The North Face of Ben Nevis is so iconic that doing a rock climb up it has to be on every adventurer’s bucket list. So I enlisted the help of mountain guide and Scottish Highland legend Mike Pescod, to find out how we could achieve a summer ascent – via the rock climbing Tower Route – for Men’s Fitness magazine.
Britain’s highest mountain provided a rain-soaked challenge wrapped in enigmatic mists, which tested my skills and soon turned into a lesson in trusting to your own abilities…
I’ve always wanted to climb the North Face of Ben Nevis. This towering expanse of grey/ pink granite, lifted by towering ridges and cut with deep fissures, rises 1,345m to a resolute line of rock that breaks the backs of entire storm systems – it’s the realm of giants.
In the summer, hikers march up the mountain path on the gently rising western flank. This hike is no push over, but it is pure hiking. In contrast, climbing the North Face of Ben Nevis is a mountaineering challenge, requiring knowledge, climbing gear and the skills to use it, or a qualified guide to show you how.
When I contact renowned alpinist and local guide Mike Pescod, he recommends we tackle the popular 600m Tower Route up the North Face, which is graded as an S3 scramble (the highest on the scale) with some climbing pitches, graded as ‘Difficult’.
The length of this route, its burly granite terrain and the tumultuous Highland weather make it a proper alpine climb, but one that anyone with a decent level of fitness can manage, so long as you have the right guide…
The Highlands of Scotland are beautiful, and the valley of Glen Nevis is no exception, even though this beauty is limited to a floating sphere around us of a couple of hundred strides.
Mike had picked out a day to climb The North Face of Ben Nevis that looked ‘dryish’. As it turns out, there’s no rain yet, but swirling mists and low cloud have loaded the heather with heavy drops of moisture. The purple plants are hung with glistening spider webs, like nets trawling the air.
As we trek the recently built approach path from the car park, the quiet closes in around us, the only sounds coming from the tumbling white water of the river Allt ‘Mhuilin, urging us on.
The thing about moving in the mountains is that speed is of the essence, even if you do need to photograph the journey as you go.
So we’re traveling fast and light, with 30L alpine packs full of layers, food and water, and emergency kit. I have my Sony Alpha mirrorless A7RIII and Sony Fe 24-70mm 2.8 lens in a holster for easy access, secured by a waist strap.
Mike is carrying a 20m rope as well as a sling or two, and a couple of carabiners. It’s not much compared to the climbers we will see later on today, loaded up with 50m ropes and full racks of climbing protection. And that’s because we are using the technique of short roping. This harks back to the earliest days of climbing, but with enough practice it can be the fastest and smoothest way to climb The North Face of Ben Nevis safely.
The idea is that you climb in a pair, with 8-10m of rope taught between you, attached to your harnesses, so that the rope will catch on boulders if one of you falls. Then, when you come to a steeper section, the leader can create anchor points by looping the rope around a rock, as he goes, or stop to set up a sling and carabiner belay for the following climber.
Your decision making about decision on when to switch modes and increase the safety is where the art comes in, and is the key to moving quickly and smoothy. Mike stresses it’s not a time to dither, but if you end up thinking: “I really hope my buddy doesn’t fall now because a tug on the rope would be bad,” then you’ve done it wrong.
“You do as much as feels right for you. You’re walking along asking yourself what is the worst thing that could happen here. If a slip was to happen here, then what would be the outcome and am I and my buddy protected enough from that?”
“Tune in to how it feels, decide what the outcome would be, and then do something about it – and do it quickly and slickly; that’s my MO!”
We don’t rope up just yet, but after an hour’s hiking we arrive at the CIC Climber’s Hut and scramble up a rough boulder field lined with twinkling mountain streams, which we use to fill our water bottles.
The 1,345m (4,413ft) summit of Ben Nevis is still shrouded in cloud, but it’s here that you start to really feel the massive bulk of the mountain above you. The Tower Route to the summit starts where the Douglas Boulder rises up like a steep, jagged toothed mini-mountain to the Tower Ridge crest. And the rain has started to fall in earnest now.
It’s not part of the route, so we detour left around it to the Eastern Gulley, a chute stuffed with mud and loose rock, which rolls out from under my feet as we climb, now roped together.
I’m grabbing chunks of granite with my hands but the rock is rain slick and not very encouraging. Pulling out of the top of the gulley I spot the next obstacle: a 20m rough, vertical chimney that’s literally running with rain water.
Mike goes first, looping his end of the rope around a boulder at the top to act as an anchor if I fall, then it’s my turn. Suddenly, the idea of trusting my bones to wet boots on slippery rock, while a sodden rope around a boulder gets ready to break my fall, becomes a little intimidating.
Despite my nerves, I find that by placing my boots carefully on small edges of rock, while bracing my arms against the sides of the chimney, I can push myself up to find the next handhold. It’s not amazingly secure but every time I move up my confidence increases. Climbing with body tension like this a real core workout!
I’m learning the value of good footwork on this climb because slippery rock and loose boulders do not make good handholds. “Use the edges of your stiff boot soles to lock into the small breaks in the stone,” advises Mike as we scramble up.
The visibility is so bad we can only see for a few metres in each direction, but I find that this is sharpening my attention to the details I can see. The ridge rises up in layers of lava rock dotted with lichen and soaked with rain. It gives the stone a sheen and makes it look more like a living organism than an inert hunk of rock.
We scramble up the ridge line, past the Little Tower heading left around the imposing vertical wall of the Great Tower, to a narrow walkway a bit less than a metre wide.
This is the Eastern Traverse, with the cold stone of the mountain on the right, and a sheer plummet to the glen floor on the left.
As falls go, toppling off would be light years from survivable, but it’s technically as hard as walking down a pavement. Part of the trick of staying alive in the mountains is not spending too long up them, so we just walk across it.
You really have to commit to climbing the North Face of Ben Nevis, even when the going is easy. For once I’m glad of the mist shutting down the view, although it does also make the drop look mythical and bottomless, like something from a Norse saga.
At the end of the Eastern Traverse, a monstrous block of rock has fallen down the mountainside, creating a rising tunnel. We are going to have to climb to to the triangle of daylight at its end. The black, glassy sides of the block throw our shadows back at us as we push up through the squeeze.
The top of the Great Tower lies beyond, leading to a 30cm knife edge with vertiginous drops to either side. And beyond that lies a test that Mike hasn’t even told me about yet…
There comes a time on any climb when your faith is tested. Not your faith in what your climbing buddy is telling you, or even in a higher power, but your faith in your own ability to execute what you have to do.
This is the test that is in front of me right now, as I stare at the rain-slick wall of granite a full a metre away from me. In front of my toes is a vertical drop to some very pointy rocks, either side of which is a bottomless, mist-filled void. At my back is a cold, sheer wall of granite
There’s a slow way and a fast way to get across Tower Gap, which lies at the end of the narrowing, knife-edged ridgeline that we’ve just walked across. The slow way involves climbing roped pitches down into it and back up out again. The fast way is to fall across it… and we’re all about speed today.
I take a deep breath, exhale and let myself fall forwards, slapping my palms onto the vertical block of rock and bridging the gap with my own body. I’m now fully committed – I can’t reverse this move, so I feel around the side of the block to find a blind handhold while maintaining the tension in my ‘body bridge’.
Then I step one foot across, pressing the edge of my boot sole into an indentation in the rock. I move my left hand up to a large handhold and I commit my weight to it, pulling myself to the top of the gap.
Once I commit, I am fully immersed in the moment, and getting both of my feet to the top of the block is like breaking the surface of an icy lake. With a surge of elation, I realise it’s good to be alive, but even better to have taken a risk along the way.
Placing a drenched hand on the final boulder and pulling up past it feels fantastically satisfying. Low cloud wraps the summit plateau in mist, but it can’t fully obscure the sheer drops off its side, which I know I have just scaled to climb The North Face of Ben Nevis.
Surprisingly, for a 1,345m peak that’s blasted by storms, and covered in snow for part of the year, the summit of Ben Nevis teems with life. Mike Pescod was one of the mountaineers who took part in a survey of rare artic-alpine plants on the North Face of Ben Nevis, for the Nevis Landscape Partnership.
The climbers were able to survey new areas of where these rare plants grow, and discover that winter mountaineering did not have a negative impact on the plants. In addition to the plants, there are numerous snow buntings flitting around around. The distinctive black and white birds seem to be competing to snatch up the dropped crumbs from the lunches of Gore-tex clad hikers.
They have amber conservation status in Scotland and fully one third of the Scottish population’s breeding pairs are located at the summit of Ben Nevis. (You can see the brown juveniles in my photo below.)
You haven’t completed an alpine climb until you are safely back down the mountain, so it’s with some relief that I see the sky start to clear as we descend.
As a breeze whips away the fog, jaw-dropping views start opening up around us, and the full force of Ben Nevis’s beauty is unveiled. Rounding a high block of stone, we see the whole of Tower Ridge, basking in golden afternoon sun.
The sight makes me smile and I feel a surge of affection for this mighty mountain. Not only that, I feel like I now know myself better, simply for having climbed it. Any place that can so thoroughly connect you to yourself, deserves our utmost respect and admiration.
As Mike and I work our way down to the foot of Ben Nevis he spots an HM Coastguard search and rescue helicopter flying down the valley. As a member of Lochaber Mountain Rescue, Mike knows something is up.
He calls base and discovers that a hiker has tripped over crossing the river and hurt his leg, so we head down to assist with the rescue. I didn’t expect to finish the day helping to helivac a casualty, but it’s a timely reminder that whatever you’re doing in this wild place, dropping your guard – or just plain bad luck – can have serious consequences.
It’s hugely impressive to witness the professionalism of the pilot and winchman up close. I’m glad to be asked to lend a hand lifting the man’s broken ankle into a vacuum splint, hopefully making his ordeal slightly less painful.
My thighs are burning as we hike back the way we came this morning, along the River Allt ‘Mhuilin. I know I will sleep well tonight, but it’s a good kind of tired. The lone tree along the path beckons us on, and as I turn around to catch another sight of Ben Nevis I see the low cloud has rolled back over the scene.
It seems that this mountain only truly reveals itself to you once you have made the effort to get to know it, and yourself, a little bit better…
All Photos © Matt Ray, all rights reserved. With Thanks to AbacusMountainGuides.com and Nevis Range www.Nevisrange.co.uk
Want to read more about climbing? Then check out my Behind The Scenes article on rock climbing in the Peak District with Scottish climber Robbie Phillips, for Healthy For Men magazine.