Thursday, 25 June 2009
The North-East Buttress of Ben Nevis
Yesterday, James and I journeyed to the North Face of Ben Nevis to climb one of the greatest classic ridges in Britain: the North-East Buttress. First climbed in 1892, this was an awesome prospect in its day and to the modern mountaineer it presents an inspiring objective.
From the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, Volume 3, No.6, September 1895 (believed to be the first ascent at the time):
"The mountaineer who makes his way up the Allt a' Mhuilinn, under the stern north precipices of Ben Nevis, sees before him, high up at the head of the valley, a steep black ridge jutting out against the sky, which seems grander and more precipitous than any of its neighbours. This is the N.E. buttress, the finest object on the mountain, and one of the last to engage the attention of the climber."
This perfectly sums up the allure of this superb route. For me, it is THE line on Ben Nevis, and even though the ascent is not so continuously superb as that of Tower Ridge, it is the more striking ridge and a greater mountaineering challenge.
Our ascent began by seeking out the First Platform, which proved to be not so obvious as we had expected. We wasted perhaps an hour climbing to and fro on the nondescript slabby ground just above the Platform, without realising we had already passed it! Never mind: we reached it eventually, and from that point the route was obvious.
After a short section of narrow ridge, an obvious leftwards-slanting gully turns the first steep wall to the left. We then moved together up nondescript easy terrain for some distance. It is this section of scrappy Moderate (or easier) ground that marks Tower Ridge as superior in quality, at least in summer, as Tower Ridge is continually excellent when it comes to the quality of climbing.
We soon reached the Second Platform, and after this the climbing got steeper!
We decided to start taking fixed belays when we reached the Overhanging Wall. This wall can be climbed directly or turned to the right by a ladder of very high steps, both routes at about Very Difficult standard. I took the right-hand route, which I found reachy but the holds were enormous and square-cut.
The notorious Mantrap was some distance ahead. This short but harsh pitch eats people up during winter ascents, and is the usual reason why winter attempts fail. In summer it is less serious but still a formidable obstacle.
We reached a steep wall which we thought might be the Mantrap, but it fell easily enough after some reconnoitering, with a devious traverse left underneath a bulge. Above this, an easy 60m section of ridge with a tremendous view led to another steepening in the ridge, and an ominous wall that had no obvious way up from our vantage point.
The views from this point were simply staggering. Looking down the entire North Face of Ben Nevis, 2000 feet almost vertically down, gave a fantastic sense of scale to the face. I can think of no other point on the cliffs where I have yet been that gives the same sense of verticality and sheer depth. This is one other area where the NE Buttress beats Tower Ridge hands down: Tower Ridge is amongst grand crag scenery, but does not give the same powerful overview of the entire mountain in its views.
When we finally reached the Mantrap, we were left with no doubt that this was indeed the NE Buttress's 'Bad Step'. A 3m high wall, slightly overhanging and split by a diagonal crack with in-situ rusted pitons, it looked quite reasonable but proved to be a bugger of an obstacle! I tried it six or seven times, trying different hold combinations, but ultimately the holds were so polished and less-than-positive that it was highly strenuous maintaining position for long enough to figure out the upper moves.
I concluded that if I was three inches taller, or had longer arms, I could reach a good jug hold for my left hand and haul myself up. This doesn't excuse the fact that my footwork was not good enough to compensate for the poor handholds. I can blame the polished sloping footholds as much as I like, but the fact is that if it was in a cragging environment I probably would have been able to overcome it. So much for calling myself a 'mountaineer'!
I turned the Mantrap on the right by a steep slab and corner, feeling as if I had failed even though I am well aware the Mantrap has defeated better climbers than me. I could have aided through that one step using the in-situ pitons, but to me that would have been a greater failure on my first ascent of the ridge. Perhaps the next time I go up there, if I still cannot climb the Mantrap free I might aid my way up it just to avoid the contrived variation to the right.
The final pitch on the ridge was the Forty-Foot Corner, a superb bit of climbing on good rock with excellent protection (including two more fixed pitons from previous winter ascents).
We topped out on the summit of the Ben to be greeted with the same superb views I have enjoyed on my previous three visits to the roof of Britain. However, the summit area was overrun with screaming children, some of whom were engaged in races over the boulder-field. Several other climbs had words with the youths and asked them to quieten down (they were literally screeching at the tops of their voices), and I could not help marvel at the contrast between our solitary climb and the hubbub of dozens of walkers at the summit. It's the same story with Snowdon or Scafell Pike: you have to seek out the hard routes, by the standards of the masses, to achieve solitude.
The North-East Buttress was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. The prospect of a winter ascent is a bit intimidating, but I think it is a logical goal for the next winter season, after I have some more experience on Grade IV terrain. Who knows, perhaps the Mantrap might even be easier, with ice tools to torque into that diagonal crack!
Photo album from today