A Winter Ascent of Ben Nevis from Coire Leis

From my Diaries; 12th April 1982: A Winter Ascent of Ben Nevis from Coire Leis

“The atmosphere was touchable, ice splintered from the towering crags above me, crashing down the mountain shattering into tiny fragments accompanied with loud nerve-jangling sounds ...”

To the north of the summit of Ben Nevis are the magnificent imposing cliffs, a sweep of around two miles and an altitude of nearly two thousand feet, it’s the most impressive mountain face in the British Isles. During a recent summer-time visit to the top of Ben Nevis, I had viewed the cliffs from above, pockets of snow lay all year round in the north facing sheltered recesses and the drop-off just takes your breath away, more than a thousand feet to the glen below.

The unfolding ruggedness and drama of this place had instilled in me a desire to climb from the north and view this immense and complex rocky wall that creates such an overpowering paradox of tension and beauty. It dominated my mind and caused a yearning, and now I could witness it in winter conditions, when this place will appear most dramatic. My guidebook reads “Walking up the glen of the Allt a’Mhuilinn, the first thing the climber will see on his right is Castle Ridge and it’s flanking North Wall. Beyond this and at a higher level is the recess of Castle Corrie ...”. Further up the glen, the cliffs below the summit of Ben Nevis have many famous classic routes, with names like Tower Ridge, Observatory Ridge and Observatory Gully, Douglas Boulder, Gardyloo Gully and Tower Gully, they all evoke a sense of adventure with epic proportions. Ascents of these routes can be the most hostile and difficult challenges to be found in Britain at any time. Just the thought of walking up the glen beneath the towering cliffs excited me, experiencing this landscape alone gave a unique and personal engagement with nature in this very special environment. And such excitement is governed by something far bigger than any individual. A mood is cast, you can engage with it, take it as it is and absorb the tension and feel your senses tighten. For it can be hostile or forgiving, but always intense.

I left my car at Achintee in Glen Nevis, the popular pony track up Ben Nevis starts here. The climbing starts immediately and after gaining height I reached the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, here the pony track veers to the right but I continued north traversing into Allt a’Mhuilinh beneath Castle Ridge. My surroundings suddenly changed, no longer was I enjoying open spaces and distant views, I had entered a shadowy valley with the imposing towering cliffs of Ben Nevis hovered over me. I looked up into Castle Coire flanked by the Great Buttress, I had never seen anything as vast as this, cliffs separated by deep snow-filled gullies with sheer walls created an atmosphere of intimidation, enticing me into a fairy-tale world. Further up the glen it was even more dramatic. Through photographs and books, I was sort of prepared for the visual impact of these huge cliffs split by snow filled gullies, of massif crags covered in runnels of snow and ice, but I was never prepared for the sounds, the noise of thawing ice tumbling down the mountain, like thunderous falling blocks of ice smashing over rocks into millions of pieces, this was very much a dynamic landscape. At times, all I could hear was my footsteps as my boots sank into the snow, on the inclines my breathing laboured then another boom, as more ice fell from above. The atmosphere was touchable, ice splintered from the towering crags above me, crashing down the mountain shattering into tiny fragments accompanied with loud nerve-jangling sounds of smashing glass. My senses were activated, it was like living in an adventurous dream where my survival relied upon my wits.

A Winter Ascent of Ben Nevis continued

I soon reached the CIC hut and drank icy water from the gushing meltwater spout, refreshed yet in awe. I looked up at the cliffs, I was feeling more at home in my surroundings, but this was such an imposing arena, the sheer joy I was living would be burned into my memory for the rest of my life. I pinched myself, all alone in this place filled with intensity, the atmosphere pricked my senses demanding my attention, I was happy here, this was my adventure. Nobody presented this to me, I sought out this special place and my reward was a tingling and indescribable excitement.

The ice kept crashing, thundering down the cliffs, occasional snow avalanches rumbled toward the valley, just to keep my nerves sharpened. I left the hut, moved onto the snowfield leading into Coire Leis, high above me on my right was the Douglas Boulder that marked the start of Tower Ridge, a little higher, further to the east was the last great cliff of Observatory Ridge, aptly named, it leads directly to the summit of Ben Nevis where the remains of the old Observatory are topped by an emergency shelter and trig point.

My route climbs into Coire Leis, a straightforward but steepening snow climb leads to the arête, a knife-like ridge running from Carn Mor Dearg to the summit of Ben Nevis. From Coire Leis, Observatory Ridge and the Brenva Face look spectacular, snow and ice covered all but the vertical rock as mist swirled in the coires. With ice axe in hand and crampons fitted to my boots, I continued up Coire Leis passing the abseil posts, there are six posts fixed to assist descents for this can be a very dangerous place particularly in icy conditions, only four were visible above the snow. I continued up the snowfield, out of the shadows of the imposing cliffs, blue sky intermingled with swirling mist escaped from the gullies as I reached the ridge.

To my left, the knife-like edge swept toward the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, I turned right and started up the final steep narrow ridge leading to the summit of the Ben, the highest place in Britain. It was a straightforward climb up the ridge with glorious views all around, once I reached the summit plateau, it was a short walk to the highest point in Britain. The scene on the summit plateau was astounding, the winds had a formed a snow-scape made up of seas of white waves in every direction. At the highest place in Britain, I enjoyed a welcome rest and sat with my back against the emergency shelter door. In summer, the view of the shelter looks a little odd, for it is perched on a high rocky pedestal almost eight feet high, high up because of the deep snows that cover the summit through each winter. Today the shelter door was level with the snow-covered summit of Ben Nevis, the rocky top buried beneath a landscape of wind-formed ice sculptures extending across the plateau before disappearing over steep cliffs into the glens thousands of feet below.

The afternoon light soon falls in the Highlands of Scotland as the sun descends to the horizon, an icy-blue tint was lighting the glens and mountains for miles around, absolutely clear, I could see for twenty or thirty miles or further. But there was no time to hang around, with daylight limited, I made my way towards the snow-covered flank of the pony track, nearby prolific steep gullies bite into the plateau, the most obvious being Gardyloo Gully, it’s a good marker in this somewhat featureless snow-covered landscape.

Leaving the plateau the ground descends quickly and I came across the top of the snow-filled gully of Red Burn. There’s an obvious ‘slide’ where previous climbers have descended forming a toboggan run. Never to miss a trick, this is the most exciting method of descent you can enjoy in winter conditions. I removed my crampons and took my ‘survival bag’ from my rucksack, tucking it into my front and sitting on my makeshift slippery sledge, I prepared for the ‘ride of my life’. The ice-axe acts as a brake, I started my descent, fast and furious, loose particles of snow are thrown up by my boots skating over the snow to form the simplest of steering techniques. It’s exciting, to go faster, just lean back and to slow down plunge the ice pick into the snow at your side. The toboggan run winds its way down the gully better than any helter-skelter ride. Within a few minutes I had descended over a thousand feet as the fun finished abruptly above a waterfall where the Red Burn crosses the pony track, here I was within sight of my route earlier in the day, close to the Lochan and just a short downhill jaunt to the car. I confess the grin on my face was still there as I reached Achintee.


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