A Bad Step on Tower Ridge
by clivegrif » Fri Dec 02, 2011 9:39 pm
Munros included on this walk: Ben Nevis
Date walked: 11/09/2009
Time taken: 12 hours
Distance: 15 km
Ascent: 1362m17 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
Snow fell late in May 2009.
The plan for this trip was to be the triumphant return to the West Highlands following last year’s completion of the Munros. This time I was going with my occasional climbing buddy Geordie, and we had the big ridges of Glen Coe, Ben Nevis and Torridon in our sights. We were going to enjoy ourselves.
As the days counted down we religiously checked the weather sites on the web -what’s this? Snow?? So despite the quizzical looks from our loved ones who were wandering around in shorts enjoying a Worcestershire summer, we packed the winter climbing gear. By the time we eventually reached Fort William it was blowing a Hooley and snowing heavily.
The following day, as a warm-up we scampered over the Aonach Eagach - cold, wet, with unreliably soft snow. Encouragingly the cloud was lifting at the end of the day to give a cracking view up the Glen. The weather was changing and it was looking good for the main event.
Waking just after 5am I peered out of the tent and looked up at a cloudless sky. In Fort William?? ‘Get up, get up, you have got to see this!’ The tent was down in an instant and we were heading at breakneck speed along the A82 to the North Face car park.
With bags weighed down by rope, helmets, axes and crampons we were off up through the trees to the reach the Allt a’ Mhuilinn in full flow. Before us was the North Face of Ben Nevis, stunningly snow clad, a mixture of ink black rock, crystal white snow, and deep blue sky. Amazing.
The walk along the wide valley was a delight, a steady climb past alpine cascades with Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg rearing up above us, with the wall of the CMD arête joining the two. From here Tower Ridge looked awesome.
Tower ridge by cliveg004, on Flickr
A quick breather and a bite to eat at the CMC hut, then over steep and stony ground round the back of the Douglas Boulder and on up the scree into East Gully to reach The Gap. There is only one way onto the ridge proper from here, up a wet and polished chimney some 65 feet high. Nothing for it, get the rope out, it’s too slippery not too. The climb proved quite entertaining despite the cold water pouring down. Emerging onto the ridge, the world had changed from rock to white, and the views were astounding.
The ridge ahead was covered in about 6 inches of snow, but the bright sun was already softening it. Donning crampons did not help much, this snow was not reliable – but perhaps it will improve higher up.
On the ridge by Clive Griffiths, on Flickr
The first part of the ridge is not steep, nor particularly narrow, and we made steady but careful progress roped but moving together. The next interesting section came at the Little Tower, where the ridge narrows and steepens.
Onwards and upwards by cliveg004, on Flickr
The lack of bite in the snow was a problem as neither axe nor crampon would hold securely.
Once past this a fairly long but flattish stretch of the ridge followed giving plenty of time to admire the views. The sun was beating down by now and was having an effect. KaBOOM, whoooosssh! Slopes in the corries on either side of the ridge where beginning to avalanche. That sight and sound was to be repeated many more times that day.
The Great Tower by cliveg004, on Flickr-
Next was the Great Tower itself. Scrambling on rock in crampons is never great, but what a place to be!
Before things went awry by cliveg004, on Flickr
The way past the Tower is by the Eastern Traverse, a short ledge that leads to a tangle of giant blocks. We fixed a belay and Geordie crossed the ledge to a corner. He clipped into a fixed piton in the rock to look at options. The usual route is straight on at this point up through a tunnel in the boulders that brings you out near the top of the Tower, however the tunnel was well and truly blocked with snow and ice. We would have to go round. The ledge made a right angle turn and went off left towards more promising ground and on upwards over the boulders. Using the Piton as added protection Geordie was able to cross the ledge, and climb out of sight up over the boulders. Shortly afterwards came a faint ‘Safe’ and a couple of tugs on the rope. ‘Climbing’, take off the belay, then walk across the first part of the ledge to the Piton.
Next came what can be called ‘A Moment’.
The first move was to unclip from the Piton and cross the second part of the ledge. ‘Tight rope’ I called, but no reply and the rope stayed slack. ‘Great, he can’t hear me. Oh well, let’s get on with it’. …and with my next step my crampon slid on the wet ice covering a sloping slab. Just in time I had the presence of mind to grab the piton and stop myself from shooting straight over the edge.
‘Get yourself together, lets look at this’ The view from the ledge wasn’t great, straight down a very long way. It was clear that if I did go over the edge with the amount of free rope I would pendulum down a good 30 to 40 feet over a drop of hundreds of feet. There was the real risk that the rope would be cut by the edge of the ledge or boulders higher up. If the rope held, there was the almost impossible prospect of trying to climb that far back up the rope. I had no desire to re-enact Touching the Void! “Geordie, can you hear me?” Still nothing.
Okay, let’s try this face in. Hanging on to the piton with my right hand I edged left, and my crampon skidded towards the edge again. Oh (expletives deleted)!!!
Back to my starting position. This time I reached up and left with one of my axes probing for a crack, …and found one. I pulled with increasing pressure to test the hold, and it was good. I then put the point of my other axe through the ring of the piton to give me a second point of contact. Deep breath, GO! And I had swung past the slab, back onto flat rock. At this point Geordie must have felt movement, as the rope snaked upwards and became taut. Shakily I made my way up over the boulders emerging at the top of the tower to where Geordie was secured.
P5110236 by cliveg004, on Flickr
“You took your time’, I just looked at him. ..And then I looked round.
We were at the beginning of what looked like the top of a drystone wall about a yard wide, but with a huge drop that just kept going on each side. It looked at first as if it led straight to the final slopes of the ridge, except there was a big hole in it – the infamous Tower Gap.
Mind the gap by cliveg004, on Flickr
We edged slowly and insecurely along the top of the wall, the sun making the snow wet and slippery just where we needed grip most. By the time we reached the edge of the gap itself my nerves were jangling. As we prepared the belay for Geordie to negotiate the gap, I was getting into a right tangle with rope, slings and camera straps – and this really wasn’t the place. ‘Your rope work is all over the place’ says Geordie. Feeling less than happy I clung to the rock whilst belaying him down to the bottom of the gap and the up the other side.
Geordie made himself safe and then it was my turn. The drop into the gap is probably about 25 feet or so, and under either dry or conversely hard ice the climb would not be too difficult. However, under these slippery conditions with nothing for crampons to bite into, it became almost a leap of faith. Fortunately a collection of old tat gave me a hand-hold at a crucial point, and allowed me to touch down on a rock below with two crampon points. The crux passed, the rest of the descent was straight forward.
Last stretch by cliveg004, on Flickr
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I scrambled out the other side and onto a snow slope in the shade of the final rocks of the ridge. Though steep this slope had clearly been in shade more most of the day, and the snow was cold and firm. At last the axes and crampons gripped, and so up we went. However, conscious of the sun working on the cornices above, and watching for cracks in the snow we were walking on, we made sure there we maintained a gap, and followed a different line. Geordie fixed a final belay, and I climbed through and over the edge onto the flat of the summit plateau. Keeping the rope tight, I walked backwards to aid Geordie’s safe final ascent.
Ben Nevis Summit by cliveg004, on Flickr
And then there we were on Terra Firma, made it! We burst out laughing and much back slapping of congratulation followed. It was then we spotted that we were being watched. We gathered the rope, pulled off our harnesses and walked the few yards to the summit cairn where two women we standing.
‘Where have you just come from?’ asks one. ‘We’ve just climbed that’ we replied, pointing to the ridge which stood out in glorious profile. ‘What? Just the sight of the North Face gets me worried. You must be barmy’. ‘Oh, no’ I assured her, ‘it really was quite an experience…..’
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by gammy leg walker » Fri Dec 02, 2011 10:43 pm
by mountain thyme » Fri Dec 02, 2011 10:51 pm
by Jock McJock » Sat Dec 03, 2011 7:52 pm
by malky_c » Sun Dec 04, 2011 12:06 am
by clivegrif » Sun Dec 04, 2011 1:17 pm
The route itself has 3 spots that are awkward, but the rest is not difficult. As ever in Scotland it tends to be conditions that make it harder or easier, and probably this is why the mountains ithere are amongst the most challenging anywhere.
A few winters ago, we were comparing notes with a couple of young chaps in the pub after a fine winters day on Ben Nevis. They had skipped up Tower Ridge mostly unroped, and had finished the route far quicker than us old crocks had taken hauling ourselves up the Ledge Route.
I don't know what it is about the snow on Ben Nevis, but it is so changeable. Its almost always layered, but some days its like powder, some days its rock hard, and sometimes it has this weird treacle-like texture.
Although this was a beautiful day, I think we caught the conditions underfoot at their worst.
by KeithS » Sun Dec 04, 2011 1:31 pm
Another great report, roll over Joe Simpson, you captured the feel of the experience and portrayed the sense of adventure. I look forward to the next one.
by clivegrif » Sat Oct 13, 2012 6:24 pm
Click to enlarge if they take your fancy.
by gordon l » Sat Oct 13, 2012 6:31 pm
by Meatball » Sat Oct 13, 2012 7:04 pm
That was one of my favourite reads!
by Scotjamie » Sat Oct 13, 2012 10:05 pm
by Alteknacker » Thu Sep 03, 2015 12:52 pm
Fantastic, totally gripping report. But rather you than me: I don't mind risks if I feel I can manage them; but those conditions sounded really quite serious and difficult to deal with!
I've looked at the bad step on video, and it doesn't look like too much of a problem in good (= summer) conditions. Am I kidding myself??
by BobMcBob » Thu Sep 03, 2015 7:51 pm