When the daffodils are blooming and the Glen Nevis outcrops offer an easy day’s cragging, there is often ice climbing at its best on the highest crags in the UK. Ben Nevis holds on to its snow and ice longer than anywhere else, and can come into its own in March or April. Weaving up its north face via a sustained and intricate line, Orion Direct was a route ahead of its time when first ascended in 1960. Alpine in scale but unmistakably Scottish in practice, it matches Point Five Gully in both stature and quality, fully deserving of all four of its stars.
Jöttnar’s Mike Pescod is an IFMGA mountain guide and Jöttnar Pro Team member. Here he gives a local’s insight into this historic and much-admired route.
Ben Nevis, Scotland
As you walk up the Allt a’Mhuilinn, like the faithful on a pilgrimage, the Orion Face stands directly in front of you. It is the biggest face on Ben Nevis, one of the biggest ice climbs in the country, and uniquely Scottish. Only the right combination of snow fall, thaw and refreeze, a cycle repeated many times in many storms throughout the dark months of the winter, will cover the face in snow-ice. This snow-ice is sufficiently solid to climb but rarely quite as satisfactory for protecting the climb. Ice screws will be run-out at best and sometimes placed more for decoration than for effectiveness. And there are eight or nine long, intricate pitches to reach the top.
"Ice screws will be run-out at best and sometimes placed more for decoration than for effectiveness."
The route is a non-line that shows the brilliant mountaineering skill of its first ascensionists. It links natural features that are not obvious from the bottom in a devious line that makes perfect sense once you’re on it. The pitches flow together with sustained climbing that is always delicate but never hard. Despite not having an obvious line like its neighbour Point Five Gully, it has an aesthetic all to itself.
"The traverse out of The Basin will always be the crux though, psychologically if not physically."
Take 60m ropes and enough ice screws for successive ice screw belays. One set of rocks is plenty because nearly all the protection is in ice. The second pitch is surprisingly steep and can provide the steepest section of the whole climb. The traverse out of The Basin will always be the crux though, psychologically if not physically. It’s a delicate tip-toe rightwards over ever more exposed blobs of ice. Above, seemingly endless grooves of ice and sheets of snow lead to a final rocky buttress, breached on the left by the Exit Chimney, a last sting in the tail.
Orion direct GALLERy
Every time I climb Orion Direct, I tell the people I’m with about Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith’s first ascent in 1960 with one ice axe each and a single rope. This was at the end of a week of climbing now passed into legend, and which marks the pinnacle of the old step cutting era. Marshall and Smith climbed a new route at the highest technical standard of that period every day for six days, before taking a day off. This they spent walking over Carn Mor Dearg, Aonach Beag and the Grey Coires to Spean Bridge.
Orion Direct was their last climb of the week. Just imagine setting off up this 400m-high face of ice and rock knowing that the only way off was to reach the top! Thankfully our modern equipment and guidebooks make the climb a little more accessible and less serious than it was back then. However, it will never lose any of its impact on those who climb it.
Used in a pair, half ropes reduce drag on routes which wander or traverse. Half ropes can also be tied together to allow full rope length and easily retrievable abseils. Winter-specific ropes are dry treated, making them resistant to moisture absorption and to freezing.
Petzl: Paso Guide 7.7mm Half Rope
A harness connects you securely to both ropes. Its gear loops act as a carriage system for screws, slings, carabiners and quickdraws. Specialist winter climbing harnesses come with adjustable leg loops and attachment points for ice screw racking systems.
DMM Climbing: Renegade Harness
Winter climbing crampons come with protruding, and often replaceable, front points, which give purchase and stability in ice and mixed terrain. They come in mono or twin point configurations - the former generally providing dexterity, the latter stability.
Black Diamond: Stinger Crampons
Ice tools are designed to penetrate ice and to slot into cracks, giving secure placements to allow upwards progress. Modern tools have curved shafts and steeply angled picks, allowing the steepest of ground to be ascended.
Petzl: Nomic Ice Climbing Axe
In good ice, screws provide strong and reliable runner placements and modern versions are quick and easy to deploy. Having a selection of varied lengths allows you to match the screw with available ice depth, increasing the chances of strong placements.
Black Diamond: Express Ice Screws
Specialist winter climbing boots have rigid soles, providing a stable platform for crampons to clamp onto. A pair that are warm, waterproof, lightweight and low-volume will add considerably to comfort and will aid technique.
La Sportiva: G5 Climbing Boots
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