The last gondola leaves in 2 hours and 15 minutes, we are at the base of Aonach Seang a rarely climbed buttress in An Cul Coire on the East side of Aonach Mor. It has taken 3 hours and 40 minutes of maximum effort (wading, navigating, wading, swearing, wading, falling and wading... through boulder fields... plus a little exposed traverse) to get here and we don't have enough daylight to do this... let alone catch the 16.15 gondola. Jamie is up ahead commenting on how much buttress there seems to be above us and I shout up my epiphany that we aren't going to do this today. He says he can get a belay and there seems to be a ledge leading somewhere right. I pile up behind and carry on along the ledge 'for a look'. There's a gully round there if I can just wade over these slabs into it- I should have grabbed some rack...
We've seen evidence of ice weeping on steep ground all day and fortunately now the turf and a little rotten ice beneath the snow comes to my aid. I force the 2 pieces from the last stance to look like a belay and bellow for Jamie to follow. We coil ropes and I begin wading up the gully parallel to our intended route the Aonach Seang. Its hard, knee deep and more. Any step up onto ankle deep snow a cruel relief before you are back down in the plowter. This is on you Al. Jamie would have been happy with digging out Turf Walk- you had to get over ambitious at the least sensible time of the year!
The gully rears up a little. Jamie pauses to take pics of me and I'm glad there is actually some surprisingly thick (if a little rotten) ice and some good turf amongst the granite slabs I now seem to be climbing. We rejoin higher up... the gully has petered out into the Coire headwall and Jamie heads for a col on the Buttress to our left, crotch deep and working hard. On the crest I mention how the laws of space, time and the Nevis Range staff mean it is now physically impossible for us to make the last gondola. Jamie asks me to explain and I take on the lead. I can't talk, only count 10 steps of steep wading 7 times and we are on the Aonach Mor plateau. I tell him that IF we can make the summit cairn with 45 minutes to go we MIGHT make that last bin. He calls 45 minutes and we are still floundering following our footprints from the morning somewhere in the mist. A moment later and the cairn is in sight.
'Tick, tock, tick, tock' says Jamie throwing axes onto his bag, rack inside and grabbing his poles- he's off. I do the same but also spend an exquisitely expensive minute shedding my crampons. Still gasping I'm off after him... just visible in the white room ahead.
We wade and breath.... trotting I catch him after 10 minutes. Finally we reach Easy Gully and cut the corner of this mornings track. I'm now in front occasionally swearing, shouting warnings about holes and rocks beneath the surface and chugging downhill for all I'm worth.
Turning the corner now its a straight shot downhill and I can see the top station. 24 minutes to go. No talking just pushing and gasping and occasionally falling, rolling in the deep powder. Jamie has slowed. He still has his crampons on. If I get there first will I persuade them to wait for him??
Sweating, chest heaving, I reach the station. The man in the cabin smiles at me. I ask if my friend-close behind-will get a bin down? "If he is here by quarter past he will." 5 minutes. Back out the door and Jamie is just in sight on the last field. "RUN!" I bellow. 60 seconds. "You have 2 minutes!!!" I lie- he has 3. A final spurt from the now cramponless Jamie and he crosses the threshold at 1615 sharp.
We collapse into the gondola, the absolute last gondola, laughing and sweating, I'm dizzy and nauseous with the effort.
Will I ever learn? Probably not! :-)
Respect to Big Jamie for smiling, talking, sweating and sharing trail breaking with never failing good humour. We'll be back big man! Thanks to Nevis Range for running the gondola bang to time and not shutting early!!
Heading in through 'the white room'
Dropping in from the Aonach Mor Aonach Beag Col
The skyline buttress is the Aonach Seang... is that a boulderfield ahead?
Time to kit up
The worst hour of the day behind us
The first, last and only pitch
Some time later bailing upwards fast in the gully
Trying to find somewhere less steep and deep!!
Sweaty and not a little dizzy with the effort, but in the last gondola down!