On the fourth day of the mountaineering course, our guide thought we were doing pretty well (as we all have a bit of experience in rock climbing) and agreed to let us try one of the most famous winter climbing routes on Ben Nevis, called Tower Ridge. Andy, one of the guys on the course with me had been keen to do it right from the start.
Thursday, 18 February 2010
We were joined by a second guide on the day, and being as Graham had retired on day two (due to a sprained ankle on the walk-out), we had three of us to two instructors.
We started early and ascended the side of Ben Nevis towards the start of the route where we roped up. I was on the end of a rope of three (our guide, The Nurse and myself) with Andy and the other instructor following behind. We donned crampons, harnesses, helmets, extra layers and armed ourselves with our ice axes. The weather was good and it was 9am, leaving us plenty of time to tackle the route.
The climbing was not too hard, though I wasn't fully used to jamming axes into cracks and putting my full weight on them and there were a couple of hard bits of climbing near the beginning. All in all we made pretty good ground up until about midday or so.
The View from the Bottom of the Second Climbing Pitch
The difficulty then came that we got stuck behind a really slow moving group of four and as there was no option to overtake on the route - we had to queue to climb the different sections behind them. We must have waited nearly two hours to complete a traverse and a climb up to the top of the 'little tower'.
The traverse was scary - I had previously thought that I wasn't at all scared of heights up until that point. But with just a few crampon points separating me from a couple of hundred feet of drop below me - I was more than a little nervous. Here is a photo of the traverse courtesy of a photo stolen from the internet (spot the footprints):
Then it all started to get a little worse. The party in front of us held us up so much that our guides told us that we would have to walk down in the dark ... then they told us we would have to finish the climb in the dark. All in all - we climbed for over 3 hours in the dark!
Just Before We Crossed Tower Gap - The Nurse, and above that - our guide
The hardest point of the tower ridge route comes near the end. Basically you have to cross an extremely narrow, extremely exposed walkway into a hole known as the 'Tower Gap', before climbing out up to the top.
The issue here is that I was roped to the back of a group of three, so I couldn't move forwards until The Nurse in front of me was able to move up enough to pull the rope tight. The Nurse spent a total of 10 minutes navigating the Tower Gap whilst I stood with my feet together and my knees shaking on the narrow walkway ... in the dark. Here is a picture of the walkway in the light that I managed to steal:
Although I was roped in and safe - the fear was pretty much building in me from here. Next I had to climb down into the gap and back out of the other side. It would have been a tricky climb in the summer with a pair of climbing boots and the sun-shining. In the dark - it was much worse. Especially seeing as just as I was climbing into the hole - my head torch broke!
I kept having to take my gloves off (which were essentially ice-balls by this point) to press the button to get the torch to work again and as soon as I put them back on again, the torch would switch off.
I swore ... lots. At one point the head torch went off as I was straddling the gap with one foot either side and one glove half on trying to hook my axe onto a piece of rock quite far above my head. I can honestly say thats the most scared I have ever been. I cacked myself.
I finished the climb short roped to the nurse (about 1m behind him) so that I could make use of his head-torch light) and we walked 2 hours bac down to the car - to get there for about ten o'clock.
It was a brilliant experience though. While I was climbing, all I was thinking was 'mountaineering is crap!', but afterwards - the feeling was pretty great.