Tower Ridge – the UK’s best alpine route
In summer, Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis is the uk’s best alpine route. Novice climber Matt Swaine grabbed a more experienced mate and reminded himself just what arms and legs were made for.
There is a corner of my local outdoor shop that makes me feel about three foot tall. It’s home to rubber-soled pixie boots, peculiar metal artefacts, industrial-strength suspender belts and rope woven with an ornate fluorescent tartan. It is a VIP area, reserved for Vertically Inclined People: those long-haired, wiry-looking specimens who spend
their Sundays dangling over life-threatening drops.
Don’t even think of waving your credit card around here unless you’re fluent in Climbese (“I’m planning an E6, V Diff Severe with triple back dismount”) and can tie a bowline with your teeth. I fail on both counts, so my shopping expeditions have always been restricted to the ‘walkers’ triangle’ of 3-season boots, daysacks and Gore-Tex jackets. From here I can snatch surreptitious glances at the world of the rock rat. They seem to be having far more fun than I am, and I want in… I just never expected it to be Tower Ridge on the north face of Ben Nevis.
This is quite simply one of the most impressive days out in the United Kingdom and the closest thing we have to an Alpine ascent in the country. At least that’s what Trail’s map man, Jeremy Ashcroft, told me.
“You’re going to do Tower Ridge?” he asked, with just a hint of surprise. “Fantastic! It’s a perfect long day out in summer. You’re going to love it!”
The statistics speak for themselves. With just over 600m of ascent and at almost 1km long this is the mother of all days on UK rock. It’s big and bouncy – a great voluptuous seam of granite that offers exposure, thrills and more than a few technical problems. More importantly, Jeremy reckoned this would be a superb way to make the step up from easy multi-pitch climbs to full-blown mountaineering routes.
I’d brushed up on my climbing jargon. I’d learned to tie the all-important figure of eight. I’d made a few visits to the local climbing wall and, most importantly of all I’d enlisted the help of an experienced climber.
“OK, Matt,” said Ben, letting his pack slip to the ground next to the
CIC Hut at the foot of Tower Ridge, “That is where we’re starting today.”
I followed the line of his finger towards an almighty scoop of rock.
“That’s the Douglas Boulder. We could skirt round behind it, into the East Gully and then start the climb up towards the Little Tower, if you want to. But we’re here to do Tower Ridge: and to do it properly, we should include it.”
There was no question of missing it out. I was looking forward to breaking free of my local climbing wall, and this V Diff was well within my ability. But where was the stale smell of chalk and sweat? Where were the bulbous, coloured holds I’d got so used to?
“That’s it. There’s a hold just up to your right,” called Ben, belaying 20ft above me. “Turn your body round to the left and you’ll get a couple of extra inches of reach.” The holds were pleasingly positive and, as I started removing the wires that Ben had placed to protect our climb and clipped them to my harness, I felt as though I’d stepped into a whole new world. “How was that?” asked Ben, as I found a safe place to sit behind him on the belay ledge. My broad grin said it all.
This section took longer than it should have. Ben was putting a lot of faith in my belaying skills, but he needed to double-check each pitch. The Douglas Boulder is potentially the most technical part of the day, which is good news for a newbie like me. Because when you’ve got to the top, and abseiled down into the Douglas Gap (the tat left in place told us we had the right spot, but we used our own, trustworthy sling), you have an escape route via the East Gully if you don’t want to commit yourself to the ridge proper.
But we had no intention of stopping. “Right, we need to make up a bit of time,” said Ben, as we climbed out onto a relatively flat area. “A lot of what’s coming up ahead is fairly good scrambling so we’re not going to pitch most of it. We’re going to use an alpine technique called ‘moving together’. That’ll help us cover the easy ground quickly and we need to get a move on – a fair few folk have been benighted on Tower Ridge because they’ve underestimated the time it takes.”
Ben showed me how to coil each end of the climbing rope, loop them over our shoulders and secure them round our waist. “If one of us does slip then the protection between us should ensure neither will be learning our first few celestial harp chords by this evening,” said Ben. “But really, seriously... please try not to fall.”
I could have done without that last bit of advice. I had no intention of putting myself in a Touching the Void situation… and five days of crawling back to the McDonald’s in Fort William would hardly make for an award-winning movie. I was going to be taking things very carefully, thank you.
Ben went ahead, disappearing over the brim of a ridge. With my climbing mentor out of sight, my movements were dictated by the rope. Too slack and I needed to slow down. Too tight and I needed to speed up. We were quickly gaining height, and as we did so the feeling of exposure came sharply into focus. It felt good being by myself: breathing deeply, moving slowly and trying not to get too focused on the huge drop beneath me. I felt Crib-Goch-comfortable: enough of a challenge but well within my ability… that was until I saw Ben slowly coiling rope at his feet.
He was sitting under a large slab of rock. Gently angled, highly polished with few discernible hand-holds, and a potential fall that would launch you into thin air. “We’re going to pitch this section,” said Ben. “I really don’t fancy ending up down there.”
Ben made it look easy. In fact, it was easy: apart from one move that involved a paper-thin foothold and fingers wedged hopefully over a crumb of rock. As luck would have it, that was exactly the point that a climbing wire decided to get wedged tight between two rocks.
“I couldn’t get it out,” I said as I neared the top of the pitch.
“Then you’re going to have to go back down and try again,” said Ben with a wry smile. So I downclimbed, giving him the Gordon Ramsay treatment under my breath. Fingers burning, boots desperately trying to get some purchase on the rock, the climbing chock came loose.
It made our next ‘problem’ seem positively easy. Everyone had warned me about the chimney that comes just before the Great Tower. This tunnel, formed by a huge fallen block, has its own microclimate. We’d picked a superb summer’s day to tackle the ridge; but inside, it was winter and the rock was greasy. If I wanted enough friction to climb this section I was going to have to use every available part of my body. I wedged my arse into a small nook, shoved my elbow into another and then got one knee on a ledge. Slowly I managed to move upwards through the slime, and popped into daylight covered head to toe in mountain gunk.
The clouds were starting to draw in and Tower Gap was the only real challenge ahead. But to get to it, you have to walk across a thin bead of rock. If it had been 20ft off the ground I would have sauntered across, whistling a merry tune. But the massive drop on both sides was swathed in cloud and felt all the more perilous for it. So I shunted across on my backside, pleading for a little heavenly intervention to see me safely to the other side.
And that would have been the busiest period for my adrenal glands, had it not been for the abseil into Tower Gap. We set up a sling around a boulder and lowered ourselves down. As I moved out over the gap, the sling started to ride up over the rock.
“Ben… I do NOT like this… It’s going to COME OFF!”
“No it isn’t. The moment you lower yourself it’ll drop back down.”
It took an almighty leap of faith, and four abortive attempts, before I slowly edged down the rock.
Swaggering down the Zig-Zags, only 45 minutes later, with my chest puffed out, I’d put that slight hissy-fit to the back of my mind. I’d taken my first step into the world of the mountaineer. I was now a doer of brave deeds. I could wander into any climbing store in the land and hold my head up high.
How to negotiate Tower Gap
Tower Gap is an infamous notch high on the ridge that calls for some clever ropework and a head for heights. This is a situation when you should not abide by the mountain ethos of leaving no fixed equipment on the hill: it’s perfectly okay to leave slings behind positioned at anchors. In fact, it’s good practice when you’re making a tricky descent or retreat as it’s much safer. It is possible to use a rope but be aware that the block is wide and the ropes will come out of the belay plate at odd angles, and you need to be very careful to ensure the rope cannot slip off the top of the block: exactly the reasons why you should sacrifice a sling. From the bottom of the gap it’s a short but tricky scramble up the other side, so don’t hesitate to set up a belay for the leader. Be warned that this entire section is extremely exposed with pant-filling drops on either side. Riveting stuff!
Back to How to be a Mountaineer homepage