Tag Archives: Ben Nevis

Cathedrals of snow

Snow is ever present in the UK in most years though you have to look hard to find it in high summer.

A dedicated group of enthusiasts, led by Iain Cameron, chart and catalogue these snow patches – many of which are hidden or only seen as distant white dots during Scottish Highland walks.

Responding to an appeal in September I met up with Iain and other volunteers to chart the patches in Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain.

Our route up in the shadow of the magnificent north face of the Ben was a warm one; to our left a procession of ant-like figures were tracking the CMD arrete route to the summit, walkers making the most of the amazing weather.

The North Face path up to the Ben was easy to follow under clear blue skies. My previous visits to the fogged-in summit required map and compass.

Out of the sunshine it was noticeably colder in Observatory Gully; being north facing it sees very little of the sun even in mid June, slowing down the rate of melt of the snow which can be tens of feet thick by the end of the snowfall season. Being encased in snow for so long obviously has a chilling effect on the rock.

The walk up on the scree was hard work and I was surprised to see so many debris including parts of large parts of old galvanised chimney cowls, the legacy of the observatory that once sat proudly on top of the Ben. Not many people trek this way, being a bit of a cul-de-sac. To reach the 1,345m summit from here requires a 200m climb at the end.

As we edged higher the dot of snow grew ever larger and is surprisingly big by the time we reached it, Iain was surprised how hard the snow was. From Iain’s reports, published in the Royal Meteorological Society’s Weather magazine, I’d been fascinated by the images of the patches with naturally carved tunnels underneath them; the light inside the ‘cave’ has a gorgeous blue hue to it.

The light inside the snow patch has a gorgeous blue hue to it. It is understandable why so many are drawn to these ‘cathedrals of snow’.

It was at this moment that I realised that this was a large part of the draw of tracking these patches; a fascination with snow in an area where the odds of it existing all year round seem to be forever diminishing.

At the start of Observatory Gully the snow patch is a tiny dot.
On closer inspection the snow patch is a few dozen feet across and is far bigger than it looks from the valley.

Seasons of melt and snowfall

Snow has only vanished entirely in Scotland six times. Three of these occasions were in 2003, 2006 and 2017.

Mean temperature statistics from Cairngorm Summit show just how much the seasons can vary. Of course mean temperature is just one variable that affects snow survival rates. For example the Western Highlands saw huge amounts of snow fall in February and March above 300m, a factor that would have helped snow survive. Though the most recent melt season was 0.4C cooler than 2019 there was probably a far greater volume of snow.

* Because of the unreliable nature of mountain-top records the Met Office data for Cairngorm Summit has some large gaps, it is only the last 5 years that have complete records . I discounted any years that were missing more than 5% of data.

Ben Nevis: a serious mountain

Strong winds, hail, sleet and snow were experienced in abundance when I climbed the UK’s highest mountain at the weekend. ben start

To give us a chance of making it to the 1,345m summit and back we left Fort William in darkness. Heavy rain that had greeted our arrival the previous day had abated but the spooky balminess of this early January remained; a local thermometer was reading 11C at 7am!

A gorgeous purple hue tinged the early morning dawn as we began our ascent though it was not long before the rain returned.

 

Proceeding upwards, after about an hour, we passed another climber who was walking down, having abandoned his attempt because of ‘atrocious conditions’. “I’m more of an ice and snow climber,” he explained, telling us how wonderful conditions had been in Zakopane, Poland, just a few days previous.

Unperturbed we pushed on soon making it to the tarn – the Lochan Meall an t’Suiche. We had ideas to climb the Ben via the Carn Mor Dearg arête but a wrong turn and conscious that time was not on our side we turned back and continued on the pony track / tourist route. Just over two hours in we passed the ford, just below which the route begins zig-zagging its way up to the summit.ben tarn

By now the rain started to get heavier. At around 900m it turned to hail. It was at this point that we passed another climber: “It’s snowing on the summit but you don’t need crampons,” he exclaimed before hurrying on down. We passed a further dozen or so walkers on our way to the summit; all of them looked like they couldn’t wait to get off the mountain. The rain was now a wintry mix of hail, sleet, snow and frozen rain – painful to walk into in the strengthening wind.

ben paul bothyAs the peak started to level out around 1,150m snow was now beginning to settle on the rime that had built up on the cairns; we’d got what we’d come for! It was here, however, that I realised my waterproof trousers weren’t so waterproof. First dampness then rivulets of water began flowing into my boots.

The peak was now well fogged in and for the first time I felt a bit uneasy, conscious of the fact that the wind was also still gathering strength. Regardless, my climbing pal continued to press on just ahead of me. Poor visibility concealed the summit which was still another 100m or so higher. Although he’d previously climbed the Ben (in perfect summer conditions) he’d forgotten exactly where the trig point was and was careful to observe the cornices to the side, so lethal to inexperienced walkers who fall through them every season.

We made a beeline for the bothy close to the trig point; my climbing partner, who was also trying to deal with waterlogged boots, was keen to change socks. At that point a gust of wind caught the bothy door – it smashed open leading to the rime that had built up on the hut to fall to the ground. I was starting to feel well out of my comfort zone and I persuaded him against the sock change, saying we needed to turn around and get down as quickly as possible. Despite both having crampons in our rucksacks I decided against spending more precious time trying to wrestle them on to our boots. Although the ground was coated in rime I knew that the warm front that was coming in was already lifting the temperature – and we’d cope without them.

ben paul trig

The route down was easier if unpleasant. Once we’d descended far enough out of the cloud and wind I knew we’d be OK and it was just a case of taking it steady over the uneven cobbles.

Night was fast drawing in by the time we arrived back at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre. As we called a cab for the short drive back to Fort William all I could think about was a hot bath back at the hotel and a welcome pint by the fireside.

All around Fort William it is frequently mentioned that conditions at the top are totally different and that the Ben should not be under-estimated. As someone with nearly four decades of experience of being in and around mountains I should know better than most. But Ben Nevis is not just any mountain and deserves complete respect.

The meteorology of the climb

aonach
The temperature trace shows that the warm front arrived after 11am

aonach wind
The WSW wind was gusting F6/F7 giving a windchill of -5C and lower

* Despite the awful conditions I did manage to get a few photos, including the observatory where Victorian scientists lived for 20 years, gathering meteorological observations until 1904. Experiencing just a taste of the conditions that they would have had to endure makes their achievement all the more remarkable.
The observations have recently been fully collated and are providing valuable insight into the study of how mountain conditions have changed since that time.

** The following article was printed in the Lochaber News, 9th January, 2013

Stupidity can get you killed

The leader of Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team has issued a strongly-worded warning in the wake of a walker’s “act of sheer stupidity” in trying to tackle Ben Nevis in winter in trainers.

John Stevenson (58), who heads up Britain’s busiest mountain rescue unit, said a man rescued on Monday afternoon was fortunate to be alive after attempting the country’s highest peak without proper equipment for the conditions and time of year.

The 31-year-old walker was airlifted to hospital in Fort William after he fell while descending the 4,409ft, snow-covered Ben. He sustained a leg injury while walking on the main mountain track and managed to alert the police to his situation at about 4pm.

A full search and rescue operation was launched involving police, 18 mountain rescuers and a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Gannet, Prestwick.

The injured man was located and airlifted from the Red Burn area, above Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, and was treated at Belford Hospital for his injury and the effects of the cold.

Mr Stevenson said the incident could have turned to tragedy.

He said: “He’s an extremely lucky young man to have survived.”

“His equipment was just rubbish – he had nothing. He was wearing trainers and didn’t have a torch.”

“He did everything we tell people not to do. When we found him he’d lost one trainer, the backside was out of his trousers and he was wet and cold.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he would not have survived the night if he hadn’t phoned in on his mobile, and we were lucky enough to find him.”

“He didn’t actually set off on his ascent until 11am, having come straight off the train at Fort William. That’s just a ridiculous time to be starting out when darkness falls at about 4pm. It’s crazy and not on at all.”

“He made it to the summit okay but slipped on the way back down and managed to call the police on his mobile phone.”

Mr Stevenson added: “Initially he was on the so-called tourist path but he lost his way and veered off the path.”

“He slipped and hurt his leg but kept on walking – but realised he was lost and phoned the police.”

“He was talking to the police as he walked and then the phone just went dead. All the officer could hear was running water.”

“We had been alerted by this time and were on standby, so when the line cut out we all feared the worst.”

“I knew the only place on the top half where you can hear water running like that is the Red Burn, so we sent two members of the team up with the helicopter, as well as members on foot. Luckily the first two found the casualty pretty quickly. He had fallen but was okay. He’d lost his phone.”

Mr Stevenson said he found it increasingly frustrating that, despite annual messages from rescue teams, climbing organisations and the police, walkers were still heading to the mountains ill-equipped for the conditions.

“People need to be prepared,” he urged. “They need to heed the advice about having proper equipment and clothing.”

“The thing is, so many people get away with it every year, but unfortunately many don’t and end up injured – or worse.”

“The man on Monday was very lucky indeed and we could see he was extremely relieved to be off that mountain.”

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