Read me a lesson muse...We reached the junction cairn at around 4pm. Packs thrown down, shoulders and legs aching – the signs of a good day. I wiped the sweat from my brow; was I actually feeling warm? I’d almost forgotten what warmth was. The climate certainly felt more hospitable below the snow line, and even though the occasional snow flake blew past, and small drifts collected in the heather, I had to remove my hat and gloves. Joe looked like he was feeling it too; he sat slumped back heavily against the cairn wall, his extra layers and helmet resting by his side.
“Your hands are blue”, I looked down, the tips of my fingers were definitely an off colour blueish hue that really didn’t look right. I gave my fingers an experimental prod, there was still feeling there, a good sign I felt. “Good job we got off there when we did!” I exclaimed “much longer and I think my hands would’ve dropped off!”. Joe looked at me in the way one does when confronted with a blatant exaggeration of the truth. “Yea sure; c’mon lets get out of here, I’m hungry”.
Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
A few days earlier we had been coming off Ben Nevis along the Pony Track, when we met a couple of climbers not far from Lochan an t-Suide. They were the first people we’d come across since traversing the Carn Mor Dearg Arête earlier that day, and I think that both parties felt that a quick chat would be an ideal opportunity to rest the knees. They told us, with some enthusiasm, that they’d been in Number Five Gully and that it was the most enjoyable Scottish Grade I route they’d ever climbed. A couple of days later we met another climber, this time in the Mamores, who told us that he’d heard good things about the gully too and was planning to climb it later in the week. These two good ‘reviews’ were enough to persuade us that we aught check the route out, and so we decided that we would give it a go too.
In the absence of any kind of guidebook (good preparation was never a strongpoint of ours) we only knew three things about the climb. The first was its location, a rather essential piece of information that I’d obtained from a now crumpled printout of Ben Nevis’ summit area, normally used to aid navigation from the summit to the Pony Track. Secondly, we knew that by Scottish standards, at some 500m in length, this was a long climb. The third, and potentially life saving piece of information that we were aware of, was that the gully has a nasty habit of funnelling avalanches down its entire length whenever conditions on the mountain become unfavourable. With all this in mind, we decided to wait for a decent avalanche forecast, and play it by ear once we got to the start.
A few days later we left the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, the sun yet to rise, and a deep blue haze covering the scene before us. The weather was a great improvement on deluge of the previous two days, which had persuaded us to seek sanctuary in the pubs and outdoor shops of Fort William. Instead a gentle breeze blew up the glen carrying small islands of sunshine across the landscape with it. The avalanche forecast for the day was predicting a category 3 risk for Lochaber’s south facing slopes, but no significant risk for the northern ones. Conveniently Number Five Gully is on The Ben’s North East Face, and away from the greatest danger. We walked up the Pony Track with quiet optimism and soon found ourselves passing the cairn which we would later rest upon. The approach carried us around the western flank of the mountain, up Allt a’ Mhuilinn and towards the CIC hut.
By the time we had reached the great amphitheatre of Coire na Ciste, thick grey clouds had moved over the area, and were now obscuring the upper reaches of the route. As we approached the gully entrance we crossed the decaying remnants of an old avalanche which were protruding some distance down the slope. Not that either of us are experts, but we reckoned it to be a few days old. Still, it was enough to remind us of the potential dangers avalanching posed, and so before donning crampons and roping up, we dug an avalanche pit to test the snow. The snow was deep, but the layers held firm, and so our engagement with Number Five Gully was on. Joe set out first and I waited until the rope pulled taut to follow, no protection was placed, and when Joe led I trod in his footprints, and when I lead he trod in mine. This was the way we climbed Number Five Gully. The first section of the route offered few difficulties, and we made good progress by skirting the edges of the gully where the avalanche debris had not fallen. By around halfway, the gully narrowed and the debris petered out, allowing us to move up it s centre with ease.
As we climbed the views back down the mountain became shrouded in cloud, and a gentle snow began to fall around us. As we progressed the cloud became thicker and the snow became heavier, obscuring everything but the immediate few metres around us. By the time we had reached the point where the point where the gully opens into a wide bowl the weather had definitely taken a turn for the worst, and we could only just make out the misty outline of a cornice surrounding the gully’s rim. Snowflakes fell and danced around our bodies, hen carried away on the breeze and forgotten, soon to be replaced by the wave upon wave of counterpart and contemporary; the embryonic ripples of an advancing tide.
I let some rope out and Joe made an attempt at reaching a section of cornice to our left, which looked, at least from our perspective, smaller than the rest. By this time a thick layer of unconsolidated snow had formed, and no matter how hard he tried, Joe couldn’t reach the cornice, the snow falling away beneath his feet as he tried unsuccessfully to advance. After a great deal of floundering, and the expenditure of a great deal of energy, he gave up on this option, and we looked around for other possible exits; Joe decided to try his luck on an imposing piece of cornice directly above us. While I was sitting there, half buried in snow, it had dawned on me that we were now sitting in a notorious avalanche funnel in exactly the right conditions for such an event to occur; escape was now a priority.
Delicately, Joe kicked himself some steps in the unstable snow of the cornice and began the work of hacking a passage through. His stance was precarious; occasionally he wobbled, and was forced to secure himself with his axe, but for the most part seemed fine. I don’t know how long I had been sitting there when Joe finally lost his footing and fell. With a sharp intake of breath, he tumbled at first before falling into a slide and coming to rest somewhere to my left. This seemed like a good time to swap roles, and I took my place on the cornice face. With a little difficulty I managed to get my crampon points to take hold, and with a few swings of the axe, managed to get it to bury it deep enough to hold me securely. Then with my left arm, I punched, pressed, pushed and pulled at the snow around me, until I had made a slot just big enough to squeeze through.
Breathlessly, I swung my axe in an ark in an attempt to gain hold beyond the slot; once, twice, again and again, but repeatedly failed to find sufficient ice to hold me. Eventually my pick caught against something buried deep under the snow, and so taking the axe in both hands I hauled myself through the slot, kicking at the air as my crampons failed bite against the cornice wall. Although cold, the gully had protected us from the prevailing wind, and as I pulled myself onto The Ben’s plateau I was instantly met by the storm, tyrannous and strong. Eager to get Joe out of the gully I hastily threw a belay together, using my axe as an anchor and lying as low as possible to shield my body from the prevailing wind. I shouted, and after a few long minutes Joe wriggled ungraciously through the slot, a big grin upon his face.
Cold and hungry, the storm enveloped us, and our once dexterous hands struggled clumsily against the zips and toggles of our hastily thrown on layers. Our bid for the summit had just become a very unattractive prospect, and so without hesitation, we decided to abandon our best laid plans and quit the mountain as quickly as the conditions would allow us. We travelled through this land of mist and snow on a bearing for the Red Burn, spindrift burning our exposed flesh and freezing to our goggles; and as two spent swimmers that do cling together, we departed Ben Nevis leaving the storm behind us.