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No2 'The Nevis Cornice Incident of 1999

The 'Ben' in late April condition

Ben Nevis has always been a favourite mountain of mine if not the favourite. I can honestly say I am happy just pottering up to the hut and taking it all in as I am standing on its top. One BIG mountaineering memory for me though would be standing on its top after my first winter climbing on it, in fact its probably one of the most impactful winter or even mountain experiences I have had to this day, I certainly learned plenty but certainly one piece of learning was that I wanted to get to know this mountain better despite the experience being a little overwhelming at the time.

Younger years

Working as a trainee outdoor instructor at a centre down in Argyll’s Lochgoihead I had a great winter getting a few easy gully’s in and classic routes like Curved Ridge and Central Gully on Stob Coire Nam Beith. Enough I would say to grasp that I loved it and I wanted more. One thing which came up numerous times in conversations and images on the cover of High magazine was Ben Nevis the crucible of Scottish winter climbing. I was very keen to take a closer look at this mythical venue deep in the Highlands. With the spring in the Arrochar Alps in full swing thoughts of winter where now turned towards next season. That was until a visiting teacher to the centre had mentioned that he was heading to the Ben that weekend and that conditions where good and most importantly he would be able to offer a lift with that one last winter blast was on. I was sceptical though as it was late April and I couldn’t conceive that there was snow and ice still in the Highlands. There was no instagram, Facebook or even accessible internet then so conditions where done by word of mouth and understanding the weather forecast, my experience hadnt  quite reached a full understanding of the mechanics of Nevis ice yet, so a visiting teachers word it was.

He seemed to know what he was talking about so it was agreed that we would meet him at 5am in Tarbert as he was passing from Glasgow to Fort William early Sunday morning.

Now began the tricky business of getting ready, we only had walking boots and one axe each and by the sounds of the Bens North Face this would be insufficient for an ascent requiring two axes each. I approached the then deputy of the centre Geoff Baker a very experienced kayaker and outdoor professional as to whether we could borrow two more walking axes from the store. He considered this request before turning it down explaining something about legal responsibilities of the centre and trainees which went over my head but I was determined to find a solution. Geoff I think having seen that we where determined and enthusiastic and likely to go anyway equipped or not took pity. The following day he brought in his own rather elderly mountaineering axes to lend us for the weekend along with a couple of Scrubes and Warthogs both devices I was unsure how to opertate. The stage was set walking boots, crampons, and a pair of walking axes each, the stage was set!!

Waiting in the early hours by the road at Tarbert Andy arrived picking us up and continued at high speed towards Fort William. It turned out that Andy ‘Sharky’ Clark was a bit known in the winter climbing world and my intuition that he knew a thing or too was right. As we wound through Glencoe he pointed out various features showing his extensive knowledge of the hills and getting us pretty excited as to what lay ahead. I still couldn’t picture this day of winter climbing in the stunning sunny springlike morning with no visible snow that I could see. As we rounded Fort William things started to look more promising with a snow capped Ben Nevis now in view. We arrived near the Golf course the then approach, a skip round the golf course and then into a muddy trench up through the forest to the dam. We agreed a time to be back at the car as we organised bags. I remember watching Andy and his mate sorting their gear, ice screws, climbing axes and double ropes thinking this all looked quite serious and that perhaps we where not as equipped as we needed to be.

Within no time we where slipping up through the forest among a large volume of people all headed to the hut which was where Andy had directed us to head. I had no idea what this ‘hut’ was other than it seemed to be the place everyone was going. I remember distinctly thinking this all seemed like the real deal as those who we passed looked very well kitted out. Tight thermal leggings, Yeti gaiters, pretty pungent Helly Hanson thermals and bulging sacks and beards made me feel like a child among men and that I perhaps shouldn’t be there.

Its certainly true that it was not a particularly fashionable pursuit then and these days people look very cool on the hill, outdoor kit at some point became a lot more cool looking than then. Once the dam was reached a brilliant white face appeared, the Orion face and surrounding cliffs looked like an Alpine scene under the clear blue sky, I began to understand now why Andy thought this was the time of year for Ben Nevis.

We arrived at the hut where various people where preparing to venture towards the cliffs. Two distinct lines of people where heading off those heading to Observatory gully area and those heading up towards Ledge Route and Coire na Ciste. The former looked more serious and perhaps not for us at this stage and the Ciste looked to offer easier options. Reading the guide we decided the best thing would be an easier gully. At this point even the easier pure ice lines now looked a lot more serious than reading the book the night before so a rethink was needed. We opted for a more modest gully, but not the easiest which would have been wiser not wanting to look too beginnery among these serious looking people sent us into an experience never to be forgotten. We settled on Number 2 gully and headed up to the Ciste to gear up. We arrived at what felt like an almost glacial scene, brilliant snow cover and an azure pool poking out of large rolls of snow ice. Excited we geared up and brandishing our walking axes headed round under Comb Gully and up large boot prints making for swift movement. As we passed a pair starting Comb gully they asked where we where heading I stated with confidence Number 2 gully. The man replied that the cornices would be a problem. I didn’t really know what he meant and brushed him off with a false confidence, a warning we should have heeded. We got into the narrows where a sudden feeling of exposure took over realising we had now gained a significant amount of height. The azure pool now seemed miles away down a steep hard snow slope. I quickly put a sling on a spike sorted the rope and Daniel my climbing partner and I tied in.

Continuing upwards I deployed a wire in the side wall and got into the narrows which quickly became a full pitch of exposed blue ice. Luckily I could largely get bits in on the side walls but it was hard going with the walking axes and bendy boots. We had also acquired a scrube a kind of drive in ice screw which I placed when out of options. This proved difficult without a hammer on my axe and instead mangled my adze in my determination to get it into the ice. These where hard to place even with a hammer as it required good balance to free a hand to place it and a hand to hammer it in leaving no hands to hold an axe for balance. Carrying on for a few lengths things began to open out and perhaps the finish in sight. I made a belay and brought up Daniel while I did this I surveyed the next steps.

This is where the problems began. Above me was a huge cornice the size of a double decker bus and seemed to encircle the whole gully. I began to feel a creeping fear that we would have some serious issues getting out. The option of an abseil retreat was also a problem as I wasn’t entirely sure how an abseil retreat worked. With Daniel up I set off into steep almost vertical snow which led to a large gaping break in the snow under the cornice, the now sun soaked cornice. I climbed back down to the belay unsure what to do. This went on for several attempts before the final terrifying attempt. The only possible option I could see was to climb out as far left as possible and see if I could outflank it round a corner. I climbed up to the hole and then climbed deep inside it and built a buried axe and made this a runner climbing back out the hole I started traversing left now with one axe. It was now plum vertical and above me still this cornice overhung dramatically but did taper slightly at one end but still over hung. This had been my only option I felt to reach safety and now I was unable to reverse. I had been careful making my way across balancing while also trying to chip a small set of hand holds for extra balance but this appeared to be a dead end for my abilities.

The moment came where I had the full exposure of Number 2 gully and now Buttress below me the rope almost completely run out via one buried axe runner and final five to ten metres of overhanging cornice above that I was now stuck. There really seemed no options left at this point one which crossed my mind was to close my eyes and fall off hoping the axe would hold and everything would be ok, try desperate moves which would inevitably mean falling off anyway or begin trying to reverse which would have meant falling to. I looked back at Daniel who was as white as a sheet and could see that this was now a situation.

Then I heard faint voices on the plateau above. This was no time for pride ‘Heeeeelp’ the voices came closer and shouted down ‘are you ok?’ ‘NO I can’t get past the cornice’ ‘Ok we will throw you a rope, odd route choice’ ‘just chuck me a rope’.

The relief was amazing but it seemed like an eternity before a rope and a carabiner came inching over the edge. I grabbed the carabiner and clipped it in and shouted ‘climbing’ ‘ok’ came from above. I drew a breath and almost that second my footholds and crampons gave way and I slumped onto the rope. What followed was a frenzied mix of thrashing with one axe and pulling on the rope where I emerged on the top in the sunshine sweating profusely and shaking like a leaf. The man who had arranged the rope from above smiled and said ‘you’ll be wary aboot the Nevis cornice fe noo on” It turned out to be the pair who had we passed starting Comb Gully.

Taking the Nevis experiences to the Alps

I gathered myself together and arranged my axe in the slot and brought up Daniel who also fell numerous times on the exit. We both sat in the sun and had a a sandwich gradually calming down. Once we felt a little more energised we tagged into the line heading for number 4 gully and on back to the hut. Despite that being a somewhat terrifying introduction to Ben Nevis I was still enthralled by it and walking out even though the route had ended in a minor rescue I felt exhilarated by it and knew it was something I wanted more of.

Pretty soon after that I took a job at Outward Bound in Fort William and thus many more days in winter where to come although I never saw Daniel again!!

'Look well to each step'....

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