A Wee Trip To The CIC Hut.
Sure, What Could Go Wrong?
As the bus pulled in to Fort William, I was glad to see that for once it wasn’t raining. In fact, the stars were out and putting on a fantastic show; a good omen for our trip perhaps? I was there to meet my friend, Eoghan, for a few days of ice climbing on Ben Nevis. No sooner had I stepped off the bus, than I was greeted by his permanently smiling face. We quickly sorted our kit out and grabbed a taxi to the bottom of the hill.
As the taxi pulled away we clicked on our head torches and began our walk up through the forest. The walk up to the North Face of Ben Nevis is one that I’ve done on numerous occasions, but it never gets any easier. It has a reputation for being a bit of a slog, especially with heavy climbing kit, and it was no different that night. Our plan was to stay in a mountain hut for the four nights so we also had sleeping bags and enough food to feed a small army to weigh us down.
As we reached the top of the forest and the start of the Allt a Mhuilinn track, the trees thinned out, and we were reunited with the stars that were still happily twinkling in the sky. The Ben, with its winter coat on, was basking in their soft glow. The sky was so clear that we turned off our torches and allowed our eyes to adjust, finishing our walk by the glow of the moon and stars. It’s an experience I’ve only had once before and it creates a feeling somewhere between excitement and euphoria. You just can’t quite believe it’s happening!
Taken on my phone, if you can believe it! No lights, no flash, that's all nature baby! You can just about make out Eoghan and the hut.
It was close to midnight when we arrived at the hut, to find that everyone staying there was already asleep, understandable considering the hour. We dug out our sleeping bags and searched for a free space between the slumbering bodies. Sleeping in an alpine style hut is an interesting experience and probably not everybody’s cup of tea. Many of them have large communal bunk beds that can accommodate nine or ten people per layer. Sometimes you’ll know your neighbour and sometimes you won’t. You just have to pray that they don’t snore!
I awoke face to face with a smelly-breathed stranger (like I said, not everyone’s cup of tea!) and prised myself from my down cocoon. The hut is heated by two huge gas stoves so this wasn’t too painful an experience. Wandering into the common area, I was greeted by eight or nine unfamiliar faces. However, being the friendly bunch that climbers are, it soon felt like we were all old friends. Plans for the day were shared and helpful information about conditions were passed on. There is no competition or rivalry in the mountains…unless someone is trying to climb the same route as me, in which case I’ll do everything I can to get there first!
Chats and tea make up the staple diet of the average hut resident.
Our first route of the trip was Vanishing Gully, which had been on my to-do list for a number of years. With a relatively short approach and the option for an easier descent, it would be the perfect climb to start our trip. There was no point in getting cold too soon, so we opted to gear up in the hut before heading on our way. Our legs, stiff from the night before, soon loosened up and, with clear skies overhead, we were soon motoring!
This was to be my first time on proper ice in almost two years and I was raring to go. Looking up at the route, we could see a fair amount of spindrift (loose powder snow) pouring down from above, just one of the many joys of winter climbing. I knew that I was in for at least a little bit of suffering. I motored up the first pitch to the “in situ belay”, which was, as usual, a rat’s nest of rusty pitons, loose gear and frayed rope. As I waited for Eoghan to climb up to me, I was afforded plenty of time to eye up the next pitch, the crux.
What I could see was about ten or fifteen metres of vertical ice, with a lovely bulge in the middle that would make it feel just that little bit steeper, before it disappeared around a corner, hence the route’s name. I made a plan in my head which mostly consisted of gunning it through the steepest section, before my arms realised what was happening.
Of course, Sod’s Law, no sooner had I reached the bulge and the steepest part of the climb, than the spindrift returned. Looking up, I could see it coming, so I quickly looked down at my feet and held on tight. At first it wasn’t too bad, not feeling much stronger than a light breeze. However, it soon picked up to the point where I could feel it pushing down on me, just like standing under a waterfall. Unable to look up to move my axes, and now unable to see my feet through the snow, I just had to hold on and wait. God, I love winter climbing!
As soon as there was a moment of respite, I took my opportunity and got moving. I wasn’t stopping again! Getting to the top I set up my belay and threw on my insulated jacket and zipped myself into my winter armour. Nothing could phase me now. Winter pulls no punches and, as Eoghan followed me up, he also took his fair share of pummelling. We did a quick swap over of gear and Eoghan set off to make short work of the last pitch of the climb.
The obligatory hand shake, a quick bite to eat, and it was time to go down. The climb tops out on Tower Ridge, giving us two options. We could carry on up to the top or make a couple of easy abseils back to the bottom of the climb. We opted for the easy option and soon found ourselves back at the hut, with our feet up and a brew in hand. Job done!
Some shots from our day on Vanishing Gully. Eoghan forgot his phone so there are none of me unfortunately!
That evening we sat around the table, sharing war stories and getting to know the other people in the hut. The conversation was broken only by the whistle of a particularly strong gust of wind outside. We could tell that the weather was deteriorating and, as we watched the windows filling with snow, we knew that the next day wouldn’t be very pleasant. Nevertheless, we made a plan, packed our bags and wandered off to bed.
We awoke the following morning to the sound of wind; it hadn’t died down. Looking out through the window, we could see huge flurries of snow being blown around. This would mean three things for us; more spindrift, stinging faces and the increased risk of avalanches. With this in mind, we set out with a plan a, b and c and a guidebook in case we needed to use the rest of the alphabet.
Are the bars to keep the weather out or those, stupid enough to climb in it, inside?
A wee bit wild on the approach to Hadrians. To make it seem more pleasant we like to call it "atmospheric".
Plan A was Hadrian’s Wall, an impressive strip of ice which is guaranteed to catch your eye as it snakes skyward. Making our way up towards the foot of the climb, I paused to look at the route in all its glory. Unfortunately, my concerns were coming to fruition and, the large snowfield, situated above the route, was heavily loaded with loose snow. This became all too apparent as I watched it unload its contents down along the line of the route. Possibly the more horrifying part was watching all that snow being blown straight back up, before it had even reached the bottom of the route. It would be like an icy hell up there. Sadly, plan B, Point Five Gully, was no better.
Aware that things weren’t quite going to plan, we made a quick decision to return to the area where we had been climbing the day before. After putting our heads together, we opted to climb some easier ground that wasn’t listed as a route in the guide book. It should have provided us with a couple of pitches of enjoyable climbing before an easy descent. Or so we thought!
I offered up the lead to Eoghan, who gladly accepted his chance to play and off he went. Everything was going to plan, so I snapped a few pictures and a took quick video of Eoghan before he was about to disappear out of view. No sooner had I put my phone away than I heard a loud shout and felt the ropes coming tight. The next thing I knew, I had Eoghan lying upside down in the snow in front of me, groaning. He’d fallen.
Eoghan placing a screw before tackling the bulge.
Shortly after I filmed this Eoghan fell.
At first, I didn’t think it was too bad and that he’d gotten away unscathed. Unfortunately, Eoghan soon told me that he thought he’d broken his ankle. My immediate response was “ah, you’re grand!” but I soon realised that he wasn’t joking. Damn! I didn’t need to think at this point, all my actions came as a robotic response. I knew what needed to be done.
I got Eoghan the right way up and attached him to the belay, where he was safe. Next up, I had to climb what Eoghan had just fallen from in order to retrieve the protection and ice axe he’d left behind. We had our priorities in order, gear is expensive! Gear in tow, I set about lowering Eoghan, down the steep slope, to a point where it levelled off. From there, I had to drag him back to the hut where we could evaluate his ankle properly and make a plan of action.
I took this on my way to get the gear back. You can just about make out Eoghan's axe above.
Towing my sledge back to the hut. All I can say is, thank god he's not a big guy!
In the end, I think it took us about an hour and a half to get there. I have to give massive props to Eoghan, who barely let out a peep of complaint, except when I lent on his bad leg. Sorry Eoghan! Back at the hut, we got his boot off and took a look at his ankle. Luckily, there was no shortage of ice to put on it. At this point we weren’t sure how badly his ankle was injured. It didn’t look deformed and wasn’t ballooning like a sprain normally would. Maybe he got lucky! The only problem was that he still wouldn’t be able to walk back out to the base of the mountain, a trip that normally took two hours with two good legs. I had a phone call to make.
The route I dragged Eoghan down.
I dialled 999 and asked for police, who organise mountain rescue. From the call centre, I was passed to Fort William police station, who then contacted The Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team. A short time later I received a call from the team, who double checked the details and informed me that a helicopter would be arriving in 10 minutes. Luckily, it was already in the area. We scrambled to get Eoghan ready for his impending flight and, no sooner had he gotten his jacket on, than we heard the whump, whump, whump of the coast guard chopper, flying low, up the valley. It came to hover above the hut, an impressive site, and lowered the winch before going into a holding pattern.
The winchman assessed Eoghan, offered him some drugs and put his leg into a vacuum cast. Kris, another climber from the hut, and I, got ourselves ready to carry him out. When we could hear the chopper returning we followed the winchman out. As the chopper came to hover we were enveloped by the snow-filled downdraft. Seeing, breathing and standing up all became difficult, a truly wild experience. No sooner was Eoghan in the strops than he was airborne and on his way to A&E in Fort William.
With the excitement over, reality dawned. I had a small mountain of equipment to try and get back down off the hill. That evening, still unsure of Eoghan’s prognosis, I optimistically brought down our sleeping bags and some clothes thinking he’d be discharged that night. As it happened, this was not the case. Eoghan had been told that he had broken two bones and pushed another out of place. Not only was he going to be kept in overnight, but multiple surgeries were now on the cards.
The following day, I returned to the hut and brought down the remaining kit in one go. Probably not my best idea! However, gravity was on my side and I made surprisingly good time, considering I had half my body weight on my back.
Not the worst day to have to walk up to the hut
Sun, music and Scottish tablet kept me going. This was just before I left the soft snow for the hard forest track.
It’s now a few weeks on and Eoghan has only just been released from the hospital. He’s had two surgeries to remedy the damage and he should be back climbing in a couple of months time. The injury was much worse than they'd originally told him and he'd actually blown open the end of his tibia. I’m delighted to say that he’s still smiling although I’m worried he’s already coming down with a touch of cabin fever. Hang in there, dude! As for me, there was no damage that a pint, and a good feed, couldn't fix. Plus, on the bright side, I’ve new story for the hut, next year!