Words and photos by Tim Neill
The potential season for climbing winter routes on Ben Nevis can extend from November to late April (and occasionally just into May). The early winter months provide highs and lows both in the weather and conditions, but traditionally the best comes at the end. If a climber’s psych has lasted that long there’s some real treats in store...
The days are long but careful attention should be paid to natural rising temps during the day unless it’s a proper cold airstream. High pressure days will start often with a good frost but snow and ice can soften up as the day goes on.
The sun is higher and much more powerful than mid winter so attention to aspect is important. Be mindful of remaining cornices and routes with a more easterly aspect like the Brenva face or anything on looker's right side of Coire na Ciste. They get a bit more cooked by the sun so thin ice can be hollow and rocks less likely to be glued by ice. Snowed up rock is unlikely.
However the main snow and ice lines on Orion Face, the big grade Vs in and around Observatory Gully and the shady aspects in the Ciste will often be prime. The great ridges will certainly be very alpine and a personal favourite is Observatory Ridge on dry rock finishing up the late season nevé of Zero Gully.
Approaches will be fast and firm once on the snow and the whole thing will have a much more alpine atmosphere.
Gear and clothing can be reduced as a consequence. Due to everything being a bit dryer soft shell systems come into own. You’ll probably still benefit from light wicking thermals (legs and t shirt layers) and the heavier soft shell trousers like the G2 Mountain Pants will be ideal. A hooded mid layer will usually be adequate for the walk in too.
Swapping out the t-shirt for a long sleeve base layer at the point when harness, helmet and crampons go on and adding a more robust climbing fleece plus a soft shell or super light hard shell. With a bit of luck the belay parka will stay in the pack all day!
Another attraction of the benign conditions is being able to climb with more dexterous gloves most of the time, at least likely for actual climbing if not belaying.
Don’t forget to take a visor and sunglasses as the sun(?) will be in your face on the walk in up the glen and hopefully there’ll be lots of glare on the plateau and descents. Sun cream too, and ideally a lighter colour scheme so time spent in the sun isn’t too uncomfortable.
A super precise Soft Shell climbing glove for the hardest and most committing leads.
Climbing gear wise it’s obviously route dependant. Longest ropes (or a skinny single) for long fat nevé pitches. A little more potential for good rock gear as the rock will most likely be dry so runners can be better and easier to spot. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to wind in those longer ice screws to the hilt too.
Either way, given decent weather that’s cold enough or warm enough the mountain offers plenty of potential for good adventures based around snow and ice or solid scrambles and easy rock climbs with snowy surroundings. Great fun as an end in itself or as preparation for an alpine trip.
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