Thursday 9th March 2017
Weather/Conditions: Gentle conditions all day. Cloudy in the morning and breaking through lunchtime and the afternoon. Some spectacular conditions high up when the cloud sunk below us, drifting over the Great Tower. Some half-sun conditions on the summit plateau, then back down under overcast skies to the car.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 11.4km / 1100m / 10h 10m
Tom and I walked in on an overcast morning. It wasn't especially cold, the weather essentially benign. The path was dry and the air temperate on the walk into the CIC. On reaching the snowline, it was first slushy but soon became crisp in the direction of Tower Ridge.
I somehow feel I'm getting to know the cliffs of Nevis. I feel like I came to them late; only coming to climb on them when I first started winter climbing last season. Tom and I continued past the CIC and up to the Douglas Boulder.
Tucked in under the boulder, and by a great tounge of avalanche debris out of Observatory Gully, we emptied rucksacks and got ready. Above, another team were just climbing out of the Douglas Gap and we were quite happy to let them get ahead. Ready to go, we plodded up snow slopes to the Douglas Gap.
Tower Ridge is phenomenal terrain in that it asks for proficiency in a number of rope techniques. If one of these are lacking you will lose time, or introduce unnecessary risk, whether it's in moving together, belay selection, knowing when to pitch or managing slack rope. One of the great pleasures of this day was to find an array of techniques employed, steering the best course through this terrain. If anything I found it easier - and more enjoyable - than when I climbed it last summer. In that instance, we'd climbed it when the rock was wet with the Great Tower shrouded in mist. It was a good day by all means, but here in winter, the snow was frozen and solid, and protecting ourselves using the rope asked for continual creative thinking.
People describe Tower Ridge as having the Little Tower and the Great Tower, described as two entities. The Great Tower really is a dramatic feature, but the Little Tower is nothing more than a steepening on the ridge. However, what no one has mentioned is there is a third, intermediate steepening and this confused me the first time I did Tower Ridge. This is located between the two towers, and gave two pitches of climbing. A short amount of moving together beyond brought us to the foot of the Great Tower.
Tom got me on belay, and I headed out along the Eastern Traverse. Sure, it was a walk today, by my god, it's a spectacular place. Even in this lean snowfall, the passageway was blocked so you go around the outside, using a couple of hooks on the way. I should have taken a belay here, but suffered in rope drag to make the next belay another ten or so metres further on.
The other thing about today was that it was a well-used route. We were one of quite a number of parties, mostly guided. Perhaps they all number crunched the reports and came to the same conclusion as us? Unsurprisingly, all tended to bunch together on the jams, but we had time on our side and had no real hold ups. The social atmosphere was quite enjoyable and refreshing.
By the time I left our belay stance on the side of the Great Tower, we were one of three teams occupying it. I followed Tom up some mixed terrain leading to it's crest. Tom led off again, on the arete to Tower Gap, setting a belay around a boulder on the lip. Then it was my turn to tiptoe across the snowed-up arete, pass Tom, lower into the Gap (French free ;-) ) and set a belay up on the other side. The mist crept in again, obscuring views and bringing the world back to tones of grey. Tower Gap is a stunning place, but in some ways that kind of exposure doesn't 'get me' anymore.
Tom headed onto the easy snows above and I followed afterward. Setting up one more belay, I ploughed up snow slopes to emerge at the plateau just shy of six hours after starting out form the Douglas Gap. I slung a boulder and brought Tom up. It's a perfect time for the mist to sink, break and get blown across the Great Tower. Blue skies were above, the western horizon a wall of mountains. We were at the top of Tower Ridge. Thrills of exposure don't reach deep into me, but this does. To climb Tower Ridge well, to stand at 4000 feet with the rest of the Lochaber mountains shrunk, to watch the cloud below me shred itself on the Great Tower. Connectivity. It was a grand moment.
We walked to the summit of Nevis, passing a French pair on the way who had come up Observatory Ridge. They been staying at the CIC Hut and in under a week had knocked off a fair volume of the mountain's principle ridges and routes.
We sat taking a break on the summit in a thin mist through which the sun gently filtered. The snow level is way down this year; last time Tom and I were here, the snow was piled up to the top of the trig point. Today, it wasn't remotely close. It's been a lean winter for sure.
When the time came to descend, getting across the plateau was easy; a well-stamped trail of footprints taking us down to the zigzags. Under the flank of Carn Dearg, we followed the CIC path back to where it turns under the north face, then struck across moorland to the CIC approach path. I think this is a more forigiving way down than the moorland romp that many do - just because there's a half-completed path to the lochan, surely doesn't mean that it's the best way back?
Climbing Tower Ridge gives me an enormous appetite for winter climbing on Ben Nevis. It's the first Nevis route I've done I've felt pure enjoyment all the way, having risen above the sensation of uncertainty about winter climbing. Therein lies a joy of climbing; when you get your systems worked out, you are then given the power to use them, a lot of terrain opens up to you. The simple act of Tower Ridge in winter is joy enough to justify it all.
(0.00) 7.45am North Face parking (top)
(1.45) 9.30am Starting Tower Ridge (out of gully gap)
(7.35) 3.20pm Top of Tower Ridge
(8.00) 3.45pm Ben Nevis
(8.37) 4.22pm Ben Nevis (left summit)
(10.10) 5.55pm North Face parking (top)