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.
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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.