Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Castle Ridge

Castle Ridge 8-11 Feb 2001

With the usual bad weather forecast for the weekend people were dropping out of the trip left right and centre. In the end there was only three of us, me and Will from Newcastle and Sally from Charlton

This trip was Sally’s introduction to ice climbing but it began with a series of personal disasters for me. First of all, Scottie dropped out and when Janet and George said they were snowed in at their mountain retreat just outside Dundee, I was left with the nightmare scenario of having to climb in a rope of three. Worse still one of the three was Will, my very worst climbing nightmare and nemesis. My subtle propaganda exercise extolling the virtues of the easier Ledge Route also failed and even having Sally, who had never climbed any ice as the third member did not deter him from announcing we were going to do Castle Ridge. A reasonable choice I’m sure, given that we were a rope of three, consisting of an occasional ice climber and a beginner on a route with a rather avalanche prone approach. Did I mention that Will was a madman? Unfortunately he’s a North Shields madman so you don’t dare disagree with him. As a final straw, even the weather turned against me, the fine spell was due to last until Friday and we had decided to go on Thursday. There was to be no escape

We left Tyneside at 4pm with only a stop at Dalkeith for fish and chips and reached Roy Bridge at 9.30pm, in plenty of time for a couple of pints before turning in. The next morning we were up at 5am, had some tea and toast and were at Torlundy car park by 6.30am. We were the first there but this didn’t stop what seemed like half the population of Fort William from overtaking us by the time we reached the CIC Hut.

As we approached the hut I thought I would regale my flagging companions with some morale boosting anecdotes of previous club adventures on the Ben. Just below the CIC hut I pointed out the campsite of the ill fated 1987 expedition. This was when Andy, PT and I had to carry all of Alan Morton’s gear back down the mountain after he’d he had the good fortune to be helicoptered off after a bad fall. And just over there was the gully he fell down headfirst. Then there was the story of the week long Winter meet at the CIC hut in 1984 when it rained every day. This was the time when Robin and I got fed up with dossing around, went out to do a climb and in zero visibility walked in a big circle and very embarrassingly ended up back at the hut 2 hours later.

Walking under the cliffs on the traverse to the start of our route we saw a man soloing up a corner that was seemingly totally devoid of ice and with no apparent way of escape. Well, he looked as if he knew what he was doing but just to be on the safe side we hurried on and in any case watching him wasn’t very good for our nerves. We let Will go first across the avalanche prone slope below the North and South Castle Gullies, which took us to the starting point of Castle Ridge.

Will led off up a steep slope of snow whose condition could best be described as crap. Sally, on her first winter route was remarkably composed when he suggested that she might like to climb up a bit so he could reach a belay. (Perhaps this happens a lot when she goes rock climbing? I’ll have to ask). By the time I came up, Will was already half way up the next very easy bit. “Bastard” I thought, “I could have led that”. He did though offer me the lead of the next pitch but a cursory glance at a rather evil looking little chimney was enough to make me decline. A few minutes later as I was desperately scrabbling up it I congratulated myself on one of my better decisions. We all agreed that it must have been one of the two difficult pitches the guidebook mentioned. A slight touch of wishful thinking as it turned out.

I led through and naturally enough belayed as soon as the going started to look hard. Up ahead loomed a short rock wall that seemed to form a complete barrier to any further progress. So with a casual “You may as well do this bit, you’ll be much quicker than me” I handed over the lead. Will did not disappoint and made short work of the only possibility of escape, a steep rock groove. We lesser mortals had an interesting time of it. In the summer it’s probably a moderate, in winter, in the cold, wearing gloves and crampons it’s f****** unbelievable. It took me an awful lot of swearing, not to mention a bit of whimpering before I got up it. I led the next pitch after getting accidentally committed while “bouldering” out the moves. I felt quite pleased with myself. Unfortunately when the others came up my remark about the “awkward little rock step” was met with a look of blank incomprehension from Will and a polite silence from Sally.

By now time was passing, which is nothing unusual, except that our prospects of getting up before dark rather too much of it had already receded into the dim and distant past. Doesn’t time fly when you’re three on a rope? It was becoming clear that this could well be one of those routes that was just a bit longer than the guidebook suggested, it was also clear that the first little chimney hadn’t been one of the difficult bits because in front of us was another awkward bit of iced rock. Luckily we had Will to lead it. Watching him lead, it dawned on me that he actually climbs rock in better style wearing crampons and gloves as opposed to EB’s and bare hands. Funnily enough he didn’t seem to think this much of a compliment. Anyway, he reached the top just as twilight overtook us, but by the time Sally had got up full blown night had fallen. I think she deliberately took her time so that when it was my turn I had to climb by the light of my headtorch and the silvery moon.

And still we weren’t finished, but at least the going was easier, a pleasant little knife edged arete led to an easy angled snow slope and soon after this, the top and relief for Sally as she at last found a place where her mobile phone could get a signal and made what was possibly the first phone call from Ben Nevis to Charlton, London, SE7. All that was left now was to find the way down.

TO achieve this Will decided to take us on a tour of the mountain, or at least that’s what it seemed like. We traversed downwards and so far left that I was sure we were going to end up in Glen Nevis, but as he never stopped reminding us, it ensured that we avoided walking over the crags. Personally, the thought of plummeting quickly downwards over a crag seemed infinitely preferable to stumbling down the never-ending snow slope we were on. I couldn’t believe how absolutely knackered I was, I just couldn’t understand it until I remembered I’d carried Will’s rope on the walk in. Yes that must have been it, perish the thought that I might just possibly have been a touch unfit.

Still, even bad things come to an end, albeit eventually, and so it was that just after 9pm we reached the dam on the Alt a Muillin. Mind you even this wasn’t easy to cross as the pathetic excuse for a bridge was encrusted in ice, fortunately I was still wearing my crampons. We finally reached the car at the horrendously late, hour of 10pm. (For me it was late, it was still early for Will who normally reckons he hasn’t got his moneys worth unless he finishes on a different day), Funnily enough aand unlike on the way up, we weren’t passed by a single soul on the way down. We stopped at the pub for a pint or two of orange before returning to the chalet and crashing out. We were far too tired to cook a meal or drink our wine, but by God we made up for it the next day.

On Saturday the weather was kind to us, it rained all day. Mind you we were so knackered that doing another route was out of the question and even just climbing into an easy chair was almost beyond some of us. The day began with a lunchtime breakfast at Nevis Sports followed by a browse around the shop and finally a couple of pints in the bar. Then it was back to the chalet for a pre dinner bottle of wine or two. (I can’t remember if we managed the dinner). After all this indulgence we decided a walk was in order which accidentally took us to the bar of the Stronlossit Hotel and several pints of very good real ale. Back at the chalet another bottle was opened and disposed of. Will succumbed first and retired just after midnight and Sally’s last words were “Better open the last bottle Dave” just before falling asleep on the sofa.

Amazingly no one had a hangover on Sunday but as the weather was even worse, it was blowing a gale and raining, we decided to head for home. In fact we were all well enough to stop off at the Kings House for Sunday lunch.

It had been an excellent weekend with a great route done on a day of perfect weather. It was the last of the Ben Nevis ridges for Will, the best ice climb I’d ever done and a hell of a first ever route for Sally. Unfortunately she also got the icing on the cake, as we two Geordies had to listen to Charlton beating Newcastle on the car radio. Talk about beginner’s luck!

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