Plan B: Tower Ridge

Route: Ben Nevis by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Munros: Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg

Date walked: 14/07/2019

Distance: 18.5km

Ascent: 1994m

Plan A was for Centurion on the Carn Dearg Buttress. I'd been wanting to do this for years and my appetite for it had been whetted by correspondence with Past-My-Sell-by-date, who'd done the climb back in the 1990's. I'd managed to talk Karl into it and, by way of preparation, we'd notched up a few HVS's in the Lakes at weekends preceding this trip. We didn't really have a plan B, not a pre-conceived, definite one.

With a few days off work, we travelled up to Fort William on Saturday 13th July. There'd been heavy rain in the West Highlands the day before, and there was light rain on the Saturday morning, but the forecast was for dry weather with sunny intervals all through Sunday and Monday, before rain again on Tuesday. Centurion is basically a big corner-line which takes a fair bit of seepage, so it needs a period of warm, dry weather to dry out after significant rain. We hoped that by Monday morning the climb would be dry enough, and were encouraged when we arrived at the Glen Nevis campsite by the relatively dry ground.

After we'd pitched the tents, we went to the office to check the latest forecast. Bugger! It was now showing showers for Monday as well as Tuesday. That left Sunday (next day) as our only option, which was far from ideal. We'd just have to hope that this gave enough time for the climb to dry out sufficiently.

So we set off from the campsite the next morning at about 5.15am for the C.I.C hut, fully laden with all the climbing kit and 2 half-ropes. It took us 3 hours to get there.

Approaching the C.I.C. hut around the northern flanks of Carn Dearg

Orion Face and Tower Ridge from C.I.C. hut

The mighty Carn Dearg Buttress from the C.I.C. hut

There were quite a few people at the hut, sorting out kit and preparing for their own objectives. We got chatting to some of them, who directed us to two well tanned and athletic-looking lads who'd 'done' Centurion the previous day. It had been "p****d through", apparently, and they'd had to resort to direct aid (pulling up on nuts and slings placed for protection), to get up the second pitch. "It should be OK today, though", they said. So, despite the obvious black streaks of water seeping down the walls to the left of Centurion, we set off over the ice-scoured outcrops and up the screes to the foot of the buttress. At least today's weather was as warm and sunny as one could want. We couldn't help but be impressed by the sheer scale and magnificence of the crags around us.

Leaving the C.I.C. hut for the CD Buttress

We got to the start of the climb and peered up the corner, which was shaded. The base was sopping wet and water dripped from above to a steady andante metronome. The first pitch, up a crack in the left wall, didn't look too bad, but was still smeared with wetness in places where it might have mattered. The second pitch, up the corner above, was the critical one, so I tried to get as good a view of it as possible. The left wall looked very green. It was hard to tell just how wet it was, but at best it was damp and greasy. My heart was sinking. "It's p****d through", Karl chimed in, as if to reinforce what he knew I was beginning to accept and what he'd already concluded (probably with some relief). I didn't want to commit both of us to a protracted struggle up slippery rock on a climb which would have been challenging enough even when dry. So, given the beautiful weather, it was a question of salvaging the day. Tower Ridge is such a dominant feature it's hard to ignore. It was catching the sun and, being a ridge, was almost certain to be dry. We hadn't done TR before but had a pretty good idea of the approach and general features of the route, so without further ado we made that our plan B.

However, this meant going all the way back down to the hut and walking up the path into Coire Leis. At the hut we took the opportunity to jettison a lot of our kit, which we left there to be collected later (much later). We took with us a minimal rack and just one of the half-ropes. But our big rucksacks still felt quite heavy. We'd packed our rock shoes just in case, but that turned out to be a completely unnecessary burden we could have done without (along with several items of spare clothing). It was getting on for 10am by the time we set off up the path into Coire Leis - a lot later than desirable really.

It would have been nice to have started up the Direct Route on the Douglas Boulder, but in view of the time we thought we'd better just go the usual way around its east side and up to the gap.

Heading up the east side of Douglas Boulder to the gap

Just above the Douglas gap with the top of the 'Boulder' behind, at the start of Tower Ridge.

Carn Dearg from Tower Ridge

The first part of the ridge was mainly easy scrambling with a few bits of more serious scrambling.

Looking up the lower part of TR to the Little Tower

We roped up but moved together, alpine style. Karl didn't like this mode of locomotion on exposed rock as it meant that if one of us slipped the other would be pulled off as well. Quite so, but it saved a lot of time and meant we could get belayed with immediate effect when necessary. Towards the top of Little Tower the rocks steepened so we pitched it properly for two rope-lengths.

Little Tower

Between the top of the Little Tower and the base of the Great Tower is little more than a walk, albeit in very grand surroundings.

Top of Orion Face and Observatory Ridge

At the base of Great Tower is a large, flat area with a big block on the left and a tenuous ledge leading horizontally across the eastern face of the tower. I took this to be the Eastern Traverse. A few crampon scratches encouraged that false assumption, but when I reached the other end there was no obvious way up or out, no scratches on the rock and certainly no tunnel with a fallen block across the top. I needed to consult the guidebook, but it was in Karl's rucksack. Karl duly came across, but when I read the guide my suspicion was confirmed that the proper Eastern Traverse was higher up, so we needed to go back to the flat area. It wouldn't have mattered but for the waste of time - my fault for not checking the guidebook properly first. The lower rocks of the Great Tower were easy and led to a very obvious and well-trodden ledge crossing the east side of the tower at the point where the latter became smooth and vertical. Unlike the false traverse lower down, this was just an exposed walk.

The Eastern Traverse

Top of Ben Nevis from end of Eastern Traverse

At the other end of the traverse was the instantly recognisable tunnel with the fallen block. This was fun - made awkward only by our oversized rucksacks!

Looking down through the tunnel

Above the tunnel a steep and awkward little pitch leads to the top of the Great Tower. From there, a level and very exposed ridge leads to the Tower Gap.

Karl near the edge of Tower Gap

This is usually reckoned to be the crux of TR so we approached it with interest and care. Another party was ahead of us.

Looking down the west side of Tower Gap

The easiest way to get down into the gap was pretty obvious - first on the right side then around the end between two blocks then down the left side (facing out, but one needs to face in). An in-situ piece of tape in reasonable condition was tied around the end block. A quick-draw clipped to this protected both leader and second on the moves down into the gap. In fact this tape would adequately protect even a soloist provided he/she was wearing a harness and had a sling or two with carabiners to clip to it. Stepping across the gap is unproblematic and a good side-pull on the left is easily reached to bring one onto the other side.

Looking back across Tower Gap to the Great Tower - another party approaching the gap

Straightforward scrambling led from here to the summit plateau of the Ben. We'd been feeling the pressure of time the whole way up, knowing that we'd started TR later than we'd have liked. But then again, at this time of year daylight wasn't really an issue.

Upper part of Tower Ridge from summit plateau, Carn Dearg behind

It was 4.45pm when we reached the summit. It was nice to sit down, put the gear away and have a drink and a munch.

Ben Nevis summit

If we'd planned to do TR in the first place, we'd have gone much lighter and not needed to leave kit at the C.I.C. hut. In which case, from here we could have taken the easier and quicker option of descending directly down the Pony Track back to Glen Nevis. But as it was we needed to get back to the C.I.C. hut. I had a vague idea it was possible to descend gully no.4 but wasn't sure and suspected that any of the gullies would be unpleasantly loose, so we decided to go round the arete to Carn Mor Dearg, giving Karl the bonus of an extra Munro tick. It was well past 5.00pm by the time we set off from the Ben's summit.

It was rough going over the boulders down towards the arete, and seemed to take ages.

The Ring of Steall and Steall Falls, from above CMD Arete

By the time we reached the arete itself, we were feeling tired. Each step on the awkward, bouldery ground was an effort.

NE Buttress and Tower Ridge, from CMD Arete

Our pace had slowed considerably and, as we started going up towards CMD, my back was aching badly (as it sometimes does). I think I was in a worse state than Karl, but he was cursing the rough ground!

Looking back along CMD Arete

The ridge to CMD

After what seemed an eternity we reached the summit of CMD and had a brief rest. Karl had run out of water so we were keen to get down to the hut. We weren't relishing the unrelentingly steep descent, though.

The Ben from CMD

We started the descent from the col between CMD and Carn Dearg Meadhonach where it was possible to keep to grass for most of the way. Our legs were definitely feeling the strain down here. It was about 8.00pm when we finally reached the hut. We filled our bottles from the water spout and after a much needed slurp, had a good rest and collected the kit we'd left, thus adding to the weight of our sacks. At least there was a good path to follow back to Glen Nevis and most of it downhill. Our temptation to linger at the hut was offset by a plague of midges, which soon got us moving - a rare instance of midges actually providing a useful service! :lol:

The Ben Nevis cliffs from C.I.C. hut, evening

It was a really beautiful evening and as we rounded Carn Dearg towards Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe we were able to appreciate the sunset views over Loch Eil and the Glen Finnan hills. After a brief ascent to reach the Pony Track, we embarked on the long descent into Glen Nevis. As Sgurr a' Mhaim and Stob Ban blushed in the deepening twighlight, we wondered, just wondered, what the weather would actually be like the next day.

Irony of ironies, the next day was as fine as could be. We checked the latest forecast and there was no mention of showers, just 80% chance of cloud-free Munros. Indeed there were no showers, and the Ben was clear of cloud most of the day. The corner of Centurion would surely have been dry by then. If only we'd stuck to our original plan of going up on Monday, instead of being influenced by the forecast! But how could we sensibly have done that? It was too late now. Besides, we were too knackered to go all the way back up there with all the kit. We'd missed our chance and just had to accept it. :cry:

Still, Tower Ridge had made a grand day out, and that was no cause for complaint. :)

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Location: Cumbria
Activity: Mountain Walker
Pub: Clachaig Inn
Mountain: An Teallach
Place: Loch Coruisk
Gear: Marmot Windshirt
Ideal day out: A round of summits with some scrambling thrown in.
Ambition: Complete the Munros

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