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Situated in Lochaber, Scotland at the west end of the Grampian mountains and close to the town of Fort William, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles.
"It has the tallest and most extensive cliffs, and attracts some of the most severe winter weather. This unique combination produces some of the best snow and ice climbing of its type in the world." Simon Richardson, Ben Nevis Rock and Ice Climbs, SMC, 2002
As our highest mountain, our “only Alpine mountain” and one with perhaps the richest history of climbing of any place in the UK; Ben Nevis is as big as it gets. Although its scale is often the first detail mentioned about the mountain, it is really the nature of the place and its climbs that stand out most. In fact Jimmy Marshall summed it up as being hard to equal for hidden depths of character.
These hidden depths offer new discoveries every time you climb there by virtue of the array of coires, buttresses and huge ridges that form it's north-east face. I can't imagine the feeling of anticipation that hits you on emerging from the CIC hut door on a sunny morning, and taking in the full vista of grand cliffs, ever fading.
"Centurion - It goads you every time you walk in to the Ben. When are you going to be brave enough to go for it?"
With nearly 120 years of climbing history, ground breaking routes and legendary stories of bravery on the cliffs throughout, the mountain is steeped in history. Ken Crocket and Simon Richardson's book Ben Nevis is an excellent and inspiring chronicle of the highlights of these many adventures through the ages as the sport, culture, standards and approaches to climbing have evolved.
The first ascent of the Ben's first recorded route, Tower Ridge was done in full winter conditions in 1895. The next massive step forward, well ahead of its time was Raeburn's ascent of Green Gully in April 1904. Later in the 1950's and early 60's the harder gully lines were the focus of a feverish race by rival groups of Scottish and international climbers.
Many of British climbing's most legendary figures played a role here including Patey, McInnes, Haston, and Clough. But perhaps its finest and most lauded exponents were Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith who proved a remarkable and ground breaking team, eating up cutting edge first ascents of the big ice climbs such as Orion Face Direct in their customary casual style.
After the step cutting era had passed, ever thinner face routes were the focus until finally in the 21st century the Ben has once again entered a new phase of development. Hard mixed buttress routes like Sassenach IX, 9 and Don't Die of Ignorance XI, 11, have brought the mountain truly into the modern era.
The imposing and beautiful Northeast buttress of Ben Nevis caught in morning light with a dusting of early winter snow. © wee jamie
As in the Alps, climbers make the winter pilgrimage to the Ben to tackle very different objectives:
Top Five Entry Level Routes by Alan Halewood
Alan Halewood is an MIC Holder and regularly works on Ben Nevis. He knows the routes inside out. Here he gives us his top five 'entry level' routes at grade II.
Ledge Route (II). A fine rocky route easy for the grade unless the initial slab is thinly iced in which case it may feel much harder. To avoid this or reduce the exposure to avalanche conditions in No. 5 Gully go up to the Coire na Ciste Lochan and turn right over the top of Moonlight Gully Buttress. This leaves a short sprint across the narrows of No. 5 Gully and puts you on Ledge Route above the first bend.
North Gully (II). The easiest of Creag Coire na Ciste's fine Gullys. Reliable and often with a fine initial ice pitch. The upper pitches are easier but beware in avalanche conditions or after a thaw when the frequently huge (avoidable) cornice might be prone to collapse and sweep the route.
No. 2 Gully (II). The best of the easy Gullies on Ben Nevis giving good situations and rock and ice scenery. Early in the season can give an icey pitch of III.
Raeburn's Easy Route (II). Another reliable favourite. After a traverse left from the approaches to No. 2 Gully climb icey bulges (much variation possible at a slightly harder grade) for a pitch. This puts you onto a long right trending snow ramp (beware avalanche prone in bad conditions) that can be followed easily to the plateau. Alternatively take one of several icey direct finishes possible at the end of the ramp at III or IV.
Gardyloo Gully (II or harder). Has been described as 'the longest walk for the shortest climb on Ben Nevis'. At the very top of Observatory Gully this Route's guidebook grade can be deceptive. As a guide if the through route is banked out and you step over the chockstone rather than passing under it then the gully should be straight forwards. Otherwise be prepared for a short pitch of up to III,4! Worth it for the situation and the easiest route to top out so close to the summit.
The Great Ridges
Straightforward in summer, the four great ridges of the Ben are serious mountaineering expeditions for novice parties, and the frequency of rescues and fatalities on them are grim proof of this. On a day of perfect neve, sunshine and glorious fast progress, you might wonder what all the fuss is about, climbing these ridges is an exercise in pure joy. But in deep powder, bad weather or if the climbers don't make enough progress before the short winter days end, they are great for producing epics.
However without making the key mistakes of starting too late, or in poor conditions or not researching the route finding properly, they will often provide a magical experience. Tower Ridge is the longest at 600 metres, But North East Buttress and Observatory Ridge have harder climbing, North East Buttress in particular catching tired and gripped novices out with the difficulty of the Mantrap high on the route.
Classic Nevis ridges in order of overall difficulty/commitment:
The Ice Gullies
Like the ridges, in the April sunshine and with fat plastic ice, they can be a romp of sheer joy to ascend. Pitch after pitch of stunning mountain scenery and elegant lines to follow to the plateau. Or they can be evil spindrift avalanche chutes, devoid of protection and belays and will command your respect no matter what your experience level. It all depends on the conditions, so it's a good idea to soak up as much advice from those who know them well, as you can.
The other major aspect of the big ice gully ticks such as Point Five Gully (“The most famous ice gully in the world”) or Zero Gully is that these climbs suffer from those who wish to 'tick the famous route'. Standing shivering in a queue of several parties at the foot of Point Five Gully is not a good way to spend the wee small hours of the morning (in my opinion), especially when there are an abundance of similar but empty climbs all around (examples: Boomer's Requiem, Vanishing Gully, Comb Left-flank among countless others). There's really no sense in queuing, and little pleasure in following a convoy of climbing parties up an ice, gully being bombed by their dislodged chunks of frozen debris and moving at the pace of those in front. Get there really early, or go for something else to enjoy your day on the ice.
Recommended Ice Gullies and Faces:
Video: A Winter Ascent of Point Five Gully
Once held in high regard as a fringe activity for the boldest of climbers, many of Nevis' famous thin face routes such as Psychedelic Wall, Gemini or Astral Highway have become trade routes in recent years and really lost their aura, which is a good thing I think. Bizarrely, part of this is down to them forming fatter ice in recent seasons, perhaps due to the warming climate?
The joy of climbing Nevis face routes is their unlikeliness. Breaking out onto an open wall encased in ice only a few centimetres thick, with little prospect of a solid runner in a whole pitch always seems like something for only the bravest and not for 'mere mortals'. But the quite exquisite Nevis neve leads you on, the difficulty of the moves are no good enough reason to turn back until it's too late. And so you carry on and have an adventure. That, together with the pleasure of waiting and striking at the right moment of ephemeral conditions is all part of the pleasure.
Psychedelic Wall VI,5 © hwackerhage, Mar 2007, a classic thin face route high on Ben Nevis' Indicator Wall
The Modern Mixed Routes
Big, bad, unfriendly and tough. That is what most Nevis mixed climbers are after. And the mountain offers plenty of this. But not all the mixed routes are so intense, in fact, many of the mixed climbing areas of the north face offer good options for the shorter days of mid winter and the same big mountain atmosphere without the commitment of the big face routes. The routes tend to vary from good well protected and physical crack/corner lines, to deviously blind and hard to protect. In fact any exponent of hard Nevis mixed will lament at length about the blind, crackless corners and soul searching leads.
Usual Descents (best planned before topping out in the dark or a whiteout!)
Alan Halewood gives us a few tips on how to get off the mountain:
The Pony/Tourist Track. The new cairns across the plateau may be invisible when plastered in rime so don't rely solely on them. Then descend the tortuous zig zags to the half way lochan. Accessible from any route.
No. 4 Gully. Popular descent into Coire na Ciste for a second route or to return to the CIC area. Cornice may necessitate an abseil, bollards often in evidence from instructed parties. May well be avalanche prone after fresh snow and or strong winds.
The Red Burn. Safe and easy under snow- harder if the scree is still exposed. A good choice if concerned about the possibility of No. 4 Gully avalanching. Takes you down to the track near the half way lochan.
No. 3 Gully. Steeper at the top than No. 4 but a good way to avoid the crowds there. After an initial abseil No. t much harder. Again it is a Gully so assess the snow and possibility of avalanche before committing yourself. Again this brings you back into Coire na Ciste.
Tower Gully. Useful for a descent back into Observatory Gully for another route. Steep and more exposed than the Ciste Gullys an abseil may be required to get over the cornice (may be bypassed on the left as you look down). One for the confident and make sure you traverse between the base of Smith's and the top of Tower Scoop to avoid the steep ground of taken by the latter route. As per the other Gullys make sure you have assessed the possibilities of an avalanche. Conditions may have changed since you approached up Observatory Gully earlier in the day.
Coire Leis. Under good snow this descent can be one of the quickest most pleasant ways to come down from the summit. Often icey, from the headwall traverse down left in descent for easier angled ground. It's not for nothing that Coire Leis translates as the windward/leeward coire so again, bear in mind the avalanche conditions.
For those confident on the grade, Ledge Route can make a good descent route if No. 5 gully is safe to cross or descend above the slab (see description of Ledge Route above).
Lastly when the weather is fine and the daylight longer you could stroll along the Carn Mor Dearg Arete basking in the sun, pleased with your climb and watching those still in the shade still enjoying their own route.
Photo Gallery: Ben Nevis in Winter:
About Dave MacLeod:
Dave MacLeod is one of the world's top all-round climbers. From E11 first ascents, grade XI winter routes, F9a red-points and F8c solos, he's pretty much achieved it all. He is also a knowledgeable and fully qualified climbing coach.
You can read his full biography here.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Dave MacLeod (with input from Alan Halewood):
About Alan Halewood:
Alan Halewood is an MIC Holder and regularly works on Ben Nevis. He knows the routes inside out and offers professional guiding and instruction.