Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis is one of the finest ice climbs in the world.
Mike Pescod, mountain guide and Jöttnar Pro Team member, knows the route better than most. Here he reflects on the many moods of this iconic climb, beginning with his role in the film re-creation of its first free ascent by Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith back in 1960.
It’s difficult to make a film of a climb that conveys what it really feels like to climb the route. In the film 'The Pinnacle' steady spindrift pours down on Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner as they climb Point Five Gully. All of this spindrift was, in fact, manufactured: I kicked out ledges at the belays ahead of them, so the film could depict what’s commonly experienced on the climb. It was a completely calm day, so there was no snow being blown around and therefore no spindrift coming down. I think I got the best deal that day; it was my job to climb the route first, so we could fix a rope for cameraman Paul Diffley. Dave and Andy followed behind, taking the hit of any snow that fell down the gully.
Several teams engaged on Point Five Gully
This climb was part of a week-long project in 2010 celebrating the achievements of Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith fifty years earlier. In 1960, Jimmy and Robin made first ascents of six groundbreaking Scottish winter climbs including Orion Direct - plus the first free ascent of Point Five Gully - all in the same week. They took a rest day in which they walked the length of the Grey Corries and hitch hiked back to Fort William. There they were arrested after stealing a set of dominos from the pub, released, and they walked back up to the CIC Hut ready for the next new route the following day.
Andy and Dave set themselves the challenge of climbing all the routes again and walking the Grey Corries, whilst being filmed by Paul Diffley of Hot Aches Productions. The resulting film, 'The Pinnacle', is a brilliant portrayal of the achievement of fifty years earlier with footage of the modern day climbers and interviews with Jimmy. Dave and Andy were continually reminded of the scale of the achievement back in 1960. Climbing all of the routes with modern equipment and techniques was hard enough, but Jimmy and Robin did it all by cutting steps in the snow with one ice axe each, and fairly meaningless protection. There was also little chance of retreat from any of the climbs for them. The only way off was to reach the top, as on a major climb in the Greater Ranges. Imagine setting off from the base of the huge Orion Face on Ben Nevis back in 1960, knowing the only way off is to reach the summit.
Approaching Point Five Gully in high winds; in such conditions, spindrift can be a major problem on the climb
The film project was fascinating, and a great privilege to play a small part in. We were blessed with outstanding climbing conditions and excellent weather. One of the climbs, Minus Three Gully, has been in condition only once in the last decade. Thankfully this was the perfect time for it to make an appearance. As well as a lot of planning and preparation, you need a need a bit of luck sometimes in Scottish winter climbing.
"Ice climbing is still serious fun, and I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty years. But I’m not convinced it’s a natural thing to do. Human evolution did not lead up to climbing ice"
The first time I climbed Point Five Gully was in my first winter of living in Fort William. Having done two ice climbs previously, I thought I was ready for anything. Angel Falls, a grade II ice cascade in the Cairngorms, was my first ever taste of ice. Even with bendy boots, walking crampons and two walking ice axes I was instantly hooked. The potential for some serious fun was obvious to me. Clearly I was quite young, and without such a developed sense of fear as I have now. Ice climbing is still serious fun for me today, even though I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty years, but I’m not convinced it’s a natural thing to do. Human evolution did not lead up to us going ice climbing.
Radek Kudibal climbing the Chimney Pitch on Point Five Gully
After that first time on ice I went out and bought some technical ice axes and rigid crampons. It wasn’t until I was in Russia, on an extended trip to the Caucasus to learn to ski, that I finally got to use them. With the mercury showing -25C all winter, the streams and waterfalls in the valley were frozen cascades that looked like they would offer some entertainment on a day off the skiing. They did. I survived them, and I needed no further convincing that I was an expert ice climber and ready for anything.
So at the tail end of the winter of 1995, after biding my time for the perfect day and climbing conditions, I went up to Point Five Gully for a look. I remember there was a deep slot at the base not unlike a bergschrund. Crossing this obstacle provided the crux move of the whole climb and I was glad I had waited for the snow to be perfectly crisp and solid to pull on. The rest of the climb went very smoothly, even waiting for a roped team as they led up the Rogue Pitch. I had a slightly awkward conversation with the belayer, discussing the weather and the condition of the climb, trying not to mention the fact that I was soloing right past them. I was already determined to be a mountain guide, but this certainly reinforced the whole idea of making climbs such as this my job.
Looking west from the summit plateau of Ben Nevis on a perfect winter's day
It took a few years to work through the training, but eventually I reached the position of being able to guide people on Point Five Gully. Since then I’ve experienced quite a range of conditions on the route ranging from perfect to impossible.
Quite often my clients have time restrictions imposed on them by bus or flight timetables. With one such deadline of catching a bus at 1pm, guiding Point Five Gully took just two and a half hours. It was the culmination of six days of climbing, enduring some prolonged thaw conditions before the weather and quality of the ice finally improved. Vanishing Gully was memorable for the water cascading down it and the rate at which it was vanishing in front of us. We were very grateful to get inside the cave for a respite before the main test of waterproof gloves and nerve on the steep soft ice.
Leading the Rogue Pitch on Point Five Gully with Mick Stringer belaying
With one morning of climbing left, the challenge was making it back down for the bus. We got to the CIC Hut at 6am and started the first pitch of Point Five Gully just before 7am. We walked up the approach snow slope roped up so I could carry on straight up the first pitch. The Chimney Pitch and Rogue Pitch were done in standard pitches, but the second half of the route was climbed moving together with anchors every now and then in one long pitch. We topped out at 9.20am and got down with time enough for a beer before catching the bus. Getting in a good climb against the odds always adds to the satisfaction.
Sometimes in Scottish winter climbing you can move quickly, but at other times you need to climb very slowly and carefully. Knowing what to expect on a climb is all part of guiding but looks can be deceptive. One time when Point Five Gully looked to be in great shape it turned out that the snow was still just snow, and had not yet transformed to ice. It required having four points of contact with the (so called) ice in order not to slide back down. Extra purchase was possible in the Chimney Pitch with a foot out on a rock ledge or a hip wedged into the side. The Rogue Pitch was slightly unnerving, as ice screws were easily placed but would have been of no value at all in holding a fall.
Spooky light on the summit plateau after a late ascent of Point Five Gully
Jimmy Marshall might well have described the quality of snow as perfect, as it was soft enough to cut big steps quite easily. For someone who has never seriously cut steps up a climb, and is entirely dependent on crampon points for purchase, it takes a while to get used to the idea. Having no other option is a good motivator, though, so I kicked steps up the Rogue Pitch and managed to remain in balance with some wide bridging so I didn’t have to pull on my ice axes.
"A thin dribble of icy dust sliding down over the exit slopes is magnified into a mini-avalanche of biting shards, big enough to engulf and swallow grown men"
It’s not just the snow you’re climbing on that can be difficult; it's the snow coming down from above that causes problems. Climbing Point Five Gully can become impossible due to the spindrift. When it happened to me it was clearly windy as we walked in and spindrift was always going to be a problem. Roughly eighty metres of snow and ice along the summit cornice line funnel down into the one metre wide chimney. A thin dribble of icy dust sliding down over the exit slopes is magnified into a mini-avalanche of biting shards, big enough to engulf and swallow grown men.
John Gilbert climbing the Chimney Pitch
On this particular day, I shut my eyes and started up the chimney. Every now and then I was able to open my eyes to see where I was. Most ice axe placements were made by feel. I couldn’t see them under the spindrift even when I did open my eyes. Thankfully the snow did not build up on my arms as it sometimes does: the chimney is too steep for that. Belaying under the Rogue Pitch was quite nerve-wracking, as we waited for the next wave of snow to land on us. We quickly called it a day and abseiled back down. The thought of pulling over the Rogue Pitch just as a wave of snow came over the top was too much after the experience of climbing the Chimney Pitch blind. Sometimes, effective guiding is about knowing when to turn back.
"most people who get hurt in avalanches already know a lot about avalanche hazards. I try hard to make decisions unbiased by my desire to achieve an objective. Heuristic traps are easy to fall into"
Guiding is also about knowing when it’s safe enough to get on a climb in the first place. One February a few years ago, most people were avoiding the north face of Ben Nevis completely, and with good reason. But the wind turned northerly and strengthened, and I guessed that Point Five Gully would have been scoured clean of soft snow. So we headed up Observatory Gully, picking our way round areas of soft snow. The last slope to the gully itself required careful judgement and choice of line. By hugging the foot of Observatory Buttress we were able stay clear of the open slopes and avoid the worst of the avalanche hazard. When I’m making decisions like these I try to remind myself that most people who get hurt in avalanches already know a lot about avalanche hazards. I try hard to make independent decisions, unbiased by my desire to achieve what I set out to do. Heuristic traps are very easy to fall into.
Perfect spring climbing conditions on Ben Nevis
Having reached the gully it became clear that my guess was right. There was no soft snow left in it at all and we climbed on hard ice and neve all the way up. The following day there were four teams climbing Point Five Gully after word got out that it was safe enough to approach the climb. Actually climbing the routes is often only half the job. Deciding what to climb and when to climb is as much a part of it, and it’s a great feeling when you make the right calls.
But of all the times I’ve been in Point Five Gully, the climb with Paul Diffley filming Andy and Dave for 'The Pinnacle' was the best by far. The snow ice was exactly what Ben Nevis is famous for, solid enough for great climbing but soft enough for ice axes to penetrate easily. The rock was dry as was the ice, and there was no wind and no spindrift. The sun was shining and the air was crystal clear. The view went from the Cairngorms to the Cuillin on Skye with seemingly endless snowy hills in between.
Walking in to Orion Face on a cold winter's day
After the filming on Point Five Gully, Donald and I climbed into The Basin on Orion Direct to rig ropes for the following day. Coming down in the evening light we chatted with a French mountain guide about climbing, guiding and just how special it is to have the opportunity to climb on days like these in such a beautiful place. He went off to solo Orion Direct to reach the summit as the sun was setting. After a full day of guiding, this was his time to make the most of this perfect day.
It was a day to savour, not to rush. A day to remind me why I endure the thaws; the days when I battle the wind to get to a climb and crawl off the summit plateau; the days when Ben Nevis seems to want to spit you off in a foul temper. This was the day when the history and tradition of Scottish climbing, the beauty and grandeur of Ben Nevis, the unique brilliance of the climbing and the shared experience of working with my friends all came together. When people ask me why I became a mountain guide, this is the day I often remember.
"On this day, the beauty and grandeur of Ben Nevis and the shared experience of climbing all came together. When people ask me why I became a mountain guide, this is the day I often remember"
Crystal light on the summit plateau of Ben Nevis after an ascent of Point Five Gully
Mike Pescod is a member of the Jöttnar Pro Team and runs Abacus Mountain Guides based in Fort William, Scotland