For many years myself and JP had discussed climbing Tower Ridge on the north face of Ben Nevis. Rightly deemed a classic it fell between proper rock climbing and a good hard scramble (or so we were told) and therefore we were capable of doing it. We were joined by JP’s wife Ella and Barry, the original party of 8 dropping like flies, probably sensibly.
Tower Ridge is deemed a ‘difficult’ by the rock climbing community which means ‘easy’ to those more capable and experienced than ourselves. However our rock climbing experience has essentially been limited to severe scrambling or the odd go in student days so we hired a couple of guides Bruce and Guy from West Coast Mountain Guides to help us along the way. They were excellent and even managed to save us 250 metres of climbing by breaking through the bottom gate under the north face and driving the car to the higher car park (money well spent).
The walk in to the CIC hut was dominated by the increasingly dramatic views of the North face. Tower Ridge itself emerged from the shadows and presented a daunting and consistently steep profile, seconded only by the impossibly steep North East Buttress. Tower Ridge is the longest single climb in Britain and looked from below exactly that. A few years back we had tackled Pinnacle Ridge on Skye but clearly this was another beast entirely.
The CIC (Charles Inglis Clarke) hut is only a few hundred metres from the foot of Tower Ridge so we roped up and headed on to the slopes. The thing that struck me about the climb of Tower Ridge is how it leads you in gently and then gradually increases in difficulty making any descent nigh on impossible. The rock was dry and the climbing really enjoyable as we avoided the Douglas Boulder. However it was scrambling at my limit, hands, fingers and feet constantly searching for the best hold.
Guy was leading myself and Barry and was repeatedly telling us to shorten our stride, use our feet more and not to hug the rock, good advice but difficult to take as the space opened up dramatically below us. A flat 15 foot slab of rock presented me with my most difficult challenge under the Little Chimney. I just could not get my toes in to the hold with the strength needed to pull up and after a few futile attempts was helped by Guy belaying from above. I think I would still be there now!
From then on the drops became more daunting but the holds were good and aside from one very undignified slither along my belly (fortunately out of Guy’s viewing) had no serious problems. Having said that a slip on one of the narrow ledges when we were not belayed would have been serious but really that would have been careless. One of the major differences between climbers (such as Bruce and Guy) and fell walkers (like myself) is that climbing totally focusses the mind, blotting out all other thoughts whilst striding along the fells opens the mind in all directions. Safe to say Tower Ridge was focussing mine.
The Great Tower is now bypassed to the East and exits under a fallen boulder, it is wet and greasy under the boulder and requires the body to be contorted in to all types of unnatural positions to exit back on to the ridge. Fun though.
The final challenge is possibly the greatest and that is Tower Gap; the ridge leading to the 4 metre drop offers the most exposed part of the climb. We were made to wait on the ridge whilst JP and Ella were helped in to the abyss at the foot of the gap. It is a spectacular situation (in my mind only comparable for exposure as the Inn Pin on Skye), enlivened by people on the summit having a grandstand view of all your trials and tribulations. The gap itself is awkward to get in to with a quick shuffle of feet needed on the only foot hold. I asked Guy if he had ever leapt across the gap (about 1 metre) and he said yes in his younger days but he would not do it now (he must be all of 25).
From Tower Gap it is a simple scramble to the summit of Ben Nevis, still at the end of May covered with huge cornices. It does however make you feel good to emerge on the the summit plateau kitted with rope, helmets, harnesses and have people ask you where you have come from, knowing they have just slogged a 1,000 plus metres up one of the most tedious paths in Britain. The summit was busy but the views superb, we were very fortunatewith the weather, clear and wind free is not something usually associated with the Ben. In order to get some good views of the face we had just conquered we headed down the Carn Mor Dearg arete.
Thanks to Ella for the photos, Guy and Bruce for the climb and the mountain itself for providing such a great day. The satisfaction is immense, there is certainly nowhere as dramatic on the British Mainland.
Enjoy your walking
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Thanks so much for the great pics and commentary! Have just contacted WCMG to give myself a 64th birthday treat on Tower Ridge later this year. Am excited and scared to death in equal measures!!
If you are contemplating something just a little bit more serious then this is brilliant. Couldn’t recommend it more highly as a day out.
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