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Updated: Jun 11

Tower Ridge is Britain's most alpine rock climb. There are loads of ridges that become alpine in winter (Aonach Eagach, Crib Goch); there are ridge scrambles which contain the odd pitch (Clach Glas, A' Chir); there are long mountain rock climbs (The Chasm, Avalanche/Red Wall) and there are even a few places where the natural line between summits involves climbing (The Cobbler, Broad Stand). Only Tower Ridge has the lot though; length, inescapability, a climbing feel most of the way and snow lying most of the year. It's a major feature of the mountain, not just a line on a cliff – it's not far short of a kilometre long. A few Cuillin routes run it close (The Dubhs, Pinnacle Ridge on Gillean) but they rarely hold much snow and feel more like scrambles with tricky bits than actual rock climbs. It's nearest contenders are Observatory Ridge and Long Climb but they are both a lot shorter and being steeper they clear of snow much more quickly.

Tower Ridge, Nen Nevis
Tower Ridge from the Allt a' Mhuillin

It gets almost as many ascents in winter as in summer, and is one of only four routes to feature in both Classic Rock and Cold Climbs (the others are the Cuillin Ridge, Eagle Ridge and Great Gully on Craig yr Ysfa). Robin Campbell's "Tower Ridge Rulebook" article in the latter book is a classic, and anyone hoping to do the ridge in winter should read it – it might save you from all sorts of tough times. It used to be given Grade III, and it still gets that as a technical grade but the overall grade was upped to IV because of its length and the number of benightments that causes.

Ben Nevis North Face
The North Face of Ben Nevis, with Tower Ridge central

Many of the epics are caused by going left too early below the Great Tower, thinking that this is the Eastern Traverse (one of Robin Campbell's "Rules" is "Go up towards the Great Tower until it gets really steep"). One case which hit the headlines happened to someone I knew. He had hired a guide who hadn't climbed the ridge before and she made this classic mistake. Unable to climb out from the far end of the ledge (it's very hard) they ended up digging a snowhole for the night. Bill was whippet-thin and not equipped for a night out so wasn't capable of continuing in the morning. The guide used Bill's mobile phone (then a rare item) to call for rescue for him. A little later a helicopter appeared and they waved. A crew member waved back but nothing then happened for a while. It later transpired that the crewman had been waving at two people on the other side of the ridge and had been lowered down to them. He asked one of them "Are you Geraldine?" (the guide's name) and by an improbable coincidence she was! They were going well and unsurprisingly didn't want to be rescued. Things got heated, hard words were said and the rescue team departed very annoyed. By the time the confusion had been sorted out the weather had deteriorated considerably and a helicopter was no longer an option. Lochaber MRT had to go up on foot and manouevre Bill up the top part of the ridge in lousy conditions in the dark and he ended up in hospital with hypothermia. It was a chapter of errors but Geraldine isn't that common a name and the likelihood of two of them being on that same section of ridge early on a winter morning at exactly the same time must be infinitesmal!

Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
Tower Ridge the day we did it

My only winter trip up the route was much less eventful. There were three of us, Neil never having done a winter climb before and Liz and I not hugely experienced winter climbers either (though we'd both done loads of winter hillwalking and some Alpine routes). We left Glen Nevis at sunrise and were on the route about 11. I figured that as a rope of three with one complete novice we might be fairly slow so I felt justified in avoiding the thuggy chimney out of Douglas Gap by the easier ground to its left, which we soloed to reach the ridge proper. Soon after this the line jinks rightwards then goes back left up a little slab and we got the ropes out. To save time once I'd led each pitch and brought Liz up I ran the rope out until I needed a runner while Liz brought Neil up to her stance. Once he was safe she belayed me up the rest of the pitch and we repeated the process. This meant that we weren't much slower than a pair would have been. There was a brief bit of moving together on an easy snow arete, which Neil found disconcerting, being used to always being belayed.

Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
Nate Webb on the Little Tower in summer

Arrival at the Little Tower meant a return to our earlier tactics but all went well as far as the Great Tower. Having Neil in the middle for the exposure of the Eastern Traverse made sense so we reorganised the ropes. The snow was banked up steeply but nice and solid,with a handy line of footsteps but the drop still snapped at your heels. Another pitch took us to the top of the Tower, then I sauntered along the arete to Tower Gap. Lowering myself down into the gap with the drop sweeping away below was gulp-inducing but at least I had a runner just above my head. Neil had a rope going both ways but Liz had to do it with the rope going off sideways, much scarier. We had been in the mist since reaching the ridge but now the weather took a definite turn for the worse. The wind got up and it started to snow, and by the time we reached the plateau things were fairly unpleasant.

Scottish winter climbing
The joys of winter climbing! Neil and I at the top of the ridge

We didn't even consider walking the few hundred yards to the summit, just headed off on a bearing to pick up the top of the Red Burn, then tromped down it until the zigzags of the main path began to materialise. Down in the glen it was a different world, not even raining, but we knew we'd had a full day.

Tower Gap, Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
Crossing Tower Gap

Even in summer Tower Gap is an imposing place, and the descent into it has got noticeably harder since the block that floored the gap fell out. The current floor is a jammed block too, and if that falls out then things will really get tricky! There are ways of avoiding the gap, the best known being to continue the Eastern Traverse to easy ground at the side of Tower Gully then zigzag up to reach the ridge above the Gap. In summer conditions it's also possible to slant left just after going through the hole above the Traverse and shuffle sideways to reach the ledge just below the Gap. Hardly anyone does this, presumably because once you're that close to the top of the Tower you feel you may as well climb it. The hole itself is easy but entertaining, adding to the distinctiveness of the route.

Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
Nate in the hole above the Eastern Traverse
Nate coming through the hole above the Eastern Traverse

There are also lots of variant starts to the ridge, again mostly ignored. Purists can start up the Direct Route on the Douglas Boulder, which ups the grade to toughish V Diff and adds an extra 200m of climbing. At the other extreme if you go up left into the scree bowl below Observatory Gully you can virtually walk rightwards onto the first section of the ridge, a very quick way on. Just right of this, above the top of the scree slope, a broken rib of nice square cut blocks is fun scrambling at about Grade 2. Both of the Gullies leading up to Douglas Gap are loose and unpleasant, though many still use the eastern one.

Douglas Boulder SW Ridge, Ben Nevis
Douglas Boulder SW Ridge

Probably the best of the alternative starts is to do the South-West Ridge of the Douglas Boulder. In winter this is a fine route in itself, quite popular as it's often sheltered from the worst weather, so a chance to snatch a climb in poor conditions. In summer it is done far less often and suffers from an abundance of loose rock on its ledges (though the bedrock is fine). It consists of a series of rock steps, quite steep for its Moderate grade but with good holds. The summit of the Douglas Boulder has recently been included in a couple of peakbagging ticklists and as the South-West Ridge is the easiest way up maybe it will get a surge in popularity. I doubt it though.

From the summit of the Boulder a short abseil takes you into the Gap. There are usually slings in situ but whether to trust them is another matter. Some years ago this belay failed and the guy abseiling fell into the Gap, sustaining life-changing injuries.

Abseiling into Douglas Gap, Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
Tom Parker abbing into Douglas Gap

When I was there last year with Noel Williams (who was on that rescue) we both preferred to descend the top pitch of the ridge then cut down to a grass shelf on the left hand side of West Gully and scramble up this to the Gap. If you're not carrying on up Tower Ridge proper then rather than descending the loose scrot in East Gully it's easier to traverse across to a small ledge on its right-hand side (looking out) then carry on round to descend an open groove to the Observatory Gully screes. It's a surprisingly quick and easy way off.

Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
Looking back across Tower Gap to the Great Tower

Being such an obvious feature Tower Ridge was the first route climbed on the Ben, by the Hopkinson family from Manchester in 1892, noted alpinists looking for a way of extending their climbing season. Unusually they used it as a descent, having walked up. Perhaps they were tempted by the cairn left on the summit of the Great Tower by an unnamed member of the observatory staff who scrambled out to it from the plateau – quite a bold feat as he presumably crossed Tower Gap twice! Equally unusually for a rock route it had its first upwards ascent in winter, by the ubiquitous Norman Collie. He didn't know about the Hopkinson's adventure and claimed it as a new route. He enjoyed it so much he did it again the next day. Whoever did the first upwards summer ascent isn't recorded – it must have seemed an anticlimax by then 😁.

Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
The Great Tower and the top part of the ridge

The number of variations carved out of it is another thing it has in common with alpine routes, and gives an excuse for multiple ascents. In winter the combination of altitude and closeness to the sea can produce a huge variety of conditions, from billows of powder to hoar frost and verglas. Times taken can vary hugely and some well known mountaineers have had epics on it. Even in summer it isn't a route to underestimate. Occasionally you get people sneering at its lowly grade, or saying "it's mostly scrambling", but it's a full day out for most and the exposure at Tower Gap still hits you however many times you've been there. You're moving on rock for nearly all of its 600 metres of ascent and in the Alps I suspect it would get something like AD-. There's only one Tower Ridge.

Tower Gap, Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
Approaching Tower Gap. Photo Nate Webb

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