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Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges

Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges


Postby Riverman » Fri Mar 25, 2016 4:52 pm

Munros included on this walk: Ben Nevis, Meall nan Tarmachan

Date walked: 20/03/2016

Time taken: 12.42 hours

Distance: 25.2 km

Ascent: 2055m

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Almost a year ago to the day I stood on the Bridge of Balgie road feeling forlorn. Earlier in the day I had descended in discomfort from Ben Chonzie after an old knee injury resurfaced. My plan had been to do Ptarmigan ridge the next day and I had driven up to the start point to gather my thoughts. Unable to walk very far from my car without shooting pain around my left knee, I knew my weekend was over. I returned to London in a black mood. Roughly a year earlier, I had had to retreat from the summit of Carn Mor Dearg before crossing onto the arete after my mate hurt his leg on the way up. Both Meall nan Tarmachan and Ben Nevis were two summits that had eluded me in gloomy circumstances.

Last weekend, the ghosts of January 2014 March 2015 were well and truly banished. On Saturday I stormed over the Ptarmigan Ridge in glorious spring sunshine. On Sunday, I reached the highest point in Britain for the first time in my life across snow, rock and ice on Tower Ridge. What a different feeling from a year ago! This is my tale of two ridges.

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Day 1 // Saturday 19 March 2016 // Ptarmigan Ridge, Meall nan Tarmachan // 13.9km // 5hr // 904m ascent


Late on Friday evening, driving from Glasgow airport to Crianlarich there were still doubts in the back of my mind about whether this would be a successful weekend or not. Since last summer I’ve been walking well and seem to have put injury behind me. Only recently I have climbed Cyfrwy Arete on Cadair Idris - a really big day out. Yet despite these recent successes, and being a worrier by nature, the fear of an IT band flare up always lingers but I needn’t have worried.

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Inversion

On Saturday I hit the trail early from the Lawers car park. Climbing through a cloud inversion it was not long before I was basking in glorious sunshine and well on my way to the first top at 923m. Much of the snow had gone but on the final slope to Meall nan Tarmachan there was still a considerable amount. Soft enough to keep my crampons in my bag, I nevertheless had axe in hand on the final steep ascent where I met some lads from Stirling enjoying the summit. Not even noon and one had already cracked open a beer! The views were stupendous. Ben Nevis, my target for the next day was clearly visible to the north. Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin were very prominent and surprisingly snowy to the south.

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Vorlich to the south?

The ridge walk over to Meall Garbh was a delight. The descent from Meall Garbh was quite spicy though. If I do this ridge again I think I’d prefer to do it clockwise as this section would certainly be easier in ascent. On Beinn nan Eachan I lay on my back on the soft, grassy summit and just soaked up the rays. Some sun cream would have been handy though. I’m sure I wasn’t the only walker caught out this weekend by the sublime, spring like conditions. Wanting to save my legs for Tower Ridge I omitted Creag na Callich and was back at my car exactly 5 hours after my start.

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Ptarmigan Ridge

Day 2 // Sunday 20 March 2016 // Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis // 11.3km // 7hr 42min // 1151m ascent

The alarm clock sounded at 5am but adrenaline ensured I was already awake. I had fuelled up the afternoon before, with a monstrously large meal at the Real Food Cafe. By 6am I was on the road. The sun rose en route, casting a beautiful pink glow over the big Buachaille on my way into Glencoe. It would have been nice to stop and enjoy the sunrise but today I was on a mission. I met Max Hunter, my guide for the day, at the gondola car park at 7.15am. We jumped into Max’s van and made our way up to the forestry car park. The track to this car park is gated but most of the local guides have a key. At 270m it gives a useful head start to anyone heading up towards the CIC hut. I’ve done the trudge from the North face car park before and was glad not to have to do it today.

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Early morning walk in

We knew that some of the teams ahead of us along the Allt A Mhuilinn would be heading for Tower Ridge as well. Max had stressed the importance of speed of movement today. Some of the crux sections are quite high up where overtaking is impossible. Not wanting to shiver for hours high on the ridge behind teams crossing those cruxes slowly we set a blistering pace towards the CIC hut which we reached in under an hour. We took a good drink from the water pipe by the hut then left only a little water in our bottles, wanting to keep weight to a minimum. We would be able to refill at a waterfall on our descent and were not planning to stop for refreshment at any point on the ridge itself.

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Coire na Ciste from the CIC Hut

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Setting off - team ahead in the gully

Setting off we saw two teams already on the ridge and another just in front of us, heading for the gully to the east of the Douglas boulder. We also gained the ridge from the east but snuck round in front of the team in the gully via a short cut that gave us an early advantage. The lower stages of the ridge were pretty straightforward and we moved quickly towards the Little Tower. Although we had a 50 metre rope, most of it stayed coiled. Max’s approach was to split the route into a larger number of much shorter pitches, often using natural protection (looping the rope around rocks) on the least exposed sections along with a mixture of nuts, friends and hexes when required. I’m sure this approach contributed to our speed of movement. We certainly seemed to be moving more quickly than other teams using the full length of their ropes.

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Climbing quickly

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Max protecting the route

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Overtaking

We overtook the second team before the Little Tower and would then have the rest of the ridge to ourselves (the third team on the ridge was far ahead of us). Soon we were rounding the magnificently exposed Eastern Traverse. Hundreds of metres below us to the left we could see several teams of climbers on different routes in Coire Leis. These little black specks against the snow gave me an appreciation of the sheer scale of Ben Nevis. What an awe inspiring mountain!

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3 climbers visible in this photo!

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Climbers in Coire Leis

Beyond the Great Tower we faced the day’s true crux - Tower Gap. Benightments are not uncommon here but this is really not a place you would want to linger. Fortunate in having such an experienced leader (Max knows the ridge like the back of his hand) we were able to navigate this important obstacle reasonably efficiently - only my nerves slowed the pace at this point. Max explained clearly, hold by hold, how I would cross the gap. However, the exposure is simply massive and actually crossing the gap is as much a psychological test as a physical one.

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Great Tower

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Eastern Traverse

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Approaching Tower Gap

First one has to down climb awkwardly to a very slender perch. I was pleased that I managed to do this without having to put my weight on the rope - a fall here would be all too easy. I was balanced very delicately on crampon points with hundreds of metres of air dropping away behind and beneath me. At the gap itself, there are a couple of ropes slung around a rock pillar. After placing our own protection it was possible to grab this fixed rope with one hand, then lean out into the gap with the other and grab a hold on the far side before swinging one leg over and then completing the move. Max crossed before me then moved along out of sight to place protection and to belay me when I crossed. Knowing that a fall would just mean going for an awkward dangle, rather than plunging hundreds of metres didn’t make it any easier to actually cross the gap.

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Don't look down!

Looking down into the snowy abyss I faced a moment of panic and thought to myself, “God this is terrifying, what on earth am I doing here?” Instantly I realised there was no way but forwards and decided to go for it. The moment I moved I called loudly to Max “Tight, tight!” and I felt the rope tighten as I made it cleanly and safely to the other side. The dose of adrenaline was incredible and I had to stop for just a moment to catch my breath. This was without question the most difficult and terrifying move I have had to perform on a mountain. The Inaccessible Pinnacle is a cake walk by comparison. The sensation I felt at the point of starting the move is, I imagine, similar to that experienced by someone about to hurl themselves from an aircraft wearing a parachute.

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Final stages

With the day’s real difficulties behind us we moved swiftly along the final sections of the ridge and before long found ourselves on the plateau. In no time at all I was standing at the summit trig point and contemplating my achievement. In January 2014 it had been a disappointment not to make it onto the CMD arete and even though I’ve stood atop Snowdon, Scafell Pike, Carrauntuohil and Slieve Donard - the Ben had so far eluded me. Now I had made it, and via such an exciting route. What’s more, I really seem to have bounced back from my injuries of a year ago. Patience, persistence, stretching and physio (as well as well timed doses of rest) have worked wonders for me and I’m sure that they can for anyone else whose enjoyment of the hills has been hampered by injury.

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Ben Nevis summit - the best view in Scotland?

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Success! Big thanks to Max Hunter

Having made such good time across Tower Ridge we discussed the possibility of a descent via Ledge Route. I think that I might have had it in my legs to do this but I didn’t want to push things so we began our descent by the red burn instead. Near its base we passed an impressive waterfall where we took a good drink. I refilled my bottle completely after drinking and carried the litre of Nevis water back in my checked luggage the following day. I now have a some in my crystal jug next to my whiskey and the rest in my fridge. What a treat to enjoy mountain water with my drink instead of the awful stuff that comes out of the tap in London.

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Brief sunshine on the descent

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Tastes better than Thames water in your Talisker

My impression of the mountain on descent was so different from the climb. I was surprised how expansive the summit plateau and while our route down was convenient it was far less interesting. Almost like a different mountain when compared with anything on the north side. For the three peak challengers, the ascent of the Ben must be a fairly dull trudge.

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The Ben

With two great mountaineering routes under my belt in the space of a month I am now very keen to sample the alpine environment. A year ago I was completely focused on the munros and was in a desperate hurry to work through them as quickly as possible. Today I feel quite different. Climbing all the munros remains my objective but I’m no longer in such a rush. It may take decades and perhaps all the better for me if it does. In the meantime I really want to focus on the quality of my mountain days as much as the quantity of summits ticked and as I spend more time on a rope, it whets my appetite for similarly testing routes - whether that’s on the rocks of Snowdonia, up in Scotland or maybe further afield.
Attachments

PTARMIGAN.GPX Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts


TOWER RIDGE.GPX Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

Last edited by Riverman on Sun Mar 27, 2016 11:40 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Riverman
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Re: Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges

Postby Fife Flyer » Fri Mar 25, 2016 8:09 pm

Great stuff Sean, that looked proper scary :clap: :clap:
The photo's are superb, I'll stick to walking rather than climbing :lol:
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Re: Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges

Postby wilkiemurray » Fri Mar 25, 2016 8:17 pm

superb - great report:) can feel your pain wit the knee too !! Iam currently feeling the need to take some ticks off the bucket list after knee surgery at the tail end of last year :)

ATB

M
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Re: Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges

Postby jenniferc6 » Sat Mar 26, 2016 10:59 am

Excellent report, tower ridge in winter must have been an amazing route especially after coming back from an injury. Well done! :clap:
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Re: Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges

Postby Alteknacker » Sat Mar 26, 2016 12:57 pm

Tower Ridge looks like a brilliant route, and you seem to have had excellent conditions for it. Glad for you: it would have been a real pain to have flogged up from London only to have dreadful conditions! It's on my bucket list for this year.

I had both Tower Ridge and Meall nan Tarmachan in mind for last year, but dropped the former because I was thinking of doing it in combination with some other hills, and thought it would take too long; and the latter because I'd got it planned for the end of a walk, and it got a bit late in the evening.

BTW did you consider starting via the Douglas Boulder? This is what I have in mind at the moment....
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Re: Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges

Postby Guinessman » Sat Mar 26, 2016 4:45 pm

Excellent report, got Tower ridge on my wish list but not under snow
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Re: Tower and Ptarmigan: a tale of two ridges

Postby Riverman » Sat Mar 26, 2016 8:00 pm

Thanks for all the replies. The need for speed precluded the Douglas boulder climb at the start but if I ever do the route again in summer I would like to climb that section. Anyone with a taste for exposure should definitely have this on their list. I can't recommend Max highly enough as a guide. Now thinking about some winter climbs on the Aonachs next year. The thing that sticks most in my memory (apart from the gap!) is the sight of other climbers down in Coire Leis on what looked like absolutely fierce ice routes. I think I'll stick to ridges!
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