One Man’s Legacy: Zero Gully

Since its launch in December last year, One Man’s Legacy has been receiving plaudits, with five-star reviews on Amazon and from well-respected figures in the literary climbing world. Adrian Trendall of All Things Cuillin describes it as: ‘Not just any biography, but the template for how biographies should be. Patey’s character is complemented by extensive research and interviews, superb writing and a fascinating collection of photos. No stuffy work of academia, this is a gripping read and once opened, it’s hard to put down.’ Meanwhile, author Jim Perrin, no stranger to biographies of controversial climbing figures, says it is an ‘Exemplary, judicious and vivid biography. If you’re at all interested in mountaineering, it’s a must-have, and brings back all the rackety, right-on-the-edge, humane and risky companionable nature of the activity as it was practised by the generation to which I belonged. An exhilarating ride … It will come to be regarded as one of mountaineering history’s seminal texts.’

In the following extract from the book, Mike Dixon tells the story of the first ascent of Zero Gully in 1957―the first ever Grade V route on Ben Nevis:

“The North-East Face of Ben Nevis is a premier mountaineering venue of world renown with a rich and fascinating history. It has an Alpine ambience due to its long routes and lingering snows: spring can be well underway by the banks of Loch Linnhe while winter still dominates on the peak. Its position means that it is open to the onslaught of the prevailing south-westerly fronts which batter the coast; mild interludes and periods of freeze/thaw produce superb snow ice that is easy for a pick to penetrate and reliable enough to hang from. By February 1957, the unclimbed but named gullies of Point Five and Zero were in the sights of all the top Scottish climbers and, more worryingly for the Scots, many of the leading performers south of the border. The problem was finding the gullies in climbable condition: unconsolidated powder on the plateau can blow down the two chutes, enveloping climbers in hissing spindrift and making progress almost impossible. Nowadays, thanks to the tag ‘Probably the most famous ice gully in the world,’ Point Five attracts climbers from all over the globe, and there can be a continuous line of ropes from bottom to top on a busy day. Zero, although technically easier, has a reputation for being more serious due to its poorer belays. For both gullies, early ascensionists would have to cut steps in precipitous ice, with all the trepidation and insecurity that entailed. Allen Fyffe, who climbed several of the hardest winter climbs in Scotland in the ’60s and ’70s, has said that, back then, ‘The Ben was bigger and badder than anywhere else, and we knew little about it.’ The weekend after his ascent of the classic Route Major (IV,5) on Carn Etchachan with Mac Smith, Patey hitched over from the east with Graeme Nicol and arrived at the CIC Hut before the main weekend throng. They were later joined by SMC stalwarts Len Lovat, Malcolm Slesser, Donald Bennet, Douglas Scott and non-member Norman Tennent: a group of competent all-round mountaineers, though none in Patey’s class in terms of winter climbing ability. Debilitating spindrift on Saturday ruled out any gully ascents, so Patey, Nicol and Lovat made for the virgin face in Coire Leis, later christened the Little Brenva Face. According to Nicol, tackling Cresta (III) on that face was Patey’s idea, but it had been suggested to him by W.H. Murray. Little Brenva is a classic example of terrain which is of no interest to the summer climber but can produce quality lines in winter, and Patey, with his creative mind, ‘was brilliant at seeing lines’. The trio were pleased with their success on Cresta, which they completed in three hours, but it did not sate Patey’s and Nicol’s ambitions.

Any notion that there would be no competition that weekend for the two glittering prize gullies was shattered upon their return to the hut, where Creagh Dhu Club members Mick Noon and John Cunningham―one of the most outstanding rock climbers in Scotland at the time―were ensconced. It was an eclectic mix of personalities in the CIC Hut that weekend: shipyard workers Cunningham and Noon, academics Slesser and Bennet, ex-submarine commander Tennent, lawyer Lovat, photographer Scott and medics Patey and Nicol. There was a dramatic entrance late on Saturday evening by Hamish MacInnes, who had rushed over from the Steall Hut in Glen Nevis when he heard of the personnel gathered and the goals they had in mind. MacInnes’s experience stretched from Scotland to the Alps, New Zealand and the Himalaya, and that weekend he had with him The Message, the first all-metal shafted ice hammer, which he had recently invented. MacInnes had made similar breakthroughs in winter climbing to Patey, and by the late ’50s they were two of the leading Scottish winter protagonists, with similar drives and often the same routes on their respective hit lists.

Sunday morning heralded poor conditions, but Noon, Cunningham and MacInnes left early for Zero, returning later, disappointed. Despite the likelihood of avalanches, Patey and Nicol risked Comb Gully (IV), which they climbed in just over an hour in a blizzard and suffocating spindrift, albeit with excellent snow ice in which they could cut steps. According to Nicol, when they reached the top, Patey vanished without warning to descend Number Three Gully, leaving his companion stranded. Nicol, who had limited knowledge of the mountain’s topography, was alarmed at being abandoned in such poor weather. He eventually descended near the Red Burn and took the traverse path back to the CIC Hut from the halfway lochan, reuniting with Patey hours later. Despite his compassion and consideration in other situations, ‘That was very much Tom; once he’d done the climb, he’d be off, not really bothered if you were with him or not.’

On Monday, conditions in Zero Gully were superb, and MacInnes and Patey set off with Nicol, who was ‘the young guy with the big boys’ and therefore sanguine about the undertaking. Zero takes the depression between the Orion Face and Observatory Ridge and is more an open, shallow groove than an enclosed slot typical of a traditional Scottish gully. In April 1936, JHB. Bell and Colin Allan had made a partial winter ascent but had avoided the lower difficulties by taking to the rocks of Slav Route (VI) on the left, rejoining the gully for the easier, upper section. This was now MacInnes’s seventh attempt on Zero―frustratingly, he had already climbed the major difficulties in the lower section before an avalanche had necessitated a retreat. He had become obsessive about it and had even soloed the adjacent Observatory Ridge in winter to inspect it.

Patey was pointed at the first long chute pitch leading up to an overhang. As he progressed, MacInnes drily recounted the various mishaps incurred by previous suitors. This gentle one-upmanship was a common feature of their relationship, and is memorably described in Patey’s humorous account of their first winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. At least MacInnes could furnish Patey with useful information about belays: at the top of the first pitch was a piece of nylon cord attached to an ice axe embedded in the snow, which MacInnes and Bob Hope had abseiled off the previous month. Patey led the precipitous 20-foot section above by taking tension from rudimentary ice screws to cut steps, as it was too steep to remain in balance without aid. Above this, Patey failed to uncover MacInnes’s abandoned ice piton and had to make do with an axe belay. A traverse back into the main bed of the gully on less steep but very exposed ground led to what was clearly one of the hardest sections on the route. It had been from below this section that MacInnes and Hope had abandoned their attempt in the face of spindrift avalanches. MacInnes, unlike the tricouni-clad Aberdonians, was wearing crampons but still took two hours to lead the formidable 300-foot pitch, which gave his belayers an opportunity to taunt him, Nicol singing the ‘New Orleans Funeral March’. Patey was forced to acknowledge MacInnes’s lead, however, when he required a tight rope for much of it. Above this, the ground eased and, moving together, they set a furious pace as they continued to cut steps, reaching the top in 50 minutes. After a total of five hours, the first Grade V climb on Ben Nevis had been established. It was a milestone in the mountain’s history and remains legendary, not so much for the quality of the climbing but for the history associated with it and the breakthrough it represented at the time. Despite its simple name, it evoked a powerful emotional response in those who aspired to climb it. Jimmy Cruickshank wrote of the first ascent: ‘Their efforts did little to dissipate the feeling of awe its nihilistic name tended to inspire.’ Zero Gully was quite unlike Patey’s great trilogy of winter routes in the Cairngorms, and his fame would now spread beyond the northeast of Scotland.”