Start early from North-East car park in Torlundy and ascent via the Allt a’Mhuilinn first to the CIC hut and then to the base of the route in 2-3 hours depending on fitness and conditions. Start on later than 5 am. Alan Kimbers bunkhouse or the Chalets in the Spean Bridge hotel are good recommendations for accomodation.
Observatory ridge IV, 4***
One of the three major Ben Nevis ridges - North-East buttress and Tower Ridge are the other two -, potentially the hardest. Powder snow or verglas will increase the technical grade whereas a good layer of consolidated snow or bare rock will make things easier. Good aerobic fitness and gear management are important because you need to move fast in order to avoid benightment during the short days of winter.
Preparation: Ideally you should have climbed Tower Ridge and possibly North East buttress before climbing Observatory ridge. AD climbs in the alps will also be a good preparation. Ensure good aerobic fitness and gear management in order not to lose time. Check the following websites for current climbing conditions on the Ben and avoid powder or verglas unless you are a grade V+ climber:
From the CIC hut ascent almost to the start of zero gully and walk right onto a shelf until it drops steeply. Set up a belay and scramble right upwards and belay again after about 20 m. The first difficult problem is to either climb a slab or find another way further on the right. There are few holds on the slab so consolidated snow will help a lot. Carry on to the right of the crest of the ridge and scramble several pitches. The second problem is another, short corner to get closer to the crest of the ridge. It is a bit off balance and the holds are not that good. Again, consolidated snow will make things much easier. Ascend either close to the crest or on a gully on the right. Once the ridge narrows to a rock band in-between zero gully and Hadrian’s wall, you can choose either to finish via zero gully (recommended if there is consolidated neve) or carry on over the crest of the ridge (recommended if you managed to get to this point in powder snow). Top out near the top of the UK.
Familiarise yourself with the descent: Either take a narrow corridor in-between five finger gully on the left and the North face on the right or descent via the Carn Mor Dearg arrete (only on a good day). The Alan Kimber Ben Nevis and Glen Coe guidebook has the best description of the descent with grid references for GPS. The Harvey's map and other guidebooks describe the descent navigation using map and compass. In bad weather the descent can be harder and more dangerous than the climb!
Bring all the essential gear but nothing more. The route is long and a 'light and fast' tactic will prevent you from spending a long night on the ridge especially before mid February.
- Technical ice axes with T-rated picks (the stable ones)
- C3-rated crampons on adequate boots
- Ben Nevis map (1:25000), guidebook, compass.
- Nuts 1-10 (possibly only 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 to save weight)
- 3-4 hexentrics
- 2-3 slings
- 6-8 Quickdraws (or shortened 60 cm slings with two karabiners)
- Knifeblade and other pegs
- Bandolier (if you want to swap leading)
- 1-2 ice screws if much ice is expected
- Deadman for neve protection esp. in zero gully