Winter Adventures – A day at the races on Ben Nevis Castle Ridge, Observatory Ridge, North East Buttress and Tower Ridge.

Winter Adventures

Andy Watkins – photo A. Watkins Collection.

This is a from a good pal who I climbed with many years ago. It is his birthday this week I was supposed to go down South to celebrate his birthday. Due to other family commitments I could not make it. My pal Andy Watkins sent a series of articles that he wrote.

This is the first in a series :

Andy Watkins on the Sword At Carn Eacheacan – photo Nick Clements

A Group Of Five Short Articles About Winter Climbing

Do you have climbing memories? I do. I can remember some climbs, the most hairy, the sketchiest, the best, classic conditions, or the worst, very vividly sometimes.

At other times, I struggle to piece together the details. But my climbing memories are important to me, and so there are times I rehearse particular memories, actively trying to remember what it was I did on a certain day.

There are “old climbers, and there are bold ones”, the saying goes, but few who are both, and so all climbers who don’t die get old and have memories. There are lots of climbers. That’s a lot of climbing memories. What happens to all those memories if we don’t actively remember them? Do they just get erased, like the old messages on our answer messages?

If I write down my best climbing memories, will I remember them better? Will you help me remember them? Here are five of my best:

“A Day At The Races”{setting the record straight)

My first story starts, as do all good stories, with a failure. At the end of March, it must have been 1992 or 1993, Nick Clement, Phil Caesley and myself failed in our first attempt to climb the four ridges of Ben Nevis in a day, managing only Castle Ridge, in foul weather, before admitting defeat and skulking off down the Tourist track. There was a big avalanche in Castle gully, which I remember as a cautionary signal for the day.

In good weather, Phil and myself returned to Ben Nevis the following weekend. We intended to climb all four ridges un-roped to save time. We had in our bags a spare jumper, a Gore-tex suit and some Twixs chocolate and Phil had a “gopping” Cream egg which was a real struggle to get down with a dry mouth. It was the first time I had taken a litre of water on the hill. On previous visits to hills I had carried a much smaller water bottle.

Phil admits the dehydration training seemed to work though.

We carried a single 9mm rope but, in the event, did not use it. I had done all the ridges before but Phil had only done Tower Ridge, Castle Ridge and North East Buttress leaving Observatory Ridge for this event.

We were both experienced winter climbers but Phil had only done a dozen routes. This included a solo of Point 5 gully so he was not a novice!

We started on Castle Ridge, which we despatched in double quick time, descending via the abseil posts, which we did every time due to the avalanche risk.

We then ascended Observatory Ridge with the Zero Gully finish, for speed reasons, as cramponing on steep neve’ is fast. Phil commented on the sustained nature of the route, what he actually said was very rude saying the route was ——- hard but this is a family magazine and the actual words are unprintable.  

Then we turned our attentions to NE Buttress, which we despatched in a very quick time. The only pitch that I remember is the 40ft corner pitch at the top of NE Buttress, and I’ve got a picture of Phil on the traverse in, the rest is a blur.

We descended via the Abseil posts for the last time to the foot of Tower Ridge for our “piece de resistance”. The average time is 5 hours. The first ascent, by Norman Collie, took 5 hours in 1894, a good time today.  It was our last route and we did it in 56 minutes, not our best time, we had done it in 53 minutes after doing Hadrian’s Wall, but we were to tired this day, hence the longer time.

We topped out to meet two climbers who’d just done Tower Ridge and said they’d just seen two climbers on Observatory Ridge and were suitably amazed when we told them it was us. The looks on their faces when we told them we’d done 4 ridges in a day had to be seen to be believed. They shared a can of Guinness with us to celebrate our achievement.

We descended the Tourist Track just as it was getting dark and drove to Onich, where the RAF Mountain Rescue team, from RAF Kinloss, were staying and I drank beer out of tins long into the night, while Phil slept like the dead.

“Heavy” Whalley, the Team Leader, said that he thought it was the first time that it had been done and I should write an article about it.

(D Whalley – Many of my team including me were on the Ben and had seen Andy and Phil and offered them a bed for the night if they made it or possibly a “stretcher” ride home. I was very worried about them all day. Yet when they arrived it was one of these nights. It was inspirational to all of us and sowed seeds in many of the younger troops what was possible)

It must be emphasised that conditions were perfect, we just followed in the footsteps of those that had gone before and we didn’t jump the Tower Gap, climbing down into it instead, but it was still a good day, especially as we descended via the Abseil Posts and not number 4 gully.

We only took 13 hours, from car to car, more time spent in ascent of the mountain, descent and walking across the top than in ascent. I hope this sets the record straight.!

I had met Andy many years before in South Wales he was an incredibly driven climber. Climbing with little gear much of it needing repaired. I once met him and gave him a pair of crampons as his had no front points left. He climbed in Ron Hills and a woolly jumper soloed a lot and was always pushing the boundaries climbing solo at a bold pace.

Sadly Andy was knocked of his bike and is now confined to a wheelchair. It was a tragic event I visited Andy when I was down South at Innsworth and Andy was in a Care Home. I visited most weeks and it’s incredible to see what Andy has achieved.

This is what he wrote “I don’t climb any more because I was knocked off my bicycle in the year 2000, and I can no longer walk. I’m in a wheelchair. All I’ve got are these memories now.

But I can remember, and that at least is something.”

Thank you Andy for sharing this adventure and you were a huge inspiration to that group of climbers in my team and the military mountaineering clubs. If anything had happened during these days I would probably been involved in the investigation about what happened. It was always in my mind and worse if it was a pal . I had known Andy since the 70’s when we met at St Athans in South Wales. He one if a group that pushed the RAF Teams climbing to a new level. Getting that boldness, ability and drive within the Military environment is not easy to achieve. When you become a leader it is even more apparent. Yet this is what our sport is all about. No matter what level you achieve.

I will get down to see you Andy.

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, Avalanche info, Bothies, Equipment, Friends, Gear, Health, Mountain rescue, Mountaineering, People, Rock Climbing, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

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