I’ve packed, unpacked and repacked my bag once more for good measure. I’ve sharpened my crampons, adjusted the fitting and my axes are gleaming like the day they were bought (save a few “cool” battle-scars, of course). I’m ready to get my head down and rest up for a big day.
I’m genuinely excited, super nervous and a little bit wrapped up in the history, the early ascents, the Himalayan pioneers; a million epics unfolding on one of the finest mountaineering routes in the UK.
The forecast is about as good as you will ever see in Scotland: zero precipitation, light winds and clear skies. With 600m of Scottish grade IV, Tower Ridge is a serious challenge in any weather. Even Simon Edwards (MIC) has packed early for our attempt. We both want everything to be perfect, or as perfect as it can be.
The alarm goes off at 5am. Seconds later I’m up making coffee and we’re both chatting over breakfast, packed and ready to go. We discuss updated weather and tactics. I’m tense, there’s no denying it.
We have a two-hour walk-in from the North Face car park to the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut, or CIC for short. Then, six hours later, we’ll be on the summit plateau.
We practically jog out of the car park, anticipating the day ahead through the narrow beam of our headtorches. Within seconds I have a gear breakdown. One of my trekking poles collapses and rather than stop, I carry it for the entire walk. I probably could have fixed it in thirty seconds, but such is the rush of frosty air in the morning, I plough on without.
We make decent progress, passing the congested CIC hut and gearing up on the eastern slopes of the Douglas Boulder, the first obstacle of the day. Sunlight is beginning to outline the mighty North Face of Ben Nevis in an otherwise dark, moody sky.
Winter climbing in Scotland is engaging in a completely different way to almost every other experience I have had in my life. Winter climbing is dangerous, obviously. But there is a small part of me that giggles like a 6-year-old when it gets serious. It’s as if a part of me can’t really believe what I’m doing, and laughs about it, whilst the rest of me is clinging on for dear life.
We solo up to the Douglas Gap, a steep grade I gully rising to dissect the ridge. It takes me a while to adjust to the precariousness of the position, but when it does a chill engulfs me. 10% of me is still giggling.
The other 90% is just plain scared.
We’re not the first on the route and as one set of nerves begins to melt away, another arrives. There are at least four teams ahead of us, maybe more. On a ridge where speed is our greatest asset, the potential for delay begins to overshadow the vertigo.
Twenty minutes of watching other teams haul themselves up out of the Douglas Gap and onto the ridge and Simon is off. He’s absolutely on it, moving smoothly and efficiently. He’s keen to leapfrog a couple of teams on the lower slopes to avoid delays further on. We smash it. Simon gives clear direction, we understand each other, he’s off and I’m following. Making light work of the first pitch, we move together along the steep ridge line and up to the next section of climbing.
Simon, in his infinite wisdom, chooses the hardest but least congested line up an ice chute which steepens to near vertical at the top. I follow with the rhythmic thud-thud-step-step and am fully engrossed in the joy of climbing. It’s steep, but I’m starting to swing comfortably and knowing that Simon is planning ahead I relax into the day. Another section of moving together and we’re standing below the Little Tower.
The Little tower, and above, presents the most technical challenges of the route. They are mostly short-lived and infrequent but totally absorbing and committing. You can’t help but notice the precipitous drop down into the gullies on either side of the ridge, particularly on the Eastern traverse of the Great Tower. Today it is nicely banked out in snow so less technical but, for me at least, the most spectacular section of the route. It requires delicate footwork with an airy drop, several hundred metres down into the valley.
We all deal with fear differently, and whilst many consider Tower Gap as the crux of the route, by now I was getting used to the vertigo. At least, as much as you can be. The wind was light, and I had felt increasingly happier since my initial jitters way back down on the Douglas Gap. We made quick progress, in and out of Tower Gap stopping for a second under the last headwall of ice before the summit plateau. Here Simon utters his final words of wisdom before the last challenge, “Right Si, don’t be shit here”. I acknowledge and oblige. Fifteen minutes later I am peeking out over the final steep section to a glorious evening on the Ben Nevis plateau.
We had been on our feet for twelve hours by the time we got back to the car park. We had to stand in queues on the ridge for at least two hours but given the conditions it wasn’t such a big deal, and certainly not enough to dampen our spirits.
After all, my 6-year-old self had been giggling for most of the day.