I knew nothing about Ben Nevis except for what I gleaned from the internet. I knew there was an easy “Tourist Route” but also read that it can be quite a zoo. The authorities tried renaming the Tourist Route to “The Mountain Track” but I’m guessing that name didn’t stick as people (tourists) still under estimate the challenges even a tourist route can present. So instead of taking the “easy” way up, I decided I’d take this other route I read about. “Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete” sounded much cooler to me.
I spent most of my research just figuring out how I would get to the trail head from our hotel. But I also studied a topo of the route online and spent a lot of time staring at Google Earth imagery until I thought I had the route pretty well memorized. After all, one need only climb a big foothill approach, scramble across an arête, summit a minor peak in the process (Carn Mor Dearg), then make a steep climb to the Ben Nevis summit. No problem… I’ve climbed Mt. Marcy and that’s 5,344 feet. However, the actual vertical climb for the two peaks are pretty close considering that a Ben Nevis climb starts at sea level.
I tried buying maps for my GPS but they were not available for my older Garmin 60CSx. But I was able to download the waypoint route which would show up on a blank screen. It would only be useful to establish bearings and keep me somewhat on course. So one of the first things we did when we arrived at our hotel in Ft. Williams was to stop at a mountaineering store to buy a proper topo. I also wanted to talk to someone who actually climbed Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. There was just one older man behind the counter who had done it and he was happy to fill me in on the details.
“First off, there is no trail once you get above the treeline. When you get in the canyon between Nevis and the Carn Mor, don’t spend too much time before turning off the trail. The further you go into the canyon, the steeper your climb will be up to the knife edge. Just keep climbing up. And due to the late snow, you’ll be making some snow field crossings. Watch out for the cornices, they give way. We lost a feller a few months back on that route – still have not found him. And you’ll be in the clouds the whole way.” So I asked the next logical question, would it be foolhardy for me to try this alone? “Naw, have fun.”
So I stuffed my backpack with an extra fleece jacket, my good camera, some power bars, and four liters of water and set my alarm for 6AM. I was in bed by 9:30PM and woke ready to go. I kept my video camera around my neck because I wanted to memorialize this adventure. I turned on my GPS, calibrated the compass, and set Tracking to record my journey. The first half mile or so were on city streets. In no time I was at the smelting plant and started a gentle climb on a gravel road. The giant hydropower pipes loomed to my right – I remember these from my Google Earth research. I looked for the first fork in the road. From memory, I knew stay left through three forks in the road on my way to the top of this 300 foot hill. What I hadn’t noticed on Google Earth, was a prominent trail head to my left before I reached the first fork in the road. It looked like a fork to me so I took the left and continued on this nice trail for about three quarters of a mile until I came to a cross trail heading up the hill. It hadn’t dawned on me that I made a wrong turn until I started making the switchbacks to the top of the foothill.
I caught up with a couple in their late 20’s who were heading my way to do a technical ascent on Ben Nevis near the north face. They brought ropes and winter gear. They also had experience with the route I was taking as they had done it just a couple of weeks prior. “There’s a lot of snow up there still. The entire climb from the arête to the summit will be snow. Don’t get too close to the edge. Sometimes when you’re in the clouds (which we were by now) you can’t tell where the snow ends and the sky begins. People walk right up to the edge of a cornice and it gives way.” Then they pointed to the spot where most people start climbing and gave me one last word of advice: “Just keep climbing up - don’t go too far left or right. You’ll have fun!”
It wasn’t long before the couple disappeared into the fog. I decided I’d de-layer now and go with just a short sleeve shirt and my rain shell. There was a bit of a muddy trail under the heather bushes to give me some indication I was not the first person to have climbed here. Finding a route that did not include running water under my feet was impossible so I just headed up. I imagined this stage as like climbing the side of a giant pyramid – you can’t get lost if you just keep climbing up. Occasionally, I would look at my GPS to see how closely I’ve been tracking to the route I previously saved. So far, I’m spot on. After a half hour or so every direction I turned pretty much looked the same except for the angle of the ground. I had about 30 feet of visibility. Every so often there would be a minor break in the clouds to where I could see how far up I was getting - but little more than that.
As I progressed, I could faintly see the earth disappearing on both sides. The fields of heather had given way to small rocks and boulders. There was no sign of a trail anywhere and on more than one occasion I would find myself approaching the base of a cliff. A quick look at my GPS would tell me I veered off course so I would make a correction – and keep climbing up. Everything looked the same and an uneasy feeling kept creeping in. I hate relying on my GPS for navigation – it’s just not that accurate and if it fails, you better be able to find your way back – or dare to keep moving forward.
Pushing any ill ease aside, I decided I’d set up my video camera for one of those Survivor Man walking shots. I set the camera up on a rock and hiked up the mountain a short ways. When I stopped and turned around, I had no idea where my camera was. Somewhere in this field of rocks and boulders is my camera. I was scanning an area of about 60 degrees and had no clue where it was or even the direction. I thought it would be funny when someone finds that camera and watches that last clip of this idiot looking all over the place his camera. Eventually I found it and was once again climbing up.
After about two and a half hours, I saw a large pyramid peering out from a crest in the hill. It must be some sort of cairn. I filmed myself walking towards it only to realize this pyramid cairn was just a small rock no taller than 16 inches. That’s how warped the perspective of things were – I was a tiny, disoriented, tentative speck of life on the side of a mountain in the clouds. At one point I was walking at a side angle for so long that I started getting vertigo. With no significant ground features and limited visibility I feared I would lose my ability to tell up from down let alone side to side. I thought it was time for a power bar.
The first sign that I was actually getting to the top of the arête was when I came upon two giant cairns. One placed near the edge of the drop offs on both the left and right sides of this pyramid I was on. I guess this must be Carn Mor Dearg? The next stage was about to begin – traversing the arête. Had it not been in the clouds, from where I was standing I should be able to see Ben Nevis to my right and in front of me, the horseshoe shaped arête leading there. It won’t be long now.
Soon the ground on both sides fell away and I was hiking on top of a narrow stretch of bolder covered ground. A lot of the time there was a worn red earth path. This gave me comfort that I was on course. My GPS would do me no good here as the cliffs are well on the wrong side of the GPS’s margin of error. When the path disappeared into a mass of bolders I was forced to search for worn out spots on the rocks where others have passed before. When there were no signs at all, I just had to pick my way along the arête and hope I wouldn’t get cliffed out.
The arête seemed to go on forever. I was tracking pretty well with my GPS but I thought for certain by now I should have reached those snow fields – marking my final ascent to the summit. I was probably three hours into this arête by now. Yet in front of me was a never ending undulating monster of rock. A dragon’s backbone forcing me from one side to another – and at times straght across the middle. I perfected my crab walk on this day. I always maintained three points of contact with solid rock. Even little ledges which I could easily step off, were multi-step maneuvers. Only one time did I have to rely only on friction beneath my feet to dart across an open section to the safety of a good rock hold on the other side.
At one particularly scary spot I was looking at a move where I would have to pull myself up and around a corner with only one not-so-great hand hold. I had a hard time believing this was part of what one website described as “easy scrambing.” So I back tracked a little and looked for a better route. I found nothing but cliff. It was time to take a break and shoot a little video. I certainly wasn’t going to turn back now, so I went for it. Using momentum, I swung my leg up and around the corner, released my one hand hold, and thrust my body against the waiting rock face where I quickly found another positive hand hold. Easy peasy – when I look back at the video of this spot it really doesn’t look like much. I guess you had to be there.
Eventually, the knife edge started to flatten out and I was back on a wall of round rocks and boulders with no trail and no obvious bearing other than what my GPS was telling me. So I climbed up until I came to a clear sign that I was somewhere – a massive cairn. I had no idea where that was but I could see a snow field in the distance and figured I was somewhere at the base of my final assault on the summit. But with the cornice warnings still ringing in my ears, I was not eager to go charging up a 45 degree mountain slope based on what my GPS was telling me. Hmm, is that snow or is that sky?
It was at this time I heard voices and saw two shapes materialize out of the fog. It was obvious that these two climbers must have been following me the whole way… and making good time to have caught up with me. After all, my crab walk is super efficient. I asked them if they had done this route before and they said no. But they had done Nevis via the Tourist Route – I knew I was dealing with pros. They were relying on their phone’s GPS which lost its signal a long time ago. So they were as happy to see me as I was to see them because at least I had a GPS – no map loaded, but at least I could call out bearings. Using this technique, I pointed out boulders in the distance and we marched single file up the snow slope. The young guns went first because… you know…they can see them cornices better. It was like something I’d seen on NatGeo – jamming your toes into the snow. Slow deliberate steps. It only took an hour or so of this before we started to hear voices.
The growing confirmation that we had reached the summit was a cathartic experience. But it only lasted a moment. The summit was a mob scene. We waited in line to take our photos by the summit marker. I was told the platform where we stood was actually several meters high. There was probably 10 feet of snow still on the top and people were running around in shorts. They held signs, wore Ben Nevis t-shirts, carried puppies – a real zoo. My new friends were embarrassed for their highest peak as it gets little respect. The tourist route has been so well paved with cobblestone rock that people actually push cars up the mountain to raise money for charity. There was a good amount of litter as well which really bothered us.
Standing around on top was not our mission so we started a slow jog down the Tourist Trail. The twenty minutes or so when we were on the snow, there was no need to follow the switchbacks. I always kept a tourist to my right just in case we got too close to the cornice edge. There was talk of taking a bushwhack route back to the trail head where we started. I already decided I wasn’t going to do it alone but would have attempted it with my new friends. But they were jogging faster than me and I lost them when I stopped to shoot some video.
I maintained a slow jog most of the way down. I was amazed at how much energy I had after 7 hours or so of climbing. Most of the Tourist Route is “paved” with large local stones with a flat side facing up – almost like a cobblestone road but very uneven. It’s more like easy rock hopping but slippery. The hardest part of the descent was dodging all the tourists. There were choke points where traffic would back up but there was a lovely view under the clouds and there were still cliffs to not fall off. But for the most part my hike was over and I just wanted off the mountain. I almost felt embarrassed to be part of the tourist elite but I persevered. I completed my descent in a couple of hours and walked the long country road back to the hotel.
Total distance for the day was 14.2 miles in just over 10 hours with 5,700 feet of total climbing.
UPDATE: My video from this climb including a nifty animation generated with Google Earth using my GPS data: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODEe6fpPBbI
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