Earlier this month myself and Ian Stewart had three days booked in Lochaber and Glencoe with our clients Tara & Malcolm for some late season winter mountaineering. Tara and Malcolm have been guided and instructed by myself, Ian and Nathan White on a variety of terrain including The Dubhs Ridge, The Black Carls, Northern Corries, Majorca and Torridon. The plan was for the two of them to learn a bit more about classic routes up to grade III as well and for Ian and I to show them around the fantastic variety of routes on the north face of Ben Nevis.
On our first day there was a slow moving low pressure system which meant rain and clag for the whole day, but not a lot of wind. After some discussion it was agreed that a classic route on an iconic mountain was in order seeing as it was Malcolm’s birthday. Ian led Malcolm up this 240m moderate grade route whilst Tara followed me, enjoying slightly harder lines when it allowed. Despite some pretty treacherously greasy rock in the middle section we made good time on the ridge. As usual the wall and steep corner near the top provided steep but positive sport for those at both ends of the rope. Once off the rock and onto the steep summit snow slopes Ian and I short roped Malcolm and Tara up to the summit of Buachaille Etive Mor, 1022m. When descending this peak in the poor visibility we experienced it is important to have a sound navigational plan, so I used this as an opportunity for Tara & Malcolm to revise taking a bearing, pacing and interpreting contours. Once at the head of the descent corrie it was clear that the safe spring snow conditions were still in place so we steeply descended Coire na Tulaich. There was some stunning light below the cloud and I enjoyed waiting behind to try and catch that elusive shot with mountain; cloud, snow and primary coloured jackets. On the final exit from the corrie Ian and I pointed out some of the buttresses that we had scrambled on during our ‘mini-break’ at The Lagangarbh Hut on our MIA training in 2008. The day was finished off at The Clachaig Hotel with cake to celebrate Malcolm’s birthday and it was agreed that given the forecast the next day was to be a winter mountaineering day on ‘The Ben’. Ian and I then headed back down the Glen to Fort William for the second of our three very comfortable nights at Sue & Alan Kimber’s bunkhouse, Calluna.
There was a hope that the cloud would lift later in the day and we’d all be rewarded with those fantastic ‘Is this really Scotland?’ views of the north face of The Ben. So the four of us headed up The North Face path at a leisurely pace enjoying any visibility we could whilst talking about routes, places to visit and whether today was going to need all seven layers of clothing! Ian and I had a plan to traverse the Douglas Gap via the 180m of grade I mountaineering ground on the west and east of this huge ‘boulder’. We gave recognition to Malcolm and Tara’s ability to move on this sort of terrain and did not rope up as we climbed up this narrow gully. At the top I scampered ahead to get some shots of Malcolm, Tara and Ian heading up the gully whilst almost dwarfed by the mountain architecture of lower Tower Ridge and the Douglas Boulder. At the point where you head up to start Tower Ridge there is sometimes a fixed anchor in place from which a partner can be belayed, or the East Gully can be abseiled. Today the stable and friendly spring snow meant the rope stayed in the bags a bit longer. At the base of the gully we met a solo mountaineer out for a similar journey but in reverse. From here we took a short traverse across towards Observatory Gully to get out the guidebook and show our clients where the four star grade Vs that Ben Nevis is famous for can be found. We had lunch just above the CIC head and then I led us up towards No. 5 gully and the approach slopes of Ledge Route. One of the key things about choosing routes here is not just to consider what slopes you have to cross or ascend to get onto your route but also what is above it; the cornices of No. 5 gully have certainly featured a lot in decisions that nineonesix-guiding staff have been making this season! Today there was no sun to weaken them and the temperature was if anything cooling down; Ian then went on to describe more fully the process that he went through in order to determine whether it was safe or not to go up No. 5. We moved with care and attention up the gully and then headed out right on the first ledge before crossing a thawed section of turf and snow before getting established in the shallow gully up to the next ledge. This was just the sort of route that Malcolm and Tara were after and it was so satisfying for Ian and I to be guiding them up it. At the short rock arete I put the rope on and used some of the techniques that we’d looked at on The Black Carls in Torridon. At well over 1000m on the snow arete there was new fresh snow which required care and attention. Soon we were on the Carn Dearg plateau and guess what? An opportunity for more navigation. Malcolm and Tara chose their own safe route which Ian followed close by and me a bit later with my GPS. Twenty five years ago as a student I was up here on a mountaineering course led by Simon Powell who was an early influence in the Association of Mountaineering Instructors. Then the following year Terry Ralphs, who trains British Mountain Guides let me and my partner solo up Ledge Route after he had guided us up The Curtain. Little did I know I’d end up here with clients of my own one day.
Day three, Malcolm and Tara had a long drive ahead of them and work the next day for Malcolm so a shorter day was in order. Time to head to The Ice Factor! Ian and I have both recently attended the excellent FUNdamentals 1 & 2 coaching courses offered by The Mountaineering Council of Scotland. So we were keen to use our new skills with Malcolm and Tara. The last time we’d rock climbed together was on the sun-kissed limestone of Mallorca so today was going to be a bit different. Over a coffee I asked our two clients what they would like to develop to improve their enjoyment and technique when rock climbing: Tara felt that although her strength and basic technique were sound she was hampered by lack of reach at times; Malcolm said that there are times where he feels that lack of finger strength is holding him back. So whilst Malcolm and Tara cruised a few routes under their own steam I got filming on Coaches Eye whilst Ian checked out some routes to use to deliver, you’ve guessed it: base of support and centre of mass! Al Halewood who delivered my excellent FUNdamentals 1 & 2 course in January at Gairloch Climbing Wall was also working at the wall so to say I felt under pressure is a bit of an understatement! Despite some very loose holds (I’m told things need to settle after the re-build) there were a couple of light bulb moments: one when Tara said after a trad bridging route ‘I want to do that route at the Pass of Ballater now!’ and when despite saying he was tired, Malcolm climbed a route four times, each time improving his technique and tactics.
Ian and I are both looking forward to hearing all about Tara & Malcolm’s further adventures on the crags and mountains.
blog by Jim Sutherland