A fine summer’s day walking over Ben Nevis, by way of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, makes for a superb mountain experience; do the same on a fine winter’s day and you will never forget it.
With four young friends in tow I arrived at the car park well before dawn on a bitterly cold morning, stars pricked the black sky, the stillness was palpable. By the time we were ready to move daylight was making an effort to shake off the shackles of the long winter night. With the beams of five head torches dancing off the bark of pine trees we took the steep path through the Ben’s lower skirt of forestry woods.
Time and distance appear to shrink in the dark; it didn’t seem to take us long to get up and free of the final trees, up into the open maw of the Corrie of the Allt a’ Mhuillin. Ahead, on our right, rose the monumental slope and cliffs of the Ben, while to our left, the more gentler sloped ridge of the Deargs. Way ahead, like the wall of a dam, eerie in the weak dawn light, we saw the C.M.D.
The classic round from here takes a traversing line up the flank of Carn Beag Dearg, from where a grand walk in the company of Aonach Mor, is enjoyed. Since I was unsure of my companion’s capabilities, particularly in winter conditions, my intention was to walk them to the C.I.C. hut, from there we could climb directly to the cairn on Carn Mor Dearg; from here they could have their first bird’s eye view of the arête itself. I was sure that from there they would want to carry on.
If you choose to go only as far as the hut, especially on such a beautiful winter’s day as this was, you won’t come away any otherwise than ‘gob smacked’! The snow we walked on was hard enough to warrant crampons. The burn we walked beside was fringed, in some stretches all but choked, with thick ice. As we approached, then finally drew abreast the cliffs themselves, we saw huge ice locked rock castles guarding gullies choked with weeks of accumulated snow.
We paused for coffee at the hut. Alastair was delighted when a snow bunting fluttered almost at his bots to share a crumb or two of fruit cake. (I’ve seldom been here in winter and not met a member of this cheeky family; I’ve even found them at the summit).
The slope behind the hut, (Carn Mor Dearg), is a red and boulder strewn affair, it can be quite loose. It does however provide a quick flight to the top. We ascended in single file, our crampons forever scraping on the granite lurking just below a thin layer of windswept snow and axes ringing.
The accompanying photo was taken from the summit cairn; and what a view! Below us the day’s highlight snaked away, a frozen snowy gangway to the final slope of the Ben itself. Beyond the ridge, The Mamores, chief among them, Sgurr a’ Mhaim, ranged in alpine glory. The only downside was that over there ominous clouds were building. Yet this didn’t prevent us from standing awhile just to soak up the view across the corrie we’d just descended from. No better viewpoint is there. So close, the buttresses and soaring ridges of Britain’s highest mountain, rose black and white before us; snow choked gullies rent the Ben from corrie floor to summit plateau. On Tower ridge, some halfway up, four men slowly climbed. We dropped down on a thicker carpet of snow and set our crampons on the arête proper. The ridge is indeed spectacular but even in winter it seldom poses technical problems. It’s no place for flippancy, that’s for sure, but with only a few places where hands can come in handy, it provides an exhilarating tramp with awesome drops, especially on the Coire Leis side. We romped along.
It was over all too soon. Though not the climbing. The toughest section of the day now stood before us. The Ben’s final slope terminates in a rising field of sizeable boulders, a giant staircase when free of snow and ice. Of course today the slope was plastered; deep hard snow hid those boulders making for one of the most delightful ascents I can remember. My only slight concern was keeping my companions at a respectable distance from the cliff edge. You know what kids are like!
We were five men panting when we finally levelled out on Ben Nevis’s broad back, a plateau studded with various cairns and the remains of former structures. Four other walkers were sitting at the big cairn as we arrived; they’d come up by the tourist path. (By the way, this also is a grand way up, especially on a winter’s day like this).
My inner shirt was soaked with the exertion of coming up; time to don a dry one. When you strip to the waist up here you do so quickly! I wasn’t quick enough; by the time I was ready to put my coat back on it had frozen stiff, like cardboard.
The cloud was coming in for keeps now but being high it wouldn’t be a problem. I took the lads for a quick tour of the cliff edge. I showed them the line of Ledge Route, an ascent I suggested they might aspire to. Most impressed they were as we all peered down at the top of tower Ridge, the frozen footprints of a recent ascent inscribed in otherwise pristine snow. A little while later, at the opposite side of the plateau, they were treated to magnificent cornices peeling over the cliff-tops of Five Finger Gully.
The way down today, along a line of chorten like cairns and on snow churned by the passing of many previous walkers, was straightforward. Somewhere beneath the snow, (far deeper on this side of the Ben), ran the Red Burn. At the point on the Tourist Path where it normally cascades into a welcome and refreshing pool, it ran as a mere trickle.
At length The Halfway Lochan appeared below us, today a pearly white sheet of frozen water. There are two ways down from here. The so-called ‘Tourist Path’, drops gradually into Glen Nevis and the road back to Fort William. Our route followed the path, buried today, above the lochan, and to steeper drops back into the corrie of the Allt a’ Mhuillin.
By the time we reached the corrie floor the light was already beginning to fade, the cloud had streamed in as we’d skirted Lochan Meal an-t Suide, (half way lochan, also known as lochan mellan tee); the final hour of the day’s tramp, especially once we re-entered the sheltering woods, was gloomy. All the same it was five contented walkers who arrived back at the car just as the evening brought darkness and the first few spatters of rain, precipitation that up above meant yet more snow for those who, tomorrow, would take to the Ben as we had.