Minus 1 Gully, Ben Nevis…an imperfect account of a perfect day on the best ice climb in Britain.
The cold conditions up North continue to taunt us…drawing us in with promises of frigid forays into the hills. A run of classic bagging that couldn’t continue but did. The weeks go by dreaming about the weekends, of classic lines, days out with friends , and forgotten pioneers. Some courses come easily, present perfectly and put up no fight. Pure paths. Memorable days.
Point 5 Gully.
Class acts in perfect pleasure.
Others make us work a little harder. Spindrift, damp and thaw. Or forceful maelstroms flinging sandlike grains in our eyes like spiteful children in the playground. Spindrift choked chimneys, forcing you to gag, snort and semi suffocate. A wetness that chills to the bone. Harsh, demoralising and trying to make us turn our backs on them as they have already done to us. Closing a door on opportunists.
But perhaps it is in the face of such adversity that the greatest pleasures lie? That which presents easily is fun. It has it’s place. Perfection and smoothness always have and will continue to have, a place. But now and again they’ll make you lower your guard, thinking it’s easy, taking it for granted. Folly. The greatest prizes are the ones that put up a fight. Make you wait, presenting then quickly closing the door again. Frustrating, taunting and teasing. Seldom in condition, sometimes close. Patience is a virtue.
The first winter ascent of Minus 1 Gully on Ben Nevis took place in the February of 1974. Ken Crocket and Colin Stead. Crocket writes in the winter bible that is Cold Climbs:
“It was the last of the great Nevis gullies to fall.”
It is a climb of great grandeur and spleandour. But it is one of those lines talked about above.
Frustrating. Taunting. Teasing. A true “prize”. And until that February of 1974 it had (as one local expert reckoned) rebuked 26 previous attempts. Crocket describes the experience in Cold Climbs. What he calls “an imperfect account of a perfect day”. A must read for all aspiring winter tigers, wads and perpetrators.
I started climbing aged 14. I started winter climbing at university even though I said I never would. Until then the only place I aspired to go in winter, was the climbing wall. Or bolt clipping in the sun. Ice climbing was unfeasibly dangerous in my young mind. Not much has changed, the fear and the appreciation of danger still live with me but I choose to court and control them. Put them in my pocket. Nurture them even. See how far it can be pushed. I can be pushed. Although now I realise I’ll probably never push it too far. Never quite pull the pin…
As a climber I’ve always been a ticker. But there’s more to it than that. Personal challenge, classics, hard, easy. All out and just sauntering, basking in nature’s beauty and classicism. They all have there appeal. I love the history of classic climbs. Dunne on Predator at Malham, named as it was a project stolen from Steve Rhodes. The Smith and Marshall Golden week on Ben Nevis. Redhead’s “tormented ejaculation”. The stars, the lines, and the stories behind them. Natural beauty. Perfect days with friends. And the waiting. The fruitless trips…making the victories ever sweeter.
Below is an account. A route description of the climb as we found it on Saturday. A climb I have waited to find in condition ever since those university days. Fruitless trips and changed plans. Frustrations and joys. A journey. My imperfect account of a perfect day.
Minus 1 Gully, Ben Nevis. Saturday 9th March 2013 with Richard Allen
Minus 1 Gully is the right-most of the three distinctive, slanting gully lines on the Minus Face of Ben Nevis.
We approached from the CIC hut. Good firm snow helped but the howling wind that had already turned a number of parties back at the hut, did not. They should’ve been more patient however. On the face, things were pretty much calm, except the odd spindrift bombardment from above, and strangely sometimes below.
As the snow slope narrows to form a gully with a rock wall on either side we chose to belay. A ledge kicked out of the snow. A peg (not insitu) hammered into a thin crack on the right and the axes buried to the hilt and clipped.
P1: Rich led off up good consolidated snow to a nice ice step (good screw runners) which paved the way into the gully above and a further ice step and steepening. Belaying at the base of this on a good crack on the right wall containing an old insitu wallnut 10, tied off with blue tat and a Camalot 0.5, he brought me up. This is a good solid belay with a decent view of the next pitch, but also out of the main frag line.
P2: Placing a solid ice screw at the bottom of the ice, I romped up the step with first time sticks to arrive at the steepening snow which led to the obvious overhang, looming above. A wire sticking out of the ice (god knows what it’s actually attached to) offered protection for ascending the off vertical bottomless sugar which leads up to the roof. Ice on the left wall was scarce and nowhere near that seen in the photo of Tony Saunders in Cold Climbs. The insitu gear hanging down off the left wall wasn’t even tantalisingly reachable. As such I pretended it wasn’t there! Once on top of the snow plug beneath the roof I could clip an insitu hex and wire, which I backed up with a red Camalot. This is good solid gear. Making thin moves leftwards from the sanctuary of the cave, I moved boldly up thin ice on the leaning left wall. Strenuous and delicate. I managed to place a couple of unsatisfactory (shit!) screws but doubt they’d have been much use. I reached rightwards to what I’d hoped would be decent ice up above the roof and a quick regaining of the gully. Unfortunately it proved to be rather thin which helped to concentrate the mind a little. Some funky wide bridging out on the right wall of the gully offered a little respite and better sticks leading to one further strenuous pull to join the gully above. A few more metres led to a good belay on insitu gear on the left wall. Rich followed confirming what I thought about it being “thin”.
P3: A superb, long pitch. Approximately 55 metres. Rich charged off up the gully towards the obvious bulge, clipping a couple of good insitu pegs on the right wall as he went. An insitu wire (looked ok) under the roof protected the steepening which he dealt with by climbing the bulging left wall and bridging back rightwards to gain the steep ice corner above. Motoring up this section with good screws and first time sticks led to an easing in the angle. Moving delicately up right then gained a left facing slabby groove with an insitu peg on it’s right wall at the base. The next section was passed by sustained and thin (1 inch ice) climbing with poor protection before an exit left at the top which gained a snowfield leading to the base of 2 icy gooves. Rich belayed below the righthand groove on a pecker and 2 ice axes. Probably not bomber!
P4: The guidebook says that either groove can be followed. I opted for the lefthand one. Spookily thin ice at the bottom, had me searching for runners in the rocks on the left. I found a couple of satisfactory nuts and quested on up. Getting committed on 75-80 degree, inch thick ice, I kept teetering upwards, no going down or so it felt. The 50 foot runout, occasional ‘ice losing contact and showing me rock’ and general seriousness, made this section feel pretty engaging! Better neve and a good nut a little higher, made things more enjoyable and had a hint of Chamonix goulotte climbing about them. I belayed on pegs (not insitu) and an ice screw, after approximately 45 metres and brought Rich up.
P5: After about 10 metres climbing up the groove above Rich followed a strange snow feature out rightwards below a steepening wall. We couldn’t work out whether this was snow piled on a ledge or not. It actually appeared to be snow just sticking randomly and thickly to the thinly iced slab, but we hoped not. Rich channeled his way carefully and prudently rightwards, which had comedy and seriousness in equal measure. Luckily the snow feature didn’t collapse! Gaining good ice in the right hand groove, Rich quickly forged on up sublime ice, to a belay (good rock gear) on the right side of the gully at a point where it ended below an impending rock wall.
P6: The end of the difficulties on Britain’s best ice climb. I led up a groove on the left which leads via a short mixed section to an obvious notch in the skyline. A short section of ridge leads on up to join the classic North-East Buttress at it’s second snow platform. A truly incredible outing!
We had heard (and the wind conditions of the day had initially dictated) that an abseil descent down Minus 2 Gully, was a possibility. We tried to find the stations, wasted lots of time, and failed. Instead we followed North-East Buttress to the top. This would have been our plan A anyhow if it hadn’t been for the wind and, I have to say I’m glad we did. Minus 1 Gully is the best ice climb I’ve done in Scotland and following it with anything other than some classic mixed ridge climbing and a deserted summit plateau, would have been a total anticlimax.
Perfect day, perfect route, imperfect account.