The Tower Ridge Affair

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At Summits we have always taken great pleasure in helping customers tackle routes they might find difficult alone. A few keen hillwalkers asked if we would guide them up Tower Ridge, a famous route on the North Face of the Ben. 


In summer, it’s a careful scramble.  In winter it needs mountaineering skills. In poor weather it is best not to meddle with it. We had hoped to squeeze in an ascent of Tower Ridge before winter arrived. October had been a cold and wet month and we waited for a weather window before 'going for it'.  


A couple of my mates were also keen and so six of us trudged up the path beside the Allt a Mhuillin on a cold but dry day. The cloud ceiling was just above the Douglas Boulder and there was no hint of snow as we anticipated a cold but enjoyable day. We passed another three guys intent on the same route on the path to the hut. More customers I knew from the shop and before I knew it there were nine of us heading up East gully to the notch at the start of the ridge.


All was good with enjoyable craic until we reached the Little Tower - the start of the real scrambling. We roped up to give the guys some practice at belaying and placing the odd runner. So far so good until we moved up into the thickening mist. Before long we had entered a totally different world - snow and ice clung to the rocks and I noticed the temperature drop dramatically! Shit - what to do? To carry on was to invite a possible epic! However, to descend would have probably taken longer than forcing the route. Most of the team hadn't climbed the route before so they were unaware that the main difficulties were near the top. I was persuaded to carry on because I knew we were close to the Great Tower and once we had climbed this, we only had Tower Gap to deal with. What could go wrong!


Thankfully there was enough of a path at the Eastern Traverse and after much scrabbling, slithering and grunting we managed to exit the chimney just below the Great Tower. The chimney had become a sheet of ice as one by one we had struggled up the polished ice-covered rock. Things were getting serious now. We had a couple of ropes and some slings between us with a hand-full of runners. And now we were winter mountaineering with no axes, crampons or winter boots! We had to get organised and get everyone safely to the top of the Great Tower. It was dark by now but we all had head-torches and the weather was calm. 


Once on the Tower we braced ourselves for the last obstacle - the famous Tower Gap. I had used all the runners on the Great Tower to make sure everyone was safe and sent Bob to tackle the Gap. He was securely belayed at our side and managed very quickly into the Gap. To climb out of the Gap he would be less secure and after a few tries he was stumped. The ice was verglassed and the snow was not deep enough for any purchase. 


We had to get Bob out of the Gap and onto the other side. He had a couple of slings and no gear but I knew there was an old peg strategically placed on the other side - if only he could reach it. By this time there were murmurings of mountain rescue and staying where we were until help came (no mobile phones in those days). This was not a situation I wanted to find myself in and then I remembered reading how Bill Murray (a famous mountaineer of the old school) had climbed out of the gap with his boots off and using his socks for traction. I shouted to Bob to try this and 15 minutes later he was up!


The rocks above the gap were even more plastered with snow and ice and we needed to find an old rusty peg I knew from previous climbs. For those of us old enough to remember 'The Golden Shot' it became a little like that. Up a bit, left a bit, right a bit, down a bit - all the while Bob scraping away at the snow and ice to find a crack where I hoped the old peg would hold the key to our safe traverse of the Gap. Bingo! He found it and simultaneously a huge cheer went up from the rest of us. I think everyone had started to get a sense of how important finding that peg was for all of us.


 The climbers amongst us felt a huge sense of relief. We had crossed the Gap without any winter gear and we then set about getting everyone across. This took some time but everyone marvelled at how sticky their socks were on the ice. Good old Bill Murray.


My thanks still go out to Bob Carson and Bill Lawson, my climbing mates who were totally unflappable throughout the whole affair. We reached the summit at around 1.30am and were back down in Fort William for around 4 am. My first stop was the police station where concerned wives had reported us missing to the local constabulary. The Mountain Rescue were primed to come to look for us at first light. Me - I was back at the shop by opening time and the day after I sold a whole load of axes, crampons and winter boots!

For more information on Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, check out the detailed post on Walk Highlands - https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=75321

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