1959 – 16 Jan 1959 J.M.Alexander, I.S Clough, D. Pipes, R.Shaw.
To many on Ben Nevis Point Five Gully is perhaps the most famous gully in Scotland, and one of the world’s most sought-after winter climbs. Its first ascent, led by Ian Clough, in 1959 took 40 hours over 6 days and involved around 1000 feet of fixed rope and 60 rock and ice pitons. They experienced classic Scottish winter weather, with storms raging around them and spindrift avalanches pouring over them as they climbed. The following year saw the first one-day ascent, with most parties taking 5-6 hours to climb the route these days. Nowadays with modern equipment many say it has been tamed. Yet every year so many have it on their wish list.
I have been lucky and climbed in Canada since 1984 in winter until recently. Yet so many locals asked me about the famous Ben Nevis and Point 5. Compared to many routes in Canada “the Point” as it’s effectively known was world renown even then. It has a huge history on Ben Nevis and was such a sought after plum for many years by so many of the top climbers of their day.
You cannot fail to be impressed by Ben Nevis North Face. For many years it was protected by a terrible muddy path that was an awful start to any day. Yet the views on a good day in winter make this a Cathedral to ice and snow. Nowadays the path is excellent the hut below the Ben The CIC hut a wonderful place to stay. Owned by the SMC it is unique vantage point for climbing on the Ben.
From the Ben Nevis Guide Book Rock and Ice Climbs. “After many attempts this famous route succumbed after a 6 day siege. Every night they recuperated in the CIC Hut – a disqualification in the opinion of a puritan minority ( who alleged, furthermore, that a rest day had allowed the party to replenish their stocks from a Fort William blacksmith’s ) Whenever Point 5 can be climbed in a day , using conventional technique remains to be seen. The first one – day and second overall ascent was made by J.R. Marshall, R. Smith 10 Feb 1960. No artificial aids apart from two axes were used. “
I love these historical facts that used to be in the old Guide books. Some of the descriptions are unique and are classic descriptions. I find a lot of the new Guide books mainly factual or is that just me ?
I have been very lucky to eventually get up Point 5 after three attempts. Once the spindrift was so bad we abseiled of the Second pitch, another time we were involved in a rescue and finally late on in the season I climbed it with the late Al MacLeod.
The first pitch was steep but short lived there was plenty of gear available but we had been to Canada and were confident. The Chimney and Rogue pitch made you think. If you like me have read the tales of this route it’s a climb like no other. I backed up Al’s belays on each pitch , he laughed at me but as always on each belay. I had done a few rescues on this area. After these pitches it is still steep but seems never ending snow with limited protection. We were first on the route a great tip and two other parties arrived as we climbed the first pitch. We never saw them and any ice is funnelled down these early pitches. From here It’s easy to think it’s all over but I have seen folk fall from here. We reached the summit via a small cornice of rock hard ice and sat on the top. I was drained my calves were sore and I was very fit then. The last few 100 feet were such hard ice you really had to ensure your feet were good each step. For me it had been a dream for me to climb this route. We wandered back down and Al ran up a few more routes solo such was his way. I packed up the gear from the hut and we descended for a night in the Fort. Next day I was in cloud 10 I would not go back again and climb Point 5 . I did many more routes on the Ben after that over 5O winter climbs but that was a special day for a very average climber.
To me I was on Ben Nevis on North Castle gully in 1973 getting scared cutting steps when both the Point and Zero Gully were soloed . To me the 70’s were the huge change occurred. In 1973 things were never the same after that incredible machine Ian Nicholson climbed Zero Gully and Point 5 on Ben Nevis in three hours – startling proof that the effectiveness of the new axe and crampon techniques reducing times on the classic lines. Great days, amazing people fantastic memories.
I was lucky to see many of the great climbers of their day solo many routes on Ben Nevis in a day and marvel at their confidence and ability. Yet Ben Nevis still brings out the best in each generation. The hard mixed climbing that is being done on Ben Nevis nowadays is outstanding as equipment improves and fitness and technique still make the Ben a special place.
I think being involved in Rescues on Ben Nevis fairly often especially big lowers give you even more respect for this great mountain. Over the years I have helped carry many casualties of the North face with Lochaber Mountain Rescue. I have searched below gullies in wild conditions looking for avalanche or missing climbers. I got to know the Ben fairly well, I felt it tolerated me at times. Yet a day like Point 5 or any other route on the Ben gives you such a feeling in your heart. To walk of in a sunset or fight your way of the plateau in a storm are the days you remember.
Many days like on Zero Gully with Mark Cheeky Sinclair or the Point with big Al MacLeod were the best days of my life. They got me up the routes that I never dreamed of climbing. Yet more than that they were great companions bound by a friendship that only climbing can bring. Sadly both are gone killed climbing yet many are still about doing what they can as age catches up.
Winter climbing is unique but is so different from most sports