Ben Nevis Winter Ridge Enchainment / by Alex Mathie

Standing by the boot of the baby blue Volkswagen Beetle, I am wearing nothing but my pants. It is dusk and I have just finished stuffing 80 litres of equipment into a large rucksack, which—once I have some more clothes on—I will be swinging onto my back and hauling up to the lower slopes of Carn Dearg, just below Ben Nevis.

At this moment, I realise, with a slightly nauseating disappointment, that to an onlooker, I am a London-type. I have, after all, just arrived at the bottom of the UK’s tallest mountain, on a bank holiday weekend, in a decidedly kitsch vehicle which has just transported me 515 miles. From London.

I have, after all, just packed what appears to be almost three times as much equipment as a competent winter climber would require. Inside my pack, next to the climbing essentials, are three cans of craft beer, a coffee grinder, an inflatable pillow, and two (yes, two!) pairs of ice axes. And, let me remind you, I’m standing in the car park in my pants, wobbling awkwardly while trying to put some socks on.

I am, all things considered, a bit of a twat.

At this moment, Matt leans over to me.

“Do you have a spare headtorch?”

As it happens, I don’t. I have a spare pair of ice axes. I have four packets of tortellini. Somewhere in there, I have a small paper bag of Brazilian coffee beans. But I don’t have a spare headtorch.

“No.”

“Oh. I’ve forgotten mine.”

Beta

To be honest, I love planning this stuff almost as much as I love doing it. So if you want to go full gear nerd, here’s some beta.

General Notes

Ben Nevis has five major ridge lines. From left to right, looking at the north face, they are: North-East Buttress, Observatory Ridge, Tower Ridge, Ledge Route, and Castle Ridge. The ridges vary in length, with Tower Ridge being the longest (allegedly 600m) and Castle Ridge being the shortest (allegedly 275m).

We enchained them in the following order:

  1. Castle Ridge

    Descent via Coire Leis

  2. North-East Buttress

    Descent via Coire Leis

  3. Observatory Ridge

    Descent via a glorious bumslide down Tower Gully

  4. Tower Ridge

  5. Ledge Route (in descent).

In my view, this is the most logical order for several reasons. First, it spreads the difficulty in a sensible way — a nice warmup on a grade III solo, followed by a relatively technical IV, then the toughest route (V) when you’re nicely warmed up, then an easy IV and a really straightforward II when you’re blasted.

Second, it makes sense geographically and minimises the amount of walking you’re having to do to get to the bottom of routes. In my opinion, Coire Leis provides the easiest way off the summit and I was keen to make use of it as much as possible.

Thirdly, it allows plenty of daylight for the routes with the trickier route finding. I had always wanted to do this enchainment onsight, to the point that I had avoided doing the constituent routes on other occasions. But part of me was apprehensive about the possibility of doing Tower Ridge at dusk or in the dark. If you start early enough, and move quick, this is no problem. And, obviously, if you are familiar with the routes already, this won’t be as much of a concern.

Overall, it’s a very big day out and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But it’s an amazing way to experience one of the best winter climbing venues in the UK and to take in some fantastic, historically important lines. Lots of people bemoan the lack of alpine terrain in the UK (myself included, sometimes!) However, if you’re creative enough, there are actually loads of really satisfying ways to emulate big alpine terrain right here in the UK. This is one of them.

Rack & Rope

We took the following:

  • 1x60m 7.9mm Edelrid Apus Pro Dry

  • 2x13cm ice screws

  • Wild Country Superlight Offset Rocks 5-10

  • DMM Torque Nuts 3 and 4

  • 6x60cm slingdraws

  • 4x120cm slings

As well as personal kit (belay plate, autobloc, screwgates etc.)

We could have gotten away with a 40m rope, or even a 30m rope, and preferably something even skinnier, like the Beal Gully. I just used what I had, which happened to be a 60m. It was nice to know that this improved our escape options, however.

Food & Drink

I firmly believe your fuel and hydration strategy is make or break. I carried approximately 3700kcal of food and was incredibly disciplined about forcing myself to eat it. This was in the form of:

  • 9 energy gels (mainly GU brand)

  • 200g pecan nuts (kept in chest pocket for regular snacking)

  • 2 Soreen loaves (260g each)

We took a small 1L stove (MSR Windburner) and three chai teabags which allowed us to melt snow and have a hot brew at the bottom of North-East Buttress and Observatory Ridge. This was great for morale and hydration. We’d intended to stop again below Tower Ridge but we felt pretty happy to crack on with it.

In addition, we each carried 1.5L of water in a disposable, shop-bought plastic bottle (lighter than a Nalgene — sorry environment!) We had intended to carry 1L each and bring a straw to drink from meltwater (it was quite late season), but the straws were brittle and got trashed in my rucksack.

Other

In the notes below you can make out what I wore. But I won’t ‘advise’ this, as it depends entirely on how fast you can move, what the weather’s doing and what conditions you encounter.

We carried a folding carbon fibre pole each (Black Diamond Distance FL Z) and I, for one, was glad of it. For tools, I used a completely stripped back pair of Quarks and Matt used a pair of Nomics. For crampons, I used a pair of Grivel G20 and Matt used a pair of Petzl Lynx.

It all went in a mostly-empty Patagonia Ascensionist 25L (me) and a Simond Cliff 20 (Matt). Our packs each weighed less than 4kg.

The accumulation of all these marginal weight savings allowed me to carry my DSLR and get some cool shots.

As it turned out, Matt didn’t need his headtorch anyway.