I arrived in Glencoe on Sunday afternoon, as the sun was setting, and made camp in a familiar lay-by on the Glen Etive road. With the pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mor framing the view, and with deep snow down to the valley floor, it made for an atmospheric campsite.
The next morning was cold and clear and the frost formed on the inside of the van’s windows tallied with the thermometer reading of -11. I linked up with Mike and we drove up the forest trail to the car park at the base of Ben Nevis’s CIC path, glad of the snow socks that had just been gifted to him by his father-in-law. We set off at an eager pace, with no-one else around, enjoying the sunrise framing the North East Buttress.
Today’s route was Hadrian’s Wall Direct and we enjoyed solid neve and fat ice with first-time placements. The summit was reached in a characteristic white-out and we followed the compass needle closely downwards until reaching the path above the Halfway Lochan, where we stopped for a second lunch.
The following morning arrived clear and cold. We pointed Mike’s van south, scooping up Ali and Georgia en route, and parked at the Lagangarbh lay-by, still under deep snow, on the western flank of the Buachaille. With snow up to our thighs in places, we picked our way up to the base of Crowberry Gully, crossing it quickly, and excavated a belay at the foot of Shelf Route. Moving as two ropes of two, the route gave an absorbing morning’s climbing – characterised by amenably angled snow shelves punctuated by a series of steep and quite devious rock steps.
Mike led the crux final pitch up onto Crowberry Ridge and we both then moved together up onto the summit of Crowberry Tower where we were treated to a Brocken spectre of startling clarity as the sun behind projected our image onto the cloud inversion below. With a distant Ben Nevis framing the background, the enjoyment was complete.
Another cold morning followed as we once again ascended the CIC path, this time with our eyes on Gemini. Mike had climbed it before and his description of the route over the preceding few days had caused me some degree of excitement. The first long pitch ascended near vertical ice although an opportune bay at the mid-way point rescued lactic-filled forearms. A rising icy traverse to the base of a huge block was then followed by the crux ice smear to another ledge. A rightward traverse over mixed ground then led to the two twin exit grooves and selecting the leftward option, we delicately hooked our way to the top. Moving right via a snowy traverse, we belayed each other over a gully top blocking progress via a running jump and axe arrest on the other side, to the call of, “Jump when ready!”. What a superb and engrossing route.
Mike and I then parted as Nick arrived later that night. We set off the following morning, back up the Ben once more, selecting the 450m-long Nordwand on the north face of Castle Ridge. Crumbling ice caused us to back off the first pitch in a gathering blizzard and we instead selected a line to the left that popped us out at the top of Nordwand’s first pitch. We followed its second pitch up a chimney system, and then climbed diagonally right, bisecting The Moat and The Serpent up mixed ground until finally gaining the shoulder of Castle Ridge after five or six rope lengths. On unfamiliar ground and in heavy snow, this was adventure climbing at its best. We had our second lunch in the lee of a huge boulder and descended to the Allt a Mhuilinn and back down to the valley floor.
The following day’s rainy thaw put paid to any climbing, so we had a leisurely lunch in the Clachaig before commencing the long journey back south. I always feel an acute sense of mourning when I see Rannoch Moor disappear in my rear view mirror but the memories of this trip will sustain me, I’m sure, until the next fix later in February.
Tommy Kelly is a co-founder of Jöttnar and an ex-pat Scotsman.