Past events

Winter Ascent of Ben Nevis.  9th March 2002

Photographs by UK Outdoor Pursuits instructors dept.
(All photos taken March 2002)

Words and letter from Derek Newal who participated in the event.

Hi AllThe first 2 things to say are what a great experience and geez it was cold.

I suppose, like most daft ideas it all started in a pub !! Both me and my mate (Graham) are both unfit 30 (him) 40 (me) something’s with just a little hankering for the outlandish.

As we had both taken part in a sponsored Abseil a while ago for the British Epilepsy Association we (each January) receive a brochure from UK Outdoor Pursuits which contains various daft things which each year we convince ourselves we’re going to participate in. So there we were, sitting in our local, flicking though this year’s publication convincing ourselves that we could easily go for the trekking or even the climbing in the Himalayas but, as happens each year, we found excellent reasons why we just could not make it and maybe we would go next year.

This is the truth. I went to the bar (again) and Graham was chatting to someone and showing them all the things in the brochure we “were” going to do this year and by the time I had got back he had not only told this stranger but also all our friends that we “were” going to make a winter ascent of Ben Nevis which is (to put it politely) a bloody big hill.

So that’s how it all started, a drink fuelled boast that we couldn’t get out of. Isn’t that how most things start off ?

So a few months later there we were driving up through Glencoe on our way towards Fort William looking up at the snow covered mountains thinking that just maybe we had bitten off more that we could chew this time.  We arrived at the Milton hotel which is just North of the town center and were pleasantly surprised. We had imagined a dreary hut in the wilds filled with bunk beds and bearded chaps on the reception who look at us in mild amusement when considering what we had signed up for. But this wasn’t the case. The Milton hotel is quite a plush establishment with a swimming pool, Jacuzzis (more of that later) and all the other bits that go to make a rather pleasant stay.

On Friday morning, after reading accounts of people being stranded in the Arctic who were saved by their large fat reserves, we decided to take full advantage of the buffet breakfast, and then took a leisurely stroll down to check out the town. We returned later in the morning and donned our walking gear of leather boots, waterproofs, etc. filled our flask and overloaded our bulging rucksack with enough mars bars to fill a medium sized sweet shop (fat reserves don’t come easily) and went down to the reception to meet the UK Outdoor Pursuits staff who would be taking us for a training session that afternoon. Once again we were fully prepared for the butch mountaineer who would no-doubt take one look at us and burst out laughing at our brand new boots and waterproofs. Wrong again!  We were met by a very efficient young lady called Lisa who said she was called Lisa with an H as there are loads of Lisa’s in her company, she didn’t, contrary to what we had imagined look at all like a female Chris Bonnington, all’s fine so far Graham said when she was out of hearing distance. (sorry about that his wife will now cut him into little pieces).

Our first meeting with the rest of the group (there were 20 in all) was whilst sitting in the bar. We mentally sized up the rest of the group with regards to who would make it to the top and who would be the fastest , etc, etc, etc. We were wrong in all respects.

You know when you can just tell by what someone is wearing that they know what they are doing. You know, there’s a certain something about someone’s clothing that makes you just know that this person is an expert. A bit like a bank manager wearing a suit that is just right, not too cheap and not to expensive. Well this is how I thought I looked all those weeks ago whilst trying on my new waterproof gear. The cost of the trip included free loan of a set of waterproofs but me and my visa card were having none of that. Only the best will do. So, after spending over £200 on a pair of over trousers and a jacket I thought I looked the part even whilst sitting in the bar of the Milton Hotel. Wrong again. In walked the staff from UK Outdoor Pursuits. Even the 4 girls from the admin office (who said they had just come for “a walk” up the Ben) were togged out in what can only be described as the Biz. Well used and worn-in top of the range North Face gear that looked as if it could have been worn at the top of Everest. Looking down at my brand new (still creased from the shop packaging) suit did put a little bit of prospective on the matter ??. We had never met the chief instructor, a chap called Wayne, who bounced in full of energy wearing yet another North Face suit that must have cost more than mine and Graham’s put together. Oh well, we thought, maybe we should have loaned a pair of theirs. Too late and the man in the shop had told us that our’s was the best you could get. Oh yeah, pull the other one.

Anyway,  after a brief talk from Wayne explaining what we where going to do that afternoon (basically he said that we were all going to become expert map readers and all round navigators) we jumped in to our car and set off up the road to Glen Nevis.

As soon as we arrived in the car park at the top of the road we were all walking backwards and foreword over the tarmac counting our paces (so we would know how far we had walked). Wayne explained how to use the map and compass which, even though I had tried, and failed before, I found I could actually do it. Then with our new found skills as navigators of we went down the track towards the mountains.

We split into smaller groups and I was in Wayne’s group. Even whilst we were walking down this easy path he continually made us check our map to ensure that we knew exactly (and I do mean exactly – or as he put it – to the millimeter) where we were. He made sure that anyone (i.e. both me and Graham) who didn’t quite get it right knew why we had got it wrong and then how to correct this mistake. After a while, and with lots of help we found we could actually get it right (most of the time).
At the end of the track the ground opened out into a flood plain with the fast running and very deep River Nevis running down the right hand side. Can everyone swim ?, Wayne had asked in the bar, we were just about to find out why. We had to get over the river using a bridge made of three bits of wire. This’ll never take my weight said Graham as he stepped onto the lower wire. It did. I had thought of refusing but when Graham didn’t fall in and get swept away I couldn’t really say no. So up I jumped and soon found myself looking down at my feet with the water only a few feet below. I kept repeating, just don’t let go, just don’t let go, all the way to the other side. As it had by now started to rain quite heavily Donald (the instructor from the other group) led us into the mountain rescue post to get warm. The whole group piled in and were soon downing coffee and tea from our flasks.  For safeties sake both of us had 2 mar bars each, just to ensure we didn’t let those fat reserves diminish too much !!.

After going back over the wires and with more map reading practice we found ourselves back in the car park, doing more walking up and down counting our paces. Graham asked Donald why this was so important as you could always see at least something to take your bearing from. Oh yes, replied Donald wait until you’re on the top of Nevis and can’t see more than 2m in any direction and you’re surrounded by drops in all directions, then you’ll see why it’s so important to be able to work out how far you have walked. Neither me or Graham believed him, it couldn’t be that bad. (wrong again).

After more map reading practice at the Hotel when Wayne made us not only work out our compass bearing for the summit area of Ben Nevis, but also write them down. I thought he was going a bit over the top (once again I was wrong). After another large and excellent meal in the Milton hotel we had a few beers then went to bed early as we would be starting off quite early on Saturday morning.

To put it in the nicest terms I can, I don’t like alarm clocks, and when it went off on Saturday and it was still dark outside, I was not too happy. But, rather strangely, Graham was already up and packing his rucksack as I crawled out of my nice warm bed. He kept checking the list we had been sent against the contents of his rucksack. He would then unpack the sack and check the whole list again. I am not going to forget anything, he said, before emptying his sack again and starting over.

After breakfast we headed off again down Glen Nevis and met up with the other instructors from UK Outdoor Pursuits. What can I say, they just looked the part. Some were older some were younger but (there’s no other way of putting it) they just looked like they wouldn’t lose it whatever the weather threw at them. As we (well, Graham anyway) checked his gear, again,. the whole group were looking up at the vast mountains all around us. Wayne, in his, by now customary, cheerful way pointed out exactly which one was Ben Nevis and then it finally hit us (and I think most of the group at the same time) just what we had gotten ourselves into. He pointed to an enormous mountain reaching thousands of feet upwards most of which was covered in Snow and the top half hidden in dense fog. Oh dear, oh dear.

The admin staff from UK’OP 

(shown here L to R Susie, Lisa H and Emma).  

These are the mad people who said they “had just come for a walk up The Ben”.  I want their job.


Here is another of my new mates who was also participating in her first winter trip.  As you can see her gear is really good.



The wire “bridge” we had to traverse on the Friday afternoon training session



Setting off from the Youth Hotel in Glen Nevis – watched by Alec, who was one of the UK’OP instructors.  As you can see the snow-line is only just above the start point.



After only half an hour we already had snow under-foot.  Here we are going over the aluminum bridge just above the YHA path junction



Our first real break at Windy Corner.  As you can see tea and (of course) mars bars were definitely needed.



Ice-pick training.  This is great fun.  BUT, it was explained that it was vital that we knew how to stop ourselves if we were to slip, so – great fun but also important



When learning to use the ice pick the snow gets EVERYWHERE



Approaching the halfway point.  You can’t really see it on the photo but the snow was starting to form into drifts around here.



Heavy going just above the 2nd corner.  The clouds cleared around here, for a short while, so we were treated to some excellent views of the other snow capped peaks of North West Scotland.



At the 4th corner the instructors said we should put the crampons on to the bottom of our boots.  As you see we were now in total winter conditions.



Approaching the 7th corner. What can I say other than we have all now really experienced a real blizzard.

Too late to back out now. We just could NOT have walked back in to our local pub without at least giving it try. We both agreed to “just give it a try and see how far we get”. Forget the mountaineering instructors, even the girls from the outdoor pursuits admin office (who are called Emma, Susie, Lisa H and Lisa C) looked as if this was just another days work. They were chatting away as if the enormous snow covered mountain that we were about to ascend was nothing to worry about. Me and Graham both agreed they were all mad.

Off we went.

After only the first few hundred yards of the ascent one of the party turned back as he was suffering the after effects of a serious flu. The entire group watched him descend and we each though that we would be next. But off we went again.

The weather, to start with, was fine, a bit cold, but not too bad. The first time we noticed any snow laying on the ground was around a quarter of the way up at the area the instructors called Windy Corner. Can you believe it both me and Graham had our picture taken with this in the background (in case we had to go down as this would at least prove that we had made an attempt). After a quick nip from our hot flask we set off again towards the lake which is halfway up Nevis, by now the snow was laying about 6 inches deep and I was glad of the specialist boots that we were wearing. We had each been supplied with a very strange pair of double boots that had a soft pair of inners and another pair of rigid plastic outer boots. We had also been given a set of crampons (spikes) that attached to the bottom of the boots. So, with our supplied ice picks strapped to our rucksack we did at least look the part. As we approached the lake area the clouds started to part and we actually had a brief glimpse of bits of blue. This didn’t last long. At the dry stone wall we all got out our maps and were spilt into small groups and asked to do something which appeared to be quite simple.  – Go and stand halfway up Ben Nevis -. Off we went to a point that we convinced ourselves was correct and waited for our prize. (anyone who got it right was to be awarded a free chocolate bar). What can I say, we almost got it right, much to the delight of Emma, who’s chocolates Wayne was going to hand out as prizes. She got them all back!!

After crossing a waterfall (the Red Burn) we sat down for a good rest and a bite to eat from our packed lunches and, of course, a few mars bars. This is when the fist heavy snow hit us. The instructors and admin girls simply put up their jacket hood and continued chatting. We were right, they were all mad. Surly, we though they would call off the ascent now. Not a chance. After our rest break we set off again up into the falling snow. About half an hour after the stop the snow was starting to form into drifts a few feet thick and visibility was getting worse. Now would be a good time to turn back to the nice warm bar. Wrong. With Wayne and another instructor called John taking turns at the front breaking the trail we made our way up to the 4th corner.

At corner 4 (as the instructors called it) we came across a slope over around 45%. At the bottom of this we strapped our spike to our boots and put on the climbing helmets that we had been given at the bottom. Now we knew what they were for. With two instructors cutting steps in the steep slope we climbed up. As Lisa H put it, “it’s no use giving you an ice pick and not showing you who to use it, is it”. For the next half an hour we went up and down the slope, backwards, forwards, spinning around and any other way gravity would allow practicing the use of our ice pick. To say we got snow everywhere would be an understatement. I do mean it got everywhere. But, I can honestly say I now know how to use an ice pick to stop me if I ever slipped and started to slide down an ice covered mountain. Not much use in Birmingham I grant you, but then you never know do you !!. One little thing about ice pick training it was brilliant fun, with a serious reason.

After this session we started up again towards the 4,000ft cairn. As we arrived the last bit of sky disappeared and we were enveloped in very thick fog. This combined with the falling snow meant that you couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. So Donald had been right all along. Maps out said Wayne, which way to the top he asked. It was only now that we understood the full reason for writing down the compass bearings the night before. OK, with our new found super navigation skills we could have worked it out there and then but as Donald had said, it’s best to be prepared if you can.

With almost zero visibility we set off, aiming for a 40m gap between the cliffs that were on either side of the track that leads to the summit over a 1,000m away. We took it in turns leading the group but always with one of the instructors just behind making the odd (but sadly frequent) alterations to our progress to ensure we kept on course. I will freely admit and I am sure that almost the entire group would also, that if we weren’t up there with the instructors we would just have sat down and waited to be rescued. We all knew there were cliffs many thousands of feet high all around us and it would have been madness to try it alone, even with our new found “super navigation skills” ??.

We didn’t appreciate it at the time but as we approached the small gap between the gullies John suddenly made a course alteration in total white-out conditions and walked off to the left and after a few minutes there we were stood next to the summit buildings. I think that the whole group were impressed with their “real” navigation skills.

So after all that time since sitting in the pub at home here we were at the highest point in the land. The triangulation point is 17ft high and only the top one foot was sticking up through the snow. We huddled around the shelter and took some group photographs before getting out the Mobile and calling my wife to tell her the good news. I imagined her to be sitting by the phone waiting to hear that her brave mountaineer husband had reached the summit safely. The answer machine was on. She was out at the pub with Helen, Graham’s wife!!

To get off the summit you need to walk on a compass bearing for exactly 150m before turning to another bearing. Walk too far and you walk straight into a gully, turn too late and you will go right over the edge of the north face (2,500ft down). Thank you, thank you, thank you for making us walk up and down in the car park. It worked.

It wasn’t over yet.  The guides decided that we were now ready to come down via a different route. So off we set into thigh deep snow and still thick fog. We were aiming for the second corner and this is where we arrived right on target. After removing our crampons we sat down for a long rest (with tea and, of course, mars bars) before continuing down towards the hotel and a welcome pint.

That night we were awarded our well earned certificate which we will both treasure. But more importantly we have a copy of the summit group photograph to prove that we had actually made it. What can I say other than to thank everyone for the hard work in organising a brilliant trip and for allowing two rather boring chaps the chance (even it’s just for a weekend) to glimpse into another world of ice and snow which even after being there and experiencing it we still can’t really believe. Thank you.

Oh yes. The hotel Jacuzzi. I must tell the young lady who was sat in there with us that it wasn’t me but Graham who inadvertently ……. well I think I will leave it there.

See you on Everest.