Thursday, 14 June 2012

Staring in the Face of the Ben

Tower Ridge scramble, Ben Nevis 


The North Face of Ben Nevis holds a special place in mountaineering history. The Gaelic name ‘Ben Nevis’ can translate as ‘venomous mountain’. On a club trip in February last year I first laid eyes on the 700 metre high icy cliffs, etched with jagged buttresses and snow gullies. It’s exhilarating to see; the granite rock offers years of climbing potential. Yet the north face also has a menacing side, of storms and avalanche, which threatens any mountaineer. I was captured. 

I returned to the Mecca of Scottish climbing in June. It was Oli’s idea to have a go at Tower Ridge: 600 metres of 3 star Diff climbing. Since I hadn’t been to the summit of the Ben before, it seemed like the right way to get there. After light Googling it was obvious that Tower Ridge was a mountaineering classic. The word classic is overused, but Tower Ridge certainly is one. It’s big and it looks like the schizz. Yet, with limited multi-pitch experience and having never properly climbed with Oli before, I was unsure of my own ability, and his. The guidebook I’d borrowed from the library (‘The Hillwalker’s Guide to Mountaineering’), made out that the route was a formidable challenge (similar words were used repeatedly); emphasising that a successful attempt on the ridge would require huge amounts of background preparation. We hadn’t done any.

Bombing up from the North Face car park

So, it was a relief to find out at the CIC hut that we’d left this guidebook in the car, since it was full of more words like ‘immense’ and ‘difficulty’. Some finger-pointing occurred, but I refused to take blame for such a mishap. There was now the issue of trying to route-find along the entire ridge, but in many ways it made our ascent more authentic. Follow the easy line and the polish (not the Eastern European type) and you can’t go wrong. Or so I thought.

Gearing up at the CIC hut

On leaving the CIC hut, Oli, Charlie and I followed a guide and his clients (!) around the base of the Douglas Boulder, an unmistakable hunk of rock below the North Face (with good climbs on it). We were headed for the Douglas Gap, the notch just behind the boulder, which marks the start of Tower Ridge. After hiking up grassy terraces and onto scree, we roped up and took coils, now plodding upwards tied together, no more than two metres apart. It’s a short scramble up a chossy gully to reach Tower Gap. Where we stood felt airy and the view from the gap was steep, so the less time spent gazing at the rocks below, the better. Pitching out of the gap on a comfortable Diff climb (10m), we got onto the ridge proper. From here it’s a great mix of walking and easy scrambling – with enough time to gawp at the granite walls surrounding you. Genuinely, the view is spectacular.


After lunch, we were moving together well. Oli used natural protection, which abounds, and popped in runners when there wasn’t any. Our luck ran out as we veered off route, on the east edge of Tower Ridge. The ledge became narrow and everything was worryingly loose. Clearly, people had been here before, I’d seen a few crampon scratches and bits of polish earlier, but I wondered if they’d gone off-route, like us. Our route came to an end here; maybe they had as well. Trying to correct ourselves, I lead a nasty pitch up and out of sight, looking for a way back to the spine of the ridge. The exposure was not frightening, but it was real. I put my rock shoes on in case of any technical stuff, and it paid off with moves that needed a large stretch onto questionable holds. Oli, who’s slightly shorter than me and Charlie, complained about the sequence, needing the skills of a Chinese gymnast at this point for an easy traverse. Following lots of swearing and teamwork, which I find go hand in hand, we were on route again, making swift progress towards Great Tower.

Opting for Howard’s Chimney on the east side, we quickly skirted around Great Tower (a prominent knuckle on the ridge, which needs pitching). Shuffling up the chimney can be made easier if there are snow steps, depending on the time of year. From there it’s on towards the Gap. 

Charlie's Chinese impressions and some bad flatulence enhanced the banter

Arguably the crux of the day, Tower Gap is a notch high up along the ridge - demanding big moves climbing into the gap and across to the other side. It’s made safe with some tat to clip into. Pitching this section, I teetered across a narrow walkway of granite blocks and peered over. The sense of exposure was probably extreme, but I didn’t have time to think about it, keeping focussed. I used hand and foot jams in a crack running down the edge of the gap, when I realised I was climbing into space. It felt lofty up there - I later read that the drop below was almost 200m. Thank god I didn’t look down. I traversed back into the gap and clipped in a runner. Now feeling pretty good, it was a straight forward jump across and back out the other side. Ignoring some belay faff that came afterwards, leading across the gap was a real highlight. At Tower Gap, you’re immersed in the beauty of it all.

Tower Gap (foreground) and Great Tower

From there, it’s plain sailing up a scrambly section to finish. On reaching the summit plateau, it was great to think we’d done it, with little preparation, no guidebook and no major epics. The summit was a calm, civilised place; walkers strolling along and a touch of sunshine on the plateau. We’d climbed the highest mountain in Britain, the weather had been good all day and we could see for miles - southern Munros and Scottish islands in view. For the sake of tradition, we shook hands on our success and took a summit photo.

First time on the Ben

It’s a fast descent from the top of Ben Nevis along the pony track (despite some falling over, trying to cut corners on the scree). Bombing down, alongside other walkers, we found that we were racing. No one had agreed to race and no one could let on that they were racing. But everyone was… Like the Tour de France, or maybe the grand prix, you have to look for sly openings where you can slip past, into pole position. On the final sprint for the Glen Nevis bar, we found an opening and secured the number one spot. Absolute winner.

We met our friends at the pub, fellow Hiking Club members who’d scrambled up the Carn Mor Dearg arête. As I sank into a leather sofa, chatting about the day’s events, a sense of achievement sank in also. I felt the burn of wind and sun on my face, which meant I’d had a good day on the mountain.

Scrambling up Tower Ridge, you’re flanked by a mass of rock on the North Face. It’s a mountaineer’s playground. The scale of everything is massive and you imagine bearded pioneers climbing in hobnail boots, trying new lines of ascent. Or is it just me. Make the trip up there, if you haven’t already.

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