Wednesday 17 February 2010

Winter mountaineering day, Ledge Route, Ben Nevis, Monday 15th Feb.

As well as running Kendal Mountaineering Services, Iain also gets "contracted in" as a freelance Instructor to work for other organisations and when he was asked to coach winter scrambling skills for a party wishing to attempt Ledge Route on Ben Nevis he certainly wasn't going to say no!

Having just parked at the Alt A Mhuillin top car park this picture shows Paul, Chris and Neil wth our intended destination behind in rapidly improving weather conditions.

After a 45 minute walk in, Iain took this shot of Carn Dearg Buttress looming through the mist.

Here, the lower tier has an impressive & well formed grade 4 waterfall giving Iain the impression that The Curtain
grade IV,5 was likely to "be in", sadly, it wasn't!

Anyway, our route was up the left hand side of and on to the top of the impressive buttress in the upper part of the picture. Ledge Route starts to its left in No 5 Gully which can be made out to the left of Carn Dearg Buttress. Shortly after entering the gully we move out right on to a ramp leading above The Curtain before moving up a left slanting gully to reach the top of Carn Dearg Buttress.

As all good Mountaineering Instructors should - Iain had been talking to the guys on the way up to the route to find out what past experience they had gained of winter mountaineering and it transpired there was a fair level of experience between all three. Neil has his Summer ML Award and all three of our party had attended various winter skills courses and had been guided in the area before by other mountaineering businessess as part of an annual excursion in to the area. After a discussion, it was decided that they needed some consolidation on ropework and belay techniques.

So, after some practice at short roping techniques, this shot shows the group, led by Neil ,heading into the lower part of No 5 Gully before turning right on to the ramp of Ledge Route just before the icicles in the middle distance.

Once on to the start of the ramp the feel is one of slightly more exposure and so it was felt prudent to "pitch" this part of the route. Neil led off around a slight narrowing & steepening of the ramp, built a belay and then brought Paul & Chris up to him before securing them and then setting off again.

This next ropelength brough him into the left hand slanting gully from where he set up a snow belay and then the other two followed on. Here Chris & Paul are just entering the gully from the ramp.

This shot is taken from just below the top of the Gully. Neil belays Chris & Paul in a semi-direct fashion using a buried ice axe anchor and a bucket seat as his belay.

Once the guys were up to him they "self belayed" using their own axes whilst Neil soloed up to the platform just above and then brought the guys up on an indirect or body belay. This was perfectly acceptable on this easy bit of ground.

At this point it was decided to break for a bit of lunch and discuss how we would tackle the next section. It was agreed that Paul would take over the lead for what was pretty much, the second half of the route. Also at this point, the cloud began to thin and sunshine, blue sky and views began to appear. also, by this point, the air was almost completely still.

After lunch, we headed right as per the route description, past a pinnacle block to another platform and the arete. At first this was relatively easy terrain and so Paul short roped Chris & Neil as can be seen here.

Good winter short roping technique is being demonstrated ie all three have their axes in their uphill hands ready for self belay in the event of a slip and the rope between the second & third man is downhill of them both thus preventing the second from being easily dislodged should the back man slip. Paul has chest coils locked off and a number of smaller hand coils - correctly held in his downhill hand and also locked off.

Inevitably, the ridge got steeper and narrower and so the level of exposure increased again to the point where short roping wasn't a safe option.

Paul had just "pitched" the narrow section below and then found a suitable block with which to set up a direct belay consisting of a sling and an Italian Hitch. This picture shows Paul, belay in position, bringing Chris & Neil up to him.

Chris & Neil were left attached to this belay point before Paul pitched only a matter of 10M to the end of the exposed section and then brought the guys up with an indirect belay.

From here on, the ridge got easier & broader and we rapidly gained hieght using mainly body belays and one direct belay before short roping again to the foot of the final buttress.

During our ascent of the most technical part of the ridge, it had again, clouded in and snowed heavily - obliterating the footsteps of a large party that had gone ahead of us. Then suddenly, the cloud lifted and we could see to the top of our route as well as everywhere else.

This view looks across to Tower Ridge and beyond to the North East Buttress. Many parties could be seen on Tower Ridge, Number Three Gully Buttress and Green Gully. At this time (about 3:30pm) a party could be seen heading up just above the Douglas Gap West Gully (the diagonal groove just above the foot of Tower Ridge) It was Iain's guess that they were going to have a late (and in the dark) finish!

After a couple of final easy pitches, the team reached the top and removed ropes & harnesses, then it was time for a brew and a butty.

It was surprisingly calm on the top of Carn Dearg and we could see the sun through a thin layer of cloud - good brocken Spectre weather.

As was evidenced by everything having frozen solid, it was clearly bitterly cold but as it was almost calm we didn't notice the cold. However, time had raced by as it does when you are having fun and so we needed to descend quickly.

A bearing was taken from where we were and Iain reckoned that it would be ok to descend straight towards the outflow of the Halfway Lochan - avoiding the tops of N & S Castle Gullies and it turned out to be a fine descent route.

We soon came out of the cloud into a beautiful sunset and a snowline that was over 1000 feet lower than it had been at the start of the day. Getting down took a while as it does on Britains highest mountain, but the clients were very happy with what they had achieved and were looking forward to using the skills they had learnt on other similar routes during the course of the rest of their week in the area.

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