It's never too soon to start thinking about the winter in Scotland! After many years of climbing Tower Ridge, I’m convinced that it is a one ice axe route. Most of it is relatively straight forward and long sections of it are really quite simple. You might need two ice axes in certain snow conditions on the Great Tower but you can always borrow your partner’s axe for that one move. This is the conclusion I’ve reached after many ascents in all sorts of conditions. But when I look back on my first ascent of Tower Ridge in winter it’s an odd conclusion to come to.
My friend Richard was up staying with me soon after I moved to Fort William in 1995. Before I moved here I thought it would be very easy to find climbing partners but that’s not how it was. In the days before the internet was there to help like minded people come together I spent a lot of time out soloing routes, walking the Munro’s and getting to know the hills and crags. When Richard came up for a visit he came predominantly for a skiing trip. I had other plans though and I wanted to make use of having a climbing partner.
Tower Ridge is a climb I had done in summer not too long before. It’s not hard and the route finding is quite simple on a relaxed, warm and dry summer’s day. In winter I had been climbing routes at harder grades than Tower Ridge and they had all gone well. One of my solo climbs had been Point Five Gully which felt great. I did not realise at the time that the Spring of ’95 was to go down as one of the best for a decade and Point Five Gully was probably more like grade IV than the benchmark V it is more commonly. Still, for my third ice climb I was quite chuffed.
So I was full of confidence as we walked in and I even felt slightly aggrieved at having to bring the grade down to a lowly III (as it was then) to give Richard a chance at being able to climb it. He was a skier after all. It was an average day with good snow cover. We got to Douglas Gap fine and up the awkward groove onto the crest of the ridge. The ridge looks completely different in winter and the best route is not always obvious. There was no trail to follow so I just followed my nose. Since we were climbing a ridge it made sense to stick to the crest of the ridge so off I went.
After the first horizontal section the usual route in winter follows a snow ramp out right to avoid a steep section of the ridge and up simple enough ground back onto the crest from the end of the ramp. If you follow the crest this steep section is quite tricky and draws you left up steepening grooves. After a look up one of these and a bit of head scratching I thought I spied a way forward but not with just my one ice axe. I would like to say I scurried back to Richard but it was a lot slower and more precarious than that. I teetered back down, got his axe and carried on up the pitch with a good deal of swearing. Richard now needed the ice axes and a bit of time to follow the pitch. It was certainly ground that required two ice axes. So after a few more, thankfully easier, pitches we got to a level section of the ridge.
Time wasn’t marching on as much as leapfrogging forward. A check of the watch at one point would reassure me that we were doing OK. The next time I checked, the time had taken a great leap forward and we were well behind schedule. It seemed like we had done a significant amount of climbing already so I convinced myself that we had climbed the Little Tower and the steep section ahead must be The Great Tower. If this was right, the time of day was OK but we still needed to crack on, so we did.
What we thought was The Great Tower went much more smoothly even though we did not find anything much like an Eastern Traverse. At the top of this tower our hearts sank. Not only was the light starting to leave the mountain but what was obviously The Great Tower was standing high above us still. We found the Eastern Traverse, blindingly obvious when we got there, and successfully traversed along to the foot of the Fallen Block Chimney just as it was about to get dark. With all of my confidence from the start of the day chipped away by the relentless ridge it was me that suggested extending the Eastern Traverse and making our escape. I had heard of many enforced bivouacs at Tower Gap and I was determined not to make it another one. So we went across to the foot of Tower Gully and kept going to make the long descent of Observatory Gully and back home in the dark. My drive for the summit had been completely broken so even the thought of climbing the grade I gully of Tower Gully was too much. My tail was firmly between my legs.
Seventeen years and perhaps a hundred ascents later, I climbed Tower Ridge with Martin and Chris in April of 2013. The ice climbing conditions were spectacular that spring and we had long periods of settled weather to enjoy them. The guys had booked just one day with me, specifically to climb Tower Ridge. We were very lucky to have a day of perfect weather and brilliant snow on the route. Not only was the climbing brilliant on the squeaky solid snow and occasional bits of dry rock but we were surrounded by the best climbs in Scotland perfectly iced and glistening in the sunshine. We watched the black dots of climbers on Orion Face pick their way up, dwarfed by the scale of the face.
Chris and Martin had been on a winter climbing course at Glenmore Lodge. They wanted to experience the next level in their climbing progression and to enjoy a classic at the same time. They were both competent and secure climbers and they had no problem with the level of climbing. Had they known that the conditions would be so good they might have decided to tackle the climb by themselves. However, they were just as happy to enjoy the experience without the extra pressure of having to make route choice decisions and find the belays. They got to enjoy an amazing day on an amazing route and to soak up every detail of the experience.
It’s easy to think that hiring a guide takes away all the challenge and satisfaction of climbing. But winter climbing is a team game. I depend on my clients to do their bit just as much as they depend on me to do mine. I try to make sure they realise the seriousness of the climb and to include them in the decisions we make on the day. Hopefully, my clients feel like they are climbing with another of their regular climbing partners, one who is quite keen to do most of the leading.
I dread the day that someone on my rope takes a tumble off the Eastern Traverse. It is a drop of a couple of hundred metres below your feet and the protection is quite spaced. A slip would result in quite a swing across this void, leaving you dangling on very steep ground and probably unable to climb back up to the traverse ledge, especially with just one ice axe. It would be a tricky situation to resolve and in a very intimidating place. I coach people in what to do on the traverse and try to make sure they are doing it right but at the end of the day I just have to hope there is no slip or stumble. Similarly at Tower Gap, I need my clients to make themselves secure after they climb down into the gap and to belay me as I climb down. If I slip I rely on them to hold the rope properly and that the anchor they have tied in to is secure.
So as Martin and Chris climbed out into the sunshine at the top of the route to see the view from the Paps of Jura to Ben Wyvis and the Skye Cullin to Schiehallion they knew they’d had one of the best climbs of their lives. Tower Ridge is always a brilliant experience however you climb it and whatever kind of weather you get. But on days like this, there is nothing better in Scotland and, therefore, the world.
Is there anything more satisfying than exploring the Scottish mountains on a winters day? Staring out into a sea of snow-blanketed mountains? Solving the puzzle of which climb is the best option in Scotland's ever-changing conditions? Taking on the elements to stand at the top of the UK's highest mountain? Returning home exhausted but already looking forward to what the next day's adventure might bring?
We don't think so, and that's why we want to share this incredible season with you! Join us this winter! https://www.abacusmountainguides.com/winter-guiding.html
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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.