Norman Collie is a bit of a legend by all accounts. Not only was he a professor of Chemistry at UCL specialising in mixing up gases to make them illuminate and explode, but he was also one of the most revered UK mountaineers of the late 1800s / early 1900s. Apparently he even inspired some characteristic traits of Connan Doyle’s famous private investigator Sherlock Holmes! However, its his climbing he's most famous for and as a mountaineer, his adventurous spirit was unfaultable, with iconic first ascents in the Lakes and on the Isle of Skye. Perhaps the most notable trait running throughout his climbing career lies in his unfailing ability to pluck first ascents from right under the noses of the Scots, which considering he was Cheshire born and bred (a land as flat as a St George’s Day celebration in Sauchiehall Street) added considerable insult to injury. In fact his winter ascent of a virgin Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis was as good as putting two fingers up to the Highland climbing contingent and one that etched his place in the climbing annals of history. Stealing such a ripe plum demanded retaliation and it wasn’t long before Scottish Mountaineering Club co-founder William ‘Willie’ Naismith stepped up the mark, making the first inaugural winter ascent of Ben Nevis’s North East Buttress. Although not perhaps as famed, the North East Buttress is a considerable step up in difficulty both in terms of the more sustained nature of the ground and also exposure to the elements being more pronounced and less set back than Tower Ridge.
Having ticked Tower Ridge earlier in the season, I was keen to find out for myself just how these two famous bastions of the Ben compare and it was with great excitement I arranged with Connor to go and see what all the fuss was about.
North East Buttress is described by the SMC as being one of the greatest traditional mountaineering routes in Scotland and is graded IV and (depending on which guidebook you look at) is given a technical grade of 4 or 5 (although some have suggested 6!). Our original plan had been to make a more sustained ascent of the ridge by taking a direct line up Slingby’s Chimney (II) through Raeburn’s Buttress to get to the start, which negates the requirement for a long walk round into Coire Leis and traversing across the steep icefields, however whilst chatting to people staying at CIC Hut when gearing up, it quickly became apparent that Slingby’s had a reputation for being a serious sand bag, with one local guide suggesting it would probably be more like V today. Considering the length of the ridge and our start time being less than alpine, we decided to go for the traditional approach...
Once at the bottom of the Buttress it wasn’t entirely clear how far up and round into Coire Leis we needed to go. Not wanting to go too far off route we decided to solo up some icy mixed ground closer to the buttress edge, however this quickly turned steep so we decided to slow things down and rope up, all the while the blistering sun was illuminating the upper buttress sending a cascade of ice fragments down across the entire mountainside. Time was clearly of the essence. After a final steep pitch we made it up onto the approach icefield, joining the correct approach line and by the time we made it to the ‘first platform’ we were back into the more stable icy shadow of the ridge. The first few pitches came and went at a reasonable pace, with one pitch in particular off the ‘second platform’ being particularly steep and quite memorable. It seemed that other parties had traversed a long way off to the right, but not want to go too far off the ridge proper we blasted straight up a steep wall and into a groove before reaching more amenable ground above (that pitch probably ended up being the hardest of the day too!). Several more pitches and some moving together came and went and just as the sun started to set behind Tower Ridge we reached the notorious Man Trap. The infamous crux of North East Buttress is only a few meters high but is considered a serious show stopper and has over the years has apparently repelled many a worthy applicant. The short wall is well protected and was thankfully well endowed with some helpful ice for our ascent so it didn’t take long to conquer. The final obstacle of the day, the equally notorious 40 foot corner, was now the only thing that stood between us and success and in contrast to the man trap, is not too technical, but is very bold. Thankfully helpful ice lined the corner too, so with bomber axe placements the lack of gear was no issue (I did actually get a single nut half way so perhaps it really was in perfect condition).
With the sun now long down below the horizon and clouds filling the valley we headed around and down back into Coire Leis before heading back to the cars.
Compared to Tower Ridge, North East Buttress feels a good bit tougher and is perhaps a bit more committing with its longer approach. It also has the most difficult bits right at the top. For me, climbing those top two pitches bathed in the evening sunlight streaming through tower gap at the end of a blue bird day, it doesn't get much better than that. A mighty ridge on a mighty mountain. Winter at its best.
Which is better? You’ll just have to go and find that out for yourself.
|A bluebird Ben. North East Buttress (IV,4) takes the obvious skyline around the Minus and Orion Faces|
|Connor on the first icefield nearing where we joined the usual approach|
|Connor moving up the left slanting gully just above the first platform|
|Steep ground just below the second platform|
|Looking across the Orion Face with the sun setting behind tower ridge. Taken from the Man Trap|
|The final well iced 40 foot corner. Great end to a great day|