car and stay there (or in a hostel?) overnight, and come back for a day climbing on the following day? I admit I was negative at that time, perhaps a bit battered.

But Claudia suggested to put up the tent right next to the east wall of the hut, where we had bivvied. It is definitely far better sheltered than any other place around. The space may be a bit narrow, but after all the tent poles are heavily bent already. It should fit. Half broken? Mend it!

As soon as we have started, I regained the confidence there should be no problem. I believe that to never give up is the best and arguably the most inportant attitude for mountaineerers. Claudia showed it to me just by her actions. Much appreciated.

The wind is much weaker than the last night everywhere, let alone at the sheltered side of the hut. We now have day-light and time, too. We fixed the broken pole more properly, attached tent cords directly to the tent, where it matters, rather than via the weak plastic connectors, also changed the sliders into the winter setting, and placed the pegs as firmly as possible, including some backups where we thought they would be necessary. We collected some snow as a wind shield. After an hour or two, the job is done, and it is satisfactorily good. We should be able to have a reasonable sleep tonight!

Half the afternoon has already passed, but there is plenty of time for winter trainings. So we did:

  • Avalanche rescue training with beacons and Sonde probe
  • Self-arrests with an ice axe
  • Walking with crampons on
  • Sheer test of snow (Hand test)
  • Snow belays
    • Bucket-seat belay
    • Buried axe(s) belay
    • Stomper belay
    • Boot-axe belay

Now we are ready for tomorrow!

23 Mar

It is Easter, today. Then, though two days later, we should try Good Friday Climb, so off we went — or tried to, then only found my crampons were missing... It was snowing yesterday, so they may be covered with new snow? Or, possibly some one accidentally took them as they were leant to the hut wall, where people after people frequently come and have a rest?

After an extensive search we still could not find them, despite the fact that we digged up most of the snow around the tent. I was fed up and was cursing myself... To lose an ice axe or crampons is the last thing climbers want and is unimaginable. How embarrassing it is... Then Claudia pointed out the area underneath one tent pole, which is the only area we had not yet digged up, and started digging. To be honest I was pessimistic. And so I could not believe my ears when she yelled I found them.

In that sense, it was a bit like a search for the tomb of Tutankhamen (where the team at last found it when they digged up only the place they had not searched for, namely that under the hut they had built on site in the beginning of their search). Absolutely marvellous job, Claudia, I can not thank you enough!

So finally we set off towards the route via the Observatory Gully. We conducted a hand test at the foot of the gully. The upper 10cm slid off very easily with just wrists' strength. A textbook weak layer example is there. This is scary, for it means a slab avalanche can happen at any moment... The positive side is, the slope is not so steep (though steeper in the upper part), and the layer above the weak layer is only 10cm. So I judged to carry on ascending, wishing a slab avalanche would not happen during our approach first of all hopefully, and judging even it happened it would not be as deadly as 50cm-layer slab avalanches (though I guess it could be enough, depending on the scale).

While we were at rest at the sheltered place from the upper part of the Gully, after climbing three quarters or so of the Gully, some climbers were already in front of us in the direction of Gardyloo Gully and Buttress. And possibly because of that, powder snow, which must have been accumulated in the last couple of days, are constantly sliding on the surface downwards, namely tiny avalanches. So I decided to diagonally traverse the Observatory Gully to the left to somewhere close to the starting point of our route, cutting across that avalanche path in two seconds, instead of just climbing up and traverse. Although to traverse the concave large gully is not the safest path, it must be safer in this present condition, as it avoids those powder-snow avalanche path.

Finally we safely arrived at the cliff bottom between Gardyloo Gully and the starting point of Good Friday Climb. A relief. Placing a gear, I started leading from here. The route is certainly in condition. Ice is not too bad, though most of them were not trustable enough to place a solid screw.

The third pitch, where the route traverses the ice and goes vertical on an ice wall for a few metres, was the definite crux. A superb climb! The protections here (screws) at the crux were all right on this day. One could view the magnificent Tower Ridge and below from here, too.

The downside is, because I stretched most of the pitches to quite long, 50m or longer, and because of the shape of the route as well as wind, the verbal comminication was very hard at best, or was simply impossible. A funny thing is I could hear my own echos rather clearly, and so could Claudia (said she, afterwards). That means every one else in the corrie must be hearing our climbing calls, but not us! I imagine, perhaps like this:

  • (Masa) Claudia, how many metres of the ropes are left?
  • — (utter silence) —
  • (Masa) Claudia, can you hear me? How many metres of the ropes?
  • (Claudia) Masa, are you at the belay, or not?
  • — (utter silence) —
  • (Claudia) Masa, are you safe? (— Oops, you are still climbing. All right, I keep belaying you.)
  • — (utter silence) —
  • (Masa) Claudia, maybe you can't hear me. But I found a possible belay 10m ahead. OK?
  • — (utter silence) —

The attraction of the Good Friday Climb is that the guidebook description says the tradition dictates climbers use the summit triangular pillar, the highest point of the country, as the belay anchor of the final pitch. So I climbed up the fourth pitch, not knowing whether it is the final pitch or not. After a short vertical and instable snow wall (which turned out to be the summit cornice, actually), I suddenly popped up to the summit ridge. Unfortunately the triangular pillar was about 30m off right. There was surely not enough rope length left (though I didn't know exactly), and anyhow it would be silly to belay from the pillar, as one could not protect the second well in the final awkward cornice from the pillar. So I employed the standard buried (double-)axe belay, and eventually Claudia turned up. Well done!

As a recollection, the protections in Good Friday Climb were not brilliant, as are alledged to be usually the case in many routes in Ben, but were all right. However, to look for good belay anchors was a real pain. Ice was not good enough. Snow was not, either, as the surface was very powdery. So I ended up spending ages in almost every belay to make a deseparate effort to improve the anchors (thank you for your patient and long belay, Claudia). Nevertheless I managed to find, possibly after scraping loads of snow, at least one rock gear in every belay. So perhaps it was not too bad in the Ben standard. In this entire route, I used two nuts (good), one hex (bomber), and in fact all the four TriCams (half sizes from 0.5 to 3.5) I took, as well as a number of screws and an ice hook. I really appreciated those TriCams. What a trusty gear!

The time is around 19 and so it is dark. The temperature is -8 degC. The wind is not too bad, but it is snowing. The visibility is awful. And obviously we have to descend now. Via which route, though?

There are couple of descent routes from the summit to the CIC hut. My original plan was to use the route via the abseil post. However, given the condition, I quickly gave up the idea. Even more popular descent route is via Number Four Gully, but I have never used it, so again given the condition, it is out of question, for I have no confidence in identifying the route in this condition, and even if I could, I still would not know the snow condition of the gully. Thus the route of our choice is inevitably via the pony track — it is long and is moreover by no means easy to identify, either, in this condition, but must be better than others.

I have once taken this path at night in winter in poor visibility (though in fact I was just following my mates, who took a lead in navigation at that time). So I knew it would be all right. However today's condition was found to be even worse than that. Because of new powdery snow, we could not see even the foot traces, and everything on the ground looked the same, just white.

Claudia took a lead in navigation and suggested the two-people navigation. Wow, I did not know the technique! But I quickly figured out it is no doubt the best way particularly in this condition, because we can correct the direction with the finest scale, using our head-torches. It was greatly relieving for me to have such a trustable partner in navigation after nerve-wrecking leads! I took the part of the follower, and appreciated my compass with mirror (it was exactly the reason I had brought it here), with which one can check the angle more precisely than a conventional plate compass.

To be a bit careless, we lost our pace some time later, but we knew there would be nothing to worry about as long as we keep the direction right, and after many pitches, at last we hit the zig-zag path, the pony track. And finally we arrived at our tent at half one. It was a marvellous day!

24 Mar

After the exhausting previous day, we had a lazy morning. Anyhow we have to drive back a long way today. While we are eating a late breakfast in the tent with a door open, I caught a passer-by's eye and he greeted me: Hello...? Hi, MASA!!

It is Dom! What a surprise!
So we had a nice social time with Dom and his climbing partner with tea and buiscuits.

In fact I felt this trip was rather social. On the second day, again near the tent, some one, called Adam, greeted me, saying he had seen me in Roaches. Sorry, I did not recognise him, but it is well possible, and must be true. We talked how splendid and scary the famous Valkirie is. On the third day, we met a cameraman, who was taking photos of the attempted first ascent by Dave MacLeaod and his mate. I said to him that I had been hugely benefited from Dave's bouldering master course I once attended, and he promised to let Dave know about it. And today, on the last day, we met our friend, Dom.

In addition I found, after I came back to England, that the weather all over Britain during the Easter weekend had been wet and awful. We had no problem, though. In that sense we were at the right place for the right activity!

So, all in all, trust me, Ben Nevis is the place to visit during the Easter holiday!

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