A Ben Nevis Adventure
Date walked: 21/02/2013
Time taken: 6 hours 10 minutes
Distance: 19 km
Ben Nevis is the highest Mountain in Great Britain. It stands majestically high above Fort William, Scotland at a height of 4406ft or 1344m. The summit of Ben Nevis is regularly in the mist and cloud but on the odd occasion the weather is kind and the most amazing views are presented to the walker from the summit should they be lucky enough to ascend on such a day. The “Pony Track”, the standard route of ascent up this mountain from Fort William, is well worn and carries a multitude of walkers, tourists and Munro baggers (individuals walking to the summit of all the hills in Scotland above 3000ft or 914.4m as defined by Sir Hugh Munro and later the Scottish Mountaineering council). The track can get seriously busy and an alternative route to Ben Nevis summit taking in the Munro Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) and the CMD Arete (A Knife edged ridge) can be walked instead. This alternative walk carries with it a certain degree of difficulty and should not be attempted by the uninitiated hill walker or tourist without first researching the route and being comfortable with the individuals own capabilities. This short story is a record of a walk following the alternative route to Ben Nevis summit walked on a glorious sunny day in February 2013.
It just so happened that I had some free time on my hands and so I purchased a Citylink coach “Explorer” ticket costing 39 pounds. This particular ticket would allow me to travel anywhere in Scotland for any 3 days out of 5 consecutive days commencing on the day I bought the ticket. Now I had no intention of exploring Scotland on this occasion much as I would like to, my main aim being to pop up Ben Nevis from Fort William, but a standard return from Dunfermline to Fort William was in the region of 62 pounds so the explorer ticket being approximately two thirds of the standard cost and which conveniently could be used to travel the length and breadth of Scotland during the period of its validity, was “just the ticket” on this occasion.
So I arose reasonably early on the morning of Wednesday 20th February 2013 with lots to do. I had to pack all my gear including ropes, helmet and possibly a tent, in addition to my normal winter gear. I had shopping to do and I had to be at Dunfermline bus station in plenty of time to purchase the coach ticket prior to the bus departure scheduled for 1208hrs. I was also faffing around looking for accommodation in the Fort William area trying to balance the cost with my meagre budget and researching the forecasts to see if wild camping in the cold dark winter was feasible.
Travelling by public transport meant that I had to pack everything I needed into a large rucksack ready for the journey. Taking a tent and wild camping was a possibility but I could really use the pack space for other provisions and I would rather have the comfort warmth and facilities that many of the Hostels have to offer bearing in mind the time of year. Its ok being cold at night but frozen stiff is not my intended method of departure from this lovely place and with the extremely cold weather which had been forecast, perhaps as low as -10 degrees in the Glens, I was hoping to and subsequently successfully in booking a bunk at the Glen Nevis Inn Bunkhouse for the night which meant that the tent was not going to be required after all.
There was a possibility that I could stay in the Western Highlands of Scotland for a few days making full use of my Citylink “Explorer” ticket and therefore climbing gear was packed with a winter traverse of Glencoe’s Aonach Eagach Ridge in mind. However this would rely upon gaining suitable accommodation for a night or two in Glencoe. I subsequently found out that accommodation in Glencoe, other than the “Red Squirrel” campsite, was unavailable for one reason or another even at this time of year so that walk would be postponed until my birthday two weeks later..
So by approximately 1055hrs on Wednesday 20th February 2013 I was leaving the house with a pack that must have weighed around 45lbs on my back and mildly panicking about the time which was passing faster than I would have liked.
There is a bus stop just around the corner from the house but I didn’t have time to waste waiting for a bus and decided to walk the mile or so into town. It was quite crisp and cold outside but I knew I would soon warm up. I walked up through the public park in Dunfermline, a route which took me past the main Postal Sorting Office, past the burger van which I almost stopped at for a warm cup of tea and a burger but managed to resist the urge, and over the railway bridge into the bottom of the park at the end of the St Margaret’s RC, and Commercial primary schools. I then ascended the steep tarmac track, where memories of my late departed brother always spring to mind.
It must have been thirty years ago when I came home on leave from the Army and my brother Thomas and I walked along to the Public Park to do some sprint interval training up this hill, a memory I still treasure to this day.
It was now a steep but short ascent to the top of the Park and then on past the Carnegie Hall into Dunfermline’s Kingsgate shopping centre. I was heading for the Poundland store to buy some provisions, Chocolate Bars, Chocolate Raisons and tins of Rice Pudding which is a favourite of mine for hill walking. However with the heavy pack I was carrying and the quick walk into town I now started sweating profusely, a problem which was exacerbated by the unseasonably hot air conditioning in the shopping centre.
I quickly gathered my provisions and joined the queue at the till. As is customary with large stores these days, there are perhaps 10 tills which could be manned and in operation, there are only three tills in action with queues at them all. I join one of the queues waiting to be served but the lady at the till is in no hurry to serve the customers at her till position. If I was being paid the minimum wage to work one of these tills, with a spy camera above my head watching every monetary transaction and perfectly focussed on my hands at the till in case I accidently drop a fiver into my bag on the floor, I am not sure I would be in any hurry to serve customers either. However for me time was passing faster than I imagined and internally I was panicking about missing the coach, which was making me sweat even more. The time was now approaching 1130hrs and after what seemed like an age, but was probably no longer than maybe five minutes, I was heading for the door and out the Kingsgate centre in the direction of Dunfermline coach station.
It was now 1139hrs as I approached the coach station customer help desk, a sealed glass fronted office a with small stainless steel tray below the glass allowing a space of perhaps 10cm high between the glass and the tray in which to converse with the customer service representative. There was a large lady sitting at a desk typing frantically onto a keyboard seemingly ignorant of my smiling face and frantic arm waving trying to gain her attention. I realised that this was not going to run as smoothly as I had hoped so I swung my now over 50lb pack from my shoulders and accidently bounced it against the glass frontage and dropped it to the ground.
This, seemingly overtly aggressive act which was in fact an accident honest, had the desired affect and the lady stopped typing, looked up and slowly came over to the intercom. “Can I help you” she inquired? Resisting the urge to retort with something humorous from various statements that were running through my head bearing in mind I was pressed for time I simply said “Can I please purchase a Citylink “Explorer” ticket for 39 pounds thank you”. A sudden frown appeared on the lady’s forehead and her lips immediately turned down at the corners in conjunction with a perceived shake of her head. I raised my voice repeating my question forcefully one more time and in a flustered look of defiance she said “We are Stagecoach. We are not Citylink I don’t think we do that ticket here”. I immediately informed the lady that Citylink, whom I had phoned earlier that morning, assured me that I could purchase the Citlylink “Explorer” ticket at Dunfermline bus station ticket office, her response being “Oh, I will have to make a phone call then”.
Now no amount of huffing and puffing on my part was going to make this process any faster so I left the lady unmolested to process and produce my ticket which duly arrived in the stainless steel silver tray below the glass frontage 15 minutes later with a demand for 39 pounds. Having completed the transaction I left the ticket office with ticket in hand with 5 minutes to spare until the 1208 hrs Edinburgh coach departed on the first leg of my journey.
The Outbound Journey
I always enjoy the journey to Edinburgh, traveling across the Forth Road Bridge and marvelling at the engineering achievement of the Forth Rail Bridge in its resplendent new 20 year red coat of paint, a paint job that was recently completed. It used to be the case that the painters would start at one end of the bridge and paint all the way to the other end, taking a couple of years to complete the task, and then start again. However with new technological advancements the most recent coat of red paint is due to last for 20 years and only time will tell if it meets up to its expectations. Without further ado the Citylink Coach arrived in Edinburgh on time for my transfer to the Glasgow coach whereupon I boarded the again on time Citylink Coach to Uig which stops at Fort William. The journey, which I have taken on a few occasions, passes through some of the best mountain scenery in Scotland.
The coach leaves Glasgow on route to Dumbarton via the M8 crossing the Erskine Bridge. Then onwards on the A82 past Loch Lomond and the Arrochar Alps, continuing past the Munro An Casteil and the Ben Lui Group of Munro’s, giving a wide berth to Ben More and passing Ben Challum. The coach then passes the Bridge of Orchy Group of Munro’s and the Black Mount Munro’s, past the iconic Buachailles and the Aonach Eagach ridge which overlooks the vast sprawling Rannoch Moor, passing Beinn a Bheithir and onto my final coach destination for the day, Fort William sitting below Ben Nevis on the shores of Loch Linnhe.
Now the coach from Glasgow was half full or half empty depending upon your state of mind and I had a number of seating options. There were unoccupied seats at the front, centre and rear of the coach so I choose to park myself pretty much in a central position just behind a lady that I had spoken to whilst boarding the coach, just in front of an American lady camera in hand waiting to snap the superb views on route and sitting opposite two lads speaking in what sounded like an East European accent.
The lads had been sitting across the aisle from the lady in front of me and had then chosen to relocate to seats near the back of the coach. So I asked the lady “Was it something you said” and received a big smile in return. This lady, I never asked her name and she didn’t offer it, was on her way to the Isle of Skye to meet her theatre group who were at the end of a successful run of a new play which they had just finished touring the Highlands with. Unfortunately she could not join them sooner due to other commitments but had been able to get away for the final performance and join in the celebratory drink and meal which you imagine would normally follow on. During the journey I would point out the various Munro’s to the American lady and she would duly snap away with her camera. The views on route on the A82 are exceptional with a mix of Lochs, Glens and Mountains with beautiful snow Mountain covered tops on this occasion.
The journey seemed to pass surprisingly quickly and we soon pulled into Fort William coach station. It was now 1805hrs and I was feeling peckish so I headed into Morrisons, which is adjacent to the bus station, for something to eat. I had a five kilometre walk still to do to get to the Glen Nevis Inn but I was in no hurry and quite fancied a small meal, coffee and a newspaper. Shortly after, suitably refreshed, I set off crossing the road up to the roundabout and onto the road into Glen Nevis. After a short walk I crossed the river Nevis using the pedestrian bridge and continued into Glen Nevis for the 2 mile walk to the Glen Nevis Inn at Achintee.
It was dark now with a beautiful clear starlit sky and it didn’t take me long to arrive at the Inn. I was booked into the Bunkhouse which occupied the downstairs section of the Inn with access being gained from the rear. The doors have coded access keypads but the kitchen door, which was the first door I came to, would not open with the code I had been given. However the kitchen was occupied and after a swift knock on the window a young chap opened the door allowing me access to the Bunkhouse. This chap, James and his friend Jonathon from Yorkshire, were up for the week with plans to do some ice climbing and told me that the codes on each door are different and had I used the main entrance further along the wall I would have been able to gain access.
The Bunkhouse facilities are basic but comfortable. The kitchen is at one end with the wash room and toilets/shower at the other with three open bunk areas each hosting four double bunk beds in between. There were only two other guests staying overnight in the bunkhouse, ice climbers from South Africa, so I had a choice of bunks for the night and duly choose one close to the kitchen. After some rice pudding and a cup of tea I retired for the night with a good book and before long my alarm was ringing informing me that it was time to arise.
The Ben Nevis Inn
I walked into the kitchen and peered out of a frosted glass window to a heavy frost on the ground. It was looking like a very cold start to the day but the sky was clear of cloud and I was hoping that this particular mix of conditions would result in an Inversion once I got high up the hillside. An Inversion is where the clouds stay low in the Glens or below the Mountain tops and the walker manages to walk above the clouds. It is an awesome sight to behold and maybe today was going to be one of those days. So after a good breakfast of porridge was wolfed down, being careful not to burn my tongue, followed by a cup of tea and quickly packing a small rucksack with Crampons, helmet, Ice Axe and provisions I set off on my walk.
The time was approximately 0740hrs as I closed the Bunkhouse door behind me. I took the short walk up the hill to the main road leading back to Fort William with the gated “Pony Track” (the route into the hillside) off to my right in front of which was a large information board detailing routes on the Mountain.
The Style that needs crossing
I passed through the walker’s gate and took the obvious track traversing and climbing the hillside. There were large patches of ice on the rocky track all the way to the Red Burn, approximately halfway up the mountain, and care had to be taken to prevent a premature and impromptu fall which may have brought an early end to proceedings. I was wearing my stiff winter boots which were rubbing a little bit due to the rocky terrain, I was expecting this all to be snow at the end of February, and I wondered if I was going to get blisters before I entered the snowline somewhere high above me.
Looking down to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel
I continue up the boulder strewn track, crossing a small wooden bridge and two metal bridges one of them having some kind of electrical sensor which I think might be an aid to the tourist board counting walkers on and off the hillside, passing some horned rams on the way and I soon arrived at the Red Burn. I always considered the Red Burn to be the halfway point and in fact if you were then going to ascend directly up to Ben Nevis summit at 2.5km from the Inn it is halfway as the Crow flies. However the amount of ascent to this point has only been 550m and there is still another 740m still to ascend.
The Pony Track above the Red Burn criss-crossing the hillside
The Pony Track continues ascending from here, criss-crossing the hillside traversing onwards and upwards as it takes the tourists to the summit of Ben Nevis, but I was heading North taking the fork in the track walking parallel to the shores of Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe and onto the small path around the Castle ridge and up into the Corrie and onto the CIC Hut (Charles Clarke Memorial Hut).
The small path between the Castle ridge and the CIC hut was awash with large areas of ice and care had to be taken to prevent myself taking a tumble. Looking back down the Glen on the path that follows the Allt a Mhuilinn there was a procession of walkers ascending on route to the CIC hut, all winter climbers to a man. When I arrived at the hut there was a plethora of individuals in various colours of jackets, some Green, some Red, some Blue, some with stripes, all putting on helmets and crampons and readying ropes, pitons, ice screws and other personal paraphernalia for the vertical ice faces that eagerly awaited them in the Gullies, ridges and faces of the Northern Corries of Ben Nevis.
Carn Dearg Buttress
Well I donned my crampons and helmet ready for my steep ascent up the West face of Carn Mor Dearg. You may ask why I was wearing a helmet? Well as the old saying goes “Its not the fall that kills you it’s the abrupt stop at the bottom”, and although I was not attempting the vertical climbs that the guys and girls arriving at the CIC hut were attempting I was scaling a very steep snow covered 500m slope with very hard snow underfoot. One false move and I would be shooting down the hillside at a rapidly gaining rate of knots possibly bumping over rock patches in the snow before coming to rest at the CIC hut in a sorry state. The helmet would protect the most important and easily damaged part of my anatomy should the worst happen, my head.
The CIC Hut
I entered the snowline proper just after leaving the CIC hut. The snow was hard and the route I was taking was clean virgin snow with no visible sign of recent ascent by any other walker. My crampons which I had recently sharpened were just about breaking the surface ice as I ascended. Initially my plan was to ascend vertically for as far as my fitness would allow but I was soon out of breath so I started to traverse left and right as I ascended. The stiff winter boots were again rubbing furiously on my ankles as I kicked them into the slope and the degree of ascent increased as I progressed. After a short while I decided that a slip was a definite possibility and changed tactic. I was now planting my ice axe ahead of me taking one step up with the right foot then one step with the left foot and unshipping and replanting the ice axe. This was physically more demanding and time consuming but after a while it paid dividends and as the degree of ascent lessoned I was able to resume a small left right traverse without having to use the ice axe. After an arduous ascent, far tougher than a summer ascent would be, I arrived at the Beallach below the Munro Carn Mor Dearg (CMD).
Ben Nevis summit, North East Buttress, Observatory Ridge and Gardyloo Gully
I was pretty tired at this point due to the extra physical effort required on the ascent and having not walked for a while but I was eager to press on. The weather was fabulous with glorious sunshine but a heavy mist was rolling in from the South across the CMD Arete in front of Ben Nevis and the wind was picking up. I pressed on up the easy ascent to CMD and arrived at the summit 3 hours from starting out. I had worked very hard and was in need of some refreshments, however the cold wind was now blowing a constant 30mph or so and there was no shelter so I decided to continue on my way. The wind was now blowing directly into my face freezing my skin and bringing tears to my eyes so I had to stop and don my snow goggles.
Aonach mor is one of the many Munro’s in the area and is approximately 1.5km from Carn Mor Dearg summit as the crow flies. The Ski centre sits on the Northern flank of this mountain with one Gondola and four ski tows and a couple of chair lifts.
Aonach Beag sits at the Southern end of the high plateau approximately 1.5km South of Aonach Mor.
My route now continues over the CMD Arete, a knife edge ridge which ascends and descends on its way culminating in a final 300m of steep ascent to Ben Nevis, which again was covered in hard snow with some rocks and boulders protruding above the snowline.
Ascending the first section of the CMD Arete
The CMD Arete continues
The hardness of the snow actually made the Arete walk easier than it may well have proved had the snow been softer or had it been a wet summers day and in no time I was at the newly built cairn above Coire Leis which indicates the end of the Arete.
The Cairn at the end of the CMD Arete
Ben Nevis summit edge was visible through a thin mist which gave it an exciting and unusual aspect and I was soon heading up the steep snow slope to the summit. Halfway up I had to stop for a rest and as I looked around me to the South and the East I was excited to see the promised Inversion. I was above the clouds and it looks awesome. I only had a few hundred metres to ascend so after a quick photo or two, I hurriedly ascended to the summit irrationally fearful that the clouds might lift above the summits before I got there. Obviously my fears were misplaced and low and behold I arrived at the summit to one of the best Inversions I have ever seen.
Above the clouds
Above the clouds again
Ben Nevis summit
To add icing to the cake, and I don’t mean the fantastic snow scape that was the summit in glorious sunshine, there were no other walkers/climbers on the summit. Yes there were many footprints but these were hard crusted warmed up and refrozen by the previous night’s cold chill. I was alone on the highest, most popular and most frequented Munro in Scotland well actually in the world because the Munro classification of Mountains only pertains to Scotland and it just does not get any better.
Snow Cornice above the Northern Corries
I was now hungry and thirsty so I sat down in the trough at the base of the shelter station and had my fill of fluid and food. As I was sitting in the freezing cold wind, the first of the climbers popped over the corniced snow on the edge of the Corrie. After a short while his friend arrived on the end of a rope and we had a brief chat. I took a load of photo’s marveling in the conditions. It was sunny but cold with clouds below me to the South East with great views in all directions. The shelter station was covered in snow and icicles. As I sat in the trough I could hear a musical symphony as the warmth of the sun and the strength of the wind were working in conjunction with each other to dislodge icicles from the shelter station. These icicles were ringing and pinging with different pitches as they dropped and hit the surrounding hard snow releasing a melody of music. Surreal to say the least but enjoyable all the same.
Inversion to the South of the Summit
Ben Nevis summit again
After a short while it was time to head back down. I took a bearing heading South following the hard frozen footsteps of previous walkers for approximately 100m to avoid the snow cornice on the northern corries and then headed West trying to pick up the zig-zag path which ascends/descends the hillside. However the path seemed to be buried under the snow and therefore I took the direct steep descent in the snow down the Corrie West North West to pick up the Pony Track just above the Red Burn.
Below the snow line looking down on Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe
As I descended below the snow line I arrived on the path just above the Red Burn and stopped to remove my helmet and crampons. I met a couple here with a little dog. They were intent on heading up the hillside following the Pony Track but with the snow being as hard as it was I was not sure it was going to be much fun for the dog however I suppose with the dog being so small they could always carry him.
I continued on my way following the track as it contoured around crossing the Red Burn and heading back down the hillside. I decided, even though I was wearing stiff winter boots and there was still ice on the track that I would jog all the way back to the Glen Nevis Inn. The rocky terrain and the stiff boots did their level best to cripple me on the descent but with a will of iron it was not long before I was back at the Inn.
The path gets easier near the Inn
I took a shower, put on some warm dry clothes and took some time out to relax and look at my options. After a meal I decided that I would head back into Fort William and see what my transport options were. So with no further ado I was suitably loaded up again and walking back into fort William. After again visiting Morrisons I made some phone calls and found that accommodation in Glencoe was either fully booked out or too expensive and any thoughts of climbing in Glencoe were now consigned to the back burner for another day. It was approximately 1700hrs and the next coach to Glasgow was not due until 1930hrs arriving back in Glasgow at 2210hrs. I did inquire at the Railway ticket office about the cost of a single to Dunfermline bearing in mind there would be a suitable train along shortly but it was some ridiculous price of 70 pounds or such like and therefore I had no option but to wait for the coach to arrive.
The return journey back to Dunfermline was uneventful and I arrived home very pleased with the exceptional day and conditions that I had experienced on;