It was all so very long ago now. If you’d asked me I’d have ventured that it must be about 10 years ago, but a check of the guidebook shows it was longer – March 2001 in fact, when so many of the mountains were off limits because of foot and mouth.
Colin and I had already had a great day in the Northern Corries, which were ‘open’, climbing Invernookie (III,4), and later in the month we found ourselves staying at the Alex MacIntyre Hut at Onich, where the North Face of The Ben was also open. Open all hours, as it turned out.
On Friday evening Colin had talked to two guys who had climbed Harrison’s Direct, a 275-metre Grade IV which was harder than I had done before. But Colin assured me there was only one pitch that made it Grade IV and that the rest was only III. (He denied having said this, afterwards, after it had been proven a vile deception, but I can’t conceive any other way he’d have gotten me to agree to the route.)
We rose early – not early enough as it turned out – and were outside of a cup of tea and away from the hut at 5.30am, driving round to the North Face Carpark and wading through the disinfectant trough to start the weary trudge up the hill. The walk-in to the Ben isn’t particularly memorable in the dim light of morning but I do remember peching up the steep rough section through the trees (now bypassed) and commenting that I’d be a lot tireder by the time we came back down. Colin upbraided me for my negative attitude, but events were to prove me right.
It was fully light by the time we were climbing up below the route, but I have no recollection now of how it started: my memory clicks in sharply about halfway up when a steeper step in the snow-ice pushed me backwards and out of balance, with my rucksack adding to the impression I was climbing an overhang. I knew I wasn’t, but it was a relief when the slope leaned back again and I was able to almost walk the last few feet to Colin’s belay. That was it, I thought; that was the one Grade IV bit on the whole route.
We swapped over at the belay and Colin led off again, making easy progress until a huge, slabby boulder guarding the entry to a narrow chimney. He got established on this, gained some height and then just had to move left and up to enter the hanging jaws of the chimney. Once in there the angle looked to ease back considerably, so it was just that one step.
Just that one step which took, quite literally, more than an hour. I know because after he had scraped about for holds for a while I looked at my watch. And before he’d found the key to progress I’d marked an hour on the clock, so he may even have taken as long as an hour and a half – on one move! Don’t let Colin ever tell you that he’s not stubborn. (Incidentally, when the climb’s in condition this whole section is buried in nice, fat, accommodating ice.)
The secret to progress was a tiny scuff of snow on the blank face of the boulder. It had never looked enough to take a crampon but when a random scrape across the rock cleared it off, it revealed a tiny wrinkle in the rock, just pronounced enough to take a crampon side point long enough for Colin to lift his shoulders into the chimney and expand them
Having got his shoulders into the chimney, though, there was a moment of almost comic realisation as he found he couldn’t move. There was nothing for his feet to push up on and, with his expanded shoulders being all that kept him from falling back out again, he couldn’t use his arms. I’m not entirely sure how he got himself out of that one: when I followed in due course and found myself in the same position, all I could do was move my forearms, ice axes flapping ineffectually at the loose scree that formed the bed of the gully floor of the chimney. With the luxury of a (very) tight rope I was able to do an ungainly combination of mantleshelf, thrutch and lunge to get my feet in the scree and my axes in the mercifully solid neve above.
Easy again up to the belay and then a technically easy(ish) traverse with increasing exposure which seemed to hang over the gully we’d just climbed. Was there another pitch after that? I know there must have been to make up the overall length of the route, but what I remember is the penultimate pitch, which might well have been the crux in different conditions, up a buttress of rock and ice. The light was fading now – where had the day gone?! – and Colin set off up a short slope to a vertical wall, climbed precariously and out of balance. He was worried enough to warn me he was likely to fall off, but not outclassed to the extent that he did and, after a few heart-stopping minutes got onto ‘easier’ mixed ground and disappeared from sight over the top of the buttress.
When I came to follow I knew two things: I had no time to waste – the light was going fast – and I didn’t want to try that steep wall Colin had struggled with. I’d seen a snow-filled groove off to the left, though and went for that – only to find I’d been betrayed by the poor light and my cowardice. After a very few feet the snow-filled groove turned out to be a near vertical strip of very thin and unattached snow. Useless. I used what little height I had gained though and managed to scrabble up the end of Colin’s wall, but then had to make an unprotected and rather sketchy traverse to get to where I should have been and to where the rope would once more protect me. It was getting darker by the minute now and, with the security of the tight rope now directly above me I raced up the pitch, axes and crampons striking sparks as they struck and scraped, onward progress little hindered by the odd non-placement. I never actually came off, but I wasn’t always very attached.
Finally I was up there with Colin at the belay, which was a massive rock we could lean against and sort out head torches.
Did I say finally?
Well not quite. There was still a small matter of a thousand feet of Grade I/II gully to reach the top of the cliff. Only I didn’t know that. Because trusting Colin (which I should have known better of by then) meant I hadn’t looked at the guidebook. And because it was now fully dark and my headtorch battery didn’t have a lot of life left in it, I couldn’t see even a fraction of what we still had to climb.
Colin broke the news that there was still a bit to go, but I took it calmly, having been assured that the ‘climbing proper’ was all done with. Well, again, not quite.
We were at the base of a wide gully, maybe 50 feet across, and our side was a lot steeper than the shallower-looking slope at the other side. Colin started ambling across, not bothering to wait for me to put him on belay. The ground was easy enough, but we were at the edge of a cliff, the snows of the gully dreeping aff the edge and down into the dark depths below, and as the snows dreeped so did the rope Colin was attached to, so that when I went to follow there was a massive loop which inevitably got caught on something and caused several anxious minutes of delay as I pulled, tugged, slackened and flipped the rope in a bid to free it. Colin seemed remarkably unconcerned at it all, which annoyed me at the time, although I later realised he was probably so mentally knackered after leading the whole out-of-condition route that he had, for a while, no more f*cks to give.
Once the rope was retrieved, though, we started upwards. I don’t recall if we started pitching it, but were soon moving together in as dreadful an example of ‘Scottish death roping’ as you could imagine. We remained tied in at either end of the rope, but moved within a few feet of each other, the distance gradually increasing until Colin was at full rope and I was gasping away 50 metres below, struggling and failing to keep up. If either of us had fallen we were both dead – no doubt at all about that – yet, in the darkness and tired as we were, we were unwilling to relinquish the illusory security. Or perhaps it wasn’t so much security as some tangible maintaining of contact on this great, ridged and gullied mountainside where the only signs of life were the glows from our headtorches, each illuminating just a small circle of snow in front of our faces.
We came at one point to a buttress splitting the gully in two, with no indication of which branch we should follow. Colin told me to stay where I was and he would go up a rope’s length to see if he could get any clues and off he set, leaving me grateful for a rest. The neve was rock hard and, though the gradient was never much more than a Grade I slope, we were front pointing all the way, every so often slashing a side step to take the strain off our burning calves. Now I had time to cut and kick a bigger stance, but it gave little relief.
Colin eventually called down to say he’s come to a dead end, with steep rock all around. He’d taken a belay and shouted to me out of the darkness to try up the start of the other branch and see how it was. Was this a good idea? Colin up one gully, me heading up another, with a great buttress between? Well, not very. But that’s what we did. I set off up the right branch and kept going until the rope came tight. The angle hadn’t changed so, though I couldn’t see any more than about six feet ahead in the ever decreasing beam of my headtorch I shouted that it seemed okay this way. And shouted. And shouted.
I tugged hard on the rope. No response.
I shouted and tugged. Still no response.
I was on the verge of going back down to see what was wrong when suddenly the tension on the rope slackened, and a few minutes later Colin’s light appeared round the buttress below.
“How does that look?” he called.
“Okay I think.”
He started climbing towards me. “Fell asleep,” he muttered. It was no reassurance at all to realised I wasn’t the only one who was tired. Being able to nod off in such circumstances was an indication of how much strain Colin had been under for the whole day. But still he forged on ahead. There really was nothing else for it. And there was nothing else for it but for me to follow.
My calves burned, my thighs ached. The dimming glow of my headtorch lit up only a small circle of featureless snow in front of me and a great black void plucked at my heels. I lost any sense of how far I had come and there was no indication of any end. For a time, not entirely under my own control, I toyed with the notion that this was hell: Colin and I had fallen sliding down the gully, hurtled off the cliff below and died on the rocks above the Allt a Mhuillin, and this was a calf-burning never-ending ascent into darkness. Knowing it was nonsense didn’t help: the upward journey still seemed endless. By now even cutting a step didn’t help ease the pain. I couldn’t keep climbing without pausing every so often, but stopping offered no relief. Just climb. And climb. It vaguely penetrated that I’d not seen Colin’s headtorch for a while, but the rope still snaked up ahead of me so still I climbed.
The end came suddenly. So suddenly and disorientating that I almost fell backwards. The steady vision of fading white just a couple of feet in front of my face was suddenly replaced by a view straight past a recumbent Colin and down over 4000 feet to the streetlights of Fort William and Caol. Teetering for a moment, I leaned back forward and pulled myself over onto the flat ground beside Colin. We lay side by side and shook hands, laughing in relief. We had reached the top.
We could have slept right there, so good did it feel, but the clear view down to sea level was a momentary clearing and, out of the shelter of the gully, we were exposed to a tearing wind and intermittent white-out conditions. It was time to go.
I confess I suggested making for the summit shelter ( a curving kilometre or more away, but alluring all the same) but Colin had a bearing ready and we set off for the steep slopes above the Halfway Lochan. They were steeper than we would have liked, but it was already 11.30pm and we wanted home. In any case, there were about a million boulders poking through the snow to anchor the snowfields – or so we reasoned. We were still roped at this point – properly short-roped by now – and at one point a large slab of snow dished out of a hollow and slid off downhill, sending Colin somersaulting. I tell him I stopped the fall by jamming my axe behind a rock. It certainly nearly wrenched my arm out of its socket, but the truth was that I happened to have my axe behind the rock when Colin fell – I don’t think my reactions were up to anything so impressive by that time. I think my whole brain was trying to close down. My torch battery hadn’t been up to much even when I switched it on, and had been gradually fading as the night wore on. We were about halfway down towards the Lochan when Colin asked how long my torch had been off: I wasn’t aware that my only light was now the faint glow of the street lamps from the town! But we were past the worst. Once we were below continuous snow cover it became harder to see where I was going, but eventually we reached the path by the lochan and sat down. Sat. Properly. For the first time since the previous morning. How amazingly good it felt was tempered only by two things: one, that we had to keep going, and two, that the apple, which I’d been dreaming of for the last couple of hours, was nowhere to be found. I could have wept.
It was coming on faint daylight when we were finally back at the car – even more tired than I had forecast on the walk-in the previous morning – and I drove – more dangerous than any drunk – back to the Alex MacIntyre Hut. Despite all our dreams of food, when we got in all we could face – and longed for – was a cup of tea. And as we sat drinking it in exhausted bliss and relief we looked at the clock: it was 5.30am – exactly 24 hours since we had finished our previous cup of tea and left for a day out on The Ben. Mission accomplished.