Four 4,000ft peaks, a national high point, one day: how unlocking Ben Nevis and its towering outliers by their wild southern ridges could be your summer's ultimate adventure.
Tyrannical slopes. Legs listless like the cogs of a wound-down clock. Thirst. Thoughts of tall ambitions and a kicked arse. Of food, of sleep and hastily shushed fear. Of restless cloud, and the shadows of monsters.
Complex emotions to associate with the ascent of any mountain, these. But drive Glen Nevis, feel the leer of Britain’s highest mountain fall over the car and you’re entering a whole den ofweird feelings. Because Ben Nevis isn’t just a mountain. It’s an attitude.
People with a bad Ben Nevis attitude aren’t worth listening to. They are what you could politely call Ben Nevis frauds: people who haven’t really got a clue, and make up for it with a bit of trendy icon-slagging. Highest? Pah. Just a few metres higher than everything else, they’ll say. A-tiddler-by-world-standards this. The home-of-charity-challengers-and-Britain’s-biggest-mountain-path that.
Were you to engage them in argument (never wise with the unstoppably dumb) you could tell them that Ben Nevis’s position as the punch-bag for the eastern Atlantic’s storm muscles makes its height almost completely irrelevant: the biggest thing hereabouts was always going to be a wild ride. You could tell them that, unlike Snowdon and Scafell Pike, the single big path up its back carries, statistically speaking, practically everyone who climbs Ben Nevis – leaving the other 98 per cent of the mountain’s largely precipitous bulk a wilderness, and fair (if challenging) game for the adventurer.
But it’s best to just dismiss these people. Because Ben Nevis really isn’t like any other mountain. At all. And, as Trail was about to realise on this particular morning, there is a way up that nails not just it, but also three of its big mates. If ever it could be said, this route really does have it all. Exciting scrambling. High, exhilarating walking. Massive summits. Perilous drops. And the highest summit in the land, to boot. Now, if that’s not a recipe for one of your year’s great adventures, we’re going to swear, stomp out of the kitchen and quit. And, like every great adventure, this one started by going wrong.
Our plan had been to approach Ben Nevis via the Lochaber Traverse – one of those long, fidgety Scottish ridgewalks packed with dips and reascents the size of most English mountains. However gnarly it sounded, the fact we had any specific demands at all was the day’s first mistake: you don’t go to this drizzly, windy region of Scotland with a plan. You go with a meek wish-list, and pray for leniency.
But with the final, decision-making forecast appearing on my phone as we pulled into Fort William, the idyll we’d been mentally furnishing over the preceding weeks – high camp, dawn raid and sunset arrival on the summit of Ben Nevis, tired but happy – was riddled by three disabling bullets: ‘gales’, ‘thunder’, ‘cloud’.
“Well,” Tom had said. “Sorry, but I’ve been waiting too many years to do the Lochaber Traverse to not see anything or get struck by lightning. Which,” he inclined the screen towards him for confirmation, “looks like the best-case scenario.”
So with our plans dead, we repaired to the nearest pub and sat blackly over the map, trying to salvage what little remained of our intentions. Which had been, for want of a better term, to climb Ben Nevis by the most gravitas-fortified route we could. In short, the route it deserves.
This is what was meant earlier about Ben Nevis being an attitude. If you just want to climb to the top, walk up the Mountain Track – also known as the Pony Track – as that will get you to the top. Then you can return home sporting a strut that says “I was the highest person in Britain today” and probably ignorant of the fact that the most astonishing mountain architecture in Britain passed invisibly to the left along the way. There’s nothing wrong with that. Getting to the top is a great brag however you do it, and for some, it really is just about height and status. But, for the mountain lover, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity – like meeting Ranulph Fiennes and talking about gardening. For others, the juice is in the route itself: the means of approach. The angle of attack. The belief that the best way to experience a mountain rarely coincides with the easiest.
On Ben Nevis the Mountain Track approach is direct, clear, relatively brisk and well-travelled, taking a line up the mountain that is as close to a compliantly tilted flank as you’d find. It is the easiest way up. It is not the best.
But there’s no denying that, on the face of it, options are limited for the walker on Britain’s highest peak. Of the well-known routes available, some covet the aesthetic thrill of walking beneath the great north face of Ben Nevis, rumpled and black, a catacomb of history and spectacle, before picking their way up it using strong nerves, ropes or both. Others feel the blade of the Carn Mor Dearg Arête is the finest line. Some may want to approach over two days watching the mountain build ahead, as we had, over the Grey Corries on the Lochaber Traverse. Then there are the few who prefer a direct line up The Ben’s backside from the south.
There is another option, though. The indecisive or those pressed for time could stretch ambitions further, by combining aspects of the established routes on Ben Nevis – and its surrounding mountains – into a kind of single, definitive hit. This route rarely touches a path, manages to find not one but two superb ridges to play with, and racks up almost 2km of ascent plus four completely different summits that also happen to be four of the nine highest in Britain, and the last of which culminates with you higher than anyone else in the land. It’s not an unknown route, but it’s tough. It shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. It demands thorough investigation by all who contemplate it, and certainly shouldn’t be entertained by two weather-scuppered walkers in a Fort Bill pub at the point of an evening when ambitions tend to over-inflate. We just want to make that clear.
“Hey. Here’s a thought,” Tom had said. “All of Scotland’s 4,000ft peaks outside of the Cairngorms are right here. How about we do them in one route, climbing Ben Nevis last?”
Our eyes fell to the map, and I watched as his finger traced a rough route in the shape of a webbed foot over a sizeable chunk of Lochaber. It was the area with the densest concentration of pink lines on the entire map.
“Looks steep,” I said.
He pulled a face. “They’re mountains.”
“There’s a bit of a path here,” he said, trailing a finger over a small patch of flat, unthreatening ground. “And another bit here, by the car park.”
“And what about that bit?”
“Never mind that bit.” He folded the map up. “Well, I think it’s a winner. If the weather plays ball, of course. Anyway. Drink?”
As it turned out, the weather did play ball, certainly better than we expected it to. And it was about midway through the first ascent the following day that I realised not just how tough, but how extraordinary – how really exceptional – the route we’d alighted upon was.
Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag are the unloved exhibits in Lochaber’s grand museum. At least, that’s what they are to those who don’t appreciate their finer points, which is to say most of us. From the north the former is an unremarkable lump, cut up by ski infrastructure, soft-sided and deeply untempting as an objective. As for Aonach Beag, you can’t even really see it from the north. But all of these mountains look dull from this angle, Ben Nevis included. They aren’t, though; you’re just viewing them from the wrong place. It’s like looking at the back of a telly and expecting to be entertained.
But travel in from the south and you’re appraising entirely different mountains. Tom and I had walked in from the Steall car park at the pinched end of Glen Nevis, a green place choked with ancient, kinked trees, a spectacularly flayed waterfall and that extraordinary feeling of depth amid height that you only get in Scotland. From here Aonach Beag stumbles down towards you in a cragged series of steps and draped streams, and feels every one of its 4,049 feet. It’s worth noting that the name Beag means little, whereas Mor means large. But Aonach Beag is in fact higher than Aonach Mor, to the tune of a four-storey building, and is only denoted as ‘little’ as it lacks the colossal, rounded bulk of its neighbour. In practice, this means it’s sharper. It also means that when it comes to mountains height clearly isn’t everything.
The climb was relentless, as you’d expect from one of Britain’s beefiest ascents. The lack of paths of any sort from this direction – remarkable for a mountain of Aonach Beag’s distinguished standing – means you’re feeling your way up following the shapes of the land and your own instincts as you climb the grassed, intermittently rocky slopes.
The consolation for those who don’t get a kind of wild kick out of such things is the building view around you. Catch it in sharp, fluctuating weather that doesn’t know whether to soak or burn you and it’s immensely atmospheric. Behind, the wreath of peaks making up the Ring of Steall level into view and tilt towards your eyes as you climb, allowing you to pick out lines of passage, ridges and pen-nib summits within and without the sway of this famous four-Munro route. Time after time we stopped, spotted a nearby summit or a winking ridge, looked at each other for a name, shrugged hopelessly, and moved on.
One feature in particular hogs your attention as you go, though – and you won’t forget its name in a hurry, despite it looking markedly unfamiliar from this angle. From the high flanks of Aonach Beag, Ben Nevis looks monstrous: near impenetrable, hiding behind the swept tail of the Carn Mor Dearg Arête and – on this particular morning – a mask of ash-coloured cloud. Up there, and all that: that was our afternoon. But first we had two more 4000ers to bag. And some surprises were in store.
We broke onto Aonach Beag’s summit into – quite unexpectedly – brilliant, total white. The summit was smothered by hard, foot-deep snow, and a thin wig of cloud had descended onto the summit for a brief touchdown. Lit with the coy but intermittently powerful morning sun, the summit of Britain’s seventh highest mountain was an almost unbearably bright place. But this wasn’t the surprise: the surprise was that this could quite easily have killed us.
“Hang on. Actually, stop.”
I did, and turned to Tom. His head was moving from his map to the barely visible skyline with increasing fluster, before – with the tentative tone of a man identifying an interesting creature through binoculars – he produced a sentence that hit my ears like a fist closing around my stomach.
“I think maybe...we might be on a cornice.”
“Well, put it this way: I think you might be. See, if you look at these tension cracks...”
For those who don’t know, a cornice is an overhanging lip of snow on a cliff edge or mountain summit, not unlike the physics-defying build-up of 2p pieces you get in a ‘penny falls’ arcade game, in which a little bit of deftly applied pressure from a coin introduced at a certain point can cause the whole shelf to cascade into your clutches, and makes you rich. With a cornice, however, the critical fall is triggered by you, and makes you dead. Given that the eastern cliffs of Aonach Beag are among the biggest in the land, this was alarming news.
“Actually…” The cloud had swept off the top of the mountain briefly, revealing a tiny cairn of rock – like a currant in icing – a few metres away. “No, you’re fine, you’re on rock.”
“Are you sure?” I was stood, arms spread and frozen as if balanced on up-ended wine glasses.
“Yeah, I reckon.” And so we proceeded – newly cautiously – towards the summit cairn, the lifting cloud revealing there were indeed some grotesquely tipped cornices leaning towards the foul drop into Aonach Beag’s wild eastern cliffs. Inauspicious but Antarctic-esque summit bagged, we pushed north, clambering entertainingly down to a col, then up onto the broadening and rather less snow-clogged bulk of Aonach Mor. A path, then a large cairn followed – and our second big summit of the day. The contrast between the two was striking: from the map it’s tempting to think of Aonachs Mor and Beag as merely two heads on one ridge, but they are very different-feeling beasties, especially in the squally, shifting weather that you usually find here. After Aonach Beag the cornices ceased, the landscape retracted its claws and suddenly we were out of mountaineering terrain and onto a high, broad hillwalk as we wandered up to the stony, snow-free summit of Aonach Mor.
The great thing about the two Aonachs is that they are more than mere satellites: while cut from a similar but wilder blueprint to Ben Nevis, they have their own ideas. But this individuality is also their downfall, as we found as we began to strip out hundreds of metres of agonisingly won height into the curiously un-named 800m col between Aonach Mor and the next peak on our list. Every step of the way, we had a clear view of the ascent that would follow, which would require us to pile back on every one of the 400 metres we were in the progress of losing, then a few more for kicks. Normally, this would be torture. But not today.
Carn Mor Dearg’s south-east ridge is one of the greatest ridgewalks in Scotland. But hardly anyone knows it’s there; most eyes tend to focus on the other ridge, attached to Carn Mor Dearg, which we’ll get to. But it’s this south-east ridge that’s the rough gem hereabouts, offering just enough airiness and hands-on-rock action to be engaging without scary. The sucker’s loose, mind: such is the tendency of snow to lie in these high eastern corries, frost shattering of the pink granite is prolific – especially after a heavy winter – and you need to watch where you put your feet. Trying to ignore the movement of large bits of mountain beneath our feet and hopping over snow, the ascent figures piled back on painlessly (it’s amazing what a bit of light scrambling can do for the stamina) – and soon we were back up above 1000m, and on our way to summit number three, satisfyingly but not intimidatingly pointy above us. This was Carn Mor Dearg – the ‘big red summit’ – and as we arrived on its snow-free, blush-dusted top, we were greeted with two things: the finest view of Britain’s highest mountain it’s possible to get and, slung in a slack curve between it and us, undisputedly the finest route to the top.
Arête is a French word. But it doesn’t actually translate to our accepted meaning (that is to say: a blade of rock scraped by two abutting glaciers). What it actually translates to is ‘fish bone’. Specifically it refers to a herringbone: a structure in which fine, tightly layered ribs drape either side of a knobbled spine to form a colonnade of delicate triangles. So cannily does the Carn Mor Dearg Arête transpose this from bone into rock that the ridge commonly abbreviated to CMD could have been the origin of the term. It is a stunning, stunning thing: as close to an aesthetically perfect feature as you are likely to find. The fact that this arête’s scything whip leads to the summit of Ben Nevis is a fortuitous fit and it’s exactly the reason why those who bash Ben Nevis should be taken out and shot. It’s narrow, but never too narrow. It isn’t frightening. It isn’t technical. But it’s huge: twice as long as Striding Edge, four times as long as Sharp Edge, and the length of Tryfan in entirety, end-to-end. It’s an utter buzz: a transcendent, thousand-metre-high, thousand-metre-long walk of the gods to the summit of Britain.
We had been worried about the time; about getting back to Fort William early enough for strong food and greasy beer. But as Tom and I reached the beginning of the CMD Arête, the pyramidal top of Ben Nevis shadowed bulkily above us, we slowed right down. Catch it in anything other than murderous weather and you’ll want to lengthen every second you’re on it.
The cloud was keeping the summit from our view as we walked slowly along the arête. The clink of kit and the scratch of boots on the andesite beneath them were the only sounds in the queer, still air as we looked into the deep, storied corrie beneath Ben Nevis’s north face. The famous ridges on this face descended from the clouds like scarred limbs from under curtains: the North-East Ridge, Tower Ridge, Observatory Ridge.
The arête is mostly level, rising briefly to a substantial halfway apex, then slackening. It then reaches a new cairn, tall as you, that marks the point at which the arête bites into the final, burly shoulder onto the summit of Ben Nevis.
Tom and I stopped here, the fear of an early bath common on days of mammoth ascent lifting from us in a way we wished the cloud smogging the summit would imitate. However elusive the top was being (and we expected that; everyone should) the view to the east and south was enormous, rolling out to Ben Alder, over the Mamore Range into Glen Coe, towards the Cairngorms, down on everything. Something sugary and an extra layer later, we pushed on up the bouldery final slope.
Shapes of our most historic and maligned summit emerged ahead: the skeletal instrument cage used by the eccentric Victorian Ben Nevis ‘weatherman’ Clement Wragge; the ruinous walls of the observatory he inspired, which stood in constant operation for 20 years until the turn of the last century; the tin shelter that now occupies its old tower, tall and apex-roofed, a kind of Scottish pagoda. It’s a strange place, unnervingly flat and filled with old clutter. War memorials and 19th century scientific paraphernalia lie side by side with litter, navigation cairns and boulders occasionally grouted with the shit of brainless tourists who see nothing wrong with using the most biodegradation-resistant point of our nation as a toilet. And all around you lies dangerous, gullied ground. If this makes it sound unpleasant, it’s not. But it is weird.
Tom and I walked across the boulders, paying a visit to the health-and-safety-sign-festooned trig point high on its perch, and for a moment enjoyed being the most geographically elevated humans for hundreds of thousands of square miles (millions on western and northern bearings). The summit of Ben Nevis is a hazardous place. Gardyloo Gully jags into the plateau close to the summit and is as sheer as the edge of a tower block; with snow on the ground and cornices overhanging, this requires a dog-leg one-two of compass bearings from the top in all but the friendliest weather. Then, as you proceed west across the plateau, another hazard – Five Finger Gully – invisibly threatens you to the left.
New cairns stud a wise line towards the top of the Mountain Track, but our way off didn’t take us that way. As befitting the rough nature of the route, it took us via an unconventional route towards Steall. A word about this: if you’re not into relentless descents through wild boulder fields, the dangerous edges of waterfalls cascading over bare, mirrored granite slabs and large stretches of ridge and valley that may never have seen a human footfall, walk down the Mountain Track and treat yourself to a taxi. But if you like feeling pioneering on a mountain unfairly notorious for its crowds, and both knees and navigation are up to scratch, this is a direct, steep way back to the start you may well be proud of.
We got down off the mountain in 2 hours flat. And when you’re descending 1300m entirely off-path, that’s not bad going. Exploratory, bold, requiring of sound judgment, rewarding whatever the weather, and pleasantly knackering. These would be all the qualifications this route would need to make it one of Britain’s ultimate mountain days. With the aesthetics of two of its most thrilling arêtes, four 4,000ft summits and Britain’s highest mountain in the mix too, could it be the ultimate? Damn right it could.
Words: Simon Ingram
This feature originally appeared in the August 2014 Edition of Trail Magazine