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Indicator Wall, Ben Nevis - a mix of the right and left hand variations!

An early start from Aviemore meant that we reached the North Face Car Park just before six in the morning. Others cars were already there with head torches flashing in the darkness and climbing gear clinking and clanking as it was packed into bags by the other climbers heading out for a day on the Ben.

The weather forecast indicated a good day with light winds and no rain or snow and it was mid-week too so hopefully no crowds!

It took two hours of plodding to reach the CIC hut, first the good track to the Allt a' Mhuilinn trail then slipping and sliding through the trees to the next good track from the dam.  By eight o’clock the darkness had cleared but it was drizzling! We didn’t stop for long, just kept on up to Observatory Gully and the snow.

Once into Observatory Gully, we found big steps forming a ladder in the old snow. Only when we were alongside Point Five Gully did we stop to put on crampons. Then onwards and upwards to the base of Tower Scoop after a brief spell of wondering if Point Five was actually Point Five or not. There was nobody on this normally popular and busy climb and we briefly contemplated going for it but then a moment of doubt about it being Zero Gully set in. The usual landmark of Hadrian’s Wall confused me as it had no ice on it at all but as we got higher, the climbs came back into perspective and everything fell into place. Also, we then spotted two other groups heading for Point Five.

More uphill to a convenient place at the base of Tower Scoop to stop and get out the climbing gear as the traverse above to Indicator Wall is exposed and steep and not the place to stop. Another guy had just left to go towards Indicator Wall and his mate was just preparing to leave. As we got ready, it appeared that this mate was not as sure about the traverse as his friend and he moved cautiously and slowly towards the route. Once ready and moving again, we soon overtook the poor guy who was obviously not having a good time of it crossing the steep snow slope. At the belay we chatted to the other climber and he let us know that he was considering going for Good Friday Climb instead and anyway, did we want to go on ahead on Indicator Wall. Nice guy!

Then Ron asked me if I wanted to lead the first pitch. We had already talked about this and the first pitch was meant to be 35m so short and should be straightforward. Yup, great, mine! After Ron dug himself out a very comfortable belay stance and firmly attached himself to the rock with some pegs, I set off only to find myself looking up at a lot of ice and not sure of which way I was meant to go! I had looked at the guide books but only snippets had stuck in my mind and on the approach, I had been so focussed on keeping my mind off the exposure that I hadn’t looked up at the route! So faced with a lot of ice, the knowledge that the pitch was 35m and Ron muttering something about a groove to the left, I set off!

I wasted the first two ice screws by placing them in what I knew was poor snow but they made me feel better! I remembered something about a scoop and I reached one but I hadn’t gone very far so I continued and moved right to the more appealing thick ice! Another ice screw and another move to the right and another and more to the right until I was actually quite far right and had gone beyond the 35 m mark. Ron had shouted up when I reached 30m and I had seen a rock a bit beyond where I was that I thought might be a possible belay and it looked like it could only be another five metres but distance is deceptive and so was the number of ice screws I had left!

So I could see over to the rock that I thought was a possible belay or at least I could see enough to realise that it wasn’t! What next? By this time, I had also realised that the eight ice screws that I thought I had started off with were actually only seven and I only had one left. A belay was necessary as I was only going to continue if I placed another ice screw and if I did that then I would have nothing for higher up! Dilemma! Simple. Abalakov thread using the one remaining ice screw to create it, ice screw and ice axes for back up. Not the most relaxing of belay stances especially as I had to pile the rope onto my right foot which meant that if I moved my foot, the rope would have gone slipping and sliding down the slope. Thankfully I had managed to kick a little ledge to stand on but by the time Ron climbed up and onwards and I started to move again, my foot was numb, like there was a boot on the end of my foot but with no foot inside it!  

Ron climbed up quickly and carefully towards me, considerate of the fact that the belay was on the “dodgy” side and also because that’s how he climbs. The ice above and to my left looked ideal and he came up alongside me to collect the remaining gear then quickly placed an ice screw at which point, I felt a bit  happier. The ice was great but steep and he moved upwards very smoothly – two ice screws low down then off he went as the ice was so good and the angle above started to relent. Bang on the 60m mark, he found a belay which was good as by this time, communication was out and three tugs was to be my signal to move. I waited  and waited and waited and it probably wasn’t as long as it felt but I was so relieved when I felt the rope pull urgently at the belay.

I dismantled the belay quickly, tried to shake some life into the solid boot that my foot had become and moved up. Lovely climbing, excellent ice! I must have climbed for about 40 metres before the slope changed to easier angled snow and I spotted Ron with another good and comfortable belay. Experience obviously shows given that he had two good belays and stances and I had one decidedly twitchy one!

The next pitch was mine again and this one, if we had got the distances right, was going to get me to the summit. Onwards again with the prospect of the cornice above but hopefully there would be good ice below the fresh snow from the early morning snowfalls for some ice screws and there was, phew! One last ice screw just below the cornice and I set off leftwards towards a chink in the snow above. The fresh snow was cleared easily by bashing my axe sideways against it revealing relatively sound snow below the recently fallen soft stuff. My problem was that the anti-balling plates on my crampons had frozen up so huge chunks of solid snow prevented the front points from biting in making me more reliant on the axes so all the more reason to get good placements. The hand rest on the bottom of my quark axes stopped the shafts from being useful as they couldn’t dig into the snow but that just meant being a bit more careful with the picks and clearing away more snow. I was relieved to get the picks into the flat, solid snow of the plateau and then to sort of belly-flop onto into the sun at the top. My belay point was the trig post and as I pulled in the rope to Ron, a passing walker asked if I my fishing was successful and had I caught anything? I had but it wasn’t moving!

Ron started climbing, the rope started to move and soon he popped up out of the cornice just as the skies cleared to give the most fantastic welcome to the summit of Ben Nevis.



Route info:

Indicator Wall,right hand variation, Ben Nevis

V, 5**, 160m

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