Standing On The Shoulder of Orion

© emily roo
Jonathan Miles shares his journey up the classic Scottish winter route of Orion Face Direct.

Why did I agree to this? My overriding thought as I stare up at the nevé plastered slabs of the Ben. Black rock, white snow and ice contrast below a brilliant blue winter sky. "This is a daft idea, it's hard, much harder than anything you've ever climbed, it's bold and the belays are rubbish. It would have been very easy to say no and then you would not have to spend the next six hours in pure terror".

The "this" in question is Orion Direct a classic grade V,5 winter route that winds its way 300m up the Orion Face of Ben Nevis finishing almost on the summit. Being a climber who if I'm honest is better at reading about climbing than actually climbing I know from Dave Wilkinson essay in Cold Climbs and the Scottish Mountaineering Club guide that the route is serious; "as runners and belays can be hard to find".

crux on orion  © emily roo
crux on orion
© emily roo, Mar 2011

It had been Dom's idea to do a late winter trip to the Ben; good weather, lots of daylight, and reading too many blogs had convinced him that we had to have a crack at either Orion or the equally serious Zero Gully. In the end after much badgering including the classic line "were only young once and will only get more scared as we get older" I had said yes but only on the proviso that Dom (aka "The Crux Monkey") lead all the pitches.

Although distinctly out of my comfort zone (I've never lead anything harder than III) deep down I did want to do it. Orion Direct offered a proper grade V experience all be it from the blunt end of the rope; allowing me to get my foot in the door at level which opens up a huge range of possibilities in the mountains, classics including Point Five, Smith's Gully, and Polyphemus Gully that have been sitting for far too long on my wish-list.

Seconding a route can give a feel for the terrain, the physicality, and technicality of the grade and hint at the more ephemeral qualities such as the mind-games required on exposed routes. Hopefully this would leave me with an appreciation of where I need to be if I am going to come back and lead at this level.

Decision made we began the ritual of the long drive up from the south, the familiar places we pass through, brooding snow caped hills, and the magnificent stretch of road between Tyndrum and Ballachulish heightening anticipation and a good deal of nervousness on my part at least. Arriving at the north face car park a little after twelve we meet a French party who have just come down off the hill. A quick chat as we put our rucksacks in order confirms that Orion looked in good nick, they themselves having had a great day on Galactic Hitchhiker.

It's a clear night with good visibility as we walk in, the first steep section through the forest is soon behind us and the bulk of the mountain slowly looms towards us reigned in white. We reach the CIC hut and turn uphill towards Coire na Ciste looking for a good spot to pitch the tent before jumping in the bags, kit ready in the porch for the morning.

CIC hut at night  © Grahame N
CIC hut at night
© Grahame N

Amazingly despite sleeping in we are first on the route having power marched past the parties spilling out of the CIC Hut. The face towers above us draped in snow ice, the line of the climb not easy to pick out. "Try climbing it and it fits" is Wilkinson's comment "short groves, bits of gully, buttresses, a face, and a rib or two all link with a subtle simplicity which is not easily seen from below."

The first pitch; an icy groove line just left of a very fat looking Zero Gully calms the nerves; it's quite easy my axes biting deep into the nevé and feeling really solid. With pitch two everything changes, were into grade V territory a shallow chimney moving out onto the face; Dom climbs slowly and steadily making sure each axe and crampon placement is solid before committing. Ice and snow cascade down as the ropes snake slowly upwards. I feed out virtually the entire 60m length with only brief pauses as a rare ice screw is placed. The mountain has come to life, there are teams starting Zero and Slave Route and a queue of people lining up to follow us up Orion.

Then a shout; my turn, I move up the chimney and then out on to the face. The exposure is massive and spectacular, a yawning gulf down Observatory Gully. I find the climbing very hard, for me easily the most demanding section of the entire route. The face keeps steepening above me a mass of ice bulges and plastered slabs, calves and arms tire as I try not to imaging the void below. Thankfully technically it's not that difficult, the ice and nevé are thick and there are plenty of good solid placements but it's just so relentlessly strenuous.

Despite climbing leash-less and taking care to relax my arms as much as possible I can feel a pump coming on, nervousness begins to surface, a knot in my stomach. I remove and promptly drop an ice screw; now fear kicks in, are my earlier reservations about to become a self fulfilling prophecy? Concentrate; to panic here would be pointless, muscles screaming and with a cacophony of noises some as blue as the morning sky I pull up and on to easy angled nevé and stagger up to the belay.

Two pitches through the snowfields nestled in the face allow us (actually me) to recover a bit before arrive at the (guidebook) crux section of the entire route, a rightwards traverse up steep ice and nevé; it looks good but hard. The view is spectacular, a huge drop down the face to the CIC Hut in the valley bottom and across to Carn Mor Dearg giving the face almost an alpine feel.

The crux proves a bit of a pager tiger, it's technically harder but physically much easier than the nightmare of the second pitch and I really enjoy the delicate moves up to the belay, delighting in the subtle changes in weight and balance. Once there I'm rewarded by finding our Camelback frozen and the 3l of water I'm carrying is now just acting as a DIY weight vest.

Dom is climbing really well, careful body movements, good mental control. The route is, to us at least very exposed and most runners are a minimum of fifteen meters apart. As expected belays are often a bit on the fragile side with a number constructed of ice screws tied off short of fully in. The one exception to this is the belay immediately prior to the crux which takes some good solid rock gear.

The pitches through to the top of the upper basin snowfield blur together the climbing varied and of high quality. The route weaves round and through obstacles, but is never too hard; it's a route finding master-class. Wilkinson again: "Each feature, once embarked upon, leads naturally on to the others, as happens only in the very best of routes."

High on Orion Direct  © Al Todd
High on Orion Direct
© Al Todd, Mar 2010

Dom looking particularly drained on the summit. He was very happy honest.  © Jonathan Miles
Dom looking particularly drained on the summit. He was very happy honest.
© Jonathan Miles
Perched at the top of the upper snowfield with the immense scale of the mountain surrounding us on all sides we exchange tired smiles and a few words. The route is long, and we are both beginning to feel exhausted physically; Dom is also mentally drained from so much run out leading. The last proper pitch appears to go on forever and has quite a bite to it, climbing slabs and traversing left into a hanging corner through which we gain the easy slopes of the north east buttress just below the summit and an end to the difficulties.

Sitting on the ridge we don't say much just stuff our faces with food and water, and make some very yellow snow. The weather has changed, the brilliant blue skies of the morning have disappeared and cloud is rolling in from the west. It's time to leave; down No. 4 Gully towards the tent as the exhaustion fades leaving only memories of the fantastic climbing and a warmth of achievement.

Orion Direct is a masterpiece of a route, I stand in awe of Robin Smith and Jimmy Marshall whose first ascent in 1960 marked not only the pinnacle of the step cutting era but the culmination of one of the greatest weeks in Scottish mountaineering history when the pair hit a purple patch which included first accents of Piggot's Route (V,6), Smith's Route (V,5), Minus 3 Gully (IV,5), Observatory Buttress (V, 4), The Great Chimney (IV,5) and the first day ascent of Point Five Gully (V,5). Quite a performance!

Further reading and viewing:

  • UKC Logbook - Orion Face Direct
  • For those interested in Smith and Marshall's epic week the story is the subject of "The Pinnacle" a Hot Aches Production DVD featuring Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner. UKC Review: The Pinnacle
  • Orion Face Direct, Dave Wilkinson, Cold Climbs, Diadem, P52-55.
  • First ascent accounts from Smith and Marshall are reproduced in The Games Climbers Play, Diadem.

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9 Mar, 2012
Haha - classic Bourne stuff... glad to hear it's not just me that pushes the boat out when I climb with Dom and end up scared as f**k...
9 Mar, 2012
Excellent article Jon.
9 Mar, 2012
Great article, thanks. Looking forward to this next year!
9 Mar, 2012
Really enjoyed the writing in that article.
9 Mar, 2012
Good work Jon, brings back some happy memories :-) Dom
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