Snow and then Tower Ridge - Ben Nevis at its best

Munros: Ben Nevis

Date walked: 23/07/2016

Time taken: 8.5 hours

Distance: 16km

Ascent: 1700m

As days-out go, I should imagine that few are more memorable than a first completion of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis. This is especially true for me, who has an utterly irrational and very annoying fear of heights. I say ‘fear’ but it’s really a terror of exposure that afflicts me. Put me in an enclosed chimney-type feature and I’ll scurry up in in no time. Put me on a narrow ledge with a 1000 ft drop on either side, however, and watch me turn into a complete coward, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. This day was likely to be a tester.

We set out from the North Face car park at about 9.30am. The MWIS forecast issued on the previous day assured us that rain was going to accompany us for most of the morning, petering out in the afternoon, with clag left in its wake above 1000 metres. Fortunately for us there wasn’t even a hint of rain until much later in the day, and the cloud level hovered around summit level for a good deal of it. The walk up the Allt a’ Mhuillin path was – as usual – a joy. The north-east face of the Ben was looking customarily majestic, and the surrounding landscape was verdant. The neighbouring hills were bathed in far more cloud than we were, and it felt as though that today was going to be one of those days where the gods would smile on us. We weren’t wrong.

Looking towards the north-east face of the Ben. Weather decent, despite forecast

Within an hour of setting out we had, going at a decent lick, reached the CIC hut. The ever-running hosepipe that feeds cool, clear water down from above was harvested to slake our thirst and recharge the bottles. Lovely. It was time to start the day proper now. The walk up into Observatory Gully was next, and from experience of being up there many times it is not an easy meander.

The view into Coire na Ciste from the CIC hut

The view up Observatory Gully

Today wasn’t only about Tower Ridge or summiting the Ben, though. We had business to attend to. Snow business. Far up in the north-east face of the Ben lie such quantities of the white stuff that folk in the valleys below would scarcely credit it. Photographs seen in trip reports, or second-long glimpses from passing cars, cannot do the scale of the snow still present justice. (This is where I should declare an interest. I’m one of the curious people who monitor how long snow lasts for on the hills of Scotland.) My walking buddy and I were curious to see what sort of magical tunnels and formations the water and wind had engraved from the icy snow in Observatory Gully, as well as how large the actual ‘patches’ were. This word is a bit of a misnomer in July. The ‘patches’ are really ‘fields’, with one in particular usually being hundreds of metres long at this time of the year. Anyway…

Side-stepping up Observatory Gully at our own ineluctably quick rate we reached our first quarry for the day: Point 5 Gully’s snow. We could see from below that it was still a fair size, but when we got there we were pleasantly surprised with how large it was, and that it had a little tunnel opening with a small stream issuing forth. This could only mean one thing: a snow tunnel was present.

And what a tunnel it was. It ran the full length of the snow (fully 60 metres), and in it were contained the most impressive and wow-factor shapes you can hope to see in the UK. I’ll let these selection of pictures describe it in a way that my words would fail to.

The Point 5 Gully patch. Harmless enough looking until you get close to it...

Al stands in the entrance to the tunnel

I start to investigate the snow (Picture by Al Todd)

Pretty deep snow here (Picture by Al Todd)

Al puts some ice climbing moves in. In July!

Al looks down the tunnel from whence we came

Time to go. Al makes his way back out

After about an hour-and-a-half of exploring and generally being impressed we decided that we’d better get to part II of the day: Tower Ridge. I must admit I was pretty nervous with this part of the day, for the reasons already stated. Seeing my walking buddy’s large amount of gear and harness contraptions made me question the wisdom of going up there. Tower Gap’s exposure (the thing I hate most in the world) was described by hardened mountain-types as ‘extreme’. Only my companion’s supreme confidence and good-nature gave me the belief that I could do this.

We clambered up onto the start of the ridge and got geared up. This meant putting on a harness and a helmet, and getting some tuition from my partner, who had done this – in summer and winter – a dozen-or-so times. I took a deep breath after it was all done. ‘Let’s go’ I said to him.

The start of the climb. Gulp.

Much of what happened next seems kind of blurry, but eerily recountable. Al, my climbing buddy, had me on a reasonably short rope: no more than 5 metres separated us, and it was reassuring to see him clamber up in front of me. The first section was reasonably straightforward, and other than a bit of exposure it was pretty straight forward. The first real test came at the feature known to climbers as the Little(?) Tower, which in poor weather people often mistake for the Great Tower (which is quite different). Al went on ahead as I belayed him from below. I fed the slack to him, praying I wouldn’t have any need to employ the brakes if he took a dive. When he got to where he needed to be he shouted ‘In your own time. I’ve got you.’ My heart skipped a beat. This was it. The first bit of proper mountaineering I’d ever done.

Roped up and on a harness, I started to climb up the sheer face for about 20 metres, with drops all around that I didn’t fancy investigating. I didn’t dare look anywhere else except up. Thankfully, though, it was far less hard than I expected, given the dry and grippy rock – and the added comfort of a cracking pair of Salomon trail shoes. In truth if you’ve a good partner and are reasonably fit then the actual climbing isn’t really a big problem.

I can't even bear to look. How I wished we were back down on that snow from where we'd came

The Little Tower. 'Little' is a relative term on Ben Nevis, apparently

Al leads the ascent through the chockstone chimney

...and I follow

Once we completed the Little Tower I was then faced with the prospect of the Great Tower. I looked at it and thought ‘You’re kidding.’ An impenetrable face of rock loomed over us, with seemingly no chinks in its armour. I needn’t have worried, as this is where the infamous – and somewhat innocuously titled – ‘Eastern Traverse’ is. Al assured me that this was a good path, skirting round the dreadful face of the tower. Sure enough, the path itself was decent looking. I just thank God that it was now misty, as I’m led to believe the drop down from here is ‘incredible’. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve.

I didn't stop for a picture here. No way.

But, then, it was time for the main event: Tower Gap. Even a lowly fair-weather hillwalker like me had heard of this awful place. A dwelling of demons, where climbers have been benighted, injured, and/or killed. A narrow ledge which, upon seeing it, immediately reminded me of Tolkien’s Khazad-dûm bridge of Moria, complete with precipitous drops on either side. And I *do* mean precipitous. Once again Al led the way, with me sitting on a nearby rock, fastened on with a harness and other mechanisms to stop me falling to certain death if Al himself were to fall.

As expected, he negotiated the ‘bad step’ with consummate ease, then got himself into a good belay position to allow me to cross. ‘Crawling is acceptable’ laughed Al as he signalled to me to cross. I almost took his offer, but decided that such a spectacle was too unedifying a sight if other climbers were to arrive. Pride does funny things to a man, so I stood as tall as I dared and confidently walked across the 1 metre wide conduit.

The extreme exposure was negated by the thick mist. I was very grateful for this, despite the lack of views. I crossed the narrow walkway fairly quickly, but then I – too – was faced with the bad step. Climbers before us had left various bits of paraphernalia tied around the rock to aid others. Though I had a good, short rope from Al I fastened a karabiner on to a couple of the loops so as to restrict any fall I might have. Again, though, the negotiation of the step proved not to be too difficult. The main trouble with this bit is the fact that a fall would almost certainly result in certain death if one were not roped on.


Tower Gap's bad step

Looks easy, huh?

Nearly there...

Once negotiated, and a handshake and pat on the back from Al was delivered, the rest of the climb up was pretty straightforward. What I might ordinarily have considered semi-challenging terrain was now ‘easy’, and less than 10 minutes later we emerged onto the summit plateau. I was mightily relieved at this, but also quite proud of what I had just accomplished. For someone with a complete aversion to heights this has to go down as one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done on the hill.

Reality bit-in when we traversed down the tourist path to the halfway lochan. Hordes of people – most not even looking up – were still making their way up despite it being 5pm. The usual collection of trainers and jogging bottoms were in evidence, and we were glad to leave them behind when we split off and headed back to the North Face car park, even if the non-existent path back down is a bit of a bind.

This is a day that will live long in the memory.

My abiding memory of the day. Snow, climbing gear, and managing to keep a smile

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