Friday, 5.30pm, sometime near the end of winter. Fort William.
The dark and wet street bustled with people wrapped tight against the cold and wind. Grit thrown across the cobbles crunched under foot. The warm glow from shop windows like a shaft of sun lit the cobbles. It lit the dog piss pyramids of snow the grit had failed to melt. Loud, inviting music emanated from the pub opposite the climbing shop. Entering the shop, leaving behind the cold Fort William high street, the climber approached the gaunt-stern looking chap standing behind the counter.
“Hi, do you know what the conditions are like on The Ben?” The climber asked, the same as a million hopefuls before no-doubt.
“Aye I do, I wouldn’t bother!”
“Oh, well you see, I’ve just come from Stob Coire Nan Lochan where I talked to a group of climbers who are staying in the Alex Macintyre Hut. I thought I would go and meet one of their friends and see if he wants to climb tomorrow. I believe he’s out soloing The Orion Direct today.”
The man shuffled.
“You have eh? Well, The Orion Face is in terrible condition. If I were you, I would look for a new partner!”
The winter had been one to rave about, and this; my final trip to Scotland was shaping up to be a contender for the best week ever. Smith’s Gully, The South Pipes, Vanishing Gully, Boomer’s Requiem. Two with a partner, two without. There was one problem though, (isn’t there always): for the second year of regular-nightmare journeys north and sleep deprivation, had found me without the route I longed, The Orion Direct.
Two years had passed since I had begun one of the most frustrating pastimes ever, Scottish winter climbing. And every day since beginning, I craved to get to grips with Marshall and Smith’s classic. The grandeur and splendour of the Orion Face draws the eye, it caused pangs of longing. The drip, drip, drip of the Highland water torture. This feeling had begun before I had even set foot on the approach bogs of The Ben because of that bloody book, Cold Climbs, it had intravenously supplied me with my armchair fix. So here I was, two years in, and devoid of the route that I knew, would lead to bigger, greater, grander things across the Channel.
Earlier in the week topping out after climbing the fantastic Vanishing Gully, I stood, balancing on the crest of Tower Ridge staring at The Orion Face. Two specks could be seen slowly inching their way. The climbers were lost to a world of the white. I envied their position, the solitude, their escape. I vowed to emulate it later in the week.
After a day of bad weather, I could wait no more. This was my last opportunity of the winter to climb The Orion; it was slipping away. I couldn’t contemplate the long drive south without the route in the bag. Seven hours of driving is a long time of flagellation.
The North face of Ben Nevis in Spring. Photo by Usidean Hawthorn.
Sneaking from the hut it feels like the dead of night. Driving through The Fort, racing along the golf course, slithering up the steep and muddy bank, squelching through the bog and battling the frozen moon-like surface of windblown, rock strewn plane beneath The C.I.C. Hut, I now stand alone in the dark. Invisible. Cold rivulets of perspiration run down my back. I cower behind the hut battling the wind, fighting to add extra layers of clothing. Zips are zipped, fleece wrapped, Gore-tex pulled, and throughout the whole of this torture, fingers have to be repeatedly warmed and re-warmed. Arms swung, toes curled.
An hour later the huge Orion Face thrusts from the snow cone. A single track zigzagging its way up the slope stops at my feet. Over the previous days of bad weather, the fresh snow has hidden all trace of the hoards. Heavy breathing from kicking fresh tracks billows from my mouth. Another cunning plan turns to folly. Ease of passage was to take the form of following the steps of others. Knowing others had gone before eases the head of the solo climber. Intricate and complex route finding was to be brushed aside. Steps of the climbers I had watched earlier in the week had gone. Sleep deprived; eyes struggled to pick the line. I hoped the fresh layer of snow had time to consolidate.
Stepping from the snow cone, I left behind thoughts and feelings other than those of now. The door opened on an ice encrusted, white world of vertical. Each kick was one of wonder and worry. I had no rope for escape, no harness and no beta other than the guidebook description.
One of the finest climbs in Scotland, with all the atmosphere of a major alpine face. Start left of Zero Gully where a broad ledge leads to the foot of a prominent chimney line leading up toward The Basin. Climb the chimney for two long pitches.
Some patches of ice were good and the occasional placement solid, giving respite from the steep and insecure climbing that shockingly appeared to be the norm. Dribbles of ice in the corner of the chimney worked, though keeping momentum was difficult as I hunted beneath the fresh layer of powder. Toes and front-points scrabbled when they broke through the fragile skin that was stuck to the black rock, but bridging the chimney gave my crampons purchase. The night had lost its battle with the rising of the weak winter sun and lit my position. I bridged across the chimney and savoured the situation of space, light and loneliness.
Occasional shallow steps could be seen where the chimney was at its steepest. The new snow had failed to stick and I followed them feeling relieved I was on the correct line. I weaved from left to right crossing rib and buttress. I found pitons driven into turf encrusted cracks. Rusty and flaking, the pegs a peek into the past, Frayed and rotten cord was threaded through the holes in the head of the odd blade or angle. The way above always looked difficult, but once I committed to the series of moves, I found there was usually a hidden corner or fortunately a patch of solid snow. Like a speck of dust in the centre of a giant hand, I crawled, clinging to my lifeline.
Route finding was the key to this, and eventually I reached The Basin, a large patch of snow clearly visible from below. Plunging axe, arm, foot and thigh, deep into fresh powder, I crossed the Basin moving from left to right. A rising traverse through the unconsolidated snow found me now, hundreds of feet up. The C.I.C. Hut looked like a model building made of plastic. Strong winds caused clouds of snow to swirl, twisting and thrashing the stone that made up the hut’s outer walls. Red gas cylinders lay in a heap behind the hut. The scene was one of desolation. Not a soul. I imagined I could hear the blades of the turbine fixed to the roof of the hut buzzing. Momentarily, the hut disappeared in a bank of cloud.
Kicking a ledge big enough to stand without the worry of overbalancing, I remove the guidebook from the pocket of my jacket.
Move up and right across snow to the foot of the second slab rib. Descend a little, move around the right side of the rib, then climb up to and across a steep icy wall on the right (crux).
I moved down a little until beneath a steep slab. The only line of weakness was a thin corner crack on the right of the slab. There appeared to be no footholds and it looked really difficult. This was definitely a steep icy wall but grade 5? I started to climb, not confident at all, front points balanced on small edges of rock, but after a few moves, I couldn’t commit. Feet sketched. I reversed and questioned myself, and unable to accept failure without at least another go, launched again, but I could only manage a couple of moves higher, before once again reversing. There had to be another way? Reading the guidebook again, I started to wonder if I had descended enough and moved right enough.
Hugging the base of a rib of rock, I eased around to the right and gasped with relief. The wall above, a steep rocky wall with blobs of ice, looked more amenable than anything I had seen before and it led to a snow patch beneath the final tower. I knew I could climb it: I’d join the blobs of ice between insecure mixed-moves.
Stood on the snow patch having now climbed the ‘crux’ wall, the final tower looked down, it was steeper than anything before. Just beneath the summit ridge, the snow and ice build-up was less than below. The wall to the right looked too steep. Leaning into the snow I pulled out the guidebook.
Follow left trending snow-ice grooves to the snow slope beneath the final tower. This can either be climbed directly on steep ice or turned by following a groove and chimney line on the left to reach the plateau at the top of North-East Buttress.
I climbed to the top of the snow slope until beneath the tower. Leaning back, I attempted to read the formations – deep chimneys, runnels and corners, there had to be an exit. A fine mist of snow gusted across the face. Soft like flour, the powder clung to all it touched. Weakness was masked. Search as I might, I couldn’t decide the best way. The usual exit was hidden, and having no rope would leave me stuck should the chimney be too difficult for me to climb. Often when soloing the described way is not always the easiest. Sometimes it’s better to choose a more difficult, but obvious line; at least you will know what is to come and can mentally prepare. This was one of those occasions, and above, I could see a deep chimney, blocked by an overhanging chock-stone, leading to a near vertical open-book corner. I moved up, still undecided. A faint line of steps leading up into the chimney and disappearing convinced me it must be right.
The walls closed around. Steep. Suffocating. Intimidating. The weight on my shoulders became heavy although it was not from the empty rucksack. Rearing, blocking the way, a runnel of ice, thin and delicate, poured from above the large boulder blocking the chimney. Wedging into the constricted cave beneath the boulder, I gained a purchase on the right wall and heaved. Back and footing, bridging, pressing, straining, fighting, I made height until level with the top of the boulder. Although still in the confines of the chimney the void was sickening. ‘Come on for Christ sake, concentrate.’
The voice in my head screamed in an attempt to convince my flagging arms and legs that all was in control. Heaving from a placement in the corner above the chock, scratching, scraping, sweating, gasping, I wedged myself into a dark corner. I knew there was now only one direction to get off this hill. Taking a breather on top of the boulder gave the first opportunity to look above. A runnel of snow led to the open-book corner I had spotted from below. In the crease of the corner, a broken slither of ice, like a trickle of dirty brook water, ran. But I needed a river! Tufts of moss, green-islands, sporadic and weak poked from the brook. Steps were visible leading to a spike beneath the corner. The sling draped around the spike had a shiny, locking karabiner hanging from it, and in an instant, I knew my boat had sprung a leak. “BASTARDS!” I couldn’t believe it? They had lured me onto this icy-island, then having the equipment for escape, sailed away. If I couldn’t climb the corner I would be marooned.
Two, three, four moves into the corner, I knew I was completely committed. Waves of shimmering ice ran over each crest, fold, rib and corner before crashing into the beach of snow hundreds of feet below, the whole of the Orion face was beneath. This was more than my mind wanted to acknowledge. For once the exposure and the thrill of pushing myself was sickening.
The walls either side of the corner were smooth, only the smallest of edges to place crampon front points. This was a small Cenotaph Corner, but without the crack where the walls met. It wasn’t vertical like Cenotaph Corner though, because if it had of been, I would have opted for the long wait huddled at the base. It was just off vertical and had tricked me into believing I could balance and rest. I longed for an opening to slide a pick and layback from but there was none. The only purchase was from millimetre pick placements into the tufts of frozen moss. These tufts became my islands of security amid the blank sea either side.
Inch, by slow, careful, tenuous inch. Time became irrelevant. Above, small edges to stand or thicker patches of moss for a pick, were aimed. And between these, insecure moves expecting my feet to shoot, axe-picks to slip, and my body cartwheel the length of the face. Reaching each small haven of safety was a relief. Time to breath, time to contemplate, time to try and relieve the tension before studying the next section and attempting to work a sequence, before building the courage to committing to it.
My stomach churned. My head was in turmoil. Voices screamed. Time stood still. My life now depended on frozen moss. Halfway. A ledge and a clump of moss deep enough for the whole blade of one axe gave security for a time. I needed the rest, but the fear of becoming attached to my haven of safety was frightening, so I continued. The move to begin the second half was as difficult as any below, and I had made the mistake once again of looking down. Now, the whole process of psyching up and moving, had to be gone through again.
Nervously I pushed the front points of my left boot onto a sloping edge at hip height and hooked one tooth of my right tool into moss at arm’s length. Slowly, weighting the left foot and laybacking from the right placement, straining, taught, terrified, I lifted the right foot an inch to test both foot and pick placements. They held so I moved. There was no time for contemplation. I moved again and again, and finally, finally the end was in reach. I pulled from the top of the corner glad to be on my own. I would have scared anyone nearby. A yell of release, a shout of life, a scream for the living… then turning right, I started towards the summit of Ben Nevis.
Ben Nevis in Spring. Photo by Uisdean Hawthorn.
Friday: 7.30pm, Alex MacIntyre Memorial Hut, North Ballachulish.
A knock. The heavy wooden door separating the entrance corridor and the living room inched open. Old, paint-chipped, the door opened wide enough to allow the head belonging to a man I had never met appear.
“Are you Nick?” he asked.
“Yes I am.” I answered, perturbed that he knew my name.
“Oh, that’s good, I thought you might be dead.” Said a little too chipper for my liking.
The door opened wider now allowing the warm air to escape into the cold corridor.
“I met some of your friends earlier on, they said you might want to climb tomorrow?” He obviously hadn’t looked close enough, because if he had, he would have noticed the thousand-mile stare and the aura emanating from me that was possibly similar to that of a soldier who had been operating behind enemy lines.