Climber on the Great Tower before tackling Tower gap
© Henning Wackerhage, Jan 2007
The start was an easy snow gully up to Douglas gap, then a rocky scramble with iced up holds onto the easier ground above. We continued up mixed ground and several rock steps to Little Tower. Here the climbing got tricky and we pitched the climb for a while. If we had more snow it would have been much easier.
By this point the light was really making the surrounding views amazing and the cold conditions made it feel truly Alpine. After the ground eased I arrived at the Great Tower and looked around at the Eastern Traverse which had no steps and very little snow, my heart started beating a bit quicker than usual! The Eastern Traverse proved harder in my mind than physically, and we passed slowly. Not much gear and old rotten ice for axe placments. Once we passed this obstacle I felt relieved until I saw the next section - the chimney above looked desperate, with ice over the crutial holds but not enough to plant an axe. Half an hour of hard mixed climbing saw me arrive on the top of the Great Tower feeling excited and very pleased!
Tower Gap was fine compared to the difficulties that we had just done and shortly after we were moving together on good snow and standing on the summit plateau feeling very pleased and admiring the stunning 360 degree view of blue sky views. Ridge time took 6 hours.
A truly memorable day and a route that I had wanted to do for a long time done."
Dan Bailey (read his Aonach Eagach article here) who is just off to Africa for a 3PeaksAfrica challenge (details here) gives us the beta on Tower Ridge in this second article from his book Scotland's Mountain Ridges
Seasonal Notes: Tower Ridge in winter is one of Scotland's best-loved mountaineering routes, and no ordinary grade III. Because of its unusual length and the variable conditions-related difficulties that may be met, it needs to be taken seriously by even the most accomplished teams. Powder snow and verglas add considerably to the challenge, and benightments are common. A summer visit is just as recommendable – if less demanding – and helps build familiarity for a future winter attempt.
Tower Ridge has all the cachet and atmosphere of a truly classic climb. With an obvious line, superlative length and magnificent situations it ranks among the grandest routes in Scotland. Rising in a series of rocky steps from the massive conical buttress of the Douglas Boulder right up to the Ben's summit plateau, its profile is compelling. The summer climbing is largely easier than you might expect, making Tower Ridge a good choice for aspiring mountaineers. Confident groups will remain unroped for much of the time. Others will opt to move together, save for the few short cruxes. The trickiest sections are also the most spectacular, and here fixed belays tend to be deemed sensible. Snowy or no, this brilliant route should grace everyone's ticklist.
Camp beneath the Douglas Boulder, with the Great Tower prominent high above.
© Dan Bailey, Feb 2007
There are two customary approaches to the north side of Ben Nevis, both much of a muchness. One takes the Tourist Track from Glen Nevis, escaping just below the mind-numbing zigzags and contouring around the NW shoulder of Carn Dearg to join the Allt a'Mhuilinn by the CIC Hut. The alternative tends to be more popular with climbers: from the North Face car park near Torlundy head SE through trees, soon turning right. One kilometre later a left turn takes steep muddy slopes into the upper valley of the Allt a'Mhuilinn, and thence over sticky bogs to the CIC Hut. This path has recently been given a partial upgrade, firming up some of the worst boggy bits. Behind the hut, on the left side of Coire na Ciste, rears the striking mass of the Douglas Boulder, marking the foot of Tower Ridge.
Most parties seem content to bypass the Douglas Boulder, but its ascent at around VDiff is a suitable prelude. Though the ground is of the go-anywhere variety, it's worth following one of the established climbs. Try Direct Route, 215m VDiff: a prominent groove cleaves the NE face. Start at the lowest toe of the buttress, below and to the left of a clean-looking slab. Climb easily into a vague scoop to reach the deeper chimney groove above. Two pitches up this gain a pronounced shelf. Traverse briefly right, then climb steeply to the summit. To reach the Douglas Gap at the start of the route proper, downclimb on the right (facing down) or abseil.
Descending into Tower Gap
© Dan Bailey, Jan 2007
For those not wishing to indulge in the above, this point can also be reached by walking around the base of the Boulder, then scrambling up scree, rock and grass in a shallow bay below its E side to enter East Gully (loose and often slimy), which soon leads to the Gap.
Smoothed by decades of use, a 20m chimney is the key to the ridge crest. It can be tricky in the wet, and might be worth climbing as a roped pitch. Follow signs of wear along the broad grassy ridge above, over two slight dips and some steeper steps. The Little Tower is the next distinctive feature. It's more of a bump than a tower, but provides an absorbing scramble, at first up flakes of lovely rock on the crest (possible variations are less good). Then head right up a tricky slanting ledge, and back left up an indistinct corner to the top of the 'tower'. This is exposed, and a rope seems sensible. A long flatish section follows, bringing you to the unmistakeable Great Tower.
Scrambly steps lead to the base of the tower's intimidating vertical nose. Peel off left around the corner on a short path known as the Eastern Traverse – often steeply banked out in winter, but easy in summer. This gains a deep cleft crowned by a massive boulder. Clamber out through the roof of the cave and tackle steep rock on the right, leading airily to the top of the tower.
Even if you haven't needed to thus far, it's definitely wise to rope up while crossing the infamous Tower Gap. Descend briefly from the tower onto a short thin crest, with a giddy void to either side. The smooth downclimb into the gap feels insecure, though it's short lived. At the time of writing it was 'graced' with a bit of fixed tat to help with quick protection and/or a sneaky point of aid. Clamber more easily up the far side of the notch to belay on straightforward ground above. Much gentler scrambling ensues as the ridge – vegetated and loose in parts – begins to merge with the mountain's flanks. A final steep wall is turned by a rightwards ledge traverse, followed by a couple of rubbly steps onto the summit plateau. Now strike a few macho poses for the benefit of ogling walkers.
A level section on the ridge below the Great Tower.
© Dan Bailey, Feb 2007
TOWER RIDGE PHOTOS AT UKCLIMBING.COM
There is of course a wealth of Tower Ridge photographs at the UKClimbing.com gallery (click here to see them). Thanks to all who submitted them and we bet there is more than one epic tale behind them and of course much mountain joy. Thanks to Henning Wackerhage, Doug Pemble and Patrick Guinard for the additional photos in this article.
ALSO READ: A Tower Ridge Story
Gareth Morgan describes his attempt on Tower Ridge in winter. You can read it HERE.
To view the images of the Ben Nevis Webcam CLICK HERE
BUY THE GUIDEBOOK
This article is part of a chapter from Scotland's Mountain Ridges by Dan Bailey (ISBN: 978 1 85284 469 1) and is available direct from Cicerone Press.
Scotland's Mountain Ridges
'a work of considerable authority, I can recommend (it) unreservedly.' Chris Craggs (reviewer) published on www.UKClimbing.com (May 2006)
Ridges are epic. Graceful carved walkways slung between summits, twisted spines of stone – these can be the most beautiful of mountain landforms. With elegant lines and giddy exposure, ridge climbs emit a powerful siren call, drawing us out onto the rocks.
The variety of these 48 routes reflects the breadth of the mountain experience: a rich mix of summer scrambles, technical rock and challenging winter climbs. This book covers both the popular classics and some obscure gems, aiming to celebrate these thrilling climbs as much as to document them. The chosen selection spans the grade range, with routes to suit all levels of ability. Breathtaking photography and detailed research makes this a magical source of inspiration.
The author, Dan Bailey lives in Fife and has always had a passion for climbing and the outdoors. His work has featured in Adventure Travel, The Sunday Times, Trail, High, The List, The Sunday Herald and Scotland on Sunday, among others.