Thursday, 4 July 2013

Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete...

Looking at the route ahead. The Carn Mor Dearg Arete route, onto Ben Nevis.
So, it finally happened. I managed to venture out of the Peak District for a good solid day's walking. The weekend entailed my first time outside of the Peak District, first ridge walk and scramble, first ascent of Ben Nevis, first Munro climbed (if you like lists), and - first night under canvas in an actual camp site...

It was also the first time walking with my good friend Simon. I have to say before I begin, how much I truly appreciate his offer and efforts in driving the two of us up there. Alot of respect is due to this man for the amount of driving done in the two days, not to mention the walking that we were there for!

The plan was set. R.V in Derby at about 3am, hammer it up the motorway, and get walking. It was as harsh on us both as it sounded. We were both tired from poor sleep, and so stopped a few times on the way up to Fort William. A few hits of caffeine sorted us out enough to carry us up and across the border. It was the first time that I have met Simon in person, and he is a great chap. Conversation flowed, and we both seemed as giddy as each other at the thought of what was to come later in the day. The drive was a long hard slog (longer and harder for him), but we finally made it into Fort William. A quick run into Cotswold Outdoors for an OS map and a new pair of overtrousers for myself, then to Tesco for some trail food and camp food. After that it was to the camp site we went!

Glen Nevis caravan and camp site was to be our retirement location that night. Having no past experience of camp sites, my opinion is probably not as valid as most. That said, it was a very pleasant site. Spacious enough, with good toilet and wash facilities and an on site shop. Once I had returned home, one friend that has been before mentioned some sort of cafe on site? When you're used to washing from your water bottle and wiping your backside on a handfull of vegetation because your toilet roll got wet - it was more than comfortable enough for me.

My Vango Tempest 200 pitched (poorly) at Glen Nevis Caravan and Campsite.
The tents were pitched and everything was set by around 1pm, and we were underway. The start of my first walk out of the Peak District, and in Scotland. Although the sun wasn't beaming down, it certainly felt like summer. Well, the evasive sun probably added to it - being in Scotland. It was humid, and the midges were out in force while we were lower down. As we crossed over the bridge in front of the Youth Hostel, the views opened up. All around the glen were varying shades of lush green flora. There was that nice smell of fresh summer rain in the air (after it had drizzled slightly before we made it to the campsite), and right from the outset it all seemed picturesque.

The lovely, fresh, rolling green of summer in the glen, it seems!
The climb started pretty much straight away, following the zigging and zagging of the tourist path. It is a rather fitting, but inadvertant name for the route. So many different types of people frequented the path; from Duke of Edinburgh groups, to families, to fell running pensioners. It didn't start out as a path for tourists though, it actually started as a route for pack horses taking suppliesn to the summit observatory. It was a steady climb though, leisurely - unless you start to talk too much, at which point you might become short of breath as I did. The navigation is simple here, as the path is well defined of course. Worn by the course of time for the most part, and paved undoubtedly by vast effort for the remainder.

Upwards, along the "tourist" path.
Our navigation for the day was, for the most part, straight forward. Once at the 'half way' point, marked conveniently by Lochan Meall An T-Suidhe, veer off the main path heading north and then generally north easterly. When we came to the loch, the weather seemed to move in at quite a rate. From my time spent in the Peak District, it didn't suprise or alarm me. In fact, I revelled in the opportunity to try the overtrousers that I had earlier purchased in Fort William and my new waterproof jacket that still hadn't seen proper rain. As we moved onwards over boggy ground, we came out of the worst of the weather rather quickly following the Allt a Mhuilinn river. There was still a residual amount of low level cloud, though it was further above us now - shrouding the higher reaches of Ben Nevis on our right hand side all the while.

The allt a mhuilinn.
We eventually came to the mountain hut near the head of the allt a mhuilinn, and the low cloud cleared. As it did, the view opened up incredibley. Down the valley following the river, but also; we could now actually see the sheer scale of the mountains that sandwiched us in. I have never seen anything like it. The scale of them was on another level to even the highest of the hills in the Peaks. If I wasn't already, I started to get excitable. Almost childlike, in my wonder at these huge slabs of rock. How can something so huge just be there? It can definitely be described as my biggest appreciation of nature thus far on my journey of discovery that I undertake with every walk. The sides of the mountains just seemed to keep going and going. Such an invitation to climb them. Climbing the one to our left, Carn Beag Dearg, was exactly our plan. 

The grand scale of the Scottish mountains.
The route for the day was one that Simon had read through in an issue of 'Trail' magazine last year. He hadn't brought that issue with him, and only had a vague recollection of the route up onto Carn Beag Dearg after which we would follow the top to Carn Mor Dearg and traverse the Arete. We did have the OS Explorer map for the area, so we knew we had a consult if we were to get into trouble. After going past the mountain hut, we began to look at the sloping pile of grass and sandstone boulders, trying to pick out any sort of path. There wasn't one. Hmm. "Thats do-able. Easily.", Simon said. So we decided to scramble up the side. About an hour or so in, and several stops for breath or to 'take in the view.' I think we may have almost started to regret such an early start to the morning. The mountain seemed relentless, and unwavering in it's continual height. It was persistent climb, climb, climb. It was certainly fun though, and I must admit that everytime Simon stopped - I chuckled slightly. Soon after, I wished I hadn't because it was my turn to pause for breath.

Relentless scrambling over sandstone boulders can be tiring. Notice the mountain hut near the top right of shot for scale.
All the effort soon reaped rewards, and we had our first peek over the top of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete and into the distant sea of mountains beyond. Not only was it another new and spectacular view to spur us onward, but it started to feel as though we approaching the top of the climb. The cloud was lessening continually throughout our ascent and we started to see blue skies. It seemed as though we hadn't quite followed the same route up to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg as was intended, but we got there in the end. I must say that one unlikely thing that kept me going was my new favourite trail snack. Jelly babies!

First glance of the view beyond the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.
I decided, once at the top, to have a rest for a few minutes and wait for Simon to catch up (haha). The wind picked up incredulously, and flurries of mist and cloud came hurtling over the ridge in waves. With the bright sun behind the cloud, and our position on the ridge - we managed to catch a glimpse of a broken spectre. It is the first time I have seen one in person, though I have seen pictures and read about them online before. They are seen during cloud inversions over the valleys either side of The Great Ridge in the Peak District quite often, but I hadn't been lucky enough to catch one until now.

A brocken spectre.
After a little bit of waiting, the wind died down and the cloud stopped its encroachment on the ridge. All that laid before us was the Arete, and approach to the summit of Ben Nevis. Of course I had done the duty of researching exactly what I was in for, but it didnt look dangerous in the flesh. Despite the wind, I felt confident enough that I might enjoy the traverse. The views increased the enjoyment by in copious amounts, although looking for my next foothold and possible spot to lay a steadying hand, made the route really involved. It was almost like I was waiting for the ridge itself to present its options to me, rather than look for them myself. The pace was steady, and no great difficulty was really ever faced.

The Carn Mor Dearg Arete and summit of Ben Nevis.
If the ridge itself wasn't enough to bring about inspiration, as I previously stated - the views were more than enough to keep the most easily bored individual on tenterhooks. Looking out over the side of the Arete, all that could be seen was yeat another mountain. Mountain after mountain after mountain. In the foreground, the middle ground and to the horizon; mountains. It was the type of view that dreams are made of. So much natural structure, and being. It invoked such a respect for everything. We really are tiny specks of dust. Such small parts of this whole. Sitting there on that ridge, surveying so much more than even the greatest of cities has to offer has to be one of the highlights of my humble little life. That is by no means an exaggeration. Whether it sounds crazy or not - putting myself in a potentially uncomfortable situation to acheive such a view, and such a feeling...well, I can't really say much more for it. I felt alot of balance. It was great.

The view over the Arete. Pictures do not do it justice.
 I wouldn't say that the scramble wasn't exposed, techinal, or that it didn't require concentration. It certainly did require concentration, and respect. At it's narrowest point, it was probably only a few feet wide. But I just felt at peace up there. It felt right, and as though if I needed help in picking the best foothold or an extra bit of balance on a tricky patch of the ridge - it would come. More ridge walks are on the cards for me now, that's for sure. I won't get complacent, though.

The ridge does require concentration, and commands an amount of respect.
As we approached the end of the ridge, it became apparent that the early start was getting to us both. We were slowing down and progress was staggered. Finally the cairn at the end of the Arete came into view, and we stopped by it for a short while. The daylight was starting to get away from us, and despite the fact that summer days are longer this far north, it was a definite possibilty that we might not summit before dark. The route from the end of the ridge, up to the summit of the Ben was rugged. A great boulder field, slanted at a leg punishing angle. The moutains here all looked and felt rugged and wild, but this final stretch re-enforced this sense with a strict authority. The mist had descended again, and visibility was poor. Begging for the summit, the old observatory hut finally arrived in sight. We had done it. Britains highest mountain, by its second most difficult route. Despite the fatigue - it had all been worth it. The feeling of calm ecstacy was one unmatched by any summit before. Although the view was zero - we knew where we were, and that is all that mattered. After having a peek inside the refuge hut on the summit, I discovered a chap that had decided that he must get the view he had come all this way for. He was going to sleep on the summit that night, and hopefully catch a glimpse of something the next day. I hope he managed to get the view he was after, but knowing that I was on the roof of Britain was an achievement enough for me.

At the summit trig point of Ben Nevis.
*EDIT; It has been suggested that I perhaps include a passage about the end of the trip, including what happened with the remaining daylight, and the descent to the camp site.

Well, the final scramble over varying sized boulders was a tough task. We were definitely tired by this point. Fueled with that sense of determination, only born from the "well it would have been pointless if we don't summit now!"; we plodded on. It was tough, and Simon had run out of water. But we kept each other going. 

We made it to the top, with very poor visibility - just after 'sunset.' Though, it was still light. After pottering around and chatting a little with a tourist group, we began the arduos task of the descent. I must say, it was possibly the worst descent or even section of a walk that I have yet suffered. My knees still haven't forgiven me! I was glad of my tent that night! The night didn't truly envelope until around 1am, when it finally got dark enough to be defined as 'night' time, at which point I crawled into my tent and enjoyed a well deserved and very fulfilled sleep.