2007/01/01--06 Record of mountaineering in Highland (by Masa)

[Japanese / English]


Scotland/Highland/Ben Nevis, Caringorms, Aviemore etc.
Greame B, Ben Ha., Masa
2007/01/01--2007/01/06 (5 nights)
  • 2007/01/01 Leicester ...(car)... Aviemore
  • 2007/01/02 Aviemore ... (car) ... Cairngorms ski resort car park ... Coire an t-Sneachda/Jacob's Ladder (105m, I) ... Cairngorm ... Car park ... (car) ... Aviemore
  • 2007/01/03 Invernesshire/Strathnairn/Huntly's Cave (day trip)
    1. Right-Hand Groove (10m VD); Leader Graeme, 2nd Masa
    2. Central Crack (20m HS 4b); Leader Masa (→ give up (climb down))
    3. Jam Crack (8m HS 4b); Leader Masa, 2nd Graeme
    4. Cave Route (25m HS); Leader Ben (→ give up)
  • 2007/01/04 Aviemore ... (car) ... Fort William ... Gardyloo Gully (170m; II) ... Ben Nevis ... Pony's track ... Fort William ... (car) ... Aviemore
  • 2007/01/05 Aviemore
  • 2007/01/06 Aviemore ... (car) ... Leicester
Ben's house
  • 2007/01/01 Clear
  • 2007/01/02 Cloudy, then clear
  • 2007/01/03 Cloudy, then rain
  • 2007/01/04 Showery(rain/snow)
  • 2007/01/05 Clear
  • 2007/01/06 Cloudy, then rain


In the last two years, my expectation for Scottish winter has been rather betrayed. In particular there was absolutely no snow last year around the New Year's day.

This year we are going to Cairngorms and hopefully Ben Nevis. The former is famous to be quite high, and being located inland, it sometimes comes to condition first in the whole Scotland. The latter is obviously the highest mountain in Britain, and so it tends to come to condition earlier than any other mountains. I was so eager to visit both the mountains, and this time the dream may come true!

My main climbing partner is Graeme, and we are going to stay in his friend Ben's place. Hopefully Ben himself can join us.

02 Jan

After the long drive from England the previous day, Graeme and I set off a bit late, at 7:00 to the nearest place for mountaineering, Cairngorms (what a wonderful place Aviemore is!).

The weather is cloudy and foggy, but at least the temperature is not so high and the weather is likely to be not so unstable today. I had a slight hope that the fog will be cleared out even just for a second to be able to see the whole north wall during our approach. However, it was kept just helplessly foggy with the visibility of less than 50m. Even when we reached the mountain rescue post, which should be very close to the face, we could not see any sign of the face, covered by a thick curtain of white gas.

Finally we reached the point which we believed is our route (Aladdin's Mirror). There were a couple of parties there, and I asked one of them about the route. It turned out that we were in a wrong place, and the gully ahead of us was a different route!

A good thing is pretty much all the gullies in this wall are Scottish Grade I, so are suitable for us. Even better, even if we detour from the correct route, the face is mostly up to Grade II, so is negotiable. Originally I was concerned about the possible avalanche risk, partly because it had snowed the previous day, and as I had not known the amount of accumulation of snow. Hence to minimise the possible risk of avalanches was one of the primary factors in our original choice of the route. The amount of snow was, however, found out to be quite small (it was close to inadequate for the gully route in condition), and so there was almost no possibility for slab avalanches. The wall is north-faced, and anyway the weather is foggy, meaning stable; therefore there is very little risk for loose-snow avalanches, too.

OK, then off we go to this route (Jacob's ladder), rather than wandering back to look for the originally planned route. We geared up for moving together with 15m rope length between us and started climbing, where I was leading. Very soon I had to drop the hand coil in climbing up a rock in the route, which should have been covered by deep snow if the route had been in good condition. Then we carried on, moving together.

After that it was mainly snow slopes with a bit of rock clambering due to small amount of snow. The gear was just adequate if not perfect, and I belayed Graeme by Italian Hitch twice before the final pitch, partly in order to collect the gear I had put.

The final pitch immediately before the ridge was a couple of metre of near vertical rock, which must be meant to be a cornice climbing. This was a crux. But it was not too bad. After all both of us climbed with a (walking) axe without much difficulty. In today's poor condition (of snow), I guess the gully was probably more Grade II than Grade I. I hope it was a good introduction of winter climbing for Graeme!

The wind was not too bad on the ridge, but the visibility was, and it was even getting worse. Fortunately the bearing was not so difficult, Cairngorm main summit being the highest point around here. Before long we reached the main summit; although the visibility is 30m or so by that time, it is an experience. Glad to have climbed up here!

04 Jan

We set off Aviemore at 5:00(?) by car, then set off Fort William at 6:40 to Ben Nevis. The weather is showery, but a good thing is it is a full-moon time, and thus even though it is much before the sunrise, we can see the things vaguely. Graeme and Ben have been here before, so I just followed them.

Today's objective is Good Friday Climb, the 150m Grade III route with the final belay anchor being the triangular pillar of the top of Ben Nevis! The lean condition is better for the route, so I expect to see a good condition today. It is actually Ben's first winter venturing. Grade III is rather hard, but as long as he is belayed, considering his rock climbing experience, it will be all right.

I saw the first snow patch near the hut. Before long we reached the bottom of the snow valley. We eventually geared up with a harness and ice axe, then crampons. Now the snow slope is rather steep, being definitely more than 45 degree. By the time we reached a rock outcrop, which we found to split Gardyloo Gully and ??????? gullies, there was a little ice fall. The route we aimed for turned out to be actually left-hand side, which requires a traverse of this ever-steepning slope. So I started a pitch from here, aiming to an outcrop in the middle of the snowfield, with the anchors of a how-much-can-I-trust 12cm ice-screw and a good Tricam 2.

The belayer was Graeme. Despite of his massive experience in climbing, he ended up being confused in setting up the belay device with double ropes. Chunky gloves and a bit scary situation as well as a cold temperature possibly made him so? Yeah, in a way it is one of the factors we must get over in winter climbing!

30 metres on, pitched at another outcrop in the middle of the snowfield, I further carried on the traverse towards the route. After 60 metre traverse in this pitch, while I was trying to set up the anchor, Graeme shouted at me, suggesting to change the route to climb into an easier one, as it was quite late already. I somehow know he is right although I did not know the exact time. To be honest I should have realised that the time was already too late at that time, and looking back at it I think I knew it, but to be a shame, I neglected the fact, perhaps due to the excitement and desire for the route, and didn't dare calculate the required time. Terrible! Glad that Graeme and Ben were calm enough...

So I traversed back for almost 60 metre to the belaying outcrop, retrieving two gear I had set in the traverse on my way, and climbed up slightly rightward to the Grade II route Gardyloo Gully (170m, II). Now considering it is late, I have to be quick, meaning I will use the full double rope length as long as I can find some belaying anchor.

There is not much gear. It is the gully route, and the right-hand side has a rock wall. Eventually I got close to the full rope length, and found a little ledge in the right-hand side. The ledge itself is not too bad. There is a crack, which may accept something. I tried to place nuts (WC Rock) No.2 and 3, but they are a bit dodgy. I hammered them home with a pick of my ice-axe. How good are they, though? I am not sure (indeed Graeme testified one of the nuts was pretty bad afterward). So I bashed a peg (Angle piton) into the lower part of the crack, which is slightly flared. It started to utter a ringing sound — I driving a couple of more, OK, it is now good enough, I hope. At least it must be, for the seconds. (Graeme said the peg was really solid — to my pleasure to hear that!)

Now, we are in the middle of gully. The angle is increasing in the next pitch. I now start to use double axes, setting off into the deep soft-ish snow. The rock wall right-hand side has some thin cracks, but they are in fact completely covered with verglas — no way to place any gear. Instead there is some ice, which I put two gear, as well as a small outcrop, which I digged from snow and put a sling around. After 55m, conveniently I found a little sheltered ledge, where a fully iced-up nut in the crack was left. Adding a screw above, this is the anchor which I guess is reasonably solid.

Now the next pitch looks icy. A fun of ice-climbing starts? The angle is low, but the quality of ice is rather poor — it is a bit hollow... The icy bits are concentrated in the left-hand side, and I followed it. That means only the gear I can place is (dodgy) ice screws. Sure, there is a rock wall in the right-hand side, but it seemed to be covered with verglas. Possibly I might find some cracks clean of ice by a close look, but the ground is steeper there and looks more unstable in the right, so I did not fancy traversing to the right to search for the possible (or possible-not) rock gear...

As a result, in this 60 metre pitch, only the gear were three ice screws, the middle of which was only the one I can reasonably trust. Horrendous... I carry reasonable amount of rock gear, as the route we had aimed was rather rocky, whearas I have only 5 ice screws (one of which was already used as an anchor). However, this gully route offers little for rock gear! At least one screw has to be reserved for the anchor, therefore 3 ice screws were all I could place, so did I.

There is a convenient ledge just within 60 metre, immediately in front of a weird cave. I digged an Abarakov thread with a 22cm ice screw, placed the screw itself, too, and equalised them. However the quality of the ice is not good... Even after equalisation, I am not sure how trustable the anchor is. I really should seek for more possibility. But there is no surplus rope left, and on top of it, we have to hurry! Fortunately the ledge is quite comfortable and safe for the bucket belay. So I don't have to weigh and test the anchor in belaying to my much relief.

By the time Graeme and Ben came up, and I set off for the next pitch, it was 16:30. The sun is already set, and it is getting dark. We put on the head torch. Now off I go.

There is a beautiful waterfall on the right. But conveniently the cave in front of us is half filled with ice, and seems to be climbable in it. So I went through it to my much fun, and climbed further on ever-increasing angled ice wall. This was the crux. The steepest angle was perhaps 80 degree. Again ice screws are the only possible gear, and I placed two (one of which Graeme later reported to be an absolute crap...).

Now I have arrived a small flat-ish ledge after 35m. Beyond me, there's only an ampitheatre of the snow slope. Place an ice screw. Dodgy... I further try to place another one, but it didn't byte! Oh, this cheap and crappy screw!! Now I fully fully understand why it is stupid to get cheap ice screws. I just wished I would have realised before this route, in a safer place... There is a rock corner next to me, so I hooked my ice axe just for a back-up. However I would say it is more psycological back-up.

It is getting even darker, now, and it is not easy to distinguish even green and orange colours of the double rope. I was apparently stressed by the fact, and gave up improving the anchor. That is, that untrustable ice screw and even crappy ice axe hooking were now all my anchor. Please don't fall, Graeme and Ben...

Fortunately, both Graeme and Ben followed the pitch with no problem. Now, only the final pitch is left. A leftward diagonal line is the least steep line to the (I believe) ridge. A pure snow route. No gear, accordingly.

I climbed on and on. It is not the long pitch (25m?). The final cornice was not too bad, but was still awkward. I was pleased when I successfully negotiated with it ... and reached the ridge!

I set up the buried double-axes anchor and finally shouted Safe!, to my much relief... Apparently the ropes were somehow tangled behind me. So it was only the rope in the Graeme's side that could be taken in. Graeme climbed, sorting out the other rope tangled while he was climbing, He reached the ridge, then it was finally Ben's turn. He later said he was scared left behind by himself, trusting on only one bad screw (my apologies, Ben!). But now he climbs, and eventually reached the ridge.

It is now 19:30. 0 degC. We have finally made it.
We then walked for a very short distance to the summit of Ben Nevis.
After all the summit was far, much farther we had optimistically expected in the beginning of the day. But we have made it. Excellent!!

Graeme later said this was his third attempt to Ben Nevis and was very glad he finally reached the summit. In fact if one takes the pony track, then it is very easy to reach the summit, just monotoneous approach in a well-maintained (=dull) path. Graeme tried from the North Wall and North Ridge before, which are far more advanced, but retreated, due to bad weather etc. This time he again tried from the North Wall and succeeded — admirable! That is what a mountaineerer should be!!

The summit ridge of Ben Nevis is notorious for its difficult navigation. So this night-time navigation was the final chapter of the excitement. I was glad that I can trust Graeme for navigation, when I was exhausted. Lead by Graeme's navigation, we descended along the pony track with no problem to the Youth Hostel, where we parked the car, arriving at 22:45. It turned out to be a 16-hours round trip. I am exhausted, but am well satisfied. It was a mervellous trip.

Now, looking back at it, my utmost regret is anchoring before the last pitch. I was apparently stressed, without realising it so much. However, there was no reason to be stressed. It was already dark. But thanks to the full moon, it was not too bad. I could see something. And we see the ridge already at that time. In addition, we had reasonable preparation for bivvying even if thing go really wrong. Thus in that sense it was stupid to be stressed. I should have kept calm. How inexperienced I am!

There was not enough gear. Really? Maybe, but the anchor could have been improved immensely. First the rock corner I hooked my ice axe for a (pretty-much-psycological) back-up, can be used for an ice-hook (DMM Bulldog)! I should have used it, then it would have had a more practical meaning. But I completely forget it, racking it in the rear gear loop. What a waste!.

Second, there was snow around us, so I could make the stable snow anchor. Although it takes time (and that was the reason I didn't do), it would have been much better to have safer anchor than that crappy anchor, particularly in that crux pitch. Anyhow it was already pretty dark. What's the point to save a bit of time at that stage? The faster option is to dig both the ice axes and equalise them. That must be fairly strong anchor. That means I would have to exchange ice axes with the seconds, but then what? I really should have bothered doing it.

And finally if I had equalised all of them, possibly even using the load-limiting sling (which was in my rack), the anchor whould have been reasonably strong.

In addition, although I mentioned the final pitch offered no gear, being a pure snow route, it is not correct, looking back at it. I could have borrowed one ice axe from the second, and could have digged it shortly afterward from the start as a Jesus Nut. And, a better option would be to use a snow stake, if it is a pure snow route. It would be very quick to place.

After all, I was stressed, it being dark, pointlessly. As a result I hurried nearly meaninglessly. It is my great regret... I am and should be glad that nothing happened, really...

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