Nevis for the first time – 18/2/84

18/2/84 Ben Nevis

Route: Ben Nevis from the youth hostel. 8 hrs, 6 miles 

This was the time when we had a puncture at coming along the main road at Ballachulish, very late in the evening. I can’t swear it was before midnight – in those days it was a long drive from Sunderland, and we had not left Sunderland until around 5pm. We’d take the A68 straight through the interior, rather than the (then, as now I suspect) much slower and longer route up the coast on the A1. The road led over Carter Bar and through Jedburgh. Again, in those days there was no Edinburgh bypass, and we had to go right into the heart of Edinburgh, right to Haymarket, where we’d sometimes stop for chips. I remember piling into a chippy near Haymarket, 15 English students, and the atmosphere in that chippy going distinctly frosty. You’d think they’d be happy for the custom of 15 hungry students: obviously not. I confess I’ve taken a dim view of Scots nationalism ever since. But I digress.

The minibus ground to a halt and we laboured to get the spare out, get all the gear out and get the bus on jacks to change the wheel. We never needed to get the jack out. This was because the spare tyre was flat. “This is the best yet” (as in best cock-up) Alister confided to me. He was in his second year and more experienced with the mountaineering club. Someone went to the nearest phone – itself miles away – and called for help, which I seem to recall was hours coming. Suffice it to say it was the back end of the small hours before we all so much as unpacked a sleeping bag at the Tin Shack Hut in Glen Nevis.

Next morning, a fine early start for a party of six including Tim, Alister and myself, led by “Climbing Nigel”, a very opinionated but able Outdoor Ed student from South Shields. We went up the tourist path with Matt Harding and J.T headed for an ice-climb on Nevis. Breathless at Halfway Lochan. We met some American B.Ed students, from Colorado, at the lochan. Some way above the lochan we met the first snowfields and stopped to practice ice-ace braking for a while. Then we moved on up interminable deep and thick snowfields around 35 degrees steep. We put on crampons to move up a particularly steep slope of very hard snow. The wind whipped our clothing; the mist closed in causing temporary whiteout. Eventually the slope evened out and we crossed to the summit in a screeching gale.  The mist cleared every so often to reveal stunning vistas.  Above 4000’ the ice formations – frost crystals – on this highest of British summits, I found fantastic to look at. The rocks not completely covered in snow were completely iced over with opaque pointed crystals, each aligned with the prevailing wind direction. The ruins of the observatory on the summit were almost completely buried, indicating metres of snow cover. Such stonework as was visible was iced over, covered in inches, no, feet, of frost crystals.  

It was, to quote W.H Murray, “a strong shouting day, but harmless”.  The gale was too strong for us to remain on the summit for long, so we quickly got off the top and out of the wind. As we did so, the weather improved; clouds disappeared from the summit, which remained clear as we moved downwards.  

We descended a steep snow-filled gully, doubtless a stream bed in summer. We tried glissading but the snow was too soft. As the gully steepened, we found we needed to avoid the footprints of others, where the snow had frozen very hard. Some way down, Tim slipped, lost his axe and went sliding downwards. He zapped past Nigel and I. Nigel cried out, “spread out, lie flat” – the injunction being to make your contact area with the snow (and hence friction) as large as possible. Tim stopped after a few hundred feet and was uninjured save for a cut to his knee. He retrieved his axe and we moved on. We stopped to chat with some Scotsmen who had not made it to the summit. They had seen Tim slipping. We spoke of the distance the English need to drive in order to get onto the hill in the Highlands, and their subsequent desire to get on the hill no matter what. This, the Scotsman opined, was the cause of “nearly all the accidents” on the Scottish mountains.  

The gully brought us back to the first snowfield where we had originally practiced. Here we rested before continuing down to the Halfway Lochan. On the tourist path, Nigel found an abandoned or lost pair of Dachstein mittens.  

Conditions on high looked superb, and we were of the opinion that we had come down too soon.  “We should be up there now, not down here” Nigel said. We finished at 4p.m. We were on the hill for around 8 hours. 8600’ covered in the vertical, and around four and a half hours to the summit.