A Night Time Ascent of Tower Ridge

13 March 2014

“The piano, that was easiest, despite the keys
rattling like dice beneath the lid, so next
I strapped a toffee-coloured horse across my back,
ferried a coffin with the body still inside
pitching from left to right with every move.”

From “Items Carried Up Ben Nevis” by Helen Mort

Luckily, I did not have to carry any of these objects up Tower Ridge (for more on the story of the piano, see BBC News), though there were times when I wished I had a better camera. But then, perhaps no camera could quite have captured the quality of light that bathed the snow covered cliffs of the North Face of Ben Nevis on Tuesday night through Wednesday morning, during probably the most spectacular climb of my hitherto short climbing career: a night time ascent of Tower Ridge.

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The seed for this idea had been planted during a recent ice climbing trip to Rjukan, Norway, where a member of the SMC I was climbing with was talking about night climbing in The Cairngorms. Other than W.H Murray’s famous account of a night ascent of the Aonach Eagach, I had largely thought of night climbing as something to be done as a matter of necessity rather than choice. However something about the idea of deliberately choosing to climb at night, offering solitude that can be hard to find at a time when Scottish Winter Climbing is more popular than ever, appealed to me. In addition, with the forecast of high temperatures during the day but a clear night and morning combined with the promise of a bright moon it was beginning to sound more and more like a sensible option as opposed to a crazy idea.

With the trip underway, four of us gathered by the CIC hut at 1:00 am on Sunday morning, having made our way up the Allt a’Mhuilinn path under a moon bright enough to cast sharp shadows of the Nevis cliffs. There was certainly no need for a head torch, and in any case using one would have robbed us of the sight of the Orion Face brightly illuminated, with its partner Mars glowing pale orange, wandering above the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.

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With the huge amounts of snow that have accumulated on the cliffs of Ben Nevis this winter, Tower Ridge has proved a popular option for climbers avoiding the risks of avalanche or cornice collapse, so we were helped by a good trail leading up to and along the ridge. There is little in the way of protection on the ridge proper, the best option being either to solo or alternatively short rope together in the knowledge that if your partner should stumble, you may have to leap down the other side of the ridge to save both him and yourself. On the more technical sections of the ridge, guides who had clearly passed this way many times before had excavated what gear placements there were. We even found a use for the ice screw that I had brought along, somewhat optimistically.

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The darkness left behind by the departure of the moon in the early hours of the morning proved to be short lived, as Tim and I reached the Eastern Traverse, the first glow of dawn appeared over the eastern horizon. By this time a faint light was visible at the CIC hut far below as the sky brightened rapidly in spectacular hues of violet and orange, such that even though I completed the Eastern Traverse in darkness with a headtorch, Tim had no need of one to follow me.

Now in full daylight, Tim led the next section up to Tower Gap with me following closely behind. Tim was following the most obvious trail, but though I had climbed the ridge once before in Winter, and in daylight, I had no memory of this thin traverse - rather I remember steeper, more technical climbing up to the Gap. Clearly the conditions on the ridge this year had necessitated some changes to the usual route.

There were no changes at Tower Gap, however. Crossing the narrow snow walkway with a precipitous drop to either side followed by gingerly lowering yourself into the void was as heartstopping as I remember it. I hope to never do this climb so many times that this part becomes routine - though next time maybe I’ll let my partner take the lead. Tim and I safely across the gap, we roped up again for the final snow climb up to the summit where we were greeted by the familiar exfoliating wind of the Ben Nevis summit plateau.

At this point, after all, a climber is the only obstacle to the jet stream between Newfoundland and Norway.