Arriving on the summit into brilliant sunshine we were slightly overwhelmed by such an immaculate day. On the walk-in by the Allt a’Mhuilinn we were not sure what to expect, what the ice would be like, what we would climb. Our uncertainty took us towards a regular ascent of Orion Direct instead of something more exotic. But it became increasingly obvious as we climbed higher up the face that the ice was pretty much perfect and the most ephemeral routes were there to be climbed.
This was an unexpected gift, a random act of kindness, and was all the more memorable and meaningful. Nobody else was on the north face of Ben Nevis, in perfect weather above a layer of clouds in the glens. For a lucky few local residents, the Covid lockdown had its benefits.
The Orion Face on Ben Nevis is the home of the biggest and best ice climbing in the country. Orion Direct was the first and is the ultimate classic route up the face, first climbed in 1960 by Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith. This was just one of their incredible climbs completed in a seven-day period, the pinnacle of the step cutting era.
Approaching Orion Direct
Mike finishing up Space Walk
Pitch 2 of Orion Direct
By modern standards, the technical difficulty is low, but any ascent is always a serious undertaking. Protection is often spaced and consecutive ice screw belays are always required. The route is long and doesn’t follow a natural line, so route finding is difficult. For most people, an ascent of Orion Direct is a lifetime ambition, and quite rightly so. But it is not the only route up the face.
The stellar theme is maintained in the names of other climbs: Astral Highway, Journey Into Space, Space Invaders, Spacewalk. Many routes now wind their way up the face which, at its best, is covered in squeaky snow-ice, the ultimate in thin face ice climbing. The question is, what is the best way up the face?
Here is my suggestion. Climb Orion Direct for four pitches into The Basin and to the crux traverse out onto the upper face. Orion Directissima would take you straight into The Basin, with more sustained ice climbing, but I always enjoy the exposed ramp of pitch two of Orion Direct that leads to the bottom left corner of The Basin. You could also climb the start of Slav Route and trend left, straight to the foot of The Second Slab Rib. This is nice but is less exposed than Orion Direct.
The Second Slab Rib is one of the few rock features on the face that is recognisable, even with a very good covering of snow and ice. It is climbed by the summer rock route, The Long Climb, and occasionally holds enough ice on the slab to climb. This is a sensational pitch and you should take the opportunity if you are in the right place at the right time. Rob and I found ourselves in exactly this position in February 2021.
Rob high above The Basin on The Long Climb Finish
Mike Pescod considering the thin ice on The Long Climb Finish
Mike on the summit plateau
Thin, silky smooth ice cased the slab. It was a shame to take something as harsh as an ice axe to something as clean and pure as the ice on the slab. Standing on mono points on transparent, flawless ice was quite a feeling, 200 metres up the face. The slab leads to a few steep steps and grooves and a belay directly above The Basin. Another pitch carries on up beautiful grooves and ice bulges.
The way ahead is obvious, but daunting. A clean slab of snow-ice leading off to the horizon and the deep blue sky requires a steady approach and a conviction that it will lead to somewhere friendly. Where it leads to is the last pitch of Spacewalk, a steep shallow groove of fat ice right at the top of Orion Face. Spectacular climbing in a sensational position to finish a direct line up the biggest and best ice climbing face in the country.
Any climb on The Orion Face is awesome, and it is mean-hearted to choose one above the rest. But, linking a few together removes this impossible choice and gives perhaps the finest line of all: Orion Direct, into The Long Climb and finish on Spacewalk.
Looking south over the Mamores towards Buachaille Etive Mor and Bridge of Orchy
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MORE FROM MIKE
"Nothing is absolutely safe - what we are aiming for is safe enough."
"Ice screws will be run-out at best and sometimes placed more for decoration than for effectiveness."
"We stepped forward cautiously, very aware that we were following in some very big footsteps."