As Edita and I scrambled along the Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) Arête in May, on our way up Ben Nevis by its most interesting walking route, we looked south across Glen Nevis into a hidden sanctuary of verdant pasture. Nestling high above the valley was a not-so-secret corrie encircled by mountains. Although we couldn’t see it much of it from where we stood, this corrie had a single outlet which channelled its rainfall over a steep northern wall, where it formed a mighty waterfall.
The waterfall is known as An Steall or the Steall Falls, and at 120m in height it is Britain’s second highest. The range of mountains south of Ben Nevis is known as the Mamores. The mountains surrounding the corrie form a single ridge, rising and falling over seven peaks, four of which are classified as Munros. The complete circuit of the ridge over every summit is known as the Ring of Steall. It’s one of Scotland’s classic hill walks, and with a favourable weather forecast for the following day, we intended to complete it.
In fact, the forecast was more promising in the morning, with the threat of clouds in the afternoon. Clouds on the mountaintops are the bane of Britain’s hills, and make walking up them a pointless exercise if you intend to admire the view. You might as well turn on the shower, get underneath it with all your clothes on and spend a day staring through the shower curtain.
We therefore decided to make a super early start and try to complete the ring before the clouds came across. There was actually frost when I climbed out of our tent at Glen Nevis campsite a little before 6am. The car window was iced up; when I threw water over it, the water immediately froze again.
A bout of scraping later, we drove along the undulating road to Glen Nevis. A the end of the road the valley narrows into a gorge, where a river known quaintly as the Water of Nevis squeezes between Ben Nevis to the north and the Mamores to the south.
There were already a few cars parked in the car park at the end of the road, and soon after we left it at 6.15 we discovered why.
‘They can’t all be wild camping,’ I said to Edita, but indeed they were. Many people had left their cars there to go out and camp overnight.
We set off into the thick forest of the gorge, where a well-worn trail twisted and turned through the cover of trees.
‘This reminds me of trekking in Nepal,’ said Edita, who is more familiar with the Himalayas than Scotland.
Even at this early hour, we met several people coming the other way, including a man with a small child of 8 or 9 years old. Both of them were carrying large packs. Although I respected the man for introducing his young son to wild camping, I’m not sure why he needed to get the poor lad up at 6am to pack away the tent.
About half an hour after leaving the car park we emerged into a wide meadow which was the place they had all come to camp. There were several tents, and we could see the silver streak of An Steall, the waterfall, spilling down cliffs at the back. Sun lit up half the field, and a few of the campers were just getting up.
Our path turned off to the right and we reached the infamous wire bridge across the Water of Nevis. Three cables were suspended several metres above the water; one of these was to walk across like a tightrope, and the other two were to be used for steadying yourself.
‘What do we do now?’ said Edita.
‘We’re supposed to go across that thing,’ I replied.
‘Are you crazy?’
‘It doesn’t look the safest, does it.’
I stepped up onto the wire and walked out about 5m to test it. It wobbled a bit, and I could see that it would wobble a lot in the middle. If this were a crashing river and the wire bridge was the only way of getting across, it would probably be OK to cross this way if you took a lot of care.
But the water here was only a few inches deep. I could stroll across and suffer nothing more than wet feet. It was therefore pointless to take the risk, unless I happened to be blessed with extreme stupidity (or a very small penis and something to prove). The bridge wasn’t difficult, but the consequences of a slip might be serious: at best I would find myself dangling by my arms a few metres above the river, at worst I could find my journey to the water interrupted by a thick steel cable connecting with my genitals
Why on earth they don’t replace this elaborate contraceptive device with a proper bridge or even just stepping stones, I have no idea. I turned around and came back. Edita, who is both braver and wiser than me, didn’t even bother to have a look.
After walking some distance downstream looking for a place to cross without getting wet feet we returned to the wire bridge and crossed there anyway, not on the wire bridge, but using the firm riverbed. Edita took off her shoes and socks, but I just waded across in my shoes. It was a sunny day and I knew my feet would dry.
The other side of the wire bridge, the path looped around, skirting bogland until we reached An Steall. I know some people love waterfalls, but I have to confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. Mountains can set my pulse racing like a stallion galloping with the wind. Or to put it another way, I like them a lot. But I’ve never really got that excited by water tumbling over a cliff. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the giant unnamed cascades that I’ve seen so many times in the Himalayas; or perhaps I’ve just had one too many showers in my life. Whatever the reason, I stared up at An Steall, had my photo taken and moved on.
We crossed a boggy part of the meadow, then the path started rising up a gully, with a shoulder of An Gearanach, the first Munro of the Ring of Steall, above us. We didn’t need to climb far before Ben Nevis emerged behind us, a view of the mountain that not many people get to see. Not many people get to see Ben Nevis at all, in actual fact, unless they live close by. Most days of the year it remains hidden in cloud. I had driven past on the road from Fort William to Inverness a few times, and I’d never seen the whole thing.
Earlier in the week we had seen the whole of Ben Nevis from the campsite in Glen Nevis, but from that angle it isn’t very impressive, just a seemingly innocuous hillside with a zigzag pathway going up it. Now we were looking straight up at the CMD Arête and the last scramble up to the summit of Ben Nevis that we completed the day before. To the right of Carn Mor Dearg, a steep valley divided the Ben Nevis massif from the curving throne of Aoneag Beag, Britain’s seventh highest mountain.
For the next hour we constantly found ourselves turning round, taking photos and soaking up this wonderful vista of mostly emerald green against a perfect blue sky. Only the bare, benchlike plateau of Ben Nevis formed a streak of grey granite, like waves on the water above a sea of green.
The path traversed up to a spur, and we arrived on a small grassy balcony. The last and highest summit of the Ring of Steall, Sgurr a Mhaim appeared across the mouth of the corrie. The rest of the corrie was still hidden from view. Here the trail zigzagged more steeply up the shoulder. We emerged onto a gentle grassy ridge.
We could see a great wilderness of moors and mountains to the east. The nearest ones were higher than ours and therefore also Munros. We were looking across at the throne-like ridge of Binnein Mor and Na Gruagaichean, where two weeks later a woman was tragically killed by a lightning strike when her party was caught in a storm. The most distinctive peak in this panorama was the isolated pyramid of Binnein Beag, volcano-like in appearance, kneeling incongruously beside its bigger neighbour Binnein Mor. Although it looked much smaller, I discovered later that it too is a Munro.
Edita was some way ahead of me by the time we followed our gentle ridge up a last rise to the summit of An Gearanach (982m), the first Munro.
Edita was suitably impressed by the view to our right.
‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting our walk to be like this,’ she said.
We could now see the entire ring of peaks around the Steall corrie – our entire route for the next few hours as we circled round. Far beneath us a river snaked through the corrie on its journey to the waterfall of An Steall.
The ridge contained seven prominent peaks including our own. Only four were classed as Munros, but unless you had a guidebook you wouldn’t be able to guess which ones were and which weren’t. Apart from the peak we stood on, An Gearanach, and the next one, An Garbhanach, they were all separated by significant drops. It was going to be good exercise. I hadn’t bothered reading the route description before we set off, so I didn’t know what we could expect in terms of scrambling, but two of the peaks directly opposite, Sgurr an Iubhair and Stob Choire a Mhail, looked like they might be quite narrow.
I’ve done a few of these Munro ridge walks now, so unlike Edita I had some idea what to expect, but rarely have I done them on as clear a day as this. There was a feast of mountains as far as the eye could see in every direction, except to the north where the view was blocked by Ben Nevis, the highest of them all.
It was 9.30 and we stopped for a snack on the summit, knowing that this was a view we would be unlikely to see again. Then we continued along the ridge to An Garbhanach. There was a modest amount of scrambling around its left side, but nothing very frightening. Beyond An Gharbhanach the trail descended steeply to a col.
Here I looked back and saw a figure in red between the two previous peaks. It was the first person we had seen since leaving the wild campsite in the meadow. We had set off so early that it looked like we would be entirely alone for most of the walk, in stark contrast to our ascent of Ben Nevis the previous day, which we shared with a cast of thousands.
The second Munro, Stob Coire a Chairn (981m) was easily gained, just a steep grassy slope up to a rounded top. We continued over it without stopping, then went down again, over a small hillock on a wide grassy ridge.
The route up the next peak, Am Bodach (1032m), the third Munro, looked to be a difficult ascent. It weaved between rocky outcrops, but there was a clear path. It wasn’t yet midday when we reached the summit. Ben Nevis aside, there was arguably the best view of all from on top of this summit. It was the furthest south of the seven, a T-shaped summit formed by three converging ridges. I walked along the pillar of the T to the furthest point.
Here I was able to look east across the lowlands of Rannoch Moor to the obvious pyramid of Schiehallion on the far horizon. She didn’t know it, but Edita had a special connection with this mountain. Schiehallion’s symmetrical shape led to it being chosen by the astronomer Neville Maskelyne in 1774 to conduct experiments to prove and measure Newton’s theory of gravity.
This same experiment was first conducted by Pierre Bouguer on Chimborazo in 1738. And if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that Edita was the first person to climb from sea level to the summit of Chimborazo in a single journey without cheating, a journey that is the subject of my latest book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo. Edita was thrilled to learn of this, so much so that she almost managed to stay awake as I told her about it.
To the south we looked across the waters of Loch Leven to the jagged outline of the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe. Much the most impressive peak was Bidean nam Bian rising behind, a giant bulk of chocolate-brown laced in rivulets of snow.
We turned our attention back to the Ring of Steall. We could now see that the next peak, Sgurr an Iubhair was far from being the narrow ridge I imagined from the summit of An Gearanach. It was more of a plateau with a gentle approach.
We kept below a boulder field on the ridge. To our left the ridge dropped away gently, while to the right the terrain was sheer, falling straight down to the Steall corrie, with Ben Nevis opposite. From the summit of Sgurr an Iubhair there was a fine view of Stob Ban and Mullach nan Coirean, two connected peaks that I climbed a few years ago. The two peaks are very different in character. Stob Ban is a compact silver dome, while Mullach nan Coirean is a long red whaleback.
We dropped down off the summit of Sgurr an Iubhair. At the col beneath it we met a couple about our age coming the other way, the first people we had met all day.
‘What time did you set off?’ they asked us. It seemed like we had almost completed the round, but they had barely started.
‘We left the car park in Glen Nevis at 6.15,’ I said. ‘We wanted to take advantage of the sunny morning before it clouds over.’
‘We should have done the same,’ the lady said. ‘We’ve been surveying the route, not because we’re lost, but we want to see where it goes before it vanishes into cloud.’
They were wise – they may not have the view later, so it would be good for them to memorise the route ahead of time. On the other hand, the weather still looked fairly promising, and I was able to reassure them that there was a clear path with only a tiny bit of scrambling.
‘It sounds OK. That was the bit people find terrifying,’ said the man, pointing up at Stob Choire a Mhail, the next peak on our route, ‘but I didn’t find it too bad.’
‘I didn’t even know it was supposed to be terrifying. Thanks for letting us know it isn’t,’ I said.
It certainly didn’t look terrifying. Initially there was a clear path a metre wide. Then we reached a rocky section that looked like it might need the hands, so we put our trekking poles away. I scrambled over the top and discovered a notch in the ridge that was unbridgeable, so I turned around and came back.
Edita and I then went in different directions, me to the left, she to the right, to try and get around this obstacle from the side. My side looked good, so I called to her. A trail went beneath the notch, then there was a short scramble up the other side to regain the ridge, which continued as an easy if narrow path.
I learned later that this stretch of the Ring of Steall has been given the daunting name of The Devil’s Ridge, but in that case Satan must have been having an off day, for the ridge was no more frightening than a devil’s dumpling. There was just one short scramble down a stepped slab, then a steepish walk up to the summit of Sgurr a Mhaim (1099m), the last of the four Munros, and the seventh of the seven peaks of the Ring of Steall.
We reached the top at 1.30 and had lunch in a grassy seat with the best view of Ben Nevis anywhere in the world – at least I assume so. You might get a better one from the summit of Aonach Beag to the east (I climbed it in thick, pissing mist, so I wouldn’t know), but otherwise this was the nearest prominent summit, just a short javelin toss away across Glen Nevis.
Britain’s highest mountain had an odd shape from here, an even curve on the west side giving way to a short prominent step before the CMD Arête completed the high skyline to the east.
The man in red whom we had looked back and seen between the summits of An Gearanach and An Garbhanach, finally caught us as we relaxed on the summit. Apart from the couple going the other way, he was the only other person we had seen on the ridge, and he crossed Sgurr a Mhaim without stopping.
Sgurr a Mhaim is the prominent silver-topped dome that you can see directly to the south if you look down Glen Nevis from the youth hostel or campsite. For a couple of hundred metres beneath the summit, its surface is a mass of shattered granite. Up here the rocks looked almost white. We descended over them down a curving ridge until we reached the grass, then descended steeply on a zigzag path down a hillside for almost a full thousand metres.
The Ring of Steall is usually completed clockwise like we had. Sgurr a Mhaim’s position right above Glen Nevis is perhaps the reason. It was OK to descend, if a little jarring on the knees, but this path must feel like it goes on for ever on the way up.
My knees had turned to jelly when we reached the glen, but back on the flat, they quickly recovered. We had a pleasant riverside walk back to a footbridge known as Paddy’s Bridge, then completed the last mile back to the car park along the road. This road had been quiet when we drove along it in the car at 6am, but now it was busy with traffic. The car park at the end was jam packed with people who had come to walk the forested mile through the gorge to An Steall. It’s true that some people really do love waterfalls.
We were back at the car at 3.30 after more than nine hours of walking. It had taken us longer than Ben Nevis by the CMD Arête the previous day, but we were satisfied – more than satisfied.
In fact, it had been amazing, one of my best days out in Scotland, a rare clear day with spectacular views in one of the richest mountainous areas, and the best views of Ben Nevis that money can’t buy. My Munro tally was up to 106; I still have a few left.