Despite having just got back from a brilliant week in Scotland it was still hard looking at the photos appearing from Scotland the week after due to a massive high pressure system creating clear blue skies and cold weather which lead to fantastic climbing condition. Due to this I started emailing around and came up with a plan to head up to Scotland for a three day weekend, due to thinking it was going to busy on the north face of the Ben and combined with the great forecast we decided to camp just below the CIC hut to save having to do the walk in with full packs every day and also get a head start on other climbers.
We arrived at the North Face car park at 1am on Wednesday night and the car thermometer was reading minus 5 so we must have been crazy to get out of the lovely warm car and start walking up to the CIC hut with a tent and sleeping bags. It was great to walk in by moonlight and once we were out of the forest we did not need to use our head torches, as we approached the CIC hut we found what looked like a good bivy spot so pitched the tent and got some sleep, well me and Nick did anyway as Alex forgot his sleeping mat so was sleeping on a rope which didn’t provide all that much insulation from the ground!
Despite waking up at 6am we still had people walk past us while we were still in the tent and once we started the walk up to the CIC hut we could see people heading up Observatory Gully and had no idea if they were heading towards our route or not, we walked straight past the CIC hut on a mission and got as far as we could before stopping to put crampons on and it paid off as we were the first team to the base of the route but only by about 5 mins!
We chose to climb Orion Face Direct a route described as “One of the finest winter climbs in Scotland, with all the atmosphere of a major alpine face”, having never climbed a route graded at IV before I was fairly nervous while walking in due to the very intimidating nature of the massive wall that the route winds its way up. We soloed up the initial ice section to get to a large belay ledge at the base of the chimney pitch where we put our harnesses on, geared up and got ready to head off on the climb.
I took the first pitch and it was a great fun pitch with good ice for screws and involved some interesting but not difficult climbing and was almost a full 60m rope to the belay, the belay was actually good on a frozen peg, in situ nut and another nut, however not all the belays would be this good! Nick and Alex arrived at the belay fairly quickly after some quick untying Nick was ready to lead off on the second pitch, this had a few steps of ice to start with before arriving at the first snow field which by fighting some rope stretch Nick managed to reach a belay at the top consisting of two OKish icicle threads.
After some more rope changing Alex lead off on the next pitch which was a short pitch up to the start of the traverse which due to some poor communication between us ended up with a belay off a (fairly solid) snow bollard rather than a rock belay a few meters ahead. The pitch was a traverse across the snow field to an icy steepening before continuing up to the edge of the snow field.
It was then time for the crux traverse which Nick lead due to this being the route which Nick really wanted to climb so it was only fair that he got to take the crux pitch, it was a good fun pitch however after a few rock spikes at the start was fairly bold with the only gear being two tied off ice screws, one being so bad I actually started laughing when I saw it. The lack of gear did make it pretty serious for me as a second as well due to the dodgy screw being the only bit of gear on my rope at the end of the traverse. It was a great fun pitch with a mixture of great ice and neve and all too quickly I arrived at the belay which was a selection of tied off ice screws.
The next pitch was mine and it looked great from below and I was really looking forward to heading up it. After taking the gear back I headed off and was not disappointed as it was constantly interesting climbing weaving its way up the face with occasionally good ice for screws. As I was climbing the views behind were stunning as the cloud began clearing at it was really atmospheric with views of Tower Ridge. After loads of brilliant climbing I ended up at a snow field which I started to head up hoping to make it to the belay ledge half way up, however this didn’t happen and in the middle of this neve snow slope I ended up running out of rope and having to make a belay of three equalised ice screws in neve and an ice axe, I actually think that the drive in and long ice screw were OK.
After the others arrived at the Belay we quickly swapped gear and Alex headed up the rest of the snowfield to the steep final chimney which contained some great climbing on brilliant ice with stunning views behind us. As Alex was reaching the top of the chimney he did run out of rope due to my belay not having made the ledge so we briefly had to move together until Alex got to the belay, thankfully for this Alex had placed some great ice screws near the top of the chimney making this simul climbing safe.
Once me and Nick arrived at the belay we agreed to solo the final section due to it looking easy so Alex untied from the ropes and my and Nick climbed dragging the ropes up behind us. As we topped out the views were stunning with a full cloud inversion around Ben Nevis making us feel like we were on top of the world, once we got to the top we sorted out gear, enjoyed lunch on the windless summit and then started the descent down towards our tent.
We headed back down to the CIC hut by descending a very stepped out Number 4 gully and quickly arrived back down at the hut where we removed our winter gear before heading to the tent. When we got near to the CIC hut we had a fantastic view of Orion Face and it was very crowded with people, we counted 11 people on the face and this was a good few hours after we topped out! After dumping all of our kit we walked out with just our head torches, a hat and gloves for the ascent later which was great and headed to the pub to warm up and eat a good evening meal before walking back up to the tent by torchlight and going to bed at wild time of 8pm!
It was an absolutely fantastic day which was great fun, the climbing never felt too hard, certainly not how I expected a grade V to feel but that is due to how brilliant the conditions were. I was surprised at how efficiently we managed to climb considering we were alternating leads in a party of three as we never held the pair behind us up after the first pitch and we were on the top in time for an early lunch.