Words and photos by Uisdean Hawthorn
I was sat in a classroom in Inverness college paying the lecturer, Alex, only a slight bit of attention, my focus on my phone, and the weather forecast. In fairness to myself, Alex didn't put much effort into making the lesson interesting. The theory of the R values of different insulations was apparently just as boring to him as it was to the small class of carpenters slouched in front of him. The forecast for Ben Nevis showed two days of sun, cold, and no wind; a first for the season. I had been watching the higher areas on the north face of Ben Nevis get more and more plastered with snow all winter. With the relentless winds and the high avalanche risk no one had done much up there all year. It was Monday, March 10th (my 21st birthday) and after a few days of thawing, the freezing level was dropping and the weather turning fair. I love springtime on Ben Nevis: good ice, long days, and nice weather. Unfortunately, I had a problem: I was meant to be in college for the rest of the week. “Well I don't have a climbing partner anyway so no point thinking about it” I thought. Five minutes later my phone flashed, a message from Iain Small: “All of a sudden the weather looks really good for the next two days, would you be interested in going to the Ben?”
I wasn't finding college particularly challenging or engaging; I could catch up. My lecturer didn't dislike me as much as he disliked some of my peers so if he found out, surely it wouldn't be too bad? I had made my decision.
I had kept quiet about it being my birthday so I managed to get to bed early and avoid being dragged to the high street for a terrible night out in Inverness.
At 4 am the stars and moon lit the sky, my headlights flashed and wheels screeched around the corners of Loch Ness as I made my way towards the North Face car park. It was already daylight and the sky cloudless when I met Iain in the carpark. Our trainers cracked on the frozen gravel of the path and the cold air burned our throats. On our way to the CIC hut the Minus Face came into view and we both stopped in awe: it was plastered. There was ice everywhere. “I never even imagined it could get that icy!” Iain said. We carried on walking as the first rays of sun began to light up the east-facing aspects of the cliff.
After several cups of tea and a catch up with a few friendly faces in the CIC hut, we changed into our boots and headed out towards the Minus Face. Our breaths steamed as we crunched our way over the crisp snow. We stared up in amazement at all the ice on the Minus Face, unable to decide what to climb. We could see at least three possible new routes to try. Iain was keen to try a line just right of Minus One Gully which followed a line of steep ramps and shallow corners. It looked great. Happily chatting away we started moving up towards the base.
There were other teams heading in the same direction as us towards the classics of Orion and The Minus Gullies, all jostling for position and eyeing each other up. Iain and I relaxed and enjoyed the fact that we didn't have to worry about other people, in the knowledge that no one else would be thinking of climbing what we were headed for.
We geared up and Iain started swinging his ice axes and placing his feet as he led the first pitch. To this day I've still never seen anyone climb thin ice as well as Iain, he just seems to float upwards whilst excreting no energy. Iain disappeared out of sight, the rope snaking through my belay plate. The rope kept moving quickly, my unusually warm hands feeding out the rope. Once seconding, my picks sank easily into the plastic ice allowing for wonderfully smooth climbing. Something felt wrong, it was all just too pleasant. Halfway up the pitch it clicked-there was no wind!
After a short conversation at the belay about the quality of the ice and how warm we felt I took the rack and continued upwards. More perfect ice up a corner until a steep pull to mount an overlap onto another ramp system; the ice on the ramp system continued with outstanding quality. My hand spun as the ice screw bit into the ice, however it stopped against the rock a bit sooner than I had hoped. I looked at my ropes hanging beneath me with no gear in sight. “The climbing isn't hard, better to just clip the half placed ice screw and keep going” I thought. Soon I was 20m further up where I had kicked a small stance and my adze chopped away at a crack trying to find a belay. After 10 minutes of excavating I discovered a good hex, hit it hard into place, and belayed on it. I didn't even bother looking for another piece; it was one of the best bit of gear I had ever seen on this part of The Ben. Belays can sometimes be very poor on the surrounding routes so this one hex felt like a blessing. Iain led another long pitch of steep thin ice, but after this the ice got thicker and the angle eased off. In what felt like no time we were quickly moving up the north-east buttress and onto the summit plateau and into the sunshine. I took my gloves off to let my hands warm in the sun as we sat down casually sorting the gear, enjoying the peacefulness. “That was much better than being in college” I said to Iain as we packed up and wandered back to the CIC hut for more tea. Eventually Iain and I managed to drag ourselves out of the hut and headed back to the car park.
The next morning was much the same as the day before except Murdo Jamieson joined us. Slightly weary, Iain and I needed an extra cup of tea in the hut much to Murdo’s annoyance. We stopped in the same spot as the day before and tried to decide what to climb. “Too many options,” Murdo mumbled, putting a negative spin on a very positive situation. At last we decided on trying Minus One Buttress Direct. Nick Bullock, Pete Benson, and Guy Robertson had climbed it a few years back and given it a grade of VIII 8. As I stared up at all the ice streaking down the buttress, I very much doubted it would be that grade today.
Our boots crunched along the now well-trodden path to the base of the face. More parties were frantically walking in front and another three parties were already at the base of Orion. We peeled off and walked up to the base of Minus One gully, receiving a very stern welcome from a well-known grumpy guide. We flaked our ropes out and we decided I would lead the first pitch. The guide, who was supervising a British Mountaineering Guides’ test, cheered up marginally once he recognised Iain and realised we weren't going to be climbing the gully underneath him.
I set off up the buttress following the icy ramps to start the first of 4 long pitches, all of them providing the highest quality of ice climbing. Thin ice plastered to smooth steep slabs providing some long, runout pitches straight up the buttress. Iain even managed to go straight up the middle of the buttress for a new second pitch where Pete, Nick, and Guy had gone left. I finished leading the fourth pitch up an arête of aerated ice to pull onto the familiar ground of North-East Buttress. Back in well-known territory, we climbed quickly to the top and reached the sunshine. We shook hands and muttered “nice one” to each other - a classic Scottish celebration.
We slowly wandered down the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, enjoying the sun and regretting having to drop back into the shade to head down to the hut. Further on, just as we were level with the base of Tower Ridge, I made the sudden decision to go solo it. I had never climbed Tower Ridge in summer or winter and the weather was simply too nice to go back to the hut straight away. I gave Murdo and Iain my share of the rack and trotted off to the base of Tower Ridge.
Obviously it had been climbed by many people in the last few days as there was a large track to follow. Now it was empty and peaceful. My legs stepped high as I breathed hard, following the footsteps as the light began to turn orange. Climbing higher, I reached the Eastern traverse where I slowed down and appreciated the silence. I watched one party near the top of Orion, the only other people still on the mountain. Forty minutes after starting I walked up the final arête of Tower Ridge to top out into a glorious sunset. Feeling content I wandered over to the summit cairn, sat down and watched the end of the sunset.
The next day my tired legs dragged me into the workshop just before the class started. Alex, the lecturer, walked in behind me: “Where the bloody hell were you?!”
“Ill”, I replied in my most innocent and sincere voice.
“Aye, well I suppose you look tired” Alex said, pausing just long enough for me to think I had got away with it. “Funny: the only time you've ever been ill coincided with that good weather.” He raised his eyebrows, gave me the tiniest of smiles, and walked to the front of the class. Thankful for the lack of retribution I slowly began taking out my tools.