Today I soloed Castle Ridge (III) on Ben Nevis, one of the great winter mountaineering routes of Scotland.
At about 11am this morning I found myself on a narrow snow ledge looking up at the crux. This vertical iced rock chimney is the key to unlocking this long climb, hard for the grade and hanging over a drop of several hundred feet. The feeling of exposure here is pretty insane…and any mistake would be unsurvivable.
Looking up at the crux, I was quite aware that this was going to be the hardest pitch of winter climbing I'd ever attempted to solo. I knew exactly how psyched up I would need to be in order to climb this chimney without fear and the gaping drop below taking grip.
Dawn lighting over The North East Buttress
Today was the day and I was feeling spot on. So I set to it. The amount of rime and icing in the cracks in the chimney made the pitch far harder than it could have been and for a few moments it felt desperate….but after some contorted and committing moves I had hauled myself onto the safety of the rocks above.
Heavily iced up rock en route
A sigh of relief and a high of adrenaline, having soloed an immensely exposed and committing crux.
The rest of the ridge today was in pretty good condition - under very heavy snow cover which is beginning to consolidate, though actually today the snow on the bottom half of the route was in better nick.
The approach slopes
There are huge accumulations in the entire Castle area of the Ben, the remains of a hefty avalanche evident underneath the area near "Boomer's Requiem". There's also loads of ice around, especially on the North side of Carn Dearg Buttress where even The Shroud isn't too far away from touching down.
Lots of ice around!
When I topped out on the plateau, I had that great feeling of a challenge accepted and achieved. Soloing routes is a very different business from roped climbing. So many different pieces need to come together before you can responsibly take on a solo climb that will test you. The mental stresses and rewards can be intense, and given the numerous complications and intricacies of Scottish winter climbing, the natural high you can get from a challenging solo is pretty hard to surpass.
The Shroud...getting there.