The Great Thaw

Written by Haydn Williams

December 2010. Britain is held firmly in the grip of the harshest winter for decades. Snow and ice have caused the nation to ground to a halt, with transport links chaotic and mountainous areas witnessing unprecedented volumes of early-season snowfall. The MPS New Year trip looks like it could be the scene of great heroics and derring-do as the nation’s weather firmly puts the ‘winter’ back into ‘winter climbing’.¬†Alas, by the time Phil and I haul ourselves north to Fort William two days after Christmas, it’s all melted. There’s barely a flake all the way up the M6, and Fort William remains warm and wet all week.

This year’s MPS New Year trip got off to an auspicious start, with barely any snow left at lower levels on the hills. Thoughts of climbing were quickly vanquished on arrival at the accommodation, so day one saw Brannock and I having an easy day venturing across the CMD Arete. John had been up before, and was duped into going just to see what conditions were like near the top of Ben Nevis. I, meanwhile, was excited about finally getting to tackle the wonderful ridge traverse that everyone raves about. We walked in from Glen Nevis, then heading up from the saddle between Carn Mor Dearg and Aonach Mor / Aonach Beag. I first saw this ridge two years ago when heading up Aonach Mor, and thought at the time what an great approach it would be to CMD Arete – it’s a striking silhouette as you approach from Glen Nevis. The snow cover wasn’t complete even at the col, but as we gained height quicky on the ridge it became clear that donning crampons was a prudent move. The shoulder narrows as you get higher, and soon we were trotting along a lovely snowy ridge line.

Our footprints on the ridge the following day. CMD Arete to the left. Copyright Ben Llewellyn 2010.
Our footprints on the ridge the following day. CMD Arete to the left.Copyright Ben Llewellyn 2010.

On reflection, I’m not sure “trotted” is quite the right word, as Brannock labouriously broke trail through deep snow and I followed a short distance behind, wheezing as I tried to keep up. The ridge eventually spat us out at the start of the CMD Arete, which proved great sport despite the entire thing being cloaked in cloud. A final slog saw us at the top of the Ben, where dripping ice on the ruins of the observatory didn’t bode well for climbing conditions. Reports from people who’d been out on the north face confirmed that everyone was melting, and we plodded back to the car at the Visitor Centre car park via numerous bum-slides down the tourist track.

Three of us had planned for the second day to involve mountain biking, but on reaching the hire shop only two bikes remained. I selflessly let Phil and Annette take the bikes, so that I could do some thesis corrections instead. The intrepid pair required, worringly, a lesson on gears and brakes in the car park, but were soon ready to go. I watched them ride off, feeling like a proud father sending my kids off on their first adventure. That feeling continued when they rang calling for help a couple of hours later, resulting in me driving back to the Nevis Range to fix a puncture they’d sustained (in fairness, they were suffering from faulty gear rather than incompetence!).

Taking this shot, I had visions of grazed knees and crying eyes. As it was, there were no major disasters. Copyright Haydn Williams 2010
Taking this shot, I had visions of grazed knees and crying eyes. As it was, there were no major disasters.Copyright Haydn Williams 2010

Day three dawned drizzly and warm (7 degrees in Fort William); again, not ideal climbing conditions. I got to the bike shop early with Annette to secure a couple of bikes, and we made our way to the Nevis Range to check out the red World Champs route at the Witch’s Trails. The loop is short (8.5km) but really good fun; there’s an amazing bermy-switchback section right at the very top which I think may be a contender for best bit of trail ever (if I was on my own bike, and it wasn’t so wet that the whole place was like a swamp). The rest of the trail was very enjoyable, and my second lap was much more fluid than the first as I knew where all the dodgy bits were! When I got back to the ski centre, Annette had just finished her lap and had a play on the skills loop, so we headed home knackered but content.

Day four. Finally an awesome forecast, consisting of 10mph winds and clear blue skies. -5 degrees at 900m. Brilliant. A mass start from the car park at 07:20 meant we were just emerging from the forest up the Allt a’ Mhuillin at first light. An awesome sight greeted us; the snow line was way above the CIC hut, and our intended route, Ledge Route (II,****) had little to no snow on it. Bugger. By this point, it had also become clear that the wind and cloud forecasts were wrong too. We wandered up into Coire na Ciste anway, and an inspection from Number Five gully bode better for the route. We got out axes and crampons and started moving right from the gully onto the route. At this point I had a mini breakdown and decided I couldn’t handle it. I’m not really sure why; I’ve soloed plenty of Grade II ground before, and this wasn’t particularly dodgy. Maybe it was because it was the first time I’d used my axes properly this year? Whatever the reason, I freaked out and made Phil go up Number Five gully (I,**) instead; Sean and Ben carried on up Ledge Route.

Phil and I in Number Five Gully (bottom centre). Copyright Sean Clancy 2011.
Phil and I in Number Five Gully (bottom centre).Copyright Sean Clancy 2011.

Number Five gully turned out to be moderately interesting, despite snow which was less than confidence-inspiring in places. There were, however, big steps all the way up which provided security even if the powder around them didn’t. We saw Ben and Sean on Ledge Route to our right a couple of times, and eventually topped out about the same time as them. Phil was unusually subdued while climbing, and I was worried that my imposed change of route had ticked him off. However, once at the top he revealed that he’d injured his knee earlier in the week and it was giving him trouble. We therefore took a leisurely descent down the Red Burn and back to the car. A quick change of clothes and we commenced the lengthy drive back down south, with the monotony broken only by news that three of our party were being winched off the hill by a rescue helicopter (don’t worry, everyone was fine!). While not exactly the itinerary I had in mind, it was still a nice few days out-and-about. With a new North Wales guidebook to investigate, hopefully there’ll be plenty more snowy days to come this year.

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