Ben Nevis is well known as the highest point in the UK and is highly revered among climbers due to the limitless potential of winter and summer objectives offered by its steep North Facings cliffs and ridges.
Last summer I was living in Fort William at the foot of this awesome mountain, and so it became my local playground. I could literally see the North Face from where I sat in my chair working at a GP practice, which provided both a gentle taunting and an endless source of psyche and motivation. Long summer evenings meant that its summit cairn became an after-work objective. With just a fifteen minute drive and an hour of fast-walking, I could reach the CIC hut, the Alpine-Style Mountain refuge which was erected almost 100 years ago in 1928 nestled beneath the rocky faces and ridges. From here I would choose a ridge to ascend Ben Nevis, sometimes going solo, sometimes bringing along an enthusiastic friend, and once even bivving on the summit. Night after night, I witnessed spectacular sunsets from the summit plateau, and I slowly fell in love with this majestic mountain.
There are five main ridges on the North Face of Ben Nevis, which go left to right as follows: Northeast Buttress (V. Diff); Observatory Ridge (V. Diff); Tower Ridge (Diff); Ledge Route (Grade II scramble); Castle Ridge (Mod). I had heard of people linking these together in a single day, by doing three in ascent and descending the others and I thought this sounded like a brilliant challenge. But keen to put my own extra twist on things I wondered if it might be possible to do all five in ASCENT! Eventually, I decided it was.
My friend Callum happened to be in town on the day I was going to attempt the challenge and so I invited him to join me. Having the company turned out to be a brilliant psychological boost and made the whole day much more fun and relaxed!
As we walked in to begin our massive adventure, we were a little dubious about the mist that appeared to be hanging ominously over the top half of the mountain. There was also quite a lot of snow lingering around two of the ridges which I hadn’t yet climbed that season. Arriving at the CIC hut, the conditions were poor, and so we altered our plan of NE Buttress to instead start with an ascent of Tower Ridge which I knew very well (having done it about fifteen times that summer)! From the top, we carefully identified features leading to the summit so that we would find the ridge again during our future descents. Then we retraced our footsteps back down Tower Ridge and traversed over to the base of NE Buttress. One down, 4 to go!
I had never climbed NE Buttress before and opted to take my climbing shoes. There was a lot of wet rock during the initial scrambling but soon we were moving swiftly upwards on pristine rock just as the clouds started to lift. The two short climbing sections known as ‘The Man Trap’ and ‘The 40ft corner’ were enjoyable and demanded attention. From the upper slopes we looked over to Observatory Ridge to check out the snow conditions and it looked like there was just enough rock linking together snow-patches to make it doable. Game on!
We descended again via Tower Ridge, and after re-filling our water bottles, we traversed across snow slopes to reach Observatory Ridge. I was glad to have my climbing shoes because they allowed me to pad fluidly and effortlessly up the continuously engaging but never too difficult ridge. It was pure joy! The final hundred meters or so were covered by deep snow, but the angle was shallow and the snow was stable so we continued on up to the summit, plunging deep holes with our running shoes.
Crossing the summit plateau for the third time that day, we walked over to Ledge Route and descended with care, enjoying the awesome views as we went. But of course, the objective was to do all five ridges inascentand so upon reaching the gulley at the base of the scramble, I turned round and re-climbed Ledge Route all the way to its cairn! Callum decided to wait at the base, content with an awesome day out and less obsessed with the slightly convoluted circular journey I was instigating.I descended Ledge Route again to re-join him an hour later, and then we crossed the hillside together to reach our final climb of the day, Castle Ridge. By now it felt like we were “on our way back to the car” with just this one last diversion of a few hundred meters upwards. I love Castle Ridge, it saves its very best climbing to the end with a steep, almost overhanging wall guarding the way to the fifth and final summit.
And suddenly, that was it! Pulling over the bulging wall on big holds, we scrambled up to the cairn with huge smiles on our faces. Any tiredness we may have felt was completely overridden by the happy energy we felt from having spent a whole day doing what we loved. It was invigorating. Over 3000-meters of vertical had felt almost effortless due to the continually exciting nature of the terrain and the epic beauty of our surroundings. The simple happiness of just being and moving in the mountains is a type of magic that draws me back again, and again, and again.