Winter climbing in Scotland is perhaps the greatest test of any kit. Having climbed the North Face of Ben Nevis several times, #TeamMontane member Aaron Tregallis shares his most recent ascent and why he keeps coming back for more…
Overview of Scottish Winter Climbing
I have been fortunate enough to climb all over the world, but Ben Nevis is still the centre of my universe.
They say that you never forget your first time. I am not exactly sure what the original author must have been referring to when this statement was made, but I can only imagine that it was about seeing the North Face of The Ben, as it is known to climbers. It is huge and very intimidating. It is one of those places where history is so present that it almost burdens you such is its weight, perhaps even more so once you get to know the mountain more intimately; here is a Smith and Marshall route, there a Haston line, and over there are MacLeod and Boswell modern mixed test-pieces.
These rugged conditions provide an excellent place to test out gear. Scottish winter climbing conditions are just so harsh that any weakness, any chink in your armour, is almost immediately apparent. You have to trust your kit. It just has to work. It will get dragged up chimneys, pulverised by the wind, rain, and snow, have crampons kicked through it, ice screws puncture it, and even occasionally dropped down a route. What I have found about using Montane kit over the years is not only can I trust it, but that it is incredibly durable, lightweight, and versatile as well.
The Charles Inglis Clark Mountain Hut
The Charles Inglis Clark (C.I.C) Hut is arguably the only Alpine-style mountain hut in the UK. Situated right underneath the North Face, although the front door faces down the valley towards Fort William, all eyes are drawn upwards past it to the North-East Buttress, the Orion Face, Tower Ridge, the Comb, and Carn Dearg.
I have managed to get a bed at the hut, which is no mean feat during the winter. Like on so many climbs before my partner is The Engineer. As the door of the CIC Hut opens in the morning I immediately feel the icy blast of Scottish air on my cheeks. It reminds me I am home. It is dark, but it always is when you are starting out a day Scottish winter climbing on the Ben.
Climbing the Ben
Already fully geared up, the hexes on my harness jingling like cow bells, I step outside. With the wind whipping round the hut we silently start navigating our way up towards our chosen climb, our way lit by our headtorches.
This winter has been particularly challenging, not just the climbing but also the conditions. The usual freeze-thaw cycles that allow a good build-up of snow and ice have just not materialised, instead replaced by many dumps of snow followed by extensive thaws. The buttresses may be black but the drainage lines have quite a bit of ice in them, so it was with frozen gullies on our minds, that we headed up the mountain.
Slowly light fills the sky. Headtorches are turned off. Extra layers are zipped up. Crampons snap shut on boots, and before long we are approaching our climb.
We have the corrie to ourselves for now, our small part of this complex mountain. Having soloed the first initial pitches we come across a solitary peg in a rock and decide that this will be our first belay. Ropes come out of bags, and before long I am questing upwards. Ice axes find ice. Ice screws bite and offer a sense of security in an ever-increasing vertical world. I smile. This sense of adventure is what drives me to experience these wild cliffs in winter.
I bring The Engineer up to my stance, who has a similar smile on his face. He fuels himself on pork pies and the measure of a day is how many pork pies he has eaten. A 6-pier is a legendary day, and he pops the first pie of the day at this stance. It is rare to find a climbing partner who is equally inspired by the words ‘adventure’, ‘thin ice’, and ‘steep climbing’, and I am fortunate that The Engineer not only feels like this but has also just come back from an ice climbing trip to the Alps. He is our ace in the pocket, ready to be unleashed on anything that comes our way. With a quick glance up at the next steep section he quickly has another pie before setting off.
The amount of ice raining down the gully tells me that The Engineer is making progress. A short time later the ropes go tight telling me he is safe at the next belay. I am happy to be moving again as the wind has picked up and the temperature has dropped still further. 2 pies in already and the pitches are starting to flow together now.
We swing leads and unbelievably a third pie follows shortly after another steep pitch. It is starting to feel like we might be on to a good day. A few more pitches of near vertical ice pass by in a blur of axes swung and crampons kicked until we are standing at a belay with the top in sight.
The cornice looming ominously above the route is the remaining unknown. Looking up from our stance we can’t be sure if it is passable, so The Engineer has a precautionary fourth pie just in case. Most years on the Ben the cornices can be enormous, but I was relieved as I climbed out of the gully to see that it was only fairly large.
Summiting The Ben
I have always found that one of the peculiarities of winter climbing is how quickly you transition from the vertical world to the horizontal. With a few hard pulls and a few choice swear words I pull through the centre of the overhanging cornice and find myself standing on the summit plateau of the Ben in the most magnificent golden light. We have been climbing in the clag all day, but now the clouds have disappeared and we can see the snow-capped Mamores and Grey Corries stretching away beyond the horizon.
With celebratory handshakes exchanged and gear packed away, I notice The Engineer sneaking a fifth pie whilst I have a quick cup of tea on the summit before our descent into the setting sun.
The day ended as it started with head torches lighting our way, but this time down to the hut and the promise of hot food and a dram. The combination of smiles and thousand-mile stares that greet us when we arrive tell us that others have found what they were looking for today as well. After dinner, we warm ourselves in front of the fire and I pull out the guidebook:
“What shall we climb tomorrow?” asks The Engineer.
“That depends. How many more pork pies do you have left?” I reply.
“Oh, I have at least another six with me.” He says with a twinkle in his eye.
Later on, wrapped up in my sleeping bag, I fall asleep with a smile on my face. These are the days I live for, and there will be another one tomorrow.
Ben Nevis is undoubtedly a world-class climbing venue, and those cliffs are a cathedral where many of us practice our religion. Having climbed all over the world I know that I will keep coming back here, drawn to icy lines and steep mixed climbs. It will always be the centre of my universe.
This article was written by #TeamMontane mountaineer Aaron Tregallis. Want to take on the North Face of Ben Nevis for yourself? Discover Montane gear that will keep you well-protected in the mountains.