If someone says to you, they have climbed ‘Orion Face Direct’ on Ben Nevis they are probably not telling the truth. On the other hand if they mention a route on ‘The Ben’ they probably are telling the truth. Climbers do not use the name of the mountain as found on the map; they, or in this case, we, call it ‘The Ben’ By removing the last part of its name and adding the definitive article to the first, a mysterious transformation occurs. If you are familiar with the North side of the mountain you will know what I mean. For the initiated there is only one title that will do, ‘The Ben.’ By the way, if you are in the bar at the Clachaig public house in Glen Coe and a fierce looking man in a state of inebriation says he has climbed everything on ‘The Ben’ it’s best to believe him, especially if he’s wearing a beard and a kilt. It could be my mate Mike who almost certainly has climbed everything on The Ben, but he would never divulge that information stone cold sober.
To a lot of people Ben Nevis means a big mountain that can be ascended in relative safety by a route called the tourist track. Of course, as in all things mountaineering, that name is a euphemism for a difficult walk that in certain circumstances can be suicidal. Approximately nine people a year die on it, so it must be ‘easy.’ ‘The Ben’ on the other hand means so very much more, particularly in the winter. Climbs that start with an energy sapping, pre -dawn, three hour walk in and finish in the dark. Climbs that require the protagonist to use all of his or her hard earned skills in difficult often-adverse conditions where the outcome is never certain. Climbing on ‘The Ben’ in winter is an exercise that requires a high degree of skill, determination, fitness and stamina that will test an individual’s resources to the limit. It is undeniably hard, definitely dangerous and only for the few, but the rewards far outweigh any risk or discomfort encountered on the journey.
“Bugger we’ve left the guidebook behind” I said. “I don’t think we need it,” replied Clive. There may have been a slight hesitation in his easy reply, but if there was I didn’t notice, so we carried on toward the mountain. From such casual exchanges epics are frequently born and this day was to be no exception. Although of course we didn’t know that then. Great days on the hills are often a complex mix of experiences, the sum of which far exceeds the parts, coincidence and pure bad luck; the latter is to be assiduously avoided as it often ends in a trip in a body bag. It’s not surprising how often poor planning plays its part and the lack of a guidebook would probably fall into that category. The opposite and theoretically safer approach is to plan everything to the nth degree but I would suggest that if you do life would not be worth living. The real skill of winter climbing is deciding what not to take in your sack. Strip down your physical and psychological armoury to the bare minimum.
There is an old axiom that if you put a tent in your sack you will end up using it and besides the weight of gear required for modern hard routes pretty much precludes taking anything else in your sack, except a head torch of course, oh! and spare batteries in case the ones in the torch run out and a spare bulb. Spare woollen socks are pretty useful too as are a puff jacket an over jacket a spare fleece in case you are stupid enough to lose the one you are wearing and spare gloves. That reminds me a heavy stainless steel flask, two litre size of course, is a very good thing to carry onto the hill; remember one litre weighs in at two point two pounds then there are sandwiches map compass and if you have any room left perhaps the odd bit of spare climbing gear. It’s always useful to have some heavy screw gates lying at the bottom of your sack. And, whatever you do don’t forget that tent.
It’s 5am when we leave the car. The knowledge of the walk ahead colours our thoughts. We know we are fit but we had just suffered a hard day on Fluted Buttress in Corrie a Schnnecda (Gaelic for the corrie of the snows) The route was only supposed to have been a grade 4, well within our capabilities, but poor snow and ice cover turned it into a desperate grade 5. A much tougher proposition and one we were not mentally prepared for. So somewhat chastened by an unwanted adventure, we began the three-hour slog to the bottom of the cliff and the easier route of our choice.
Slog does not even begin to describe the gut wrenching, sweat soaked, leg wrecking approach to the routes on ‘The Ben’ Carrying sacks that are almost half our body weight the ‘walk in’ is nothing short of purgatorial. This is a case where familiarity breeds only respect. We cheer ourselves with the thought that conditions are good, there is a reasonable amount of snow cover, the avalanche risk is low and the ground is frozen, it has been approximately –15 degrees for several days so the ice should be good. Of course all hopeful thoughts are tempered by the knowledge that in winter nothing is certain and its best not to be too optimistic about conditions.
We leave the sleeping world behind and fall into a rhythm that has nothing to do with the frenetic pace of the lives we have just left, but more with another time and place, where time and space are measured by the speed at which a person moves using only their legs. A human scale that feels unfamiliar, isolated, as we are, by the trappings of civilisation. Our world is a small pool of yellow light thrown weakly from the head torches; outside of the beam is a silent blackness, full of dark thoughts and wild flights of fancy; the last resting place of the dreams of those who had gone before. Keeping a good steady pace, learned from years of painful experience, we soon overheat and drench in sweat. It’s unavoidable and it used to be a real problem, but modern materials have mitigated the dangers that used to come with cold damp clothing freezing and the subsequent chilling of your body.
As we make our way up the corrie the mighty shoulder of Carn Dearg slowly forms in the faint light of a day struggling reluctantly into being. We stop for a quick breather at the stream that runs out of the corrie and spy our route. The approach is critical as it covers some very avalanche prone ground. Just because the forecast indicates a low avalanche factor is no reason to take things for granted? Additionally it is very easy to take the wrong line and end up somewhere other than where you want to be. We break the ice on the stream to fill our bottles with water so pure and cold, it’s priceless, like drinking the land itself, untouched by man an angel kisses your throat as the vital fluid slips down. Harnesses are struggled into and an impressive array of the modern climbers gear is sorted and carefully arranged on the gear racks.
Crampons are fumbled quickly onto frozen boots and fittings checked. Gloves on ice axes ready sacks tightened up. A careful ritual, well practised
when it goes smoothly and quickly it augurs well for the day.
We solo the first three or four hundred feet up the slope to the base of the main cliff. As my body falls into the rhythm of carefully placing crampons all points to the ice and using the axe for balance, I revisit a thought that always seems to occur at this point of a winter climb. We are moving up a slope that many years ago we would have roped up for and pitched. It’s the same old balancing act of skill against risk and desire to do the route. And that’s the contract we all buy into if we want to climb on ‘The Ben’ Because of the size of the routes you have to be quick and cover ground solo, (unroped climbing) that less experienced climbers would want to pitch. We do this in order to give ourselves more time to climb the really hard bits. It goes without saying that climbing on ‘The Ben’ is not for absolute beginners.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that although we are not beginners we had made a classic error, of the sort that more experienced climbers make, by leaving the guidebook at our lodgings. We didn’t perceive this as too serious as I knew the mountain well, and although I was not familiar with the route we were aiming for, we felt confident we would recognise it from a remembered photo in the book. Part of the game is self-reliance and often when a crucial piece of the jigsaw is not available the decision to go ahead is made in the knowledge that years of experience should see you through.
As we reach the base of the cliffs I start to cut a platform from the ice as Clive constructs an anchor. It’s well practiced and the work of a few minutes. I tie in and set off up the first pitch, towards a ledge 50mtrs above that we had spotted previously. It doesn’t take long, the ground is steep but not vertical, about 70 degrees, but as with so much of the climbing on ‘The Ben’ there is no protection or not much. Eventually I place an ice screw in a bulge and press on to the hoped for safety of the ledge. As with so many sanctuaries in winter climbing it is not ideal; it’s about two feet long and only twelve inches deep so it’s a bit narrow for sitting on and definitely not big enough for two. I bang in a peg next to a selection of rotten ironwork; all jammed more in hope than anything else into a flaky crack in the rock. This at least confirms we are on a route. I sort the ropes and bring Clive up to the stance.
The next pitch is Clive’s and it looks like the first serious pitch on the route. A wall of vertical ice rears up around a corner out of site to who knows where? Lucky Clive, I feel a little touch of jealousy as he starts to work his way carefully up the ice in a very skilful manner. The ice is perfect, steep and plastic, offering secure placements for axe picks and crampon points. It’s the type of ice we dream about and I begin to fantasize about what a wonderful climb this is going to be. If only I had known. My dreaming is interrupted by a sharp tug on the ropes; I deconstruct the anchors and start climbing, following the line of ice screws and ropes towards the next stance.
On arrival I look with dismay at the rats’ nest of ropes tied back to a series of insubstantial rotten pegs. Up until this moment the route had more or less matched the description we held in our heads from the previous nights deliberations. I think about suggesting to Clive that in future he should consider knocking out old pegs and replacing them with others but decide not to introduce an element of uncertainty, especially on a route where certainty is all. But now, looking around, I could see we were on a more serious route than the one we had wanted to climb. We were surrounded by steep overhanging icefalls none of which matched the description of the route we had intended to climb.
We try to remember details from the previous night’s scrutiny of a small photo and make the unlikely looking icefalls that surround us match, but nothing seems to look right. Eventually I start climbing towards an incomplete frozen waterfall that vaguely resembles the guidebook description. Difficult exposed unprotected moves on steep rock covered with a thin glaze of ice do nothing for my mental state. Whilst I struggle to fix an ice screw into the only bit of suitable ice in my vicinity, Clive calls out that he has spotted some gear at the tip of a huge icefall, to the left, that we had only moments earlier discounted as appearing impossible to climb. But if there is gear it must be climbable and if someone else has been there, well, so can I.
It is amazing how the mindset can change in an instant and what had seemed impossible becomes possible. I change direction and pull over a steep bulge onto the icefall. The climbing is immediately hard, on steep ice of variable quality. Whenever I get a good axe placement there is nothing for my feet and when I place my feet onto good ice the axes are doubtful. In an activity were it is considered essential to have three good placements I never have more than two, my nerves are slowly getting stretched. With difficulty I clip a doubtful looking peg, at least I am on the correct line, and moving up.
I was forty feet above the stance when things got really scary. I placed an axe high into apparently good ice and watched with horror as a fracture line spread rapidly from either side of the pick. If that wasn’t worrying enough the bulge of ice I was climbing over detached itself from the rock beneath, the only thing keeping it in place was my week fragile body pressing against it. All of this, supported on two-quarter inch points from my feet and the previously mentioned pick in the fracturing ice. With great care, not wishing to unbalance myself, I tried placing my remaining axe pick, searching and re trying spots I had already rejected. Eventually I settled on a placement, not good but not bad either, and as quickly and smoothly as possible took my feet away from the ice. The detached block, about the size of a portable television, flew down the cliff smashing onto the rocks beside Clive. But I wasn’t interested, feet were hurriedly replaced and in the instant of my front points biting into the ice the doubtful axe pick pulled out. Despite the intensity of my focus I was vaguely aware of a trickle of cold sweat running down my spine but to acknowledge it would be to allow my mind to be diverted from the task at hand – staying alive. So the sweat and fear went unacknowledged as I move upward toward the sling I could see hanging from the rock 90 feet above me.
A barrage of ice flew down as I worked slowly towards the sling and safety. It was the hardest pitch I had ever climbed; failure was simply not an option. Eventually I came to a position just a few moves short of the sling and to my horror realised it was not part of a stance. There was no stance, it was an abseil sling.
Tired and mentally exhausted I was now presented with the challenge of untying from the rope, threading it through the sling, attaching my belay plate to the doubled ropes and abseiling back to the place I had left one very long hour ago. All of this had to be achieved methodically and without any mistakes whilst teetering on two-quarter inch points of steel. The consequence of getting just one thing wrong, in a complex sequence, would be a three hundred foot fall, the force of which would almost certainly pull Clive off his dubious anchors and kill us both. Not a good time to be of a nervous disposition. I set to work with a rare intensity of concentration double checking every knot and everything I did because when I leant my weight onto the abseil there would be no going back or second chances. Eventually, with great care, I sorted myself out and trying not to knock down too much of the rotten ice I had just climbed, lowered myself back down to a very worried looking Clive. Things were getting serious.
Clearly we were not on an easy route. We had no way of knowing how much hard climbing was left to do and I had just wasted a lot of precious time. To further compound our difficulties, I couldn’t carry on and climb the next pitch as my nerves were completely frazzled and I needed time to recover from my recent adventure. That meant Clive had to climb the partially formed overhanging waterfall. We made a decision that if it was too difficult we would bail out from that point and retreat back the way we had come.
I now had the privilege of watching Clive attempting to climb the pitch I had started well over an hour ago and abandoned in favour of something we now knew to be impossible. He reached the screw I had placed, clipped it, and launched out across bare rock towards the hanging curtain of thin ice. He made it by utilising a precarious torque move, with both picks stacked in a small crack and momentarily trusting his weight to his front points precariously lodged in a vestigial covering of verglass, whilst unhooking his axes to search for reliable placements above. It was a defining moment; he would either fall of or succeed. Either outcome would determine what happened next and to be frank a small part of me was shouting, don’t do it, then we can go home. But of course he did it and if you want to climb you mustn’t let those demons in. Once onto the icefall a few moves carried Clive onto thicker more secure ice and a stance protected by good nuts, things were looking up.
I followed without too much difficulty. Being on the end of a rope is far easier than being on the front, and with confidence rising I surveyed the next pitch. A delicate move over a rib of rock immediately above Clive’s head brought me into a long relatively easy gully, at last the going was getting easier and we should be able to speed up. But of course that did not happen. Although the next three pitches were fairly straightforward we were both operating on our nerves, and my near miss had made us both extra cautious. As a result anchors were over elaborate and took an inordinate amount of time to construct. We were literally overcompensating by being too safe. A consequence of our ‘too safe’ approach was that we were running out of time. Dusk was fast approaching.
Also fast approaching was the ‘exit pitch’ that should bring us out at the top, which of course it didn’t. Once again it was my turn. I approached what is called a cave pitch, where I had to literally climb out of one side or wall of a cave at the top of the gully that we had been following for the past two hours. Once again my pitch was far from perfect. To get onto the wall I first had to climb up fifteen feet of collapsing snow and ice and then traverse out onto thinly verglassed rock. My only protection was a wobbly peg, placed with enormous effort, increasing the risk of falling off in the very act of trying to make things safer. I got one axe high and gently tapped my front point into the ice, only to hear them scrape on the rock immediately below. So once again it was down to the security of one good placement; I stood up onto my points and quickly searched for another placement. After a worrying amount of time I found a marginal placement and transferred all of my weight to the axes. They held, my feet, as expected, skidded out but hey I was on a roll. One axe higher, it was good, one good pull up and fuck my feet and it was all over. I was at the top on a ledge with a huge bombproof anchor. The relief at apparently, being safe, was enormous, I laughed, it was great, ‘fucking great,’ to be alive.
Of course safety is a relative thing; we still had three hundred feet of climbing, above a massive cliff, to do before we would finally reach the top. Then we had to get off the mountain. All of which was OK, par for the course, name of the game, you name it any cliché will do, until Clive revealed his head torch wasn’t working, we only had one between the two of us and darkness was only thirty minutes away.
We soloed up the final ice clad slopes towards the plateau. Fully aware of our tiredness, we had once again joined ‘the game’ of searching for the balance between speed and safety.
On arrival we were witness to a spectacle so overwhelmingly sublime that we actually sat down for ten precious minutes to enjoy it. The whole of the northern horizon, a distance of some ninety miles, was backlit by an incredible crimson light. It looked as though the highlands of Scotland were sinking into a furnace of burning red flames. The snow we sat upon was bathed in a salmon pink light. The plateau had received the heaviest snowfall in forty years and we were alone in the world on a featureless pink table, floating in a black sky surrounded by the most spectacular theatrical backdrop. For a few precious moments we had the mountain and the world to ourselves; no words were spoken, neither of us wanting to break the spell. We had triumphed over adversity and now we were gods in a world of lesser mortals, living their grey lives in tiny boxes with eyes glued to even smaller boxes as their lives sped past like an unstoppable train. At least we were in the signal box. Somewhat reluctantly we stirred ourselves and casting aside rail metaphors made our way like fallen angels towards the black pit of Glen Nevis. (oh yes dear reader I have stolen that line from a great climber but it is for yoe to find him)
The story does not end there because we still had to get off the mountain. That in itself was adventurous enough but the challenge of getting of ‘The Ben’ during a winters night are not unfamiliar to us. You could almost say ‘familiar territory’. Of course it would have been a great deal more familiar if Clive’s head torch had worked. Suffice to say we eventually made it off the hill, elated having bagged another great day and contemplating our next visit. I find it difficult to know how to end this story so I offer two options.
If you live in the UK ‘The Ben’ is on your doorstep. If you crave spiritual and physical adventure look no further. There is a coda to this story that for some reason I did not include. Perhaps it is because it almost seemed another story in itself; on every pitch that I climbed, I found lying on the snow, a brand new knife blade piton. In every case they were unused in the only place where they would not slide off the mountain. I collected four in all. Obviously the logical explanation is that on the previous day there had been another party climbing the route. One of the team, presumably of a nervous disposition, had dropped a succession of pitons whilst constructing running belays. But I prefer to think that they had been placed there, for me to find, by the fairies.