Ben Nevis: Pictures At An Exhibition

This story, by Mike Dixon, comes in two parts. The photo below is Mike’s.

Scottish Nordwand

A dazzling whiteness infused Ben Nevis. Everything was beautifully lit and shaded as we trudged up to the foot of the Orion Face. It was spring and even the light had a new-life quality. Surprisingly, Geoff Lowe and Willie Graham were walking away from this marvellous spectacle. Both displayed a sunken eyed, haunted look. They looked like two men who’d glimpsed some fundamental cosmic truth and were shaken by the revelations. Retreat from Zero Gully the previous day had instilled in them a healthy respect for the value of life.

Black thoughts and grave reservations remained unspoken but were dissipated by the job in hand. It was the first time I’d climbed with Pete Mayhew. The freezing level was around 3000 feet, producing ice which was fine to climb but poor for screws. During the entire route I wouldn’t have wanted to test any of the belays, even with my semi-anorexic frame.

Entering the Basin was like popping into some aesthetic wonderland. The succession of freeze-thaw cycles had produced a gallery of frozen time ice sculptures, several reminiscent of melting watches from a Dali painting. Any desire to linger was cancelled out by the detritus jettisoned on me from a climber on Astral Highway. Exposure renamed with a rush at the stance beside the Second Slab Rib. A short descent was followed by a diagonal traverse out of the Basin. Perched above Zero and with the ice not as solidly bound to the underlying rock, it felt committing, insecure and sparsely protected. From the stance I watched Pete come up in a truly nordwand setting. The chilly shade contrasted with the ice palace of the Great Tower glistening away in the background. The left slanting ramps that followed directed the gaze down to a pair in the Basin and added further scale to the whole undertaking. It was a great advert for Scottish mountaineering. A snagged rope provided a worrying moment before we emerged into a smaller snowfield below the final tower. Pete took an alternative direct line up a steep, shallow corner/groove; a dark slit visible from the road. I found this tricky to follow and a continuing lack of decent belays was stretching the nerves. A kick up easy snow led to the top.

Burgeoning standards will never relegate a route of this quality. It is a classic route on a mountain not short of superlatives. To put yourself in the mood make sure you’ve read Smith and Marshall’s respective accounts of the first ascent. Think yourself lucky you won’t have to step cut up it.

Carn Dearg buttress

Commando Climber

On a windy summer’s day in the early nineties we stood under the imposing bulwark of the Carn Dearg Buttress. To maximize the cliff’s potential to impress, first timers should walk up in the dark and in the morning burst through the CIC door for a direct assault on the senses. Never a fashion victim, my partner Peter Moffatt was kitted out in regulation green clothing not unsuitable for fighting the Viet Cong. Bullroar is an elegant route traversing across the frontal face; it offers absorbing slab sequences in exposed territory. We had the cliff to ourselves and the whole ascent went pretty smoothly.

We were ambling down. The sun was shining, the views to Loch Eil lovely, and even Fort William looked pleasant from a distance. Peter was in a good mood and this only added to the sense of foreboding. It was a short uneventful walk back to the car, or so it seemed. However there was one last obstacle, a hidden trip wire at the golf course perimeter fence where Peter took a spectacular flier. His tangled limbs resembled a figure from the Picasso painting Guernica. It was  quite ironic for someone who’d just Rudolf Nureyeved his way across 5a rock. Experience teaches that at times such as these you don’t ask Peter how he’s feeling.

On the final stomp across the fairways two cheery golfers engaged eye contact with Peter. Their faces stiffened as though they’d seen the Gorgon’s head. “He doesn’t look too happy,” one of them commented. “And that’s after a good day, ” I replied. It’s not always the route or mountain which lingers longest in the memory.