You need a lot of factors to align for a climb like this - 600m of ascent, 6-10hours of climbing, (not counting 5-6hrs getting on and off the Ben), 'all sorts of difficulties may be encountered', famous challenges such as the Eastern Traverse, the Great Tower, Tower Gap, let alone variable ice and snow conditions, the weather, and a fitting partner. It all has to come together at once, otherwise Tower Ridge is not the best place to be - 'Benightments occur with monotonous regularity', and of course, very much worse.
So was yesterday the day? Hayley was certainly 'up for it', the weather looked splendid, the conditions maybe a little too warm, but hopefully Alpine in character. The only issue was that I was a little tired from working Friday to Monday on the hill, but hey, you have to grab your chances, so it was a 3am departure from my house for Fort William.
I met Hayley at the North Face car park where she had 'slept' in the car, (it was full of vans and cars doing likewise, all keen to capitalise on the weather), and also Liam and Mikie who were going for their first ascent of the CMD arete, a route around the back of the Ben, and a cracker in its own right.
We set off together at around 6am, and walked up in the dawn light, excited and inspired by the evolving light around us. Having parted from the lads at the path up the Carn Mor Dearg, we plodded on to the CIC hut at 630m, where the views of the North Face of the Ben were dramatic and awe-inspiring. For Hayley's first foray into the Coire Leis, it was a heck of a day, especially given she had bagged her 200th munro the day before!
After a break to fill up the water bottles, we made our way to the foot of the climb, and were bouyed to find the way well 'stepped-out', which means plenty of hard-frozen footsteps to make our progress easier, (but we knew the deep snow would not be like that once the sun got on it). Our progress up the normally horrible Eastern Gully was also easy, and we soon made the foot of the 'awkward chimney'. It was all devoid of ice, and it always takes a minute or two to get used to climbing rock in crampons, but after gearing up and getting the rope out, I led up the first pitch fairly easily. Hayley followed, and then we 'moved together' over some spectacular snow aretes, before placing intermediate protection as we negotiated the banked out rightward traverse, and onwards towards the foot of the Little Tower.
Here I found the climbing a little unnerving, as the ice was often hollow, having melted between it and the rock, and I had to change my technique and mindset. It is surprisingly steep in places, and Hayley, being ever the researcher of routes often asked if I was sure we were going the right way, (always a problem on big mountain routs such as this). Fortunately, I have climbed it twice in summer, and always had enough crampon-marked rock exposed to tell that we were indeed on route.
After the Little Tower, it was more airy aretes, that are difficult to protect, and we teetered over them most carefully, the snow being sugary and unsecure in places. We were getting tired and hungry by the time we approached the foot of the Great Tower, and debated whether to eat before or after it. I was having heebie-jeebies about tottering across it, knowing it would be running with melt-water, and whether I could protect myself, and especially Hayley, as a second has as much danger as a leader on a traverse. I just didn't want try and chew my butty whilst staring into the void and the cruddy snow ledge....but Hayley insisted (quite rightly), and we took on some well-deserved calories as I set the belay off an old piton and a very dubious No.2 nut in a hollow flake. Bomber. NOT!
So off I went, many hundreds of feet below my boots, two inches of stepped footprints for my front points, and a load of wet crud for my axe placement. What's the worry? Then, like a vision from above, I saw a crack. You wouldn't be able to access it had the snow not been so banked up, but I placed a nice nut, and knew I was as safe as I could be now. Phew. Spirits soared. Then another old peg placement too - what was I worrying about? Sorted. The belay was interesting to say the least. The normal ledge and cave formed by the fallen block was buried of course, and the stance is high on the face of the Great Tower, and in this instance, right in the shower created by all the melt-water. I was soaked as I brought Hayley around, and she was then in turn soaked as she belayed me up the hardest moves of the day to the top of the Great Tower.
This led to our only error of the day, where communication had become a challenge, and the rope drag meant that she couldn't tell what I was doing, she was very cold in the shower of icy water, and I needed rope to make a better belay, but couldn't communicate to give slack. Ah well, we sorted it, and before long, we just had one more obstacle - Tower Gap.
I had hoped that the snow would be so cruddy I would be able to knock it off and get across on rock. Oh no, it was sort of ice, with a layer of sugary snow on top, just wide enough for two boot widths, with a little rock to the left. We had a good belay on the block, but a fall would have meant a significant pendulum, and would certainly have put a dampener on the day! We discussed the strategy to adopt if indeed I did fall, but decided just not to fall at all ;)
So off I went, walking gingerly initially, then sort of on all fours, then astride the arete, a'cheval as it is known. I got to the block at the end, and passed rope around it, so knew I was as secure as I could be. The step into the gap is outrageously exposed of course, but having done it twice before, I made short work of it, and set up a belay for Hayley. She followed on, and then had the idea of passing the rope in such a way that I am protecting her from above as she made the move. It worked a treat, and although it entailed untying and re-tying on to the rope, a clipped sling ensured safety throughout, and we both stood in Tower Gap, knowing the climb was all but in the bag, all the major difficulties done.
We didn't allow ourselves to be complacent of triumphant just yet however, and true to form, the route threw another couple of curved balls in the shape of another steep and cruddy traverse above a significant drop, and then some sugary snow for the top-out. But top-out we did, into an incredible sunset, and unbelievably Liam and Mikie, who had watched us from the summit for hours, having finished their route much earlier, and then came around to meet us at the top. Top fellas.
The walk of was in light of immeasurable beauty, the sunset complementing the sunrise we had seen so many hours earlier. What had passed in the intervening hours will live with us both for many years, as it truly was 'one of the finest mountaineering expeditions in the British Isles'. Thanks to Hayley, who I know defeated many a demon to climb so well, so hard, and so competently, and thanks to us both for climbing as a team at the top end of our comfort zones for so many hours, and loving every minute of it. As the French team of guides who whizzed past us on the walk-in may have said, 'quelle un jour'.......