A stellar climb with Rob Brown.
Arriving with Rob Brown on the summit into brilliant sunshine, we were slightly overwhelmed by such an immaculate day. This was an unexpected gift, a random act of kindness, and was all the more memorable and meaningful. Nobody else was on the North Face of Ben Nevis, in perfect weather above a layer of clouds in the glens. For a lucky few local residents, the covid lockdown had its benefits, and we had just shared a precious gift.
A few hours earlier, on the walk in by the Allt a’Mhuilinn we were not sure what to expect, what the ice would be like, what we would climb. Our uncertainty took us towards a regular ascent of Orion Direct instead of something more exotic. But it became increasingly obvious as we climbed higher up the face that the ice was pretty much perfect and the most ephemeral routes were there to be climbed.
The Orion Face on Ben Nevis is the home of the biggest and best ice climbing in the country. Orion Direct was the first and is the ultimate classic route up the face, first climbed in 1960 by Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith. This was just one of their incredible climbs completed in a seven day period, the pinnacle of the step cutting era.
By modern standards, the technical difficulty is low, but any ascent is always a serious undertaking. Protection is often spaced and consecutive ice screw belays are always required. The route is long and does not follow a natural line, so route finding is difficult. For most people, an ascent of Orion Direct is a lifetime ambition, and quite rightly so. But it is not the only route up the face.
The stellar theme is maintained in the names of other climbs; Astral Highway, Journey Into Space, Space Invaders, Spacewalk. Many routes now wind their way up the face which, at its best, is covered in squeaky snow-ice, the ultimate in thin face ice climbing. The question is, what is the best way up the face?
Here is my suggestion. Climb Orion Direct for four pitches into The Basin and to the crux traverse out onto the upper face. This is at the foot of the Second Slab Rib which is one of the few rock features on the face that is recognisable, even with a very good covering of snow and ice. It is climbed by the summer rock route, The Long Climb, and occasionally holds enough ice on the slab to climb. This is a sensational pitch and you should take the opportunity to climb it if you are in the right place at the right time. Rob and I found ourselves in exactly this position in February 2021.
Rob was an excellent ice climber and his bling gold axes were swung with a casual style and great precision. Many people would be quite self-conscious with a pair of such spectacular tools, but Rob favoured super bright clothing combinations which always made a bold statement. Bling gold axes were the perfect way for him to accessorise his look.
Thin, silky smooth ice cased the slab of The Second Slab Rib. It was a shame to take something as harsh as an ice axe to something as clean and pure as the ice on the slab. Standing on monopoints on transparent, flawless ice was quite a feeling, 200m up the face, but knowing that Rob was holding my ropes and that we could swing leads all day gave me an extra boost of confidence. Rob led another long pitch that carried on up beautiful grooves and ice bulges, heading for the deep blue sky.
The way ahead is obvious, but daunting. A clean slab of snow-ice leading off to the horizon requires a steady approach and a conviction that it will lead to somewhere friendly. Where it leads to is the last pitch of Spacewalk, a steep shallow groove of fat ice right at the top of Orion Face. Spectacular climbing in a sensational position to finish a direct line up the biggest and best ice climbing face in the country.
Rob died in a climbing accident recently. He was one of the nicest guys I've met and it was a privilege to climb and work with him. This was one of the best days of climbing I have ever had, we were both totally stunned by the brilliance of the day, and I'm so glad I got to share it with Rob.
Even after 27 years of climbing rock in this area there are very many excellent climbs I have not done. So when I get the chance I try to make the most of it to go to search out some climbs that are new to me. Dave and I have climbed together a few times, including a Sea Stacks trip, a Cuillin Traverse (in the wet) and some Winter Climbing. He has also done lots of climbing in the Alps. So when we got a good weather forecast for this week I started to think of what we could do that would be new to us both.
We started with some Classic Rock routes in Glen Coe. The Long Crack and Archer Ridge are both fantastic climbs that link well together. Weeping Wall was living up to its name though and The Long Crack was pretty wet. Since we were up high already we carried on up to Church Door Buttress, along a really cool path over the west face cliffs of Aonach Dubh and up some pretty horrible scree.
Deep inside this buttress is Crypt Route, a rock climb unlike any other. It is much more like uphill caving than climbing, especially when it is wet and slimy! Head torches are essential to find your way in the darkest tunnels and chambers and don't wear your favourite bright climbing clothes, they will never be the same again. We emerged onto the arch to find the clouds and drizzle were lower than before so we udged up the final chimney groove to the top, thoroughly worked.
It was nice to see the crags of Ben Nevis drying out in the sunshine on Wednesday. The Long Climb takes a good couple of weeks to get dry (if it is ever completely dry) so we ruled this one out. Instead we went for Strident Edge on South Trident Buttress, a fantastic high mountain VS 4c with everything it a mountain rock climb should have including slimy cracks, a little loose rock and awesome exposure.
Andy joined us for this one and we climbed the beautiful ridge all the way to Carn Dearg before going along to descend Ledge Route. This was such a cool mountain day, a great circuit up South Trident Buttress with the views right across the North Face to a great summit, then down another great ridge, all in the sunshine
Today it stayed a bit cloudy in the west and we were in search of more Classic Rock. So we went to Coire an Lochain in The Cairngorms, along with a few other teams as it turned out. We planned on climbing Savage Slit and Fallout Corner (that I had not climbed in summer) but another team was already on Savage Slit and a team behind us decided to go for Fallout Corner. So we climbed Prore in the sunshine, between these two other routes.
Prore (VS 4c) does not get as many stars as the other climbs here but it is sensational. Prore is an obsolete term for the prow of a ship, and once you are established on the route you feel as exposed to the drop as you would be on any big boat. Beautiful, rough granite and delicate moves make this a route to savour.
We abseiled down and slotted in behind the team in Fallout Corner, which is a lot of fun. It is showing plenty of signs of many winter ascents, including a few bits of stuck protection. It also has slightly more positive breaks and cracks so the climbing is steady away and very well protected. Such a striking line draws your attention and it is a very nice climb.
It's easy to get over to the abseil point as well - in fact there are abseil anchors all over the top of this cliff. It would be well worth going there to tidy it all up. We took away some of it like we did yesterday on Ben Nevis. We all need to make an effort to tidy up when we can.
Of course the most striking line is Savage Slit. This isn't just a chimney, this is a slit that passes right through the mountain and out the other side. While the breeze rising up the cliff on the outside is warm, the draft coming out of the slit is cold and dank. Savage Slit is probably connected to Crypt Route deep under the ground.
Thankfully, you can climb the outside of the slit and avoid its powerful embrace. If you do step into it, it will not let you go easily. Bridge up the outside and look into the deep dark depths but don't be tempted to dive in too far.
Tomorrow we will stay in the west in search of exciting new ground for us both. We have our eyes on the big herdsman, where the ravens haunt the deep gullies.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.