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Winter climbing on Ben Nevis in springtime!

Good Friday Climb (The Easter Egg Route!)

The weather starts to become a fickle friend come the end of March Ė one day can be mild and warm giving a feeling that summer is not far away, the next day can be cold, windy and back to winter. At this time of year it can be easy to think that there will be no more opportunities to go winter climbing, to put away the ice axes and crampons and resign oneself to the hardships of walking into routes with a lighter sack, to climbing with light rockboots on oneís feet and to swap heavy gloves and balaclavas for a sun hat and chalk bag. Mind you, this is Scotland so it pays off to watch out for the freezing level just being low enough to allow the routes in higher places such as Ben Nevis to be in ideal condition.

We watched the weather forecasts and decided to take our chance on the Ben. With rucksacks packed and mattresses and sleeping bags piled into the car, we set off on Sunday evening planning to spend the night in the North Face Car Park at Torlundy so we could get an early start. The weather didnít seem that great as it was raining lghtly that night. 

I was surprised when the alarm crowed at four in the morning! Itís set to make a noise like a cockerel crowing and sounds very realistic so it took me a moment or too to remember that I was in a car park and not on a farm! Piling on warm clothes, getting the stove going, having breakfast, axes onto the rucksack and we were off with headtorches flickering on the path ahead. Thankfully now it had stopped raining but would it cold enough?

The path up through the forest is always boggy and the track beyond  to the CIC hut is even worse. Thoughts of the bog monsters that lurk in the mud and grab at unsuspecting feet uttering their gloopy calls went through my mind in its semi-awake state. But we survived their attacks and reached the hut, by now in daylight. The cliffs ahead looked ominously black and lacking in wintry white  stuff!

Some other climbers were heading towards Tower Ridge, a couple of guys had their sights set on Point Five but they were last seen heading towards a very out of condition Zero Gully! We were planning on going for Indicator Wall as it is one of the highest routes so we set off towards Observatory Gully. The snow was soft and it was only higher up before we started the traverse over to the route, that we needed to put on our crampons. Now at this stage, Ron decided to tell me that the traverse was easy but horribly exposed. I remembered this comment as I was halfway across the snowy traverse and concentrated on the axes in front me, my feet and not stopping to admire the view down Observatory Gully! The snow was good for pushing in the shafts of the axes and the feet kicked in well and we soon reached the bottom of Good Friday Climb after seeing that Indicator Wall was decidedly lacking in ice!

We belayed just to the left of Indicator Wall and the first pitch was sixty metres of snow up to the bottom of a steep wall. A peg and a wire gave me a good belay and Ron continued up to the start of the second pitch and the ice. There was a little ramp to climb to reach the icefall proper and for me, this was the trickiest step. Thereafter, the ice was lovely, Ron found runners just where he wanted and the pitch was over all too quickly. The route went across to a corner on the right where it was possible to slowly work a way up over the icy bulge onto the easier ground above.

The third pitch was the last and back onto snow but the route winds around little rock walls coated with ice and up small gullies. It is never too apparent where the route goes but with each step forward, it all falls into place. There was a droopy-looking cornice over to my right but a rib of rock provided a last runner and a good step which helped me to move up and onto the plateau but not until after I had cleared away what felt like a mountain of loose snow. Blue sky and views greeted me as I moved onto the plateau. 

The summit of Ben Nevis can be covered in snow throughout the year and in winter, the stone refuge can be entirely covered over. Not so on this trip and we sat on the rocks enjoying the views across Lochaber. Some little snow buntings joined us, hopping about in search of tasty crumbs. A dark, evil-looking ravencame to share the feast of dropped food, a scavenger just like the snow buntings but with a very different demeanour.We sat awhile before starting the long return journey to the car.

We chose to descend Number 4 Gully using a short abseil to get over the cornice edge. A fair bit of cornice debris could be seen below so we guessed that bits of the cornice had collapsed the day before when the temperature had been milder. We didnít hang around and slid, slipped and waded our way down through the softening snow.

Now the bit about the easter eggs needs a bit of explaining. As soon as Christmas is over, the shops start selling cream eggs. These have been Ronís favourite hill food all winter so it was apt that with this route being called Good Friday Climb and with it almost being Easter, it turned out to be a three cream egg route! Will winter routes ever be graded by stars again?

This was to be our lucky day as on the walk out, we met some folk we knew who had a car at the upper car park. A lift back to the North Face car park? Wonderful and very much appreciated as it saved us at least an hourís walk back down the boggy path.

As we were climbing up Observatory Gully, we had been watching the height on our altimeters to work out just where the freezing level kicked in. Good Friday Climb starts 150 metres below the summit at about 1,200 metres and it was above the freezing level Ė just. It transpired that this year was not so good for the long, classsic routes on Ben Nevis but we caught an excellent day just as winter was fast disappearing. Enough to keep alive the lure of The Benís winter climbs for next winter. 

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Copyright Fiona Chappell 2003-2012 (updated Wednesday, 10. October 2012)