Nevis4  was born in a gully of the same name in April 1999. Its all about the Adventure!

Coire na ciste Ben Nevis

Nevis Extreme

Its been there for a couple of seasons now, deep in the sub conscious whispering away at me. Whats the ultimate ski challenge, whats the steepest, highest slope I could ski in this country. The answer was obvious, Nevis. The Ben. Could I do it ? I have been into Extreme skiing for a few years now and had gradualy worked my way up steeper and steeper couloirs and headwalls but Nevis was the daddy of them all.

The name Ben Nevis translates literaly to "the venemous one". Its Northern cliffs provide all different levels of ice climbing in winter from grade I to V they are the scene of numerous climbing deaths each winter, brought to our screens by a media thirsty for the scent of fresh blood. These cliffs are also the site of the steepest and longest couloirs in the scottish mountains. In theory virtualy all of the gullies on the North East face of Nevis could be skied given the correct conditions and in practice most of them have. That in no way detracted from the seriousness of the undertaking I contemplated. In late April this year the Avalanche reports settled down from a season which had been dominated by high risk reports to a period of low risk and settled weather. (Nevis gullies are no where to be in high risk avalanche conditions). If I was going to do it it had to be within the next few weeks before the best of the snows had gone or I forgot it for another year.

Ben Nevis cliffs

Lifes too short. I got on the phone and started making arrangements with the people I knew were mad enough to attempt the descent. Donnie Morris and Colin McAllister both long time skiing buddies leapt at the chance. Colin suggested Alistair Muir an ice climber and skier whose knowledge of the mountain could prove very usefull On the 30 April we set off on a warm spring morning from Achintee at about 1030 dressed in light clothing, T shirts, Tracksters and walking boots. The goretex jackets, pants and gloves we would need later in the ascent were stowed in our rucksacks along with our Alpine ski boots. Our skis were strapped to the side of our rucksacks and bound together at the tips to prevent them swaying around, also very evident were the ice axes prominently displayed on the outside of the sacks. They would prove invaluable later. Also with us, just for the walk were Linda McGhee, Alistairs brother and sisters and Ian McDonald from Lochaber Mountain rescue, a guy whose expertise we hoped we wouldnt need!

 Carn Mor Dearg  Arrette

We began the climb in balmy spring weather and were soon sweating profusely under the weights on our backs, another hazard of the day was the number of people ascending and descending the mountain. Operation Raleigh was running the 3 peaks challenge - climbing the 3 highest peaks in the 3 countries, Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike. We had picked one of the days chosen by Raleigh, all 600 of them! Given the fact that at the lower levels there wasnt a flake of snow to be seen, our very obvious burdens made us subject to many comments ranging from the mild " Oh going skiing then " to the infuriating "couldnt you have taken the lifts like everybody else?" Our replies became funnier and more ribald with every passing would be commediene.

 

The long slog up the tourist path was enlivened by Ian McDonald with his grisly tales of rescues and body recoveries from the Ben. He is also a fund of local knowledge about the mountain and its environs. A gradual change in the weather came about the two and a half thousand feet point. It became cloudy and began to rain lightly. The higher we got the colder it became. Suddenly it was no longer spring but very definetly still winter, the mountain was giving us a warning. The rain became heavier and changed to sleet, necessitating a stop to don jackets gloves and overtrousers. We reached the snow line and continued upwards the walking now much harder as the wet spring snow sucked at my light walking boots. We carried on upwards and soon arrived on the plateau to be awarded glimpses of the stunning cliffs and awesome cornices of this the highest mountain in these islands revealed through the scudding clouds. We carried on to the trig point at the top in time to view a sorry little tableaux unfolding within the emergency shelter. Three young children were crying with cold and exhaustion trying to regain some heat while eating their lunch. The adults responsible were milling around outside. Rescue team members who were manning the shelter as a control point for Raleigh were tending to them. As a team member so aptly put it "Let them risk their own lives if they wish but not the kids".

The emergency shelter, summit ben nevis

A hurried lunch in the shelter of the cairn and suddenly it was show time. Apprehensively we donned our heavy duty Alpine kit, Salomon, K2, Dynastar, time to see if the adds were right. As soon as I heard the double click of my bindings I felt instantly more comfortable, switch to ski mode and a fast run of short radius turns down the summit plateau heading for the red burn as a warm up.

The term plateau is misleading, the summit is actualy an excellent slope to ski with wide snow fields. Just take care you dont stray too far to the North or you will fall off the edge of the world. As we skied ever closer to the Northern edge of the cliffs we looked for the gullies we knew were skiable from previous recorded descents. Our target was number 4 gully, a grade 1 ice climb and "escape route" for climbers in bad weather from the top of the ben. We located the gully and stopped to take a look, the breath caught in my throat. Donnie spoke first. "My god ! Theres no way we can ski that its huge" I looked down and was immediately inclined to agree. The gully was about 50 feet wide at the top narrowing between sheer rock cliffs into a funnel about 12 feet wide some 200 feet below. Beneath that the rock walls contined for about another 800 feet before opening into Coire na Ciste far far below - and steep! The impression was of a lift shaft in the shape of a funnel about 70 degrees on the scarp wall directly below the cornice. Further down the gradient eased to between 50 and 40 degrees. The cornice was massive, a monster that hung over the abyss. How to get in was the problem. None of us wanted to jump into space with the rock walls on either side waiting to punish any mistake.

This was getting very serious, one mistake here and my wife would be one very wealthy lady. Would the cornice stand the weight of a skier? Or would it break, sending the poor unfortunate crashing and tumbling down in a mass of broken snow, limbs and equipment towards the rocks far below. I wrestled with the problem trying to supress the fear which was growing in me like an animal. Across to the left the edge of the cornice was broken where a climber had exited from the gully and a small platform could be seen about 5 feet below the lip. Suddenly the solution was clear, the technical problems solved. Use ice axes, climb down to the platform and put the skis on there, no need for spectacular and dangerous heroics. Ian McDonald came into his own, hanging over the edge with his ice axe cutting and chopping away at the snow to enlarge the entry point, then strategically placing an axe buried up to its head so we could hang from the strap as we climbed over the edge. Who was to be first to go ? I took a deep breath and found myself saying"my idea I better go first". I climbed over the lip and down to the platform, carefully digging the pick of my axe into the snow for a little security. My skis and poles were handed down to me one at a time, my K2 extremes suddenly seemed very flimsy and very narrow. I stepped carefully back into my bindings and stowed my ice axe down between the straps of my rucksack and the small of my back. Some wise guy shouted "I hope you know how to use that!" I smiled back up to them weakly my mouth to dry to retort. The prospect of arresting a fall in this situation didnt thrill me, it was likely to be terminal. The only way to go now was down, I was comitted. I stared at the curving snow wall of the gully some 50 feet ahead where I was to make my first turn.. A few deep breaths to ease the tension and slide. In a millisecond I crossed the gully and instinctively began to sideslip, fear of the snow quality and the presence of ice danced in my mind. Donnie roared "Turn Kenny turn!". A positive pole plant and an explosive unweight and I was round, first turn made! This was easy. This was fun ! I stopped and watched Donnie drop in the tension all but gone. I took some photos I wanted this descent to last. Next up was Alistair he had obviously decided to make the descent he had been very unsure at the top. I could see he was psyching himself up. Suddenly he was moving and sitting back .I found myself screaming the Ski instructors Mantra " Forward!" He was lost from sight above me behind a rock buttress but I could just see he had lost a ski and was replacing it. I became nervous again this was not the place for marginal skiing. Last to drop in was Colin, a couple of nice jump turns then wham,he collided with Alistair in a tangle of arms and legs and gales of nervous laughter. Mercifully they were still behind the rock buttress which saved them from the long slide.

We were all in safely and I renewed my descent, turn, turn, turn, down , down between the rock walls the soft spring snow was a pleasure. I found myself giving whoops of joy. It was a fabulous place. After what seemed like an eternity I burst out from the confines of the couloir to find myself high in an open air cathedral with huge rock walls towering above me. The sheer scale of Coire na Ciste (Coire of the coffin ) is breathtaking. I opened up carving long radius turns and swooped down the Coire now in bright sunshine the adrenaline still surging through me. We skidded to a stop about two thirds the way down the gully to take a few photographs and admire our surroundings.Words seemed inadequate to describe the beauty and desolation of the place it was Awesome. High above me I could see places I recognised from photographs and written descriptions, routes pioneered by the fathers of modern mountaineering. Tower ridge, The curtain, No 5 gully to name but a few.

Far below lay the Charles Ingles Clark memorial hut and the start of the long walk home. We slowly traversed the Coire taking in our surroundings and positioning ourselves for the best line down to the bottom of the Coire. As we pssed the exit from No 5 gully we could see, high in the couloir 3 other skiers doing it the hard way. Skis hefted on their shoulders they were slowly climbing to the cornice far above. We felt an instant affinity with them and shouted our greetings. They answered with a wave of a hand.

The last section of the Coire was skied far too quickly in a flurry of short radius turns that hungrily ate up the altitude that had been gained with so much effort. We stopped when we ran out of snow just above the CIC hut and turned again to take in what we had accomplished. The completion of a hard one objective. Self satisfaction beamed from our faces now beggining to lightly burn from the spring sunshine. With much congratulations we packed our gear and set off down the Altt a, Mhuilinn before heading West under the towering Cliffs for Lochan Meall-anst-Suidhe and the tourist path back to Achintee. The end of a long exciting and tiring day, a fitting end to a marvelous season.