“Sorry, say that again?”
It had been a long day. A long week, really. I'd been up drinking till four that morning, snatched four hours sleep then trudged up the hill and spent three hours shivering in a damp, thawing snow grave. Then I'd taken two and a half hours to drive the hundred miles or so from Aviemore to Glencoe because the road turned out to be much worse than the map had suggested. I'd finally made it to the Clachaig Inn around eleven, and met the mates I would be climbing with tomorrow. I'd reckoned on an easy day, maybe even an hours pootling at the Ice Factor if it was grim, but no.
“Yeah, we've been getting into the whole alpine start thing, and I reckon we want to get to the start of the climb as early as possible, otherwise we'll be stuck behind someone all day. So we're up at five.”
I've known Haydn and Tom for more than half my life. Not seen much of them since d left home, but they're good mates. The chance to meet up for a day while we were all in Scotland and get some climbing in was too good to miss. I'd spent the week bodying for SARDA in the Cairngorms, where the major obstacle of the day was getting breakfast down through my hangover. They'd been storming up gullies and ridges all week, and were hoping to finish off with a big day on the Ben.
“So Tower's the plan,” Haydn said, “But if it's busy or the weather's crap then we're going for Ledge Route. We'll see how it goes. We're pretty hill fit too – hope you're okay to keep up.”
“Er, yeah,” I said, vaguely. How hard could it be?
They'd been in the Clachaig for a few hours, after a day on the hill. I drove the ten minutes back to the cottage they'd rented for the week, and set to the task of packing a bag ready for a quick start in the morning. Tom and Haydn, naturally, had packed before they'd hit the pub. I was damned if I was going to be the slow wussy one holding them back.
Far too few hours later, I crawled out of bed. Haydn had made porridge and tea, and already I felt myself forgiving him. With a minimum of fuss, we left the cottage spotless and set out into the night towards Fort William. After several passes of the road, we eventually settled on a layby near the golf course to park. We set off walking at about quarter past six, across the course, and found the grim, muddy path that leads to Ben Nevis.
It was a beautifully clear morning, and it looked like the promised cloud and snow from the North East was going to peter out before it got to us. We kept on towards the corrie and the CIC hut, the path sloping gently uphill as the crags of the north face of the Ben came into view. I'd never been here before, and the sight of the looming black and white faces lifted my spirit until I could almost believe that I'd had a good night's sleep.
It's always good to see the route you're there to do as you walk in, and Tower Ridge is one of the best lines in the country. Not quite the skyline, but still obvious. It was the first grade IV route that any of us had attempted. In fact, it was my first Scottish winter climbing, despite a fair bit of time in the hills in winter. Tom and Haydn had spent the week on grade II and III stuff, although when they did Left Twin on Aonach Mor, someone said the conditions were ropey enough to make it grade IV. I'd read the guidebook description of Tower Ridge at about midnight, which began with a stern warning that it was a major undertaking on which people regularly get stuck, often requiring the assistance of Lochaber rescue team to get down again. It certainly impressed me.
The path steepened as we approached the snowline, and I began to realise that Haydn and Tom hadn't been kidding when they'd said they were fit. I was struggling to keep up, and when they overtook a slower-moving group of four just before the path narrowed, I was forced to sprint up the adjacent stream bed to get past and keep with them. This was going to be a harder day than I'd thought... Our first axes came out by the CIC hut, as the path disappeared beneath packed snow. We had quite a selection: Haydn with Alpine-style Snow Leopards, Tom with a borrowed pair of straight-shafted Vertiges, and my radically curved Grivel Machines, complete with clipper leashes. All we needed was someone with leashless Nomics and we'd have an “ice tools through the ages” exhibition.
The first two hundred metres of snow made me realise quite how unfit I was. As Tom and Haydn stopped in the lee of a boulder to put on crampons, I was gasping, fifty metres behind. Geared up, we set off for the start of Tower Ridge, smugly noting the lack of parties ahead. The route sneaks up the side of the largest independent boulder in Britain, before gaining the ridge proper. I'd been puzzled at the lack of any Bowderstone-sized lumps of rock, until Haydn pointed out that the vast crag infront of us was the Douglas Boulder, 600 feet high and apparently independent of the main crag.
We put a rope on before the first steep section of snow, a grade I gulley leading up to the ridge. As the weakest and least experienced member of the party (oh, the shame), I clipped into the middle of the rope while Haydn led and Tom brought up the rear. I'd never “moved together” on rock before in this style, but the others had been using it to get up easyish routes all week. It's far faster than doing each 50 metres or so as individual pitches, and as long as the ground's fairly easy it's a safe, efficient way of moving. It took a bit of getting used to though, especially switching between moving and belaying Tom. I kept getting the rope caught on my rucksac as I tried to body belay. All good practice though, I suppose.
The first tricky section was next. In retrospect, I'd have been better stowing one or both axes and just treating it like a scramble, but this was the first time I'd used these axes in anger and I was damn well going to make the most of them. I rapidly gained a degree of respect for Scottish mixed climbing, since there were few decent axe placements and everything felt decidedly tenuous. Unfamiliarity, I guess, but it was sobering to realise that this was still the easy bit. I did manage to strike a decent spark off the rock, which made me a little more cautious with my tools. Fortunately, it was a long way from my (unprotected) eyes. (It later turned out that conditions were on the lean side, and this section is easier with a bit more snow.) Once we'd all made it onto the ridge itself, we set off and made good time over the snow. It's a stunning place to be – a really classic ridge, with huge drops on either side. The weather had remained balmy (by Scottish winter standards, anyway) although the wind began to pick up as we gained height. This section is critical to success on the route. If you're too slow here, then you'll never make it all the way up before the brief daylight fades. Oh, and the hardest bit is at the top...
After maybe an hour more of climbing, we reached the next technical section, the little tower. Suddenly, I was cold. I dug out another layer, and realised that the wind had picked up. The previously clear view of the other side of the corrie had disappeared into the thickening fog. Oh bugger, I thought. Haydn had set up a belay, and as I reached him I decided that I really wasn't happy. The wind was gusting really hard now. We'd been okay on the easy section, but the thought of pushing ourselves up a steepening rock and snow face was just not appealing any more. I was beginning to feel the effects of a week of minimal sleep and enthusiastic drinking.
“I'm really not comfortable in this,” I said, hating myself for my nervousness, but not keen on carrying on into worsening conditions.
“Hmm, well, this is the point to decide,” Haydn said. “After this it'll be really hard to down-climb. What do you want to do?”
It wasn't a hard decision, really. I'd stopped enjoying myself over the space of about fifteen minutes, and reckoned the weather was only going to get worse. Sod it: there's no point having an epic for the sake of it. Not that it made me feel any better for screwing up the others' day. At the back of my mind was the thought that without me they'd be cruising up to the top.
“Nah, I'm not up for carrying on in this.”
So we turned round and went back. The wind dropped as we descended, but the top of the hill remained shrouded in cloud. We abseiled down the steep section we'd come up earlier, taking advantage of a loop of cord that someone had left behind. It was this part that had been nagging at me – a party of three had backed off Tower Ridge a few weeks previously. One guy, a doctor from Penrith, had died, and the others had been badly hurt, when the block they'd been tied to collapsed.
I suppose that it had been this thought in the back of my mind, together with that dire warning in the guidebook, which had made me nervous to begin with. I'd not really paid attention as we set off – I'd been too trashed to really analyse my feelings at the time – but I'd been really intimidated by the route in a way I've never really felt before. Maybe it's just that I consider myself to be a bit of a novice at this winter climbing lark, and my lack of experience makes me uncomfortable. I'm fine on dodgy, run out stuff in the summer, but there's a whole load of new things to learn and to take into consideration when there's snow underfoot and the weather's about to go horribly pear shaped.
Still, the bottom line is that I wasn't happy, we turned back, and lived to tell the tale. We still did about five hundred metres of grade I/II ridge walking in spectacular positions that was a fantastic day out in itself. And it's not as if the Ben's going anywhere. Tower Ridge will be there next winter, when I'll be older and (hopefully) wiser and ready to push myself that bit harder. And you never know, I might get a whole day of nice weather for it next time.
You can view many photographs of the Tower Ridge at the UKClimbing.com photo gallery and if you want to do some research on Tower Ridge a good place to start is the forums where you will find a listing of Tower Ridge discussions.
Gareth Morgan recently mapped the structure of the amyloid fibrils formed by stefin B, a member of the cystatin superfamily. He'll soon be Dr. Gareth. In the past he's been the News Editor at Felix, the student newspaper at Imperial College. He currently works in the Lake District. He teaches climbing and sometimes does some bodying for SARDA .