The Classic ridges of Ben Nevis: Castle Ridge, Tower Ridge, Observatory Ridge and North East Buttress.

My Mountaineering Club – The Moray Mountaineers has a meet at the CIC Hut for the weekend. Sadly I won’t be there as I have a wedding this weekend. It was great to chat about routes and add a bit of advice. They will hopefully have a great night. Looking at the forecast it’s not great but I am sure they will enjoy.

A few years ago met a old mate Dougie who now works with the SAR helicopter at Bristows in Inverness as an engineer. We had a coffee in town and he was talking about his days on the RAF Kinloss MRT in the early 80’s when he was a talented mountaineer and is now getting back into the mountains after working abroad for many years.

We were speaking about Ben Nevis and some great days with his mate Tom MacDonald and the classic hill day the 4 great ridges on the Ben. It was a special day that many in the team had done over the years but Tom and Dougie did it fairly fast after a wild night in Glencoe. It was great to hear the stories but my view the way to do these ridges is one at a time and savour them as the solo climbers and others rush by.

The Classic Tower Ridge with the helicopter in the background.

My first days rock climbing on Ben Nevis was the call – out in September 1972 on Tower Ridge when three Naval climbers who were staying in the CIC hut fell from Tower Ridge. It was a terrible tragedy we helped recovering the casualties with Lochaber MRT after an early morning drive to Fort William with no sleep.

It was a huge eyeopener to me as a young guy and showed me how this mountain can be such a place for me of sorrow and joy over the years. I was with the late John Hinde who followed the line from where they fell from. It was wet and slippy and a bit different from my previous climbs at Cummingston and other small crags! I was aware of the seriousness of this incredible climb that had everything I wanted out of the mountains. I remember the huge drops, the loose rock and the tower gap! I was a tired laddie at the end of the day. John was so wise and worked out where the accident had happened when all three were moving roped together with no protection!

The team were always working in new challenges. The Classic was the 4 Ridges in a day maybe 5 if you add Ledge Route are done anyway you want.

That first Callout in 1972 was a huge reminder to me in future years that if roped be ready for a slip and always protect the climb if possible! That day Tower Ridge was wet and Misty that added to the mystery of the mountains North face. Despite the tragedy all these years ago I wanted to come back and climb other routes.

When I climbed all 4 in a day it took 12 hours to climb them with Big Al MacLeod (RIP) We did Observatory Ridge down Tower Ridge then North East Buttress and down Castle Ridge. That for me it was a magic day and I used the rope fairly often much to Al’s laughter being a poor climber. I did it again once more staying at the CIC hut and adding Ledge Route learning so much about this great hill. Over the years I was to climb Tower Ridge often I have great memories of Al waiting and nearly falling asleep on the Great Tower.

On a wet day Tower ridge can be interesting.

To me Observatory Ridge is always a challenge and to me the trickiest. It has a serious start and is a long route taking you some wild scenery. Observatory Ridge as all the ridges even in summer can cause real interest they are long Alpine in length. Yet they can be a real fun and just to do one now at my age will sort me out. You never know what the Ben will give you as at times even in summer they can hold snow and verglas after a chilly night.

The photo above is The steep chimney on Castle Ridge in early winter end of Sept-  always a bit of interest here! We abseiled this on one of my descents.

On the ridges It was always a day of introduction to this incredible mountain I loved doing one of the ridges with a new troop and then the walk onto the summit and round the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. One of the troops many years ago fell of on Castle Ridge at the steep chimney ! It was on Willie Mac’s first day out and I held him luckily. Willie gave up smoking after that and he became the man in charge of the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams.

North East Buttress a lovely way to the summit.

North East Buttress is a special way to the summit and after the initial slabs the ridge is grand and what views the fun starts at the man/ woman trap near the top and then the 40 foot corner high up and this can be a lonely place in poor weather. It’s good to add Raeburns Arête as a start.

it is always damp and wet the climb 40 foot corner gives you a wee bit of fun after the man trap.

There are so many stories of these great classic ridge on the Ben and how serious they can be. They are Alpine at times and I wish so many of the rock athletes who go craging would enjoy these magnificent places. I have been with the stars on the small crags and climbing walls then in the Tower Gap in a wind and rain it all seems so serious from an indoor wall. These routes are great adventures and as the snow leaves these great cliffs it is time get out there and enjoy some of the best climbing in the Uk. It would be great if my club had a meet at the Ben on day and get the climbers out onto the big cliffs?

Raeburns Arete A great way to extend the day on North East Buttress.

Many will find these climbs so easy but still exciting others will be rushing. My advice is to savour them and sit and enjoy this place with it’s great cliffs and look about and see the scope of this great mountains. Be careful of loose rock and changing weather and think that Tower Ridge was first done in descent. .As Team Leader of both Kinloss and Leuchars MRT I used to let my new rock leaders loose on the Ben. They cut there teeth in the poor weather or in late summer and learned so much, never underestimate this place. It was great to see them on their return or on the top of the Ben after an ascent of one of the great ridges. It was also a great way to learn about the mountain and learn valuable local knowledge.

Over the years in summer and winter I must have climbed over 100 routes many again again. Every time I see the huge North Face on Ben Nevis it never seems to fail to impress me.

So what are you up to this summer my advice is to get up these ridges get to know the Ben and then you can get on to the bigger climbs but that is another story.

B1954 Ben Nevis Diagram

1954 Ben Nevis Diagram

There are some great books on the Ben well worth a read. This is the best what a read of the great climbs and the people who made them.

Comments as always welcome !

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
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2 Responses to The Classic ridges of Ben Nevis: Castle Ridge, Tower Ridge, Observatory Ridge and North East Buttress.

  1. Jim Higgins says:

    I have just finished watching an old documentary from a series called The Edge. It was a re – enactment of the first winter climb of Tower Ridge in 1939 by Murray, Laidlaw and Raeburn. Primative gear in those days and it pulls on memories of the days we scraped our cash together, as boys, to get a rack of technical gear together which now seems as ancient as the gear they used. My old hauser became a tree swing for the grandweans but I kept my alpenstock as I fondly call it. My old camp interalp that I saved for weeks for on an apprentice wages. It is now a wall feature in my man cave where I whittle away the hours tying flys for fishing.
    Tower ridge is a distant memory for me now. I managed to cram in two quick classics in the fortnight before my first daughter was born, curved ridge and then tower the week later. She arrived a few days later. My first winter tower ridge was two years later but this time I waited till daughter number two had arrived. It was a late autumn day with the ridge varied in verglass and hoar frost and daylight in shorter supply. The sky was cloudless and the peachy hues reflected on the whitening peaks it was one of those evenings as we crested the ridge when our spirits soared.
    The man that accompanied me on those days has just moved back to my town to live next door to me. He is 75 and as fit as a fiddle. Me….. well I have depreciated in value but he is hanging over the back door fence tempting me beyond human bearing. The human body is a resilient old machine he tells me.
    My wife is checking the small print on my life insurance (?????)
    I am just going to watch the programme again.

    Liked by 1 person

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