Orion Face Direct (V, 5) - Solo
Towards the end of winter Tiso staff member Aaron Tregellis took advantage of a perfect weather window and headed north to Ben Nevis to solo the Orion Face, a Scottish winter classic.
Aside from a strong tradition of climbing ethics, the thing that makes Scottish winter climbing so special is the sheer variety of its routes; snowed-up rock, mixed, gullies, and icefalls are the predominant styles, but thin face routes are an almost uniquely Scottish phenomenon. These routes embrace a style of winter climbing that is found exclusively on Ben Nevis. On the mountain’s north face, the altitude and exposure to continuously changing Atlantic weather allows a thin layer of snow-ice to build on steep slabs and walls high on the mountain. Thin face climbing is bold, delicate, and always memorable.
Orion Face Direct is the quintessential thin face route, taking a superb natural line up the largest face of the UK’s largest mountain, with over 400m of sustained climbing leading almost directly to the summit. The first ascent in February 1960 by Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith is regarded as the pinnacle of the step-cutting era. Not only was Orion Direct the biggest ice undertaking in Scotland at the time, no other ice climb in the world could match it for sustained difficulty. Winter climbing has moved on considerably in the intervening 50 years, but Orion Direct will always have a special place in Scottish winter climbing.
The forecast of blue skies and no wind appeared on my phone like a mirage. With the approaching storm of Covid-19 it seemed probable that this would be the last opportunity to go winter climbing this season and I had to take it. Having recently climbed on ‘the Ben’, as it is known to climbers, I knew it was absolutely plastered in ice. Not knowing how long any potential lockdown could last, it felt time to go big. As Edinburgh disappeared in the rear view mirror I tried to take the pressure off by telling myself that I could just ‘go have a look’ at some routes and see what I fancied climbing. But the reality, I knew, was different. I was committed. Tomorrow I was going to solo the Orion Face.
The decision to climb solo is never one I take lightly, because climbing with a rope, protection, and a partner naturally seems to offer a measure of safety. However, when I am soloing I feel a greater intensity of focus and a level of control, and these are often the climbs that push me the most and help me to grow as a climber. Soloing has always been a part of climbing, in summer and winter, but I would never climb a route in this style that was outside my capabilities.
Orion Face Direct is given a grade of V, 5. The SMC guidebook says that Grade V climbs are ‘difficult, sustained and serious. If on ice, long sustained ice pitches are to be expected.’ The main problem with grades is that they are subjective, and often routes are graded for good conditions. If an ice route is too thin then climbing it will feel much harder than its grade, or if the ice is fat then it will feel easier. I knew that the Orion Face had been climbed quite a bit this season but, as I had not done any routes on it recently, I had no idea as to the current conditions. Yet no matter the condition you find it in, any route on the Orion Face will inevitably be steep in parts, success is not guaranteed, and protection will often be hard to find.
The gravel crunched beneath my van’s tyres as I pulled into the North Face car park, just outside Fort William. It was still light and spring was starting to blossom down in the valley, but the high cliffs of the Ben were still wearing their winter cloak. After a really good night’s sleep I woke up psyched to climb. I had a cup of tea and sat with the van door open savouring the crisp morning air on my face. Then it was time to go. The van door slammed shut.
With a super light bag I made good time up to the CIC Hut. Laces were tightened, zips zipped, and water swigged. The loud snap of my crampons against my boots brought me back to the present. A short time later the Orion Face loomed over me as I moved into it’s shadow. I could see a few teams on the route already but no higher than the first icefield. Axes found solid ice.
I swung my arms to warm up, took a deep breath, checked my watch, and then began. The ice and neve were generally good but a bit rotten in places, however a swing 5 inches in any direction usually found a solid placement. Everything felt under control. Although I love the social aspect of climbing, climbing alone, moving at my own pace and my own rhythm always feels uncomplicated and efficient.
At the top of the first pitch I came across a roped party. The leader was near the top of the steep second pitch and they very kindly allowed me to carry on moving, so I weaved around their ropes without stopping. Once I was above them I stayed well clear of the two climbers so I would not endanger them if I kicked off any ice. I continued up, my breath falling in step with my ice axes and crampons.
Now that there was nobody around, the footsteps kept me company on the first icefield. I had climbed the route before but invariably in bad weather, so their presence allowed me to switch off and make quick progress. At the top of the first icefield is the crux of the route - a steep rising traverse that is bold even when climbing with ropes and gear. The only team in front of me now was a team of three that included the legend that is Robin Clothier, the guardian at the CIC Hut. As I arrived at the start of the crux Robin was around halfway up the pitch. Hanging on one axe whilst he placed the first ice screw he exclaimed, “Is that Aaron?!” We chatted for a minute until we both remembered where we were, and then Robin began climbing again. “Catch you at the belay” he called down. Moments later the shout of “Safe!” resonated around the face, and his partners Di and Kat were off.
Despite the blue sky it was raining ice, so I waited until they reached the belay before I set off. I checked my watch. I had been on the route for just less than half an hour. The crux is pretty steep, but the issue is more the consequence of a fall here - there is about a thousand feet of air beneath your heels, so a fall here and you are going a long way. For a roped party the lack of protection here is the chief concern, as a big fall from the leader could pull out the belay and send both people tumbling down the face. On this day I had identified this as a ‘low probability, high consequence’ zone; in other words, don’t fall - it might hurt.
Having waited until the ice shower had definitely finished, I took another deep breath and then stepped out away from the relative safety of the fifty-degree icefield. Fortunately, the ice was good, every pick placement was perfect, and after only a few deep breaths I was over the crux and chatting to Robin about Coronavirus and the impending temporary closure of the CIC Hut. It had felt surreal yet comforting to bump into someone I knew in the middle of this face, but I knew that I needed to keep moving. The pitches were really starting to blur by now and in no time I was on the ‘White Spider’, as the second icefield is known, staring at the upper headwall.
Nick Bullock has written about how footsteps are a solo climber’s best friend. They keep you connected to the world, remind you that what is down below has been up here and hopefully has returned down there again. You feel that if you follow the footsteps then no harm will come to you. In the middle of the White Spider the footsteps ran out.
For the first time I felt properly alone on the face. I stopped dead in my tracks and considered my options. There are three possible ways of escape from the White Spider, all taking various exit chimneys. I knew that the line I was after was the left-hand one of the three, but underneath the headwall it was difficult to identify them. The one I could make out looked pretty hard, and I was sure that I had climbed it before. Memories came flooding back - crampons scratching against rock, ice picks moving tentatively between islands of frozen turf and ice, and thrutching my way up inch by inch at a pace best measured in generations. Not that line then. I consciously veered further to the left and after a couple of awkward moves quested up an exit chimney. With relief it turned out that I was on the original line of the Orion Face Direct, and after pulling and awkwardly shuffling around a stalactite I was soon underneath the cornice.
Topping out into the sun, having been in the shade of the north face for the last hour and a half, I allowed myself to let the sun shine on my face and enjoyed the peace and quiet for a moment. These fleeting moments seem even more important in the context of what has happened since with Coronavirus and being inside on lockdown.
I walked over to the summit and remained there for a while to soak up the beauty, sitting with my back against the summit trig point and looking out across North-West Scotland. As far as the eye could see all the mountains were cloaked in snow against a backdrop of perfect blue. I could have been in the Himalaya, but I was still in Scotland. I really do think that, frustrating as being a Scottish winter climber is, when the climbing conditions are in in Scotland there is nowhere better. I had this incredible vista to myself whilst I ate my lunch, and then it was time to descend. I followed the footsteps heading down into Coire Leis, breaking into a jog on the downhill. The footsteps led all the way back past the CIC Hut to the path back down to the carpark, and occasionally made appearances in snow patches as I made my way down towards the forest. An hour and a half after leaving the summit I was back at my van.
This day it was just me and the mountain, nothing else. Well, and Robin briefly. It could not have been more perfect. Soloing these routes is the purest form of climbing to me. You have to raise yourself to the mountain’s level, not lower the mountain to yours. For me, style really is everything, and even footsteps can sometimes lessen the challenge, showing you the way and keeping you connected to the world. So, with hindsight, I was happy when the footsteps ran out, as I felt , and I felt that I then truly had to rise to the mountain’s level for my upward progress.
Having refuelled, unpacked, and spent the afternoon lying in the sun, I fell asleep that evening with a big smile on my face. If this was to be the last climb of the winter, then it had been a memorable one.
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