March 23, 2010
This February, I crossed the pond to climb one of the most famous mountains in the world, Ben Nevis. Although only 4,409 feet tall, “The Ben” is the highest peak in the British Isles and it experiences some of the most vicious weather on the planet. Indeed, hundreds of climbers and hikers have either died or had epic rescues on this mountain—as we would soon witness!
You probably know that Scotland is the home of Scotch whiskey and the birthplace of golf. But you may not know that Scotland, and Ben Nevis in particular, is the home of the sport of ice climbing. Beginning in 1895, the early hard men of the mountaineering world honed their skills on the ridges and gullies of The Ben’s imposing north face. And one climb earned a reputation for being the most difficult of all: Point Five Gully. I've always wanted to climb it!
Point Five Gully is 1,070 feet high and has a modern rating of Scottish Grade V, 5, which means you can count on a long day of hard, scary climbing. In 1959, the first ascent by Ian Clough took 40 hours over a period of six days in bad weather. His team used almost 1,000 feet of fixed rope and 60 rock and ice pitons. The siege tactics enraged the local climbing community, no doubt compounded by Ian being from Yorkshire and not Scotland.
I traveled to Scotland with Ian Osteyee, my partner on many previous adventures and the owner of Adirondak Mountain Guides (http://adirondackmountainguides.com/). We made our way from London by overnight train to Fort William, where we met up with Alan Kimber who runs West Coast Mountain Guides (http://www.westcoast-mountainguides.co.uk/) and would give us important local knowledge.
We hiked five miles and 2,200 feet up to the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut, which is operated by the Scottish Mountaineering Club and located at the base of the north face. The cozy CIC Hut would be our base for the next few days of climbing.
The next morning, Ian, Alan, and I were out the door by 7 AM and headed towards the most famous ice climb in Scotland. The Ben lived up to its reputation for nasty weather and we were treated to “full conditions” with frequent whiteouts and avalanches of spindrift pouring over our heads and into the open hoods of our jackets.
Ian led the hard pitches and found that protection was almost nonexistent; he described them as "one scary climb, my tools would often sheer as I test weighted them.” When it was my turn to follow, I found that “ice” was actually a misnomer as we were climbing steep consolidated snow that was bonded over rock. As I felt my way up the gully, I could hear water running behind this Scottish ice—a rather disconcerting sound since it means things aren’t solid and your tools might even punch through.
After five hours of difficult climbing with an overhanging cornice of snow to finish the route, we suddenly topped out and discovered that the summit of Ben Nevis is almost completely flat! The wind was howling, so we crawled into a summit hut almost completely buried in a snow drift—a welcome respite.
A few minutes later, we were met by a Russian hiker wearing blue jeans and a light jacket who had come up the long, low-angled hiking trail. "Try some Russian pork," he said enthusiastically. "It's most delicious mountain food." Ian and Alan declined emphatically, but I, feeling famished after the climb, plowed my fingers blindly into the container and shoved a few pieces into my mouth. This proved to be a rash decision. The stringy pieces of pork were so vile that I had to spit them out and risk an international incident. Ian later told me the stuff looked like the worst pieces of bacon congealing in a tub of white fat and gristle. Escaping from the hut, we down climbed one of the other gullies and were back at the CIC Hut by mid afternoon.
As the evening progressed, our relaxation and celebration turned to worry when the two teams, who left the hut at the same time as us in the morning, failed to return. Two Germans attempting a nearby ice gulley became lost in the storm, and one was hit on the head by falling ice. The beauty of modern climbing is that they were able to call for a rescue on their cell phone. About 9:00 PM, a team from Scottish Mountain Rescue arrived at the hut. A moment later we heard the whirl of a rescue helicopter, which sported a huge spot light. The Germans, shivering on a ledge for eight hours, shined their headlamps back at the helicopter and were located. At 10 PM, the helicopter dropped two climbers at the summit. One lowered the other down the gulley from a huge spool of cable. Half way down, the rescuer found the Germans, attached them to the cable, and the three lowered the rest of the way down to the base. In total, the team at the summit played out 1,500 feet of cable. At 2:00 AM, they finally reached the hut.
Meanwhile, a group of English holidayers on the famed Tower Ridge were also lost in the storm and, as climbers say, were "benighted." They managed to rappel down their route and straggled into the hut at about 4:00 AM. While Ben Nevis is nowhere near as high as Everest, it clearly is not to be trifled with!
Over the next few days, Ian and I made a few more climbs and enjoyed Scottish hospitality. When I returned home, I was saddened to learn that the Nevis Partnership (http://www.nevispartnership.co.uk/index.asp), a charity dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the area, announced it is closing due to lack of funding. An estimated 150,000 people climb The Ben every year, making it the most popular peak in the British Isles. I sincerely hope that the means will be found to preserve this environmental and historical treasure.