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Ben Nevis & Carn Mor Dearg

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In a recent poll, Ben Nevis was ahead in popularity by a couple of lengths; its status as the highest summit in the UK, its magnificent array of cliffs on its north-east flank, and its huge, brooding bulk make it almost inevitable. Add to that a long and varied history and you begin to understand why it has always been a magnet to mountaineers and walkers the world over.

There has been a "tourist" route up The Ben, as it is usually referred to, for over a century. On its summit are the ruins of a meteorological observatory, manned from 1883 to 1904. Its significance in British mountaineering has recently been recognised, with the John Muir Trust acquiring part of its catchment and thus helping to protect it for posterity.

This walk begins from Glen Nevis, either from a car park at Achintee, or from the bridge opposite the Youth Hostel. Both starts converge and continue up the managed path on the flank of Meall an t-Suidhe. In summer this track, taking the line of the old bridle path, is an extremely busy and popular route up the mountain but it is tedious for much of the way, particularly in its upper part and assuming you are experienced and fit we will avoid this. It is best done in spring or summer.

Follow the track for some 2.5km (500m ascent) to where a leftward leg of the path arrives on the grassy bealach, which leads down to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. Keep contouring north and slightly down, above the lochan, passing an old fence where the path turns south-east below cliffs. A few hundred metres further on, leave the path and descend eastwards to cross the Allt a'Mhuilinn. The climbers' path up this will also be crossed once over the burn and is the better route up the glen in winter.

Ahead lies the second climb of the day, up 600m of open slopes on the flank of Carn Dearg Meadhonach. The top of Carn Beag Dearg (1010m) is to the north-west. Once on the ridge it's time to draw breath and begin to fully appreciate the panorama of cliffs on the other side of the glen. This view will grow as you continue to traverse the ridge, first to Carn Dearg Meadhonach (1179m), then in just over half a kilometre reaching the summit of Carn Mor Dearg (1220m). This is the first of the day's two Munros.

This far, the walking has been easy. Now drop down south from Carn Mor Dearg. After a descent of about 200m, the ridge pinches in to form a narrow ridge, with rough, granite blocks forming a safe if exposed pavement. This ridge is a fun scramble for the confident, otherwise keep to a faint path just below the crest on the side away from the Ben (south-east).

The Carn Mor Dearg Arete, as it is known, drops slowly above Coire Leis, then begins to rise again as it approaches Ben Nevis. Some 300m south-west of its lowest point, a steel pole indicates a descent route into Coire Leis. This is a useful escape route if the weather is threatening or time is limited but only if the upper part of the slope can be descended safely. There is in fact an emergency shelter in Coire Leis but in winter it is often buried. If you can reach it, you can probably reach the CIC Hut, though there is no guarantee that it will be occupied.

Assuming Ben Nevis is the next target, continue on to the slope leading up a huge boulder field to reach the summit plateau. The path is faint but often indicated by lighter coloured scratches formed by the crampons of descending walkers in winter. This third and final ascent is some 250m, after which just head for the noisy and crowded summit! Here you will find a fair amount of "debris", including cairns, the small emergency shelter, the trig point, itself built on top of a cairn, the desolate remains of the old observatory and, of course, frighteningly steep views over the cliff edges. Please be careful not to dislodge any stones at the edge, as there may be climbers below.

The descent from the summit of the Ben is infamous. On a clear day you may wonder what the fuss is about but in the mist and especially under a snowy cover, it is crucial to get the navigation right. From the summit you are aiming along a narrow plateau. On the right are the cliffs, on the left are no less dangerous slopes leading the unwary down into the often lethal trap that is Five Finger Gully. The following description should be written down and memorised before setting out.

To descend from the summit of Ben Nevis and gain the zig-zag path at the Red Burn, first follow a bearing of 231 degrees (grid) for 150m. This leg will take you to a point just left of the top of Gardyloo Gully. Next, continue downhill on a bearing of 281 degrees (grid) for 800m. This second leg should land you on the path area. Continue down the path, assuming you have found it and certainly descend down an easy slope for about one kilometre before turning north towards Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. From here continue down the old bridle path back to Glen Nevis, meeting up with your first climb of the day.


Maps: OS Sheet 41 'Ben Nevis, Fort William & Glen Coe'
Distance: 17 km
Ascent: 1750 m
Time: 7 hours
Food & Drink: Fort William has a fairly wide range of refreshment stops. Climbers often eat cheaply in the Nevisport restaurant and there are fish & chip establishments, hotels, cafes, and other temptations.


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