The Carn Mor Dearg Arete and Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis sits head and shoulders at the top of the Munro pile, but it’s never been at the top of my must do list. I had resolved however that if I was going to do it it would be by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, or CMD as it’s otherwise known. The tourist route, with its endless procession of charity walkers pushing up pianos or a bath full of beans, has never appealed to me. I’d suggested this walk a while back to my mate Jim, but he had dragged me up the Aonach Eagach ridge instead, so when we were looking for our next walk together this was the first one he thought of. We were going to be joined by Andy, another railwayman, who was meeting up with us at Doune. Traffic wasn’t bad for a Saturday and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into Fort William, where the Jacobite, the steam train was preparing to depart. Today we weren’t being paid to “spot” trains, so we set off to find the car park at Torlundy where our walk would begin. Sometimes the hardest part is finding the start, which we proved by missing the turn off, the signpost for the car park being hidden by trees. Over a railway bridge and onto a dirt track, we shortly arrived at a small car park in the woods. There were only a few cars there, one apparently hiding under a collection of bumper stickers from across the world. There were no charity groups here, no identical t-shirts, no baths full of beans. They were on the other side of the mountain.

Torlundy Car Park

Sign at the Torlundy car park

The path is well signposted, for the Allt a’ Mhuillinn, climbing steeply uphill through the trees. It was sweaty work, made worse by the need to put our waterproofs on as the clag turned to drizzle. In the distance we could see the steam from the Jacobite making its way along Loch Eil towards Mallaig. We turned our attention to the path again, crossing a huge stile over a deer fence at the edge of the woods, to the hill proper.

Crossing the deer fence with stile

We were on the lookout for a diverging path on our left, and were aided in this respect by a local walker out for a walk up Coire Leis. Once off the main path the ground became broken and boggy, gradually giving way to better ground the higher we got. Ben Nevis apparently spends much of the year in cloud, but today as we climbed higher it dissipated slightly, giving glimpses of the North Face.

Jim Climbing up the path to Carn Mor Dearg

 We were entertained for a while with the arrival of an RAF rescue helicopter, which put on a wonderful display of aerobatics as it went up and down the coire. Our initial fears it may be a call out proved groundless, and it flew off towards Spean Bridge. We crossed our fingers that we would not be requiring their services and headed on up, past a lonely stag, back into the mist again.

RAF Sea King Rescue helicopter

It was a hard trudge up the path, which runs diagonally up to the ridge, finishing at a small cairn of red rock just shy of the summit of Carn Dearg Meadonach.

The path meets the ridge at a small cairn, the summit is a few hundred metres up to the right.

We huddled down at the cairn, seeking shelter from a cutting wind, fingers turning to ice as we tried to gulp down drinks and grab a snack.

Carn Mor Dearg summit.

Setting off we passed the summit, and a stone wind-break. shelter, previously hidden in the mist. The path takes a sharp turn here before climbing to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, at 1220m, shrouded in mist, and no place to hang around. Next up- the CMD…

Piggin’ cloudy

 There seemed to be a choice of paths here, and I dropped onto the lee side of the arete to tighten my laces, to be called back by Jim, who had discovered a “pig” on his side. It wasn’t hard to find. As we progressed along the arete the mist cleared to reveal the whole ridge, a large group of walkers already ahead of us.

The Carn Mor Dearg Arete reveals itself…

It’s an impressive sight, a jumble of rock leading round to the summit, dropping away on both sides to the corrie below. We picked our way across, Jim insistent on following a pure line along the crest, with no deviations onto “bypass paths”. It requires a tremendous amount of concentration, and with it, time, to cross this.

It’s all straightforward, with no “bad steps”, at least until the end with a small climb of only a few feet, but this can be bypassed easily. All to quickly it was over and we stood in the shadow of the north face, looking down on the remains of an emergency shelter and to the CIC hut. 

Approaching the bad step.

On the way up we had some fantastic views, as far south as Ben Vorlich, but these were lost in the final few hundred feet.

The view south

The climb to the top was a rocky clamber over increasingly snowy ground, finally giving way to a rock strewn summit, with the ruined observatory prominent above the variety of cairns which dot the summit.

Ben Nevis Summit

  We hung around long enough to grab a quick bite to eat and have the obligatory summit photos, before gathering a few items of rubbish to carry down off the summit. Unbeknown to most visitors, there is no refuse collection here. A quick glance inside the emergency shelter revealed it was full of fag ends and empty plastic bottles. Next time I’ll bring a bin bag… 

At the summit. The view was…limited

The other side of Ben Nevis

We made our way down the tourist path, through thick mist, now passing a steady stream of walkers heading up into the gloom. We saw mountain bikers, Scouts, charity walkers, mostly reasonably well equipped, however we were open mouthed to be passed by an almost naked runner, his skin an odd colour at the extremities, trance like as he made his way up oblivious to the looks on our faces. In such conditions the merest turn of an ankle would see his strategy of movement creating body heat fail, and he would no doubt be reliant on the actions of others and the help of the helicopter we had seen earlier to get off the Ben. 

Utter nutter…

Brighter, later

The tourist path is a depressing plod, and we were glad to break from it towards the halfway lochan, home to the skeletal remains of an abandoned tent flapping in the breeze. As the price of outdoor gear drops what was once a major and considered purchase now becomes cheap and throwaway. From the lochan we followed the right hand side of the Allt Coire an Lochan for a few hundred metres, before picking our way across rough ground in the fading light. As darkness fell we managed to find a spot where we could cross the Allt a’ Mhuillin, saving us bogtrotting down to the bridge. Joining the path back to the car park for the reverse of our start route, I found it to be as painful as the journey up, my knee throbbing with every step. 

The journey back was notable for two reasons. Our total walking time had been around 10 hours, and our late finish meant travelling back in the dark, some places unseen, some barely recognised as we flashed past. As we approached Glencoe we could see torches dancing along the path coming off the Aonach Eagach ridge. That path was difficult enough in daylight and I was thankful that it wasn’t me up there, and I hoped whoever was up there managed to get down safely. As we passed the foot of the Buchaille at the other end of the glen I heard Jim shout, and looked up to see the hind quarters of a large deer in the headlights, the car missing it by the merest of margins. Had it connected I can safely say that the damage would have been substantial, to the deer, the car, and us. We proceeded more warily, aware that the glowing eyes near the roadside could be as fatal as loose rock on the hillside. Scotland’s highest mountain had been added to the tick list, but it had revealed more as we had climbed up. Having not been keen to visit at all I’m actually keen to come back and do it again. There’s more to this mountain than you can pack into a day, and it deserves more than a tick, never to be seen again except from a distance.