Friday 9th and Saturday 10th September – Carn Mor Dearg Arete, Ben Nevis summit camp, descent into Fort William.
We awoke at 7am and managed to leave by 8:30am – way to go explorers! Before we set off though, we hastily tumble dried the remainder of our stuff which had been allowed to get wet by hole-ridden bin liners. Incidentally, we will never rely soley on these again; even if you double them up, they develop holes in them – it’ll be proper rucksack covers and thick liners next time, or better still, fully waterproof rucksacks! The cloud base was already high comparative to the previous afternoon, and indeed it hovered just below the summit of Ben Nevis (4409 feet, 1344 metres) for most of the day. We approached via the tourist path from behind the Information Centre, instead of the closer Youth Hostel path, which was closed. The initial stretch up the chunky stone-stepped incline is an easy one, though of course, we had our full rucksacks with us, so it’s “Pole Pole!” (Swahili for “Take it easy”), and we had to resign ourselves to being overtaken by most walkers. Alan paused to text our emergency contact, who already had our itinerary, to confirm that we’ll be down by 2pm the following day, and to please call the MRT if we don’t get in touch by then. Meanwhile, Jo positioned herself up the path away from midges, only to be subject to the playful jibes of other walkers, who seeing her large pack, assumed she had given up already! Never mind – all of these pansies will be tucked up in B&B’s this evening!
By the time we reached the “half-way lochan”, it was time to turn off the stony pony track, while a sizeable group at the cairn looked on with interest to see where we were off to. We made our way over the path and then the marshy col by Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe (pronounced ‘Meall-an-tee’), to the cairn by the North end of the lochan. Already, there were impressive views of the ranges to the North (possibly, we speculated, those flanking the Great Glen), and with rising excitement we headed down into Coire Leis, which is the corrie and associated glen separating the North face of Ben Nevis from Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Mor Dearg. We descended most of steep footpath towards the “CIC” hut (Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut, an alpine bunk house and mountain rescue post), then broke down the valley towards the gushing river, Allt a’Mhuilinn, about two thirds of the way down.
After searching for a safe crossing, we stopped on a rock in the middle of the watercourse for food and a last chance to fill our water carriers before ascending. The crystal clear water refracts blue and green light through the rocky pools down the river’s length making this a uniquely beautiful spot. Once on the other side, we began immediately up the South-West slope of Carn Beag Dearg and Carn Dearg Meadhonach, an unexpectedly long and steep grassy scramble. This topped out after several rests and approximately 1476 feet (450 metres) of vertical height gain, at the broad “ridge” elevation bridging Carn Beag Dearg to the North West and the tops of Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Mor Dearg to the South East. In retrospect, we’d have had an easier time of it if we’d back-tracked down the glen after crossing the river, to join the gentler North-West slopes of Carn Beag Dearg; our route however, afforded exciting views from nearly opposite the North face of Ben Nevis.
Now things were really starting to liven up! We made our way across the broad, sloping, rock-strewn ridge, first to the summit of Carn Dearg Meadhonach (1179 metres, 3868 feet) and then Carn Mor Dearg (1220 metres, 4002 feet), all the while becoming increasingly perpendicular with the North face of Ben Nevis. Meanwhile, the cloud lifted temporarily to fully reveal the plateau of Scotland’s highest Munro. Sudden views of the vast, patterned face of Aonach Mor (1221 metres, 4006 feet) appeared to the East. The two heavily-bouldered tops of Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Mor Dearg were small and steep like surfboards stuck in sand at 45 degree angles, with steep drop-offs to the East, plunging to the valley floor 450 metres below. Our approach to Carn Mor Dearg had been exciting, but from here on in, the real work would kick in along with some nerves! The summit of Carn Mor Dearg descends increasingly narrowly and steeply to the arete several hundred feet below and beyond. The sensation of height can be quite intimidating at first, causing a slight “grip” of the stomach, though the scrambling itself is actually easy going. With our full packs, we made a cautious descent onto the arete, which curved off into the distance for, we estimate, nearly 2 Km (1.2 miles), mounting at the end to the steep South boulder slopes of Ben Nevis.
We proceeded foot by foot with great care, and we admit in some places we gratefully used the “granny” path faintly visible to the left, to avoid some of the more exposed sections. We would love to come back and do the ridge again over the top the whole way with only light day packs, but we decided to play safe as our packs and protruding camping mats were a genuine encumbrance. On the ridge, there really is an astounding sense of three-dimensional space, with towering views to the South-East over Steel falls, Aonach Beag (1234 metres, 4048 feet) and Meall Cumhann. In fact, it’s reminiscent of being in an aeroplane. Neither of us have ever seen such an expansive, highly-placed view, reaching over mountain tops and valley floors approximately 2000 feet (600 metres) below. Looking forward over the ridge itself, it was common to feel some degree of dread at the sight of yet more crags climbing ahead of you at what seem like impossibly steep and exposed angles. However, as you gain proximity, perspective changes and routes over the outcrops resolve; often there is a choice of going left, right or over the top of the giant granite blocks of the arete – the top, contrary to intuition, often being the safest path. At a few places, it is necessary to step round and out to the right or the left, in order to circumnavigate a given rocky stack. In doing so, you can be exposed to potential long drops into Corrie Leis or the steep grassy South-East slopes of the ridge. So, while the arete is actually fairly easy scrambling, and makes for some incredible fun, we would advise great caution as there certainly are potentially disastrous slips to be made. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to be out here in bad weather, so ensure you have extra layers and waterproofs with you and give some advance thought to what you would do if a downpour or gale hits. On our day out, we only had to contend with a strong South wind, which would periodically drop to complete stillness then suddenly rise again, calling for a little more care over exposed edges with our packs.
Finally, the ridge emptied out onto a reassuringly broad shoulder of ground. It was not immediately apparent if we were off the arete, but to our relief it became obvious; this was the great bouldery South slope of Ben Nevis and we sat by the much-referred-to “abseil posts” at the top of a gully for food (Alan had lost his appetite!). Looking back, we could see a group of three who had appeared on the arete behind us earlier; small figures working their way carefully around the great rocky slabs. They had advanced on us only slowly despite our large packs. We would speak to them later after they emerged on the summit; they too were taking extra care and found the ridge fun but moderately hair-raising. In good spirits we assaulted the remaining 1000 feet of the South-West slope of the Ben taking care on the steep, bouldered surface. There appeared to be a vague path picking its way through the boulders up the right hand side of the slope adjacent to the North face, but we were happy to keep away from steep edges, and veered towards the centre of the boulder slope. A number of man-made steel marker posts later appeared jutting out of the boulders, and once we were satisfied these weren’t a warning sign for some unseen danger, we followed them up and over onto the windy and cloud-strewn summit.
A few summiteers from the pony track lurked there. It was 7pm and we had an hour and a half of daylight left; we knew that if we were unable to erect the tent in the wind, we’d only have an hour to navigate the upper parts of the pony track before nightfall. Therefore, after posing for a photo at the trig point, we quickly settled on a camp spot only a few metres from the summit ruins and emergency shelter. The wind was pretty strong, and seemed to be living up to the forecast of 35 m.p.h, perhaps a little higher. We’ve attempted to camp in a strong gale of 52 m.p.h before, on top of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat, and snapped both of the aluminium poles and ripped the flysheet of our beautiful brand-new Hilleberg tent! Therefore, on this occasion the wind felt much more “doable” to us, and we proceeded with some confidence! The clouds skimming the summit deposited considerable moisture on anything that stayed still for very long, and we rapidly started getting cold. Of course, the plateau of Ben Nevis is a mass of rocks and boulders, so we set about flattening the site by tossing aside some of the rocks. In an ecologically sensitive environment, we’d have avoided doing this, but it simply wouldn’t make a difference here, where there is already a mess of rocky man-made structures and ruins.
We erected the tent carefully, facing into the wind, keeping it flat until the last possible moment, then staking the guy lines out with piled rock clusters. We were a bit nervous, but the tent seemed to be handling the onslaught, so we erected the inner and hastily piled gear in to weight it down and prevent the wind from getting under it. As you would expect, pitching a tent in this rather inhospitable environment (although it has been done before), attracted several “smart-Alec” remarks from other walkers – mostly they were favourably impressed though some were genuinely incredulous! One rather cocky hiker offered us a “deal” to come and take a photo of his group in return for the group’s assistance in erecting the tent, as though we would be enduringly grateful for letting them spoil our fun! We declined. The sky cleared briefly to reveal a glorious pink sunset and we climbed into the tent to arrange the sleeping mats in a wave-like formation over the rocky floor. It was pretty chilly and getting colder so we decided on snack food in place of a cooked meal, so that we could stay fully wrapped in our bags. As it got dark, we were hailed enthusiastically several times from outside tent, “I can’t believe there’s people in there”, and we learned that these were in fact late arrivers participating in the “Three Peaks Challenge”, an annual charity fundraiser in which hordes of people stampede up Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours. We talked with some of them through the tent walls, and learned that for some, the day was their first experience on the mountains! We were struck by the lunacy of an event, charitable or not, that sees novice hill walkers arriving unguided on the summit of Ben Nevis in the pitch dark! Overall, we got decent, though occasionally disturbed sleep, and found ever-less-uncomfortable ways to wiggle among the rocks.
On rising at 9.30am, we packed everything in the shelter of the tent, then quickly collapsed the flysheet and stuffed it away out of the wind. In doing so, we discovered that one of the guylines had snapped in the night, though otherwise everything had held soundly. After answering a few enquires on the difficulty of overnight camping from early walkers, we took bearings from the trig point in the light mist (more for practise than necessity), and successfully met the tourist path, stopping to stare down the gullies of the North face. Our spirits were high on a breakfast of smoked sausage as we began the walk down the pony track, passing some 300 or so walkers and tourists on the way up, even at this relatively early hour. Several of them stopped us to ask “how far” to the summit, one or two chatted casually on their mobile phones in smart-but-casual wear! One exhausted and panting tourist was dismayed to learn that she was only a quarter of the way up! Although there’s nothing wrong with the pony track itself, which is obviously well maintained, you might well find the tourists on it a bit depressing! Head up the Carn Mor Dearg arete instead for a superb and challenging day, especially if you’re looking for an appropriate finale to the West Highland Way!