It having been too long since I'd suffered Scottish-style and suffering from withdrawal, I booked onto the brilliantly cheap Citylink service to Glasgow and went over last weekend, meeting Conor.
Conditions and the forecast were excellent, and we had talked of heading to Skye for a Winter traverse of the Cuillins, but this is a huge objective best left for when conditions are absolutely perfect, and consultation with local expert Mike Lates revealed that while conditions were good, there wasn't really enough snow on the ridge and going would be slow. So we made alternative plans instead.
At 5am on Saturday we got up and headed north from Glasgow. I hate Alpine starts, but they do sometimes make for pretty amazing scenery.
Electing to head somewhere slightly more out of the way than the usual destinations, we headed up Glen Etive and parked at the base on Ben Starav, a ~1100m Munro, aiming for the rarely climbed but apparently classic 'Hidden Ridge' (IV).
This route has one of the hardest walks in that I've ever done (and I've done a few nasty ones). Starting at sea level, a deceptively easy walk into the base of the Coire led to a hard 90 minute slog up steep nevee to the base of the route. As good a reintroduction to Scottish Winter as any.
Despite all this, the weather was glorious and the wind was minimal. We soloed the first section of the route on good ice and snow, and glorious frozen turf - the best medium on which to climb, the reassuring thud of axes in good turf is without equal!
Before long we reached a pinnacled section of the ridge and roped up. These weren't that hard but we were out of practice. The route was soon finished - a lovely route, no doubt, but it felt easy for IV and was quite short, considering the walk in!
A long walk (Scottish descents always seem longer than the approach) and some bumsliding brought us back to the car, and we made our way to Fort William and the slightly unpleasant familiarity of the Ben Nevis North Face car park, forever associated in my mind with early starts, long hard days and the resentment of anyone with access to the upper car park. Still, we needed our Ben fix...
Camping on the snow in the car park was as much fun as getting up from a tent at 5am in Winter could be expected to be, the only silver lining being the warmth of the car as we ate breakfast. Psyche was, admittedly, low at this point, but it rarely isn't as far as Alpine starts are concerned. Despite seeking every excuse not to get on with the day's business, we always seem to accept our fate and get on with it, perhaps knowing we'd only resent ourselves later if we didn't! A strange business, this mountaineering.
There's a new path through the forest since last time I was on the Ben, which made life easier. The snow level was very low and the icy path to the CIC slowed things down a bit but we still reached the hut for 0815 and geared up. Conditions were once again excellent, not much wind and good visibility. We had vaguely hoped to climb the ultra-classic ice route Orion Face Direct but the upper face wasn't iced up enough so we had to settle for the ultra-classic Observatory Ridge (V, 4) instead!
This is considered the hardest of the Ben ridges and rightfully so! The route description was quite vague, mostly consisting of "gain the ridge from a rising left-to-right traverse, then turn the difficulties on the right". The actual route is slightly more interesting than that, but reasonably obvious - climb the bit that doesn't look as daft as the other bits!
Conor on one of the crux sections
The ridge is characterised by a steep buttress with eases off to a narrowing snow ridge with a number of smaller rocky sections along it. It then fades into the upper slopes of Zero gully towards the top. The first buttress presented the difficulties and was climbed in 5 quite hard (at least for us) mixed pitches. There was no rime on the rock but there were considerable amounts of iced up rocks - much better than the usual verglas; it was possible to climb (if not protect) this ice. The hardest sections of climbing were two traverses round a corner, dispatched excellently on lead by Conor. Apart from the first pitch, protection was adequate - which is more than can be said for most of the Ben. We mused that if we'd climbed this route before Hidden Ridge then we would never have bothered with a rope on the latter, the mixed climbing on Observatory Ridge being quite a bit harder.
After the initial buttress we arrived at a snow slope and started moving together on grade II ground. I belayed Conor on one more section of nervy (but solid) iced up rock, then we moved together on the remaining 400m or so of grade II/III snow and ice, finishing up the upper slopes of Zero Gully. The snow and ice were generally excellent - sometimes too good as our calves were on fire from so much frontpointing on névé!
There was thankfully no cornice and we topped out at 1545 after 6.5 hours of climbing. The summit was above the clouds and empty apart from ourselves - indeed the whole mountain was strangely not busy, with no parties on some of the big classics you'd normally have to queue for like Point Five and Zero gullies (despite both being in excellent condition).
A long trudge back to the car and some fish and chips later we were back on our way to Glasgow, shattered. An excellent weekend in some incredible conditions - I've rarely seen it so good! A few days later I'm still recovering and catching up on sleep. Inevitably, I'm now psyched for Winter climbing - although it may well be a while before I get another chance at it!