Zero Gully – from first ascent to now

Zero Gully

As modern day adventurers, with cutting-edge equipment, prepare to enjoy a winter of climbing we look back 55 years to the first epic ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis

Photograph: Zero Gully – Abacus Mountain Guides

It’s 5 o’clock on a freezing winter morning and already the queue is forming at a remote spot at the base of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. The dozen climbers that have grouped below the awesome north face are busying themselves with ropes, harnesses, crampons, ice axes and an amazing range of ice screws and protection (temporary holding tools). At frequent intervals they each stop to stare upwards, gawping at the steep 1000ft (304m) ice-clad climbing route known as Zero Gully.

Today, like so many days, the top of the renowned gully is shrouded in snow clouds. Lower down, the route – graded a V (five), which is almost midway between an easy Grade I and an extreme Grade XI on the Scottish Mountaineering Club winter climbing scale – is an intimidating wall of thick, dark ice over which falls a continuous spray of fine snow called spindrift.

The first pair of athletic-looking climbers, dressed in warm, waterproof clothing, are now ready to begin their ascent. Their faces lighting up with anticipation, they turn their backs on the others, several of whom offer quick smiles of encouragement and the odd murmur of “good luck” as they await their turn.

With crampons (ice spikes fitted to boots) and an ice axe in each hand, the two young men make the first 20 metres of ice climbing appear easy. Today the ice is in good form, offering a gluey stickiness to which the modern climbing equipment rarely fails to hold.

There are frustrations, such as a waterfall of chilling spindrift, and dangers that have sometimes proved fatal, including sudden changes in weather, avalanches from the top ridge and poor anchoring potential, but if the weather conditions hold, it is very likely that all of the queuing climbers will have made a safe ascent of the iconic route by late afternoon.

The first ascent

Some 55 years ago, three young climbers completed the first ever ascent of the route, considered then to be one of the hardest in the world. Hamish MacInnes, Tom Patey and Graeme Nicol would never have believed how popular – and comparatively easy – the Zero Gully ascent would become.

Like their 21st century successors, the trio of climbers stood at the base of Zero Gully dwarfed by its intimidating size. They, too, had decided on an early start and hoped to make the most of the rare dry, clear day.

But the intrepid 1950s Scottish adventurers had none of the technical advantages that would follow, using equipment that has been described today as “prehistoric looking”.

Each climber had one axe and while 23-year-old MacInnes sported a basic and self-designed version of today’s crampon, Patey, 25, and Nicol, 22, wore only nailed boots without front spikes. The men did not have harnesses, either, and the ropes, which were tied between each man and around their waists, were shorter than today and made of an inferior nylon. Clothing was ex-Army and, according to MacInnes, “prone to freezing up like corrugated iron” or woollen and “prone to become waterlogged and heavy”.

Their method of ascent was also arduous and time-consuming. While today’s climbers “front-point”, or cling to the ice wall like spiders, thanks to front-spiked crampons and two hand-held ice axes, MacInnes and his companions used a system called step-cutting, whereby individual hand holds, and then foot holds, were cut from the ice as climbers headed slowly upwards.

MacInnes, now 83 and an OBE, describes the art of step-cutting. He recalls: “It was an extremely dangerous and risky business. As the lead climber I would be gripping on to an ice step above my head while attempting to cut out a foot hold below with my ice axe. At no point would I feel rock solid or particularly safe.

“Spindrift would continually hamper my progress, too, with snow and falling ice getting into every crack in my clothing. Small things like today’s snow gaiters that fit snugly over the top of your boots would have made such a difference.”

Climbing the gully in the 1950s

MacInnes, a Scot who went on to play a key role worldwide in the development of modern ice climbing tools, describes the first half the climb and the bulging overhang of ice and rock at the mid way point as strenuous and scary.

While the team did manage to hammer in some ice pegs – “crude homemade things fashioned from chunks of heavy iron” – along the way, they were aware that if one of the men fell the pegs could easily come out of the ice. If this happened then all three of the roped-together men would likely fall to their deaths.

“So many climbers had already failed in their attempt to climb Zero Gully,” recalls MacInnes.  “The system of harnesses, belaying ropes and more secure, lightweight protection tools was a thing of the future.”

But the competition to be the first to climb Zero Gully was fierce. MacInnes had already tried four times, including an attempt the day before with two other companions, but each time he’d been forced to abseil off because of poor weather.

That day in 1957 they “got lucky”. It took the trio six hours and they were hailed heroes of the Scottish climbing scene back then. Patey, who died in 1970 while abseiling from a sea stack, went on to write a celebrated classic account of the climb called The Zero Gully Affair.

Still a classic

These days there are many much harder winter routes in Scotland but the classic ice climbs on the Ben, including Zero Gully, still offer a big attraction for climbers.

If you go out to climb this route, or any other, in winter conditions, it will be tough but do give a thought to the remarkable MacInnes, Patey and Nicol, too.

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