A deep thaw followed by a rapid refreeze in late March saw the high ice routes on Ben Nevis come into superb condition. So when a perfect weather day appeared in the forecast it was a done deal – Andy and I headed straight for The Ben, targets locked on to the classic Hadrian’s Wall Direct (V, 5). Aiming to beat the crowds we left early, but evidently not early enough, as the only other team up beat us to it!
Realising we would have to wait a bit, we leisurely ambled up to the start of the route in an effort to preserve some energy for the trials ahead. As the morning light turned from blue to pink to gold, we soaked up the ambience, thankful to be in such an incredible place at just the right time.
The approach slopes steepen alarmingly as Observatory Gully drops away beneath you on the way to the routes – concentration required in my case. Both Point Five Gully (V) and Hadrian’s looked to be in excellent condition and it wasn’t long before the queues began to form. Banter was high at the first belay as we got ready to set off!
The first pitch sweeps up in a series of steep slabs and steeper walls; the ice mostly excellent, barring the odd brittle patch from the refreeze. Andy cruised out and up the smear but quickly realised this would be no pushover and engaged his brain for 50m of sustained climbing. When I arrived at his solid rock belay my hands succumbed to the worst hot-aches I’d had for years, which offset the pain in my calf muscles nicely. A good start then!
Once the fire in my hands had subsided, I got on with the job of taking us up the final steepening and through easier grooves and bulges to an in situ belay at the top of the smear; another amazing pitch!
The way ahead was clear – a narrow ice-choked chimney leads up to the start of the easier ground in the middle of the face. It looked benign from below, but as is often the case with ice, it was steeper than it looked and not particularly well protected!
The ice in the chimney was hacked out, so after placing a low-down rock runner, Andy elected to run it out until an ice screw could be more easily placed way above the chimney. Spicy! The pitch was joy to follow and once above the route opened out into easy-angled face climbing on solid but calf-bursting neve. The fatigue was real by this point, so instead of moving together we pitched our way between ice bosses and rock belays to the base of the steeper ice.
The last pitch consisted of fat blue ice but was much longer and harder than we expected – especially at the very top where steep moves up brittle ice finally took us to the exit slopes and the plateau. By this point my calves had exploded and I toiled my way up the final metres to be greeted by a grinning Andy, basking in the sunshine, elated to have finally bagged such a classic!
Once on the summit we ambled around in a contented daze; the sudden transition to the sunny horizontal world, complete with scampering dogs, a jarring contrast to the shadowed north face below. Faced with the gruelling descent we didn’t linger long, but who could resist savouring the view after a route like that?