Many of you will have been aware of the negative press about Everest last month, when a photograph of a queue of climbers on the Hillary Step was published on most of the world’s websites (or so it seemed).
Despite having climbed Everest myself on the day that previously held the record for the most number of successful ascents (19 May 2012, when 234 of us reached the top, in case you’re wondering), I didn’t comment on the photograph. For one reason, these stories have been around for a few years. Although the story changes slightly each time, I’ve written a lot about it on this blog and in Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest.
But the main reason I didn’t comment at the time was that I was on holiday climbing, among other things, Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. I didn’t want to spoil my holiday by taking time off to write about something I’ve written about countless times before.
One of the problems with Everest is that it’s the highest in the world, and the highest of anything always gets a disproportionate amount of the attention. The same is true of Ben Nevis. Last year, an estimated 160,000 people climbed it. Many of them did it as part of a charity challenge, combining it with ascents of Scafell Pike and Snowdon, the highest in England and Wales respectively. A high proportion of these people will never climb another mountain again. The job’s done now and it was never really their thing.
Silly things happen on the highest mountain that don’t happen on other peaks. Somebody once crawled up Snowdon pushing a sprout with his nose. Don Whillans once rode a motorbike up Ben Nevis, and somebody even carried a piano up once. As the outdoor writer Cameron McNeish has pointed out, nobody’s ever thought of carrying a piano up Britain’s second highest mountain.
Sprouts and pianos aside, much of this is perfectly natural. Of course you’re more likely to want to climb the highest than the second highest. Edita had already climbed the highest in Wales and highest in England. She made it very clear that it was high time for her to climb the highest in Scotland, crowds or no crowds.
In fact, Ben Nevis has an open secret that every regular hill walker knows about: you can sneak up the backside (so to speak) and have the route to yourself.
The car park at the visitor centre in Glen Nevis is just 15m above sea level, so to reach the summit of Ben Nevis you have to climb almost all of its 1,344m using your legs. An easy path angles gradually up the side of Meall an t-Suidhe, a small outlying peak, which turns into a stone staircase after it turns a corner above the waters of the Red Burn. There is a short pause in the otherwise relentless ascent at 600m as the path reaches the col between Meall an t-Suidhe and Ben Nevis itself. After this it’s just a long series of monotonous zigzags up scree slopes all the way to the summit.
For most of those 160,000 people, therefore, Ben Nevis is an endurance challenge rather than an enjoyable hike, but it doesn’t have to be that way. From the col, it’s possible to turn left and circle round the back of the mountain where a separate Munro, Carn Mor Dearg, rises as a ridge behind Ben Nevis. Carn Mor Dearg is connected to Ben Nevis by a knife edge ridge to rival Crib Goch on Snowdon or Striding Edge on Helvellyn. The ridge is known as the Carn Mor Dearg Arête, or more commonly just the CMD Arête.
For reasons that are obscure, there is no established trail all the way up Carn Mor Dearg like there is from the Glen Nevis side of Ben Nevis. This means that hardly anyone ever goes there. On my one previous ascent of Ben Nevis I went this way and didn’t see a single other hiker till I reached the summit of Ben Nevis, where suddenly I was among the crowds. This is extraordinary on a mountain with 160,000 annual visitors, but you can only shrug your shoulders and take advantage of it.
Estimates vary, but some say the summit of Ben Nevis only receives about sixty days of sunshine every year, and is more often shrouded in mist. We therefore decided to base ourselves at the campsite in Glen Nevis for a week, and wait for the most promising day to make our ascent. The day we chose promised more sun in the morning than the afternoon, so we decided to make a super early start, when the birds were just limbering up with a few scales.
It was light by 4am, and as I found myself lying awake in the tent with nothing better to do, I leaned over and put the stove on at 4.45. Outside it was a good day, but there was a halo of clouds over the summit of Ben Nevis that we hoped would burn off with the sun.
We left the campsite at 5.45. There were a few people about, but we appeared to be the only ones heading up the mountain. The main trail rises slowly from the visitor centre car park, but from the Glen Nevis campsite it’s possible to take a shortcut directly up steeper ground opposite the Glen Nevis youth hostel and join the main trail higher up.
We took this option, and when we reached the main trail, we were surprised to discover that we weren’t the only early risers. A handful of other people were already on the trail. We slowly made our way past them as the trail turned left around the corner into the gully formed by the waters of the Red Burn. The fields and forests of Glen Nevis disappeared behind us as we climbed.
The col between Meall an t-Suidhe and Ben Nevis is a sheltered spot with plenty of soft grass that would be a great place for a wild camp. Its key feature is the tiny lake of Lochan an t-Suidhe which looks north across the Great Glen and mountains beyond. 160,000 visitors or not, in the late afternoon when the crowds have descended you would have the place to yourself, and could wander up Meall an t-Suidhe as the sun sets.
It came as no surprise to discover that we were the only people to turn left here and circle round the mountain. As Loch Lochy appeared in the Great Glen below us – the place where we had cycled a week earlier – a mountain hare appeared on the trail beneath Edita’s feet. It was quick to depart before I had time to reach for my camera.
The north-west side of Ben Nevis is the one many people are familiar with from photos. It’s the one you can see from the main road past Fort William on a clear day, looking up a great corrie (or combe), Coire Leis, formed by the adjoining walls of Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis.
With no established path up Carn Mor Dearg, there are two possible routes from this point. On my previous ascent I climbed the route recommended by Ralph Storer in his classic guidebook 50 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains. This involved dropping down and crossing bogland at the foot of the corrie to join the ridge of Carn Mor Dearg close to its base. From here, I ended up traversing the entire rim of the corrie to reach the summit of Ben Nevis.
The Walkhighlands guidebook The Munros recommended staying higher and continuing to the Charles Inglis Clarke (CIC) Hut in the heart of the corrie, and taking a more or less direct route up the side of Carn Mor Dearg from there. It was a steeper climb, but it had the benefit of taking us under the great north face of Ben Nevis, scene of some of Scotland’s most famous rock and ice climbing routes. I have read much about this place from the likes of W.H. Murray and Hamish MacInnes, so I was keen to take a closer look. I therefore chose this route to introduce Edita to Ben Nevis.
As we entered the corrie, clouds still hung over Carn Mor Dearg but the sun was tantalising, trying its best to burn a hole through the veil – had we timed it just right?
We kept high above the Allt a Mhuilinn burn, which flows down from Coire Leis. As we approached the heart of the corrie, the CIC Hut was camouflaged against the rock and dwarfed by the cliffs above it. The north face of Ben Nevis was disappearing into cloud. I had been expecting to see many climbers here, but we were alone, and nor could we see anyone on the face.
It’s easy to see how Ben Nevis has gained its reputation as a climbers’ playground. The north face was intricate, with a limitless profusion of ridges and gullies, all of which made new and interesting ascent routes to explore. I knew all of these features had eclectic names such as The King’s Fortress, Manor House Ridge, 3.1415 Gully and Blind Man’s Buttress.
Or something like that (I may not have recalled the names precisely). Had I been more of a climber, I would have been able to point them out to Edita and explain how the features came by their marvellous names. I would even be able to give the climbing grades of each, but by the time I’d finished she would probably have fallen asleep against a rock or be playing Tetris on her phone. Luckily I was ignorant and able to spare her all that.
A more immediate issue was how to find a route up Carn Mor Dearg. From here the only way was directly up the steepest part of the hill. Walkhighlands recommended keeping to the left to reach the ridge close to the top of Carn Dearg Meadhonach, the summit just before Carn Mor Dearg. Viewranger, however, the smartphone app that many outdoor enthusiasts have wet dreams about, marked a clear trail directly to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg.
Since my smartphone had a signal, the Viewranger option was too tempting to ignore. However, the trail was so intermittent that we could rarely be sure we were following it or not, even though my GPS was telling me we were right on it. We were basically just scrambling up a very steep hillside any which way we could. Sometimes we were on wet, grassy banks, sometimes an eroded path; other times we found ourselves boulder hopping. We eventually tried to keep to the grassy banks whenever we could.
It goes without saying that after this experience, I won’t be having any erotic dreams about Viewranger, but there was a moment when I felt like ramming it up somebody’s orifice.
Perhaps had we listened to Walkhighlands we would have found a clear trail, or perhaps their route was no better. It was nice to see the hut and the north face from below, but having done both routes now, I would have to say Ralph Storer’s high level route is more enjoyable.
This absence of a clear trail might help to explain why the CMD Arête is so quiet, but it doesn’t explain why none of the custodians of Ben Nevis have ever built a better path. Perhaps they prefer to keep novice hikers off a knife-edge ridge, but if this is the reason then it’s a shame. The arête itself is actually a little less exposed and easier than Crib Goch on Snowdon.
Anyway, eventually the gradient lessened and we found that we had reached the ridge precisely at the summit of Carn Mor Dearg. The very top was in cloud and the summit cairn was frosted, but beneath us we could see the arête. It was magnificent. It curved to the left as it descended from Carn Mor Dearg, reached a high point, then curved back to the right. Eventually it merged with the eastern slopes of Ben Nevis and rose steeply to the summit. There were isolated streaks of snow on the side, but nothing on the crest.
We put our trekking poles away to scramble downwards. A ceiling of cloud still masked Ben Nevis’s summit, but we remained hopeful it would clear. This seemed likely as the grey veil gradually melted away and more of the landscape was revealed.
To our left, across a narrow hanging valley, Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag appeared dauntingly crusted with snow. Ahead of us, the Mamores looked more inviting, especially the four Munros of the Ring of Steall that we were considering for the following day. These peaks circled a high, hanging corrie, a hidden sanctuary that funnelled rainfall into a single waterfall on its northern side.
But mostly, the ridge itself absorbed our attention. It was halfway between Crib Goch and Striding Edge in difficulty, but longer than both. It was certainly a good deal quieter. A short distance behind us we could see two dark figures who had followed us up Carn Mor Dearg. They never caught us. One man passed us coming the other way, but otherwise we saw no one.
It was a pleasant surprise for Edita. ‘I never thought climbing Ben Nevis would be so enjoyable,’ she said.
Although the ridge was exposed in places, the exposure wasn’t sustained, and for most of its length there were plenty of places to stop, rest and even dance the tango if you were so minded. Sometimes there was a clear path below, but we tried to keep to the crest like we had on Helvellyn. Often this involved climbing over boulders, but no section was especially difficult.
Like we had hoped, as the ridge curved round to the left, the summit of Ben Nevis slowly emerged from cloud. There was some rough, steep boulder hopping immediately below the summit, that went on for longer than I remembered, but we reached the top at 11 o’clock.
The summit of Ben Nevis is a huge, rocky plateau, adorned with derelict stone buildings that have been erected and abandoned over the years, rather like castle ruins. It was already busy, but the clouds had risen and we found ourselves there on one of the rare days when the summit is clear.
We waited for our turn on the summit cairn to take our summit pictures, then found a quiet corner to eat our lunch, where a bold snow bunting entertained us as we ate.
The view from Britain’s highest point is an exceedingly diverse one. The sheer grey cliffs of the north face, resembling a set of petrified organ pipes, contrasted strongly with the gentler green of Coire Leis below. To the west was a white, stony plateau with hordes of people coming up, and beyond this was the dark blue of Loch Linnhe and the mountains beyond.
Below the summit on the west side of Ben Nevis, it’s a wasteland; furlong upon furlong of broken rock without a scrap of vegetation in sight. This is the main route up; the crowds were endless, and so were the zigzags descending far beneath us.
We raced down, past everyone, as quickly as our feet could take us. This was Edita’s choice, not mine, and I struggled to keep up with her. At one point I fell over onto one knee, surrounded by onlookers. But in a single swift movement I was back on my feet and continuing, like Usain Bolt coming out of the blocks (at least, that’s how I imagined it looked, but the many witnesses may have remembered it differently).
As I followed the streak of blue that was Edita descending ahead of me, I heard a sudden cry.
I stopped and looked around. A familiar figure had been resting among the crowds at the side of the trail, and he’d spotted us. It was Andy Hogarth, who guided us on Skye’s Cuillin Ridge last year. Now he was taking a client up the normal route on Ben Nevis.
‘This is a bit easy for you isn’t it?’ I said, ‘how many times have you climbed Ben Nevis now?’
‘Oh, I’ve lost count, but not many times on the standard route.’
‘How on earth did you spot us, going at the speed Edita is descending?’
‘Ah, that’s why I spotted you. I saw Edita flash past.’
We continued onwards, pausing at the top of the Red Burn, where we had diverged from the main trail earlier in the morning. Here, a number of people on their way up asked us how much further they had to go. We were now so close to the bottom that I didn’t really know what to say. Taking a leaf out of the politician’s instruction manual, I decided to answer a difficult question with obvious bullshit.
‘Just five minutes,’ I said. ‘Keep going. You’re nearly there.’
‘But how far really. Are we halfway yet?’
‘Halfwayish. Do the same again… and then a little bit more.’
It was a satisfying feeling as we descended into the green haven of Glen Nevis and followed the easy pathway high above our campsite.
There is one very good thing about the standard route up Ben Nevis. Right at the bottom is the Ben Nevis Inn. It’s virtually impossible to walk past without going in. They might as well put a red carpet from the gateway at the bottom of the trail to its front door.
We found ourselves standing at the bar at 1.30.
‘You look thirsty,’ said the barman, eyeing our backpacks and trekking poles.
It’s a line that I expect he uses quite a lot.
‘Yes, indeed,’ I replied. ‘I’ll have two pints of beer and two pints of orange juice and lemonade.’
Dervla Murphy would have been proud of me.