I don’t know exactly how many years I have wondered and dreamt about climbing Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis but its been a while. Arguably the most famous climb on the whole of Ben Nevis on a mountain that is not short of famous routes. And whilst the passage of time and the progression of both tools and standards may have lessened it’s once mighty reputation it still remains a significant climb. High up on its mighty north face above Observatory Gully. To have not climbed it and to even begin to describe yourself as a climber has always felt a bit odd. At the same time, the idea of climbing it on a perfect day, with pick placements and screw slots practically laying in wait felt a little like cheating. Equally to climb it amongst guided crowds also felt not quite right. Climb it on a proper winter’s day, climb it when its quiet, when you can savour the raw zeal of a Scottish winters day.
Whether climbing it on a proper winter’s day equals committing virtual suicide I am not sure. For the record I didn’t. At least not in my mind, since were I convinced conditions were that dangerous I would have turned around and spent another day drinking tea, but it was fair to say that conditions were challenging. We had left the North Face car park shortly before first light and made reasonable time in getting to the CIC hut. It was cold, fresh snow was whirling around the corrie and fleeting glimpses came and went of the summit plateau.
But from the CIC hut it was a different story. There were no tracks to follow, there were few other parties out, save for a few heading towards Tower Ridge and the snow from recent days lay deep. The vast majority of the popular lines on the Orion and Zero faces all looked to be climbable, but we decided we would stick with plan A and head up Observatory Gully towards Point Five Gully. We weaved a careful line, careful to avoid exposing ourselves to any avalanche that might tumble down from up high. But it was the avalanche that may trigger from nearer that was initially of concern. We were breaking trail at times up to our arm-pits, no exaggeration. But bizzarely the snow felt stable. We continued for over 2 hours. It was exhausting work. No-one could claim we were going to have Point Five easy. The last hundred feet to the base of the route were the worst. Plumes of spindrift were occasionally thundering down, depositing a vast amount of soft snow. It must have taken us the best part of 45 minutes to travel a distance that should have taken 5.
Chris and I both soloed up the first half of pitch 1. The increasing steepness and frequency of spindrift plumes, convincing us that maybe it was a good time to rope up. And so battle commenced. Good snow-ice for tool placements met crap snow-ice for decent protection head-on. This was winter climbing at its most challenging best. And so it continued. Chris doing a sterling effort on lead whilst I battled an impromptu bout of stomach cramp all the way to the top. The final few hundred feet were an exhausting and unnerving wade through unconsolidated snow before we topped out to the faintest hue of sunlight attempting to tear through the thin veil of cloud that was gracing the summit plateau. It was magical. And as we descended through a deserted winter wonderland to a setting sun, it really did feel like all the waiting had been worthwhile.