Binnein Beag from Glen Nevis
Two years ago, Edita and I enjoyed a glorious day out hiking the Ring of Steall, a circuit of Munros along a horseshoe ridge due south of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.
From the summit of the first peak, An Gearanach, we looked east into the upper stretches of Glen Nevis. I observed a remote, verdant pasture walled by high hills that looked like an idyllic spot for a wild camp.
My eyes were also drawn to a striking pyramidal peak rising up from the middle of the valley. It was lower than the peaks surrounding it, but it stood out against them because it was perfect in its symmetry. It was positively volcano-like in a landscape fashioned by glacial ice rather than hot magma. I’ve had many great adventures on volcanoes and I hankered to climb it; I imagined it would be good fun.
I turned out to be wrong on both counts.
I only discovered later that the outdoor writer Cameron McNeish has previously described the Glen Nevis watershed, where this peak rose, as ‘the wettest place in Scotland’. As superlatives go, this is right up there with coldest iceberg, prickliest hedgehog and least favourite Ringo Starr-penned Beatles number. I don’t know Scotland as well as Cameron, but after our wild camp in the Nevis watershed last year – when it was pointless taking our boots off for a river crossing – I’m inclined to agree with him.
Idyllic spot for a wild camp, my arse – unless squelching through damp peat and putting on the same wet clothes every morning makes you feel relaxed.
As for the volcano-like peak, that story had two episodes, neither of which endeared the mountain to me. Upon returning from the Ring of Steall, I discovered that it’s actually a Munro, 943m Binnein Beag, whose name translates from Gaelic as Annoying Little Peak (I’m pretty sure). We intended to climb it last year during a circuit of the four most easterly Mamores, but an achilles tendon injury had blessed me with a tortoise-like pace that day.
It was 5.30pm by the time we stood close to Binnein Beag’s southern flanks and watched them rise abruptly on the other side of a valley. A dull greyness of early evening was already setting in, and it was Edita who decided we should give it a miss. It was a wise decision. It took another 2½ hours to descend awkward heather slopes and traverse the remaining bogland back to our tent, which we reached by torchlight as the last gasps of daylight bid us goodnight. By then, I was well and truly cream-crackered.
So that was that; or so it should have been. But I’m a Munro bagger – one of those eccentric people who have set ourselves the task of climbing all 282 peaks in Scotland over 3,000 feet in height. Even so, I have a feeling that Binnein Beag may be one of those peaks that Munro baggers leave till last because it doesn’t seem worth climbing until you have to.
But a chance presented itself less than a year later. Earlier this month, Edita and I stayed at a cottage in Glen Spean with two friends, Bernadeta and Mohit. They wanted to climb Ben Nevis by the standard tourist route, up those million and one zigzags – something I would only do if a herd of highland cattle came and dragged me up in a cart.
A solution occurred to me that might satisfy all of us. Binnein Beag is normally climbed from Kinlochleven on its southern side. This is the route you will find in most guidebooks. But I had first seen it from Glen Nevis to the west. Why not climb it from that direction instead? We could drop Bernadeta and Mohit at the Ben Nevis visitor centre, the normal starting point for the tourist route, then continue along the road into Glen Nevis before getting out and walking up the valley to Binnein Beag.
And so we did. After depositing the others at 6.30, Edita and I were in the car park at the road end by 7am. The car park was already half full; not, however, with people who intended to do what we were doing. The first part of the trail here passes through the Steall Gorge, a delightful Tolkienesque landscape of ancient forest that terminates, after only 30 minutes of walking, in a wonderful grassy meadow beneath the crashing cascades of An Steall, Britain’s second highest waterfall. It’s a meadow where people who aren’t usually into camping go for a wild camp, and this explained all the vehicles in the car park.
Later in the day, the Steall Gorge is usually full of families, but at this time of the morning the trail was clear. The trickle of An Steall reminded me how much – even so close to the wettest place in Scotland – we are starved of really impressive waterfalls here in the UK. It’s a big attraction for the Scottish Tourist Board, but we raced past it. There were signs of life, but most wild campers were still in their tents.
Beyond An Steall we were on our own. We saw nobody until we reached the summit of Binnein Beag more than two hours later. We were soon to discover why. I was also to discover why a Google search for ‘binnein beag from glen nevis’ yielded not a single route description. The results were filled with trip reports by hikers like me, who had decided to climb this way despite a dearth of official guidance. My own blog post from last year was even there at no.6 in the results, and that wasn’t even relevant.
The trail beyond An Steall was well-maintained to begin with, but somewhere along the way whoever put in the effort to look after it had given up. It became increasingly boggy. The ability to leap great strides became increasingly critical, then eventually superfluous as the ability to endure wet feet took over. Finally, the ability to slither in mud while endeavouring not to fall on one’s arse became the principal skill.
The little Toblerone of Binnein Beag came into view directly ahead. The trail rose imperceptibly towards it. About an hour later I looked back down the valley and realised we were now high above the meadow at An Steall. It was grey and cloudy. Ben Nevis peeped above, still below the cloud line, which was a good sign. It was the first day of June, but still the sides of Ben Nevis were streaked with snow. Spring was so late this year that summer had not yet arrived.
After two hours of walking we reached the base of Binnein Beag. We were now due north of it. There was no trail up from where we stood. According to the map, it was one of those annoying Munros where the trail suddenly appears when you’ve climbed most of the way up. Such trails are maddeningly common. I can see why you might start building a trail from the bottom of a mountain, and give up halfway up, but it’s puzzling how in Scotland they seem to start them from the top then give up halfway down. Basics first. It’s rather like putting a shirt and tie on before you’ve donned your underpants.
We had to find stepping stones across the river (the delightfully named Water of Nevis) then scramble roughly up a steep, grassy hillside, grabbing tussocks to pull ourselves up. Eventually we stumbled across the path. For a few blissful minutes we zigged to the east then zagged west across Binnein Beag’s north face.
It would have been possible to make a direct ascent from here, but the prospect wasn’t enticing. There were about 200m of rough boulder fields to ascend, topped by some steeper crags just beneath the summit. We followed the trail as it circled around the mountain, hoping to find a more inviting route up from the west side.
What we found could only be described as inviting if you’d just had one of those nights out where several bouncers have refused you entry for wearing the wrong shoes and the only place left is a snooker hall accessed via a dark stairwell.
Binnein Beag’s west face stood above us with arms folded. It looked far from welcoming; horrible in fact. The trouble with volcano-like objects is that they’re universally steep. There are no gentler gradients or weaker lines. In Binnein Beag’s case, it is also entirely covered in boulders. There appeared to be no way of avoiding loose rock. We were only 200m below the summit, but there’s no ‘only’ when you’re facing a solid wall of rubble.
We traced a heather slope briefly to try and get as high as we could before wading through the rocks. Then we just had to go for it. I was worried about triggering a rock avalanche. We took parallel lines to avoid kicking stones onto one another.
The slopes steepened. Then Edita’s phone pinged. It was a photo message from Bernadeta. She and Mohit were standing on the summit of Ben Nevis on a carpet of a snow. It was 11 o’clock and they had climbed a mountain 400m higher than the one we were still crawling up on our hands and knees.
‘This is shit,’ I said.
‘We’re nearly there,’ Edita replied.
Squirming up this rubble made me realise that Binnein Beag was just a tick in the box. Had I not been a Munro bagger then there was simply no way I would be doing this.
Eventually the boulder field became rough dirt and we emerged just below the summit on a steep, eroded gully that must once have been the source of the boulders we’d just climbed over.
We reached the summit of my 119th Munro, and Edita’s 42nd, at 11.30. The air was cold and the sky was gloomy, aptly reflecting my mood. We were surrounded by mountains higher than our own. I looked north to Sgurr Eilde Mor and Binnein Mor, separated by a lake-lined col, two peaks we had climbed less than a year ago. I had climbed all of the surrounding mountains and it occurred to me that they must all have better views than this one.
We sheltered from the wind behind the stone wall that had been erected on the summit, and devoured a sandwich. A couple arrived from the south side as we sat there. They’d just come down the jagged ridge from Binnein Mor, an airy-looking scramble.
‘Is there a trail on that side?’ I asked.
They started describing the intricate route up Binnein Mor, but I interrupted.
‘No, I don’t mean up Binnein Mor, I mean down Binnein Beag.’
They looked puzzled.
‘How did you get up?’
‘Oh, you’ve come from Glen Nevis!’ the man said, as though I’d walked up on my hands. ‘Yes, it’s not great, but there’s a path on the Kinlochleven side.’
We took it, and it was a piece of cake compared with the route we’d taken. Binnein Mor rose above a lochan, its face drizzled in snow. At the base of Binnein Beag’s summit pyramid we looked back across the lochan before circling 180° around the mountain on a grassy col. Then we followed the zigzag path until it vanished down a hole.
I had one further fright as we descended the precipitous grass to the Water of Nevis. You may recall that I buggered my left knee descending to Kinlochleven with a heavy pack on our trip last year. Years of descending steep mountains has worn away the knee cartilage, leaving the bones to scrape together unchecked. Chalk on a blackboard springs to mind.
My physio gave me exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint, but I swear I could hear him crossing his fingers behind his back. The knee is still very weak, especially when it threatens to bend the wrong way. When I’m descending steep slopes I’m terrified of the knee snapping backwards and tearing everything that holds it together. I have visions of my lower leg pinging away and dangling from the knee like a bungee jumper bouncing beneath a bridge.
I can tell you that this is not a pleasant thing to contemplate. I had just such a moment on descent. My shin short forwards and I let out a squeal. Edita turned around with a look of terror on her face. But my knee remained firm; nothing had torn, and after a few breathless seconds of rest I was able to continue, albeit more carefully.
I reached the bottom of the slope without any further incident and we forded the river. Back in Glen Nevis we lost the trail and ended up on a lower track that kept disappearing into the bog, and with it our feet.
‘I’m sure this path has got worse since we came up it,’ I said.
It was a blessing to reach firmer ground at the falls of An Steall. After seeing only two human beings in seven hours we were back on the tourist trail. But those hours of tracklessness had taken their toll. We reached the car park at 3pm, after only eight hours of hiking. We had climbed Glen Nevis’s smallest Munro, one of the smallest of all Munros, a shitty little thing thrusting off the toe end of the much grander Binnein Mor, but I was tired out.
What was the point? A tick in the box.
We met Bernadeta and Mohit at the Ben Nevis Inn. They had climbed their very first Munro the previous day and now they’d climbed one 400m higher than ours. They were positively sprightly.
If you’re thinking of climbing Binnein Beag from Glen Nevis and have arrived here after a Google search, my advice is this: in the nicest possible way, think again, sucker. Give me the tourist route up Ben Nevis any day.
You can see more photos on Flickr. In better news, the rest of our fortnight in Scotland was great. For those of you who don’t like the grumpy Mark (which includes Edita), I hope to post some more cheerful trip reports in the coming weeks.