Ben Nevis is well known as the highest point in the UK. The southern side of the mountain provides a well-trodden track to the summit, ascended by hundreds-of-thousands of enthusiastic tourists every year. The North Face is a far quieter proposition, reserved for the more adventurous and seasoned climber. Its cliffs, ridges and gullies offer a super-sized playground, with limitless potential for scrambling, rock climbing and ice climbing.
Perhaps the most famous of these offerings are the five classic ridges. Soaring dramatically upwards for hundreds of metres, they strikingly divide the North Face of the mountain from left to right as follows: Northeast Buttress (V Diff); Observatory Ridge (V Diff); Tower Ridge (Diff); Ledge Route (Grade II scramble); Castle Ridge (Mod). There exists a well-established challenge to link these together in a single day, typically climbing three in ascent and two in descent. I was keen to add my own twist and attempt to climb all five of them in ascent, thus almost doubling the objective.
Leaving the carpark on a crisp spring morning, my energy and confidence were belied by the undeniably sub-optimal conditions. I had been joined by my friend Calum at the last minute, sure to provide a great psychological boost for the day. A heavy band of mist hung over the top half of the mountain, and patches of snow lingered from the recent departure of winter. By the time we reached the CIC hut, the rain had begun to fall. But with unfazed optimism, we made the decision to begin with Tower Ridge, since I knew it intimately. With a job at the local GP practice, I could literally see it from my desk and it had become a popular evening excursion.
We made quick and enjoyable progress up the ridge, soon finding ourselves at the trig point on a very snowy summit plateau. Normally this might mark the end of a successful mountain day out, yet ours was barely beginning. We retraced our steps back down Tower Ridge, and traversed across the hillside to the foot of Northeast Buttress. One down, four to go.
I had never actually climbed Northeast Buttress before and opted to take my rock climbing shoes. There was a lot of wet rock during the initial scrambling but soon we were moving swiftly upwards on pristine rock just as the clouds began to lift. The two short climbing sections known as ‘The Man Trap’ and ‘The 40ft Corner’ were enjoyable and thought-provoking in equal measure. From the upper slopes, we looked over to Observatory Ridge and were able to get a better idea about the snow conditions. It looked like there was just enough rock emerging from the snow to make it do-able. Game on!
After re-visiting the summit trig point, we descended again via Tower Ridge and eagerly re-filled our water bottles. We traversed around the Coire to find ourselves at the base of Observatory Ridge which rose majestically above us, my favourite of them all. I opted to wear my climbing shoes again, allowing me to pad effortlessly and fluidly up the continuously engaging ridge. The final hundred metres necessitated a return to running shoes, plunging knee-deep into the remaining snowpack.
Crossing the summit plateau for the third time that day, we descended towards Ledge Route and made our way carefully down. Upon reaching the gully at the base of the scramble, staying true to my objective, I turned around and went straight back up. Callum decided to wait at the base with his sandwiches, content with an awesome day and less obsessed with the slightly convoluted circular journey I was instigating. By now the clouds had completely lifted and we enjoyed spectacular views across the glen.
An hour later I returned, and we headed towards our final objective of the day, Castle Ridge. By now we felt like we were on the home straight, and were eager to enjoy every last moment of scrambling that the mountain had to offer. Indeed, Castle Ridge saves its very best climbing to the end, with a steep bulging wall guarding our fifth and final summit. Pulling over the top and scrambling up to the cairn, any sense of fatigue was completely transcended by an invigorating feeling of joy. Over three thousand metres of vertical ascent had felt almost effortless due to the continuously engaging terrain and the epic beauty of our surroundings. We had spent an entire day immersed in the simple pleasure of just moving fast, light and free on the North Face of Ben Nevis.