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  • Alex Rambles

Into the Highlands - Part Two - Ben Nevis

1 man. 4 days. 3 nights. 1 wildcamp. 13 summits. 8 Munros. 4400 metres of ascent. 1 failure. 3 successes.

That is one way to sum up my solo jaunt into the Highlands of Scotland this August. If you prefer a qualitative rather than quantitative analysis of my time there, read on...

I had spent two days wrestling with the Buachaille Etive Mor. A humbling retreat from The Curved Ridge on Monday evening and a glorious traverse of the full ridge on the Tuesday, with a spur of the moment wildcamp as the meat in the sandwich was the sum total of my experiences. Today I had an even bigger fish to fry...

I wake at 8am and wriggle out of my sleeping bag, zip open the tent door and regard the view down Loch Leven. The Pap of Glencoe, or Sgurr na Ciche to give it its Gaelic name, assumes the classic pointed mountain form on the left shore, whilst Beinn na Cailich rises almost as dramatically and much closer by on the right shore. The MacDonald Hotel in Kinlochleven is wonderfully positioned. Tellingly, the cloud is way above the summits. After a traditional Highland breakfast in the hotel restaurant and visit to the drying room, I am ready to go. Today I have my sights set on the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. My view on The Ben is thus: there are two sides to The Ben, both physically and in a more figurative sense.

There's Side A. Side A is the zigzagging path that winds up its fairly featureless western face. Side A is the fact that it is the highest mountain in Britain at 1344 metres high. This makes it an incredibly popular mountain and on many people's to-do lists, hence the zigzagging path becoming known as the Tourist Route. Many of these people will not neccesarily be passionate about hill walking, mountaineering, scrambling, Munros or whatever. They will just know that Ben Nevis is the highest and they want to stand on top of it. They won't know that the mountain that drew their eyes north of Tyndrum was Beinn Dorain. They won't know that the mountain that took their breath away across Rannoch Moor was the Buachaille Etive Mor. They won't return to Glencoe, despite pulling over to take in the majesty of the Bidean's Three Sisters. They will summit Ben Nevis via a distinctly mundane route, possibly thinking it something of a slog. They will do it with hundreds of others. They will have no sense of the freedom and wilderness that a good mountain day should provide. They will not get the bug. This is Side A, Ben Nevis the massive hill.

Then there's Side B. Side B is The North Face of The Ben. This is the scene of World Class winter climbs with routes to test highly skilled mountaineers. In summer, it offeres a host of fantastic rock climbs and atmospheric scrambles. It is a cold and unforgiving face, a place once described by one writer of "loveless loveliness." For a hiker, the north face is just about out of bounds, more of a climbers arena. However, there is a route that treats those who keep faith with a long approach to spectacular views back to the face. But the views are just the tip of the ice-berg as far as this route is concerned. The route in question is the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, a long, narrow ridge of shattered boulders that sweeps down from the summit of Carn Mor Dearg and curves around and up all the way to the summit of Ben Nevis. All of this drama is completely lost on the poor souls trudging up the Tourist Route in the company of hundreds of others. So, Side B. Ben Nevis the mountain. Sherlock, which way do you think I'm going up?

As the crow flies, it is not far from Kinlochleven to the start point in Glen Nevis. It is just on the other side of the Mamores - but more on that tomorrow. Today though, I'm not planning to hitch a ride on a crow but drive a car and that means a forty minute drive along the shores of Loch Leven, over the Ballachulish bridge and then up to Fort William along the shores of Loch Linnhe. Once at Fort William, I take the turn off for Glen Nevis and enter what has been cited many times as Scotland's most sceneic glen, though I was the explore the glen more thoroughly the next day. Back to the present and I park next to the youth hostel, change into my Salomons and turn my attention to the Ben. Only I have not really seen it yet. Britain's highest mountain is doing a grand job of hiding and this is another gripe I have with the Tourist Route - you never really get to see the mountain you are climbing.

I am to follow the Tourist Route as far as the Halfway Lochan and I make good progress on the well built path. Further down the glen, the great quartzite dome of Sgurr a'Mhaim promises great things for tomorrow's Ring of Steall. The ascent to the Halfway Lochan is charming enough but predictably busy with people from all over the World getting to grips with Ben Nevis. I pass a French family, a Chinese family, a German family, Americans and even the odd Brit! As the masses take the right fork in the path to continue to long slog, I head left, content in the knowledge that I am heading for a beaut of a route.

Quartzite capped Sgurr a'Mhaim

My main concern with the route is how to actually gain the Carn Mor Dearg ridge itself. I know from the accounts of others that it is a pathless, steep pull up onto the ridge. As I enter into the jaws of the Corie Leis I survey the scene to my left and my right. To the the left is the flank of the ridge that rises to Carn Mor Dearg; it is green, steep and speckled with boulders. To the right is the dramatically unfolding North Face of the Ben; it is dark, scarred by crags and forbidding. Loveless loveliness indeed. However, I try not to gawp in awe of it too much at this stage but rather try and ignore it, so that its prospect comes more of a surprise from the top of the ridge. I know that from there, it will look supreme. The path down the Corie Leis eventually reaches what is effectively Ben Nevis basecamp for the climbers who take on routes up the north face. It is the CIC hut - named in memory of Charlies Inglis Clark, who was killed in the First World War and whose parents were keen climbers. There are a few others on this path and I wonder what route they are taking on. I do not get as far as the hut but instead bear left and cross the wide Allt a'Mhuilinn, before beginning the ascent up to the ridge.

It is an unremittingly steep and tedious ascent up the grass and scree strewn slope. I follow a burn most of the way up and try to use the naked rock surrounding it as firm ground that I am able to trust. The problem is, much of it is damp and slippery. There are constant judgement calls to make. Do I pick my way up the grass and shrubs that are unpredictable underfoot? Do I scramble up the large boulders amongst the scree even though many of them are loose? Do I continue by the burn even though a lot of the rock is wet? It ends up being a mixture of all three at different times. When, finally, I meet the path that signals the end of the ascent it is an almighty relief. Bring on the good times. I ascend towards the summit of Carn Mor Meadhonach.

Glorious does not begin to describe the views from its summit. Carn Mor Dearg, the ninth highest mountain in Britain, is close at hand and beautifully pointed. The ridge that bears its name is beginning to make itself known but is still mostly hidden by the main summit ahead.

Carn Mor Dearg

However, it is to the right that one of the grandest scenes in the British mountains fills my vision. The length, breadth and massive height of The North Face of The Ben is seen in profile. And it is sublime. I trace the routes that I have read about from right to left up to the main summit. Castle Ridge leading to - you guessed it - The Castle; Ledge Route winding its way up the dark crags, in what is an improbable grade one scramble; Tower Ridge looking every bit the rock climb and Observatory Ridge leading steeply to the summit.

The North Face from Carn Mor Meadhonach

After taking all of this in, I set off on the short hike to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg. Topping out, the full extent of the CMD Arete revealled in all its glory. In a graceful arc that first dips and then rises to the summit of the Ben, the arete looks as narrow as it does enthralling. Its backdrop is the wonderful Mamores range and behind that the Glencoe peaks and behind that the Glen Etive peaks and behind that... Well, you get the picture. From up here the Western Highlands unfurl in a sea of rolling ridges and sharp peaks. The dramatic termination of the Buachaille is a highlight, as are the many peaks of the Bidean almost directly behind Sgurr a'Mhaim. The majority of the Ring of Steall is taken in and I am eagle-eyed enough to spot the Steall waterfall. This is pure Highland majesty.

The CMD Arete with the Mamores behind.

It is difficult to spend much time on Carn Mor Dearg's summit when the arete is ahead, beckoning. After a short descent, the terrain soon narrows and becomes a jumble of rocks and boulders. It instantly puts me in mind of the terrain that runs from Great End to Scafell Pike in the Lake District, only much more precipitous. However, the exposure is not in the league of Crib Goch or The Aonach Eagach. It is still there but you can keep it at arms length if you so wish. Easily the best way is to pick a way across the very crest of the ridge and I revel in the progress. Like on Striding Edge, for those who have no inclination to airy scrambling there is a path lower down that avoids the majority of the exposure.

Every now and again, I stop to look around and take in the inredible surroundings. Aonach Beag and Aonach Mor, Britain's seventh and eighth highest mountains respectively look their full height across Coire Giubhsachan. The summit of The Ben looks more pointed the further along the ridge I go and I find myself wondering what the steep looking ascent from the end of the ridge will be like. As the arete swerves around to face The Ben, the drop on the right gets that little bit more intimidating and the crest feels that bit narrower. There are no pinnacles to negotiate for the entire length of the arete, it is a continuous, boulder strewn walkway. Hands are needed more for clambering than any kind of climbing but they are used nonetheless.

The CMD Arete

The most exposed section comes towards the end of the traverse - a raised platform about two feet wide with drops on either side. This would be the main challenge for the hiker who opts to take the lower path, as it is completely absent here - there is no choice but to tackle the platform. Fortunately, the way is flat and accomodating, although I can imagine it being slighly more malevolent when under snow and ice. The very final section of the arete starts to climb and hands are needed here. Before long, I am stood by a very well fashioned cairn that I later learn to be the marker for an abseil point. I look back along the arete. It has been an absolute and sustained pleasure. All that is left to do now is climb to the roof of Britain.

Aonach Beag and the CMD Arete

The clamber up the flank of Ben Nevis is entertaining enough. I may have lost something that is more akin to a path but I am not concerned, I am enjoying the clamber up the huge boulders. Care has to be taken in making sure that the boulders are not loose. As I gain height, I look back to the arete and get a beautifully layered view, with the bulk of Aonach Beag above the sweeping rocky ridge. Here I am, on Britain's highest mountain looking across to three more of its top ten.

The gradient eases. The summit plateau is suddenly upon me. I have arrived at the summit of Ben Nevis. There are people everywhere. Some are sitting by the ruins of the observatory. Others are taking selifes on the raised platform at the true summit. Some are looking north over the Mamores, Glencoe and beyond. Some are looking west, to the islands of Mull, Rum and Skye. Some are looking south to peaks that I do not yet truly know. Which one is Ladhar Bheinn? I wonder. Can I make out Torridon from here? What of Glen Shiel? Supposedly, one can see over one hundred Munros from up here. I am blessed with a clear day in which to take in the endless sea of high land around.

But it is not the distant landscapes that truly hold my attention. And that, I realise is what they are - distant. Even the Mamores look distant from here, in a strange sort of way. After all, they are three hundred metres below my feet and some four kilometres away. It is, once again, the North Face of The Ben that is the spectacle here. Or at least its pinnacles and ridges that lead up it. The Tower on Tower Ridge looks mighty. The cliffs dropping from The Castle, sheer and impressive. I find my way to an outcrop that juts out from the summit to the edge of the abyss. I swear that the temperature drops considerably as I get nearer the edge. A cold wind blows up from below. A chill creeps across my heart and my limbs tremble slightly. It is a daunting place to behold at such close quarters. Vertigo inducing. It feels lifeless and somehow unnatural. I feel a deep respect for the mountaineer who ascends this way. The summer rock climber must be brave. The winter ice-climber must have nerves of steel. I now understand why the summit of Ben Nevis can be deadly in low visibility. Broad it may be, but there are horrendous, sheer drops all over the place.

Tower Ridge and The Castle behind.

I walk around to the top of Tower Ridge and look back to the true summit. It is quite a odd one. It is so flat, with so many people, so many man made structures and such an array of cliffs. Quite unique. With one last look, I turn and begin my fast descent of the Tourist Route. Descending with the low sun and the Inner Hebrides on the horizon is something of a treat. My eyes spend a good while tracing the spikiness of the very distant Cuillin on Skye and then the less dramatic Cuillin on Rum. Ben More on Mull looks huge but that might have something to do with the fact that it is the only mountain visible that has cloud licking its summit. The terrain at this stage is like a sloping desert of rock in all directions. Fairly featureless and uninspiring. There's just no comparison with The CMD Arete.

Eventually I decide to break into a run. Running downhill is a pleasure that any trail runner will attest to and it is something that I always enjoy immensely. There are sections of the Tourist Route path that are made of large, flat rocks that are a joy to leap between at speed. Hey, maybe this Tourist Route is not so bad after all. I reach the Halfway Lochan and rejoin my initial ascent path. I bound past others as the air around me gets noticeably warmer with every five minutes that passes. It is a balmy day by the time I reach the final stretch back towards the youth hostel and the car, nothing like the chill over a thousand metres above on the summit. The speedy descent is done and, thankfully, the youth hostel has a shop for some liquid refreshment (non-alcoholic - I'm driving). I send a text to the family WhatsApp group to tell them of my exploits and then it's back into the car and the drive back to Kinlochleven.

Ben Nevis has served up a truly superb mountain day. It is a mountain that deserves to be treated the right way, not by the mere facility provided by the Tourist Route but by an adventurous scramble or climb. In the case of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, it is a route truly deserving of the highest mountain in the land. It is long, sustained, exciting with superb views and just enough exposure to keep the scrambler on their toes. Of course, there are even more adventurous ways to the summit, ways that climb that intimidating, cold North Face. The Ledge Route is the obvious natural progression for me and I am sure that one day I will be back to climb The Ben once more.

As I depart Glen Nevis, I catch a glimpse of Sgurr a'Mhaim in the rear view mirror and thoughts turn to tomorrow and one of the classic horseshoe hikes in Britain: The Ring of Steall...

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