Munros since diagnosis #151 and #152
12:45 – Carn Mor Dearg (M009), 4003ft, 1220m
14:45 – Ben Nevis (M001), 4409ft, 1344m
Ben Nevis is simultaneously two completely different mountains. One is climbed via the so called tourist path by anybody and everybody simply because its summit is the highest point on these islands; the other is climbed from every other direction possible by mountain people because it offers a plethora of joys and challenges. When it is not engulfed in weather, the mountain appears from a distance as a great round lump of grey stones (frequently covered in snow) with one side sliced off, creating a series of sheer cliffs. The tourist path zigzags up the rounded side to the west; those following it never see the sheer enormity and complexity of the cliffs, gullies and buttresses of the North Face, nor do they experience the pleasures of the arete to the big red mountain on the other side, nor gaze into the cavernous corrie between the two.
There is an uneasy relationship beween the mountain fraternity and the hundreds of thousands of tourists who wend their way up the path every year. The former are often quick to pour scorn over the latter for notoriously inadequate clothing and equipment choices, for ignoring warnings about the importance of choosing the correct equipment and clothing, and for failing to understand both the extreme severity of conditions on the summit and the dangers of falling through cornices. No more than two years ago I poured a little scorn myself after a young woman wearing only short shorts, a tee shirt and trainers, and equipped only with a selfie stick, was assisted from the plateau suffering advanced hypothermia by passing climbers and taken off the mountain by Lochaber Mountain Rescue.
A quick and utterly unscientific perusal of the statistics seems to suggest that more climbers die on the mountain than do tourists, and more tourists than climbers require the assistance of mountain rescue services. Which probably attests to no more than that a lot of people climb or walk up this potentially very dangerous mountain for all sorts of different reasons. It is of course absolutely right that the highest point on these islands be a place accessible to as many are up to the task of getting there. Over the years, public authorities, volunteers and now the John Muir Trust have ensured that there is a safe path from Glen Nevis all the way to the top, that is also marked out on the plateau by a line of substantial cairns. Though even this has been the subject of controversy among purists who decry the defilement of the natural lanscape and this implicit discouragement to learn proper navigational skills. Beneath these peculiarly human concerns, the mountain sits indifferent, engulfed for most of the year in weather so inhospitable that any kind of attempt on the summit would be quite simply impossible.
Despite less than promising weather forecasts, I had a feeling that today would be one of the reputedly only forty or so days in the year when clouds would clear the summit. Chris said he would be up for it if forecasts improved, which they did, so we met at the usual place to continue in one vehicle. Coming over the pass into Dochart we noticed the summits of Meall nan Tarmachan dusted fresh with snow. The band of rain that had at the start of the week been predicted to pass over during the day, had been and gone during the night. Chris said that the Mountain Weather Information Service was now declaring an absolute certainty that today there would be cloud free summits.
We passed through Fort William before it had become clogged with traffic, and arrived at The North Face car park near Torlundy before nine, where assorted others were busy unpacking kit and preparing for days out. We left just after nine, following the path first through woodland, echoing with birdsong, and then into the start of the massive North Face corrie, where we could see the route for the day more or less spread out before us.
As we climbed along the the north shoulder of Carn Mor Dearg, the sheer enormity of Ben Nevis became more and more apparent. Massive columns and buttresses projecting from steep scree slopes and boulder fields, towering upwards, between them gullies and crevices still packed dense with snow. Chris pointed out the routes he had taken in his youth when he worked as a mountain leader. I was impressed.
We climbed methodically upwards, following a vague path through all layers of mountain vegetation, from squelchy peat and heather through short grasses and moss to lichens. Life is beginning at last to burst again through the ground after so many months buried under snow and crippled by frost. Fresh green buds, beetles, little flowers, flies and moorland birds, scurrying rodents and a lizard warming in the morning sun under a rock.
When we reached the bare red rock and gravel of the summit ridge, the views opened up to the south, over the Mamores to Glen Coe and beyond. At the crest, we saw east over the Aonachs to Schiehallion and the Ben Lawers cluster and saw the pointy peak of Carn Mor Dearg for the first time, flanked on the east by massive crisp snowbanks and dwarfed by Ben Nevis to the west.
We reached the summit in what seemed to be good time and saw ahead of us the treat of the day – the famous arete. A young woman yomped to the summit as we were admiring the views, asked to have her photo taken with Ben Nevis in the background and, before yomping off, suggested we would doubtless meet again since we were going in the same direction, to which I replied that I doubted this very much and wished her a safe journey. She was wearing short shorts, a tee shirt and trainers and had on a light rucksack, presumably containing all she believed she needed.
Chris and I reflected that if there ever were a day when somebody completely naive and ignorant of all danger, inadequately attired and ill equipped, could quite easily get to the top of Ben Nevis and back without mishap, then this was it. Everybody we met along the way was overwhelmed by the brilliant weather. The views were absolutely staggering. The air was still, the sun warm and the mountains smiling. Conditions were at their most benign.
The initial descent to the arete is over a jumble of sharp red rocks, with several paths converging at the start of the ridge, which is reasonably level, composed largely of stable boulders and crags, and scarred by crampons. We stopped for lunch just before the drop down to the lowest point on the bealach, where we chatted with some chaps of our own generation who we would continue to bump into throughout the day, and to a couple of young men from down south who had just clambered up to the arete from the corrie, having decided not to attempt an ascent on Ben Nevis over the unstable snow under the North Face.
It was busy, but no more so than any mountain might be on a fine Saturday in May. People were also coming past in the other direction, amongst whom two women with an exuberant spaniel and a westie who had decided that the rocks were a bit big for her little legs.
Although the edges are steep on both sides – precipitous in places, there are bypass paths, but the easiest route follows the crest all the way. Towards the end there is a rather more technical and airy section, after which it merges into the southern flanks of Ben Nevis, where the route up from Steall car park at the end of Glen Nevis converges with the final slog over round grey boulders to the summit plateau.
Although I was expecting the summit to be busy, I was not prepared for the hordes we encountered when finally the gradient eased and suddenly we were crunching over the plateau snowpack. The summit cairn, the old observatory ruins and shelter hut stood out from the white, alongside some sort of tripod for scientific equipment and a crocodile of figures, giving the impression that a bus had recently deposited its passengers and departed. Not quite knowing how we fitted in here, accustomed to greeting all those we meet at summits, we made our way to the trig point through crowds of different isolated groups, all celebrating their having arrived here. It felt a bit like we were gatecrashing somebody else’s party. Nevertheless, we stood at the summit sharing a dram – which despite my dietary restrictions, seemed an appropriate addition to this conquest of the highest mountain in the land. (Thanks to Bruce for the wee gift.)
We decided quite quickly that we really needed to get away from this rather odd environment. In many ways it resembled any place on the planet to which tourists are attracted, with little groups and larger parties gathering together and taking photos of each other. The only differences being that they were all eating their own food – rather than consuming something from some catering establishment, and that they had walked rather more than ten minutes from the car park. What was most disarming though was not the crowds per se, it was the permanent chatter of human voices. Much less soothing than the whooshing of wind. So we found somewhere more peaceful, off the beaten track, to enjoy the views and to look back towards the summit.
We tarried awhile, looking out over Lochaber, chatting with the chaps who had also come along the arete and were also now seeking a more familiar summit experience than this cocktail party. Returning to the path, we joined with the crowds sliding through thick snowbanks and zigzagging up and down the mountain. It was difficult not to keep our mouths shut, not to stop people who either did not look as if their bodies would take them all the way to the top or who were just stupidly attired and badly equipped, and to tell them that they for their own safety they really should think about returning. We did mention to anybody who asked to keep away from the cliff edges and that it is a bad idea to walk on cornices; and we did tell both a particularly manic bloke with absolutely no idea of what he was doing as well as a rather laid back dude with red cans and a guitar strapped to his back, that they were wearing such inadequate footwear that they risked frostbite as they sunk into the dunes of snow on the path ahead and on the plateau above. But on the whole we did not allow our inner mountain police to take control. On rare days such as this, etc. Perhaps if the weather had not been so perfect.
Despite awesome views of everything from the Paps of Jura to Ben Wyvis, the descent seemed interminable and much harder than the ascent. The zigzagged path is steep and always stony. At length, our path verged off back round towards the North Face. Where it came to an end, the squelchy ground was soothing to the feet after so many hours clumping against rock and hard ground. We stopped once or twice along the way for rest and refreshment and were back at the car park a bit less than eleven hours after we left, just as several other parties were lazily packing up kit and preparing to drive away.
What a day that was!