While it’s no longer close to the monstrous undertaking that foiled many leading climbers prior to its controversial first ascent in 1959, Point Five Gully (V,5) on Ben Nevis remains one of the most prized winter climbs for the recreational mountaineer, described in Colin Stead’s Cold Climbs essay as ‘probably the most famous ice gully in Scotland, perhaps in the world’ and more concisely in the relevant SMC guidebooks as ‘[probably] the most famous ice gully in the world!’ (The 2002 Ben Nevis guide omits the ‘probably’.) It was also the ‘most wanted’ climb for both Johnny MacLeod and me, with both of us having been to do it before and turned back (several times in Johnny’s case) for reasons of queues (yes, queues!) or conditions. Although perhaps I should add that my retreat from the base of a soggy Point Five with Jamie Hageman last April now seems an even wiser decision than it did at the time when I’d probably have been attempting to lead the whole thing before I was properly ready for it. But yesterday was different…
Despite a slight thaw setting in, the route had been described as ‘fat’ by everyone who’d been on or near it and we knew it should be holding up well with the freezing level forecast somewhere round about its base. So we had to get out early and settled on a 4:30am meeting (I’d have gone earlier!) at the North Face Car Park, which saw me up at 3:00am and out of the house by 3:35am. And even that was barely enough, with the Minus and Orion Faces already busy as we turned up Observatory Gully some time before 7:00am, but luckily had the good fortune to overtake the sole Point Five-bound team ahead of us (who stopped to gear up later on more awkward ground) and find ourselves first on the route. And then we just climbed it (the whole 325m) in five long, long pitches (two of which we had to stretch a little), taking the steep initial sections in the first two and leading through. So Johnny got up to and including the chimney (above which he found the only visible in-situ gear of the day) and I got the stunning Rogue Pitch, then another easier pitch for each of us (although Johnny’s had quite a long, steepish step and mine a shorter one) before a long, long ‘ropelength’ saw Johnny over the cornice and walking towards the summit shelter, which he reached just as I came over the top! It was 12:15pm, four-and-a-quarter hours since he’d started up the first pitch, and we’d long since lost sight of any of the following parties (of which there were apparently now several).
So that was that, we’d got what we’d come for and have to say we weren’t disappointed (it’s a beautiful climb). Possibly easier then The Wand (my only previous Grade V), but perhaps that’s more to do with the confidence gained from that experience… or my new Vipers and Terminators (now set up as offset monos), which all performed impeccably (discovered there’s no great mystery to monopoint crampons, which I’d never tried before). It was certainly very steep in places, but all there… and never caused the jitters that marked the start of my lead pitch on The Wand although I’d still admit to a mild (but satisfied) sense of relief in pulling over the top of the Rogue Pitch. To which I can only add that we found little obvious rock gear with the gully walls well iced up (but accept that it must be there if you know where to look), experienced some of the famous Point Five spindrift and finished with just about everything (not just the soft gear like ropes, slings and rucksack straps!) absolutely caked in ice to a degree I’ve never experienced on any other climb. After which we dived into the summit shelter (which I’m not sure I’ve ever been inside before) for lunch before locating the top of Number Four Gully (which I’d never been down before either, but we found in very straightforward condition) for a quick descent back to the Allt a’ Mhuilinn.
And that’s it. We climbed Point Five in stonking conditions, I got to use those new tools at last, got my second V of the season (so satisfying, without diminishing the impact of the first, to know that it wasn’t a flash in the pan) and find myself able to look forward to anything else this ‘winter’ as a bonus. So I’m still hoping for some more action before hanging up my axes and crampons for the summer, and thinking about some more winter walking with next year’s WML Assessment in mind (Cairngorms at least should still be good for that at Easter), but this was the big one! :-)