Carn Mor Dearg - 1220m
Ben Nevis - 1344m
Saturday 22nd March 2014
Weather/Conditions: Wild winter weather - snow to sea level, fresh powder all the way to the summit. Avalanche conditions in the coires not great, so sticking to crests was good plan. A gusty wind on Carn Mor Dearg, settling down by the head of Coire Leis. Still cold on the summit of Nevis, then whiteout following bearings.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 13km / 1250m / 9h 05m
Accompanying: Tom all the way. Kev, James and Zoe up to the flank of Carn Dearg Meadhonach.
It was the single day of the season that snow would fall to sea level. I'd noticed snow lying on the lowest pebbles on the lochside drive into Fort William. Glen Coe had been really stunning on the way up, but I sat in the car by the train station and it all seemed to be really grim. After meeting James in the lower Nevis car park, we all piled in the one vehicle to go to the top car park. Snow stopped us just short of that, and so we walked the rest of the way. No complaints, though.
After a brief detour on my part back to the car to get Zoe's ice axe, we broke out onto open hillside and struck up onto the flank of Carn Dearg Beag. The going was typical of these kinds of days, plodding through snow and breaking trail. This was the hardest bit of the day - putting in the grind to gain Carn Mor Dearg. The wind scuttled by, raising spindrift. It was a hard push, and one by one, folk began to give up. I forgot how hard it was to get to these heights.
In the end, and not so far off the ridge, James, Zoe and Kev decided to head down. Prior to parting ways, I told them I'd forgotten my gloves - James gave me that look and handed me his spare pair. I, in the interests of transparency as is important, told them that I didn't know the bearings and had never navigated off Nevis in winter before. James gave Tom and I a run down on the bearings and pacing, and with that knowledge, Tom and I continued to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg.
This is where the day really matured and took form and interest. This is where the mountaineering sense really kicked in as opposed to simply slogging up a big hill. Crampons on, axes and goggles out, it was a wild but safe ride over to Carn Mor Dearg where we found the cairn buried. From there, we began the arête. I'd been here in summer several times, but winter felt different. And I could feel the slight insecurity of using a set of metal points as opposed to hands and feet. But it was really fun, and up in that white misted world, I shuddered to think of the long drops from the arête. That kind of thought doesn't register in summer anymore. But if you started falling you probably wouldn't stop, so concentration was needed.
In time, we arrived at the end of the arête, got chatting and enjoyed a mutual love of the hills. We talked about what we'd each been up to. Ben Nevis was an uncomplicated rise up snow covered boulderfields, having rarely accumulated enough to cause avalanche concern. But the avalanche forecast for this day was considerable, so it was always in my thoughts.
I guess I'm not actually that used to being far from safe once standing on a summit. It was strange to be on Ben Nevis' summit, with the observatory and shelter in view, and know that we were about to willingly go off into the big white room. The descent from Nevis in winter is well known and notorious. But conditions had settled down a little, too. I took a bearing but I didn't pace, for some reason leaving that all-important part to Tom alone. The cairns were buried and nobody had been on the summit today, meaning there were no markers, no footprints to use. Absolutely nothing. As we waded the powder, the all-consuming white pressed against my eyes on the left - almost claustrophobic. Try as hard as I could, it was sometimes a struggle to walk dead down the bearing. Some slight definition on my right hand side drew me that way, but I knew how big the cornices were over there.
It seems grim, but as we ploughed up to our knees through the powder, I had a sense of being on a death march. Perhaps I've read too many stories, or know the score too well, but I felt the ghosts and the fear pushing in at the side of my mind. Once or twice the mist lifted slightly and I could see a trace of white horizon on my right, just picked out by a slightly greyer-than-white sky. That was the north-east face, out there was forbidden. All this said, I really enjoyed the thrill of the descent, and throughout the day I picked up many little skills from Tom.
Down and down we ploughed, until, at long last, rocks showed through the white. Then in one great explosion of colour, the skies cleared, the mist peeled back and we were shown our true location high on Nevis, valleys plunging below, the sea beyond and the sun glimmering off the snow-covered world. We were free! What a euphoric release, I felt like we'd come through it all well, and I'd learnt a lot.
Nevis had one final sting: down at the Red Burn, we discovered it was heavily cross-loaded. No wonder nobody else had made the summit of Nevis this day! The boot prints all stopped here. It's easy to see how this cross-loading occurs on a south-westerly. It was in fact so heavily built up that we couldn't quite ascertain whether we'd be able to get down. Tom put me on a boot-axe belay (he'd brought along rope), and I had a look over the edge. One of us could get down it on a rope just fine with rope protection, but I felt it would be risky for the other to do so without that protection. This was, after all, freshly accumulated powder. With my car at the North Face parking, we'd have to change plans a little and go to Glen Nevis instead. The call was made - we phoned Zoe and she would pick us up. So directly down we went, crossing the glen below, and we scooted out the path to the Youth Hostel. Zoe kindly took me back to my car. That night I went to see James playing drums in Fort William, then home the next morning.
The main feeling I took away from this day was a huge sense of learning and of competently addressing risks with skill. Real, solid judgments made to address real risks. I learned the true value of pacing, as well as what you can safeguard with an ice axe and a piece of rope. It was one of the most valuable days of mountaineering I've ever had. Just awesome, and would open the door to many more quality days climbing with Tom.
(2.00) c. 2.00pm Nevis North Face upper parking
(2.00) 4.05pm Carn Mor Dearg
(2.00) 4.05pm Ben Nevis
(3.35) 5.05pm Glen Nevis YH