For the visitor who trudges up the highest mountain in the British Isles by the Tourist route, Ben Nevis is just a boring, rounded hill that tortures the body and the mind. This picture that the unknowing, novice hill-walker has, is two-thirds the truth. 15 years ago, although the weather was great, I was one of those novices who vowed never to return. In reality though, tourists never get to see the majestic two-mile long cliffs on the North Eastern side of the mountain and this is where the true character of Ben Nevis rests. The North Face of the Ben is a beautiful place, alpine in stature, cut by deep gullies and seamed with magnificent ridges. The Ben has four main ridges and one minor one. The Hopkinson Brothers were first on the scene in the 1892 and climbed the two biggest ridges. First they descended Tower Ridge and then three days later they climbed the North-east Buttress. The other two, Observatory Ridge and Castle Ridge were mopped up in1901 by a brilliant Victorian climber called Harold Raeburn, who climbed them both solo. Raeburn was the most outstanding climber of his day, years ahead of his time. In 1906 he made a futuristic winter ascent of Green Gully (IV) on the Ben, a route that was claimed in 1938 by J.H.B. Bell, until documentation proved that Raeburn had unbelievably climbed it 32 years earlier.
We aimed to follow in the footsteps of this famous mountaineer and climb Observatory Ridge. We arrived at the North face on a fine April morning, after a two-hour plod, following the Allt a Mhuilinn.
When a climber gazes across at Observatory Ridge from the CIC hut, he will wonder what the climb has in store. The ridge is awesome, appearing vertical for 1300ft and having two slender gullies full of ice on either side. These are Zero Gully to the left and Point Five Gully to the right. (As you might have guessed the gullies are ingeniously named and they range from Minus Three to Number Five). Difficulties are expected on the bottom half of the ridge, which is a major advantage if the going is too tough or the weather changes for the worst. The forecast for the day was promising, with signs of dry rock and mostly clear views of the summit, but there was also the odd band of mist rolling in and out.
We followed the climber’s path, which headed for the rocks just right of the lowest point of the ridge and scrambled up through the easy terrain to the obvious sloping ledge that marks the true start of the climb. Here we roped up into two parties. Mick Kent and Dan Gray paired up on the first rope and Graham Duckmanton and myself on the second. Mick lead on up the first pitch of slabs and Danny lead the second rope length. Danny’s powerful voice echoed around the amphitheatre of the Coire Leis as he called for the rope yardage, giving the surrounding area an eerie, foreboding feel. Graham and I followed snapping at their heals until we came to the first major obstacle. Dan looked up at the polished corner then scanned the wall to the left and spotted a rising traverse line with a couple of bits of old tat hanging from a peg. He then climbed up, clipped into the tat and struggled up the wall. I could see it was hard. Mick followed, just managing to avoid a fall, but he was up. We were more intrigued by the corner that had deep crampon scratched etched into every indent. The corner was polished to a shine and there was a distinct lack of holds. I made the first moves, not really knowing how to tackle the pitch, inserted a decent runner before my foot slipped out of the groove and I slowly slid back down to the stance. Undeterred I gave it another try, this time balancing my left tip toe on a small sloping ledge and wedging my right boot back into the corner. I reached up to hand jam the upper part of the corner before my left foot could skid off of its hold, “YES got it” followed by a couple of quick moves to the ledge above. Graham followed, just managing to remain on the rock. An easy but exposed ledge around the corner to the right came next and 20ft higher up another polished corner that was not without it's problems. In order to gauge our progress, I scanned Tower Ridge to obtain a level corresponding to our own. We were just level with the base Little Tower and from past experience on Tower Ridge, I knew we had a long way to go.
While we waited for Danny to climb, what looked like a fairly easy pitch, I looked over to the right, towards two climbers at the base of Point Five Gully.
The gully is several hundred feet of continuous ice in a narrow, near vertical chimney, that has a couple of kinks to prevent it from being a perfectly straight line. It’s a route that I dream of one-day climbing and when I do, I’ll pack up my ropes and never climb again (I think).
Meanwhile Danny continued to work on the next pitch, trying different ways to overcome an exposed wall on the right flank of the ridge. Once up Mick was belayed up. I also made a start and came up with the same problems that Dan had, following a false line onto steep, holdless rock, before backing off and taking a rightward traverse to an old peg and a stiff, exposed move onto the belay ledge higher up.
The ridge above now lay at an easier angle, and we had also entered the snow line to which mixed climbing would be the order of the day. At this point we fitted crampons and made our axes ready. Mick headed along a narrow ledge on the right flank. Progress was painstakingly slow as he cut steps along the ledge up to an ice-filled groove. Cold was now setting in and we were desperate to be on the move. I looked towards the crest, contemplating climbing up to it, but resolved to remain at my stance. It took three pitches to climb the groove on a narrow band of shattering ice. Again the cloud above cleared and then re-enveloped the mountain, bringing with it a light shower of snow that lasted for only a matter of seconds. Was the Ben teasing us and testing our nerve?
At the top of the groove, we regained the narrow, snow-covered ridge. This marks the end of the major difficulties and it’s a point where a decision has to be made on the type of finish. There are two choices of direction for the final 450ft of the route. The first continues up the remaining broken ground of the ridge and the second is a traverse into Zero Gully.
Dan opted to continue along the ridge, while Graham and myself wanted to go for a speedy ascent of the Gully. We could see that the gully had a few small, steep ice pitches, but in general the average angle was no more than 55 degrees. I crossed into the gully and started to move swiftly up to and over the first ice bulge, where I planted the pick of my axe into the firm neve and brought in the rope for Graham, who then made a start. Mick was undecided which way to go and Danny had already lead on up the ridge to set up a belay above. Mick then decided to risk climbing the first pitch of the gully behind myself, where a fall would see him take a long pendulum into the gully wall. Graham meanwhile waited in the steep bed of the gully until Mick was out of the way. I lead up the next pitch to a second icefall and began to climb it by its left edge. The ice at this point began to fracture around the pick, bringing off a large ‘Dinner Plate’, which bounced down the gully hitting Mick on the helmet and arm. I’ll not repeat what he said. One momentary lapse of concentration while making the stance saw a screw-gate karabiner skittle 1200ft down to the corrie below. Lucky it wasn’t mine eh. Sorry John
Progress was now being made at a cracking pace and we were glad to be free from the constraints of the cramped stances. Rope length followed rope length, up to and over the ice pitches. Belays were taken as and when needed around the axe pick or leash. Forty minutes after leaving the ridge we had climbed the final 485ft of Zero Gully and broke out onto the summit plateau. Mick and Danny arrived forty-five minutes later, the strain of their partnership telling on each of their faces. But as they say, everything has its price.