Reviewed by Ed Douglas
DateFriday, 20 November 2009
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In Chamonix this summer, I was talking to a French guide, and an anglophile one at that, when the subject got on to British climbers. ‘British alpinists are a real type,’ he told me. ‘They’re worried they could take a long time, so they carry lots of stuff and end up taking a long time. We wait for the best weather and best conditions and then do it quickly.’
He was gracious enough to acknowledge this picture is changing – and changing quickly – as more British mountaineers live permanently in the Alps and climb there more often. But ingrained in his mind was the powerful impression of a longstanding cultural difference. And if we’re honest, he’s got a point. Lots of us do plod along, including me.
But here’s the difference. European climbers often assume we climb – or climbed – like that because we come from a country with no big mountains. How can we be expected to know any better? Whereas the truth is we come from a country whose greatest mountaineering challenge – the north-eastern aspect of Ben Nevis – makes demands on us that few Alpine climbers are required to tolerate.
First off, there’s the weather. Maritime mountains are notorious for their fickle ways and the Ben is no exception. You can get a year’s weather in a day, most of it bad. If climbers on Ben Nevis only went out in perfect conditions they’d not get much climbing done. Compare Ben Nevis: Britain’s Highest Mountain, recently published in a new edition by the Scottish Mountaineering Trust, with Gaston Rébuffat’s The Mont Blanc Massif, and my point is made.
For example, in December 1893 there was little more than an hour of sunshine on the Ben for the entire month. Mountains of course are weather factories, and Chamonix is no stranger to prolonged bouts of overcast skies and low temperatures. But one measly hour in a whole month? No wonder the Scottish invented whisky. You need something to chase the chill gloom from your bones.
These days, with better forecasts and fast transport, you can take advantage of weather windows in Scotland in the same way French alpinists do in Chamonix. You can be sleek and fast and well dressed. But for most of its history, climbing on Ben Nevis has required a kind of dogged, mollusc-like bloody-mindedness, climbing on in the face of a sea-borne nightmare, where nuggets of gold had to be won from an unpromising lode of bad weather and rotten ice. ‘If a man could climb safely on Ben Nevis,’ H. W. Tilman said shortly after falling off it, ‘he could climb safely anywhere.’
It’s not the prettiest mountain, either, although its business end is undeniably dramatic. Artists before the age of photography tended to fluff up its ruggedness. In reality, from the air, Ben Nevis looks like a stony crème caramel with a chunk spooned out of it. To be fair, there are few mountains that look magnificent from every angle and offer great climbing. The Dru, perhaps. But the Ben is more like the east side of Mont Blanc du Tacul, which is as mesmerising as its north side is anonymous.
And yet the Ben is a magnificent climbing challenge, and much more than good training for the Alps. In fact, Ben Nevis might be considered bad training for the Alps. Before good ice tools, poor weather and spindrift must have made ice routes frozen purgatory. In the modern context, mixed routes on rock offering mediocre protection can drink time. The longest routes on the Ben may only reach 400m, short in Alpine terms, but the physicality of the climbing, changing weather and fewer hours of light make for chunky days out. The Ben isn’t training. It’s a destination in its own right, the best of something in the way Fontainebleau or Yosemite are.
Look into the eyes of a French alpinist next time you share a stance and see the flicker of anxiety if the guy on the sharp end so much as hesitates on a move. On the Ben, you settle in for a good hour or three while your partner rips each inch from the next 150ft with his teeth. No wonder we need lots of weight and patience. We’re dray-horses delivering beer compared to a thoroughbred winning the Derby.
Here is Jimmy Marshall, one of the Ben’s most formidable actors, bitching in 1959 about the drama he finds himself in: ‘I’m going to get married, start a business and to hell with the climbing!’ But by the winter of 1960, he’s back for a glorious week – arguably the most glorious week – of Ben Nevis winter climbing history, starting on 6 February, which gave up a string of hard new routes including the Orion Face and Smith’s Route.
These days, of course, you can do all these things at the same time. With the possible exception of starting a business, they don’t seem to require the same commitment as they used to. Having said that, my own experience on Marshall’s classic Minus Two Gully would suggest the climbing hasn’t got that much easier.
It wasn’t so much Minus Two itself, although that was demanding enough. An out-of-shape Dougal Haston described trying to keep up with Marshall on what was then one of the hardest routes on the Ben as ‘a mind-awakener’. I was following Sean Smith, and my experience matched Haston’s. My mind was awakened. But it was climbing the top of NE Buttress to exit Minus Two that really freaked me out.
Recall that the NE Buttress, a summer Very Difficult, was first climbed in winter by Willie Naismith in 1896. A whole century later I found myself below its most notorious feature, the Mantrap, propping up Sean’s boot – crampons attached – with my shoulder as the wind howled across the ridge and my headtorch caught flurries of snow in its weakening beam. Meanwhile, Sean, one of our most accomplished alpinists in the late 1980s, hacked and swore at the mountain until he finally fought his way up.
Everybody who climbs on the Ben has stories like these and they leave an impact. It’s why the history of climbing on the mountain is so rich. Ken Crocket’s account of Ben Nevis was first published in 1986 and many older climbers will already have this. All I can suggest is that you take it down to Oxfam, because this new edition is a powerful improvement on the old.
Many of the black and white images appeared in the first edition but many more have been added thanks to the digitisation of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s archive. Then, of course, there’s another 23 years of climbing development since the book was last published, years that are described and illustrated in depth.
With these years put into their context, it’s hard not to think that while the stories of the Ben’s early development are engaging and romantic, in terms of climbing achievement its most recent years are no less impressive and come at a rush, with hard new lines falling all around to determined young men taking full advantage of modern techniques.
And if you’re one of those romantics holding a flame for the make-do toughness of previous generations, recall that Haston was out of shape on Minus Two, struggling to keep up with Marshall. The current crop by contrast, do Alpine-length enchaînements as soon as conditions, like those of 2002, allow. True, gear is so much better, but so is overall fitness and mountaineering competence. Dave Macleod is one of the true greats, no matter which generation he’s compared to.
For those who don’t have the first edition then you’re in for a treat. If the end of the book is compressed by so many new routes being done so quickly, its opening is more leisurely, with time between landmark ascents to give revealing insights into the characters and exploits that made the mountain. So we have Willie Naismith walking from Glasgow to climb Ben Lomond and then return, covering 100km in 20 hours; the Victorians were also fit, just lacking crampons.
Although a lack of crampons didn’t make much difference to Harold Raeburn, whose pioneering first ascents, including Green Gully, were unmatched for several generations of climbers. There are fascinating insights into the careers of other Ben Nevis explorers, like Jim Bell with his brass curtain rods as ice protection and the conscientious objector Brian Kellett, who flared brightly for a couple of years but was then gone, killed on the mountain that had been a very different test of courage.
The whole book benefits hugely from lots of diverting photographs and well-researched captions, the kind of editorial fairy dust that has put the SMT at the head of the pack when it comes to specialist climbing publishers. English and Welsh guidebooks aren’t too far behind the Scots, but there’s little like this history of Ben Nevis south of the border that brings history to such vibrant life.
Some of the controversies that surround Ben Nevis climbing are touched on in a reasonably calm manner, like Alan Mullin’s ascent of Centurion, although I think Ken Crocket is too generous to Robin Smith, black-balling Ian Clough from the SMC. Smith was a genius, more so than Dougal Haston, but he was clearly capable of acts of spite, especially against someone with demonstrably less talent operating on his turf.
There are, perhaps, a few too many printing errors, but if I had one meaningful criticism, it’s that the book ends up being almost too focussed on the cut and thrust of modern technical climbing, which might discourage a more general mountaineering readership. How the mountain is perceived now by the general public and how it’s environment is used and abused should have been given more space at the end of the book, rather than tacked on to a chapter about whisky, important though that subject is to many. But it’s a minor concern. This book does proper justice to Britain’s highest mountain.