We set off from the North Face car park at Torlundy on Friday evening with some trepidation of not knowing what to expect. This wasn’t our usual wild camp or a bothy night, it was something just a wee bit different. We were meeting up with a small group assembled by Iain Cameron, to explore snow tunnels on Observatory Gully. Iain had booked the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut, aka the CIC Hut for the night.
It was warm and overcast, perfect midge weather but the wee blighters were nowhere to be seen, result! It didn’t take us too long to wind up the path and out of the treeline onto the open hillside. Ben Nevis was well covered in cloud, it occasionally threatened to rain, but nothing more than a bit of fine drizzle.
Kevin and I were the first to arrive at the locked CIC hut. Thankfully we didn’t meet any walkers on the way, it saved us having to explain why we had ice axes in the height of the finest summer we’ve had in years.
The cloud was beginning to break, giving us teasing atmospheric glimpses of the famous North Face, Tower Ridge and Ledge route making appearances.
Three other walkers arrived shortly after us with keys for the hut, they let us in and we all introduced ourselves. The rest of the group arrived not long after and we settled into what turned out to be a fine evening in the legendary CIC Hut with lots of food, drink and good craic. The whisky ran out and we turned in for the night.
A leisurely start to the morning, we were up for just after 8am, followed by a huge breakfast, enough bacon and egg rolls to feed a small army. Just as we left the hut more walkers arrived, some heading for Carn Mor Dearg and others towards Tower Ridge. We set off for Observatory Gully by ascending up and around the base of Tower Ridge and up into gully itself, the going was steep and rocky, but nothing too dodgy.
We arrived at our first snow tunnel, this was just a wee taster of what to expect. It wasn’t very deep but you could pretty much stand up inside it. Iain explained that he didn’t trust the structural integrity of this tunnel because on the right hand side the snow was rested on top of a rock not much larger than a regular football.
We continued on higher up into the gully and discovered remnants from the old summit Observatory Hotel (1885-1916). Bits of wood, pottery and old beer bottles, plus bits of metal from what looked like could have been the chimney flue. It looked as though the hotel was dismantled and thrown off Gardyloo Gully… It probably was to be honest, hence the name of the Gully above us.
We reached the next snow patch, this one much larger! As we prepared to ascend up the snow the gully was filled with the call from a resident Snow bunting. Ice axes at the ready we carefully ascended the snow patch and over towards rock, the snow was 4-5 metres deep in places but with moisture and ultimately warm air being drawn under the snow the snowline melts and recedes from the rock leaving a gap, known as ‘Randkluft’.
Care was required, the rock was greasy and mossy. We scrambled down into the randkluft, using the axes on the wall of snow for leverage and purchase to ensure we didn’t slip underneath the snow!
We traversed around inside the randkluft, at the end we were greeted by a small waterfall, we then retraced our steps to exit the randkluft. Heading back down to our rucksacks, Iain shouted us all to inspect a large deep chasm in the rock. We followed a small strip of snow that led us into the chasm. Once inside there was a snow wall from the snow that drifted in from the chimney above us. Despite being around 300 metres below the summit, it felt like we were worlds away from the usual trudge up the mountain path.
We reached the top of the chasm, underfoot was loose, soily gravel, almost like humous. Whilst the entrance and approach of chasm is covered in small rocks and boulders. Heading back down I accidently triggered some rockfall, shouting ‘BELOW’ to warn the others. Thankfully nobody was seriously hurt, Calum was nutmegged by the rock but poor Robert did take a sore one to the leg.
Away from chasm, we collected our rucksacks and continued on to the ‘Pièce de résistance’. We crossed over a ledge and down towards the last snow patch of the day.
Iain had explained earlier that the entrances to snow tunnels are the weakest point and can be prone to collapse. The tunnel we were about to enter had melted enough to leave some holes in the snow. Iain advised to get quickly into the tunnel just in case the entrance was to collapse.
Within moments of entering the tunnel we were treated to the stunning blue hue of the light shining through the snow. We had a wet scramble up steep terrain to concentrate on too, the stream cascading down through the tunnel often difficult to avoid. Despite how wet it was the rock was surprisingly grippy. My thoughts were the lack of light and running water would prevent moss and vegetation from growing.
Deeper into the circa 80m long tunnel and head torches were required, this was a surreal experience, almost alien like. Rock below us, and melting snow above us leaving natural curves in the roof. You don’t realise the rate these melt at until inside one. Iain estimated that all the remaining snow in Scotland will be gone by September.
We reached the top of the tunnel which placed us underneath Point 5 gully, a precariously perched boulder sat on a small snow patch just above us. It could have given way at any time. Iain disappeared for a recce but we’d return the way we came. This wasn’t an issue, as it meant we’d get to experience the snow tunnel again, albeit slightly more tricky being a downclimb.
It was easy to forget that you were in a cold environment, on exiting the snow tunnel you got a blast of warm air, similar to when you get off the aeroplane for your holiday in Spain. It was now 2pm and we took a well earned break and had some lunch. We spotted people heading for Tower Ridge, some had ascended too far up the gully, possibly following us.
We descended back down to the CIC Hut to tidy up and retrieve the rest of our gear. From here Kevin and I parted company with the rest of the group to head up Carn Mor Dearg as Kevin was keen to tick this one off. He had some mad notion that I was after Munro tops but I’m not too sure where he got that idea from.
Heading up the steep slopes of Carn Mor Dearg, I stopped to look back at where we had just been exploring snow patches. It looked a lot steeper than it actually was.
I last ascended Carn Mor Dearg from the CIC Hut in the summer of 2010, it was tougher than what I remembered it to be. Up onto the ridge and we met walkers still heading for the arete and Ben Nevis. A bank of cloud had engulfed Ben Nevis by now. We didn’t hang around for long and followed the ridge over Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Beag Dearg where we veered off to pick up the back to Torlundy.
Back at the car we nipped into Fort William for some bits and pieces then scooted off to the Red Squirrel campsite for the night. We enjoyed a couple of pints and the live band at the Clachaig to finish off an interesting day.