First Time Tower Ridge – A time-honoured classic
Tower Ridge 1894 – First ascent Collie, Collier & Solly
I was very lucky I had climbed Tower Ridge and all the other great ridges on Ben Nevis in summer on several occasions but as happens it was a route I did not climb in winter till the mid 70’s when I had just got back from 9 months with Desert Rescue in the Persian Gulf. Twice I had gone to climb it and both times we had got involved in Call outs one of the problems of mountaineering in a Mountain Rescue Team. The” best laid schemes of mice and men” I was lucky to have climbed Castle Ridge in the past and it was and is a great route and a tremendous introduction to ridge climbing on Ben Nevis in winter.
I was going on our annual Winter Course which was two weeks of climbing in the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis this would be the ideal training day for me. It is well-known that Tower Ridge in winter is one of Scotland’s best-loved mountaineering routes, and no ordinary grade III/ IV. It is too many a real Alpine route due to its unusual length and the variable conditions-related difficulties that may be met; it needs to be taken seriously by even the most accomplished teams. Powder snow and verglas (black ice) add considerably to the challenge, and benightments are common. Many get caught out its length and the vagaries of winter make it a special day. I would advise a summer visit is just as recommendable – if less demanding – and helps build familiarization for a future winter attempt.
To set the scene we had a new Team Leader an incredible man Pete McGowan who took the RAF Kinloss Team to another level. He was a tremendous mountaineer a real driver and called everyone “action man” He took no prisoners in the Team and everyone had to climb many were Munro baggers and the team was in his words “culled” Pete led from the front and soon the Team was down to about 18 and weekends were incredible. I enjoyed this period and I was fit but after a big fall at Huntley’s Cave rock climbing I had always enjoyed winter climbing more.
It was not an early start as we set off from Fort William as we had our annual inspection where the big man from MOD in London arrives and checks the team out. He had a great title /name “ The Inspector of Mountain Rescue” (ILR) and was a Senior Officer in the RAF, often with limited mountaineering experience some actually became good friends others not. It is like all inspections it can give a false impression as everyone is on their toes and hoping all goes on. Pete the Team Leader had decreed that everyone was to go on the Ben winter Climbing including the ILR! He would go out with his Deputy Team Leader Don Shanks and I was glad I had missed out on that. We are very privileged that we had access to the then Torlundy Track and this leaves an easy walk to the famous CIC Hut which is a climbing hut situated just below the great North Face and Tower Ridge.
Tower ridge dominates as you walk in is huge and if you include the famous well named Douglas Boulder ( over 800 feet alone) The ridge after this is over 2000 feet in length and takes you on a joyous journey through all types of winter terrain. I must admit I did feel a bit intimidated and my partner for the day was Tom MacDonald we had joined the RAF Mountain Rescue Team together in 1972. Tom was a great climber and we were a good pairing for such a big route. Pete was to go ahead with the Officer in charge of the team Eric Hughes and show us the line and keep us right. There had been heavy snow and the ridge was plastered but we were fit and soon moved up onto the ridge. There were a few groups staying at the CIC Hut and we saw them above us thankfully clearing the way in the heavy snow. The initial gully was fine and we roped up just below the ridge the sky was heavy and looked like more snow ( The forecasts in these days were pretty basic) The initial chimney wakes you up to mixed climbing and we were soon on the ridge and it was like an Alpine arête and we were now on the ridge proper. The exposure was incredible with big drops and great views, the Ben was busy and there were climbers on many routes. We were moving well and this was incredible climbing using every technique as the terrain changed all the time.
The little Tower is the next difficulty (another understatement) and the group ahead of 5 had gone off route. Pete always the gentleman climbed up to them and put them right we lost some valuable time here it was now after 1200 and it would be dark at 1700. The snow started to fall as we pushed on the Great Tower and the famous Eastern Traverse. Here we met another group of 4 with one really scared by the exposure on the traverse a big drop here opens the mind to a fall. Again Pete surged ahead sorted it out and we were now out in front. Tom and I were climbing well despite all the stop start of the day with Tom leading the harder pitches and by the time we climbed the Great tower and the steep wall it was dark. You have to use all the skills involved in winter climbing on this route it is a long way and you use all the skills you learn, many unorthodox. The group behind had asked Pete for me to leave my gear in place for them and I did and we were soon just above the famous Tower gap. It was not the place to be and the wind was wild and the snow very heavy. I was just in the Gap when another light came from below and it was party in another climb Glovers Chimney and there lead climber was soon beside me. He was a grumpy guy and we soon sorted things out and he soon realised that I was no mug, despite my stature. The point was made and we were soon we having a busy time.
We were soon through the bottleneck and the final slopes to the top of the Ben were loaded with snow, we would have to be careful here. There was a chance of avalanches so we belayed whenever possible. We heard and saw the lights of the other parties at the Gap and they asked for help, conditions were awful. One was stuck in the Gap and Pete went back and sorted them out. We could hear him cajole them all the way – his famous phrase “My granny could climb out of here” and other words were caught in the wind whilst we climbed slowly to the ridge, breaking trail in the deep snow. It was now very late the other parties were now through the gap led by Peter “Pan” McGowan it was now blowing a gale and we were in a white out on the top of the Ben. We had poor and broken radio contact in these days and we had heard in amongst the day’s calls that two of our stars in the team were bivouacking high on Observatory ridge as the conditions were wild and avalanches were pouring down. I was too interested in our situation to think the worse, but it played on my mind.
Pete got everyone together we were now about a party of 15 most were very intimidated by the weather and the navigation to get off the hill safely. It was hard work being young and daft I just wanted to get home but Pete kept us all right. Eric slipped on the way down and cut his face looking scary with a blood covered face in the torch-light but he was okay. The weather cleared just above the Red burn and to see the light of Fort William was special a view I was to enjoy many times. We kept everybody together till the Red burn then headed of back to land rover. That last hour was hard work in deep snow and we eventually got back to the land rover just before midnight. It was back to Fort William and some food our VIP visitor I think was not impressed and Pete said we would be up at 0500 for the Ben again to help out two intrepid climbers on Observatory Ridge. They would have a wild night and the next day’s forecast was now in and much worse. Before we went to bed we grabbed some gear to help the boys if they needed help 2 x 500 foot ropes and the cliff rescue gear. I was given a bag with a 500 feet rope to carry just before I went to bed. We had no radio communication with our troops since late afternoon and though we did not show it we were worried. The boys had said they were okay and would retreat in the morning, do not worry! There was no chance of a helicopter the weather was very poor and we told Lochaber MRT that we may need help and would call them later if necessary.
I am lucky I can last on little sleep and do not need much also my adrenalin was very high, my gear was soaked and I had a huge bag for the next day. Food was devoured and I was up at 0500 mostly wet gear on and after a huge breakfast and then started the plod up to CIC Hut in very heavy snow and poor visibility and high winds. It was very hard work, we arrived at the CIC Hut and Pete, Tom, myself and a few of the team started the long trudge of Observatory Gully then out of the gloom came our two heroes. They had abseiled successfully of from high on Observatory Ridge and it was a great feeling seeing them alive and well, one I will never forget. The photo is of the “CIC Hut alive” party after the night out on the Ben. It was a grey day as it looks!
It was great to stop and have a brew with them at the hut and then get down, I looked in my bag and it had not a 500 foot rope in it but pulleys and ropes. I had not checked it when given it and just put my own basic gear on the top. What a disaster that could have been?
What a weekend and our VIP visitor had seen it all, how Pete handled it was incredible and I was so glad that no one was hurt but so many lessons were learned. I was to climb Tower Ridge on many occasions in winter and have a few interesting days in winter especially at the famous gap. I have also been involved in a few rescues and every year Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team have the odd epic every year on this incredible winter day.
Despite the changes in gear and equipment, great weather forecast and avalanche information Tower Ridge in winter is still a time-honoured classic. As the RAF Team Leader at Leuchars and Kinloss I had many great days on this climb and so many young new troops enjoyed the situation of the Tower Gap in a wild night. It became a rite of passage for many and to see a young leader take a party up this climb in winter was great for their confidence and experience. We had a few epics in the past and on the Annual Winter Course which I ran for several years I would wait at the top after my route to see that Tower Ridge had tested many of the new young leaders. Nowadays many rush up it solo it climb the Four Ridges in a day in winter but in bad weather with snow-covered holds, verglas and wild winds it is a hostile place to be and one that will task the most experienced.
First climbed in 1894 with simple gear it will continue to be a winter classic for ever as will my memories of this great climb.
Divine Mysteries of the Oromanicail Quest By Norman Collie – SMCJ 1894
And what joy think ye, did they feel after the exceeding long and troublous ascent? – after
Holding on, falling off
For know that you by these methods alone are the most divine mysteries of the Quest reached.