Monday, March 4, 2013

Orion Direct (with video)

Recently, Gary Gray and myself climbed Orion Direct on Ben Nevis. It was superb- a week later I'm still buzzing about it!

Now graded (V,5), this ultra- classic 400m route was first climbed by legends Robin Smith & Jimmy Marshall during their exceptional week of pioneering in 1960. During that week they did first ascents of Piggot's Route (V,6), Smith's Route (V,5), Minus 3 Gully (IV,5), Observatory Buttress (V, 4), The Great Chimney (IV,5) and the first one day ascent of Point Five Gully (V,5). The SMC Scottish Winter Climbs guidebook describes Orion Direct as,
"One of the finest winter climbs in Scotland, with all the atmosphere of a major Alpine face. The route is sustained, open, and exposed, but in good conditions is nowhere technically difficult, although both belays and runners can be hard to find."

Smith and Marshall climbed it by cutting steps in the ice (the frontpointing revolution came a few years later) and with minimal gear. Modern axes, crampons and ice screws have reduced the overall seriousness of this climb, but 53 years later it's still a route with a reputation for bold climbing.

Gary above the crux on Orion Direct
I'm not a fan of following other parties up ice routes and knew we'd need to be up early to have a good chance of getting on it first. At the last minute I managed to arrange a night in the CIC hut- hopefully this should help with our planned Alpine start?

We almost ran up the path from the North Face car park on a gorgeous moonlit Monday night. Headtorches were unnecessary and we could easily have gone climbing there and then. We arrived at the hut just before midnight- only to find that every bunk space was fully occupied. Our plans for a restful kip were scuppered- the reality was 5 hours lying on the kitchen floor, being disturbed every half hour or so as folk clattered their way to the bog .

At 5am my phone alarm went off, but we were already awake so it was just a sore reminder of how little sleep we'd had. A group of French climbers burst forth from the bunkroom as we got up. While we breakfasted they tried to quiz us about our plans. We pretended we weren't sure, choked down some porridge and bolted out into the darkness as quickly as we could- knowing they had ambitions on our target.

We won the race to the start of the route and I got the first lead at 7am. The nervous anticipation I'd had disappeared on the first pitch as I found the ice was thick enough to take screws where needed. Up a short step then round rightwards to an icy chimney groove. Conditions couldn't be better- cloudless blue skies, no wind and views for 50 miles across the Highlands.

Gary came up to my stance and made short work of the enjoyable long, left- trending chimney/ groove up towards the Basin. 60m ropes are a real advantage on this route, making it possible to link some of the few rock belays that are available. A full rope length up through the steep snow of the Basin then took me to another solid belay. From here I could see over to the crux pitch. By this point a fast moving French guide and 2 clients had drawn level with us on our right, by climbing via the Direct Start. It wasn't ideal, but it would have been daft to get into rope tangles and stress today so we let them pass us. 2nd place would be fine...

Soon it was my turn to tackle the crux pitch- a wall of thin ice positioned high above Zero Gully. It was steeper than what had come before, but the ice was of such good quality that the moves were just a joy to climb. What an incredible situation though.

The penultimate (8th) pitch was Gary's. A tremendous chimney, and thick with water ice. A stonking rock belay at the base was the icing on the cake. Following it, I thought it was possibly better than the crux. The quality of the climbing was superb throughout Orion Direct. All that remained was another 60m of easy snow to the top. No cornices to deal with, just an easy stroll up into the sunshine. What a feeling to have the sun in my face as I hit the plateau. Yassss!


PS  I used to find the Cold Climbs article a good laxative back in the day, so it was nice to slay a dragon and actually get up Orion Direct. In the conditions we found, it wasn't very hard but I've no doubt it could be a lot more serious in less perfect nick. It's flipping long and the route finding could be a big problem in clag.

PPS I've got an ebay addiction at the moment and I'd actually sold my Berghaus softshell tweeds two days before I wore them on Orion Direct. Glad to say I didn't do a Greyfriars Bobby in them or rip them during the route!

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