The last couple of days have been spent climbing ice on Ben Nevis. The forecast for Thursday was, well, mixed to say the least. The met office said 50mph – 100mph winds. MWIS was more optermistic with only 35mph – 50mph predicted. The avalanche risk was considerable (north through east) I was again without Jen as a partner so had been looking for something to do. Luckily for me at least Lou Beetlestone was also without her partner Karl, who’d gone back to North Wales for some work.
Lou, for those that don’t know is a very capable winter climber and top quality outdoor instructor. To add to this she is also a very nice person so it was great to be going onto the Ben with such a competent person. We had decided we’d just be happy to walk in and ‘have a look’ in case it was good. We could always head back down should the weather be more on the worse end of the forecast than the better.
Unbeknown to me it had started snowing quite heavily at this point. I was totally absorbed in the climbing and between all my layers and goggles fogging up it’s surprising what you can miss.
When we reached the CIC hut at the foot of the North Face it was even better than we’d expected. The rain and high freezing level had stripped snow from the rocks but there was still ice in the gulleys and plenty of snow about. In fact you could see where the water had washed over it like tide marks on the beach. To add to this everything was getting more solid and frozen in front of us. We opted for Italian Right Hand route on the west side of Tower Ridge. It was possible to get to the bottom of this without having to expose ourselves to high avalanche risk and two pitches of steep ice would be much nicer than scratching around on dry rock.
Reaching the base of the route involved an exposed traverse and on arriving there we saw a party in front of us just finishing the second pitch (each rope length travelled is referred to as a pitch). Lou was happy to let me have the crux second pitch so she quickly donned the rack and set off. It wasn’t long before I was able to follow. The ice was still solidifying so it was a damp experience. As I arrived at the belay the party in front of us abseiled past, shouting that the route was damp but amazing. Indeed we could see a micro stream running down the first groove and water dripping off the chandelier of icicles above. Feeling a mixture of perturbed and excited I set off as soon as the party in front had gone past. A screw in just after the belay and I was feeling better. I could bridge up the groove in front, avoiding the stream of water, and though sometimes it took a couple of swings the axes were biting nicely into the ice. It wasn’t long before I made it up below a steepening section where you could head left.
Unbeknown to me it had started snowing quite heavily at this point. I was totally absorbed in the climbing and between all my layers and goggles fogging up it’s surprising what you can miss. I moved left into the next groove system that would take us past the steepening. At that point I also moved my goggles off my face as the misting up was getting so bad I found it hard to see the axe and crampon placements I needed to make. Whoosh, a bit of spindrift (collection of loose air blown snow) washes over me. Looking at my feet I avoid the worst of it. A couple more moves and the sound of more tiny particles of snow rushes past, this time it builds. I wait looking down. The pressure of the snow slowly builds up on me. Ten more seconds I think, then I should move to get some of this off me so it doesn’t pluck me from the climb. The seconds pass. I make a blind swing my axe and hear a good placement sink in. I move up and bit then realise water is running down into my arm from my axe. Drat, it must be in a stream. The spin drift passes and I can move again. Quickly I set off up to the belay that’s coming into sight. In situ and with a mallion – fantastic. Pretty soon I’ve attached myself and I try to shout to Lou but no sound utters from my lips however, as I’m having to clench my teeth against the hot-aches spreading through the fingers of my damp hand as it warms. Soon it’s all over almost as quickly as it began. I shout to Lou and before long we’re on our way back down.
Walking down and talking about plans for tomorrow we spot the impressive Hadrian’s Wall Direct looking fat and inviting higher up on the Ben. Back tomorrow for more we decided, assuming Jen was also keen.
Jen obviously was obviously keen but slightly nervous about how difficult it would be. These nerves manifested themselves further when at the CIC hut the following day Lou commented “Ollie looks excited but you look terrified”. Between us we decided to head on regardless, after all we could choose another route in the valley if it seemed too difficult once we were at, or nearer, to the bottom. Approaching further I could hear Jen telling herself “it actually doesn’t look that bad” and “I can climb it.” – confidence restored. Unfortunately, as we drew nearer we could also see two teams on the climb and four more people at the bottom of it! Crowds wasn’t something we’d considered. Looking around for another equally historic and uncrowded classic we settled on Point Five.
Point Five is a climb I’d been looking to do for more than a decade. It’s a beautifully slender line of ice that runs straight from the summit of the mountain down the flanks of Observatory Ridge. First climbed over four days and with its first repeat happening during the legendary Smith and Marshall week there’s so much history that can be written about this climb. It starts with three long hard pitches of near vertical ice, then has 240m of still steep snow/ice to the summit. At its narrowest it’s about two meters wide. The climb up this works its way up entertaining grooves and chimney features, as well as the compulsory steep bulges.
Lou set off up the first pitch. Placing screws regularly and outflanking the main steepening on the left. She was soon set up at the belay and gave us the thumbs up. I could hardly contain my excitement. Just waiting long enough that Jen wouldn’t hit me if she fell of on rope stretch. The ice axes were swinging beautifully into the now perfect ice. None of the gushing water from yesterday and not brittle, like ice can be after a sudden freeze. This was the perfect plasticine ice you look for as a climber. A world of first time axe placements and confidence inspiring deeply buried picks.
Next it was my turn. My heart was beating deeply – this would be the hardest pure ice pitch I’d been on. It started with a corner, thin ice on the rock wall to the left certainly not deep enough for screws but the ice to the right was deep and bulging. I placed and early screw to protect the belay then committed to the corner. Finding a bridged rest I contemplated placing a screw but opted to continue further on to easier ground. This lasted for a bit, then a second steepening came, this time narrow and chimney like, another screw and I was working my way up this. Inching my feet higher and higher until my axes could reach over onto the easier ground. From there it was just a case of step up, lock my arm, and go again. Before I knew it I was at the belay and it was time to bring Jen and Lou up.
Lou set off for the final hard pitch with Jen plying me with food – a novel and welcome experience on a winter route belay. Lou again made easy work of the pitch. Disappearing from sight over the final bulge and the ropes becoming tight. We set off. The climbing was again absorbing with the final difficulty before the belay being as hard as anything on the previous two pitches.
From there it got less difficult, but still tiring on the calves as the hard ice was unrelenting. Gear got less reliable as well, with the ice more air-rated, but most rock still buried deeply. We ran long pitches on the 60m ropes we were carrying to get up it as fast as possible aware that it would be nice to be down as far as the bottom of the Red Burn before dark. I lucked out near the top with Lou leading the cornice pitch (luckily this wasn’t too bad as far as cornices go). Pulling over the top was a great feeling. All those years walking past and reading about the history, finally I’d climbed Point Five.