'For Adventures of a lifetime'

Monday, 8 April 2013

Orion Direct 400m V,5 **** - Ben Nevis

Three days ago I was climbing on Ben Nevis ....Today I'm still buzzing from the adventure and the climbing experienced had that day.

The Orion Face with our route taking the line straight up the middle
I was invited to go and climb by Ashley Preston, a friend I had made 3 years ago while climbing the classic Raven Crag Gully in the Lake District. During our discussions on the numerous belays while waiting for others to climb it turns out that him and his brother (also climbing that day) were the cousins of a very good friend of mine and that they were actually from Billingham (where I live).

Now Ash and me have never climbed together and to climb a serious route like Orion Direct took a certain amount of trust in each others abilities. I must admit I nearly didn't go as the 7+ hours journey time for a one day hit was not appealing. However, the conditions being reported on Blogs and on Facebook, and the forecast of settled weather for a few days ahead, made me feel I really didn't have a choice....When am I ever going to have another opportunity.

Full on exposure - Photo taken by some guys on Zero Gully

At this stage its worth giving a little background to the route. It’s a route held in high regard by most winter mountaineers and a very committing route, as once on, it’s very difficult to escape as the belays are not really brilliant for abseiling, saying that there are a couple which would be fine but would need to be linked to others. The other things to consider are the weather and route conditions.  It’s certainly the last place I would want to be if a storm hit. There are limited places to hide from the wind and from spin drift avalanches. The ice/snow conditions, particularly around the crux traverse are the make and break of the route but there are other parts where you want good axe placements. The route never gets technically difficult but all the above add to the apprehension of even starting the route in the first place.

Walking in very early

We decided we were going to be first on the route so we set off from the North Face Car Park at 0510hrs and steadily plodded up the Allt a Mhuilinn towards the CIC hut. While walking your mind drifts from positive thoughts to very negative thoughts...."Do I really want to go through with this?” “of course I do!!!" "Is Ash up to this?" "Am I up to this?" "What if a storm hit, what if people are ahead of us?" Arriving at the CIC hut we were a little disappointed to see there was someone ahead of us heading up into the area where our route started...surely they weren't going to be doing our route. I reassured Ash that even if he did do our route he was soloing (no ropes brave man!) so he would be well above us once we were organised enough to start. The problem having someone ahead of you is they inevitably kick down ice on you and it can hurt if you look up at the wrong time. It turns out that the soloist was no other than another friend Harry Holmes.   ( who came second in the Dry Tooling competition last February at Sunderland Wall.

As we slowly made progress towards the foot of the route it’s very difficult to take in the sheer size of the Orion Face and where the route actually goes. A lot of classics are like this and its only once you engage on the route everything falls into place...this route was no exception.
I took the first lead up a steep icy wall which leads to the foot of an icy groove around 35 meters. Ash lead off up the groove and looked confident...a few reassuring screws helped and after around 45 meters he made a belay. I ran up the groove with a big smile on my face...this is where I wanted to be!!! A few alternate leads saw me belayed at the crux traverse. It was at this point a fellow North Easterner joined us. Adele Pennington (Everest ascencionist) ( has been ticking off the classic winter routes this winter and we had been friends on Facebook for quite some time but never actually met each other in person. Adele and her partner Dave Barker were very patient with me and Ash and we kept them amused with a bit of friendly banter. We hadn't really given much thought as to who was going to lead this crux section and I was easy either way. Ash was happy to hand the reins to me and as it happened it was exactly the type of climbing I revel in, totally absorbing. The crux is a series of icy/rocky ledges with very little protection available and only once you sink your axe into the neve (snow ice) above do you feel the confidence returning to the rightful place.
The first steep ice pitch

Ash on the 2nd pitch in the icy groove
A team climbing Zero Gully

Ash on the 2nd pitch in the icy groove
Ash embarking on the 'Long than we thought' pitch

A couple more alternate leads saw us at the foot of the icy chimney which we knew led to the top. Ash took the lead on this one and what a pitch it turned out to be. Better described as a hanging icy chimney the line swings across the voids and even has a very exposed traverse and pull up a hanging wall but done on perfectly placed axes it was a real pleasure. The smiles were on both mine and Ash's face as we came together at the belay...we knew it was just one more pitch to the top. I got the glory pitch up a steep snow slope with a couple of little rock bulges to deal with. As I approached the top I couldn't wait to feel the warmth of the sun on my face and take in the views I knew were waiting for me there...however, I should have known it was going too easy. Literally three steps from the top the rope went tight...only one reason for this, I had ran all the rope out. This had happened on an earlier pitch and we had to 'simu' climb (climbing at the same time) to get a safe belay. This time around I knew Ash was on relatively safe ground so wasn't too worried. Ten minutes later Ash and me were sharing a 'man hug' and congratulating each other on a job very well done. Adele and Dave joined us and we were soon joined by an Italian pair and a couple of guys who had just climbed Astral Highway.

Me starting the Crux traverse

Relaxing after reaching safer ground

Ash above the belay following the traverse

Ash moving towards the Icy hanging chimney

Ash looking rather happy

Peace to the world - Rather happy myself
The view from the top

We said our goodbyes to everyone and started the long plod off the hill. The views and weather all around us could not have been better and we felt like two kids who were enjoying Christmas morning with all their toys. We descended via the Red Burn a steep but quick way off the hill. The Burn takes you almost to the edge of the Half Way Lochin. Another hour saw us back at the van in the Car Park with a can of cider to celebrate...Just what the doctor ordered!  What a totally great experience the whole day had been...
The parties at the top
Starting the walk down

To get this feeling of satisfaction requires commitment, confidence, organisation and a certain amount of skill and we had certainly given it everything.  The drive back home to Teesside via Carlisle was a long one and unusually for me required a nap along the way, but definitely worth every minute behind the wheel.

Fantastic weather from the start of the day to the very end

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