I put my down jacket on and started dragging on layers of iced up clothing. My boots were freezing and me feet went numb while I put on gaiters. Not having to option of a hot drink, we waved our arms around a bit, gobbled some frusli bars and drank some ice cold water from the stream. Alasdair stuffed some food and spare clothing in the rucksack, and I strapped on the camera. We clipped our crampons on and grabbed our axes. We already knew what we wanted to do - Tower Ridge.
We left the huddle of tents by the hut, cold campers and well-fed and warm huttees and started up around the side of the Douglas Boulder, which was still fairly black and brooding. I let Alasdair lead as I tried to wiggle my toes and get some circulation into my feet. Nothing happened. I was just going to have to suffer until we go to the car. We quickly stamped our way up to the Douglas Gap where the ridge proper started, enjoying the scenery. I had devoured the Tower Ridge Rulebook in Cold Climbs - one of the rules was not to try and do a route on the boulder before Tower Ridge. There was about six inches of fresh snow over a bit of a neve base. A classic ridge climb was probably better than getting spindrift down our necks in a gully.
Unfortunately we weren't up early enough. As we waded up to the Gap, we found a team of three just getting belayed up at the notch. The length of time it took them to place some gear for the belay suggested that they might take some time to get up the small, but allegedly tricky chimney that guarded access to the ridge-crest. Alasdair thought it might be faster if we went back down and soloed up one of the gullies to the side. Going back down was a bit of a pain, there was enough fresh snow around to make it more comfortable to face in rather than out, but not enough to allow a quick safe glissade, but we got down fairly fast. It didn't take us long to locate the line to the left of Vanishing Gully. Quickly roping up alpine-style we started front pointing up the neve. For some reason there wasn't much powder here, but it was still hard work. Even with a short rest, by the time we reached the ridge-crest, my calves were burning with lactic acid and the insecurity of climbing together had got to me somewhat. Alasdair wasn't feeling any such weakness - probably because he'd been winter climbing every weekend (and mid-week too) for the past two months. Though we were both students, the difference in work ethic between a second year and a final year was apparent.
We had expected there to be a bit of wind about when we reached the ridge, but the air was silent and still. It was now completely light and the cloud above and around us was thinning out. We could see hordes of climbers on the Orion face, Observatory Buttress and Observatory ridge, but no-one else on the ridge. We were obviously ahead of the party we'd met at the gap, and the only signs of humanity were the crampon-prints of a soloist who seemed to have a cold, from the globules of green phlegm every 20 feet. We had climbed Tower Ridge during a wet day in August the previous year. While in the summer there was grass, lichen, moss and the occasional piece of heather, now the Ben was a sterile, monochrome place, the only colour that what we brought into the environment.
We let out a bit more rope now that we were on the ridge and started up. The climbing wasn't much more than walking to begin with, but the scenery was astounding. On the right the walls and ledges tumbled down to the corrie floor. On our left it dropped away steeply to the unknown. We certainly weren't going to risk the possibility of a cornice to look over the edge. By keeping to the crest we were able to enjoy a bit of easy mixed climbing as we gained height, scraping along with the occasional running belay.
The Little Tower loomed above us. As we reached it we heard the familiar beat of an RAF Sea King Search and Rescue helicopter. We stopped to watch as it dropped a flare and lowered a man onto the top of a small flat area in Coire na Ciste. We later found out that two climbers had fallen from Tower Ridge the day before and only now had been found.
From the base of the Little Tower walls of rime encrusted rock barred the way with some finality. There was no way I could climb them direct. A traverse out over Observatory Gully looked like being our first pitch of real climbing. Alasdair set up the belay, so by default it was my lead. Though the neve was good, finding it under the powder snow was hard work. I was sliding up to my knees at times before finding any purchase, and plunging my axes vertically to the hilt. I worked my way diagonally up a series of banked out ledges, thankful that the ground wasn't any steeper
It was also well nigh impossible to find runners, something I became more worried about as I continued along, always hoping that the next ill-defined piece of rock half buried in snow would be enough of a spike to take a sling. Unfortunately the spikes never appeared and I wasn't able to identify possible cracks under all the snow, ice and rime. I was getting desperate as I began to run out to 50m with just a single pathetic almost-spike way behind me. Eventually, almost on rope-stretch, I found a crack that would take a small wire. I hammered my axe deep into some good neve and shouted "safe" to Alasdair. As he climbed quickly towards be I looked at the route ahead, Though we could probably continue traversing as long as we liked, we really needed to get back onto the crest of the ridge. The angle above us had eased off, so it was probably time to go up. Alasdair wasn't terrible amused with my belay when he reached me, and climbed up past me to find a better stance, which he (naturally) found within 10 metres, belayed below a short wall. Nothing like a bit of sibling rivalry.
I noticed the leader of another party behind us as I scrabbled up to Alasdair. As he had done all the hard leading the day before, and was well tied in, he looked quite comfortable and content for me to continue leading. He reckoned that the most "interesting" way would be to attack the wall above us - straight up the rime covered ramp that led to a corner at the top of the tower. It seemed easier to describe than to climb, but I foolishly agreed and started up. Going up a slab on crampons was a new experience, I felt like a new-born giraffe, but I eventually off-balanced my way up to the corner. Once there, I proceeded to hack at it until I got to a crack where I buried a hex. The corner above, though short, looked devoid of holds and I didn't really know how to torque axes or any of the other tricks of the trade. Just at that moment the leader of the party behind had passed Alasdair and was looking sceptically at my route-choice. Expressing friendly disbelief that this could be grade III, he traversed back right under the wall out of sight for a moment before returning and informing us that there was a much easier way just round the corner. Embarrassed by our complete lack of route finding, but relieved I wouldn't have to find some way up the corner I removed the hex and slid down the ramp, letting myself fall into the pile of snow at the bottom like a child. The guy was right, a small iced-step and some easy snow led to to the top of the tower. I joined him on the belay and we chatted as I brought Alasdair up. The day was continually improving; we now had blue sky and great view across the Nevis classics. Dozens of people dotted the blue, white and grey of the great face, but their voices never carried to us.
As the other team were a party of three, Alasdair and I regained the lead as we headed towards the Great Tower and the famous Eastern Traverse. From the base of the Great Tower this traversed out left and round a corner out of sight above what seemed like a big drop. The good news was that it wasn't too banked out; the bad news was that the snow was soft windslab. The only belay available was ice-axes in the snow, so I placed them on the crest and belayed from the other side of the ridge, hoping I could jump west if Alasdair fell east. He quickly scampered out along the traverse. No problem for the man that has no imagination, or doesn't look between his feet. Unfortunately I have far too much imagination, particularly when burying my hands up to the wrist in windslab without hitting anything solid with my axes. At least there were decent postholes for my feet, and I could sense something solid, even if I couldn't feel anything due to numbness. Apart from a bulge in the middle, the traverse was surprisingly easy, just rhythmic axe-foot-axe-foot, as long as you forgot about the complete lack of protection. I rounded the corner and found Alasdair smiling down from the top of a short banked out gully. In the summer there had been an enormous choke-stone here that we had climbed under, now there wasn't any trace of it other than a steepening in the slope. I scrambled past Alasdair and a reassuringly good belay, back to the ridge crest and the infamous Tower Gap, noted for benightments and last minute disasters.
We could see the top now, only a couple of pitches away, almost within reach. The Gap itself is only about 5ft across and 10ft deep. You could almost jump it. But the gullies to either side are grade III and the approach along a knife-edge. Everyone has heard horror stories of reaching the Gap late in the day with darkness falling and the wind blowing a gale. Luckily for us it was only 3pm and the air was completely still. Alasdair led off, calmly walking along the knife-edge, clipped into the tat that conveniently circled a spike at edge of the gap and lowered himself down. A couple of seconds later he appeared on the other side, climbed a bit higher and sat down to belay. A waist-belay. A bad sign, especially as I was going to remove the only bit of gear before I got to the hard bit. Alasdair didn't help matters by telling me "Falling would probably be a bad idea". Oh well, at least he looked like he was smiling and his voice hadn't wavered. I walked along the edge, being extra careful to avoid any chance of getting my crampons caught in my gaiters. I reached the gap itself, turned around and lowered myself awkwardly, hoping to touch a ledge I couldn't see with feet that could not feel. Nothing but air. I still couldn't feel anything even with my hands wrapped around the spike. "Just grab the tat" called Alasdair. Obviously he had a lower ethical bar than I had, or maybe he would just feel bad if I managed without the tat? Not wanting to outdo him morally, I grabbed the tat and with the extra distance I could lower, found the ledge.
From the other side of the gap, the climbing was straightforward and I soon reached Alasdair at his seat in the snow. I continued up towards the blue sky. The slope steepened near the top, so I stopped to hack in some gear. All I got for my trouble was a flared crack and an admonishment to "get going". Luckily the snow improved to neve and I happily scampered up to be dazzled by the sun as I came over the lip onto the summit plateau. I walked away from the edge and lay down for a moment, ignoring the future reality of a long walk to the tent, the dark boggy path to the car and a long drive home. I was happy. The sun was warm on my back as I sat and belayed Alasdair up, grinning with happiness and elation at having climbed a true classic.