From the start of my climbing life, Tower Ridge had captured my imagination like no other climb had. Steeped in history, Tower Ridge is the most impressive ridge on the Ben. Two thousand feet high, triple towered, and on the highest mountain in Britain, it is the longest graded route on the British mainland. I finally managed to climb it on a sunny August day in 1994, accompanied by that famous Worksop climber Lol Bartrop. The trip was faultless and planned to perfection, we waited for a settled period of weather, drove up to the Ben, climbed it, and drove back all in 24 hours.
I planned to return on our annual 1995 trip to Glencoe, to Re-climb it under springtime conditions, with my brother Phil, and another friend, Graham Duckmanton. We managed only to gain the main ridge above the Douglas Boulder, before being turned back to alert rescue teams for three benighted climbers below the great tower.
The Ben in may is in neither winter nor summer conditions, the days being longer and warmer than winter, but having the added danger of soft, unconsolidated, melting snow. Having not read an account of a climb in these conditions, for me, the difficulties would be unknown. We arrived at the C.I.C hut, on a cold, but sunny day with small white cumulus clouds drifting overhead, we just could not believe our luck, an almost identical day as the previous year, surely God must have felt that he owed us another chance.
The time was around 9am and we were a group of 7. We were to split into two groups, the first ascending Carn Beag Derg, and traversing the Carn Derg arête to the summit, and our group of three, climbing Tower Ridge. Included in our group, once again was Graham, an accomplished artist and friend for many years, whom I have shared many of my best days and climbs in the mountains. The second member was Danny, a 23-year-old student and climber from Rotherham and I was the third member. We had arranged to meet the first team at the top in around four hours time. I have always had respect for the mountains, and always feel apprehensive before a climb of this nature, which I feel is a good thing, but to be successful you need to be focused, and I that day I certainly was.
We set off for the east gully of the Douglas Boulder. The gully was full of soft snow, which was melting quickly, the sidewalls were loose and wet, and this all gave interest to the start of the route. We arrived at the nick behind the Douglas Boulder and at the top of the gully, this is where the true climbing begins. Helmets, rope and gear came out of our sacks, in preparation for the adventure ahead.
The first pitch was a 60 ft chimney, which would take us onto the main ridge, the climbing was not hard, and very enjoyable and upon reaching the crest, the sun warmed my body, and my heart, this is where I believe my soul belongs. The northern cliffs of the Ben looked Alpine, I could see that higher up the wind was strong from the way that the clouds were scudding across the sky, we just had to hope that the whole ridge was sheltered. The rocks here were mostly free from snow, with only the dark shadowy pockets holding on to the last of the winter snow, but to the left of us, on Orion face, Point five and Zero gullies were still well choked up with long tongues of snow and ice, as were all the other major gullies on the Ben. My main worry during the run up to this trip was the amount of snow built up around the great Tower level, and whether the summer route will be passable, but for now we must concentrate on the present. Graham and Danny joined me on the ridge to be greeted with the same glorious view.
We progressed easily along the ridge to the base of the Little Tower, which in fact just a steepening of the ridge and not a tower at all, it was here that we hit the snow line, and time to be extra careful. Gardyloo Gully was still in it’s full winter glory, with spoils of recently avalanched snow littering it’s slope from the collapsing cornices above, and on its right, on Gardyloo Buttress, remnants of the giant icicles which contribute to the legendary Smith’s Route still remained. The climbing on Little Tower was good, probably only scrambling in mountaineering terms, but added to this was the wet rock and snow, which was making life a little uncomfortable. The main anticipated difficulties were now close as we reached the base of the Great Tower. You know when you are at the Great Tower because the crest of the ridge can no longer be followed, the only way forward is to go along the eastern traverse, which in summer is an easy ledge, traversing the side of the tower, then crawling under a fallen block and ascending the Great Tower, but today the ledge was banked up with snow at a very high angle. This was now the ideal time for a break, and for mental preparation for the next section. My adrenaline was high and my appetite was low, all I could manage was a few sips of coffee.
Crampons were now fitted, just in case there were patches of hard snow, under the soft surface. I made a start on the traverse while Graham belayed me. I waded waste deep in the snow, trying to find solid placements for my ice axe shaft, but to no avail. 500 feet below Tower Gully was beckoning a fall, in response I managed to place a small wire runner in a rare crack on the traverse wall, and so protect a long pendulum fall. I reached the end of the summer traverse line to find, with relief, the fallen block passable. I tied off and beckoned the others over. The absolute silence on the north face of the Ben was occasionally broken by our voices echoing around the gigantic amphitheatre surrounding Tower gully, we were insignificant specs, engulfed in the vastness of this magnificent mountain.
The block was passable only by the narrowest of margins, as the hole was just big enough to climb through with our rucksacks off. It was now time to scale the east face of the tower, which I found to be the crux the previous year. My crampons scratched at the rock as I clawed my way up the most difficult moves, running out of rope just short of the summit of the tower, here I tied off around a large spike of rock with a sling, I then belayed Graham to my side. Whilst he continued to the top I brought Danny up on a tight rope, using an Italian Hitch. Taking in the rope slowly it suddenly stopped as Danny’s full weight came to bear on the rope, I called him, to see if he was OK, he said he was, and that his crampon had came off at a crucial move, a luxury that I could not afford on a half rope, on single strand. We stood on top of the tower and looked across at the other team watching our progress. The wind was now buffeting us as we neared the top of the Ben. Only the infamous Tower Gap and 200 feet remained. We walked the crest of the knife-edge to the gap.
Tower gap is a notch in the sharp edge of the ridge, about 10 feet deep and 6 feet across, with a drop the height of the Post Office Tower on each side. This is a place where many have perished in past winter days, and is the crux of the winter route. I can full imagine it’s holds encrusted in snow and ice, but today it posed no problem, except for the cold and the unending gusts of wind.
We stood together at the far side of the gap, thinking that it was now all over. I remember from the summer route that all that lay ahead was easy scrambling to the summit, but today this was once again covered with a coating of soft snow, and laying a very steep angle indeed, would this our crux? I placed a nut runner in the wall besides the slope for Graham to belay me, the slope proved to be impossible as the snow would not hold my weight. It was then I decided to attempt a steep, 30-foot wall at the side. It was time to switch off and to dig deep as a fall from here would plummet me into the Coire na Ciste, or translated, the corrie of the coffin or chest, neither of which I wished to end up in. I climbed that wall, I don’t know how, but I did. I stood on the summit plateau and tied to a large boulder.
I was cold, tired, and angry at the wind, which was constantly knocking me off balance. After what seemed ages, the rope never even moved, I suddenly released all my retained anxieties and gave an uncontrollable, shocking outburst of abuse, which was unforgivable, after all they were in the same position as I, except they had the wall to confront, I only hoped they didn’t hear me. As they reached the top one by one we patted each other on the back and shook hands, we had done it.