IMC assault 2010
At 1,344 metres (4,409 ft for oldies) above sea level Ben Nevis is the highest
mountain in the United Kingdom. Tower Ridge is one of a multitude of ridges that
tumble out from the North East side of the summit plateau. Tower Ridge is probably
the most famous of these and is a must tick for aficionados of Ken Wilson’s
Classic Rock tome. It is about 820m (2700ft) in length if the Douglas Boulder is
avoided and around 1000m (3300ft) if it is included.
The ridge is located approximately 500m south of the Charles Inglis Clark (CIC)
Hut and terminates close to the summit of the mountain. The usual route up Tower
Ridge is a graded at 3S or Difficult depending on whether you scramble or climb
it. Few mountain expeditions in the UK can offer comparable amounts of the
exposure and length that make this route truly Alpine in character.
In winter conditions it is graded Scottish Grade IV, partly because most of its
difficulties, such as the Eastern Traverse and Tower Gap, lie high up on the
route but largely due to its overall length. For a winter ascent it is
recommended to allow up to ten hours as “all levels of difficulty may be
encountered depending on conditions”.
A number of distinct features appear on the ridge. In the order that a would-be
ascensionist would encounter them, they are:
1. The Douglas Boulder is the first major obstacle on the ridge. For fans of
suffering, this offers possibly the most arduous climbing on the route and is
only recommended for fast and/or experienced parties. It is easily outflanked on
either side by using the East or West Gullies; both of these go at a winter
grade of I and can be soloed with ease.
2. The Douglas Gap is where parties using the East or West Gullies join the
ridge. For the hardcore who have gone direct careful down climbing into the Gap
is required or more usually, (speed is safety) an abseil is used. Escape from
the gap is by a “tricky” chimney. From here it is possible to move together or
solo as the terrain is quite straightforward. However in poor conditions it
might require protecting.
3. The ridge becomes a bit steeper at the Little Tower providing the first real
barrier after the Douglas Boulder. The SMC Ben Nevis guide book suggests left if
the conditions are dry or with good ice but right if it is under heavy powder.
4. The Great Tower offers a second and some what more substantial rise of the
ridge. A direct ascent of the Great Tower is hard. But like the Douglas Boulder,
it can be outflanked by traversing a narrow ledge (the ‘Eastern Traverse’) on
the left hand side before climbing to its apex.
5. The crux is provided by the (infamous) Tower Gap, a small notch in the ridge
beyond the Great Tower. The Gap is around three metres deep but at this point
the ridge has narrowed to less than one metre wide and offers up views of
precipitous drops to either side, providing ample exposure. The Gap can be
avoided by an extended version of the leftward traverse that is usually started
prior to ascending the Great Tower, For purists, however, this is a no go area,
but it is worth knowing about in case of an emergency. This bypasses the Gap
from below, regaining the ridge at a higher point. An escape into the nearby
Tower Gully is also possible if taking this route. If Tower Gully is being used
to escape, please be aware of potential avalanche dangers.
6. Finally an easy ascent from Tower Gap to the summit plateau is the reward for
the faithful. Now relax, take a deep breath and contemplate your two to three
hour walk off. “No, absolutely no, I’m not tired or knackered at this point.”
You may have to repeat several times at this juncture.
Plan 9 from outer space
- Drag ourselves out of bed at the ungodly hour of 02:30hrs for an early
breakfast & coffee. Wander about looking liking spaced out refugees for a while.
More coffee. Set of for a day of high adventure.
- Arrive at the car park for about 04:00hrs, take a deep breath, shoulder our
packs and set off.
- 07:00hrs be at the base of the Douglas boulder, gear up, check pace and
conditions then make final decision on the start route. Option one is Direct
Route, 215m, (IV, 4)*, easy climbing to a high crux (allow 2 hours) or option
two East Gully (allow 1.5 hours). Abseiling into the Douglas Boulder and escape
chimney (allow 1.5hours). 10:30hrs
- Douglas Gap to Little Tower and possible pitching on Little Tower (allow 2
- Little Tower to Great Tower (1 hour). 13:30hrs. (4 & 5 may go quicker).
- Check pace, time, well being of group and conditions and then consider options.
Option one the usual Eastern Traverse (if time is later than 13:30hrs), option
two, Recess Route, 45m (IV, 6) – grade implies well protected. Option three
Pigott’s Route, 45m (IV, 4)* or the Western Traverse, 70m (IV, 4)**. Allow two
- Tower Gap. Allow 1hour. 16:30hrs
- Get to the top of the ridge – allow 1 hour. 17:30hrs. Target time for actual
climbing 10 ½ hours.
- Walk off – allow 3 hours Head torches and spare batteries a must. 20:30hrs. Areas
where possible to make up time, walk-in, walk-out, Douglas Gap to Great Tower.
What actually happened
08/03/2010 – Attempt 1 – (lessons learnt and how not to tackle a classic
In hind-sight an assault on a long route like Tower Ridge would best be started
the normal (easy) way. However being the fan of suffering that I am, led to a
decision to tackle The Douglas Boulder by its Direct Route (IV, 4). Everything
was going to plan, an early start and a good healthy slog up to the CIC hut and
it was game-on. However, I did reflect upon how menacing the visage that the
Douglas Boulder had presented on the walk, noting the mid-section appeared a wee
bit devoid of the lashings of snow enjoyed by the rest of the Ben Nevis North
Face. I had a moment of self doubt. Was I ready for a Scottish winter IV? How
hard could it be? What could possibly go wrong?
A quick sandwich, drink and gear-up and we were off for a day of high adventure
(much more than planned). Any initial doubts had now evaporated. A decent snow
ramp led up to the base of the Douglas Boulder. Adrian announced the first pitch
was described as easy and that he was having it. A belay was established,
everything double checked and Adrian was off.
The easy groove was a bit suspect, judging by the amount of debris cascading down
[AF: This was mostly ice cleared to find some protection], so Adrian
went off to the left onto more mixed terrain after a slight pause to reflect on
his situation, a bold pull was had and he was off again. Some time later the
welcome call of “safe” was heard. Now it was my turn, Adrian’s lead was quite
impressive as the mixed variation was no push over and felt quite technical for
what I was expecting. Once off the mixed ground a quick rising traverse led to
the belay point. Gear switched hands and it was my turn for pitch two.
The second pitch was fairly straight forward up to where it steepens and the snow
decided to impersonate candy floss. The first attempt to surmount this led to a
small snow collapse, an ice axe placement popping and a few choice words. After
a brief tussle a good(ish) placement was found and facilitated a bold high
stepping rock-over to gear and a belay. Once I was safe and Adrian’s belay
dismantled, he soon shot up the second pitch but was slowed up by the candy
Again gear passed hands, a quick plan was formed for the next section and Adrian
was off again. Things slowed a bit at the base of the chimney. The route
steepened noticeably here. Adrian made one attempt to surmount the
corner/boulder. After getting a welcome piece of gear in he then down-climbed,
took a brief rest and then had another go. Finding a magic axe placement
combined with a high stepping crampon crunching smear for the right foot and a
bit of back & footing, he was up and over. Once established in the chimney
proper Adrian decided the next bit was emanating pure menace in our general
direction and generously gifted me with the next bit of leading. Luckily the
chimney is quite wide here and would allow for two people to stand side by side.
Following Adrian’s path into the chimney was no walk-over, that move alone must
be worth at least a technical 4. Gear passed hands yet again, a couple of deep
breaths and mental Hail Mary’s and I was off. No I wasn’t, um this looked
tricky. It was lucky that Adrian was there and able to offer moral support and
dry comments in my hour of need. Composing myself I then attacked the chimney
with an assortment of axe placements, manly pulls, another high stepping
rock-over and general off-width thuggery. These assorted techniques enabled me
to break through to the next tier of the chimney. No obvious gear, best press to
where I could get gear placed. More panting, power-grunting, cursing and
off-width shuffling gained good foot holds that in turn led to a good hand hold.
A good old fashioned bit of Victorian jug and pull climbing and I was on a good
ledge. Gear went in, and I relaxed to contemplate the next bit.
I tried the direct way at first but after two snow bank collapses; I tried to
out-flank the route by going left up a rising snow bank. Mixed climbing up a
short corner followed, from this I pulled up onto a snow-bank to what appeared
to be easy ground and a block advertising a hex placement that only Carlsberg
could have dreamt up. Once I was established on the snow-bank (about 60-70º) I
realised the snow was in poor condition. However a couple of moves would bring
the block and good gear into range. Careful plunging was employed to gain height
“oh fudge cakes”, or words to that effect wafted down to Adrian [AF: Fewer
syllables were actually heard] as the snow-bank under my feet
collapsed. I was saved by plunging the ice axes in with two points of contact
per axe. I was able to re-establish my feet and try again and again and again.
Whatever I tried I just could not gain the block, it was a classic one step
forward, two steps backwards scenario. I dug some snow away looking for decent
holds but the rock was smooth underneath.
I reviewed my options: down-climbing would be problematical at best and probably
involve a controlled fall. Looking about, it seemed possible to traverse right.
Leaning out right I found a single good axe placement and good snow for a foot
hold. I gingerly tapped a step in at full stretch. I tried to rock-over, “oh
fudge cakes”, I couldn’t commit to the move. This was damn scary but strangely
exhilarating. Moving back, the snow bank shifted again, “oh fudge cakes”, even
if MR were called (yes, I did briefly think of this scenario) the snow wouldn’t
survive that long. “Oh fudge cakes”, what had I got myself into. The move right
seemed the only possible way to make progress.
Carefully reaching over and placing my right boot into the kicked in step I then
plunged the left axe low and close to my body to use as a push down hand hold.
Pushing down and reaching up with the right I found a solid hook in some frozen
turf that was welded to the rock. Ever so slowly I rocked up and over. I hardly
dared breathe as I was now a very good distance above the last piece of gear and
nothing felt 100% secure. More globules of turf and careful calculated moves led
to some steep slightly over-vertical rock and good gear, “phew.” I exhaled with
relief and could breathe again.
From this point on the climbing got progressively harder, possibly as I was
tiring or the relentlessness of the route was beginning to tell. Or then again
maybe it was just plain bonkers hard. More torquing moves, awkward gear
placements and long run outs ensued. This climb wasn’t going to be seduced into
submission without a pitched battle. By this time my clothing was soaked in
sweat from both the exertion and the adrenalin coursing through my system. The
climbing was becoming the scariest, most desperate, sustained and strength
sapping that I’ve ever been involved in; it just wouldn’t give up. But neither
would I, I was committed and focused.
Every time the promised easy ground was within reach, it evaporated before my
eyes as I pulled up, tricked by evil foreshortening again. By this point I was
fully focused and engaged with the problems presented by this route in a way I
have never been before on any other route or type of climbing. Every time I was
confronted with an impossible move, a bit of lateral thinking found a workable
solution and another piece of spartanly placed gear. My axes were used for
torquing from all angles: the point, the shovel bit and hammer all saw their
fair bit of action. At one point even the handle was employed.
On the way I passed more than one piece of in-situ gear left by persons unknown.
What tales of woe might they have? I knew that this wasn’t the correct line and
I was in a groove line heading generally up and left. I tried several times to
go right and rejoin the route proper. Each time the way was barred. But
continuing up and left I could still see some in-situ gear and crampon scratches
ahead. Someone had climbed it so it was possible.
After placing my first tri-cam and pulling up I found an in-situ nut. Forget
abstract notions like ethics I’m having that, and with wild European abandon I
clipped it. As I pulled up onto the next tier of rock, the quick-draw I had just
used clipped into my crampon! This arrested my forward progress halfway through
a high-stepping, nerve wracking hard move. A sideways shuffle and I was able to
jam the hammer of my ice-axe into an accommodating crack and hang off this
whilst I freed the crampon with the other axe. At the point of giving up the
cursed quickdraw dropped free. The rope felt tight, a quick check with belay
confirmed I had plenty left, couldn’t see where it was dragging, I wasn’t sure
what was going on, but as I pulled up it seemed to correct itself.
A couple of stepped blocks led to a small rubbish snow bank in the corner.
Hooray! Above the next set of hard moves the angle eased and juggy holds were
mere metres away. After several inventive axe placements and failed attempts I
found, what felt like, the right sequence.
A thin crack in the initial corner presented a good placement. Double stacking
the axes I pulled through to another and yet another good slot. Reaching up I
got a lateral torque with the right-hand axe. Stepping high I smeared my right
crampon into the smooth corner. Delicately I brought up my left boot and found
something small to stand on. Straightening up and reaching through with left axe
I couldn’t find anything. “Oh fudge cakes”, I said, not for the first time on
this climb. As I contemplated how to get to the jugs, I heard a gut wrenching
ping as the right axe popped out of its placement.
Time momentarily stood still, “oh fudge cakes”, “oh fudge cakes”, “oh fudge
cakes”, then I was flying out and down. I initially hit solid ground in a semi
face-plant position, heard some metallic clanking and mildly bounced into space
again. I began thinking I should have by now stopped, “oh fudge-cakes”, I really
should have stopped by now. After bouncing down several snow slopes and rock
bits spinning around, I ended up in a semi-inverted position, having enough time
think though what would happen if the gear failed and how far I would go; I came
to a grinding halt. Silence. Am I damaged? Is anything hurting? Did the gear
hold? Will it keep holding? A multitude of thoughts barraged my mind. I righted
myself and conducted a mental system check of my body. No, nothing obvious hurt.
Then a few aches and pains announced themselves. My head had cracked against
something but my helmet had taken the brunt of the impact. I could feel that
some ribs were now or were going to be bruised. “Oh fudge-cakes” I said for the
last time that day as a tentative voice came up from the belay “Are you all
right”? The in-situ nut and my first tri-cam placement had held.
Adrian: My reverie was broken rather suddenly by both ropes tumbling
down to below my feet, along with sounds of movement from up above. My thoughts
had time to catch up with events as I took in an armful of rope and locked the
belay, just as the rope that had tumbled down shot upwards with alarming
rapidity. Holding the fall was easier than I expected, but given that it had
happened over an extended period of time, I knew even then that Andy must have
bounced off the rock a few times before coming to a stop. It was only after
everything was still again, that I watched as first one, and then another item
of hardware sailed over my head. The ice axe embedded itself in the snowfield
below the chimney and what I later realised was a crampon came to a stop right
at the bottom of the snowfield. There followed an eternity of silence, which
lasted for two maybe three seconds…
“Yes” I replied, “I think so”. Looking back up to see how far I had fallen I
realised this was the biggest lob of my climbing career. My heart shrank when I
looked up and saw the amount of rope between me and the gear. I had climbed some
distance above my gear in an all out attempt to reach the easy ground. In hind
sight I had missed an obvious gear placement in my focused drive reach the
aforesaid easy ground. Reflecting on the length of rope above me I estimated the
fall was 8m to 10m in length or around the height of an average two story house.
“Do you want to carry on”? Adrian asked. I looked up and couldn’t face doing all
those moves again. I had given it my best and my best wasn’t good enough. Part
of me felt I had let Adrian down as this was now in effect a wasted day and he
wouldn’t be able to experience the moves on this pitch. “No, lower me off”, I
replied “I’ve had enough”. I hadn’t realised how exhausted I was until I
stopped. My forearms felt like jelly and sweat was running freely down my face.
A second system check revealed I had lost my left crampon and my right ice-axe.
Adrian gently lowered me down and I retrieved what gear I could as I descended
to the belay. We estimated that I had spent 60 minutes possibly longer to climb
approximately 25m – 30m. By the time I arrived at the belay I was in a post
traumatic adrenalin endorphin rush Zen like calm. Adrian wisely took charge of
setting up a lower-off and we talked each move through (more important for me,
cheers to JB for that tip). As I abseiled, off I retrieved my ice-axe from the
base off the chimney and my crampon from the bottom of the 2nd pitch. Adrian had
dryly mentioned seeing items of gear fly over head at great speed.
On reaching the bottom of the climb I reattached my crampon and waited for
Adrian. Adrian arrived and the ropes were pulled through with no further ado. To
save time I trudged off down the slope dragging the rope behind me. Wow, they
actually straightened out as planned and stayed tangle free. As we coiled the
ropes I found some damage about 1.5m from one end. It looked like one of my axes
had made a determined attempted to saw through the rope. I assume this is what
snatched my axe out of my hand during the fall.
All that was left was the long walk back to the car and a stop off at the Fort
William Morrison’s for some food and a bottle of single malt.
On latter reflection we noted the following points for future reference:
- On the approach the climb looked “lean” and in hind sight wasn’t in proper
- Snow conditions at the top of pitch two should have warned us to bail out there
- If you can’t stick to the route proper don’t go off route to out-flank it unless
absolutely sure of what is ahead.
- Mixed climbing would appear to be far harder than comparatively graded ice/snow
- Fully iced up cracks would have made this route so much easier.
- If pushing the grade (winter) research the route first.
Quotes about Douglas Bolder – Direct Route
“Note: May become very difficult in lean conditions” – Alan Kimber, Cicerone
Press Limited (2002), Winter Climbs: Ben Nevis and Glencoe
“Andy led most of it, nails for the grade”. Reference to Andy is not me!
“Attempted West Chimney variation IV, 4. Lots of powder and minimal frozen turf
made it interesting for the grade. Leader backed off near the top due to lack of
gear at crux section. Abbed off route”.
“Anyone else find this outrageously under-graded”?
And finally after consulting the mighty guide book it appears I had strayed onto
parts of Down to the Wire (V, 6) in lean conditions. What actual grade I was
climbing at is anyone’s guess?
09/03/20010 – Attempt 2 – How do a classic mountain route
After the previous day’s adventures it was decided we would take a suck it and
see approach to the next day’s activities and see if any injuries would
belatedly announce themselves to me.
I woke at some ungodly hour the following morning, trundled down to the dining
area and had a hearty breakfast. A quick check on the weather and conditions –
today would be good, tomorrow rubbish. I went back upstairs and informed Adrian
I had a plan. Adrian arrived downstairs to hear my plan which in a nut shell was
Tower Ridge, now or never, let’s do it. We reviewed our gear and considered the
route, the load was lightened and we took Adrian’s 50m ropes. We started late
but made a lot of time up on the walk-in and were at the base of the climb
sometime between 10:00hrs and 10:30hrs.
A quick solo up Douglas Gap East Gully (I) and we were at the base of the
“awkward” chimney. Still a bit shaky from the previous day I almost backed out
of leading it but Adrian talked me round and it was felt best to get it out of
my system. The chimney succumbed fairly quickly after I realised there was a
nice chunky hand hold to be had out left and got stuck in with some hefty boot
Adrian soon joined me at the belay and we decided to move together with Adrian
in the lead. Up the ridge we went, taking the first steepening on its right
flank. This started with a small ice pitch and thereafter was consolidated snow.
We stormed up this, stopping at the first levelling for a quick break and photo
call. I probably ate something; I usually do given the slightest opportunity. I
took the lead again taking The Little Tower on its left flank which included a
small icy pitch at a slightly steeper section. At a small levelling I found some
good gear and set a belay up, as it was not obvious what was ahead. Adrian led
off and was soon near the base of The Great Tower.
Before I set off, a guided party caught-up to us. The guide asked if he could
pass us. I foolishly agreed as I wanted to stop for a sandwich anyway. Off I set
soon joining Adrian on a nice level area and tucked in. Adrian asked a good
question when I told him what I had agreed too, “why”? I had no good answer
other than I did not want another team hanging off our coat tails. After a
longer than expected wait disaster struck as a “fast” party barged through and
took up position at the Eastern Traverse belay. “Oh fudge cake”, or words to
that effect I thought. Then the guide came bundling through and climbed past the
“fast” party who hadn’t managed to start the Eastern Traverse yet.
[AF: We later realised that these parties had sneaked up on us by
eliminating the Douglas Gap via the eastern slopes which are striaghtforward in
the conditions of the day. That’s perfectly fine, but it fooled us into thinking
they were moving very fast.]
|About to follow Andy into the unknown on the Eastern Traverse
By this time my patience was wearing thin, with Andy out of sight and stuck for ages
behind a slow party struggling to get up the Great Tower.
Andy remained commendably sanguine throughout all the long waits. [AF]
Prior to this we had been on target for a six hour ascent time despite taking it
easy and stopping for minor photo shoots… Oh hum, after a protracted wait the
“fast” party cleared the Eastern Traverse. Game on again. Adrian blasted up to
the Eastern Traverse’s starting point and established a belay. I led round the
Eastern Traverse and soon caught up to Team Speedy at the exit chimney. I
quickly belayed Adrian up after Team Light Speed had cleared the area. Gear was
exchanged and Adrian led out of the exit chimney which included a very
committing pull on a single axe placement; with the required commitment and
skill Adrian pulled up and off he went. When I followed the stiff pull still
felt committing as a second. Good lead Adrian.
After joining Adrian at the belay my heart sank, Speedy Gonzales and co were
huddled together in Tower Gap, by the looks of it they were having a moment or
maybe an hour! Getting impatient I sauntered down to Tower Gap just as the
leader got the nerve to exit the gap. At last the leader set his belay up and
the second then spent about 30 minutes making an easy bit of climbing look like
a grade VII epic. Getting even more impatient, I loudly mumbled “for fudge cakes
sake how hard can it be” or words to that effect. In the end I climbed down in
to the gap to give a hint to the Frank Spencer of the winter climbing world. As
I set our belay up dithering second was still in the Gap, scratching his way to
sanctuary. In the end he managed his escape. God only knows how.
Adrian was soon in the gap and we again switched gear putting Adrian in the lead
for the exit, which he quickly and competently dispatched. He swarmed up the
slope to the final levelling and belayed me up to join him. Then we moved
together up the final rise to summit at almost 18:00hrs exactly. Right on queue
the clouds descended and we had to navigate off the plateau the traditional way.
Not bad as I had budgeted up to 10 hours for an ascent and it had taken us 7 ½
to 8 hours to do.
Adrian worked out a bearing and a guesstimate pacing to get us onto the exit
bearing from our position and, wow, within a pace or two we landed bang on top
of one of the summit cairns, from here navigation was quite straight forward. We
decided to walk straight to the youth hostel; Norman would give Adrian a lift
back to car park the following morning to collect his car.
We arrived back to the hostel at about 21:15hrs. Norman’s friend Gill had cooked
a stir fry for us which down rather well with some single malt and red wine.
I will never let a party pass me again on a winter route, if they get held up
tough luck. They have a few options: get fitter; get up earlier to beat me to
the route or pick another route altogether. Letting the group through added an
extra two hours to our summit time.
However, on a brighter note the route was truly epic on an Alpine scale. We had
great conditions, weather, views and we climbed well together. This was one of,
if not the, best climbing experiences I’ve had. Also this was the first “big”
winter/Alpine style routes either of us had done without a guide, so the sense
of achievement was immense. This day will live us with for a long time.
Bring that glass of single malt on and a goodly portion of haggis, neeps and
tatties from The Clachaig Inn if you get down in time, which unfortunately we
|Looking across Observatory gully to where the big boys play.
Probably it’s the Orion Face where a party are nearing the top.
|Mountaineering Council of Scotland
Ben Nevis Navigation:
Sunrise – Sunset
11h 10m 07s
11h 14m 46s
11h 19m 25s
11h 24m 04s
11h 28m 43s
11h 33m 23s
11h 38m 03s
Richardson. S., Hudson. M., (2002), Ben Nevis – Rock & Ice Climbs,
Scottish Mountaineering trust.
Nesbet. A., Anderson. R., (2006), Scottish Winter Climbs, Scottish
O.S. 1:50,000 Sheet: 41
O.S. 1:25,000 Explorer: 392
Harvey’s Superwalker: Ben Nevis
Harvey Ben Nevis Summit: 1:12,500 scale (useful for showing the
Sources and recommended reading:
Wilson. K., (2007), Classic Rock, Batan Wicks, London.
Gresham. N., Parnell. I., (2009), Winter Climbing, Rockfax
Barton. B., Wright. B., (2000), A Chance in a Million – Scottish
Avalanches, Scottish Mountaineering trust.
Daffern, T., (2002), Avalanche Safety, Batan Wicks, London.
Twight. M., Martin. H., (1999), Extreme Alpinism, Climbing Light Fast &
High, The Mountaineers, Seattle.