Saturday, 11 August 2012

Observatory Ridge, Ben Nevis

The weather forecast for this Saturday was to be plenty of sunshine and having aborted a plan to go climbing on "The Ben" a few weeks previously due to rain and thunderstorms I hatched a plan to climb Observatory Ridge, and the plan was met with enthusiasm at our club (The Lomond Mountaineering Club) midweek rock climbing night.

The video of the day's climbing is directly below:

We decided to go up on Friday night and stay at the club hut in Onich, a small village on the shore of Loch Linnhe not far past Glencoe where in the morning we are in striking distance of Ben Nevis with only a comfortable 15 mile drive.

The drive up on the Friday night with Danny and Derek was met with clear skies and a cracking sunset over the highlands, eventually crossing Rannoch Moor and through Glencoe just as the sun crossed over the horizon.

We arrived to Harry and Eva already asleep, and Danny and Derek soon joined them. With all my climbing equipment and rucksack was packed, leaving the last couple of hours of the night free to relax, and promptly opened a bottle of fine aged rum and retired outside the hut to gaze at the stars, the milky way streaking across the sky in a panorama and clarity of stars that many lowlanders have never seen due to light pollution from the many cities and towns. At about 1:30am I figured it best to head to bed as I am setting the alarm for 6:30am.

A couple of hours resting in my sleeping bag and it is time to get up, a bowl of porridge, cup of tea and that is my nutrition for a day on the hill. We headed off to Torlundy just past Fort William to the Car Park for the North Face of The Ben. We are joined by Richard and Michael who arrived during the night.

We left the car park at 8am with the long slog up through the forest, being hounded by midges any time we stopped.

When I eventually cleared the forest I had worked up a fair sweat having a small hangover and now had to content with the roasting hot sunshine as I slogged up through the glen on the side of the Allt a' Mhuilinn river. The mighty North Face loomed up ahead and gives you plenty of time to built up pre climb anxiety as you get closer and closer to the array of ridges, buttresses and gullies which make The Ben a climbing mecca. The hike up towards the North Face was peaceful and I didn't pass anyone else the full way in contrast to the hundreds of people slogging up the Pony Track (also known as the Tourist Path).

The mighty Carn Dearg Buttress, home of some of legendary rock climbs such as The Bat, Centurian and The Bullroar.

As I reached the CIC hut at 700m above sea level some of the great ridges of Ben Nevis dominate the skyline. The North-East buttress, our target Observatory Ridge and Tower Ridge all beckoning rock climbers towards them.

Our target for the day is Observatory Ridge which starts 900m up the mountain, and takes a direct line with 420m of climbing directly to the summit plateau. The line of Observatory Ridge is direct centre just to the right of the further-most left ridge line (The North-East buttress)

The last couple of hundred metres scrambling to the foot of the ridge really gets you psyched up for the climb ahead as there is nothing else you can think of as the rock gets closer and closer, with clouds darting off the mountain summit as a reminder of where you are and how high you are.

We are not the only people with the route as a goal as there are a few other teams ahead of us.

The climbing teams today will be Harry leading Eva and Michael up, Richard and Danny swapping leads, and myself leading Derek up.

From right to left is Richard, Derek, Eva, Danny, Michael, and the greyhound Harry who is off quickly climbing the first pitch.

I am all ready to climb the first pitch. The first pitch was fairly straightforward, but the lower section of the North Face has not and is not likely to recieve any sunshine and the rock is damp and slippery in sections.

As with all popular climbs of this nature, it can get difficult between pitches with limited space to build a comfortable and safe anchor to bring your second climber up with multiple teams about. Having reached the first belay I had to wait on Eva and Michael setting off before bringing Derek up beside me.

Harry making short work of the second pitch. This pitch seemed open to variation with the choice of gaining an arete or by climbing a slab further to the left. I chose to lead the slab as it looked more interesting and slightly better protection.

After climbing the slab pitch I reached the small ledge which was currently being inhabited by the lesser-known Danny. Again the problem of multiple climbers means I do not have a safe spot to build an anchor to bring Derek up. A bit of imagination and I was able to bring Derek up with me lying behind a boulder on the tiny ledge on the hopes that if he fell he wouldnt drag me over and off the boulder and a long fall to the base of the ridge. Derek climbed up and joined me and Danny was moving off so I was able to move across to his position and build a safe belay for climbing the third pitch.

The third pitch was fairly short and uncomplicated and brought me up to a large platform and I brought Derek up to join me. The fourth pitch looked more difficult but was again uncomplicated with good protection and easy climbing.

On reaching the end of the pitch the ledge was very small and Michael and Eva were already standing there and as I awaited them leaving a large rockfall from above came rebounding down and over us. Another hazard of having many climbers and lots of loose rock about. After setting up the belay, Derek joined me on the small ledge which unfortunately was space for two people to just stand only and afforded no resting before climbing the next pitch.

Across on the Orion Face tiny climbers could be made out on what I believe is the route "Minus One Direct", a first class climb, and in my own sights for the future once I am capable of leading the grade safely.

Derek looking out across the Orion Face.

During the next couple of pitches the climbing became easier, but the protection was more sparse so I decided to stay roped up and lead the pitches normally as my tolerance of risk has greatly been reduced with a baby on the way.

As we climbed up pitch after pitch there was a helicopter rescue of an injujred climber across on Tower Ridge. We could feel the wind blasting us from the rotors and the noise made it hard to hear each other. Eventually we watched as the helicopter crew managed to winch the injured climber off to safety.

Tower Ridge in the near distance and Carn Dearg in the far distance.

A couple of pitches from the top I felt my blood sugar drop to a dangerous level. When you are climbing for hours on end it is sometimes easy to forget to eat. A rest and some chocolate and I felt confident enough to lead the last couple of pitches. There was a couple of spicy moves where the ridge narrowed to the width of a person and the feeling of exposure was fantastic with the gullies to the sides dropping off to the incomprehensible depths of the rock face. At this point I was glad I kept the rope on for some safety as I was feeling slightly dizzy and sick still.

Derek on  the ledge with Tower Ridge snaking off below towards the CIC hut which can be seen as a tiny blob below.

The last belay was from another tiny ledge with the only protection being a sling wrapped round a boulder which have very unlikely to have held any of us in a fall, but when the protection gets sparse you can convince yourself that any protection will hold or at least slow a fall. A psychological boost just to push you on to the next hurdle. I reached a bold looking slab which didn't look really difficult but afforded no protection whatsoever, and after 6 hours of climbing I just didn't have the energy to try it, and therefore scouted scouted around to the left and found the easier climbing. This brought me out onto the final boulder field where I brought up Derek and we both topped out onto the Plateau just below the summit to amazing views across the highlands from the highest point in the UK.

We walked up to the old ruins at the summit to organise all the equipment, change out of our rock shoes back into our boots, have a snack, enjoy some views before hastily charging back down the tourist path along side the hundreds of other people who having each reached their own summits towards Glen Nevis.

I hadn't had a drink in 4 hours and was glad when we came across the river half way down and I just drank straight from it. I would have likely passed out otherwise.

A couple of hours later we reached Glen Nevis where Danny was waiting and my knees and joints were ready to explode with pain for the long drive back to Glasgow.

The Observatory ridge being the hardest of all the Great Ridges on The Ben is truly an epic and satisfying way to reach the summit of Britain's highest mountain, and I recommend it to other climbers if you have the skills to do it safely and the stamina for it.

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