Contingent: John Kinsella, Paul McSweeney, Paul Cunningham, Eric Whelan, Kenneth Rouse and Colm Ennis
After the success of the leader’s weekend to Scotland in October 1999, the Venturers decided to go one better this year and head off to Fortwilliam and Glencoe for a weeklong mountaineering expedition. Even though Easter was so late, we were still hopeful of getting the last of the winter snow and ice. Training had started as far back as December and since then we had climbed our fair share of mountains and gullies in the Comeraghs and had put in a good weekend of winter ridge climbing in the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. Before we set off on Saturday the 15th of April, we dispatched John Kinsell and Paul McSweeney to Dublin to pick up the ice axes and crampons. We then spent Friday night trying to get the crampons onto our boots before practising that ‘braking from sliding headfirst on the back’ self arrest manoeuvre.
After the taxis called at 5.00am on Saturday morning, Venturer Leader Owen Riordan gave us some last minute warnings but we comforted him that Rapid Express coaches really aren’t that dangerous (they had in fact cut us a good deal on the tickets). We reckoned we spotted Pete Postlewaithe at Dublin airport (he was heading to Manchester) before Scoutleader Paschal Guilfoyle and Aidan Ennis made a dramatic last minute jump onto the plane. The first bus they sent to pick us up from Glasgow Airport was full and wouldn’t have fitted half of our sixteen rucksacks let alone ourselves. But with the help of some cross old ladies we insisted they give us our own bus and eventually they did (well done to Brian and Sharon at Buchanan Street Station). We got some good views of Loch Lomond and eventually Glencoe before we arrived in Fortwilliam with just ten minutes to spare to buy our lunch at Safeways. It then took a fleet of taxis to transport us to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel where we prepared for our first route of the week.
Day 1 – The Mamores.
Glen Nevis Youth Hostel is a fantastic spot to stay for routes on Ben Nevis and the Mamores and after a weird breakfast that included ham and salami we were actually out of the hostel by 7.45am. Not everybody appreciated our first climb of the day onto Sgorr Chalum (556m) as we had adopted our legendary leader wrecking 200m ascent in 10 minutes pace. We cooled it down before checking off our first munroe of the week – Mullach nan Coirean (939m). They came fast and furious after that with Stob Ban (999m) and Sgorr an Lubhair (1001m) in quick succession. It was there that we had to decide whether we would cross over onto Sgurr a Mhaim by the Devils Ridge or continue out the route for another three munroes (at least). The views were fantastic, so we said what the hell and headed up Am Bodach (1032m), Stob Coire a Chairn (981m) and finally across the narrow ridge to An Gearanach (982m). The drop down to An Steall waterfall and the Wire Bridge was tough but it was the trek back up the road to the hostel that really sorted people out. There is really nothing like a good 25km route to set the pace for the week although the staff at Nicos in Fortwilliam couldn’t quite figure out why we all ordered two dinners each.
Day 2 – Ben Nevis by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete
When you climb Ben Nevis from the Glen, you start at sea level, so you really feel all 1344 metres of Britain’s highest mountain. The conditions were perfect for the Carn Mor Dearg Arete which is the route on the Ben which really displays the mountain’s charms to perfection. We followed the usual footpath as far as Lochan Meall an tSuidhe before contouring around into Ailt a Mhuilinn. We then made one of the toughest ascents of the week onto Carn Beag Dearg and Carn Deag Meadhonach. The views were amazing and it seemed that we might actually get to see off of Ben Nevis on one of the rare days when she isn’t covered in cloud. Carn Mor Dearg (1220m) was our first major peak of the day and from there it looked like our crossing of the arete was going to be sensational with perfect views back down to the CIC Hut as well as across to Coire na Ciste, Gardyloo Gully, Tower Ridge and Trident Buttress.
The conditions were superb for the crossing and we were almost disappointed when we reached the top of the abseil posts. There we ran into John Griffith and Jason McCloud from the WIT Adventure Club who kindly took our photo before we strapped on our crampons for the last 200 metres to the summit.
We had a serious cup of tea and some even more serious sandwiches beneath the emergency shelter on Ben Nevis. Paschal and Aidan had beaten us to the top via the footpath and had left the 3rd troop’s calling card of ‘yes boy’ written in the ice at the top. Even though the visibility was good we took the usual navigational steps to get off the plateau safely and avoided an unwanted descent down Five Finger Gully (231 grid for 150m and then 282 grid from Gardyloo Gully to the middle of the zig zags).
After a few well and poorly aimed snowballs we were left to descend the long and arduous footpath back to the hostel. After a very impressive day, that night we actually cooked for ourselves and on the menu was a cross between a stir-fry and spaghetti bolognese.
Day 3 – The Aonachs
With Paschal and Aidan departing back to Ireland and three members of the group taking a rest day, there was only Colm, John and Paul McSweeney up for the 8.00am taxi to the top of Glen Nevis. Not even high altitude nosebleeds could stop the pace up as far as Allt Coire Guibhsachan, which runs off the Ben. From there we made the tough, sheep leg strewn, ascent into Coire nan Laoigh where the snow and ice looked very promising. After a lot of kicking steps and tough going for the person in front, the ground levelled out and we followed the side of the cliff up to the summit of Aonach Beag which at 1234m is actually higher than Aonach Mor (1221m). After some good views across to Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, the visibility became much poorer as we descended from Aonach Beag and we had our first real navigational test of the week. After almost heading back up Aonach Beag again we eventually found the col and headed straight up Aonach Mor.
From Aonach Mor we headed in the direction of the ski lifts, though we had to make do with glissading down the side of them. To escape a long road walk, we headed back down in the direction of Ailt a Mhuilin before skirting around the side of the golf course and through the aluminium works and finally hitting the road to Fortwilliam. Nevisport made a grand spot for dinner before we caught the bus down to Glencoe for the second leg of the week. The lads hadn’t left us down and had the tents up at the Red Squirrel campsite when we arrived. They had even found the location of the famous Clachaig gully (and the even more famous Inn beneath it).
Day 4 – Bidean nam Bian and her sisters.
There is definitely no steeper route up Stob Coire nam Beith (1107m) than to first climb an tSron. It’s a murderous ascent but we were treated to fine views of the Aonach Eagach. Bidean nam Bian at 1150m is the dominating peak of the range but it was no bother to us and instead of crossing over onto Stob Coire nan Lochan from there, we decided to make the traverse across to Stob coire Sgreamhach (1072m).
From there we dropped down along Beinn Fhada which had a few interesting ‘scrambly’ bits. We then dropped down some tough steep ground into the Lost Valley before following the track and then the road back up to the Clachaig in the blistering heat. There we met up again with the WIT Adventure Club who had just come down off the Aonach Eagach after a record breaking 6 and a half hours. Number 14 was shouted at us more than a few times at the Clachaig as we said to hell with the Trangias and ate our dinner there.
Day 5 – An Buachaille Etive Mor.
The Buachaill is an impressive looking mountain and the first one that really hits you as you drive up through Glencoe. We started our climb from Altnafeadh and followed the river up Coire na Tulaich. We had to stick on the crampons and ice axes for the gully at the back before we turned left at the col and headed across numerous false tops before hitting the summit at Stob Dearg (1022m).
After a quick bite to eat we dropped back down to the col and we decided we might as well finish out all the peaks on the mountain by taking in Stob na Doire, Stob Coire Altruim and Stob na Broige. From there we descended down to Ailt Gartian where we spotted a herd of about thirty deer. We were then forced to climb all the way back up to 500m as we followed the track between Buachaille Etive Beag and Beinn Fhada which brought us back to Glencoe.
Day 6 – Stob Coire nan Lochan by Broad Gully.
Six days in a row is no mean feat, so its hats off to John Kinsella, Paul McSweeney and Colm Ennis. Eric wasn’t too far behind at five and he joined the lads for our last route of the week. We almost took on the Aonach Eagach for our last route but the weather had turned a bit nasty, so we made the long trek up Coire nan Lochan in search of a gully to climb. There is plenty to choose from but we stuck with the 150m, grade 1, ascent of Broad Gully. It gave us a chance to put our ropework into practice and to make use out of the 50 metres of rope that John had been carrying all week. Most importantly Eric and John got to christen their new climbing harnesses on a decent stretch of snow and ice. We flew to the top of Stob Coire nan Lochan (1115m), as we couldn’t go back to Waterford and say that we hadn’t climbed the very mountain that fourteen De La Salle leaders had stood on, only six months previously.
By this stage the mountains just weren’t high enough for us and after standing on Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire nam Beith yet again, we dropped down into Stob Coire nam Beith valley for a spot of glissading. There’s nothing better than it for saving the knees and it’s still worthwhile despite the amount of snow that gets up your back.
After following Ailt Coire nan Beitheach back to the road, we said a final farewell to the Clachaig and to the Red Squirrel campsite. We have to say a special thank you to our superb taxi driver (811460) who instead of just dropping us back to Glencoe, brought us all the way back to Fortwilliam. Glen Nevis Youth Hostel had definitely never seen so much wet (and lets be honest smelly) gear before.
Another 6.00am start brought us to the Glasgow bus in time (or so we thought). We then made our biggest navigational mistake of the week when we loaded all our gear onto the bus to Inverness instead of the bus to Glasgow. When we finally reached Glasgow we got caught for a hefty £6 each to leave our gear in the left luggage, although we definitely made the porter work for the money. After some Waterford like blaas for the breakfast in Littlewoods we made the usual rounds of the climbing shops and made a long trek out into the suburbs to a bike shop we had spotted from the bus about 5 miles outside town. Back at the airport, we were forced to share the plane with Keith Duffy from Boyzone before we caught the 7.15pm Rapid Express back to Waterford.
Overall it was a hugely successful week. It was the first trip of its type that the De La Salle Venturer Group or the Unit had ever attempted and it worked out very well. We got in plenty of tough interesting routes and got a great introduction to Scottish winter mountaineering. Now we can spend the summer pouring over Alan Kimber’s ‘Winter Climbs: Ben Nevis and Glencoe’ so that we have all our routes, gullies, ridges and buttresses planned out well in advance for the next time around. Perhaps those ice axes and crampons will come in handy for gardening or DIY (just watch your kitchen lino).