CIC Hut Ben Nevis
Thu 2nd Mar - Sun 5th Mar, 2017
This early March trip to the SMC’s Charles Inglis Clark (CIC) hut at the foot of Ben Nevis is a regular fixture in the KMC calendar, with, as usual the eight reserved places being booked as soon as it was advertised. Closely following after the club ice-climbing trip to Norway, it’s an excellent chance to put technical skills to the test in a larger mountain environment. The hut requires a walk-in of approximately 2h, carrying all food, sleeping bags & climbing equipment – so is a more committing undertaking.
Unfortunately a delayed plane back from Norway, injury, illness, work commitments & weather uncertainty meant that only three folk were able to take up their places, so the organiser Andy passed the key to Steve for the trip. Mark started the drive from Cambridge at 12 noon, collecting Stuart from Manchester as planned. Plan A was for Steve to pass the key to us at 1pm, in case Steve decided to go chase better weather in the Cairngorm. After that plan B was for Steve to get the key to us at 3pm, which came & went. Plan C became meeting us at Penrith with the key as we should have been setting off from Manchester at the same time. Plan D was Steve turning up after a 2h wait in Penrith, being very apologetic & complaining about the traffic! And so the meet began.
We arrived at the North Face car park & started the walk-in at 11pm, slightly later than expected, with snow on the ground & light snow falling – getting to the hut at 1am. The CIC hut is pretty basic, with 2 long-drop toilets & no water so watering cans need to be filled & brought inside from the nearby burn. But it’s a haven, & we didn’t envy the two sets of nearby campers.
Stuart was particularly keen on certain routes on this his 3rd trip to the hut while this was my 1st, but seeing as the recent snow meant the gulley’s were avalanche prone & were corniced we followed the advice that “ridges are bridges” and climbed Castle Ridge (III) as a warm-up. Friday’s weather was spectacularly sunny, & we enjoyed the climbing behind a group of 3 who were first on the route, wending its way up a series of ice-filled chimneys, ridges & arêtes. At the top we broke trail through knee-high fresh snow to the summit plateau, and from the state of the gullies we decided to descend via Ledge Route (II) directly to the hut. This latter was a superb & devious route down through apparently difficult terrain, which makes it a classic scramble in summer.
Stuart: ‘’It was an excellent 1st day on castle ridge, some early hesitation on an awkward step low down, nice groove to start off followed by increasingly unlikely terrain leading to a brilliant switchback and groove chimney up to the arête (taken with even more hesitation!). Up to the top of ledge route in the sun, then quickly down it. An awesome day out in the weather conditions.
Back at the hut, the instructions are to lock yourself in & “resist” any attempt by those without keys to enter! So we started the fires in the kitchen & drying room. Saturday’s weather was very stormy as expected, and we set off later to join everyone & their dog on the low-level Douglas Boulder (which is really a part of Tower Ridge). After barely being able to stand upright, & the wind coming from every direction, we make a tactical retreat away from the queue for South West Ridge (IV, 5) & went back to the hut for cups of tea for the next 3 hours. But at midday, the first climbers also came back to the hut & as the wind had dropped considerably we set out again for the route. This was a fantastic set of pitches involving chimneys, squeezes & me optimistically hammering bulldogs into ½ inch turf until they were nearly flattened. Having the whole area almost to ourselves, we ending the superb climbing with an abseil into West Gully (I) and a walk back at the hut at twilight.
Stuart’s version of events:
Feeling much more confident on the 2nd day we chose a route by using the tried and tested follow the herd method! The weather was so foul we could hardly see out of the goggles and pretty sure we took a grade II variation of the path up to the Douglas boulder. We eventually made it to the loose assemblage of people struggling in the wind in various states of belay after several hesitant stops – are we really doing this?! Did we really need to leave the hut? Why didn’t I stay in bed!? This is awful!
“Let’s go back!”
Several cups of tea later, we decided to venture outside just as the first team came back – “excellent route, you’ll easily be able to get it knocked off quick!” they said.
We went outside to almost stillness and could clearly see the bizarre route we had taken earlier, up and down, over and round almost all of the hillocks! We arrived back below the East Ridge as a team had completed their grade VI.
I decided to scramble up the easy snow ramp with a couple of random bits of gear and a rope only to feel increasingly hesitant and exposed kicking my crampons into shallow loose snow over loose scree as the ramp narrowed and the height increased! Got a couple of bits in and finally made it to the belay at the start of the route! Not wanting to take any more exposure, I move to slightly less exposed ground and dug in a linear manner along my traverse until I found a reasonable belay.
Phew, didn’t like that at all. Mark came up – ‘Do you want to do the first pitch?’ No!! I answered, that was awful! You lead it! - As I had traversed a bit from the start of the route it was looking particularly steep to us right now, so we boldly decided to start by going up the east gully, grade I, and doing the grade III 1st pitch (instead of IV 5).
An excellent route ensued and confidence rapidly increased on the relatively firm snow and solid hook covered rocks of the east ridge, I felt very happy but with a slight hint of foolishness about missing out the initial section, which I’m sure would have been brilliant!
Back to the hut by 6pm after a midday start – still earlier than most of my routes!!
On Sunday the weather was overcast but settled so we set off for Central Gully Right Hand (IV, 4), a steep & long ice pitch, ¾ of the way up No. 3 gully from the hut – making for a tougher walk-in. Finding a pair already on the route, I lead the easier first pitch to the belay where the teams shared much of the in-situ gear & Stuart had a “sporting” second up whilst being rained down on by brittle ice as the neighbouring route was climbed. Stuart then made an excellent ascent of the mostly vertical ice route, placing every ice-screw we had. His Norwegian training had definitely paid off & he was pushing his grades.
Stuarts version of Sunday:
In the hut it was strongly rumoured that days earlier a Frenchman had declared to an Englishman “The ice on the Cascade is as good as any ice in France!”. Thus I was keen to go up high and find ice, thinking the Cascade might be a bit ambitious for us I opted for another ice route with an amenable neighbour – Central Route Right Hand and Central Route, grades IV and III respectively. Mark didn’t seem too keen on this idea, having to make his extended journey back to Cambridge via Warrington in the afternoon, I tried my best to convince, using the argument that going up high meant the route was shorter! This seemed to work so we set off up the long slog to near the top of No.3 Gully witnessing the sunshine backlighting tower ridge as the first climbers made it up the 3rd or so pitch.
Bit of hesitating with a belay but then Mark confidently climbed over to the 2nd belay below the main pitches of the two routes. I started off on the 2nd pitch, feeling a bit more confident after the previous days and especially back on the ice post Norway. The route was a multi-vertical stepped chimney with reasonable ice under cruddy snow ice and powder, I managed to place all my ice screws -some a bit dubious but others pretty good – and get up in reasonable time. We discussed summiting but Mark was clear – we’re going down!! I cheekily suggested climbing Central Route but could not persuade!
So we walked back to the car, very happy at three great routes and a new descent done despite not having ‘proper’ Ben Nevis conditions.
Time was against us so we only had time for the one route, and had to headed down to the hut to collect our belongings for the long walk out. But what a day, with Scotland treating us to bright sunshine to see the route that had been hidden on the approach. Only a quick drive back to Manchester (8pm) & then Cambridge (midnight) a bit further down the road.
More relevant photos;
Mark Pilling & Stuart Hurworth
*****All eight places are now taken and a reserves list has been started.*****
Thursday 2nd March to Sunday 5th March (3 nights).
Contact Andy to request a place on the reserves list.