From yesterdays blog – I am at the CIC Hut below Ben Nevis staying overnight after a wild winter day on the hill the weather forecast is awful and there was a big storm in the middle of the night. At 0230 in the morning the door of the hut was banged and I got up to find out what was happenong. At the door were two really hypothermic climbers asking for help, it was snowing and blowing a gale . I helped them in to hut and they were dragging their tent that had blown down in the storm. I went to put on the lights and put a kettle on in the main room and when I came back” I stepped on the tent and there was something in it !”
Inside the tent soaked and in a bad way was a lassie who was pretty out of it and I got her out of the soaked wrecked tent. I put on all the lights on in the hut and we woke everyone up in the hut and put the gas fire on. The poor lass was not very well and I took her into the main room of the hut and slowly she started to recover. All her gear was soaked so she was given a brew, put on some of our clothes and put in my sleeping bag. Her mates were recovering and were beginning to come round and become more coherent. They said they had walked up after work and a long drive in the storm and had an epic putting up their tent which was blown down earlier in the night. They had an epic trying to get sorted and lost some kit,gloves and kit was lost in the wind and the poor lassie was in a state and it was all going very wrong. All their remaining gear was soaked and they soon were frozen and had to drag the lassie to the hut and the tent, with their gear in it. They were only a few hundred feet away camping from the hut. They may not agree but the other two were completely spent and on their last legs. They were very lucky as in my mind there could have been at least one fatality if the hut had not been open or in use. It was a long night for us but she recovered after more hot drinks and the dry gear and next day we walked her off the hill my mates carrying most of her remaining gear. She was a lucky lass indeed and how easy it can all go wrong in wild weather even so close to safety of the hut.
Often whilst staying at the hut we have been asked to help climbers stuck or injured on many of the climbs like Tower Ridge and in the gullys after falls. This is always seems to happen after we have just come off the hill after a big day on the Ben and it is never easy to go back out. On about 5 occasions after a days climbing in the last 40 years me and others have been out helping and even more often giving lights to parties coming off the hill late.
These Corries are a wild place at night with just a torch-light for comfort in a wild night in a snowy gully. This is Lochaber Mountain Rescue patch and they are regularly in action in this wild area and have so many big epic call – outs in the dark a wild weather. In the early 70’s I helped Lochaber MRT with a few of the epic lowers all on a single rope on Zero gully or on the Orion Face.
This was always at night in poor weather using the ropes stashed under the summit shelter. In the early days of Rescue the RAF Kinloss MR Team did a big lower on North East Buttress with their specific lengthened 500 ft ropes which were a huge asset in cliff rescue. Nowadays Lochaber have these huge lowers sorted with so much specialised rescue gear. In my early days in the 70’s it was incredible being a small part of these lowers and my thoughts were always with the casualty but also the brave Lochaber unsung hero who went down on the single icy ropes and were lowers by basic descenders. Nowadays at least two ropes are used and good communications are better.but I cannot praise Lochaber MR enough for their incredible efforts to save lives on these massive cliffs. It is still a very tricky and dangerous operation on these cliffs especially in winter and a testimony to Lochabers expertise in this area over the years.
Getting back to hut after a hard day is magic, descent in winter is never easy and often crampons are worn right to the hut which at over 2000 feet usually is very wintry and icy. It is great to get your crampons and gear of and relax in the hut. Many of the descents require complete concentration and in the dark even more so as many have discovered in the past but once inside you feel safe and can relax. There is a drying room of sorts in the hut that is always full of drying gear, equipment, ropes,axes and crampons in winter it is an Alladins Cave. On a clear night it is magic to go outside with a brew and see the snow-covered cliffs and the lights of those climbing late on these huge cliffs. At times there are so many lights all having an adventure and a special experience of a finish by Moonlight on Ben Nevis. Then you still have to get off this tricky peak and hope the weather and the light holds as you descend into the Corries by the various routes. Even the mountain path ( old Tourist route) every year causes problems in bad weather and many have fallen into the Ben’s summit traps of 5 finger gully and Coire Eoghain and the other tricky areas that poor navigation can take you too. This is not a mountain to relax on in bad weather, getting to the top is only part of the day.
In summer it is a different place and the hut is very quiet it is a time to get to know the huge cliffs. Again I spent many weekends here with the young troops climbing the classic ridges and gaining experience for winter epics. Castle ridge the easiest to many a scramble but with a steep chimney pitch is a great introduction and to get up that down Ledge route and then up Tower Ridge is a great introduction when staying at the hut. To some of the cocky ones we add the Douglas Boulder on Tower Ridge a big climb on its own. North East Buttress is also a great day with so many stops on route to show the tricks and variances of the route and the big routes on the Orion Face and possible escapes on the big Ben routes. Observatory Ridge is to me the hardest and interesting day and to complete this and North East Buttress makes a great introduction to these cliffs. These are Alpine routes in length and on a good dry day a magic place to be. The classic is the 4 ridges in a day (and Ledge Route descent) a day I enjoyed twice, what an experience in a long summers day for a non climber like me and to stay at the hut after it is one that stays with you forever. Thoroughly recommended but takes care and concentration but what a day and what a place to be.
I have been privileged to climb many routes in summer often looking for gear after a long winter a thing we used to do when young and skint it was like a “mountaineering archaeology” adventure and fruitful at times. The Long Climb in summer takes a great line on the Orion Face and is as the name suggests one of the longest climbs in Scotland. It is interesting route finding and a classic on the mountain. It takes you through some classic mountain scenery and there may be the odd crevasse of big snow patch guarding the start of the route.
I have only done a few of the big routes on Carn Dearg, the big cliff above the hut: Route 1 is always damp for me, Bull Roar and Centurion but what a cliff, On the Minus One Buttress another lovely route and the Reaburns Arete start to North East Buttress is fun. For years we did many of the easier routes in the summer exploring the hidden climbs that few know visit for area knowledge of these cliffs. The Douglas Boulder just outside the hut is always interesting way on to Tower Ridge and few do this twice! I was looking at my old guide-book and some of the diffs and other climbs were one off’s and very few visit them nowadays but what adventures we had.
There are so many new climbs on the Ben nowadays and though I am not as active as I once was there seem fewer on the rock climbs in the summer apart from the classics, where has everyone gone? Dave Macleod and many others the top climbers of the day have pushed new routes on the cliffs but in winter is where the Ben is in a league of its own. It is always amazing the new breed of climbers who every winter take these cliffs to a new level. The changes in gear and equipment have taken the mountain as always as the place to be and it is wonderful to see this explosion in standards and ethics. The arrival of the helicopter was a huge help to all in trouble and even in bad weather Scotland’s busiest team Lochaber could get a lift as high as they could in bad weather. How often have we been battered about in the Wessex and Sea King to near the CIC hut a wild place to be with the ever-changing weather. To hear the noise of the helicopters rotors as it hovers up the Corrie is always heart warming no matter what type or who flies it!
Yet the Ben with its tales of the past the history, characters the classic winter climbs that even with modern tools and gear are still very intimidating. I have been so privileged to climb so many with some great pals and a few epics.
These were in my RAF MR days with pupils from other teams few who had climbed on the Ben after a week in Cairngorms on our Annual winter course when we climbed for the last week on the Ben. The Ben was a big change from the Cairngorms and very intimidating even when staying at the hut. I would stay on the summit each day after my route to ensure all were accounted for. We had our epics,over 25 years a few ropes down into the Tower Gap and other climbs to help our slower climbers and a few others who joined the “Tower Ridge Conga”. Talking troops of the plateau in the dark before GPS/ mobile phones and meeting groups below the descent gullies. All in a days work but took it out of you and of course the call – outs at the end of a long day and the carries down to the hut. Nowadays still done in poor weather when the helicopters cannot fly!
There is the funny side as well meeting walkers at the CIC hut who thought they were on the Mountain Path? ( Tourist Route ) way of route. The solo climbers on the routes racing up climbs that we took hours to climb such is this crazy sport and the difference in ability. I was there on Ben Nevis in the early 70’s when “Big Ian Nicholson” now a good pal climbed Zero and Point 5 all before lunch solo a huge break through at the time. I was having an epic on North and South Castle Gullies in perfect conditions how different things are now, (apart from my limited ability) The huge changes in gear and equipment leaving a terror in terror as a runner on Hadrians Wall, we carried a spare axe as the axe/hammer could break in these early days. Long run outs with no gear on Zero and getting lost on Route Major, so many classic climbs over 150 winter routes all over the mountain. Every day a special memory trying to tick all the old historic RAF Kinloss climbs some in little climbed places on the cliffs. The massive call -outs searching for missing climbers many successful and some we found after the snow had gone. Traversing round these huge cliffs on searches the huge avalanches on these epic rescues and searches and seeing many of the mountains secrets that few do. These days in summer long ago were so helpful on a wild day in winter looking into the nooks and cranny’s of the Ben.
I still have an apprehension when I arrive at the hut you look at these huge cliffs and wonder and yet of you go my companions are all good climbers now so that helps. Getting back to the hut is still a grand feeling, the first brew, the gear off, the feeling of a wind battered face and the tales of the day on the winter that get better and better as the night goes on. To cap it all going out at night from the hut for a last look at the winter cliffs on a moonlight night that is what it is all about no matter what climb or adventure you have. I thank all my mates and understanding companions for so many days of tight ropes and fear driven climbs on these magic cliffs too many to mention. I still enjoy a wander round these cliffs like I did last year when I was recovering from my illness. after a stay at the hut and look forward to the future.
Ben Nevis and the CIC hut what a place to be. Time to go back? This year, this year.